Friday, May 31, 2013

Remembering Dr. Tiller

Four years ago today, a man walked into his church, his family in front of him, his friends and fellow parishioners beside him. As his wife walked into the blessed sanctuary of their church family's home, this man struck up a conversation with a friend in the lobby as he prepared to usher the service & hand out church bulletins. Perhaps these two men were discussing how their week had been. Perhaps they discussed this man's trip in the previous weeks to Disneyland with his family. Perhaps they simply found themselves talking sports and scores and who would be heading to the World Series later in the year. But these two men, one who had watched his loving and devoted wife walk to their usual pew in the safety of the church they had grown to know and love before he began his duties as church usher that morning and the other a long time friend of their family seeking out a brief hello before their church service started, began to talk about something, and did so for a few minutes. With his wife sitting quietly in the pew, waiting to be accompanied by her husband, he was enjoying the camaraderie of his church home and he was preparing to worship the God he loved so very much. 

In hindsight, perhaps someone should have noticed the stranger lurking outside, the stranger who had been there at that church weeks before when this man, talking to his old friend of several years whose wife awaited him in the sanctuary of their church, had been vacationing with his family elsewhere. Perhaps in hindsight, someone should have noticed that this stranger, pacing the outdoors, wasnt a familiar face, wasnt a parishioner they'd ever seen before. Perhaps in hindsight, someone should have noticed that he was oddly dressed, hands in his pockets, sweating slightly but clearly preparing to enter the lobby of this church. Perhaps in hindsight, someone should have known that Dr George Tiller, talking quietly with his old friend and preparing to go worship God with his wife by his side, was about to be shot in the head at point blank range by a man who had plotted his murder for weeks and months and finally found the opportunity to do so that Sunday morning, four years ago, in the lobby of a house of God. 

There's a certain morbidity when one addresses the anniversary of a death, and in this case, the assassination of a doctor performing safe and legally protected procedures for women. There's a certain macabre sensibility to the idea that we memorialize anyone based on HOW they died, instead of how they LIVED. And yet, when we talk of Dr George Tiller, we tend to focus on the murder & murderer more than the substance of the life before it. And so today, four years after his assassin shot him in the head in the foyer of Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, KS as he handed out church bulletins, I propose we remember the man before the murder, instead of the man after. 

Dr Tiller graduated from the University of Kansas School of Medicine and went on to serve in the United States Navy as a flight surgeon. After the tragic death of both his parents, brother in law, and sister in an airplane crash, Dr Tiller have up his plans to begin a dermatology practice to take over his father's private medical practice and began raising his 1 year old nephew, orphaned by his parents death. It was at this time that Dr Tiller discovered that his father's practice had secretly offered abortion care to its patients. Dr Tiller made the brave choice to continue this practice and went on to become a focal point in the anti choice movement, enduring daily vigils & threats to his life and his family's lives by anti choice groups at his clinic. In 1986, his clinic was firebombed. In 1993, he was shot five times while leaving his clinic in his car. The shooter in this case later said the gunshots were aimed at Dr Tiller's hands so that he would no longer be able to provide abortion care to the women who sought him out for, often times, life saving abortion procedures. Before his death in 2009, Dr Tiller was the focus of 28 episodes of a Fox News program that placed special emphasis on his practice, resulting in even more protests and threats to his clinic and life, as well as to perpetuate the nasty name calling that began with a Congressman on the floor of Congress and was continued until his assassination in 2009 by several conservative talk show hosts, one in particular. And just two months prior to his death, Dr Tiller was acquitted of ALL charges (19 in all) in a case that many compared to the trials at Nuremberg and which prompted NYU Professor Jacob Appel to be quoted as saying that Dr Tiller was "a genuine hero who ranks alongside Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King Jr. in the pantheon of defenders of human liberty."

But Dr Tiller's life was not and is not defined by the vitriol that preceded his death. To the women helped by Dr Tiller and his clinic staff, he was a kind, compassionate man with a soft & gentle demeanor who worked tirelessly to free women who chose abortion of the stigma that, sadly, still exists today. He was known for using the phrase, "Trust women.", an assertion that women are perfectly capable of choosing what's best for themselves, their families, and their bodies. Perhaps most importantly, he didn't just advocate for trusting women, but he also actively trusted women, never judging and always carefully considering the best line of care for each patient individually.

I was in an emergency room in St Louis, Missouri on May 31, 2009, experiencing excruciating abdominal pain. At the time, I was employed as a recovery room nurse in abortion care services at Planned Parenthood of the St Louis Region (PPSLR). My best friend, also a nurse at PPSLR, entered my room that morning with tears in his eyes, and when I asked what was wrong, he said only, "They killed him. They finally killed Dr Tiller. They finally did it." It was an impossibly sad moment and morning and it was one filled with fear. We entered our clinic, a clinic that Dr Tiller had visited, a clinic that was under the care of another well known doctor who had frequently been the target of threats and attacks, past vicious protesters every single day. We were sometimes followed home by protesters, we were sometimes witness to signs that carried our personal information and were meant to shame us out of providing safe and legal abortion care to women. And while historically, violent protesters in the anti choice movement choose to target doctors, our safety was always hanging in the balance. And yet every day we walked through that line of protesters in order to continue providing the care women so desperately needed. We, like Dr Tiller, would not be stopped. 

If I had started this by telling you the story of a man shot at point blank range in the foyer of his church, handing out bulletins and talking quietly to an old friend while his wife waited quietly in their usual pew for him in the sanctuary, but instead of using Dr Tiller's name I'd used someone else's, it's doubtful anyone would feel anything but shock and complete disgust for such a heinous crime. Which calls to mind this contradiction we continue to live with, even 4 years later. There exists in our society an idea that some murder, some death at the hands of those who claim to be doing God's will, is acceptable. There exists in our society a concept that shaming women, stealing their right to hold dominion over their own bodies, is an acceptable manner in which to legislate. There exists in our society an exception - almost a forgiveness - for the vicious murder and assassination of someone who does something others don't like. And if we have learned anything about Dr Tiller's life AND death, it is that there's nothing less "pro life" than that. 

Anaïs Nin once said, "I, with a deeper instinct, choose a man who compels my strength, who makes enormous demands on me, who does not doubt my courage or my toughness, who does not believe me naïve or innocent, who has the courage to treat me like a woman." For me, and for so many women who were his colleagues, patients, family, and friend, Dr Tiller was and remains that man. His passion for empowering women to make their own choices, to demand being trusted by all those who surround them, is a legacy that transcends deeply the type of death he endured and which we talk about every May 31st. It is a legacy that cannot be assassinated by a bullet but instead, can only die out if we let the light shine less brightly. So today, as we remember not the murder of a great man but alternately, the life of a remarkable and magnificent advocate & caregiver, let us lift our voices and insist his legacy be who we ARE and not who we COULD be, if not for the oppression we seem to find such trouble escaping. 

Rest in peace, Dr Tiller. Always.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Saint Louis University law students respond to rape apologist's inflammatory "false rape" event

Students at the Saint Louis University School of Law conducted a sexual violence awareness event in response to the law school's Federalist Society chapter’s “The 41%-ers: Our False Rape Society.” Distributed flyers and information were incredibly well received by the students and faculty, and about half of the students and faculty wore teal ribbons in support of sexual violence awareness.

On its Facebook page for this event, the Federalist Society wrote that hosted controversial conservative journalist Cathy Young at the university’s campus to discuss false rape accusations and the “irreparable damage they do to individuals and our society.” The Federalist Society, a libertarian student organization, also plans to “balance” the discussion with a happy hour tomorrow with the Mark Twain Law Society, an all-male club within SLU Law. Law Students for Reproductive Justice were not invited to participate in the discussion and were only invited to the happy hour after the media was alerted and attended the event.

Many students on campus have other thoughts about Ms. Young’s event.

“I find it absolutely disturbing,” said Emily Rosenfeld, president of Law Students for Reproductive Justice (LSRJ). “There are some things in the world worth fighting for, and in my opinion the rights of sexual assault survivors rank high on that list. I am ashamed that anyone on this campus thinks it is okay to trivialize the pain and injustice that so many survivors go through. Furthermore, she singled out a few high profile cases that attracted heavy media frenzy but this only seeks to further trivialize the vast amount of sexual assaults that go unreported.”

Another LSRJ member Erin Lenahan further remarked that, “we shouldn’t have to keep fighting this battle. We all know that rape is terrible and we all know that lying about being raped is bad. So how do we protect actual victims while upholding our legal notion of ‘innocent until proven guilty’? There is no easy answer, but choosing to address claims of false rape only serve as another way to point a finger rather than finding a solution.”

LSRJ member Chelsea Merta (and Faith Aloud policy analyst) agreed, stating that “it’s a shame that we live in a world where, instead of women supporting other women who have fallen victim to sexual violence, some choose to use those moments of pain as a platform against the victims. Instead, efforts need to focus on changing how society and the media view and report rape, not attack the legal system that’s already severely underutilized.”
Merta continued, saying that “When twenty percent of all American women will be sexually assaulted, and more the half of those incidents will even be reported, that means that 10% of the entire American female population sits in a world where they are shamed into silence because of women like Ms. Young and organizations like the Federalist Society.”

In order to truly open the dialogue, LSRJ will host a film screening, to be held at 12:00 p.m. on Wednesday, March 20, 2013, in Room 04 in the basement of Morrissey Hall (SLU Law’s building). During the event, the critically-acclaimed documentary film “The Invisible War” will be screened, with a discussion to follow.

The event is free and open to the public, and members of the press are invited.

Sexual Violence Awareness Month starts in April.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Noise Makers.

The greatest revolution of our generation is the discovery that human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.” – William James

I’ve been watching the news, much like we all have, with great intrigue of late. The Republican candidate for the office of President is being asked to provide copies of his tax refunds for a large number of fiscal years, and he has declined to offer any more than two years worth. He has stated staunchly that he will not release any more information on the topic, that the American people have all the information they need with regards to his financials, and that this is a matter of private information that need not be discussed further. I can’t help but laugh at this, especially when I consider that this candidate’s party has worked very hard to turn the personal matters of women across the country into a very public debate and yet, very few people are putting their foot down to say “Enough already – you don’t get to make decisions about our bodies any more – end of discussion!” This begs the question: why do Americans tolerate privacy when it comes to money but not to medicine? Why do Americans respect women so little that the privacy of a woman to make reproductive health choices with her doctor must also involve her senator and her senator’s priest? Why do Americans continue to allow the systematic shaming of 51% of the U.S. population?

I was once traveling on a plane from Orlando, Florida after a family vacation, where I found myself sitting next to a woman in her mid 40’s, who was just as chatty as I am. We found that we had plenty in common: she happened to be from Upstate New York, just like me, and she happened to be returning from the Virgin Islands because the beach is her favorite respite, just like me. I felt an instant connection to this woman. I felt she was a kind, compassionate, funny lady and I enjoyed her sense of humor, her stories, and indeed, her attitude in general. I felt safe talking with her about all sorts of things: my recent & tumultuous break up with a man I had felt I’d marry and start a family with, the miscarriage that occurred in the aftermath of that relationship’s demise, the challenges of being away from my family and closest friends during such a traumatic time. I shared intimate stories with this woman, whom I will call Annie, and I did so because my gut instinct told me that she was a safe person to talk with, to share with.

And yet, despite discussing the loss of a pregnancy, the ugliest of break ups, the intimate details of internet dating, and a plethora of other personal experiences, I had to think twice before I answered her seemingly harmless question: “So, what do you do for a living?”

At the time, I was a nurse in the recovery room of an abortion care facility. In addition to my duties as a nurse doing patient intake for procedures, medicating patients, caring for women during their procedures, and preparing women to go home after their procedure with the appropriate aftercare information, I had also begun training as a counselor at this facility. This role saw me talking with women about their choices and how they had come to the decision to terminate their pregnancy, being mindful to ensure that this was the woman’s choice, and not one as a result of coercion from her partner, her family, or any other force in her life. Every day that I came to work, I was forced to walk from my car to the front door of my job through a crowd of protesters, some of whom merely prayed quietly and offered me prayer cards, while others attempted to block my entrance into work while screaming and calling me hate filled names like “Baby Killer”. I knew firsthand how difficult it was to BE a nurse at an abortion care facility and so as a result, I also knew how difficult it was to TELL someone that I was a nurse at an abortion care facility. And so when Annie innocuously asked me what I did for a living, I hesitated with good reason. Here I was on a plane 30,000 feet in the air, and unsure of whether my seatmate would accept my answer with support or opposition. It was a familiar problem for me, because the fact is, it’s not easy to say you work in an abortion care facility and it’s even harder to say you’ve had an abortion in a culture that has turned a women’s intimate choices about her own personal healthcare into a national debate fit for all ears. But why is that?

1.37 million abortions happen in the United States every year, which is roughly 3, 700 abortions a day. 52% of those are performed for women under the age of 25. It is estimated that 43% of all women will have at least one abortion by the age of 45 and that 7 in 10 women of reproductive age are sexually active. 98% of women who have ever had sex report having used at least one form of birth control. 62% of women of reproductive age currently use contraception, which is double that of the 31% of women who don’t use contraception because of issues such as infertility; current pregnancy; post partum; sexually inactive; and those who are actively trying to become pregnant. This leaves 7% - that’s seven percent – of women of reproductive age at risk of unwanted pregnancies.** The numbers don’t lie, really – Women are having abortions. Women are using contraception. Women are having sex. And yet, I still worry about telling a relative stranger that for my job, I help women choose the appropriate birth control for their lifestyle, that I assist women in discussing the realities of their pregnancy & how they will move forward in managing either its continuance or termination, and that I hold women’s hands as they leave the recovery room of a facility safe in the knowledge that they have received quality, legal healthcare with dignity & respect. My voice is stifled because of fear, and its representative of what women who choose abortion must live with every day. And simply put, this is not fair and it must change.

As it turns out, my gut told me that it would be safe to share with Annie what my real job was. So instead of saying to Annie, “Oh, I’m a nurse in women’s health care”, I told her, “I am a nurse in the recovery room of an abortion care facility. I help women before and after their procedures, and I also do some counseling for the facility, which is the first step in obtaining an abortion where I live.” Annie’s face was frozen in a half smile, and for a brief moment I feared that I’d made the wrong choice. And then, a tear rolled down Annie’s cheek. And she shared a story with me that I will never forget and one that I will share with you now:

Annie had a 17 year old daughter who was graduating high school that year. She was excited to be attending a respected state university and looking forward to a career in teaching. Her daughter had a long term boyfriend and it was just after Christmas at the end of the past year that Annie’s daughter & boyfriend came to her to tell her that she was pregnant. Annie shared with me the very raw emotions of learning of her daughter’s unplanned pregnancy: the anger, the sadness, the fear. She asked her daughter what she wanted to do and her daughter stated tearfully & with eyes full of fear and angst that she had talked to a few facilities on the phone about her options and that she believed an abortion was the best decision to secure the best life & future for all concerned parties. Annie did not agree with abortion, but she wanted to support her daughter the best she could and despite the conflict it presented to Annie spiritually, she admitted that it was a relief of sorts that this choice was available to her daughter, whose life seemed ready to crumble into pieces in front of her. Annie prayed for several days about this personal dilemma, and ultimately felt that God would always respect her and her daughter and that through these conversation s of prayer she was able to quiet the fear that society would judge her daughter & family without knowing the monstrous impact a pregnancy would have on her daughter’s young life. So Annie took her daughter to the clinic where she spoke with counselors and had ultrasounds and ultimately solidified her decision to terminate her pregnancy. Annie was, in her words, overwhelmed with a “guilty sense of relief”. And then, like 3,699 other women ever day, Annie’s daughter had an abortion. And Annie told no one. Not her daughter’s father, not her best friend whom she’d known for 20+ years, not the coworker whose sister had also had an abortion and spoke openly about amongst their colleagues. Annie kept her daughter’s abortion deep inside her and uttered nothing about it to anyone. She felt shame building within her spirit and she longed to discuss the situation with someone – anyone, in fact. And then she met me. Annie told me that the minute I told her that I was a nurse in an abortion care facility she knew that God was sending her the affirmation she needed to move forward knowing she had done the right thing for her daughter. She knew in her heart that God was saying to her that she could share this story, how it affected her & her family, and not feel ashamed. She told me, through tears, that when I proudly shared the work I do as a nurse in helping women, she felt a strong connection to not just me and my professional experience, but to her daughter as well. That there were people unafraid to lift their voices and share their stories, gave Annie hope and affirmation that she had nothing to be ashamed of and furthermore that she hoped her daughter was as proud of herself as Annie was for making the choice that was best for *her* and no one else. Annie eventually wiped her tears and thanked me, and we parted ways at the end of our flight with a hug. I will never forget Annie and I know she will never forget me.

But why is this story so unique? Why does it take an isolated place miles upon miles in the air with a stranger to talk about abortion and who or how it has affected your life and the life of those you love, positively? Why do we continue to perpetuate this climate of silence, of shame against those who exercise their freedom of choice? 43% of women will have had an abortion by the time they turn 45 years old. And that’s 43% of women who are being bullied into speechlessness. How will YOU help to remind those 43% that their voices matter? How can we all remind woman that they should not be ashamed for taking spiritual & physical control of their bodies? How will we change the negative culture of shaming women for not only answering God’s call to pray but for listening to his answers and applying that personal interaction as they see fit in their lives? It has been said that oppression can only survive through silence. So if you ask me, it’s time to make some noise.

~ Joey Bellerdine

**Statistics courtesy of The Guttmacher Institute. (

Friday, June 22, 2012

Republicans Regulating Vaginas

If that isn’t a title to catch your attention, I don’t know what is!  This past week the word “vagina” certainly caught the headlines of major newspapers across the United States.  Michigan House Representative Lisa Brown was silenced for saying the word “vagina” in the House.  She was attempting to speak against a host of restrictive pieces of legislation that will make abortion in Michigan almost completely inaccessible.  Since then, a lot of progressive women and men have been speaking in support of Rep. Brown and the many others who are challenging the legislation and the supposed moral values that have led to its creation.

This morning I attended a press conference at the Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis.  This Jewish synagogue has been at the forefront in witnessing to progressive moral values since it was founded under the leadership of Rabbi Susan Talve.  The press conference was hosted by State Rep. Stacey Newman (D) for the purposes of pressuring Missouri Governor Jay Nixon (D) to veto S.B.749, which attempts to supersede federal law and deny access to birth control and sterilization for women that work for an employer that has a “moral” objection to birth control.  The Governor has until July 14 to veto the bill or allow it to become law.
Thousands of us have been signing petitions to pressure the governor to veto this horrible bill, that allows an employer to decide whether the insurance provided to his/her employees will cover birth control.  This legislation will take what should be a private decision and makes it an employer’s prerogative.
I think it’s absolutely shameful that in the 21st century we still need to fight this battle.  Honestly, any church can proclaim whatever values they want.   I don’t care if a church says that birth control is a sin.  It’s their right.  That’s what freedom of conscience is about.  That’s what being in a democracy is about.  But no person should be able to force their religious values on another person.  That’s also what democracy is about.
Nothing has supported women’s equality more than access to birth control.  It has been one of the most important steps our society has taken to give women control over their lives.  It allows women to pursue higher education, career development, and to plan the spacing of children.  And, studies show that affordable access to birth control is the most effective way of decreasing the number of unplanned pregnancies and the number of abortions.   It seems pretty logical, doesn’t it?  But somehow, I don’t believe logic has anything to do with what the Republicans are doing now.
If this was about logic, this legislation would not exist.  The term “war on women” has become very prevalent in the news.  There have been many attempts to discredit this term from the Republican side.  But, given that the pursuit of their “moral values” is clearly irrational, then I think this is absolutely a war on women.  I think that what is being uncovered is the strong underbelly of sexism that never disappeared with the advent of the women’s movement.  It went underground, and is now reappearing, a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  There are still strong pockets, mostly men and some women, who are deeply uncomfortable with women who are not under the control of men.  That’s it, pure and simple.  Somehow our equality, our ability to make decisions about our lives, our bodies, outside of the influence of men, is still deeply disturbing and it’s becoming more acceptable to express this discomfort in American culture and have it taken seriously.
One of the ways we take this culture back is by telling our stories.  How has birth control changed our lives?  How has it allowed us to make the decisions we needed to make?  It is time for millions of women to tell their stories.  And I’m gonna start by telling mine.  I know I’m a minister and that some of my parishioners are going to read this. I also know that some of my family may read this.  This may be a TMI (too much information) for some of you.  But really, all of us, every woman who wants for her daughters and grand daughters a world that will honor and respect them, needs to tell her story.   The culture that would say this is a TMI is the culture that silences us, that keeps our daughters and granddaughters from getting the information they deserve, it keeps the secrecy and the shame alive and leaves women vulnerable.   This is the same culture that is shaming Rep. Brown for saying “vagina” in the Michigan House of Representatives and that denied Rep. Stacey the right to speak on this legislation in the House.
So, I’m telling a bit of my story.  This is how we reclaim our place, a place that is being threatened by legislation like SB749.
Here goes.
I became sexually active at 16.   I was, admittedly, too young.  I should have waited, but hindsight is 20/20.   Fortunately, I had some sex education in the public school system between the ages of 10 and 16. It wasn’t the best education. It was age appropriate and very technical.  In high school, mostly it consisted of slide presentations of what happens to a body ravaged by different sexually transmitted diseases.  Our teachers emphasized the importance of using a condom to protect against these STDs.  I didn’t get any education about self-respect, how to say yes, how to say no, and how to know when it’s the right time.  But I did know that I sure didn’t want any of those diseases!  And I knew I did not want to become pregnant.  I wanted to go to university and be a career woman.  My plan was to finish my education and have my career going by the age of 28-30. I wanted two children in my 30s, while building my career.  I never planned to stop working.
When I made the decision to become sexually active, I may not have been emotionally mature enough, but I was intellectually smart enough to do my homework and make sure I had the form of birth control that I thought would work best for me.  The sex education I received may have been technical, but it gave me the information I needed.
At first I used condoms because I was afraid to go to our family doctor and get birth control pills.  I think that part of my reasoning included that I could tell myself that I wasn’t really fully sexually active.  I had condoms in case it happened.   Using the birth control pills meant that I expected it to happen and that I was a fully sexually active person.  I wasn’t ready to see myself that way.  I think deep down I was ashamed of being sexually active, and using condoms allowed me to see myself as only partly sexually active, and thus, more moral.
I am amazed now when I look back at myself in that time.  Self-perception is so important and we make all kinds of decisions not even aware of how our unconscious feelings and beliefs shape our lives
That lasted about two years, and I became more comfortable seeing myself as a sexually active person.  I wanted to be even more safe.  I decided I wanted to go on the birth control pill.  I made a visit to see my family doctor, the same doctor that cared for our whole family – my mother, father, three brothers and myself.  I was scared to see him.  I’d never had an internal exam and I didn’t know if he would feel obliged to tell my family.  I had the courage to ask the secretary when I called about confidentiality and she assured me that my doctor would not tell my parents unless I wanted him to.
I really did not want my parents to know, so I asked to borrow the car to go to school that day, saying I had some kind of meeting after school.  I really hoped that would work.  Unfortunately, my mother said she needed the car, and she would be happy to pick me up from school.  So now I was in a dilemma.  Was I going to lie to my mother or tell her the truth?  I decided to tell her.  I think she went as white as a sheet.  I was so very afraid of her judgment.  She was quiet for a while, and then she swallowed hard, and said to me, “Well, I raised you to be responsible and to be independent.  And you’re obviously being independent in a responsible way, so I will take you to the doctor.”
Bless my mother.  Honestly, I was relieved she knew.  I felt like I was carrying a big bad secret, and deep down, truth be told, there was in me the deep conditioning that “good girls” didn’t do this.  ”Good girls” didn’t have sex before marriage. Having her know, and tell me I was responsible, was a big deal.  I don’t think she knew what a big deal it was, but I have never forgotten it.
There is one thing I do regret, however, and that is that I did not tell my father.  I wish I had but I was too scared to.    I wish I had trusted him enough to share with him.  Not telling him was more about me than about him.  But, it was also my right to make that decision. Luckily there was no law that would force me, a minor, to get my father’s consent to get the birth control pill.
So I went on the pill.   I was on the pill from 17 to 21, four years.  In high school, I paid for my birth control out of pocket from money I earned during the summer.  I think it was about $20 a month.  (Prescription meds are much cheaper in Canada than the U.S.)  Then I went to university.  Both universities I attended offered birth control free to all their female students.  This was great because of course, as a student, I was on a limited income, and even the $20 a month would have been hard.  My parents were not in a position to help us pay for university so I was on my own.  I always worked full time in the summer, often had a part time job during the school year, got a whole series of paid internships, and took out student loans.  Getting my birth control for free was a god send.  It meant I had more money for groceries.
And I never got pregnant.  Not even one scare.   I could focus on my education, and I could have relatively stress free intimacy.
I think it’s also important to say that I had a lot of trouble with the birth control pill.  Some women have absolutely no problem with it.  I was not one of those women.  My hormones were all over the place.  I gained a lot of weight.  I got sick with a lot of feminine issues.  I finally spoke to my doctor about using a different form of birth control.  The doctor was resistant, with good reason.  Young women who are not on birth control have a much higher rate of unplanned pregnancies and abortions.  She did not want me to face that possibility. But in the end, we explored other ways for me to have safer sex.  I went off the birth control pill and decided to use condoms and a diaphragm with spermicide jelly.
Now I debated whether to include this because I am afraid that anti-choice forces will use this to bolster their case that birth control pills are dangerous for women.  But I’m not going to sugar coat the truth.  Birth control works for a lot of women with relatively few side effects.  It didn’t work so well in my body.  I also believe that it was my choice and my call to make decisions about my health.  My decision was between me and my doctor and no politician had any place in that process.  I had the right to try birth control pills and the right to make the decision to use another form of birth control.  There is nothing that needs to be legislated in that process.
I used the diaphragm and spermicide jelly for the next several years.  I had some scares, when I’d had none with the pill.  The diaphragm is a much more risky form of birth control.  But luckily I never got pregnant.  Then it became apparent that I was allergic to the jelly.  I went back to only condoms.  Then I decided to come out and by the age of 31 I was no longer engaged in intimate relationships with men.  At this time birth control was no longer necessary for me.  However, safer sex was necessary because you still have to protect yourself from STDs, and that became my priority.  Luckily I was in Toronto, a very cosmopolitan liberal city, and the women’s community had many resources to help me understand and practice safer sex, which I did until I entered into a monogamous relationship with my partner of 10 years, who I am now married to.
From the age of 16, I had doctors who listened to me, advised and counseled me, who treated me with respect and worked with me to ensure that I was fully informed and able to make decisions about my own reproductive health.  I had a university system that ensured I had access to birth control so that I could fully devote myself to my education.  I learned to trust myself and my ability to make those decisions.  I had a larger community and family that also supported me.   All of this became an interdependent web that helped me to make wise decisions about my reproductive health.
And in the meantime, I was able to explore, with relative safety, who I was as a sexual being.  This journey is already so scary and such a vulnerable thing.  Birth control gave me some safety so I could explore who I was, who I wanted to love and who I wanted to have love me back.  It allowed me the safety to learn boundaries, how to say yes and how to say no, all without the threat of having to put everything I wanted on the back burner because I got pregnant.  It saved me from the possibility of having to make the difficult decision of whether to carry a pregnancy to term or to end it.  I never had to make that heart wrenching decision, thank God.
I was valued as a woman and as a human being.  This is the most spiritual thing of all.  In my opinion, God appears in those places of respect and worth, whether in our own hearts or between people.  This is where God happens, and God happened in the whole series of institutional and personal support that I received as a young woman making decisions about my reproductive health.
This is what women are still asking for today.  This is what so many conservatives are trying to take away from us, the worth and dignity that is inherently ours, that is a god given beautiful thing.
Governor Nixon, veto the damn bill.  Every woman in Missouri needs you to do that.  I’m really sorry you’ve been put in this place because this issue should never be thrown in a politician’s lap.  It doesn’t belong there.   But, this is where we are, and where you are, so you’ve got a job to do.  I suggest you do it.  We are counting on you.
-Rev. Krista Taves

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.