Monday, April 30, 2012

The Bible Says So

As a female in her thirties, I've been witness to the evolution of shaming and oppressing women in America, and indeed the world round, for years. I have also watched the act of shaming women become exponentially more toxic and vicious throughout my childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. I have seen women blamed for their own rapes because the clothing they chose to wear was "too provocative." I have witnessed the assignment of blame to women who, fearing for the safety and security of themselves and their children, didn't leave the spouse or partner at whose hands they suffered brutal beatings and painful verbal attacks. I've read of women persecuted by their contemporaries for having children and then making the choice to return to the workplace instead of staying at home. 

Indeed, shaming women has become what some might call The Great American Pastime. In 2011, American women saw over 1,100 pieces of state legislation introduced that would have restricted the right to an abortion, and before the ball dropped to ring in the new year on January 1, 2012, 135 of them had been enacted. In addition to the staggering number of bills regarding abortion care that were introduced, in the last year women in at least seven states witnessed the defunding of Planned Parenthood affiliates, effectively removing access to valuable, life saving health care such as pap smears, breast exams, and STI testing.  Women in at least 12 states were faced with the passing, or attempt at passing, legislation that would require transvaginal ultrasounds prior to receiving abortion care, despite the stark absence of medical evidence suggesting that such procedures provide any improvement in the quality of care a woman receives before terminating a pregnancy. And perhaps the most egregious development, a national debate about mandated insurance coverage for contraception was spawned when conservatives, religious leaders, and even radio talk show hosts asserted that access to contraception was a matter of morality and not medical necessity, and further, that contraception use was the hallmark of sluts and whores. So yes, you might say that I've seen my fair share of the shaming of women – and my guess is that you have too.

Considering these developments, it probably shouldn't have come as a surprise to me that when Faith Aloud's 40 Days of Prayer—a campaign of prayers meant to lift up the voices, hearts, and spirits of all people through peaceful prayers acknowledging God's love for women, men, their families, and their choices—caught the attention of the anti-choice community, the shaming would begin once more. This time though, women were being shamed and judged for praying. Irrelevant, apparently, is the fact that prayer is what some clergy call a biblical promise from God. No matter that prayer is a fundamental principle in the Christian faith that scripture repeatedly touts as an imperative component to living in a way congruent with God's love and direction, and that which believers should turn to in times of great difficulty and in times of great joy. 

No, according to the anti-choice community, women who pray for safe abortion care, women who pray for the strength to make the best possible choices for themselves and their families, women who pray that violence against medical professionals committed to serving reproductive health needs will end, these prayerful women are apparently becoming a threat to Christian America by “praying for abortion.” And as has become the hallmark of the anti- choice community, they will resort to shaming women in any way possible in order to stop them from praying for their physical and emotional health. And so these anti-choice organizations and leaders have written blogs and filmed interviews alleging that the women who support 40 Days of Prayer are mocking the Christian faith. They call women and their supporters nasty and inflammatory names like "murderer" and accuse the groups, such as Faith Aloud, who actively support women and women's health, of being “propaganda machines” aiming to "trick" women into believing that abortion is an “easy” decision. In the most basic of interpretations, the anti-choice community has turned prayer into a weapon against those who mean to use it in the peaceful way that the Bible teaches us to.

In my experience studying and exploring both religion and theology from both an academic and personal perspective, I have learned that there are a great number of differences among the various sects of Christian faith, but that there are a great many similarities as well. That Christians share similar values across the board sometimes gets lost in the shuffle, and with it, the idea that there are important theological concepts that help people choose how they will personally worship and praise God. Some Christians, for instance, believe that we must grow humility in our hearts as a part of developing our faith in the Lord; some believe that we are called to make sacrifices to God and for God, by way of acts such as tithing philanthropic endeavors; many Christians accept the Bible and its teachings as God’s guide for making spiritually inspired moral decisions when faced with dilemma, specifically looking to scripture for words of comfort and direction; and indeed, many Christians believe that an important (if not imperative) part of cultivating spiritual faith and trust is the use of prayer to create a meaningful dialogue between oneself and God. 

It is the Bible’s emphasis on prayer and its powerful role and impact on the relationship between a worshiper and God throughout scripture passages that seems to leave little ambiguity, regardless of what sect of Christian faith one identifies with, about how important the act of praying truly is in the Christian faith. The Bible’s scriptures, in fact, go beyond just soliciting the faithful to pray but also offer directives on how to do so. Consider Corinthians 14:15, for instance, which instructs the faithful, “What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also.” This scripture seems to leave no question about two things: First, that prayer can take on many forms, whether it is spoken, written, in our hearts and minds, or through song. Second, and perhaps most importantly, prayer is meant to be a dialogue with God that comes from the spirit and also our mind. God demands that we influence our spiritual dialogue with our intellectual one, clearly demonstrating that God trusts us to make moral decisions and impart our needs and desires to him through prayer. 

And so, I have to wonder what it is about a woman praying and following this biblical directive to pray with her spirit and mind that threatens the anti-choice community so much so that it will go to such great lengths to rain untruths and a hateful campaign of rhetoric down upon an organization like Faith Aloud and the women and men who support it. What is it about the prayers of a woman like myself that attracts such negative and aggressively hateful attention from a community that claims over and over to be living and carrying out the word of God, often using the Bible as evidence of their mission?

I am 34 years old and was raised a Roman Catholic by two loving and devoutly Catholic parents who emphasized compassion, charity, goodness, and faith my entire life. I received the sacraments of baptism, penance, Eucharist, and confirmation as a child and adolescent in accordance with my Catholic education; I once received the Anointing of the Sick along with penance and Eucharist the night before a surgery to remove a tumor on my spine that was believed to be filled with cancer and that was suspected to likely lead to my early death. I taught the CCD/Catechism, to children in my church during my middle and high school years. I was surrounded by faithful and spiritual family and friends my entire life and I was encouraged to pray, ask God for guidance, and extend my love to those around me the way Jesus did in the Bible. I did all of that and yet, I still struggle with my spiritual faith and question the presence of God almost daily. My battle over my spirituality intensified last year when I endured a terrible trauma that robbed me of my closest friend to an unexpected illness. 

Interestingly, however, in my darkest moments, I have turned to prayer and, at times, the church itself. I have found comfort in believing that there’s something more to all of this and beyond. I have found peace in entrusting my pain and anger to something greater than me. I have even enjoyed a calming energy in participating in mass. And, as we near the one year anniversary of my loss, I have found great joy and equanimity in the 40 Days of Prayer written and inspired by Rev Rebecca Turner and Faith Aloud. I find myself turning to prayer daily thanks to these devotions, and I feel a growing strength of spirit that has little to do with abortion or birth control and everything to do with being a proud woman looking for a solid foundation for my spiritual health in a time of great struggle. That I happen to also be a former abortion care nurse and that I happen to be pro-choice does not define me, the prayers shared by Faith Aloud, or my faith – it does, however, define those who seek to shame and disgrace me for using them. The definition of morality is a collection of principles offering distinction between good and bad behavior. Is it immoral to pray for the future of my family, or the safety of my countless health caregiver colleagues, or the strength of my friends faced with choosing what’s best for themselves and their families? No, simply stated, it is not. Not in my eyes and not in the eyes of my God.

In Matthew 5:43-44, we read, “You have heard that it was said, Love thy neighbor and hate thy enemy. But I tell you: Love thy enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” And so, in response to the hateful speech and negativity of anti-choice organizations and leaders who fear my prayers, my vigor, and my commitment to both God and reproductive healthcare rights, I say this: In addition to these 40 Days of Prayer devotions, I will pray for YOU. I will pray that you come to know the God I know, the God who embraces us all and invites our prayers even when we know not what we should pray for. I will pray that you find compassion in your heart for all women, and especially for the women in your own life that may have already, or may in the future, be faced with a painful decision about pregnancy. I will pray that you begin to use prayer as an expression of thanks or in solemn requests to God rather than a weapon to humiliate and disgrace those who don’t share your “values.” I will ask my contemporaries and colleagues to pray for you too. So, right after I pray for abortion to remain safe and legal, right after I pray for the safety and wellness of the nurses and doctors who legally provide abortion care, right after I pray for the women who terminate pregnancies they desperately want but can’t keep because the pregnancy is causing life threatening/ending issues….  After all my prayers for compassionate and loving acceptance of all people, I will pray for YOU. I will pray for you because even those who insist on twisting God’s word and intentions deserve our prayer and compassion.

The Bible says so.


Monday, April 16, 2012

From Hate to Love: Why "40 Days of Prayer" is Under Attack by the Christian Right

Below is a an interview with Reverend Rebecca Turner of Faith Aloud, conducted by Carole Joffe. Faith Aloud is a pro-choice religious organization which seeks to eliminate the stigma associated with abortion and sexuality, and to provide support to both women and providers.

“Today we pray for women for whom pregnancy is not good news, that they know they have choices.”

“Today we pray for the men in our lives, that they may offer their loving kindness and support for women’s difficult decisions.”

“Today we pray for Christians everywhere to embrace the loving model of Jesus in the way he refused to shame women.”

Above are some of the individual components of the “40 Days of Prayer,” a series composed by the Rev. Rebecca Turner, a United Church of Christ minister, and the head of Faith Aloud, a pro-choice religious organization based in St. Louis, Missouri. Turner originally wrote these prayers to counter religious-based protests against women's rights to choose abortion. For some years, the “40 Days of Prayer” were used in various ways by clinics but ignored by the anti-choice movement. However, recently when a clinic in northern California reprinted the prayers in a brochure, the movement took notice, and Turner’s prayers—and by extension, the concept of a religiously-based prochoice group—drew much attention from the religious right, including interviews by Fox News and Focus on the Family, and follow up stories in various anti-choice publications.

Below is an interview I conducted with Rev. Turner about her organization, the 40 Days of Prayer, and the reactions of opponents of abortion when news of her activities went viral.

What is Faith Aloud?

Faith Aloud is an interfaith nonprofit organization with a history of 30 years of pro-choice activism. Our mission is to eliminate the religious stigma of abortion and sexuality. We train clergy to talk to women about their pregnancy choices and we receive calls from women all over the country as well as internationally. We also provide spiritual resources for abortion clinics to use to help their religious patients.

Most women in the US identify as religious, and those seeking abortion are no different. Our resources, created by clergy of several faith groups, offer support to women during times of distress.

Why did you write the 40 Days of Prayer?

I wrote some prayers and offered them to abortion providers to use whenever and however they wanted to. We've since made a full poster of the prayers that is on the walls in many clinics across the country. We were angered by the swarms of protesters that regularly took siege of abortion clinics and would hurl hateful remarks at the women arriving. As a Christian minister, I was especially angered that most of these protesters who were so hateful and judgmental actually call themselves Christian. I wanted women to know that many Christians are compassionate and supportive, and to help them find strength in their religious faith instead of condemnation.

I also wanted to give spiritual support to the other people [affected] by the daily barrage of hate -- the clinic staff and escorts. Few people know what they go through every day because of their dedication to women. And few people understand that many of them-doctors, counselors, administrators-are deeply religious people themselves who have often felt rejected by their faith communities. This is wrong. I feel that I am a pastor to many of the abortion providers who use our services. Religious faith should give us strength and confidence, not guilt and shame. I have never understood why anyone would support a religion that shames and judges and ridicules its own members. That is abusive behavior and should not be tolerated in any setting.

Tell more about your mindset as you wrote the prayers.

I wrote all of the prayers in one day. I thought about women's reproductive lives, the difficulties of being female, the choices we make, the relationships we have, the various people who work with pregnant women, and I prayed for them all. Many websites are claiming that we're praying for more abortions, which is silly. They can read the prayers and see that isn't the case. Most of the prayers are really all about women and their reproductive lives. We pray for gender discrimination to cease. We pray for women who are abused. We pray for women who are infertile. We pray for women to have confidence. How can they be upset by this? Really I think the only objection to these prayers comes from a deep misogyny that refuses to acknowledge women as autonomous beings with their own spiritual lives.

How would you characterize the main reactions you have received since this flurry of publicity?

The media to date has been from anti-choice groups, so most of the people calling and writing to us are their constituents. They are quite hostile, usually rambling, callers are often screaming. They accuse us of pretending to be ministers or Christians. They accuse us of baby-murdering. Emails quote a lot of scripture and tell us we're going to burn in hell. We have had some new supporters find us through this, though. And we've begun a campaign called "Hate-into-Love" which allows our supporters to pledge donations for each hostile contact we receive.

Why do you think the 40 Days of Prayer has hit such a nerve with the Right, once they became aware of it?

They claim they think it's a mockery of the 40 days for Life campaign, but I don't think there is any mockery in it. The prayers are quite sincere. Apparently the religious right does not believe that anyone is allowed to pray except those who believe as they do. This is not a biblical idea; it is pure arrogance. The Christian scriptures say "Judge not, lest you be judged" and yet these people want to judge us as "fake" or "delusional" or even "possessed." One person who called us after the news broke asked "Are you planning to get groups of people to rally at abortion clinics to pray your prayers?" My answer was "The people inside the clinics are praying every day." Prayer does not belong to one group of people. But this seems to be the source of the outrage, that we dare to pray. It is apparently a very scary proposition to them that women might hear a compassionate religious voice and feel strengthened instead of weakened.

What have reactions to this campaign been in the pro-choice community?

A few pro-choice [organizations] have helped to pass along the information about our "Hate-into-Love" campaign and have re-posted the stories. We're getting pledges from around the country. We've been gaining a lot of new Facebook friends [who] learned about us through the negative media.

Do you think this community is more open now than in the past to a religious presence, such as that offered by Faith Aloud?

The independent abortion provider community has always been very welcoming of spirituality, seeing it as an important part of a woman's life and her decisions. But there is an element of the pro-choice community that is less supportive, seeing religion as the problem rather than a part of the solution, and really I can't blame them for feeling that way. They've been threatened and attacked and shamed by religious zealots. But, as I mentioned, most of the women in the United States call themselves religious or spiritual, and so we need to help them use their faith for strength during difficulty. It shouldn't be about we need, but what women need making difficult decisions.

In the several days that news of the “40 Days of Prayer” has gone viral, you have received much hate mail. Have you received anything from any anti-choice individual or group that suggests some common ground?

No. The hate mail tends to fall into these camps "You have no right to call yourself a Christian or pray" or "I'm praying for God's vengeance on you." We're getting some love mail, too, with people finding us for the first time and saying thank you for being a religious voice of compassion and reason.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Backward Motion

For the past two months, the news, both local and national, has been full of stories of insults and discrimination toward women. There is a pattern developing that cannot be denied; the gains that women have made in their personal lives and careers are under threat. There are many men in positions of great power in the media and in politics who want to turn back the clocks on women's pay, women's autonomy, and women's healthcare. They show blatant disrespect for women.

Missouri law has required health insurers to cover birth control since 2001, but the Missouri House and Senate have voted to overturn that law by passing SB749. This bill allows employers to discriminate against women by refusing to provide insurance to cover contraceptives and sterilization.

When 60 year old Rush Limbaugh called 30 year old law student Sandra Fluke a "slut" and demanded she post online videos of herself having sex, it wasn't personal. He didn't even know her, nor did his words have any relationship to her actual testimony. He was insulting every woman who uses or has used modern forms of contraception (99% of us). He equated the use of contraception with sexual addiction and prostitution.

Some have argued that he is just a shock jock entertainer not be taken seriously. But his tactic of making sexual insults against a woman because he disagrees with her policy on public health should be examined carefully. This barbaric rhetoric sinks into the public consciousness and does real damage to women and to our society. These very public messages work on women's psyches to produce shame and silence about their health care needs.

The reality is that the advent of the birth control pill has been exceptionally good for women. Researchers at the University of Virginia recently released a report (March 2012) showing that women who go on the pill between ages 18-21 have an 8% higher income by age 50. These are the exact ages that most unplanned pregnancies happen, so preventing those pregnancies, which often interrupt higher education, gives women a real advantage toward ultimate career and financial success. It is no accident that women began working outside the home in greater numbers in exactly the same decade that the birth control became available.

A career not only produces financial stability, but also generates personal autonomy and sense of accomplishment. How many of those reading this journal would be where they are without access to the pill? Perhaps in this recession this is exactly what some men fear-that women are becoming too talented, too great a presence in the marketplace.

The current backlash against women is falling under the creative new smokescreen of "religious liberty". We have heard the religious arguments against contraception for 50 years, but women, public health officials, and legislators generally favored common sense and personal choice over ideology from an earlier century. But in this election year, common sense seems a distant memory as religious zealots seek to control whether a woman can access affordable contraception, whether she has a choice in which contraception to use, and whether she has to disclose her prescriptions and medical conditions to her employer.

Some of these zealots argue that pregnancy is not a disease and therefore preventing pregnancy is not healthcare. But pregnancy does have real health implications, both simple and complicated. A pregnancy can be life-threatening, but even a routine pregnancy causes bodily changes that may call for medical remedies. Women younger than 21 and older than 35 face the possibilities of more medical complications due to pregnancy. Childbirth itself can be a difficult medical procedure, and a woman with a new baby has lower immunities due to lack of sleep and changes in her hormones. Women are healthier if they space their pregnancies in such a way that allows the body to regain its full strength between nursing one child and conceiving another. A study by the American Association for the Achievement of Science (February 2012) showed that taking hormonal birth control, even with all of its publicized side effects, is medically safer than pregnancy.

Some employers may be excited about the chance to reduce their insurance costs by refusing to cover contraception, but if so, they aren't thinking ahead. Contraception is far cheaper than maternity care. And it is far cheaper than child care and maternity leave. Contraception is good for business. It allows female employees to carefully plan their children in such a way that it does not disrupt their careers. It keeps them on the job longer between pregnancies so that they develop stronger job skills and make long-term contributions to the stability of their company.

Contraception is also good for the state and federal budgets. The Guttmacher Institute reports that the United States has the highest rate of unplanned pregnancy (49%) among the industrialized nations and that we spend over $11 billion dollars in government money on those pregnancies. How much higher will these numbers soar if contraception costs are not covered by insurance?

Limiting access to contraception and publicly shaming women who use contraception is, quite simply, bad policy. It's bad for the government, bad for business, and bad for women. We cannot be persuaded that the medical needs of a woman in any way restrict the religious freedom of her employer. Nor can we be persuaded that the religious preference of the employer should in any way interfere in the private medical affairs of the female employee.

We have come too far in our advancements toward equality to allow this backward motion.

-Rev. Rebecca Turner

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Inbox debate

(The following blog is composed from an email exchange this morning between a relative and me. It has been edited/editorialized for readership.)

2:06 a.m. - I receive an email with an attached article from a very pro-life website. Article is about a baby who was "killed" by "Chinese government officials" after it had already been born. Article pushes for an American reaction against "after birth abortion." You read that correctly. Infanticide is now called "after birth abortion" by the pro-lifers. (Cue initial thoughts of "South Park" clips where a character's mother appeals to Bill Clinton to grant her an abortion of her 8-year-old son.)

8:43 a.m. - I respond and tell her that, actually, infanticide is not the same thing as an abortion, and that for once, we agree on something in that infanticide is wrong. Further explain that the photo from the article was either a sex-selective infanticide or a miscarriage (as are most pro-life pictures), and that "after birth abortion" is a political tactic to mislead and confuse. Apparently, mission accomplished.

8:53 a.m. - Response from relative - "However, infanticide is no different than after birth abortions." Duh. Isn't this what I just said?

8:57 a.m. - I further explain that "abortion" implies that birth has yet to occur. Neither side actually believes that killing birthed babies is okay. That's murder, that is wrong. "If birth has happened, abortion has not." - my words

(There. I thought the issue was resolved. Boy, was I wrong! Made the mistake of opening my inbox during class. Chaos ensues.)

11:07 a.m. - I receive an email of an article titled "Ethicists propose after-birth abortion." Immediate reaction - DUH! Infanticide is already illegal, why do we need to add more laws into the mix. Then I remembered...they renamed it to support the pro-life agenda.

11:13 a.m. - This is where I should have just stopped. I'll admit it. But this was personal, and I don't quit things. One of my personal downfalls...I explain to my beloved relative (not sarcasm) that if you stick lipstick on a pig, it's still a pig. As in, if you call infanticide something else, it's not this "new" thing - it's still infanticide. Again, briefly mention that this is an insult to her intelligence that she's buying into this, yadda yadda. Moving on.

11:28 a.m. - Apparently NOT moving on. Message received - " Your president supports after birth abortions." No citations, no sources. Really?

(Can no longer keep my mouth shut. A few boring exchanges, typical propaganda said relative is fed through misleading sensationalist news and then...she asks me how pro choicers can support the killing of babies.)

11:46 a.m. - I respond to every claim she makes with the follow (of which I am VERY proud):

"Pro choice doesn't mean anti-life, which is a HUGE misconception from your side's point of view. I love babies! My boss loves babies! She has three kids of her own. Most prochoice leaders have children. So we are in no way anti-child, anti-life, whatever picture that's been painted for you.

We merely hold the view that no government or outside source has the capacity to tell us how many children we must have and when we should have them. That is OUR choice. Just like it is my choice to be on birth control pills for controlling endometriosis and possible future fertility. Is my mom in the wrong for choosing to have her tubes tied after having Molly? That's a form of birth control, and she made a choice to control the amount of children she wanted. I'm honestly surprised that more conservatives/Republicans aren't on board with this. It's about personal liberties and freedoms.

Once your "side" can see past the idea that "prochoice" encompasses more than just abortion, then we can agree on more things! It's super frustrating from our point of view when we go to Planned Parenthood to get annual exams (and mammograms, in my case) and get called "babykillers." That's not at all what it's about. Personal liberties and being able to make decisions without the government telling you what to do."

2:34 p.m. - I can't believe the word vomit I just spewed from my mouth. I just used a very, very Republican/conservative form of logic...and kind of liked it. And I meant every word I said. Why DO Republicans disagree with the pro-choice movement so often? We're pretty much aiming for the same thing here - we both want to make our own life decisions without any government oversight into our personal lives. The same argument was made for interracial marriages in the 60s and gay couples are making it today - if you don't want something, then don't get it. No one is forcing you to do what you don't want to, so why should it be the other way around?

Present - Still pretty disgusted with myself for using Republican logic, but I'll get over it. This is why I'm in law school, right?