I saw this tweet at some point during the weekend, and Beatidude and I had a polite exchange of tweets over it.
@rphillips2001 How do you propose that we convince abortion rights supporters to respect life?
— Roamin’ Catholic (@Beatidude) May 6, 2012
My question to him – which he could not answer – was how can prolifers convince the rest of us that they themselves “respect life”, when they campaign to make abortion illegal, and in the US (Beatidude is an American) campaign to shut down life-saving healthcare services.
There are ethical arguments to be made about abortion. I am no longer willing to debate those issues with people who do not share the basic human rights view that it is the pregnant woman’s responsibility and right to make her own decision for or against abortion, because I do not trust those people to argue honestly.
And this is why.
I once admired and respected Bruce Kent, formerly Monsignor in the Catholic Church, because he seemed to me to be a man of moral courage and principle. In 1987, convinced that nuclear weapons are a moral hazard, he refused to comply with the orders of the Church hierarchy and left the church and his priesthood rather than cease to campaign against nuclear weapons.
The Second Congo War, also known as the Great War of Africa, began in 1998 and officially ended in 2003: but hostilities still continue nine years later. By 2008, it’s estimated the war and the aftermath had killed 5.4 million people. At least 70,000 women and girls were raped.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, abortion is illegal. Doctors Without Borders, caring for victims of the conflict, began to perform abortions on women made pregnant by rape who begged for a termination, and to provide care for women who had had an illegal abortion by an unqualified practitioner and were suffering from the aftereffects.
They did this because they heard the stories from women like this one:
“I will give you an example: One night, robbers came to a house and demanded that the man hand over his wife and daughters or die. He refused. So they began to cut him. They cut off his fingers and blinded his eyes. His wife couldn’t stand it anymore. ‘Take me and let him go,’ she screamed. And they did. Then after they had gang-raped her and each daughter, they robbed the house and left.”
She waited again — for what felt like eternity — before she went on, tight-voiced and loud. “Then the husband began to scream. He threw the wife and daughters out of the house. Those women had no place to go,” she said. “No one, no one,” she paused, “would take them in.”
There was an audible gasp in the tent.
No one would take them in? I felt my arms get a little weak. No one? Where did they go?
The questions came from everywhere at once: “Why not? What are you talking about? Why, in God’s name, did the husband put them out? Do you mean that the husband got angry at the wife?” The disbelief and incredulity in the group was palpable.
“Wait a minute,” I called from the other side of the tent out of my own growing sense of agony. “What in that culture could possibly justify that kind of behavior — from either the rapists or certainly of the husband?”
The woman raised herself up in the old plastic chair. “Men,” she said, “must begin to believe that women are human beings. They must stop saying that women ‘want it.’ Because he believes that women want it; he threw them out. They all do. And the families that will accept the woman back refused to take the child that comes from the rape.”
I am a long-time supporter of Amnesty International. Amnesty International worked with Doctors Without Borders in the Congo, helping these women and other victims of the conflict. AI published this report on Surviving Rape in 2004:
I wish for them to be helped, because I’ve known so many women who were raped but who have had no help. No help at all. In any case, when I see them I feel uncomfortable because, well, you see, I had the fortune to have someone who could help me, but when I go to the hospital and meet all those women who are going through such pain, it makes me sad. For these, I can only wish that the women of Congo be helped because they have suffered so much. Yes. Help especially with medical care.
Violence against women violates women’s rights to life, physical and mental integrity, to the highest attainable standard of health, to freedom from torture and it violates their sexual and reproductive rights.
Upholding women’s human rights, including their sexual and reproductive rights, is essential to preventing and ending gender-based violence.
The lived experience of girls and women shows how central are sexual and reproductive rights to their freedoms and dignity including their right to be free from gender-based violence and as a remedy where they have been subjected to such violence.
What this meant is:
“Amnesty International’s position is not for abortion as a right but for women’s human rights to be free of fear, threat and coercion as they manage all consequences of rape and other grave human rights violations.”
The Vatican’s reaction was, immediately, to urge Catholics worldwide to stop donating to Amnesty International.
And on Tuesday 25th September 2007, Bruce Kent wrote a short article in opposition to Amnesty International (and reacting to a column by Zoe Williams) that destroyed my respect for him.
The reality of Amnesty International’s decision to support a raped woman’s right to choose abortion, and to receive healthcare after an illegal abortion, was this, from an Amnesty International report published in 2004:
In the course of the armed conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), tens of thousands of women and girls have been victims of systematic rape and sexual assault committed by combatant forces. Women and girls have been attacked in their homes, in the fields or as they go about their daily activities. Many have been raped more than once or have suffered gang rapes. In many cases, women and young girls have been taken as sex slaves by combatants. Rape of men and boys has also taken place. Rape has often been preceded or followed by the deliberate wounding, torture (including torture of sexual nature) or killing of the victim. Rapes have been committed in public and in front of family members, including children. Some women have been raped next to the corpses of family members.
The civilian population of eastern DRC has been the victim of war crimes and grave human rights violations on a daily basis. They have seen combatants from around 20 armed factions fighting for control of the land and its resources. In a context of the collapse of state authority in the east, national and international laws are no longer observed and all the armed factions have perpetrated and continue to perpetrate sexual violence with impunity. Rape has been used deliberately and strategically to attack the fundamental values of the community, to terrorize and humiliate those suspected of supporting an enemy group and to impose the supremacy of one group over another.
In addition to the trauma of rape, survivors’ rights are further violated in the aftermath of the rape, deepening their suffering immeasurably. Most women suffering injuries or illnesses caused by the rape – some of them life-threatening – are denied the medical care they need. Because of prejudice, many women are abandoned by their husbands and excluded by their communities, condemning them and their children to extreme poverty. Because of an incapacitated judicial system, there is no justice or redress for the crimes they have endured. Continuing insecurity means that women live in fear of further attacks or reprisals if they speak out against the perpetrators.
What did Bruce Kent have to say about the Catholic Church’s belief that girls and women who had undergone the trauma of rape should have the Congolese law against abortion enforced on their bodies, and this care provided by Doctors Without Borders go unrecognised as a human right?:
Then, within five days, we offer the morning-after pill to avoid unwanted pregnancy. Medical treatment also involves prophylactic antibiotics against the most common sexually transmitted infections (syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia), and tetanus and hepatitis-B vaccinations. The treatment of physical trauma such as lesions, wounds, or other injuries is also recommended. Follow-up is extensive and the total duration of medical treatment is at least six months. For every such treatment for these women, from the very outset it’s essential to identify how abortion can take place. Abortion is illegal in DRC, so we have negotiated the possibility of carrying it out at a local level, with the head doctors in the health zone, but also with our practitioners.
Additionally, on a legal level and for reasons of protection, a medical certificate attesting rape is systematically produced and offered to the patient. During 2005, in our North Kivu projects, 17 percent of women accepted the medical certificate and 21 percent filed a complaint with the local authorities. Finally, we strive to guarantee our two main principles — confidentiality and free health care.
Well, you can read the whole thing at the Guardian website still. But this is all Bruce Kent had to say about the girls and women raped and suffering in the Congo and in other war zones:
- “It is outrageous for Williams to suggest that the church wants to punish those teenage girls in the developing world who are dying because of unsafe abortions.”
- “Unborn children also have human rights.”
- “Those women who have suffered the horror and indignity of rape will not be short of pastoral care from a range of humanitarian groups.”
That’s it. That’s all. Bruce Kent, like myself, had been an Amnesty International supporter: like myself, he doubtless knew more about the reality of the Congo conflict than the average reader of a newspaper. If he had honestly looked at the situation of those rape victims in a war zone, and been prepared to write down that yes, those women, those girls, raped and pregnant and alone, ought to be forced against their will to bear a child though neither their husband nor their father would support them – though no one would take them in – though the “pastoral care” that Bruce Kent bragged of was insufficient to provide homes and and farms for seventy thousand women and their children whose men would not accept them – if he had still been prepared to say, better have those women starve than allow them to have an abortion: well, I would not agree with him – but at least I could have respected his honesty, his willingness to have the debate that he pretended to want.
To write such an article – to openly and plainly say that the Catholic Church would not support either Doctors Without Borders nor Amnesty International in their determination to treat the rape victims of the Congo and other conflicts as human beings, entitled to decide for themselves to have or to terminate a forced pregnancy – might well have made some Catholics think twice about their facile “Abortion is bad” response. I think Bruce Kent is an intelligent, empathic man and he knew that if he was honest about the position of the Catholic Church versus Doctors Without Borders/Amnesty International, most people would disagree with the Church hierarchy’s position. And so he intentionally withheld the facts, and asked with plaintive dishonesty:
Why should Amnesty now leave its traditional focus and take up a position supporting abortion? It is not a hands-on welfare body dealing with cases on the ground.
You cannot have a debate with someone who will not be honest about their position. And I have not found that prolifers are willing to be honest about theirs. They will not talk about the women whom their policies condemn.
Joan Chittister wrote, in National Catholic Reporter, after hearing the story quoted above:
A dark silence hung heavily in a tent full of monks and ministers, catechists and keepers of ancient faiths for a long, long time.
The pain now had another dimension to it. These countries have been “converted” for centuries. You have to wonder, don’t you? What have they been told about women by the religious men who catechized them? What snide jokes and demeaning theology are still being taught about women by patriarchal religions? By the actions of exclusion and control and invisibility and domination and subordination of women by church men and holy elders everywhere? Even here. Even now.
From where I stand, it seems to me that male “protection,” paternalism and patriarchal theology are not to be trusted anymore because the actions it spawns in both men and women have limited the full humanity of women everywhere, and on purpose.
The prolife movement are not the only ones who deny the full humanity of women. And some at least are genuinely ignorant or youthfully innocent: holding a blithe belief that really bad things don’t happen except to women who deserve them. But no long-term supporter of Amnesty International could believe we live in a world where all goes well: no one who believes in the humanity of women could believe a woman raped because she could not bear to see her husband tortured, then deserves to be treated as less than human by those who are supposed to be providing, as Kent put it, “pastoral care”.