Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Throwing Things Together

This Christmas is the quietest I have had in years, thank God. Somehow, I find myself with a few minutes to reflect, even to write here. And yet, I find myself thinking about unease, disorder, and confusion. I find myself thinking about Mary.

Gazing on the creche and on the beautiful images of the Madonna filling my home, it's easy to forget how unnerving the story of Jesus' birthand the experience of the holy familyis. You know the details. This young woman and her new husband must leave their home for difficult and dangerous travel. They are displaced people, homeless at least temporarily, in a situation that would feel to most of us very much like "the edge." Their newborn is laid in a feeding trough, and fearful, wondrous announcements are made.

The angels have only recently gone away and the shepherd have only just departed when we are given that beautiful old description: Mary "kept all these things and pondered them in her heart." But what does this mean, exactly? The English word "ponder" offers, at first hearing, a pervading sense of calm. Etymologically, it has to do with feeling the weight of something, and that is something we usually do slowly and carefully. Mary seems, in other words, like an almost unworldly island of calm.

The original Greek has other connotations, though. The word translated as "ponder" is symballo, a word that does not evoke stillness and simplicity, but multiplicity and disarray. Literally, it means "to piece together" or even "to throw together." It occurs only a half dozen times in the New Testament, all in the first chapters of Luke, with their collection of wondrous and unnerving events.

Symballo is, it seems to me, in a certain way, quintessential mother's work. It is gathering up and holding close. It is picking up the pieces, stitching and folding and stirring together. Perhaps it is appropriate that the Mother of God took it up in her very first days as a mother. But mothers know the truth: whenever any of us take up this work of collecting up all that is scattered around us, we are re-collecting ourselves, as well.

This Christmas, so many of us are ill or ill at ease or jumbled. So many feel displaced or broken or  brokenhearted. But if, in seeking the wonder of Christmas, we feel less like an island of calm and more like we are throwing things together in our hearts, at least we are not alone. The real work of pondering is the work of the first Christmas, as well as ours.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Personal and Political

Not long ago, Kate Blanchard, professor of religious studies at Alma College, published an essay entitled "My Two Abortions," which follows an old feminist dictum: the personal is political. The Huffington Post piece is gripping in its candor about two very personal moments, each of which resulted in the end of a pregnancy: first, surgery to address an ectopic pregnancy; and second, labor artificially induced in order to give birth to a fetus who had already died in utero. These experiences, the author argues, yield some important insights strengthening pro-choice convictions.

As it happens, I count Kate as a friend. (She and I share the peculiar bond that can only exist among those who have survived graduate school together.) For me, our friendship was only strengthened by the fact that she reached out to me personally after penning this piece, fearing that I might be offended. Kate knows, after all, that I have some strong pro-life convictions. She not only took the time to let me know that she cared about my reaction, but she thanked me—as she had already done long ago—for the way I expressed concern for her during the first of the experiences she describes in her piece. Friends, if you don't hear anything else in this essay, please hear me say this: it is this kind of decent, human interaction that our public debates are too often painfully lacking.

The claims of the piece, though, deserve engagement. First, Kate argues, her experiences create a very personal connection to the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in Ireland last month. Having lived through her own “abortions,” Kate explains, she could say that "there but for the grace of God go I." Further, she voices vicarious anger on behalf of Halappanavar, since Kate believes that it was “self-righteous” pro-life convictions that resulted in her needless death.

Second, Kate notes the way in which even Christian friends reacted at each of the moments she describes in her own life. Given that they did not, for example, offer to plan a memorial service for the baby lost in the ectopic pregnancy, she believes that they revealed their true conviction: her loss simply did not involve something equivalent to a “human life.” In the end, Kate does not blame them for this. She just wishes they could admit it.

I have just a few thoughts to offer here, addressed to each of these conclusions.

First is the claim about pro-life instincts. Of course, I was not privy to all the conversations in Kate’s life, so I can’t speak about them. I do know, however, that in the pro-life circles to which I belong, the loss of unborn children is often, in fact, mourned quite deeply. We do understand ourselves to have lost a human life. Parents often name their babies. We part with small bodies respectfully. Important or difficult dates are remembered in prayer. No one tells mothers or fathers how they should feel; no one requires a mother to grieve in any particular way. In fact, at least in my experience, the whole thing is generally pretty free of emotional requirements or sentimental overlay. It is not, however, underestimated. 

It is true that the death of a fetus at six week's gestation may be dealt with differently than the death of a newborn. But the death of a newborn is also often dealt with differently than that of a teenager killed in a car accident. There are many issues at play, and these differences do not necessarily indicate that we consider the newborn and the teenager to be a human lifeand the fetus to be something else.

In the specific situation Kate describes, I wonder if those around her may have faced a common conundrum. In these difficult days, when the status of unborn children is such a contentious issue, we often do not know at all what to say to one another when these children die. It certainly is not the right moment for pro-lifers to preach pro-life convictions, and so I—and many others I know—do our best to follow the cues of the mother and father themselves. If they mourn, we mourn with them. If they are stonefaced, we offer briefly our hope that they recover quickly. If we can’t quite figure what they feel, we are, frankly, at a loss. I can say that I feel very strongly about what we should not do: offer to plan a memorial service for someone else’s baby.

In fact, if the personal is political, maybe it is worth it to say that I myself have the experience of losing more than one child, barely past conception. I do count myself the mother of those children, and I do mourn their loss—sometimes quite unexpectedly. Even in this tell-all age, I do not speak in detail, publicly, about these losses, and I won’t do that here, either. The reason for my silence, though, is not some fatal flaw in my pro-life convictions. In fact—ironically enough—my reluctance has in part to do with my belief that, in the acrimony of current debates, some folks might minimize that loss and ridicule that grief. Interpreting silence, it's good to remember, is tricky.

Surely the most important element of Kate’s essay, though, has to do with the death of Savita Halappanavar, and its implications. Here, especially, I want to note what seem to me to be two problems in the way Kate links her experiences to this case. First is that neither of the decisions Kate made—one that ended an ectopic pregnancy or one that induced labor after the fetus had already died—should be understood as opposed to pro-life Catholic teaching. In fact, neither should be understood as an abortion at all. Kate implies that she was very lucky to have lived in a country that allows abortions, but the fact of the matter is that she could have received exactly the same medical care in Ireland
—or in any Catholic hospital here in the U.S.

Most importantly, there is simply no clear evidence that Halappanavar’s terrible death, either, had anything at all to do with Ireland's restriction of abortion. Halappanavar was suffering from a condition called septicaemia, a condition that would not have been ameliorated by an abortion. Just a few days after her initial reporting of the story, the lead reporter herself allowed that "the fact that Savita had been refused a termination was a factor in her death has yet to be established." Dr. Hema Divakar, president-elect of the Federation of Obstetric and Gynaecological Societies of India has taken a stronger position: "Even if the law permitted it, it is not as if her life would have been saved because of termination." Dr. James Clair, microbiologist has offered an alternate explanation, suggesting that "the problem was an unforeseen... infection rather than an issue of obstetric mishandling." 

Catholic teaching not only allows for, but demands, medical intervention to save the life of an expectant mother. It is true that acting on a commitment to both mother and baby can, in a few cases, be complicated and difficult. It appears that in Halappanavar’s case, though, doctor may simply have been unable successfully to intervene. In any case, it is worth it to learn more before using this case to get traction in the pro-life / pro-choice debates.

The experiences that Kate describes in her essay were painful, on more level than one. I wish now, as I wished then, that she might somehow have been spared them altogether. She survived, though—and thrived. My own conviction continue to be that protecting and caring for all human life is the surest route to the same outcome for other mothers, and for their children.