A Personal Story

I’ve been a feminist since 1971 when I joined a consciousness-raising group after I had my abortion. I didn’t think that I would ever tell anyone about the abortion, but as we all began to share our stories, I felt safe enough to share mine. Instead of shock or disapproval, I was met with understanding and support. I had had a decision to make and I made the one that I thought was best for me at the time.

The boyfriend who got me pregnant would never have allowed me to give the baby up for adoption, but he was okay about an abortion. I didn’t tell my parents because I felt like I should be adult enough to handle it myself. And, okay, I admit that I was afraid of their reaction, but that wasn’t the main reason I had the abortion. I was 19 and in my first year of college and I knew if I had the baby I would have wanted to keep it. It’s hard to believe now, but in 1971 it was still considered shameful to have a baby out of wedlock. All of the girls I knew in high school who had gotten pregnant (and not had abortions) went ahead and got married. I realized when I got pregnant that I didn’t want to marry the father and I didn’t want to raise a child with him. He could be cruel at times and I didn’t think he would be a good father.

Turns out I was right. For various reasons, I did end up marrying him after my first husband and I got a divorce (possibly partly out of guilt for having aborted his baby). And he abused the children I had from my first marriage. Not sexually, but verbally and physically. We divorced after three and a half years, which was three  years and five months too late. My children still have scars from the way he treated them. I’m not proud of what I allowed to happen to my children. But it was a kind of vindication that I had been right to not have a child with him in the first place, and I thank God that I didn’t have one with him when we did get married.

When my four daughters were old enough, I told them about my abortion. “Just don’t ever put yourself in that position where you have to make that decision,” I told them. When my oldest daughter became pregnant when she was 25 and unmarried, she told the father that she would never consider an abortion and I was really proud of her for that. Thankful, too, because her son is the only grandchild I have today. And I can’t imagine his not being in the world.

Sometimes I think about the child I didn’t have. He or she would have been 42 this year. I like to think that if I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t have terminated his or her life, but I don’t know that for sure. If I’d had the baby, I probably wouldn’t have the children I do have, because my life would have gone an entirely different way.

I understand where people who are anti-abortion are coming from. I don’t think abortion is ever a good thing. But I’m uncomfortable with making it impossible for any woman to have one legally and safely. Legal abortion doesn’t make women get pregnant because they think, “Oh, if I get pregnant I can always have an abortion.” All making abortion illegal would accomplish is that women who find themselves in tough situations would have illegal abortions or try to abort themselves. And then they might die, sometimes leaving their other children motherless. That’s not a solution.

Most people who are against abortion are against it on religious grounds. But they don’t take into account that not all people believe in God or have strong religious convictions. Here I stand on a principle of democracy: it’s wrong to force all members of society to abide by the convictions of a subgroup. Forcing women to have babies they’re not ready to have isn’t going to convert them. Only God can do that, just as only God is the final judge of all that we do. All we can do is try to live according to our own consciences.

Two years ago my oldest daughter had a miscarriage. But before the fetus died, she was told that it had both Down and Turner Syndromes. The doctor who informed her made it clear that he disapproved of abortion. My daughter was made to feel guilty at a time when she was in deep anguish about what she should do. The eventual miscarriage took the decision out of her hands, but she hasn’t forgotten how she felt when her doctor tried to force his beliefs on her. He wasn’t the one who would have to raise the child, if it lived. She, not he, was the best judge of what she could handle.

Those who try to dictate what a woman should do with her body are trying to play God. The irony is: not even God forces women to have babies. As I understand Him, He gave us free will for a reason. Other people don’t have the right to take that away.


A Victory for Women’s Health: Why Isn’t Everybody Happy?

After years of trying to get birth control covered to the same extent that health plans cover Viagra, our country will finally have nearly universal coverage of contraception.

On January 20, 2012, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced that most employers will be required to cover contraception in their health plans, along with other preventive services, with no cost-sharing such as co-pays or deductibles.

Being able to prevent unwanted pregnancies (and abortions, by the way) is now going to be an achievable goal for all women who have health insurance. That is, unless your health insurance provider is one that has been excepted because of religious objections to birth control.

What I can’t figure out is why any health insurance provider would allow its policies to be dictated by religion, especially when not providing full coverage for birth control will elevate its costs and eat into its profits. Women who can’t get or afford birth control tend to have more babies, which costs insurance providers much more money than providing birth control would have in the first place.

Apparently, some providers are willing to shoot themselves in the financial foot in order to attract clients who believe that life begins at fertilization. They must believe that the number of clients they can attract outweighs the costs associated with having children. However, the odds are that those clients are going to have more children because of their stance against birth control and abortion. If that just meant the cost of prenatal care and routine labors and deliveries that would be one thing. But what about high-risk pregnancies, premature babies, birth defects and complications that require expensive measures like C-sections and neonatal care?

Naturally there are those who aren’t happy with this decision, most notably the Catholic Church. What they fail to see is that it is the woman’s individual choice to use birth control. No insurance company is going to force a woman to use it. It’s just going to be covered in case she wants to.

The Catholic Church wants to change society to fit its standards, as if all people in our society agree with its stance on birth control. It really has no business telling non-Catholics what they can and cannot do. And that goes for anyone who is anti-birth control. If they have a problem with the use of contraception, I have a simple solution for them: Don’t use it. But don’t try to tell me that I can’t use it.

Organizations that will be able to opt out of providing full coverage for contraception are those whose employees all have the same anti-birth control views as the employers. This means that the Catholic Church can’t claim the exemption, because many of its employees aren’t even Catholics. So either they stop hiring non-Catholics, or they resign themselves to abiding by the HHS ruling.

Of course the decision has set off a firestorm of political posturing. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida introduced a bill, named the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 2012,” to repeal the policy.

“The Obama Administration’s obsession with forcing mandates on the American people has now reached a new low by violating the conscience rights and religious liberties of our people,” Rubio said in a statement.

In an appearance on “CBS This Morning,” Newt Gingrich called it “an attack on Christianity.”

I’m sorry, but where is it written that Christians don’t use birth control? And how is it an attack on religious liberties if no one is being forced to use contraception?

What amazes me is that the movement against abortion has now escalated into a movement against contraception. Doesn’t contraception lessen the number of unwanted pregnancies, and therefore the number of abortions?

Instead of criticizing the decision, the Catholic Church and others should be applauding the fact that low-income and under-insured women will have better and more affordable health care. But of course they’re not going to do that, because everyone knows that pro-lifers want to force their views on others, no matter what the consciences or religious beliefs of others tell them about contraception.

My conscience and religious beliefs tell me that I am to be responsible about family planning and the use of the earth’s resources. An unstemmed tide of unwanted pregnancies is a recipe for disaster for individual women, their families and their societies. The impact would be global (and already is, in areas where birth control is not available or utilized). If the pro-life constituent had its way, people with beliefs similar to mine would be prevented from acting on them.

Isn’t that a violation of our  conscience rights and religious liberty?

Catholic Church Investigating U.S. Nuns

If you’re a nun, you probably know about this. If you’re a Catholic, you might or might not. But I would guess that if you’re outside the Catholic Church, you haven’t even heard of the investigation of U.S. nuns that the Vatican has been conducting for over a year.

There are actually two investigations. One is known as an Apostolic Visitation, which Church historians say was traditionally ordered when a Church institution had gone seriously astray. Is that what the Vatican thinks has happened to American nuns? The wording on the web page of the “Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Women Religious in the United States” is (intentionally?) vague. Apparently it is felt that there are “concerns” that need to be addressed, but the web site doesn’t say what those concerns are.

The second investigation of nuns is a doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. It was ordered by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is headed by an American, Cardinal William Levada. The LCWR drew the ire of the Vatican decades ago during Pope John Paul II ‘s visit to the U.S. when it called for the ordination of women. In 2002, it was warned that it was not doing enough to promote the Church’s teachings on three issues: the male-only priesthood, homosexuality and the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church as the means to salvation.

Some speculate that the investigations were triggered by conservatives in the Catholic Church who are dismayed at the trend among some American nuns to forgo the habit, live outside the convent, and work for causes that are not specifically Christian-oriented.

There are a few things that bother me about these investigations:

  1. The Catholic Church seems to be  more concerned about appearance than about results. What difference does it make whether or not nuns wear their habits? Perhaps the male leaders (and all the leaders at the top are male) are afraid that they will tempted to participate in “un-Christianlike” behavior if they don’t always have the habit to remind them (and others) that they are nuns.
  2. The ones who are calling for these investigations are all male. They’ve appointed a woman to be in charge of the Apostolic Visitation but she’s just doing their dirty work. She may even believe that the Visitation is a good thing, that it will lead to more support for nuns and their work. While it may do so in some cases, it seems much more likely that nuns will find their activities more closely scrutinized and controlled by the male hierarchy of the Church.
  3. I’m also bothered by the insinuation that only Christian work is God’s work. There are many ways to serve God and they don’t always have to be under the blanket of a religion. Isn’t it enough for those being helped to know that the nuns who are helping them are representatives of the Catholic Church? The insistence on Christian work only furthers the divide between the world and the church.
  4. The Catholic Church uses nuns as a kind of work force instead of valuing them as religious leaders. They are there to convert others by their example, to do the work that priests don’t want to do and to uphold the teachings of the Church (teachings that were established by men).
  5. The implication of this whole affair is that nuns are to be kept in their places. They are not to ask for anything (like the ordination of women); they are only to obey. They’re not being asked what they want changed to make their jobs easier; they’re being asked what they’re doing to make the Church’s job harder. It’s insulting that women are being investigated when they have no real input into the workings of the Church.
  6. And why is it that only American nuns are being investigated? Could it be that they are more likely to be “infected” by an independent attitude?

I’m not a Catholic, but I don’t think I have to be to recognize patriarchy when I see it.

It will be interesting to see what these investigations turn up. But more than likely the average person won’t be kept informed. I found out about the investigations by accident; it will probably take some digging to find out the results. I’d love to know what nuns are thinking about this whole thing, but it seems that most of them are keeping their opinions to themselves (or at least not expressing them to the outside world).

For more information, check out:

U.S. Nuns Facing Vatican Scrutiny.” New York Times, July 1, 2009.

Vatican Probe of U.S. Nuns Moves Quietly Forward.” womensenews.org, February 10, 2010.

Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Women Religious in the United States web site.

Leadership Conference of Women Religious web site.

Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church’s Betrayal of American Nuns, by Kenneth A. Briggs  (Doubleday Religion, 2006).

Phyllis Chesler, Feminist and Islamophobe?

Phyllis Chesler

I hate sentences that start with “most” and end with some ridiculous pronouncement about what “most” are doing.  Phyllis Chesler appears to be a prime offender, judging by her article on Muslim women and the veil. She writes: “Most Muslim girls and women are not given a choice about wearing the chador, burqa, abaya, niqab, jilbab, or hijab (headscarf), and those who resist are beaten, threatened with death, arrested, caned or lashed, jailed, or honor murdered by their own families.” She also writes that “Most Muslim girls and women are impoverished and wear rags.”

These statements are typical of a person who cares more about justifying her own prejudice than in adding something constructive to the debate. Not only that, but they’re just plain ignorant. Chesler cites examples coming out of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan as being typical of the entire Muslim world. She also equates Muslims with Arabs, when in fact this only applies to 20% of all Muslims.

I especially love this statement of Chesler’s: “It is well known that the Arabs and Muslims kept and still keep sex slaves–they are very involved in the global trafficking in girls and women and frequent prostitutes on every continent.” Where does she get her ideas??

But of course Chesler doesn’t care about being objective—or even factual; she has a career to think of. Dr. Chesler (she has a Ph.D in psychology) is primarily a writer and is the author of thirteen books and numerous articles. (Check out her web site for examples of her writing.) She is also a psychotherapist and an Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies at the City University of New York (CUNY). By her own account, she was “held captive” in Afghanistan when she went to visit her then-husband’s family, an experience that she says made her an ardent feminist. It also appears to have made her into a rabid Islamophobe.

In a 2003 review of one of her books, Publishers Weekly concluded that “Chesler’s tone and lack of intellectual rigor will not help her ideas to be heard by those who do not already agree with her.” (Source: Wikipedia.) From the samples of her writings, particularly those about Islam and anti-Semitism, I concur.

But what about Chesler’s feminism? Is she really a feminist or a neo-con masquerading as one?

From what I can gather, Chesler is the kind of feminist who blames the victim. One of her books, Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman, more or less says that women are just naturally competitive with other women, resulting in back-stabbing and general meanness. There is no recognition that women are socialized to be competitive by a patriarchal society that encourages them to stake their identities on the men they can “catch.”  (Full disclosure: I haven’t read the book, just this USA Today interview with Chesler about it, so I realize I may be misrepresenting her views.)

Yes, I know I’m dangerously close to saying that there is only one way to be a feminist or that there is a set platform all feminists have to espouse (pro-abortion, anti-pornography, pro-gay rights, etc.). Although, like all people, I am more comfortable with people who have the same views I do, I recognize that we all have our own versions of feminism, just as we all have our own versions of religion. For instance, Sarah Palin calls herself a pro-life feminist. Some feminists are supportive of pornography and sex work. Many women who hold feminist views don’t identify with the feminist movement because they feel that it is too upper-class and white.

Me? I’m just a feminist who believes that feminism is—or should be—incompatible with any kind of racism, prejudice or hatred. For this reason alone, I find it hard to believe that Chesler is a true feminist.

The Nature of God

“A God who is beyond sex/gender has no investment in favoring males or oppressing women.” So wrote Asma Barlas in her article “Islam and Feminism.” Barlas states at the beginning of the article that she doesn’t like to call herself a feminist and yet she made an observation that could revolutionize religion.

Some feminists, especially in the ’70s, were fond of speculating what religion would be like if God was actually a woman. I always thought that exercise was silly, but I couldn’t put my finger on why I felt that way. Now I know: it’s because God is neither male nor female.

It’s unfortunate that we use the masculine pronoun whenever we refer to God (I do) because that only perpetuates the idea that God is male in character. Some people may honestly believe that He is. Others may honestly believe that She is female. But if you think about it, it’s clear that God is infinitely bigger than any box we can put Him into. We can speculate all we want—He is neither male nor female. He is male and female. He is androgynous.  But it only makes sense that He is, as Barlas writes, beyond sex or gender. He simply is.

It seems to me that if we kept that observation uppermost in our minds we could eradicate much of the sexism that exists in most religions. Of course men like to think of God as a male because that makes it seem like God sides with men. Men also strenuously object to the idea that God could be a woman, because they’re afraid that women would then start to claim the upper hand (as men have). But what if  God sees us each as persons who only incidentally are male and female (because of the mechanics or reproduction)? What if He doesn’t favor men over women or the opposite? What would our church fathers (and I use that term to refer to all religions) do with that?

Continue reading “The Nature of God”

The Deceitfulness of Crisis Pregnancy Centers

Art by Ryan Inzana

Pro-lifers pride themselves on having the moral upper hand in the abortion debate, because, after all, they’re for preserving human life, not destroying it. However that doesn’t mean that they are above a little deceit and coercion. Take crisis pregnancy centers, or CPCs. These faith-based organizations lure women into their centers with the promise that they will help them to resolve their pregnancy “issues.” But all they really do is steer these women away from getting abortions. They pretend that they are giving women “accurate information about abortion” when all they really do is lecture them about the “physical, emotional and spiritual consequences.” (Taken from the web site of Pregnancy Decision Health Centers.)

I’m not saying that any center, faith-based or not, should push a woman toward abortion. But in the interest of helping her to make the best decision for her,  a crisis pregnancy center should supply objective, accurate and judgment-free information about all her options: 1) abortion, 2) giving birth and keeping the baby, and 3) having the baby in order to give it up for adoption.

Notice my wording: “in order to give the baby up for adoption.” It seems it is not enough for some of these centers to get the woman to “choose life.” They are often heavily invested in providing babies for the purposes of adoption. Demand has begun to affect the supply and there aren’t enough newborn, healthy (and usually white) babies to go around. So they pressure pregnant women to help to increase the supply. That way they can kill two birds with one stone: avoid abortion and procure babies for adoption.

These centers  use various techniques to talk women into giving their babies up. They tell them that if they choose to keep their babies they’re being immature and selfish. They paint worst-case scenarios about single mothers: poverty, homelessness, despair. And the one I really like: they tell them that giving their babies up is one way to right the wrong they committed by becoming pregnant out of wedlock in the first place.

Many of these organizations provide room and board and pay medical expenses for a “birth mother.” And then, if she changes her mind about giving her baby up for adoption, they tell her that she has to pay them back for the support they gave her while she was pregnant.

They also may purposefully misrepresent the terms of the adoption: They tell the new mother that she has to make up her mind right away, when in reality she might have months to make her final decision. They assure her that the adoption is open (meaning that she will know the adoptive parents and will be provided information about her child as he or she grows up), when the truth is that the adoptive parents are going to spirit her baby away and she will never know what became of him or her.

I’m not saying that adoption is never a good option or that abortion always is. I’m not even saying that women shouldn’t be made aware of all the consequences of their actions: bad and good. But don’t pretend that you’re going to help the woman make an informed decision when you really have your own agenda. Don’t use tactics like shaming to get a desired result. And don’t advertise your services as all-inclusive when in fact you never intended to help a woman to get an abortion or to keep her baby.

Check out this excellent article from The Nation: “Shotgun Adoption” by Kathryn Joyce, author of Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement.

To sign a petition about truth-in-advertising for crisis pregnancy centers, go here.