The year I met my husband, I didn’t have health insurance.
I left a well-paying job at Rice University where I had great insurance coverage, because I was miserable there and I wanted to return to teaching. I knew, also, that I wanted a certain kind of teaching job, which meant I might have to scramble for a while to find it. That year, I worked 4 part-time teaching jobs: I taught a section of 9th grade English at my current private school, I taught 7th graders for Writers in the Schools, I worked in the Houston Community College Writing Center, and I taught an adult memoir-writing class in the Woodlands. I made a total of $19,000, barely enough to place me above the poverty line. But I was blissful, using my best skills and talents in the best ways, and living my life on my own terms; and, luckily, I had parents willing and able to supplement my income to help me regroup and recenter my life around my educational and vocational interests.
When it came time for my annual well-woman exam, I went to Planned Parenthood, where I was treated with respect and professionalism. I went through the normal array of tests–the pap smear, the breast check–and waited to check-out. A nurse called my name from behind the waiting room door, a different nurse than the one who had examined me.
“Can I talk to you?” she said.
Listen. No one ever wants to hear their name called after a pap smear and then be pulled into a room to talk privately. My hands started shaking.
“I was reviewing your paperwork and exam as part of our normal routine,” she said.
“Okay.” I waited.
“It says here you’re mother had breast cancer before the age of 30–is that correct?”
“I think so,” I said. “I mean, she was around 30.” I couldn’t remember her age; I could only remember crawling onto kitchen counters to reach into the higher shelves of the cabinets when she couldn’t because of the bandages wrapped tightly around her chest after the partial masectomy.
“Well, I just want to make sure you have a mammogram,” she said, and then handed me information for a clinic in Houston that would provide me with a mammogram at reduced cost because I was uninsured.
Then she smiled and let me out the door.
At check-out, a young Hispanic woman helped me fill out a form to enroll in the Women’s Health Insurance Program, which covered my basic care for the next year and a half until I finally landed the teaching job I wanted. When my husband and I decided to consider contraception options together, he came with me to Planned Parenthood. When he left, he said, “That’s not how I imagined it. So normal. So helpful.” We didn’t see a single woman there for an abortion, although I’m sure there were some. We did see two meager protestors outside the parking lot holding badly made posters and wiping sweat from their hair-sprayed bangs.
Planned Parenthood serves many women in many ways. Some of the women look like me: white, educated beyond the college level, professional, smart, healthy. Some of the women do not look like me. All of them, including me, want choices and some solace in a society that doesn’t always offer us any fiscal rewards for being good, decent human beings or people who want to live outside of restrictive expectations. All of them want a little help creating meaningful, workable lives that best serve their families, their partners, and their own personal dreams and desires.
The way conservatives and religious people reduce Planned Parenthood to an “abortion provider” is adolescent. It’s the level of thinking that my 14 year old students have: simplistic, willfully blind, comfortable. In short, it’s embarrassing coming from grown men and women. It’s also often hypocritical: I’m sure many of those senators backing SB5 in Texas have wives who’ve conceived through IVF or donor eggs or with the help of fertility drugs, most of which wasn’t covered by their insurance. They have choices because they have privileged lives.
This week I remember why I can’t back away from this issue as much as I’d like to back away from such an ugly fight. About eight years ago, I wrote an editorial aimed at Catholics, but I think it still holds today, especially in light of upcoming immigration reform. Substitute Michelle Bachmann for Sarah Palin, or “drones” for the Iraq War, or Christians for Catholics, and everything written here remains achingly relevant.
Here it is:
For Catholics, It’s Time to Take Down the Old Signs and Erect New Ones
Yesterday I picked up the paper and read this headline: “Houston Planned Parenthood site draws protest”, and saw photos of religious women carrying signs depicting bloody fetuses. Then, as I was driving to visit my parents’ home in Southwest Houston, I passed the Catholic Church in which I was confirmed at the tender age of 14. Outside the church, someone had posted a large sign, which read: “Choose Life. Your Vote Matters.” The “o” in “Vote” carried a baby, as if inside the uterus. The message was clear, and I found myself angry, and then extremely disappointed.
I worry about the motives of a church that focuses its efforts on supporting candidates who think criminalization is a better deterrent to abortion than access to social services, education, and health care, and freedom from fear and violence in the home. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 57% of women in the U.S. who had abortions last year were economically disadvantaged. Single or married, 61% already had one or two children for whom they were trying to provide care. Those statistics say nothing about women who have been raped, or are emotionally or physically incapable of caring for a child because of abuse, addiction, or mental illness.
But I am not interested in a debate about the morality of abortion, or the best way to make it rare. I know that even if I preface my pro-choice position by saying, “I believe a fetus is a human child, and I believe every abortion is tragic”, my argument will be lost on conservative Catholics, who, unfortunately, still harbor a deep-seeded misogyny that is fostered by too many leaders of the Church, a misogyny internalized in the psyches of men–and as Sarah Palin and others prove, women too–who endeavor to lead us.
And that is my point.
I wonder if the conservative churches in America focus so much attention on abortion because the purported sinners in abortion cases are women, and mostly poor.
And even if it were appropriate to post political signs outside a church—which it is clearly not—why not urge parishioners to be proactive and vote on other issues that appeal to the good Catholic’s sense of social justice and caritas? For example, imagine a poster that said:
1. “Choose peace.” The Vatican has made it expressly clear that the Church opposes unjust wars, and has labeled the Iraq War as unjust. When Bush and the Senate members who supported him sent our young men and women into battle they started a war that failed to meet most of the conditions for “just” war, including just cause, competent authority, right intention, probability of success, and proportionality.
2. “Choose human rights.” In 2006, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, reminded all of us that immigration policy, in any country, should be based on Judeo-Christian ethics and a respect for basic human rights.
3. “Choose love.” Poor men, women, and children in this country often suffer from a lack of health insurance, which limits their choices in terms of employment, education, and family planning. Many Catholic and non-partisan organizations in this city offer opportunities for churches and concerned citizens to speak truth to power and help solve this crisis, including Catholic Charities and the Texas Metropolitan Organization.
I worry about the motives of a church that shames women for their choices, but does not shame a government whose choices endanger women and children, often the most vulnerable and innocent victims of war and ineffectual social welfare and economic policy. I worry about a church that puts more effort into promoting the opportunity for its members to pray publicly outside Planned Parenthood—a surefire way to shame young women—than promoting an opportunity for service to the hungry, unsheltered, and imprisoned.
In the end, the sign posted outside that church does not say much about the devotion of its leadership and parishioners, which I believe in my heart to be strong, nor their concern for their fellow citizens. It says much more about their cultural, economic, and gender-related biases. It says more about their need to place the blame for society’s ills, and the responsibility for the cures, on someone else. And like so many other times in history, the scapegoats for our sins are women.
As Catholics we are called to service, by participation in the sacraments as well as by praxis, “the reflexive relationship between theories and action.” But, whenever possible, praxis should be preventative, not punitive. Too much time is spent preaching about immorality and sin—and how, impossibly, to protest and vote against it—than in enacting the virtues spelled out for us in Scripture and Church doctrine.
In our politics and in our faiths we spend too much time finger-pointing, and not enough time actively loving one another.