By Kate Henley Averett
A friend of mine, a white woman, shared with me once that her adopted son, when he was only two years old, had looked up at her while playing and said “Mommy, I wish that for just one day you could know what it was like to have brown skin.” I imagine that her heart must’ve broken, both from realizing that her son was already being made to feel “other” at such a young age and from the knowledge that he was right: in this area, at least, she would never be able to truly understand what her son’s experiences were like.
Sometimes, I want to say something similar to the hierarchy of the Church: “Guys, I wish that for just one day you could know what it was like to be a woman.” To have felt the scary reality of being powered-over by a man, to have worried about being a victim of sexual assault, if not having already experienced it firsthand. To feel marginalized by society by not having the reality of your experiences understood.
I especially want to say this to the hierarchy this week as I’ve been thinking—almost obsessing, really—about the case in Brazil that’s making headlines all over the world, in which a 9-year-old girl, who had been raped repeatedly by her stepfather for years, was allowed an abortion after it was discovered that she was 15 weeks pregnant with twins. The Church’s response? To excommunicate the girl’s mother and the doctor who performed the procedure.
I was overcome when I first read about this case. Anger and sadness swirled inside me to the point that I felt sick to my stomach. It seemed like yet another case where the Vatican’s stance on “pro-life” issues was blindly applied without any consideration for the reality of the situation at hand—a reality which this girl, her mother, and I would argue, almost any woman, would realize is much more complex than a question of whether abortion is right or wrong. The reality of this case is that the girl weighed less than 80 pounds; it is almost certain that she, let alone the twins, would not have survived the pregnancy. But beyond that, the reality was that this child was slowly and painfully having her life taken away from her already, having endured sexual abuse since the age of six. How is this not considered a crime against life by the Church? Why does the Church only seem to want to make a point about the value of life when it involves conception or abortion? Why not, instead, fight to honor the value of the lives of children already born by, as Jon O’Brien at Catholics For Choice suggests, “focus[ing] on social justice in advocating for an end to violence against women and girls, supporting a preferential option for the poor and standing for women’s health”?
The Church has reportedly reversed its stance on the case and will not be excommunicating the mother and doctor after all. But I can’t help but think that the damage has already been done. The message has been sent to this girl that the Church doesn’t really understand or value her experience, that it is more intent on upholding principles than on actually valuing her life, and that her mother’s attempt to save her life was a bigger crime than her stepfather’s abuse. And to women and girls everywhere, it serves as a reminder that the exclusively male leadership of the Church is an injustice to more than just the women whose priestly vocations it ignores, but also to women whose experiences of oppression will never be understood or appreciated by those in power in the Church.
Kate Henley Averett is a pro-choice Catholic who awaits the day when the pro-life and pro-choice camps can get past labels and come together to talk productively about issues surrounding abortion, like poverty, race, sexism, sexual abuse, and access to health care. Kate works in childcare and lives with her partner in Cambridge, MA