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.