What Color Is Your Parachute?

I was recently reading through a blog honoring Abortion Provider Appreciation Day … The organizers describe their rationale for such a dark and strange observance as being a response against crisis pregnancy centers…

“The most striking feature of contemporary moral utterance is that so much of it is used to express disagreements; and the most striking feature of the debates in which these disagreements are expressed is their interminable character” (Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, Notre Dame, Indiana: 2007, 6). This quote from MacIntyre’s superb work After Virtue, accurately describes the sort of discourse that characterizes the debate on all the major life and religious issues of today. I want to suggest one way to try to resolve this dual problem of interminable disagreement, which is to try to first understand the perspective from which our interlocutors are coming. It won’t be until we know the color of their parachute that we’ll be able to explain the color of our own.

I was recently reading through a blog honoring Abortion Provider Appreciation Day, which was observed on March 10th. The organizers describe their rationale for such a dark and strange observance as being a response against crisis pregnancy centers:

It is essential to recognize that Crisis Pregnancy Centers are fake “clinics” driven by anti-abortion agenda. They often have no clinical staff, spread lies, guilt-trip women and enormously delay and complicate women’s ability to access abortion.

This is a very curious statement, if only for its blatant misinformation. In fact, if one were to change a couple of words, the description would fit Planned Parenthood quite well.

As a way of honoring abortion providers, a march was organized against “sites of women’s oppression” and began at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Why there? “The Catholic Church’s approach to women, gender, science, and sexuality is a Dark Ages disaster!”

Among the grievances levied against the Church was the accusation that it is responsible both for millions of HIV/AIDS deaths for condemning condoms, and for compelling women to remain in abusive relationships through its position against divorce.

But what other site was included on the march’s itinerary? New York strip clubs. “Strip clubs have always objectified and degraded women. But as women have entered,  and fought for increasing respect in, the public sphere, strip clubs have become an enclave for … male entitlement towards women’s bodies.”

Contraception was supposed to hail a whole new era of equality for women, giving them more control over their bodies and, thus, more of a share in men’s “freedom” to enjoy sex without consequences. It also was supposed to level the gender field, enabling women to engage in the same activities and lifestyle as men now that they could sail through life without the responsibilities of pregnancy and childbearing. And, finally, it was supposed to lead to woman’s full initiation into society, endowing her with the opportunities to excel in a career, and demonstrate her competence as equal to, if not surpassing, that of men.

Contraception was supposed to lead to women’s full acknowledgement by men, and full incorporation into society. All of this is in contrast to the “Dark Ages,” or even as recent as the 19th century, in which women were unable to realize their full potential due to their inability to escape their biology.

This notion continues to be emphasized, and has risen to the fore of public consciousness, thanks to the federal mandate requiring all employers to provide free contraceptive coverage in health care plans. A case in point is the following excerpt from The Weekly Standard’s article, “The High Price of ‘Free’ Health Care.”

“Let’s admit what this debate is really, and what Republicans really want to take away from American women. It is contraception,” New York Democrat Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor. He said Republicans were trying to enact a “contraception ban” that would send the country back to the “19th century.” Not to be outdone, Democratic senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey said that “Republicans want to take us back to “the Dark Ages  .  .  .  when women were property that you could easily control, trade even, if you wanted to.”

Partisan polemics aside, the statements are quite telling. There is again a reference to the Dark Ages in connection with contraception, sexuality, and women. Again, the refrain that a woman is only “free” and even “enlightened” and “educated” if she has unlimited, unapologetic access to contraception and abortion.

But if this is truly the case, then why did a recent article lauding female condoms for reducing HIV and associated costs make the following observation? “Officials turned to female condoms to give women more power to protect themselves from HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, especially, if they cannot get their male partners to use condoms.” A city program in Washington, D.C., launched two years ago distributed 200,000 free female condoms in “beauty salons, convenience stores, community clinics, and other locations” in the first year of its implementation. Moreover, the program trains members of the community as “peers” who will encourage women to discuss their “sexual health” while receiving manicures and haircuts.

Stating that at least three percent of Washington residents have HIV or AIDS–epidemic levels by the article’s standards–is it not curious that in this era of the woman, more women are diseased and have to find alternate solutions for protection because they cannot get their male partners to use condoms? All science aside, is it not curious that in an era which was supposed to promise greater liberation and respect for women, they still seem to be just as, if not more, vulnerable to male irresponsibility as ever?

The men just don’t seem to be cooperating, and the government is curiously making the situation worse by encouraging more sexual activity. “We’re finding very good use and uptake for {the District program},” Greg Pappas said. For women who are HIV-positive, “they’re saying, ‘I can have sex again.’”

Of all the troubling factors in this situation, I wish to highlight only one: the need to examine the roots of one’s beliefs in order to unmask the hidden assumptions and prejudices that cloud one’s perception of reality.

I think it is time for women, who are really concerned with freedom and truth, to stop and examine the three points made by the proponents of the march to honor abortion providers:

  1. Abortion providers preserve a vital need for women: the need to have access to abortion, which enables a woman to be free and fully realize herself;
  2. The Catholic Church oppresses women because it condemns birth control;
  3. Strip clubs are sites of women’s oppression because they objectify a woman, feeding a sense of male entitlement to a woman’s body.

There was actually a very telling fourth point which, up to now, I haven’t included: those honoring the march saw all three points as requiring the abolishment of “patriarchy.”

It is an ancient maxim of philosophy that all is received according to the mode of the receiver. Some women have been sexually abused by men in authority. Some have been shamefully used, and left to fend for themselves, and their new child. And, others have felt stifled by being allowed only a very narrow social role, and have been led to believe that their motherhood is to blame. Of course, there are other scenarios not included here, but it is natural to develop a visceral response to an abusive experience, or to internalize the worldview of someone who had been abused, particularly if that person is close to us. And, thereafter, the line between a reasoned position, and a gut reaction, becomes blurred, especially when scenarios, circumstances, authority figures, etc., activate that area which is sensitive and wounded.

The women who wish to honor abortion providers correctly identified strip clubs as a site of women’s oppression, and correctly identified the problem of objectifying women. Yet, how curious that in the same breath, abortion and contraception were lauded! If a woman truly desires to be regarded as a person, and not as something to be used, is contraception really a means to this end? Doesn’t contraception–by its very nature–separate the person from her body, removing personal, faithful,l and life-long commitment, as well as conception, a new life, a new person, from the bodily act of sex? Doesn’t unrestricted access to contraception encourage more sexual activity, since there is no natural reason to abstain, if there is no longer the responsibility of resulting children? Therefore, isn’t there more inclination on the part of a man to cease seeing a woman as a person with whom to share his life, and raise his children, and, instead, to habitually see only a female body to enjoy?

The attacks on Crisis Pregnancy Centers and the Catholic Church are not new, but something that was new for me sifting through these blogs and articles was the realization of how critical it is to try to understand people who write such things. The extent of their grasp of both realities is tragic, not only because they haven’t even scratched the surface, but because they’ve scratched the wrong surface. I am convinced that their crusade stems from unscrutinized, emotional reactions, and from unscrutinized assumptions, that have been culturally indoctrinated for the last few decades.

Our work at the grassroots level, then, beginning with those we run into daily, is to try to start understanding their mode of receiving: what experiences have colored their perception of the Catholic Church? Of the pro-life position? What beliefs underscore their desperate insistence on the need for abortion and contraception? Not until we help them identify their mode of receiving will we be able to give the beauty and internal coherence of the pro-life position, and the Church’s teachings. And when this happens, the debate’s interminable character will cease.

Melanie Baker About Melanie Baker

Melanie Baker holds an MA in Theology from the Dominican House of Studies and a BA in Philosophy from the Catholic University of America. A native Washingtonian, she resides in Bethesda, MD.