Every October, Catholics are asked to remember our commitment to life through prayer, giving thanks for the gift of life, and voicing opposition to policies that disregard human life. Many pro-life organizations hold protests and media events highlighting their efforts to protect the lives of the unborn and occasionally, the lives of those on feeding tubes or those awaiting death row sentences. As a Catholic and a mother, I see the need for these groups to broadcast their messages as alternatives in a society focused on preserving some lives over others. However, as a Catholic, a feminist, and a teacher, I recognize that my commitment to respecting life is more complicated than the abortion debate, euthanasia, or the death penalty.
As promised in an earlier post, I will hash out the main difference between feminism and Catholicism here, by discussing the issue of respecting life, particularly the controversy over abortion, in more complexity. For me, abortion is a less polemic issue than for many others, because I see it as part of a larger picture, rather than the picture itself.
This year, the leader of the Galveston-Houston Archdiocese, Daniel Cardinal Dinardo, in his message about Respect Life Month, suggested Catholics “witness to the inherent equality and transcendent value of every human being.” Equality is an important goal, but a difficult one for our contemporary society, which remains organized around maintaining differences in race, class, age, gender, sexuality, ability, and many more categories. As a feminist, I am committed to promoting equality every day, including equality for those who are “the least” among us, as Christ asks us to. In a society where power and resources remain mostly in the hands of men, women and children are “the least” among us.
For me, promoting equality and respect for life go hand in hand; I believe you must consider them together and work toward them as a common goal. The current debate about abortion focuses on respecting the life of the child vs. that of the mother. I believe we must consider another angle: how can we respect both lives at the same time? By creating a society where all women and men are equal: socially, culturally, politically, and economically.
When the human dignity of women is acknowledged with equal treatment in our society, women and men alike will take responsibility for their sexuality, will understand the awesome power of their fertility, and will respect the gift of life that may result from their sexual unions. Under current societal structures, many women remain subject to the will of men, both men and women are influenced to sexually objectify their bodies and those of others, and many are ignorant about human fertility. Under such conditions, respect for life cannot flourish, because men and women are not respecting themselves or each other.
While my image of an egalitarian society may seem idealistic, it is no more idealistic than the visions of others who have succeeded in the past. Consider how much our society has changed since the civil rights movement. Change is possible, and necessary. Things move slowly, but surely. Consider the Occupy Wall Street Protests; they ask for a more equitable distribution of wealth. Equality in financial circumstances is an important part of what feminists fight for. When all women earn the same salaries as men for the same work, instead of the 77¢ we currently earn for every dollar earned by men, married couples and individual women alike will be less likely to see children as a financial burden. When all families and individuals earn wages that compensate them fairly for the time they spend away from their loved ones, children will be seen as the gift that they are.
During mass this month, we have prayed for the ill, for the deceased and their grieving relatives, for those serving in our military, for the end to all oppressions, for more respect of all human life, and for pregnant women who feel they have no alternative to abortion. I strongly believe that working toward equality for women will provide those alternatives. If women were equal to men in our society, fewer women would be subject to sexual violence and to poverty, and fewer would choose to preserve the circumstances of their own lives at the cost of their children’s. Others may disagree with me, equating equality for women with more access to abortion. I believe the opposite: an unequal society promotes a culture of disrespect for the lives of women and their children, and sees them as expendable. Only when we are all equal will we all value each other’s human dignity the same as our own. That is what I pray for this month.