Reproductive Justice by Gina Messina-Dysert


Following the testimony of Sandra Fluke on the lack of availability of contraception and the appalling remarks by Rush Limbaugh that took place in early March, 2012, much discussion around issues of reproductive justice has emerged.  Among these conversations, Mary Hunt recently shared her thoughts in “Contraceptive Controversies” on the issue on FSR-Inc., and graduate students Katie German and Linda Claros organized an event at Loyola Marymount University to invite faculty members, students, and interested persons to engage in dialogue on reproductive justice.  I was honored to have the opportunity to participate in that discussion and would like to share my thoughts here in an effort to continue that dialogue.

To begin, I understand reproductive justice as the call for the social, political and economic ability to make responsible and healthy decisions about gender, sexuality, and procreation for ourselves and our communities with the goal of transforming power inequities and bringing about systemic change.  The denial of reproductive justice in the Catholic Church is a symptom of the larger rape culture.  When I use this phrase I am referring to a culture that not only perpetrates rape, but all forms of sexualized violence against women and girls.

The denial of reproductive justice to women is indeed a form of sexualized violence.  First, it seeks to control women’s sexuality and refuse agency based on patriarchal ideals, and second it results in forced pregnancy, which as Rosemary Radford Ruether explains, results in massive health issues for women including physical injury, impaired human development and death. When denied the ability and moral right to choose intercourse and pregnancy, women experience a continual threat of injury and death, and the lives of their families are at risk of not only poverty but also the loss of maternal care.  In addition, forced pregnancy causes women’s educational development and capacity to live full lives to be impeded.

Women’s social, economic, and cultural situations in male dominated systems often result in women not having a choice about the conditions in which they engage in intercourse – and this includes marriage.  Women sometimes adjust to involuntary pregnancies; however many women feel deeply threatened by a situation in which they are not in a position to bear and raise a child psychologically, socially, and/or economically.

A second point that must be considered when discussing the denial of reproductive justice is the impact on children who are born in highly problematic situations.  Beyond the problem of mothers often being resentful of a birth that resulted from an unwanted pregnancy, we live in a world where resources are increasingly becoming scarce and its ecological wellbeing is threatened by overpopulation.  Women and children are struggling with issues of poverty around the globe and the earth continues to endure overwhelming damage and abuse.  Having children without serious consideration and claiming conception to simply be an act of God is harmful to the social good.  We each have a responsibility to work towards and create a socially just environment and denying reproductive justice does not achieve this.

A third and final point that I would like to acknowledge is inconsistent moral reasoning by the Vatican. Although it claims a “consistent life ethic,” when discussing questions of war, the Vatican carefully balances conflicting values through a consequence-based ethic.  Yet when speaking of abortion, it uses an absolutist version of natural law ethics and asserts one value above all others.

As Ruether points out, while the official church makes absolute the right to life of the unborn, its level of moral rigor in relation to the immense level of killing of human life between birth and old age is significantly less.  Although the Catholic Church theoretically forbids the direct taking of innocent life at any stage of life, the most rigorous sanctions are applied to ending unborn life.  However, no sanctions are applied to killing noncombatants in war.  Nor are they applied for favoring spending on military programs rather than social welfare programs, impoverishing and oppressing the poor by the wealthy and their corporations, or any other number of actions that cause injustice and untimely death.

A consistent life ethic put into practice demands trust for women to make decisions related to sexual and reproductive matters.  The need for affordable and effective birth control must be recognized by the Catholic Church.  In addition, support services that directly address the conflicts at the root of women’s problems with raising unexpected children should be more readily available.  Thus, in order to genuinely speak of a consistent ethic of life, the Catholic Church must affirm the ethic of life both before and after birth.  In order to bring about true reproductive justice, women must have the right to have or not to have children, as well as the right to live in conditions that enable each woman to choose what the optimum decision is for her own life.

*For additional information on reproductive justice and the Catholic Church see Ruether, Rosemary Radford, Catholic Does not Equal the Vatican

*For additional information on rape culture see Buchwald, Emilie, Pamela Fletcher, and Martha Roth. ed. Transforming a Rape Culture.

Gina Messina-Dysert, Ph.D.: Feminist theologian, ethicist, and activist, Gina received her Ph.D. in religion at Claremont Graduate University focused in the areas of women’s studies in religion and theology, ethics, and culture.  She is the Visiting Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics at Loyola Marymount University and Co-founder and Co-director of Feminism and Religion. Gina has authored multiple articles, the forthcoming book Rape Culture and Spiritual Violence, and is a contributor to the Rock and Theology project sponsored by the Liturgical Press. Her research interests are theologically and ethically driven, involve a feminist and interdisciplinary approach, and are influenced by her activist roots and experience working with survivors of rape and domestic violence.  Gina can be followed on Twitter @FemTheologian and her website can be accessed at http://ginamessinadysert.com.



Categories: Catholic Church, Church Doctrine, Ethics, Feminism, Feminist Theology, General, Rape Culture, Reproductive Justice, Sexual Ethics, Sexual Violence, Social Justice, Violence Against Women

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8 replies

  1. Gina, great post! I, too, am very troubled by the way the Church treats abortion as opposed to the taking of a life from birth to death. Instead of understanding the circumstances that women find themselves in that cause them to seek abortions and working to reduce the need for abortions (through recognizing the morality of and need for birth control), the Church has taken the nuclear option. The idea that women (and those who participate in abortions) face such harsh sanctions, as opposed to the sanctions for other sins of equal seriousness, is maddening.

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  2. If we want to understand this seeming contradiction regarding the protection of life, we need to understand that patriarchy arose together with war, so it is unlikely that a patriarcahl religion is going to prohibit war and prosper. On the other hand, patriarchy is “about” the control of female sexuality, for a man cannot be sure if “his” childern are “his,” unless he and other men keep control of their daughters and wives. So giving women control over our sexuality is contrary to patriarchy. So the question becomes, can a patriarchal religion become something entirely different from what it has been? This is what you are struggling for. More power to you! I suppose it is also what we are struggling for (with somewhat but not complete success) in government of the US of A.

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  3. “So the question becomes, can a patriarchal religion become something entirely different from what it has been?”– Carol said

    And it’s a very good question to keep front and center. “Something entirely different from what it has become” — do we know anything within patriarchy that has willingly and of its own accord done this? I don’t think this is possible, and the evidense of this is that now women are in ministry and theology more than ever, and yet the situation continues to get worse. The same issues of birth control and abortion waste our time yet again. By this, I mean we don’t win on these issues, we keep thinking we will. It’s interesting to me that the patriarchs are so confident, that they’ll gamble their presidential election desires on women staying in our places. Clearly every opinion poll out there shows where all women stand. But these guys will risk it all, thinking everyone is the helpmate in the background. If their wives know their places, then these guys actually believe all of us are going to stick with the fatally flawed patriarchal religion to begin with.

    I think women are ever optimistic. If you are stuck in the hetero system, there will be more pull on you to stay within the tribe.. the family traditions, the kids, the grandparents, the whole “we have to sacrifice for the next generation of hetero children.” It’s a kind of recitation of a prison mantra that goes nowhere. Perhaps we could corral those presidential candidates into a forum that discusses in detail just what pregnancy is, just what war does— they’ll support the need for war, and the several degrees we use in the legal system for murder, but they won’t look at the nuance of abortion itself, and what its complex circumstances are. The idea that war and patriarchy rose together is an interesting one. This would explain why “pro-life” men support wars, and why leftist men support abortion but not war, for example. I’d support a war if I knew that women would win it, and run the whole damn show as a result, but since this never happens, I’m anti-war. Not out of moral conviction, but just plain selfishness— I don’t get anything out of war. Digression here.

    So if we are feminists, we can take this analysis of patriarchal roots seriously. The roots don’t go away. Women might create a kinder and gentler patriarchal church, but it’s still male supremacy light, it’s still tribal hetero light, it is not freedom for women, it’s a place women like to be with their husbands and children, because it’s comfortable, but that is not freedom. It simply prolongs the life of patriarchy/religion. That’s all it does, and then periodically, the institutions that women continue to support go after birth control and abortion yet again, and women wonder, “Why are they doing this?” Well it’s patriarchy, and that’s what it does. So get up on Sunday, go off to the tribal hetero / patriarchal church, but believe it will change?… that is a delusion.

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  4. I think that Carol, who has studied this stuff in detail, actually has very good answers. What surprises me is that the old wise ones just get ignored by the young, who then flock to teach patriarchal religions. What made Carol and Mary and all the others break free, while a new generation just thinks it can “make room for itself within patriarchy light?” Is it the family comfort? The fear of breaking free? The obligations to the ever present husbands, grandparetns and other hetero tribal webs?

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  5. The other evening at the Reproductive Justice Forum at LMU, I heard incredible presentations by articulate, thoughtful and thought-provoking women. Each covered an aspect of the topic with expertise and personal story-telling that gave relevance to the issue in real time.
    Unfortunately, I feel that the ensuing dialogue that evolved in the Q&A session following although a good beginning; skirted the heart(s) of the issues being discussed. I have difficulty in being a spontaneous speaker and sat to listen and observe. I had originally thought to raise my hand first, and state that I have had to make the tough decision about keeping a child three times in my life for the reasons stated in many of the papers, but the issue is more complex than just women ending up in poverty, resenting their children and taking out on them their changed life directive. When one is a suppressed female for whatever reason, choices are few, retribution from family, cultural shame and other factors contribute to making the decision to abort. My partners, yes, were immature, but not for want of learning maturity because they had never been faced with the life-long task of caring for a child, but for the other side of patriarchy that makes for immaturity on both sides because it does not allow for the person to be wholly integrated. It dictates behavioral norms for men and the opposite set for women. Once we realize this, then men can begin to retrieve responsibility for their own emotional health and growth and women can stop feeling compelled to being helpless, victims and restore their own power as the strong women they are. This empowering of wholeness will help assuage the power of patriarchal rape culture in all of our global society, whether overt or covert.
    I could not even mention to my partners my dilemma because I had a huge communication problem; a huge fear to speak my mind to my partners for fear of losing them if I responded opposite to what they expounded to me about their freedom and privilege in life to do what they wanted, which I took as a message that they wanted this privilege and freedom without me in the equation. My self-esteem, self-worth and thoughts about a meaningful relationship or marriage were distorted. My parents were divorced and my mother was diagnosed as schizophrenic. At one time, I believed mental illness might be genetic; the turmoil at home, the enormous verbal abuse that my mother hurled at my father in the middle of the night, filled me with anxiety, depression and hyper-activity to avoid the terrible feelings of unworthiness and futility about life and family that all this caused in me. How could I bring a child into the world when my very thoughts precluded that at some point, I too would wreck havoc on my child as my mother had done to our family. Perhaps I was over reactive of my mother’s influence on me, but it felt very real at the time. But I felt marriage a huge hoax because of what I saw at home and was cynical about the worth of male/female relationships ever being loving, safe and peaceful.
    With that said, I respond to the gentleman who had the audacity to tell the girl asking about an abusive relationship, what should she do, and his pat reply was that her male partner should treat her with love and respect. Well, that answer presupposes that this guy knows what love and respect are and the girl as well. Abusive families breed children who fall into abusive relationships because they never had love and respect in their family and therefore, how do they even know what that is and means to them? Most women in abusive relationships equate the abuse to love because that is what was been modeled for them. They are so suppressed by fear and domination that they don’t know how to or even know that escape is an option let alone what a loving and respectful relationship is. It’s too bad this man was not at the symposium on human-trafficking a few weeks back because there was a woman there that had been in an abusive relationship for many years, and had children with him—he still beat her; so much for men maturing after the children arrive. Fortunately, for her, she finally was able to get out, but recovery is often years in the making needing therapy and spiritual healing.
    “The real issue [of Reproductive Justice] is how intention and circumstances must be weighed and related in order to count this material act (abortion) as immoral (murder). We cannot know which act of [abortion could be considered] murder until we have considered the whole action.” Robert Gula, The Meaning and Limits of Moral Norms, in What Are They Saying About Moral Norms?, Paulist Press, NY 1982, p. 54-60, 61-79. Yes, the real issue here is how the Vatican and the Government are not even listening to women, only legislating or encyclicating about the fetus. Women are silenced once more and pushed to the margins. Where’s the moral and ethical responsibility of Government and the Church to examine intention and circumstances case by case, listening to what women have to say, before creating blanket statements that are to have universal application?
    Not that long ago, a man came to talk about his work at a clinic that helped women ‘choose’ to keep their children to our parish. He was soothing his conscience by saving these babies from being aborted. He spoke at the lectern on the altar while a young woman holding a baby stood silently by. He then ‘used’ her as example of the ‘role’ women are to play in their lives as mothers and how women should be convinced to ‘keep’ their babies to full term. The woman said nothing, just stood there, not a word spoken on her own behalf. What was she thinking? We’ll never know. This is the kind of disgusting behavior that is forced on women who are too young or uneducated to know better, crumbling to outside pressure, not listening to their own consciences that might have made a more ‘informed’ choice. This sort of demonstration is abuse of religion.

    The separation of the sacred and the secular was mentioned as a medieval construct that happened as the university structure grew in Europe and replaced the monastery system. This new system excluded women from education and saw the great divide begin between the sacredness of love of God and bodily love between the genders. This made me think of the tale of Heloise and Abelard (1101-1179) in France — http://www.abelardandheloise.com/Story.html It is a great tragic romantic tale of love, intellect and sex that ends in separation of the pair, but letters written between them continued their connection. Heloise’s uncle has Abelard castrated because he thinks he has abandoned the pregnant Heloise. Part of the story has them renouncing their love and devoting themselves to Christ alone. Ah! Perhaps the beginning of the great divide!

    I discovered this passage from a Vatican document online from the International Theological Commission at the Vatican that was written in 2004 about the body. The International Theological Commission’s description of our physicality in connection to our spirit is described in the paper, Communion and Spirit: Human Persons Created in the Image of God, integrates body, mind and soul, such that our identity as Imago Dei cannot be separated from our flesh and blood bodies:
    “26. Human beings, created in the image of God, are persons called to enjoy communion and to exercise stewardship in a physical universe. The activities entailed by interpersonal communion and responsible stewardship engage the spiritual – intellectual and affective – capacities of human persons, but they do not leave the body behind. Human beings are physical beings sharing a world with other physical beings. Implicit in the Catholic theology of the imago Dei is the profound truth that the material world creates the conditions for the engagement of human persons with one another.
    27. This truth has not always received the attention it deserves. Present-day theology is striving to overcome the influence of dualistic anthropologies that locate the imago Dei exclusively with reference to the spiritual aspect of human nature. Partly under the influence first of Platonic and later of Cartesian dualistic anthropologies, Christian theology itself tended to identify the imago Dei in human beings with what is the most specific characteristic of human nature, viz., mind or spirit. The recovery both of elements of biblical anthropology and of aspects of the Thomistic synthesis has contributed to the effort in important ways.
    28. The view that bodylines is essential to personal identity is fundamental, even if not explicitly thematized, in the witness of Christian revelation. Biblical anthropology excludes mind-body dualism. It speaks of man as a whole. Among the basic Hebrew terms for man used in the Old Testament, nèfèš means the life of a concrete person who is alive (Gen 9:4; Lev. 24:17-18, Proverbs 8:35). But man does not have a nèfèš; he is a nèfèš (Gen 2:7; Lev 17:10). Basar refers to the flesh of animals and of men, and sometimes the body as a whole (Lev 4:11; 26:29). Again, one does not have a basar, but is a basar. The New Testament term sarx (flesh) can denote the material corporality of man (2 Cor 12:7), but on the other hand also the whole person (Rom. 8:6). Another Greek term, soma (body) refers to the whole man with emphasis on his outward manifestation. Here too man does not have his body, but is his body. Biblical anthropology clearly presupposes the unity of man, and understands bodylines to be essential to personal identity.” To read the full document , go to: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/cti_documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20040723_communion-stewardship_en.html
    In view of this document, how can the sacred and sexual expression be separated? It cannot. It needs to be retrieved because this forced polarity between Clergy Love and Married Love can no longer cancel each other out.
    Talking about these issues can help us realize how far we need to go before women’s bodies are no longer objectified and commodified in one package or another, to be bought, sold, legislated against in the hands of others who have no real right to do so.

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  6. I agree with Gina Messina Dysert in that women should be able to make their own decisions regarding their reproductive health issues. I am baffled by the seemingly obsessive participation by the U.S.C.C.B., in their aggressive efforts to force their wishes upon the masses and wonder what the real motivation is. I am also perplexed by the concentration on solely these issues by our Legislation; while no attention has been paid to our most pressing issues affecting the citizens of this nation. We have seen no energy or effort of reasonable concern comparable to the time and effort these groups have devoted to restricting women’s rights. Unemployment is spreading across the nation, poverty is increasing in depth and volume, homelessness is on the rise; and yet no one has sat down and given a decent amount of consideration to any of these issues which I think more worthy of a solution than mere matters of dominance and control.
    The Declaration of Independence states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are LIfe, Liverty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powsers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Rights of the People to alter or to ablolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” I don’t see this happening. It is very discouraging.

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  7. i really enjoyed reading your blog. one paragraph that really stood out was “Women’s social, economic, and cultural situations in male dominated systems often result in women not having a choice about the conditions in which they engage in intercourse – and this includes marriage. Women sometimes adjust to involuntary pregnancies; however many women feel deeply threatened by a situation in which they are not in a position to bear and raise a child psychologically, socially, and/or economically.” i agree with this because we live in a society that is male dominated and this leads to women not having a say in decisions that affect them, it is unfair. Also, if a women is not psychologically or economically capable of raising a child (as the paragraph mentioned) then it is not only unfair to the mother that has to raise the chid but also to the child who has to be raised in an enviornment that isn’t ideal. this has longterm affects on both the mother and the child and in most cases is more damaging in the long run.

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  1. The Dignified Life of Magdalene Rose: A Pro-Life Story? by Michele Stopera Freyhauf « Feminism and Religion

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