Thursday, April 05, 2007

Catholic Feminist -- Oxymoron?

I had intended to write about my current nightmare, aka NannyQuest 2007, but then I read this in the New York Times right after I received yet another e-mail from someone wanting to know how I reconcile being (the world's worst excuse for a) Catholic with being a (not such a great) feminist (either) and particularly how I can be Catholic and pro-choice at the same time. Aren’t I a hypocrite, people want to know?

And while I usually purposefully ignore this topic here, in honor of the brave women in Mexico City who are fighting for the right to control (because let’s face it, that’s what it all boils down to) their own bodies and by extension their own destinies, I decided to address it for once. But first let me point out that being Catholic isn't really a choice -- you can be a Bad Catholic, a Former Catholic, a Lapsed Catholic, a Non-Practicing Catholic, a Recovering Catholic, and so on, but if you have been Catholic, you are always (sort of) Catholic. For those keeping score, I'm, roughly, half Bad and half Non-Practicing.

So perhaps I am a hypocrite, I don’t know for sure. But it is with genuine difficulty that I balance these two. The truth is, philosophically speaking, I don’t really think anyone should have abortions (except in extreme circumstances). But I also don’t think criminalizing it is the answer, or even part of the answer. When I watch what is happening in Mexico City, I'm disgusted with the Catholic Church. It’s one thing to make a statement on the philosophical morality of an issue and expect those who want to be part of your group to conform, but quite another to actively attempt to coerce governments into enacting laws that cause suffering to impoverished women (because really, if wealthy women anywhere want to have a safe abortion the odds are pretty good they’ll be able to figure out how to do it – assuming they have access to any of their wealth).

The Catholic in me says that abortion is a most unfortunate choice. The proponent of civil liberties in me says that no law should be enacted that furthers the exploitation, oppression or indignity of innocent people. And that’s what anti-abortion laws do, and even to a greater extent in the developing world than in Europe and North America.

I know there are exceptions, but generally speaking women who have the support of the father and/or the material/financial means to care for a child, don't choose to abort. Most often women abort out of coercion (which outlawing wouldn’t help), desperation (which outlawing probably wouldn't help either), or a perception (real or imagined) that they don’t have the ability to make the life-altering, very long commitment to the enormous responsibility of raising a child. And as an advocate of children’s rights, if they feel that way, I’d rather they not do it.

I have known a lot of really nice pro-life women -- and some rather smart and thoughtful ones too. But I think most of them don’t realize how fortunate they are to live in a time and place where they hold sexual power. Here, men want sex and they know that legally speaking, at least, whether they're married or not, they are not entitled to get it. This puts American women in a position of power from which they can say, I’ll only have sex with you if you wear a condom or if you marry me or if you do the dishes, or whatever. In much of the world, women don’t have that power, and often they don’t even have the education or the resources to make such a demand – or even a clue that they have inherent dignity and worth. And these women, especially, need protection under the law, even if correcting the cultural mindset doesn’t come about until later. Correcting the cultural mindset so that women control their own sexuality from the start would be far superior (as would correcting all of the social and economic injustices that usually lead to abortion), but legalizing abortion as a safety net for these otherwise powerless women is at least a step in the right direction.

And Jesus agrees with me,
This I know,
For the Bible tells me so.

Following is a quick summary I wrote about the study published in the Lancet Journal last year, which had very interesting results -- try to ignore the boring writing, I don't have time to change it now. (Oh, and for the philosophically inquisitive, some interesting history about the Catholic Church's "evolution" on the issue of abortion can be found here.)

A Comprehensive Approach to Curbing the Spread of STDs

It’s difficult to discuss preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases without getting bogged down in moral and political agendas. There’s always someone who wants to say the answer is monogamy, someone else who wants to say the answer is abstinence, and yet another who will claim condom use is the solution.

But not so fast. A recent comprehensive study of the sexual patterns of people in 59 countries suggests that it takes all three of these values working together, along with strong political and community support to impact overall public health. Furthermore, poverty and gender inequality are often implicated in the unwillingness or inability of people to protect themselves against disease.

The study serves to dispel many myths about sexual behavior in an attempt to determine what kinds of approaches will be most effective in preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

Here are some surprising facts found by the study:

Sex education in public schools does not encourage adolescents to engage in risky behavior at ever earlier ages. In fact, it leaves them more informed, more committed to the practice of safer sex and actually corresponds with a delay in the onset of sexual activity.

Premarital sex has become more common, but that’s because people are delaying marriage, not because they’re engaging in sexual activity sooner.

Married people have more sex than their single counterparts.

In much of the developing world marriage offers little protection for women against disease. One African study showed that married women are particularly vulnerable, because they have sex more often and are less likely to use a condom than their single counterparts. This puts them at the mercy of their husbands’ high risk behavior outside of the marriage.

Condom use is on the rise the world over, though rates are generally lower in the developing world.

Sexual taboos actually hinder protection against sexually transmitted diseases. As an example, in countries where young women are less likely to engage in premarital sex, young men are more likely to visit prostitutes, increasing risk to themselves and to their future wives.

In developed countries, where people are more likely to report having multiple sex partners, the incidence of HIV is lower compared to many developing nations. A partial explanation of this is that women in developed nations are more likely to insist on condom usage. Women in developing countries often say they don’t have a choice. In other words, reducing the number of sex partners is not as likely to affect disease prevention as ensuring that women the world over have the knowledge, the power and the means to protect themselves.

Due to the differences in economic situations and the status of females in various parts of the world, different methods are going to be more effective to address STD prevention in different places. A variety of approaches that include the use of peer groups, media and government agencies is needed. Additionally, special attention must be paid to the common sexual practices and taboos of the community in order for a program to be effective.

Wellings, K. Collumbien, M. Slaymaker, E. etal. Sexual Behaviour in Context: A Global Perspective. The Lancet [online]. 2006; 368: 1706-1728. Available at: . Accessed December 13, 2006.


Anjali said...

Great post, Staci.

Part of the reason that I am a lapsed/bad Catholic is because of the conflict with feminism. I pray and feel great peace in the Catholic Church, but really, most of my spirituality is rooted in feminist thought. Until I see a woman at the pulpit, I think that's all the Catholic Church is going to be for me.

rivergirlie said...

well you can be catholic and pragmatic too - cos that's what i comes down too. i don't think even the most devout catholic can hand over all the decisions to a bunch of elderly bachelors.

Theologienne said...

What a thoughtful and informative post!

It never ceases to amaze me when people are surprised that you "can" be both Catholic and feminist, Catholic and pro-gay rights, or whatever, as if one were a fish and the other a mammal. I want to say, as my (Catholic feminist) mom taught me, you can be anything you want to be!

You and your readers might be interested in Call to Action:
We're a community of progressive Catholics fighting for more inclusion in the Church--both in decision making and in spirituality. I've met some amazing Catholic feminists, female and male, in my involvement with CTA.

Easter blessings!

PunditMom said...

Hi Staci, I have an off-topic request. Could you please e-mail me at I am writing a story on something you've blogged about and would like to interview you, if you're willing! Thanks.

shaun said...

Keep up the good work! I would consider myself a Pretty Good Catholic, or maybe a Good Enough Catholic. I'm also an adult convert, and can't believe the dumb infighting that goes on in the Church! Church attendance is on the decline, and people want to draw more lines keeping people out?

I recently posted a little something on the controversy on foot washing and women on my blog -- I'm not prepared to enter the rough-and-tumble of the full on Catholic Blogosphere (which seems mostly conservative), but I guess like you I try to get a little counter-discourse out there!

venessa said...

What the fuck was that all about? Holy crap!

Anyway, great post! I appreciated your insights. I am an outspoken pro-choice feminist and a Quaker (/recovering Catholic). I always enjoy finding enlightened and compassionate posts about choice and reproductive control.

Staci Schoff said...

Venessa, thanks for your comment -- I deleted the one before your's -- what the fuck, indeed! I might have to stop allowing anonymous comments, that's the second time I've gotten that one.

Knitman said...

I pretty much agree with you. I don't like the idea abotu always a catholic etc but ...I was brought up Catholic then became JW then just a Born Again Twit. Now I have no religion but one doesn't forget..
as for abortion, don't like it but am pro choice like you.

Jewel said...

Hi there,

Just making my way round, this looks like a great blog. Please call over to mine, as I have a very important post and I need all the help we can get.


Crimson Wife said...

As a Catholic who strongly believes in a "consistent life" ethic, abortion isn't about controlling women's bodies but protecting human lives. I would prefer abortion be eliminated not through changing laws but through changing hearts and minds.

We must support women so they don't feel like they "need" an abortion when faced with a crisis pregnancy. Poverty reduction, prenatal care, stronger maternity leave and job protection, better enforcement of child support, and so on.

BTW, the supposed "evolution" of the Church's position on abortion is totally false and a deliberate attempt to discredit the Church. The Church has clearly and consistently condemned abortion since the 1st century.

beth said...

Thanks for writing this. I completely agree. I'm pro-choice and Catholic, too. The issue is only about women's autonomy. The decision to continue a pregnancy belongs to the woman who's pregnant. Only she is able to determine what she "thinks" she needs.

The reason I stay with the Church is because faith in God trumps everything else. My God is big enough to love a pro-choice sinner like me.

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Anonymous said...

you're worried about catholic feminism being an oxy-moron when you're a pro-choice catholic. now thats an oxy-moron if i've ever heard one.

Jane T said...

Don't tell me this is about the women being able to "control their own bodies" because it's not their body. If it was, there would be nothing wrong with giving birth and killing the child after realizing you don't have "the ability to make the life-altering, very long commitment to the enormous responsibility of raising a child"