Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Joyful Mysteries of Reproductive Justice

On Saturday, I worked as an abortion clinic escort for the first time. Escorts offer moral support and a friendly face for the women whose path to the clinic door is lined by protestors whose intimidation tactics are a shameless smorgasbord of shouting about murder, thrusting leaflets into passing hands, and brandishing disgusting and mendacious placards.

On my way to the clinic, I prayed the rosary, a practice at which I am still very new. Saturday's apportioned subject matter for contemplation is the Joyful Mysteries.

The first Joyful Mystery is the Annunciation, when the angel tells Mary of her impending parthenogenetic motherhood. Mary's “yes” (“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”) is often embraced by liberal Christianity as a moment of empowerment and consent; but this “yes” troubles me, circumscribed as it is by power and coercion from all sides. I think of women and girls in the US and around the world whose reproductive options are narrowly circumscribed by social forces, women and girls whose bodily autonomy is consistently violated by poverty and patriarchy and legal structures and social institutions. I think of the “nos,” “nos” unspoken or sublimated or overridden. I think about how every “yes” is a compromised yes, a coerced yes, and I think of the very real improvements we could make to the material and discursive circumstances of these yeses, and the space we could make for these hidden nos, if only we tried.

Don't worry, I know a clinic staffed by very nice people who can help
I first read about the work of clinic escorts at least 18 months ago, and I have finally succumbed to the call that has been quiet yet persistent at the back of my mind ever since then. The call said: These protestors – the ones who are violent, the ones who make death threats, and the ones whose presence is a barrier to justice for those most in need of it – these are your co-religionists. Aren't you going to do anything?

The second Joyful Mystery is the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth. I think of the intergenerational solidarity of these two improbably pregnant women, one old, one young, in the face of pregnancies so unplanned that it took divine intervention to make them happen. I think of all the ways in which solidarity between oppressed people manifests. I think especially of women who seek ways to live and to live with dignity in a world that is hostile to their bodies; of black women whose bodies are targeted by white supremacy; of trans women whose bodies are rendered disposable by transmisogyny.

A fellow escort was deeply troubled by a flyer she had seen in her local Methodist church. It advertised a fundraising walk for a crisis pregnancy center – those creepy fake clinics that spread misinformation about reproductive options. My escort friend was concerned to see the anti-abortion agenda pushed so brazenly within the walls of a mainline church.

She isn't wrong to be concerned. Mainline churches have failed hard when it comes to reproductive justice. By silence, by noncommittal waffling, by avoiding the issue for fear of controversy, mainline denominations have allowed the voices of injustice to set the terms of the national conversation. Our reticence has helped cause a political climate in which serious presidential candidates earn applause and acclaim for stating their opposition to abortion under all circumstances.

(Increasingly, when I watch this old Simpsons clip, I expect to hear cheers instead of boos in response to the proposition, “No abortions for anyone!”)

Still a very compelling platform imo
The third Joyful Mystery is the Nativity, childbirth in poverty and peril, one precarious life bringing forth another. I think of the 69% of abortion-seekers in the US who are “economically disadvantaged.” I think of how structural racism and ableism lead to the high rates of poverty among people of color and people with disabilities. I think of all the parents and guardians whose economic disadvantages force them to make heartbreaking decisions about exactly which goods they should deprive their children of today. I think of the shockwaves of devastation caused by an unplanned pregnancy when abortion is not easily or affordably available.

Progressives, and perhaps especially progressive people of faith, need to stop being on the defensive on this issue. We need to stop apologizing for abortion and start treating it as a good and necessary aspect of reproductive justice.

I don't concede the “pro-life” appellation, I don't accept the oversimplified “choice” framework, I'm not interested in the third term in the safe-legal-rare buzzphrase. I care about reproductive justice, the intersectional movement founded by women of color and centering their perspectives. Reproductive justice is about race and economics and ability and sexuality, birth control and abortion and parental leave and childcare, comprehensive healthcare and living wages and affordable housing, education and access and culture. Facilitating coparenting among polyamorous partners, overhauling the foster care system, marriage equality for people with disabilities – all are aspects of reproductive justice.

The fourth Joyful Mystery is the Presentation of the newborn Jesus at the Temple, when the old prophets Anna and Simeon express their joy at seeing him. I think of every friend's baby I have cuddled, every tiny human I have smiled at in passing, every infant I have smothered in kisses. I think of the material and psychological wellbeing I wish on my godchildren. I think of the incalculable value of a supportive community, including those who are older and those who are childless, in the care and upbringing of a child. I think of how forced childbirth and lack of reproductive options reduce this community.

Abortion isn't something we should tiptoe around, apologize for, or treat as a necessary evil. In the political climate of the US, caring about reproductive justice means arguing for abortion as a moral good. “Life,” in the phrase “pro-life,” means only “fetuses carried to term, all other factors be damned.” It's a reduction of the richness of life to pure numbers, where the only number that matters is the birthrate. Quite aside from the fact that indefinite population expansion will eventually outstrip the planet's resources and result in death on an enormous scale, this is a cruelly narrow definition of life, one that prioritizes the dogma of fetal preservation over every actual living human's needs.

The fifth Joyful Mystery is the Finding of prepubescent Jesus in the Temple at Jerusalem, after he goes AWOL from his parents. This is the only story of Jesus' childhood that made it into the canonical gospels. I think of it as an instance of the child Jesus asserting his personhood, refusing to be treated as an appendage to or property of his parents. He breaks from the established hierarchy of his society in order to seek his God. I think of all who are oppressed by the established order of society. I think of their quests for truth and meaning and justice and life. I pray that I might be one to help facilitate that.