My little sister recently sent me some pictures of horses and told me that our hometown of Granjenal, Michoacán looks beautiful this time of year. Of course it does; the countryside in summer is always green, lush, and expansive. But it isn’t California, and right now, Mexico (where she lives with her husband) is too far away — not only in miles, but also in the duration of this pandemic and in the red tape of immigration policy that won’t allow them to live near me, my children, and our parents.
Just a few weeks earlier, her husband held up the phone and in silence I watched her writhe in pain after yet another surgery to clear out her uterus. I thought to myself, “Do they know what they’re doing in that cold little clinic?” She looked up at me through her foggy glasses, and I reassured her that one day, she would have babies. But right now, it’s important to heal.
Loving Our Neighbor
A passage from Pope Francis’ recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti gave me tremendous pause. In speaking of our common humanity, he writes:
“… We were created for a fulfillment that can only be found in love. We cannot be indifferent to suffering; we cannot allow anyone to go through life as an outcast. Instead, we should feel indignant, challenged to emerge from our comfortable isolation and to be changed by our contact with human suffering. That is the meaning of dignity” (68, emphasis added).
Pope Francis’ encyclical, like those of popes before him, is a gift for the Catholic faithful, intended to open a dialogue about the doctrines of the Church within the context of our current culture. The Church is not a relic of history but, rather, a living body composed of you, me, and the diversity of persons in which Christ is reflected — that is to say, in all people. And, just as the Church reaches all corners of the Earth, so, too, does Fratelli Tutti. It is a call for the bishops of South Africa as much as for the layperson in Paris and the politicians in Brazil. We cannot parse the teachings and admonishments from Fratelli Tutti in order to placate our desire to remain in comfort while our neighbors suffer.
Injustices in Women’s Health Care
Many women, like my sister, are suffering in silence, wanting to understand how their wonderfully-made bodies work and asking what is wrong. And they ask these questions under the weight of a manmade history and medical landscape that has kept most women ignorant of the inner workings of their bodies. This history and landscape have made words like “vagina,” “vulva,” and ‘urethra’ — never mind “uterus,” “fallopian tubes,” and “ovaries” — taboo to such an extent that many women remain unfamiliar with these terms, and that we trust the “experts” over our own knowledge.
In September 2020, Dawn Wooten — a nurse working at the Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE)-contracted Irwin County detention center in rural Georgia — alerted the media that women were being inappropriately treated with hysterectomies without their full knowledge or consent (Government Accountability Project). According to Wooten, dozens of women in custody who complained of menstrual pains were seen by the “expert” gynecologist on staff, Dr. Mahendra Amin, who scheduled the women for invasive and unnecessary procedures — including uterine removal.
Immediately, as is wont to happen in the U.S., the news about these immigrant women was politicized. In particular, New Wave Feminists, which is working to provide practical and medical supplies to pregnant women detained along the U.S.-Mexico border — questioned why there was no pro-life outcry (@newwavefeminists). The response from many women in the world of Catholic celebrity and pro-life leadership was, “We need to wait for a full investigation and not jump to any conclusions.”
For those who have sought to live out the Church’s social teachings, this response might be as familiar as it is hollow. It is a polite, sanitized way of saying, “This isn’t important to me, and I don’t want to be made uncomfortable by it.” But like Pope Francis and countless saints and sinners before him, I am here to tell you that to be Catholic is to live in discomfort. If there is a dearth of proof for any one person’s suffering, perhaps it is because we have failed to look.
To be Catholic is to live in discomfort. If there is a dearth of proof for any one person’s suffering, perhaps it is because we have failed to look.
An Ugly History
The forced sterilization of women, especially of Black and Latina women in the United States, is nothing new. With population explosions in the middle of the last century, cultural tensions gave way to sterilization efforts among minority communities across the country. In March 2003, California Governor Gray Davis issued an apology at a Senate hearing in the State Capitol acknowledging that between 1909 and 1964, an estimated 20,000 Californians were sterilized under California law in state-run institutions (Alexandra Stern, Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America 211).
A 2015 documentary film titled No Más Bebés tells the stories of Mexican immigrant women who were permanently sterilized either without their consent or under extreme duress at the Los Angeles County-University of Southern California Medical Center hospital during the 1960s and 1970s. During this same time period, one-third of women of childbearing age were sterilized in Puerto Rico.
Between the 1920s and 1980s, the “Mississippi Appendectomy” referred to the legal and involuntary sterilization of countless Black women who were deemed “too promiscuous” or “too feebleminded” to have children. More recently, the Center for Investigative Reporting found that at least 148 female inmates in California received tubal ligations without their consent between 2006 and 2010. Even today, coercive sterilization continues to be offered as part of plea deals across the country.
The American government’s crimes against the female body extend well beyond our borders. Historically, the United States has been more concerned than any other country with spreading and imposing “family planning” abroad. For nearly 100 years, U.S. economic aid has been contingent on widespread sterilization of the masses. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, along with the Rockefeller and the Ford Foundations before it, has taken it upon itself to convince the poor that poverty is the result of the children they don't avoid having.
For nearly 100 years, U.S. economic aid has been contingent on widespread sterilization of the masses. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, along with the Rockefeller and the Ford Foundations before it, has taken it upon itself to convince the poor that poverty is the result of the children they don't avoid having.
U.S. missions have sterilized thousands of women in Amazonia, despite the fact that it is the least-populated habitable zone on our planet and also the richest in raw resources (Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America 6). This constant meddling — to use the kindest of terms — in other countries is at the root of our current transcontinental migration crisis. You have only to scratch the surface to see the truth in what happened in rural Georgia.
The Catholic Response
Given this context, there was a great deal of celebration when Argentinian Jorge Bergoglio was elected to the seat of Saint Peter. Here was a man who had lived out his vocation among people whose homes had been pillaged and whose governments had been systematically destabilized by so-called “developed” nations. Surely, he would be a voice for those having to flee the rippling effects of foreign action, for those men and women suffering assaults on their humanity.
When Pope Francis was called to the highest Office in the Church to lead the faithful, he did not forget his countrymen. He asserted that the immigrant culture in Argentina has served only to enrich society and called for migrants around the world to be welcomed, protected, promoted and integrated. When speaking of migrants, he states in Fratelli Tutti:
“No one will ever openly deny that [migrants] are human beings, yet in practice, by our decisions and the way we treat them, we can show that we consider them less worthy, less important, less human. For Christians, this way of thinking and acting is unacceptable, since it sets certain political preferences above deep convictions of our faith: the inalienable dignity of each human person regardless of origin, race or religion, and the supreme law of fraternal love” (39).
Haznos Valer, a nonprofit organization that runs a migrant shelter out of San Juan Apostol Parish in the Mexican border city of Juarez, works to live out the Church’s teaching on fraternal love. The founder, Karina Breceda, is adamant that immigrant advocacy should be considered a pro-life issue. And Pope Francis’ words resonated with her so strongly that she made them a cornerstone of her nonprofit’s mission statement.
Breceda and others in her organization identify and monitor pregnant migrants in the city of Juarez and then determine their medical and housing needs. Many women are not forthcoming about their pregnancies because they are the result of rape. (On a related note, it is estimated that 80% of the women and girls who cross Mexico into the U.S. border are raped along the way.) During a phone call, Breceda explained to me how she began Haznos Valer:
“I live in El Paso, but you can see the border fence from my house … I could tell you all the reasons [I do this], everything I saw, all the situations I saw that women were in, all the pressure they had to not have their baby. At the end of the day, if I’m going to be open to life, I have to be open to the life of migrants.”
Breceda finds the conversation around migrants to be dehumanizing and wants people to build on their understanding of what it is to be open to life. We Catholics are quick to chastise society for being “closed to life,” but we often demonstrate a lack of hospitality when it comes to the lives of migrants. Breceda and the other members of Haznos Valer are hopeful that, through dialogue and a spirit of encounter, we will begin to see our migrant brothers and sisters as fully part of the Church and better understand our role in helping them, whether it’s through a donation of time or money or an active pursuit in meeting migrants in our own community.
As Catholics, we cannot shy away from advocating for the needs of migrant women in ICE detention or elsewhere. An attack on women’s fertility is a grievous attack on an entire generation. And as a Church that values the fullness of our fertility, we are called to protect the dignity of all women — including those who are detained or imprisoned. But, as Breceda and others assert, we can see the dignity of others only when we encounter them, when we leave the segregated bubbles of our faith community, sit in the pews of the Mexican or Vietnamese or Black parish across town, and meet others face to face.
An attack on women’s fertility is a grievous attack on an entire generation. And as a Church that values the fullness of our fertility, we are called to protect the dignity of all women.
The Pope speaks of the suffering of being outcast, because how many of us have not felt the sting of rejection, even among our family and friends? I think of my sister often, in that small town in Mexico, waiting for an interview date to allow her and her husband to return to California. As women of the Church, many of us have struggled to find our role in parish life, in the midst of our fertility or infertility, and among our fellow sinners and sister saints. In discussing the unique attributes of women at the Bavarian Catholic Women Teachers Association in 1928, St. Edith Stein said, “[To] surrender to Christ does not make us blind and deaf to the needs of others — on the contrary. We now seek for God’s image in each human being and want, above all, to help each human being win his freedom.”
St. Edith Stein said, “[To] surrender to Christ does not make us blind and deaf to the needs of others — on the contrary. We now seek for God’s image in each human being and want, above all, to help each human being win his freedom.”
Stein saw women as particularly connected to the suffering of others and, therefore, well suited to demand justice for them. So, if you are looking for a call to action, here it is: Seek out the suffering members of your community. Do not wait for others to do the work while you sit in social isolation. Trust that the Lord will lead you, even in the midst of great personal discomfort. He has not abandoned you yet.