I don’t think I have ever met a Catholic woman who has not faced discrimination in her doctor’s office.
That is a bold statement, but in my decades of being an active Catholic attending women’s groups, conferences, and post-Mass brunches, I am convinced that we all have an unbelievable story to tell. Spend five minutes scrolling through posts in any Catholic women’s Facebook group and you will see what I mean. The discrimination typically centers around family planning decisions, family size, and options for reproductive health (i.e. we do not take birth control, we do not want birth control, and no, seriously, nice nurse practitioner - we don’t want your darn birth control).
Since you, dear reader, are likely a Catholic woman like me, I imagine know exactly what I’m talking about. You remember the anger you felt when a nurse snorted upon reading in your chart that you have four children and you’re in the doctor's office because you’re pregnant with your fifth. Or the exasperated sigh you received from your OB/GYN when you showed her your NFP charts and sought real treatment options for your gynecological ills.
Do you remember when you were belittled? Dismissed? Stay with that feeling, because it’s exactly that feeling which countless scores of women of color get in their doctor’s offices, too. It is this feeling that results from not being listened to and from being disrespected, perhaps even judged, that gives rise to a movement I would like to introduce you to: the movement for reproductive justice.
Do you remember when you were belittled? Dismissed? . . . [I]t’s exactly that feeling which countless scores of women of color get in their doctor’s offices
Reproductive justice has multiple definitions, but is perhaps best thought of as a multidimensional feminist theory that connects reproductive healthcare to the wider women's rights movement. It avoids the grossly negligent simplification of women’s healthcare as solely the right to have or not have an abortion. Rather, it acknowledges a variety of women’s reproductive rights, such as the right to decide on a method of family planning or how to have a baby and in what setting. Reproductive justice demands that all women receive not just access to reproductive healthcare, but full and complete information regarding their reproductive healthcare options, in order to make informed decisions. Having access to all information about birth control options - including the side effects and risk factors they speed through at the end of those peppy commercials - is reproductive justice. A doctor asking for consent prior to touching a woman during a pap smear is reproductive justice. Having pregnancy-saving progesterone support terminated by a NaProTechnology doctor after a woman decides to have a home birth instead of a hospital birth is a matter of reproductive justice (yes, this has happened and continues to happen).
Reproductive justice. . .avoids the grossly negligent simplification of women’s healthcare as solely the right to have or not have an abortion
The black-woman-led organization Sister Song created the term and movement in the mid-90s as a response to the UN International Conference on Population and Development. This movement particularly emphasizes the current statistical crisis of black maternal and infant mortality rates. Currently, black women are three to four times more likely to die due to pregnancy-related causes than white women. Black babies die at twice the rate of white babies, a number the New York Times recently noted is actually higher today than it was in 1850, when slavery was still law. Reproductive justice activists would tell you that the reason for these abysmal statistics is multilayered, but primarily due to a lack of access to both information and resources, which results from a convoluted history of patriarchy and racism.
Before we go any further, I’d like to give you a disclaimer that I am all of the things in this conversation. I am a black woman, a Catholic woman, and a professional birth and postpartum doula (i.e. a “woman who helps women,” if you’re up on your ancient Greek). I also teach Natural Family Planning and have firsthand knowledge of what it is like to face an uphill battle inside of a doctor’s office when seeking real reproductive healthcare. I know doctors, midwives, and lactation consultants. I know women who pray outside of abortion clinics every weekend. I also know women who would sacrifice their Saturday mornings to escort women inside of those clinics. It’s a challenging dichotomy at times. However, the more women I work with, births I attend, and sweet newborns I help integrate into their parents’ lives, the more respect I have for the concept of reproductive justice, especially as a Catholic.
Justice is a moral virtue toward God and our fellow man. Our faith describes it as a virtue that disposes us to “respect the rights of each and to establish human relationships that promote equity” toward the common good (CCC 1807). If the foundation of society is the family, the center of which is a woman in her role as wife and mother, what could be more important than providing her full access and information regarding her options for her healthcare?
If the foundation of society is the family, the center of which is a woman in her role as wife and mother, what could be more important than providing her full access and information regarding her options for her healthcare?
Health is paramount to our being. Health is also a “long game.” The egg that made you was inside of your mother when she was inside of your grandmother. The health choices a woman makes prior to conception, while she is pregnant, and during and after a birth can have ripple effects throughout her entire life, as well as for generations to come. A cavalier prescription for hormonal birth control without adequate information could result in years of infertility and several other medical problems. An ER nurse’s caustic comment during a miscarriage could cause years of depression. The dismissal of a woman’s postpartum headaches as “complaining” could result in her death. Whether we’re talking about a teenager or a woman in menopause, how a woman is treated in a medical environment has just as much potential to create trauma as it does empowerment. Reproductive justice seeks to recognize the full dignity of women in the entirety of their reproductive healthcare.
[H]ow a woman is treated in a medical environment has just as much potential to create trauma as it does empowerment.
With that being said, certain aspects of the reproductive justice movement are problematic. As Catholics, we know that there is no true respect for humanity without complete and total respect for the unborn. We must continue to promote this truth with mercy and charity toward our neighbors, which by the way, my sister, is working. SisterSong’s membership and supporters include pro-life allies. More and more secular and intersectional feminist organizations recognize not only our voices, but also our hard work in helping babies and women. Perhaps our enemies are not quite enemies when we choose to engage them in love.
Practically speaking, there are several things we can do to support reproductive justice:
1. Support the midwifery model of care.
This one is a big. HUGE. Access to midwives makes a dramatic, statistical difference in maternal and infant mortality rates. I truly believe it’s the same reason why births attended by doulas are repeatedly shown to be faster and with less medical intervention: there’s just something right about women helping other women. We know how to speak to our bodies and souls. Despite this, in many states, midwives of all types are still subject to cumbersome legislation and regulations that limit women’s access to midwifery care.
2. Start listening to and collaborating with birth workers and women’s health activists.
Do you know how many Christian women I've come across who think doulas and midwives are nothing more than voodoo priestesses? The truth is that the care of birth workers like doulas, midwives, and lactation consultants makes a real difference. I acknowledge that this might get a little uncomfortable. I can count on one hand how many birth workers I know who are also practicing Christians. We will have conflicts with certain beliefs that are held as Gospel by the world. Regardless, the fact is that birth workers and similar activists are the boots on the ground making a difference. Let’s listen, help them where we can, and advocate for the truth on matters like abortion with love. We can’t enact change if we’re not sitting at at the table.
3. Keep talking about NFP.
Reproductive health is health. A woman who understands her body and is informed about her healthcare choices prior to pregnancy is a woman equipped to maintain her bodily autonomy throughout every stage of life. I often find that my doula clients who are trained in NFP or some form of Fertility Awareness are able to better articulate their desires and understand how to communicate with their providers throughout their pregnancies and births. These women understand that they run their own healthcare show. They are accustomed to advocating for themselves, even in hostile medical environments. I encourage any woman who will listen to first become educated herself, and then consider becoming an instructor. It doesn’t matter if the method is FEMM™, Creighton Model FertilityCare™, Marquette Model, etc. Each one teach one, girl.
4. Transition crisis pregnancy centers into fully functioning clinics.
I will be the first to admit that there are some crisis pregnancy centers that are problematic in their methodology. However, we should support the countless other centers that provide non-judgmental support, and we should do so not just with our sentiments, but with our time and money. The more centers that we can convert into fully functioning medical offices with a wide range of healthcare services, the more women and babies we can help. And while we’re at it, let's put some birth centers in our Catholic hospitals!
5. Support pro-woman legislation.
Be aware of what exactly your “pro-life” representatives vote for and against. Keep tabs on whether any laws creep up in your state that attempt to restrict access to midwives. Support legislation for paid maternity and paternity leave, birth certificates for miscarried and stillborn babies, and insurance companies that cover things like NaProTECHNOLOGY testing. In short, let’s be authentically pro-life and support all family values legislation.
6. Normalize women’s experiences.
We need to talk about periods, sex, birth, and babies. We need to teach our non-Catholic friends about NFP. We need to #normalizebreastfeeding, especially in our churches. We need to acknowledge and celebrate all of our babies, both those here on Earth and those in Heaven with our Lord. We need to be honest about the difficulties as well as the joys when it comes to our reproductive issues as we march toward gaining and protecting our rights. By talking openly and honestly, we educate those around us and move our society closer to enacting justice for all.