A few years ago, as I was attending a U.N. Commission on the Status of Women panel on barriers to development for women and girls in Sub-Saharan Africa, I became struck with sudden abdominal cramps. I rushed to the bathroom knowing that my period had come early. Unfortunately, the sanitary napkin dispensers in that building had never been set up and stocked. Building administrators simply left them empty when the coin function did not work, as they balked at the idea of providing tampons for free, a nurse explained apologetically. As experts presented data on how lack of access to sanitary napkins impeded girls’ school attendance, one could not find any inside the United Nations annex.
The irony was not lost on the women from every continent who gathered in the bathroom during a break, where a lovely woman from Nigeria provided me with a pad.
Of course, the wide gap between the rhetoric about women’s equality and the lived reality of women is not unique to the United Nations. When I was 13, my feminist grandmother chastised me for throwing out a used pad in the bathroom trash can. She insisted it would scandalize my grandfather or younger brother if they knew I had my period.
We are bad at talking about women’s bodies—a fact that constrains and distorts our conversations about and policies related to women’s health.
Culturally, we are bad at talking about women’s bodies—a fact that constrains and distorts our conversations about and policies toward not just feminine hygiene products but a host of issues related to women’s health. When it comes to pregnancy, in particular, there is a lack of basic biological knowledge, as the debate over new abortion laws in Alabama and Georgia has put in stark relief.
As a Catholic, pro-life feminist, I agree with Rebecca Bratten Weiss that the current debate between pro-life and pro-choice activists and politicians “fails to do justice to the complexity and gravity of the issues at hand. It forces one into narrow ideological boxes based on one’s support or opposition to policies and legislation.” Ms. Bratten Weiss asks that we set aside the philosophical debate about fetal personhood and “instead focus on working for a truly pro-woman, pro-child society.” Practically and politically, I agree with her. Theologically, however, I think Catholics do need to talk about personhood—because questions of women’s embodied personhood are lurking underneath these public debates.
Our categories and language struggle to capture the embodied complexities of women’s health. Consider the Catholic employers who have resisted the mandate under the Affordable Care Act to cover hormonal birth control as part of basic medical care for women. The church considers it acceptable to make women prove they are using forms of hormonal birth control for licit reasons in order to obtain coverage—rather than acknowledging that this medicine has both licit and illicit uses within Catholic moral theology and respecting women’s conscience. As a result, women are often forced to jump through many hoops to “prove” that they experience excessively painful periods, making it more difficult to get proper treatment for already undertreated conditions like endometriosis. Additionally, Catholic women are often hesitant to use hormonal birth control in a licit manner as a treatment for relevant conditions because it has been so often criticized by church leaders.
This is not just about pregnancy and abortion; it is about women as embodied persons equally created in the image of God.
This is not just about pregnancy and abortion; it is about women as embodied persons equally created in the image of God. Part of the problem is that our categories were developed solely with attention to male bodies as normative. The theological anthropology concerning women remains deeply influenced by St. Thomas Aquinas, who despite maintaining woman’s status as imago dei, embedded in his categories the assumption of women’s passivity and described their “individual nature” as “defective and misbegotten.”
Since St. John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council and opened up the church to the modern world, Catholic social teaching has shifted its view of women in society and began to emphasize the participation and human rights of women. St. John Paul II promoted a personalist philosophy that emphasized agency, freedom and gift of self to others as central to human persons in community. However, as Brianne Jacobs identifies, these advances are obscured when discussion turns to women’s bodies, where “women’s bodies, as an expression of their constitution, are defined by the function of child-bearing.”
In developing our theological categories, we must begin by centering the experiences of women and allowing our assumptions to be challenged by them.
As a result, the moral complexity of women’s embodied lives are elusive in official pronouncements of Catholic moral theology. This problematic ambiguity is found in Pope Francis’ statements regarding women. On the one hand, he has given much greater attention to violence against women, noted the ways the church has failed “to adequately accompany” women facing crisis pregnancies and lifted up women’s voices within the Vatican. But his gaffes often involve lapsing into patriarchal stereotypes of women, with jokes about feminism, old maids or mother in laws.
Much remains to be done to develop our theological categories and approach within Catholic moral theology to engage women’s full embodied dignity and to recognize, as Jacobs argues, that “our bodies bear histories of power dynamics...[which are] reiterated in our bodies, and give them social significance today.”
In developing our theological categories and responding to ongoing moral problems, we must begin by centering the experiences of women and allowing our theological assumptions to be challenged by them. Reframing discussions of women’s health to view reproduction within a holistic approach to the life, health and well-being is a necessary start. A woman’s period should not be viewed solely in relation to pregnancy. The female reproductive system is integrated within her overall body, not an isolated aspect of it tied merely to procreation.
Practically, the next step is to ask ourselves some tough questions to examine where we are or are not supporting the full embodied human flourishing of women and girls. How do we support women who experience such menstrual pain that it affects their ability to complete their jobs? How do we support women and girls who cannot afford tampons or sanitary napkins each month? Do we make them free in all secondary schools and prisons? How do we eliminate the stigma of publicly talking about women’s health so that conditions like endometriosis are identified and treated early? Do we listen to and support poor women to make decisions about their family’s well-being? Do we take seriously the maternal health crisis among African-American women?
Until then, women will remain an abstract category within our political and religious debates, while real women and girls suffer on the margins.