Saturday, July 11, 2009

The President, The Pope, And Women's Reproductive Rights

Two powerful men discuss the reproductive rights of women like the one trailing silently behind in black.

From most accounts it seems that President Obama and Pope Benedict had a mutually beneficial chat. While agreeing to disagree on legal abortion, they do seem to have agreed that reducing abortions is a mutually common goal. They also agreed on the necessity for conscience protection clauses, the Middle East, global economics, and protection for the poor. They may not have agreed on the how's of how all this will be accomplished, but they do agree on the why's. Both men seemed to genuinely like and admire each other and that is a good thing.

The Pope gave PO a lot of reading material and PO gave the Pope the stole used by St. John Neumann and a letter from Senator Ted Kennedy. No one knows what was in the letter, but Senator Kennedy is facing terminal brain cancer and one can surmise Papal prayers can't hurt his prognosis. It was a nice gesture on the part of President Obama to take the time to deliver this letter. It serves as a reminder that no matter how global the concerns of the Pope and the President, in the end both are most effective on the individual level.

I am very glad to see the abortion issue being reframed around reduction because I think the idea of reducing abortions, and the attendant support systems being discussed, will have far greater impact on women choosing to carry pregnancies to full term. The reason I believe this is because it places the emphasis on a positive approach to women and pregnancy. In a sense it says it's not their duty or moral obligation to have children, but a gift they can choose to give and which society will support in the giving.

Our historical approach to women and pregnancy has been mostly a reactionary approach, determined by men who are totally and irrevocably dependent on women to give them children. Instead of seeing pregnancy as a gift of the woman,--a gift which came with a lot of personal risk--it was made her legal obligation and duty.

Reproduction does represent the one area in which men have no real control. They can't have their own children. Most of what passes for natural sexual morality seems to me to be a reaction to this fact. Women, their uteruses, and their children became the property of men very early in the Judeo Christian tradition. For women, producing and raising as many children as possible became a religious, legal, and cultural duty. Providing children was not seen as a gift of the mother. Pregnancy was seen as both an affirmation of male potency and a gift from God. The fact this gift from God frequently resulted in the death of the mother was explained by the fact Eve's sin brought this pain, suffering, and death thing into the equation. Men were blameless and victims of the whole mysterious process.

It's not surprising, given this history, that the whole notion of female reproductive choice is a red flag. It's an almost unconscious atavistic reaction, especially in patriarchal cultures. Churches still consider and teach that notions of fertility goddesses, earth worship, and other forms of female pantheism are the height (or dregs) of paganism. In some respects Catholic Mariology is the antithesis of and male answer to these pagan notions of enshrining female fertility. Catholics celebrate female virginity in the form of Mary with what can be seen as a cultic fervor. This fervor has effectively supported the doctrine that the choice for virginity is the sole reproductive choice Catholic women can make and the only one which is really celebrated. After that sole choice has gone by the way side, women are supposed to be obedient to male leadership and the vagaries of their reproductive systems. Theoretically men are bound by the same reproductive choice, but the consequences of failure to comply are rarely condemned with equal vehemence--except in the case of gay men.

It's hard for me to believe that President Obama sees that the only reproductive choice his daughters have is whether or not they will continue to be virgins. It is also conceivable to me that he personally doesn't agree with abortion and would be conflicted beyond belief should his daughters ever face such a choice.

Part of that conflict is that he truly does respect the right of women to control their own bodies as much as he respects his right to control his own body. He is also a father, knows the joy of bringing children into the world and is very much aware of the fact he can't do it himself. He truly sees his children as gifts from Michelle, rather than as obligations on her part to him. On this level there is a real fundamental difference between President Obama and Pope Benedict and it may well be irreconcilable.

We need to start seeing children and pregnancy as gifts given by women to their partners and that both choose to give to the greater culture. We can no longer insist pregnancy is a woman's duty or moral obligation. To do so demeans and cheapens both the process of pregnancy and the children that are the result. When children are seen as real gifts that women choose to give from love, men are far less likely to see them as cannon fodder--their children or anyone else's children.

When pregnancy is enforced as a moral and legal given, children are not truly gifts. They are commodities of the system. There is no dignity in being a commodity. Forcing choice on women only exacerbates this perception. Uplifting pregnant women and providing for their needs is a sound moral strategy in reducing abortions and ennobling the resultant children.

I think it's great that both Pope Benedict and President Obama have essentially agreed they can support this strategy. If it works and reduces abortion, maybe the idea of women's reproductive choice won't be seen as total anathema in certain circles. Celebrating and supporting a woman's choice to bring children in the world may go much further than repeatedly condemning the whole notion of women even having a reproductive choice.

And no, I don't expect the tried and true believers on either side of this debate to agree with me, but it's nice to see both PO and PB can see this concept of abortion reduction as a valid starting point. It's a starting point which may lead to places neither one can foresee, but that's not necessarily a bad thing for either of these two powerful men and could be a great thing for all the women and children who weren't privy to their manly discussion.


  1. ... "it's nice to see both PO and PB can see this concept of abortion reduction as a valid starting point."

    I think it is very positive and good news and I heartily agree with you Colleen that it is a valid starting point. Creating the positive conditions in the world for life to live and flourish will nourish a pro-life view.

  2. Colleen i just saw a powerful movie and wanted to see if you have seen it. . .I, the Worst of All.

    Phew. . .much to think about. . .

    ordinary sparrow

  3. Wow, profound insight and interesting perspective to think about Colleen.

    The fact that the all male leaders of the Church do see children as one of women's OBGLIGATIONS (even though they wouldn't describe their views so narowly) is one of the reasons up to this point they've had shown such an inability to understand a woman's persepctive when these choices have to be made. In their opinion, a woman's key vocation is to be a mother and to have children. No questions should be asked, it's her GOD GIVEN DUTY. They don't seem to take into consideration that the mother has her own will and desires and aspirations to fulfill. She's just just a terminal to be used to create children. She herself is a child of the living God!

    But it is very hopeful to see that the President and His Holiness are finding areas of common ground even if they must inevitably agree to disagree on certain issues.

  4. Sparrow, I went to the link and I'm impressed. No I haven't seen this movie, but it's now on my to do list.

    Phillip, the change I really would like to see is pregnancy and the children which result become choices which are really celebrated as the gifts they are. It would lift so much lousy energy around this whole subject.

    One side sees pregnancy as something to be avoided and the other side sees pregnancy as a duty to be performed. It's neither.

    It's a gift to be celebrated and it can't be a gift if it's not a choice. Even God knew that. He gave Mary the gift of choice and she gave us a wonderful Gift.