Why Faith Matters.
OVER THE LAST HALF DECADE, researches have recorded consistent growth in the number of the "nones," those who do not identify with any religion. Yet faith remains important to the majority of people. Conscience asked an abortion provider and a choice advocate to reflect on the importance of faith in their work. Both touch on the power of not sitting in judgment.
OUR MOTHER, AN ANGLICAN by faith, whispered one day to me, "Please, don't play with boys to avoid falling pregnant before you complete your education." That was her version of sex education to her preteen daughter, but none was given to my brothers. My first experience of unfortunate loss of life due to unsafe abortion was as a teenager in secondary school. We were sent to Catholic convent schools, as they offered affordable and high-quality education in Kenya. Daily early morning Mass was the norm at school.
One of our final-year seniors did not report back to school after the August vacation. Whispers along the corridors were that she had died after complications from an unsafe abortion. Our Irish headmistress, Sr. Philippine, and her staff swung into action and ushered all us girls from Form 1 to 4 into the school auditorium one afternoon and showed us the movie titled The Silent Scream, narrated by the late Dr. Bernard Nathanson, a practicing obstetrician and gynecologist and one-time advocate of legal abortion turned critic.
The room was soon in turmoil. We burst into tears and yet, for some reason, we weren't permitted to discuss the issue amongst ourselves. Little did we understand that many physicians and abortion advocates at that time widely criticized this documentary as misleading and manipulative. This experience had an everlasting impression on me and was probably the commencement of my advocacy in discussions around the dreaded A-word: ABORTION.
Sex education or even information on contraception did not feature into our strict Catholic school curriculum, and this glaring reality hit home hard, as these were taboo subjects.
During my postgraduate medical training in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Nairobi, we are posted for clinical work at the very busy national referral hospital Kenyatta National Hospital. A special ward created to handle all obstetrics and gynecology cases greatly reduced delays before lifesaving processes were commenced. Residents divided tasks among the staff. A large number of very ill young women needed surgery and antibiotics for septic and incomplete abortions, pelvic abscesses and septicaemia.
Many a time, we removed other implements, including crotchet needles and sticks, from pelvic cavities of young women who didn't disclose that they were pregnant. Women presented so late and were weak. Quick decisions on saving a badly septic uterus or not had to be made.
I joined the Catholic faith just before marriage, and I say a silent prayer as I prepare for any surgical procedure and trust that the God I serve guides me through. I was very privileged to work with nursing and medical staff from different faiths, and I noted that we were not in conflict. I also realized that it is impossible to separate my faith from my professional role as a doctor. My belief system guides my values at work, where I spend most of my waking hours, and motivates me to do what I do best. My clients have faith too, and, as we discuss their care, I often conclude that the issues we cannot resolve we leave to a higher power.
My personal beliefs versus my professional responsibility are tested often, and this takes a great toll on me psychologically. The most difficult role I actually dreaded playing was the first day of post-operative period, either in the intensive care unit or the gynecology ward, when I had to answer questions like "Dr. Odula, I thank God for using you to save my life, but will I be able to get pregnant again when I am ready?"
As young ob-gyns working in the low-income areas of Kenya through an NGO, we realized that the cost for the procedure had to come down drastically to encourage potential clients to come straight to us. During my probation period, our director, in a brief encounter along the corridors, asked, "Dr. Odula, will you offer a safe abortion procedure to a woman who presents multiple times a year to our facility?" This to me was a difficult question at that time. I quickly composed myself, examined my conscience and replied, "Gladly, sir. I will, in addition, link her with a full range of services like contraceptive counseling and other reproductive health services. My role is as a provider and not judge." I was retained as the resident ob-gyn.
CALLIE ODULA-OBONYO is an obstetrician and gynecologist at the University of Nairobi and chair of Kenya's Coalition on Violence Against Women (COVAW).
FAITH BY ITS NATURE CONCERNS itself with humanity's deep, abiding and meaningful questions. It is a search for, and embodiment of truth, meaning, a well-lived life and similar earnest endeavors. As we live in times of political tumult and uncertainty, when reproductive rights have never been under fiercer attack by those who would impose their beliefs on everyone, the urgent necessity of keeping faith in the dialogue about abortion and reproductive health cannot be overestimated.
Faith is for many, myself included, a critical guidepost. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the issue of abortion. Abortion is inseparable from profound questions about life and its meaning, autonomy, agency, compassion, justice and fairness. That is one reason why it continues to be such a provocative modern issue and one on which faith communities must weigh in and be counted. For me, as a black man, a feminist and Catholic, faith matters in conversations about sexual and reproductive health because, personally, it outlines answers to critical life questions and enumerates the values that animate me, in this case, to be unapologetically prochoice. Faith has had a similar effect on the prochoice community. We do ourselves no favors when we sterilize the values, emotion and women out of the conversation. People understand these are complex issues and spot "spin" from leagues away, but the language of faith tends to land sincerely. In fact, one of the most encouraging, and frankly, successful shifts I have seen in our movement for broader access to reproductive health is the move towards values-based language. Catholics for Choice and other faith groups have spoken this way about abortion for decades.
Foremost among my personal guiding values is compassion. It is my North Star. I try to evaluate all that I do through that filter. For me, it means that we must feel with others through love and tenderness. When we talk about complex and deeply personal decisions like abortion and pregnancy, it is not our place to judge or condemn; it is our responsibility to trust, support and love. This is what my faith calls me to do. In a practical sense, my faith calls me to support public funding for abortion because it is wrong and callous that one's income should determine whether or not one can obtain an abortion. Being compassionate, to me, means being prochoice.
As a Catholic, I also revere conscience. I remember being taught from an early age to examine and question authority in service of my conscience, even the church hierarchy's. I was taught the powerful obligation and responsibility to follow my conscience as my "most secret core and ... sanctuary." I came to trust in my heart "the law inscribed by God." (1) No one and nothing could supplant the process of discerning that God-given wisdom. In fact, my siblings and I grew up hearing the story of my mother facing down one of the philosopher priests at her Catholic university, who attempted to require her to write something she did not believe to pass an exam. She refused. I learned the meaning of courage early, as well as the limits of the hierarchy's ability to coerce someone's con science and the wrongness of trying.
This rootedness in my faith, my Catholicism, is always close at hand; it is part and parcel of who I am. It is present in the work I choose to do, lifting up and representing the voices of prochoice Catholics and attempting to treat the people around me. Like others, I am pro-choice because of my faith. I am far from alone; in fact, the majority of America's 70 million Catholics are prochoice. Faith is integral to many people's existence and drives their action, participation and engagement in civil society. For the more than 75 percent of Americans who consider faith to be an important or somewhat important part of their lite, faith is an essential part of their identity. (2) This is just as true for the physicians and clinicians and finance officers who help provide abortions as it is for advocates like me, as it is for the many people of faith who come walking through the clinic doors seeking an abortion. Our movement ignores this fact at its own peril. Positive policy change and culture shift around support for reproductive health, rights and justice will not come without the voices of people of faith, nor will it come if we cede the morally and values-rich language that these issues, especially abortion, inherently demand. Forced pregnancy is immoral, and people of faith are uniquely qualified to deliver that message masterfully. That the bishops and others who oppose abortion and justify it with religion seem to monopolize the discourse when the vast majority of Catholics and other people of faith support the moral agency and autonomy of women to make these decisions vivifies the importance of faith and the need to amplify prochoice Catholic and other faith voices. I am proud that my faith calls me to be one of those voices.
(1) Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 1776.
(2) "Religious Landscape Study," Pew Research Center, 2014.
GLENN NORTHERN is the domestic program director at Catholics for Choice.