Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Life Above All Else?

Abortion is one of those loaded issues that I generally don't write about all that much. I support a woman's right to choose whether to allow another living being to borrow her uterus and body for 9 months, but I'm not entirely comfortable with the idea of ending life. I also believe that many, if not most, pro-choice women and men feel similarly and that women generally do not take the decision to have an abortion lightly. So, one can show me as many pictures of aborted fetuses that one wishes yet, as disturbing as I will find them, I still won't come to believe that a fetus that is dependent upon another's body for survival has rights that outweigh the rights of the human being that is sustaining the fetus.

Furthermore, I also believe that some of the religious opposition to abortion is grounded in the deep-seated desire to simultaneously degrade and fetishize women as fetal vessels and to control both their bodies and their reproductive lives. As bioethicist Sigfrid Fry-Revere has written:

"To suggest that a fetus has the same rights as a mature adult individual borders on the perverse. A woman’s rights should never be placed second to the needs of her fetus. To do so is to treat women first and foremost as communally owned vessels for bringing forth life and only second as autonomous individuals."

*Sexual Assault and Abuse Trigger Warning*

The Catholic Church recently took this Woman As Communally-Owned Vessel ideology to an extreme, in a story which has been raging through the feminist blogosphere. To sum it up, a nine-year-old girl was raped a man in Brazil allegedly* raped his nine-year-old step-daughter, she became pregnant with twins, and the girl's mother authorized an abortion because doctors feared that the 66-pound girl would not survive childbirth. Subsequently, the girl's mother and the doctors who performed the abortion, yet not the man who allegedly caused the predicament in the first place, were excommunicated from the Catholic Church. The girl herself would have been excommunicated, as all women who have abortions automatically are, "[h]owever, canon law indicates several conditions -- for example, not yet having turned 17 years old -- that would render an individual exempt from the penalty of excommunication."

1. Women Are Not Community Resources

I believe that at least part of the Catholic Church's opposition to abortion is grounded in an ideology that treats women as community-owned fetal vessels. To get at my reasoning, we must delve a bit further into the purpose of excommunication:

"It is also a medicinal rather than a vindictive penalty, being intended, not so much to punish the culprit, as to correct him [sic] and bring him [sic] back to the path of righteousness. It necessarily, therefore, contemplates the future, either to prevent the recurrence of certain culpable acts that have grievous external consequences, or, more especially, to induce the delinquent to satisfy the obligations incurred by his [sic] offence."

Here, we see that the purpose of excommunication is to correct misbehavior and prevent it from re-occurring. In this case, the Church has chosen to punish those who were complicit in removing a fetus from a woman, presumably to prevent others from doing the same. To contrast, the Church has not excommunicated the man who wrongly caused the fetus to exist, explaining "although the man allegedly committed 'a heinous crime ... the abortion - the elimination of an innocent life - was more serious.'".

How male-centric to present the situation as a simple Which Misdeed is Worse urination contest. For many Vagina-Humans, such a comparison rings hollow coming from an allegedly-celibate person who is incapable of bearing, giving birth to, and then raising a daily reminder of horrendous child sexual abuse. But I digress.

Real life is more nuanced than pro-lifers often care to admit. Only by completely de-contextualizing the circumstances is the Church capable of presenting the situation as a simplistic rape versus murder balancing act. De-contextualizing the circumstances of this pregnancy in such a way discounts the girl involved as well as her individual rights. The girl here doesn't matter. Because she is a mere Vessel For Human Life, her life is a means to some greater end. Furthermore, the Church views Preventing the Elimination of Human Life as a public matter, as some sort of community good. Meanwhile, it condemns, but does not punish, a man's "heinous crime" of rape. Unlike women and their uteri, men are private, autonomous individuals. If a man rapes a woman and the end result is pregnancy, his crime a private matter, and one that does not expel him from the society of the Church. Meanwhile, the Church treats the end result of the man's crime, to which the female victim is inextricably bound, as a public matter in which the Church has a duty to involve itself.

I am confident that apologists for the Catholic Church will argue that "everyone already knows" that rape is wrong and, therefore, excommunication is unnecessary for the male perpetrator. Yet, clearly not "everyone" knows this as:

"Jesuit Father Clodoveo Piazza, a missionary in Brazil, told La Stampa that there are thousands of similar tragedies unfolding in the poorest regions of the South American nation. He said where he works in the state of Bahia 'about a third of all children are born to underage mothers; often they are only 11 or 12 years old.'"

The Catholic Church has an excommunication policy in place to specifically bring people "back to the path of righteousness" and to "prevent the recurrence of certain culpable acts." If this Jesuit missionary's words are true, the rape of children is at epidemic proportions in Brazil. And yes, it is rape. You may have noticed that when I was describing this particular case, I put an asterisk next to "a man in Brazil allegedly* raped a nine-year-old girl." I used "allegedly" only because the step-father has not been convicted of a crime, and therefore someone else may have committed the crime. Yet, whether someone raped this girl is not at issue since nine-year-old girls, like all minors, are incapable of consenting to sex

The Church, however, does not use its influence to excommunicate rapists and attempt to prevent the future rape of children. Why? Does it all hit a little too close to home? Is it because the Catholic Church believes, in the case of man-on-girl rape, the perhaps-private harmful act of rape is outweighed by the same act's potential to create the community resource that is Human Life?

2. Forcing a Woman to Give Birth Against Her Will Is Involuntary Servitude

These questions lead me to point number two, as Fry-Revere so aptly puts it:

"To force a woman to carry a pregnancy to term and give birth unwillingly is involuntary servitude, no matter what the rationale. Pregnancy and birth are the most dangerous work most women will ever do. To deprive them of medically feasible means for escaping those dangers, let alone planning their lives, is to treat women with the greatest disrespect."

Expecting women to bear children against their will treats women as a means to an end, creating Human Life, rather than as ends in themselves. It's a male-centric model of womanhood, especially in this case of child rape, to expect mere girls to bear these children and, if they even survive child-birth, to then raise these babies. Yet, how is it in any way healthy for children to raise babies while under the dominion of adult men who abuse them? Is "Life" really a magical trump card that always outweighs the rights, safety, and well-being of living women and girls? Whether it's opposing abortion, opposing embryonic stem-cell research or rejecting euthanasia, the Catholic Church consistently treats this overly-simple and de-contextualized concept of Human Life as being above all else, including quality of life and the individual rights of living human beings.

I will end this blog with one final thought. As much as the anti-choice propaganda tells us otherwise, it's not so much that people who favor a woman's right to choose favor a so-called "culture of death." We just want life to be good for humans who are already living.

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