The Option of Abortion: Urgent Reflections
The following is an open letter to a Catholic Church authority questioning the ecclesiastical doctrine condemning abortion.
Its author’s pastoral work is with Central American women and girls who have survived incest and sexual violence.
Dear brother: I have often heard you addressing pastoral letters, exhortations and homilies to women, calling us "dear sisters." This provides me with the courage to address you as "brother" and to explain to you how we women feel.
Your messages often give me the impression that you do not really know about the reality women face. As a woman, I would therefore like to help you reflect on that reality, because yours as a man, and one without a female partner, makes it hard for you to understand all of the human realities. It particularly does not help you speak authoritatively about women’s reality.
Your messages often insist on the importance of women fulfilling God’s will by complementing men, helping and sustaining them. You also frequently include in your messages the warning that abortion is always a serious sin according to God’s will, even when the pregnancy is the fruit of rape. Brother, how can you be so certain about God’s will? Although it is impossible in a letter to cover in any real depth the dilemmas confronting us as women when faced with the option of abortion, I would like to state that from our own particular reality we do not feel identified with your messages.
To illustrate some of those messages you often mention the Biblical verse: "God created human beings in his own image, in God’s own image he created man and woman." These words enable me to think of God and to love both her feminine reality and his masculine reality. God is my Sister and my Brother, my Father and my Mother.
Our Sister God knows about our realities and so does our Father God. They come down from heaven and tell us: "I have seen the suffering of my people in Egypt and have heard the clamor that their oppressors force from them. I know their suffering and have come down to free them from the hands of their oppressors and take them to a good and spacious land…. Now, see, I send you to Pharaoh so that you can take my people from Egypt."
Brother, you know well enough that God sent Moses and Moses took the people from Egypt, freeing them from their oppression. You surely also know that it was not until after they were freed, wandering in the desert in search of the promised land, that the people received the commandments. That is what happens in any liberation processes: the commandments are useful only after people have been liberated from oppression.
Please receive this as a letter from your Sister God, who has seen for herself our affliction as women and has heard the clamor that our oppressors force from us. She knows our suffering and has come down to free us from the hands of our oppressors and take us to a good and spacious land. And now she wants to take her people from Egypt. But who will our Sister God send to carry out this mission? It could even be you.
This encourages me to explain to you the realities that millions of women suffer, so you can search for possible ways to free them from their oppression. But in order to do this, you need to know about their suffering and its causes. As you always condemn the option of abortion, allow me to particularly reflect with you on the suffering of millions of women who are survivors of sexual violence.
You state that the option of abortion is always a major sin. No, my dear brother, it is something far worse. The choice of abortion is the most horrific thing that can happen in a woman’s life. Do you really think there is even one woman who does not suffer terribly when opting for abortion? I would like to explain to you that choosing abortion often represents the end of a very long process of suffering. And we must reflect on that suffering.
Many of us, both male and female, are categorically against the idea of a gestation lived in desperation and oppose an unwanted pregnancy. Many of us share the conviction that each girl and boy has the right to enter this world wanted. Girls and boys born without being wanted experience terrible suffering, trauma and frustration. Fighting against that stigma lasts a lifetime and is sometimes never overcome. Dear brother, I hope you hear the clamor of all the women and men who know what that suffering is like. I have heard that pain for many years now and have meditated on it.
I want to talk to you mainly of the grave suffering experienced by women who are victims of sexual violence. We are talking about millions of women, not just a few. In my country, Holland, 20% of women have suffered some form of sexual violence; in Costa Rica, the figure is 80%. A large number of these women have been victims of incest. This means they suffered that particular torture from a very early age. Incest is a form of torture. Sexual violence is a form of torture. And torture leaves scars that last a lifetime. The damage that remains is infinite. I have dedicated many years of my life to fighting against such damage.
Millions of women have lost the capacity to love, the capacity to trust people and have lost their confidence in themselves. Millions of women have lost the ability to feel emotion. Millions of women have lost the capacity to be mothers and sisters, have lost the ability to communicate with others, to sleep peacefully, to coexist with others. They lose the capacity to concentrate and, caught up in a spiral of guilt and self-hate, fall into crime, mutilate themselves or commit suicide.
Incest causes such profound damage that it leaves the women susceptible to being eternal victims of sexual violence and even of cold-blooded violence. Incest scars women so deeply that they lose the ability to defend themselves from men’s violence and even to differentiate between good and bad men. The mark of incest makes a relation with any man an anguishing experience.
Even if this damage is terrible and profound, millions of women have been able recover their capacity to give and receive love, millions have been able to rebuild their confidence in others and in themselves. Millions of women have managed to reconnect with their emotions and feel again, have regained their capacity to concentrate, to communicate and to sleep peacefully. Millions of women have felt capable of being mothers and sisters again.
One thing unites all of these women: they use all means available to them and make great efforts to overcome the past. They all suffer whenever they remember the sexual violence they suffered, they all spend a lot of time and money receiving psychological help so they can push ahead. Some move to another city or country or leave their families in an effort to forget so they can start over. All of them look for female friends with whom they can share their suffering, and lose male and female friends who cannot bear the weight of such pain.
Sexual abuse has led many women to live in a permanent state of shock and react like robots: they do not know how to defend themselves from sexual violence, and pregnancy is nothing more than a continuation of the torture. Living in such painful situations, many are unable to go through with a rape-induced pregnancy. When faced with it their reactions vary. Some, incapable of defending themselves, accept the continuation of the torture and then give the baby away when it is born. Others even kill it at birth. Some women submit to the fact that the torture will continue and give birth to a child who feels unwanted from the day he or she is born, while others, also submitting, assume the responsibility of motherhood and still others manage to develop the capacity to love the child. Some women, however, refuse to accept the continuation of the torture and commit suicide when they learn they are pregnant. Others, also refusing, opt for abortion. Some women choose abortion as a form of self-contempt, as an expression of the hatred so deep that incest has made them feel toward themselves. I assume, brother, that you understand that it is necessary to feel some love for yourself if you are to pass life on to a new human being.
Do not think that choosing abortion puts an end to the torture suffered by women who have survived sexual violence or incest. Do not think either that any woman opts for abortion without experiencing great suffering, that any woman enjoys abortion or likes opting for it. Many women who realized that the torture would continue with the pregnancy and found no other way to stop the suffering than choosing abortion experience the presence of that unborn boy or girl for the rest of their lives. Imagine the pain of girls tortured by incest, girls who grow up without their mother’s love, women who have had their joy of life taken away. And imagine the pain of babies killed at birth, whose spirit is present in the lives of so many women.
However, in the midst of such pain, I can assure you that many, many women throughout the world are fighting together to stop this damage, to show women how to defend themselves from the violence committed by men, to differentiate between good men and bad, to avoid unwanted pregnancies and protect themselves against all forms of intimidation and abuse of power. And we are growing in number.
Brother, first we must all, men and women, be united in the conviction that an unwanted pregnancy is something terrible, that gestating life in desperation is a form of torture. Then, we should ask ourselves how we could avoid such violence.
We have to accept that men are the cause of so much torture. We must reflect on the reality that millions of men act as torturers of women. It is a mistake to think that these men are depraved. No, many of them are educated and even genteel and act as they do because they want women to respond to all of their needs and desires. Many of these men do not differentiate between their desires that are formally accepted in the patriarchal culture and those that they hide but do not feel the need to control, since this culture also tacitly tolerates them. These men know no limits to their desires, they do not know how to establish limits, and for them rape is nothing more that an extension of the behavior of beings who, believing themselves superior, dominate and impose their power, forcing women to serve any of their desires.
Brother, we must also reflect on the way our culture prepares men to believe and feel themselves superior and dominant and prepares women to be victims.
Boys are taught to be strong and not show their emotions. They are taught to compete to defeat and dominate others. They are taught that God is a man and is all-powerful. Catholic boys learn that only men can represent God and see how priests pronounce strange words and dress in gold as if they were gods. They thus learn that they too can be a kind of god when they dominate and impose themselves on others. From an early age, boys see magazines in which women’s bodies are just merchandise and where the value of male adults is measured by the beauty of the women they possess. Given this whole set of messages, it is no surprise that many boys do not develop that intuition, that inner voice that alerts them to the limits they should place on their desire to dominate.
Girls are taught to be docile and let themselves love. They are taught that God is a man and all-powerful, they are taught to love everyone and put themselves at the service of others. They are given the model and example of Mary’s obedience to the will of a male God and are taught to imitate Jesus’ example of accepting the cross. From an early age, Catholic girls learn that only men can represent God and thus end up believing that men are also capable of doing anything—and will do it. Thus, girls learn to feel inferior to men, incapable of excelling or outdoing. It is through this process that they learn to accept the will of an incestuous father and submission to his desires as a cross they must bear. This set of messages prepares women to be victims, and for this actually to happen they only have to cross the path of one male who does not know the limits of his desire to dominate.
Now, dear brother, go to Pharaoh so you can take my people from Egypt. Sister God also sends you. Please make every effort, do everything possible to free us all from a culture that prepares boys to dominate and girls to be submissive. I trust you will act with haste as the number of victims is growing by the day.
And when you have made every effort to free us from this violent and cruel culture, I assure you that all of us women will accompany you in the fight against abortion, because only a woman who has had to opt for it knows the unfathomable dimension of that pain.