Choice, Conscience, and Christmas
For the past several years, I've reflected during the Christmas season on what The Annunciation says about women, self-determination, and pregnancy. I've read the story many times - basically an angel comes to Mary to tell her that God chose her to give birth to His son, then the angel gives her some time to think about it, and Mary agrees to do it. There's nothing in there about anyone being forced to give birth to a child that she did not plan for. What's beautiful about the story is that Mary voluntarily says yes, risking serious social ostracizing and other problems. But that was her choice. (Although it is disparaged as a term promoting abortion, "choice," of course, does not always lead to abortions. Many women use their ability to make a choice to carry a pregnancy to term, sort of like Mary.)
Nathan O'Halloran, SJ, explains the story at Under a Chindolea in a way I find extremely interesting because it underlines the risks Mary took in making her choice:
So how could she possible say Yes to this? Wasn't she terrified? I can imagine a terrible struggle going on within her. On the one hand, she recognizes that something incredible is about to happen. On the other hand, she will be stigmatized now for life. Who will believe that she is impregnated by the Holy Spirit? Now I suppose if Joseph was told by the angel right when Mary conceives that she was pregnant and they marry right away, no one would know that Mary got pregnant before the wedding. But we don't know that for sure. Maybe Joseph didn't find out until Mary began to show. Maybe God tested Joseph and he only found out later. We don't know if anyone found out. The whole town may have known and thought that Mary had cheated on her betrothal with Joseph. And then when they get married, it starts to look like Joseph might have gotten her pregnant, and so now they are marrying to cover it up. I have often wondered if Jesus spent so much time specifically with prostitutes because behind his back growing up, the gossip was that Mary couldn't wait till marriage. Even though he knew this was not true, maybe he had a special love for the sexually weak.
I am not alone in my interpretation of The Annunciation as a parable about the importance of choice. Sister Donna Quinn from the Sinsinawa Dominican order based in Wisconsin was quoted in The Chicago Tribune's religious blog earlier this month, noting, "I was reminded of being with men and women from the Unitarian faith tradition last year as they celebrated Mary who by her assent, they believed, was one of the first women in the New Testament to express Choice.” Sr. Quinn incidentally, is protesting the any efforts to de-fund abortion services in the health care reform bill. She was rebuked by her order for escorting women to a clinic that offers abortions in the suburbs of Chicago. She explained that she did so "needed her protection because of the threat posed by anti-abortion protesters." Further, she says that dissenting voices within the Catholic religion are "a gift to our church."
But there is more to this story. Back in November, The Chicago Tribune reported on Sister Quinn's censure. It turns out that she's not the first nun to publicly support abortion as an option. The story noted that the Vatican tried to oust dissenting nuns back in 1984, and the issue was resolved without anyone's dismissal. (Frances Kissling explains the whole history of the 1984 protest in an excellent post at Religion Dispatches.) In fact, Sister Beth Rindler, a Franciscan Sister of the Poor, told the paper:
We’re standing with her very much. We consider her one of our prophets. She’s standing with women who she believes can make good moral decisions.
Incidentally, Sister Rindler is co-coordinator of thee National Coalition of American Nuns, a group of nuns advocating "for women’s ordination, gay rights, abortion rights and an end to war." That's pretty awesome. I think that Sister Rindler and Sister Quinn might be my feminist heroines of the year. (OK, pretty much anyone Kissling cited is also a big hero to me, too.) I really hope that more pro-choice and feminist bloggers will give them some online props, too, as the only feminist pro-choice blogs that I came across that discussed Sr. Quinn was RH Reality Check, Hoyden About Town (in Australia!), and the aforementioned Kissling post. The number of blogs that felt it appropriate to advise Sr. Quinn "to shut up" (and worse) was appalling. Clearly, Sr. Quinn and her ilk are not in it for the glory, but it seems like they deserve more appreciation, especially at this time of the year! But I digress...
Anyway, another unexpected place in which I found a brave soul who defends the right of women, medical professionals, and other advisers to use their own moral compasses and make choices for themselves is in the office of the Senate Majority Leader. Sen. Harry Reid is a man who has consistently cast his vote against abortion for 28 years. Yet when it came to language that would have prevented private insurance plans from offering coverage for abortions, Reid stood up for women. When he rejected the prohibitive amendment proposed by Sen. Ben Nelson, he said:
The amendment before us today, offered by Senator Nelson of Nebraska, would make dramatic changes to current law in America... our underlying bill leaves current law where it is [prohibiting Federal funds from being used for abortions]. This amendment, however, does not... It goes further than the standard that has guided this country for the last 33 years. It would place limits not only on taxpayer money, which I support, but also on private money...No one should use the health care bill to expand or restrict abortion. And no one should use the issue of abortion to rob millions of the opportunity to get good health care.
I like to think that I'm following in the footsteps of Reid and Sr. Quinn, and even Mary. I'm not anti-Catholic/anti-Evangelical/anti-Hasidic/anti-whatever-religion-says-that-abortion-is-wrong-for-its-adherents; people who believe differently than I do are not any better or worse than me. What I am against, however, is when other people denigrate my religious beliefs and moral values because I don't share their views. I oppose the ability of other people to impose their religious beliefs on people who may have different ideas. If God didn't force Mary to become pregnant, I'm not sure why mere mortals insist they have the right to make that choice for other humans. Allowing people to ponder their own unique situations and circumstances and come to their own conclusions is the godlier thing to do.
People all over the world will celebrate Mary's choice tonight and tomorrow. I hope one day we all are given that holiest of liberties.