on population, reproductive health & ethics

Send this page to a friend! (click here)

Women's Reproductive Rights After September 11, 2001

By Professor of Moral Theology Daniel C. Maguire
Marquette University

President, The Religious Consultation On Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics
2717 E. Hampshire Ave., Milwaukee WI 53211

There is unanimity that September 11 changed the world. There is no agreement on what those changes will be. It seems almost too early to speculate on what changes will ensue for issues like women's human rights to family planning, including abortion when necessary. There is a development, however, that may give us our first clue on this, and maybe, just maybe, a possibility of good news in terrible times.

Andrew Sullivan wrote a remarkable article in The New York Times Sunday Magazine (October 7, 2001) entitled "This IS a Religious War." He notes the efforts of national leaders to say that this is not a religious war, not a battle of the rest of the world against Islam since Osama Bin Laden is part of a radical minority in Islam. However, Sullivan insists: "This is a religious war--but not of Islam versus Christianity and Judaism. Rather, it is a war of fundamentalism against faiths of all kinds that are at peace with freedom and modernity."

Fundamentalism is an unfortunate word, since the desire to get to the fundamentals of a religion is laudable. Through usage, however, it has come to mean a right wing, ultraconservative, authoritarian, and anti-woman kind of religion, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or any other religion. Sullivan is thus only partly right. There is more at issue than "freedom and modernity." The status of women and their rights is a central issue in fundamentalism. The Taliban show this in crude bold relief, but there are Taliban types in all faith traditions. The surest proof of the fundamentalist syndrome is misogyny. The dominant motive of right wing groups is fear, and they fear women, especially the women who are claiming their rights as fully fledged and autonomous human beings.

Ask yourself why the Vatican, after fourteen centuries of hostility and war against Islam, is now holding hands with conservative Muslim states at the United Nations, especially on the issue of the right of a woman to choose an abortion. Is this a newfound love of fetuses that is bonding these two religions? Or is it rather that these two patriarchies are uniting against a perceived common threat, free and independent women? Nothing bonds like a common foe. "That same day Herod and Pilate became friends: till then there had been a standing feud between them." (Luke 23:12)

So where is the good news that I am straining to find?

Critical, clear-headed thinking about religion is not commonplace. That is a pity because religions are huge actors on the world scene. Two thirds of the world's people affiliate with them and the other third are affected by their cultural impact. Each religion is taken to be a seamless garment of beliefs. In fact, none of them is. They are more like patchwork quilts and not all the patches match. They are also damaged goods, battered by their trek through the tumult of history. It is the beginning of religious sophistication to know this, and even President George W. Bush is seeing it and preaching it from the White House. He is heralding the peaceful moral core of Islam and contrasting it with the fundamentalist, sexist deviations of the Taliban. When right wing Christians like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson weighed in blaming the September 11 attack on abortion and other sexual and reproductive matters, they were referred to by many in the press as the Christian Taliban. They were not representing the good moral energies of Christianity any more than the Taliban are exemplars of the best in Islam.

Shock is often the birthplace of insight. The consciousness is dawning that right wing sexism is a deviation from the healthy mainstream of these classics of cherishing that we call by the names of the world religions. The stunning cruelty of Taliban sexism is highlighting this. Thus September 11 called attention to the difference between the decadent state of the world religions including their bias against women, and calls us to look to the authentic messages of those religions, religions which at their best happen to be pro choice and pro women.

This was the thesis of an international effort sponsored by The Religious Consultation On Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics. Over three years we gathered religious scholars from the world's major and indigenous religions. We showed that in each of them there is indeed a conservative, pro-natalist thrust that bans abortion. This is not surprising. These religions were spawned in a world in which depopulation, not overpopulation was the issue. Through most of history, the human race was grazed thin by death. This is the defining story of our breed. However, as these religions met the complexity of life, they came, each in its own way, to see the need for family planning, including abortion when needed. Our point is that this moderate view stands on equal footing with the more conservative, restrictive view on abortion. It is a legitimate reading of these rich and complex traditions, including Roman Catholicism. I published our first report on this research in my SACRED CHOICES: THE RIGHT TO CONTRACEPTION AND ABORTION IN TEN WORLD RELIGIONS (Fortress Press, 2001) (See Summary of Sacred Choices.)

Could there now be more openness to good news from the world religions? Is the time right for showing the openness to responsible reproductive choice in the religious traditions? Could the long tenured sexist caricatures in all the world religions be more open now to attack? Am I a dreamer to say that this, enigmatically, is a moment of opportunity? To paraphrase the words of William Butler Yeats, "tread lightly if you would tread upon that dream!"

on population, reproductive health & ethics

Send this page to a friend! (click here)