Friday, December 23, 2011

Trust Women. God Does.

By Caryn D. Riswold

"As the father of two daughters, I think it is important for us to make sure that we apply some common sense to various rules when it comes to over the counter medicine.” 

So ran President Barack Obama’s recent defense of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’ first-ever-in-history overruling of the FDA decision to allow over-the-counter sale of Plan B, the emergency contraceptive pill, invoked his role as father-in-chief. 

Mr. President, we do not make decisions about the accessibility of medical care based on our feelings as parents.

We make them based on science.  Just like you said we should.

To be sure, the idea that a thirteen-year-old girl is in need of emergency contraception after unprotected sexual intercourse is not something anyone wants to believe is true.

It is.  13% of American teens have had sex by age 15, and the average age for having sex for the first time is 17.  The teen pregnancy rate had been dropping in the U.S. until it rose for the first time in more than a decade in 2006.  The New York Times reported that “some experts speculate that the rise in teenage pregnancy might be partly attributable to the $150 million a year of federal financing for sex education that emphasized abstinence until marriage, avoiding all mention of the possible benefits of contraception.”  It’s not working.

Consider the actual reasons why a thirteen year old girl would need easy access to Plan B.  None of them are what we would like to be true.  Maybe she has a “boyfriend.”  Maybe she was trying to act like a grown-up.  Maybe he won’t stop coming into her room.  Maybe she didn’t know she could say no.  Maybe she is scared to tell her parents.  Maybe her parents are part of the problem.

Feminist social ethicist Beverly Harrison discusses the multiple scenarios possible when a woman is pregnant and does not want to or did not intend to be so:  coercion or assault, lack of knowledge about sex, failure or inability to use effective contraception, or actual failure of said contraception.  In each case, Harrison asks if forcing women to carry a pregnancy to term is in fact the most desirable outcome to enforce on all.  On the contrary, she argues, “we must always insist that the objective social conditions that make women and children already born highly vulnerable can only be worsened by a social policy of compulsory pregnancy.”[1]  Preventing greater access to emergency contraception, which is what Sebelius and Obama have now endorsed in direct opposition to federally funded scientific research, disproportionately affects those women and girls who are already the most vulnerable and on the margins of in our communities.  Continued restriction of Plan B to “behind-the-counter” age-restricted status will affect poor women and women of color much more than thirteen year old white girls.

Not trusting women has consequences for the ones on the margins.

The Christian tradition reveals that trusting them does too.

I rarely read genealogies in the Bible (because, really, who does?), except for the one that mentions five marginal women.  Matthew’s gospel opens with a genealogy of Jesus designed to tie him closely to the Jewish tradition, dating back to Abraham, and pivoting at two crucial points in Hebrew history:  King David, and the deportation to Babylon.  What interrupts the typical patrilineal “father of … father of … father of …” pattern is what makes it interesting.

Perez and Zerah by Tamar.

Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab.

Obed by Ruth.

Solomon by the wife of Uriah.

Mary “of whom Jesus was born.”

Entire libraries have been written about Mary, the mother of Jesus, and many of those volumes by feminist and other women theologians wrestling with the complex legacy of a “virgin mother.”  Nadia Bolz-Weber’s recent post on Sojourners’ God’s Politics blog says, among other things, “I’m not convinced that she was perpetually full of nothing but virtue, virginity and pure receptivity…That yes she gave was fierce.”  Maria LaSala says of the Annunciation story “I also hear in this well-loved scripture text the story of a God who understood that Mary could have a choice. It seems important to God that Mary agree to this pregnancy, that it not be forced upon her.”  But Mary is only one of the marginal women in Matthew’s first chapter.

These five are vulnerable women on the edge of society.  They are not the relatively empowered matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, or even Hannah.  They are women who engineer their own survival and the survival of their people despite the odds against them.  They do what it takes, even if it means sleeping with the father-in-law denying you your rights.  Or lying to protect spies who strike a bargain with you.  Or letting another woman raise your child because she has status and you do not.  Or doing what it takes to survive when the king demands to have you.  Or offering a fierce yes to God’s call.

None of the women are in situations that are ideal:  widowed, unmarried & pregnant, a public woman.  None of them are what we’d like to claim as mothers of the faith.  But they are.  God trusted them – women on the margins of social and sexual acceptability.  They made decisions and engineered their lives, all in less than ideal situations.

When Secretary Sebelius and President Obama tell thirteen year old girls that they don’t think they can use Plan B properly, they are disregarding the FDA studies using “adequate and reasonable, well-supported, and science-based evidence [showing] that Plan B One-Step is safe and effective and should be approved for nonprescription use for all females of child-bearing potential.”  They are relying on paternalism (they can’t understand the label!  FDA studies have already shown otherwise) and parental wishful thinking (I’d like to think they would come talk to me!  Maybe.  Maybe not).

They don’t really trust women.  Or girls.

But we might remember that God does.

[1] Beverly Wildung Harrison, “Theology and Morality of Procreative Choice,” in Making the Connections: Essays in Feminist Social Ethics.  Boston:  Beacon Press, 1985.  115-134.

Caryn D. Riswold, Ph.D., is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition. She is a professor of religion and chair of gender and women’s studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois. Her latest book, Feminism and Christianity, is now available for Kindle, in paperback in the U.S. and U.K., and via your local bookstore. You can follow her on Twitter @feminismxianity.

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