In the tangled journey home of this particular returning Catholic, this is one of the toughest times of the year. Tomorrow marks the 39th anniversary of the passage of Roe v. Wade, and everybody I know is–literally or figuratively–on the bus to Washington for the annual March for Life. Most of the Catholics I know and love are on the bus in support of the march and in passionate protest of the right to legalized abortion that Roe established. Most of the non-Catholics I know and love are on another bus entirely, in protest of the march and in passionate support of retaining and expanding Roe’s provisions.
There’s a seat saved for me on each bus, but I feel more like I’ve been run over by them both.
I loathe the vitriol that so often fuels both vehicles, quite frankly. Taking a seat on either bus would mean aligning myself not only with the finest ideals and most compassionate goals of that side of the debate–and believe me, I know how much of a limb I’m going out on even to cede that both sides have ideals and compassion!–but also with the worst bigotry and stereotyping and hatred that side can muster. All this in the name of human life, that most precious and dignified gift of God–as precious and dignified, I deeply believe, in the form of a woman struggling to choose where her life goes next as it is in the tiny footprint of her fetus.
So it’s been my practice to shut up and attempt to ignore the biggest elephant of the herd of them inhabiting the living room of my reversion. Only this year, that will be even harder to do. January 22 falls on a Sunday this year, so the elephant will be sitting in the pew with me tomorrow, shifting uncomfortably, poking me with its trunk. It knows what I want to do, and why I think I can’t.
What I want to do–as a woman, as a mother and grandmother, as a believer–is climb aboard the Catholic bus, joyfully and proudly. I want passionately to advocate for a world in which no woman aborts, because there are no circumstances in which there aren’t better and safer and more affordable and compassionate and communally-supported alternatives that respect the woman as a person as much as the child she carries. I want to stand up for the wonder and glory of life in all its complicated, messy, terrifying, holy forms and circumstances.
But. Among the reasons why I think I can’t punch my ticket for the pro-life bus just yet is the story of a young, recently married woman who found herself pregnant in the early months of 1950. She had some bleeding and pain that frightened her, so she saw her obstetrician. Using the best tests available at the time, he told her the pregnancy was ectopic; the embryo had implanted in the Fallopian tubes instead of the uterus. He told her that allowing the pregnancy to continue would almost certainly kill both her and her unborn child. He explained that termination at this early stage for this reason was both legal and medically necessary. The doctor was Jewish, but he knew the woman was Catholic, and advised her to speak with her priest about the recommendation.
The pastor of her parish, a family friend, was sympathetic but firm. She had no choice, he explained. In the economy of salvation, the life of the child was worth infinitely more than that of the mother. Should going forward with the pregnancy cost her her life, she would have given it for the highest possible grace. Should she go forward with the termination, she might save her own life but would most assuredly damn her soul. And everyone, he added, would know.
She agreed she had no choice. And for the next eight months she lived in terrible fear, every day, that the alien creature inside her would explode like a landmine. It didn’t. I didn’t. [Editorial note: The tests were wrong. It was a perfectly normal pregnancy, though my mother never knew or trusted that.] But for the rest of her life, my mother’s love for me, and her faith in God, was distorted by having seen me, in no small part, as an assassin planted in her womb by the Church.
I didn’t know this story until I was an adult and a mother myself. I grew up thinking of my mother as impressively radical for her working-class Boston Irish background, a woman who nearly got booted from her third term as president of the Mother’s Club at Immaculate Heart of Mary Grammar School because she dared to question the Church’s teaching that (as she heard it, as it was presented then) babies were more precious than women. I thought she was cool for letting me watch the controversial episode of Dr. Kildare that raised the issue of legalizing abortion, even though our pastor had prohibited it from the pulpit. I thought it was pretty enlightened of her to be our local Church’s token feminist. I didn’t know, until she told me one day, holding her grandson in her lap, that in her view it was the Church that shoved her into feminism.
I wouldn’t let one story–even if that story is my mother’s, and my own–stop me from coming out as pro-life, however. It’s more the way that so many prolife Catholics, then and now, look at women like my mother and so many millions of other women pregnant in circumstances that range from far more threatening to far less thoughtful: like they’re filthy, and evil, and monstrous for being scared enough or alone enough or sick enough or just plain young and stupid enough to consider terminating a pregnancy. Yes, I am aware that there are many on the Catholic bus who don’t do this (case in point: Deacon Greg Kandra’s very balanced and thoughtful homily for tomorrow, which prompted this reflection of mine), who reach out with compassion, but quite frankly you wouldn’t know it if you spent any time in the comboxes. When the other bus accuses us of being judgmental and lacking in empathy, it’s not only their own bias that offers proof texts.
I don’t want to get on board a bus that would invite me to look at women that way. Even worse, I don’t want to have to look at sexuality–the whole big multistory howdah teetering atop every elephant in the pew–the way so much of the Catholic prolife movement wants me to see it: as a gift from God, yeah sure, but one so limited in usefulness and wonder and nuance and complexity that it might as well be a gift of itchy woolen longjohns from your least-favorite aunt. It fries me, as a matter of fact, that we as a Church can be so (justifiably) appalled at government attempts to make pregnancy into a disease to be prevented, when we turn right around and act, so often, as though pregnancy is the just punishment a woman deserves for having sex, even if it wasn’t consensual but especially if it was.
This doesn’t even get close to expressing all the reasons I am queasy about putting on a prolife button–like, for instance, the assumption that I’d have to complete the set with buttons declaring myself Republican, homophobic, and pro-death-penalty. Anyone who says there’s not a litmus-test-cum-voter-registration-exam for Catholics these days is either lying or better at ignoring the elephants than I am.
In the end, though, the biggest reason may be that I am a coward. Catholics are not the only ones with a litmus test, and I know very well that by coming out against abortion (in principle, even; I am nowhere near ready, in conscience or in grace, to support a legal ban) I risk losing the respect and even the friendship of people I respect and love. There will be blowback enough, I expect, if I’m brave enough to link to this post on Facebook.
That’s where I am this year. That’s where this journey finds me: at the bus stop. A little closer to knowing which bus I want to board, a little more afraid to step up. Tomorrow morning, as I share a hymnal with the elephant in the pew, I will pray for the folks on both buses, for all the babies and for all the women. I will pray for the ability to draw on my mother’s courage, in a cause that isn’t, at heart, so different. I will pray for wisdom for myself, and understanding from others. The appointed responsorial psalm (Psalm 25), providentially, will help:
Your ways, O Lord, make known to me;
teach me your paths,
guide me in your truth and teach me,
for you are God my savior.
If you are so inclined, in or out of a pew, with or without elephants, I’d appreciate it if you’d remember this unexploded landmine of a revert–and the soul of her mom–in your prayers, too.