Women crucified

From the silence of oppression, I need to say that you and Jesus are both wrong about this …

by Annie March

Dear John,

This letter was conceived during one of your homilies. It was winter, and I was at that point in an eight day retreat when silence is so compelling and all-encompassing that words cease to matter very much. So I wasn’t particularly attending to the Mass, but dancing in the space where sea meets sky meets land, or just watching the lilies next to the tabernacle impossibly unfurl.

Then I was jolted out of my reverie. You were using as your text Jesus’ words from John’s gospel: “A woman in childbirth suffers, because her time has come; but when she has given birth to the child she forgets the suffering in her joy that a human being has been born into the world.” (John 16, 21. New Jerusalem Bible.)

And I found myself in a space that’s all too familiar to Catholics; having to sit in silence – not the silence of prayer but the silence of oppression - and collude in injustice coming from the pulpit.

At first I just needed to say passionately that you and Jesus are wrong about this.

Women do not forget the anguish of childbirth; rather, we learn to live with love and pain hand in hand, as inseparable. It’s 25 years since I last gave birth and I would almost rather die than go through it again. I recently visited a young woman with a new baby. She spoke about how betrayed she felt by her body; I could still see the shock, the horror in her eyes. For many of us, birth is torture; and that’s in a privileged European context. You – and Jesus - are putting a male construct on female experience and denying our lived truths.

That was my first response. I put it aside; I’d not come on retreat to do battle. Then weeks later, when it began to nag at me again, I started to unpick the thinking and found myself, as so often in the Church, face to face with sexual fundamentalism. I define fundamentalism as Laurens van der Post does – that which deprives others of oxygen.

This is some of what I’ve discovered.

• Every minute, a woman dies as a consequence of pregnancy or childbirth. In 2005, an estimated 529,000 women died of pregnancy-related causes. When the mother dies, so mostly does the baby. Her other children are left destitute; those under five will probably not survive.

• Four million babies die every year before they’re a month old. More than three million babies are stillborn.

• In sub-Saharan Africa a woman has a one-in-13 risk of dying in childbirth.

• Women, giving birth without skilled help, can suffer vaginal rupture and develop a fistula, leaking urine and / or faeces. As a result they are not just disabled, but also ostracised by their communities. It’s estimated that two million women worldwide are living with untreated fistulae.

• How much joy do you think there is in giving birth to a child conceived as a result of rape? Ask the women of Darfur, the Congo, Somalia …The Old Testament sanctions rape in warfare. (Numbers 31, Deuteronomy 20, Judges 21 are some of many examples.)

• You said to me once that if women don’t want to conceive, they shouldn’t make love. What about men? It’s by and large men who demand – force – sex, and women who pay the price. Women are not just receptacles for men and their sperm. Imagine giving birth in appalling conditions to a child you didn’t want in the first place.

• The Church has banned the use of condoms to prevent AIDS. Men infect their wives who give birth to HIV positive children. Over two million of the 39 million people currently diagnosed with HIV/AIDS are children under fifteen. The vast majority of these live in sub-Saharan Africa. It is predicted that by 2010 there will be 25 million AIDS orphans in Africa.

John, the order you belong to has a particular focus on Christ’s passion and death. Do you think Jesus forgot the pain of the Cross in the joy of the Resurrection? How is it that you can dedicate yourself to the voluntary suffering of Jesus 2000 years ago, and at the same time pass over the involuntary and largely preventable daily crucifixion of thousands of women to whom your Church and mine continues to deny the basic human right of contraceptive choice, of control of our own fertility?

“Why is controlling women’s bodies the shared battle flag of every faith? Disgracefully, the European rich quietly ignore the church’s outlandish teachings on contraception without rebelling on behalf of the helpless third-world poor who die for their misplaced faith.

“Those ‘civilised’ Catholics have as much blood on their hands as the Vatican they support.

“They are like the Bollinger Bolsheviks who defended the USSR and a murderous ideology that they could do much to change.” (Not In My Name, Polly Toynbee.  Guardian, April 8, 2005)

Polly Toynbee’s words, written after the death of Pope John Paul II, have been haunting me ever since I first read them. This letter is the beginning of my response.

Peace be radically with you.


Other references: State of the World’s Mothers 2006; www.savethechildren.org; Fistula Foundation; International Organisation for Women and Development; World Health Organisation; United Nations Population Fund.

Annie Marsh is a writer and conservationist.  She lives in Hobart, Tasmania.



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