We need a new pro-life movement built on social justice

Young women in front of the U.S. Supreme Court during the 45th annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., Jan. 19, 2018 (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)Young women in front of the U.S. Supreme Court during the 45th annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., Jan. 19, 2018 (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

On the first day of class, each of us seated in the medium-sized lecture hall shared why we had decided to pursue a master’s in public health and what we intended to do with the degree. Most students talked about wanting to work for clinics in underserved communities or for humanitarian programs abroad. But one colleague’s response stood out: “I want to work for Planned Parenthood, and someday, I want to be the president of Planned Parenthood.”

I was stunned by the statement. But no one else was.

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During my 16 years of Catholic schooling, I had never heard Planned Parenthood mentioned so casually—and so favorably—in a classroom setting. And in all my years living in the Midwest, where most people I knew were Christians of some stripe, it had never occurred to me that revealing my faith to someone might create tension. But now I found myself on the East Coast, in public health school, and I was the only Catholic that I knew of in my cohort.

In a very pro-choice environment, I represented the other side of an issue and, I feared, all the stereotypes that come with it. 

I kept my Catholic identity to myself for most of the first semester. I worried how I would be perceived if I discussed my faith openly. In a very pro-choice environment, I represented the other side of an issue and, I feared, all the stereotypes that come with it. To some of my classmates, being pro-life meant protesting and shaming women outside abortion clinics—the same clinics at which they volunteered as patient escorts.

Eventually, it became difficult to hide my Catholicism. Any classmate I became friends with on Facebook knew I loved two things: babies (I am a doula, after all) and Pope Francis. But I decided that if I were to get along, make friends and not be seen as anti-woman or some sort of fanatic, I needed to avoid engaging in conversations about the morality of abortion—and I was happy to do just that.

I had long ago abandoned the pro-life movement of my high school and college years. The people I walked beside at the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., trafficked in the extreme: graphic images of abortions or displays of faith that bordered on self-righteousness. And it was these voices that seemed to have the most funding, publicity and political clout. Groups like Feminists for life or Pro-Life Democrats were also present at the march, but their witness seemed overshadowed.

If I were to get along, I needed to avoid engaging in conversations about the morality of abortion—and I was happy to do just that.

About a year into my graduate coursework, I was approached by the professor of a reproductive health advocacy course, a woman of faith I deeply admired. Her request was surprising: Could I write up a brief summary of the Catholic view on abortion for her class to read? She wanted students to be exposed to all sides of the issue, but most of all to understand “the other side” in the way they understood themselves.

I readily agreed and got to work. The most natural place to begin was St. John Paul II’s “The Gospel of Life.” I had not read the document in years, and upon revisiting it I realized: This encyclical is not just about being pro-life; it is also about social justice.

“Decisions that go against life,” the pope writes, “sometimes arise from difficult or even tragic situations of profound suffering, loneliness, a total lack of economic prospects, depression and anxiety about the future.” He later poses the question: “Should we not question the very economic models often adopted by States which...cause and aggravate situations of injustice and violence in which the life of whole peoples is degraded and trampled upon?”

Frequently, difficult situations are presented to justify abortion, and yet abortion falls woefully short as a solution to the problem.

Frequently, difficult situations are presented to justify abortion, and yet abortion falls woefully short as a solution to the problem. Take the example of a single mother living in poverty with multiple children who has an abortion because she lacks the economic means to care for another child. The fundamental issue for this family—the upstream cause, as practitioners in the public health world might say—is not pregnancy, but poverty. Should we as a society fight for the right of this woman to have an abortion? Or should we put that energy toward lifting her and her family out of poverty? According to “The Gospel of Life,” we do not need to choose between defending life and working to create the material conditions that can support that life.

Not long after the class read my summary of Catholic pro-life teaching, a friend who was the teaching assistant for the course approached me. She said that she knew I had written the piece, and I braced myself for her reaction. But instead of spewing the hatred and venom I had been told to expect from the other side, she expressed nothing but respect for my point of view. “I don’t agree with you,” she said. “You know that. But I will say, I had never heard it explained that way.”

Sadly, neither had I. Most of my life in the pro-life movement, the most prominent messages focused exclusively on the morality of abortion. Social justice—the idea that we must advocate for circumstances favorable to raising a child and allowing him or her to thrive—was never mentioned. I believe a good number of my pro-choice classmates could find common ground with that position.

In all my years in the pro-life movement, had I been told that most pro-choice advocates want to keep abortion rare.

Nor, in all my years in the pro-life movement, had I been told that most pro-choice advocates want to keep abortion rare. Many of the pro-choice friends I made in my public health program fought for abortion rights but did not celebrate actual abortions themselves—a stereotype that has only served to further polarize the issue.

Ironically, by enrolling in a largely pro-choice program I was able to articulate a pro-life vision that I could truly believe in: a movement not dominated by the legality or morality of abortion but one continually advocating laws that are conducive to bringing life into the world. Just and equal wages, paid parental leave, universal health care as a human right, subsidized quality child care, a world free of racism, violence and sexism—for me these goals are intertwined with my opposition to abortion. Those are policies that my classmates, the public health world, pro-life and pro-choice advocates alike, could get behind.

A pro-life movement built on social justice would be equipped to address one of the predominant reasons women have abortions, socioeconomic circumstances. The public health world has now gotten behind what we call the social determinants of health, the idea that the conditions in which we live affect our health and well-being. Those same social determinants influence a woman’s decision to have an abortion.

By enrolling in a largely pro-choice program I was able to articulate a pro-life vision that I could truly believe in.

Yet that rallying cry, that priceless common ground where so much progress could be made, is woefully overshadowed by charged rhetoric, alienating stereotypes, shame, blame and single-issue voting.

All of this stirs up within me a feeling, the familiar feeling I get every morning when I pass the Planned Parenthood clinic and see the same scene. There are women in bright neon vests near the door escorting women into the clinic—young volunteers who could easily be my classmates and friends. And mixed among them are protesters bent over in prayer or handing out pamphlets—older women who could easily sit beside me in the pew on Sunday.

There are thousands of young pro-life women like me who are not outside that clinic praying, passing brochures or holding graphic signs. We have found ourselves outside of a movement we once identified with. Even as we become active in today’s struggle for women’s rights, we hold on to our foundational belief in the dignity of life at all stages.

We are sitting at the stoplight, observing this scene in a sort of unsettled sadness—knowing full well there is so much work we, as pro-life women, have left to do.

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JR Cosgrove
1 year 10 months ago

Good article but

Why the term "social justice?" Why not the term "justice" by itself?

How is "social justice" different from plain "justice?"

Ysais Martinez
1 year 10 months ago

In my opinion, terms like: "marginalized" and "social justice" can be loosely applied to almost the complete opposite of the actual meaning of the those words.

JR Cosgrove
1 year 10 months ago

Beating people into silence is an objective of many. Shaming is a new tactic of the digital age.

You deleted most of your comment which I thought was very good. I was essentially responding to that.

Robert Klahn
1 year 10 months ago

There is a huge difference between removing barriers that prevent those of a race or ethnic background or religion from surviving in our society, and putting a criminal in prison.

Just as there is a difference between criminal and civil justice.

Social Justice is a specific subset of justice. The real question is, why does the use of the term "social justice" even cause you to ask the question?

Tim Donovan
1 year 10 months ago

I commend Ms. Gebel for having the courage to write an article about the Catholic Church's position on abortion in the face of an apparently largely "pro-choice" audience. As a former long-time Democrat of more than 3 0 years, (I'm 56), I reluctantly became a Republican several years ago. Unlike many Republicans, I favor the consistent ethic of life approach. For instance, I not only oppose the violence of abortion, but capital punishment, support stringent gun control laws, and reasonable laws and regulations to protect our environment. I also support reasonable government assistance to the millions of Americans in need. Although I'm not a pacifist, I respect their convictions. I support war only after diplomatic measures have been exhausted, and it's of course immoral to deliberately target civilians. I also oppose the use of nuclear weapons even in the case of attack. I know this may be naive, but I seriously doubt whether any other nation would employ such weapons. I agree with Pope Francis who I believe has called for an eventual elimination of nuclear weapons from our world. As one who has peacefully demonstrated outside abortion centers some years ago, I agree that the focus should be on offering pregnant women assistance to meet their needs so that they won't choose the violence of abortion. I agree that the use of graphic images of aborted babies is unnecessary, and while I have in the past prayed the rosary at abortion centers, I now believe that public prayer may be unhelpful, given the fact that an increasing number of Americans, especially young people, don't identify with any organized religion. (As an aside, I believe that silent prayer is perfectly acceptable and worthwhile at abortion centers). It's nearly impossible to choose a candidate for office who supports the consistent ethic of life. However, with one million innocent unborn human beings killed by legal abortion each year in our nation, I do believe that a candidate for office who supports legal abortion -on-demand should be disqualified from office. A candidate who, while conservative on many issues supports restoring legal protection to the unborn should be supported, unless he or she has unreasonable positions on other major issues. This may mean refraining from voting for any candidate for a particular office.

Robert Klahn
1 year 10 months ago

You became a Republican? So sorry to see that you have fallen into error.

Gail Bederman
1 year 10 months ago

Ms. Gebel: This is exactly the movement I want to join. Please sign me up.

Sheila Hannon
1 year 10 months ago

You give me hope for the future in a very grim present.

Jim Lein
1 year 10 months ago

Pro-life and pro-choice are not incompatible. The focus on the law has divided us for, what, 45 years? The law, of course, is Caesar's way. Christ's way is one all Christians and many others can agree on. Don't rely on the harsh, unfeeling hand of the law.
Social justice we can all agree on: support for women with problem pregnancies. And this includes looking at the pressure women receive for terminating a pregnancy, all too often from the man responsible for the pregnancy. Men are a big part of the abortion problem; there would of course be no unwanted pregnancies without us. We should pretty much shut up with the criticism of women considering or having abortions. We should be doing more to help these women feel able to give birth in our overly capitalistic society where money and jobs are more important than children.

Robert Klahn
1 year 10 months ago

You hit so many significant points.

Or, as I have been saying, we live in a family unfriendly society.

rose-ellen caminer
1 year 10 months ago

Is it really poor people who are having abortions? Historically, for very good reasons, it is poor people who have a lot of children, and poor people who want a lot of child. There is social status and personal fulfillment that comes with having children among the poor.Being a mother confers status for the woman. People who are professionals or are aspiring to having professional careers seek fulfillment and joy in their work. It is in their highly professional careers, that status among the professional class is conferred.[ The very rich also are more likely to have a lot of children, I think]. For the poor whose lives can be rather tedious otherwise, looking forward to the birth of a child is a source of anticipation, something to look forward to, a break in the tedium of every day poverty,and the birth of a child is a time for joy. Having children is perceived by the poor not as an impediment to happiness or fulfillment, but a source of it. The thrill of anticipating a new arrival, the comfort and joy the birth brings, not only breaks the ordinary monotony or hardship of poverty, but with each child is the hope that this child will bring blessings on all, as an adult.It is the professional class , the aspiring professional, for who having children is perceived as a threat to their future success .

The narrative has been made by pro choice feminists, and probably by some sociologists, that women/girls have abortions because they can't afford to have kids. I do not buy that is the reason, or that poor women and girls are the ones who mostly have abortions.

If it is indeed true that it is poor people who are having the most abortions today, it is because[ I think], they are being propagandized that their lives will be more fulfilling and somehow "better" if they don't have a lot of children. It is because they are being made to feel like it is wrong to not have a career or be highly educated or have a high income , and still have children. It is because they have been brainwashed.

Robert Klahn
1 year 10 months ago

It was easy to find the statistics.
https://www.guttmacher.org/infographic/2017/abortion-rates-income
https://www.guttmacher.org/infographic/2016/abortion-patients-are-disproportionately-poor-and-low-income

Yes, 75% of abortion patients are poor or low income.

And no, they are not brainwashed, they, quite accurately, know that the best way to move up in this society is to be childless. In our society the road to prosperity leads as much to the abortion clinic door as the college class room door.

A poor woman who has children young is less likely to be successful in our society.

James Haraldson
1 year 10 months ago

You clearly are impressed with yourself for your belief in your superior concern. But for starters you might consider not insulting God by referring to pro-aborts as “pro-choicers.” God invented free will, not the sort of self-worshipers who want to hide from a conscience repressed from killing children by taking moral refuge through taking credit for an innate quality of the human condition. No one can be “pro-choice” anymore than they can be pro eyeball or pro earlobe, and it is profoundly evil to demonstrate respect for that delusional term. And you really need to overcome some off-the-wall naiveté if you believe there are not masses of pro-aborts who do not rejoice for every abortion independent of the circumstances and have any desire at all to keep abortion “rare.” Don’t you even read their publications?
It is also rather foolish to think of oneself as special for opposing poverty—even Hitler did as much—and especially indulgent to pretend it can ever be eliminated. Even God doesn’t have the power to eliminate poverty given its moral components, including the sins of the poor that can never be eradicated.
For all your talk about sanctimony, you voice accusatory cliché words representing human corruptions for which you claim heroic opposition and call them “policies.” Opposition to “racism and sexism” are not “policies.” Yet to believe an actual policy of “equal wages” would alleviate poverty rather than exacerbate it reveals profound economic ignorance, and it is self-indulgent to pretend otherwise. Leftist clichés are simply insults of accusation, culturally, mindlessly, and very typically made by anti-Christian bigots without any foundation.
“Social justice” itself is a profoundly evil term for a profoundly evil set of ideas, a nice sounding cliché phrase as a cover for leftism. When put into practice historically by its advocates, it merely results in increases in poverty and government mandated mass murder. Despite your lack of knowledge, clearly limited from sources that enable you to feed your appetite for a sense of superiority, the volunteerism of pro-lifers continues to provide real help for the poor. Operating through tens of thousands of organizations around the world, we’ve provided food, shelter, clothing, furniture, and medical help, not to mention clean water and orphanages in the third world. If you’re so convinced of the moral superiority of pro-aborts to pro-lifers, give an accounting as to why it is, of these tens of thousands of aid organizations around the world for women in crisis pregnancies, one hundred percent have been created by pro-lifers and zero percent, as in zero, not a single one, anywhere, have been created by pro-aborts, who are euphemistically, ironically, and absurdly called pro-choicers?

Stephanie Hampton
1 year 10 months ago

Thank you. I find more love and true Catholic teaching in your elucidation than anything else I have read on the subject.

Nora Bolcon
1 year 10 months ago

The obvious problem with this article is that yes we should vote for social justice laws because they encourage justice for all but that does not constitute making abortion a crime a law worthy of supporting. Take the example of the poor single mother, if we criminalize abortion before we make the laws getting her out of poverty, she still starves or loses her whole unaffordable family to state custody - this is not any kind of justice. Even if good laws are passed to protect men and women who are trying to raise children with low incomes, take a look at our current leaders, those laws can be changed. Now we are seeing our leadership attack Medicare and Medicaid and this after Obamacare.

I am a Catholic who believes abortion is wrong and believes the church should always teach it is a grave sin alongside adultery, etc. However illegalization of abortion only leads to more abortions and more dangerous abortions for the mother and there has been abundant proof of these facts globally. This is especially true where there is difficult access to birth control.

I love our church but it is a sexist church at present. It has always been more than happy to try and subjugate women under men's control from very early on, even by using fertility to do so. This is it's number one sin, and weakness even now - it's obvious and blinding misogyny is the primary reason many youth are leaving yet we continue to hold bias against women despite this fact.

Poverty, which Pope John Paul II so aptly stated is often a huge cause for abortion in many countries is always increased by any amount of sexism. This also has been well proven on a global scale. Get rid of sexism in a place and poverty starts dissolving too, along with many other nasty elements such as child abuse and rape. However, this same Pope not only refused to ordain women to priesthood equally to men as the commandments of Christ require, as Christ demands we treat all the same as we wish to be treated and never stated women should not have all the same sacraments available to them as all baptized Christians, but he even made our church more sexist. He mandated that any women who claimed to be called to Holy Orders was worthy of excommunication along with any man who supported her. He demanded a cart blanc non-disclosure on all people who believed women were called to equal sacraments, by telling them, if you defend this or speak or discuss it in church or publicly, you can expect that your rights to all sacraments are taken away. You are no longer really Catholic anymore, basically, you are kicked out of your faith, and your salvation is likely lost as well.

This abusive letter and order by Pope John Paul, II was pure sexism, pure misogyny and it creates the very poverty in secular society that he claimed causes abortions. Once men and women have these biased beliefs about the lesser sacredness of women ingrained in their heads they put them to work in the world, and to the extreme harm of all women. There is only bad fruit that comes from sexism so why are we still supporting it?

If we really care about Jesus, we will do as he says and commands, which is treat all the way we wish to be treated. Demand the abusive laws of our church be fixed before we go pointing fingers at secular laws and then consider why are we so desperate to create secular laws when Jesus never once asked us to make any laws, in any country, about anything.

I will also note that although I never would want an abortion and believe abortion is harmful to women, as I agree, yes, what most women really need is an alternative they can live with inside their current reality, I do not believe that what constitutes a right law in church necessarily constitutes a right law in secular society. Church must decide what is morally Christian to teach and what should be considered sin morally by church law and rules. Secular society has the task of making certain that no human being is given greater rights over another, including the unborn.

Any abortion law that has been proposed does not give the unborn equal rights to the mother but greater than equal rights to the mother. Many people would have their lives saved by forced organ transplants, forced blood transfusions and forced organ donation from the bodies of those just passed away, and some of the people saved would be young and even children. However, we do not force people to give up organs, if they match someone who needs one, we don't call people who won't give blood donations murderers, and we don't pass laws demanding the donation of deceased organs, nor do we shame these people who do not choose to donate.

All women do in pregnancy, before birth, is allow the fetus to use their organs until the fetus' organs are developed enough to no longer need the mother's organs. To put women in jail or to make laws that put women in jail, or doctors, who safely perform abortions in jail, because a woman does not choose to keep her pregnancy is really not much different than demanding organs or blood against the will of the person who has the healthy organs or blood and jailing them if they don't comply. Since we are not willing to do the later, I fail to see how criminalizing abortion isn't just another sexist set of rules aimed at only women because only women get pregnant. If we care about saving all lives why aren't we forcing blood and organ donations and organ transplants? I am no longer willing to play the hypocrite to get along with all the other hypocrites - this church needs to start talking truth to itself and especially in matters of women.

For those who genuinely care about decreasing abortion rates, in our country and in other western and even third world countries, the evidence is clear: It is easy and free access to birth control that is monumental at decreasing abortion everywhere around the world. Add to this, laws which give greater access to maternity/paternity leave, free and good quality state run day care, universal and good quality health care, make all the difference at lowering abortion rates. I will add Pro-Life's non-freedom-threatening teachings. People who simply teach the value of the life in the womb - with no or else! at the end of the lesson, I believe do help some too.

What would Jesus do? The Christian thing: don't condemn, don't judge the desperate person. Instead offer real help, and teach without the threat of criminalization that the life in their womb is worth saving and knowing and loving.

Carl Kuss
1 year 10 months ago

Lovely article. You write:
"The fundamental issue for this family—the upstream cause, as practitioners in the public health world might say—is not pregnancy, but poverty. Should we as a society fight for the right of this woman to have an abortion?Or should we put that energy toward lifting her and her family out of poverty? According to “The Gospel of Life,” we do not need to choose between defending life and working to create the material conditions that can support that life."
That is right on. Unfortunately, it is not always safe to assume that we all agree that poverty is evil. The Cult of Money is behind the Culture of Death, and the Cult of Money is practiced both by the Capitalist Right AND the Socialist Left, which is not interested so much in relieving poverty as exploiting poverty for purposes of Political Power. We cannot be Single Issue Voters who always vote Republican for pro-life reasons; but neither can we be voters who indiscriminately vote for the Political Left. Exploitation is not a monopoly of any political group.
In short social transformation is the key to building the Culture of Life, but social transformation is not to be confused with mere socialism. The social fabric must be strengthened because the essential task of the social fabric is the defense of the least among us.
Here is a link to a video series I made on the theme of pro-life as social cause: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T5qXnt9RmlE The first part reproduces the text of MLK's I have a dream speech; that sets the stage for what follows.

Carl Kuss
1 year 10 months ago

The problem with talking about abortion in terms of morality is not that abortion is not a moral question; it is. The problem is that we have collectively forgotten about what morality is really all about, delivering morality over to the rigorists, and the finger pointers. (Sometimes in life you do need to point fingers, the problem with most finger-pointers is that they are also hypocrites and liars who are pointing fingers at the wrong persons.)
This is why I admire the critique of moral/sexual rigorism Pope Francis has realized with startling bravery.
We need to do a fundamental revision of what we mean by "morality," "law" and "society."

Annette Magjuka
1 year 10 months ago

There are so many negative and tragic consequences for woman in making abortion illegal. I heard a Catholic priest on the Samantha Bee show say,, “sometimes a mother has to die wiith her baby.” A pregnant woman should be a person with full rights and control over her body. We do not live The Handmaid’s Tale yet and we don’t want to. The MOTHER should decide according to her conscience what to do. Catholic hospotals must stop
Refusing lifesaving treatment to women with medically dangerous prehnancies. So many things are decided by the male church hierarchy that harm women and children. It is time for a new way of framing the conservation where women are considered full human beings.

Matthew Kilburn
1 year 10 months ago

The biggest problem with "social justice" is that, so often, it is less about "justice" than it is about "redistribution". By focusing only on outcomes (wealth, health, etc), and not inputs (intelligence, dilligence, responsibility, etc), how can you determine what is actually just or unjust? Is it truly unjust that the dropout or the drug user has a difficult life? Is it just to take away from the one who made responsible decisions to satisfy the one who didn't?

The case for focusing on the legality of abortion over the socioeconomic conditions that (sometimes) lead to it is that the risk of causing harm to innocent parties is far, far lower.

Matthew Kilburn
1 year 10 months ago

Null

Dan Keener
1 year 10 months ago

I appreciate your sentiment here, and your desire and constructive action to build bridges across the dehumanizing ideological divides that so hinder us. But if you think socialist policies like you are describing are going to lift people out of poverty and create the sort of "justice" that will nurture the dignity and flourishing of human life, then you're just not paying much attention to the world we live in.

Jim Lein
1 year 10 months ago

Socialist is not a dirty word. It could be used to describe what Jesus urged us to do, meeting others needs before our wants are satisfied, even selling our homes to put money in common for this purpose. Capitalist is a dirtier word, pooling money in the hands of a few, leaving the rest to fend for themselves.

Matthew Kilburn
1 year 10 months ago

Socialist is a dirty word when it ends up penalizing diligence and responsibility and subsidizing recklessness and hedonism. That is to say, always. Or at least, always under present conditions. Don't the wealthy and successful also deserve justice? Is it just to deny them the benefits of their labor? Treating the well-off as expendable and exploitable is just as vile and dehumanizing as treating the poor that way.

Jim Lein
1 year 10 months ago

The 44 or so years spent on law change efforts and on angry protests could have focused more on Jesus' message of love and concern and support for women with problem pregnancies, creating an environment where pro-choice more and more means pro-life. A helping hand held out rather than the cold hard hand of the law forcing them into a desperate situation. Helping women to choose new life, even though our society is not very welcoming for this new life. Lately, for example, more and more people have complained about women breast-feeding in public, probably the same people who want law change. Rather than slamming doors of clinics we need to open doors in our society for pregnant women, for nursing women, for children, helping women to see it possible to choose new life. Jesus' way not Caesar's way.

Oops. I got going again after reading the print edition. I am repeating myself. Sorry.

Robert Klahn
1 year 10 months ago

This is so very true. Removing the reasons for abortion is the biggest step to ending abortion.

Charles Erlinger
1 year 10 months ago

Since the term justice under most of its meanings in common usage is about interactions between and among humans, in that sense it is by definition social. But if justice is used to denote the moral virtue of justice as distinct from legal justice, for example, then it may be useful, when the kind of transaction being distinguished is distributive justice, to modify the expression to specify social justice. It seems that in this context, social is used to mean distributive.

Michael Schaefer
1 year 10 months ago

Saying pro-lifers do not support "social justice" is a stereotype with little data behind it. It's too often based on anecdotal evidence presented by op-ed writers with an ax to grind. The writer also applies a different standard to her liberal friends. Have many liberals have started a group to keep abortion rare? I have been active in my area with nonprofits for years and I can't think of one in the tri-state or Philadelphia areas.

Nonprofits need to keep their mission focused if they want to raise money in most cases. A charity with too broad of a mission usually doesn't raise a lot of money via donations.

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