ON BEING A WOMAN.
BY FRANCES KISSLING
Global Fund for Women Co-Founder
It’s the 21st century and around the world, women still don’t have the right to control their own bodies. This is one of the reasons why we are deepening financial and other support to women’s organizations fighting for sexual, reproductive rights and health for all women and girls. One leader who has guided us from the start is Frances Kissling, a co-founder of the Global Fund for Women and leading scholar and activist in the fields of religion, reproduction and women’s rights. The former president of Catholics for a Free Choice, Frances is now a visiting scholar at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Women bear the brunt of the pain that comes with human rights.” Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka \\ Global Fund for Women Board Member and U.N. Women Executive Director
In that simple sentence Phumzile set the stage for a new understanding of sexual and reproductive rights as compassionate human rights; human rights advocacy as the effort to alleviate suffering. That suffering originates in the Abrahamic idea of sex as an evil, punishable offense. In the Genesis narrative of the loss of paradise God said to the woman, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
In too many places this biblical verse still influences how we think about women, sex and reproduction. We ignore the pain women suffer when they take charge of their own bodies: decide whom they will love; expect to be treated as the subjects of their lives not the objects of their partners’ lives; and decide for themselves when and whether they will bring new life into the world. They take the task of procreation seriously considering not just themselves but the best interests of a child that might be born, an existing family and the economy they face, even the best interests of a community and the earth itself.
At the level of the eternal unconscious, women’s power to decide whether to bring new life into the world or not is a challenge to men’s sense of fertility and power. No one is to blame, but women’s power over life and death is frightening. Abraham Lincoln put best when he said, “a woman is the only thing I am afraid of that I know will not hurt me.”
It would have been far better had nature made it possible for both men and women to gestate new life. Imagine a world in which men could get pregnant. Would the Chilean president marvel at a raped, pregnant 11-year-old boy’s “wisdom and maturity” when he decided to have the baby and hold it in his arms like a “little doll” or would he have higher aspirations for him? Would the governor of Virginia think it a good idea that all pregnant men have a penile ultra sound before an abortion as necessary “informed consent?” Would South African men need to pay bribes in order to take their babies home after delivery? And would parents anywhere in the world not work to prevent their teenage sons from dying as a result of botched illegal abortions? Would abortion be illegal, emergency contraception denied, and the lack of skilled birth attendants tolerated?
Most likely not. But those violations of reproductive rights are enshrined in law and practice world-wide and the burden of pain is borne only by women. For these reasons the Global Fund for Women from its first grant docket in 1988 has been a courageous funder of reproductive rights, including the right to choose abortion.
But procreative decisions are not just about rights. The decision to have or not have children is at once the most private and intimate of acts with consequences not just for women but for the whole of society. Too often, the good in opposing views is not heard and doubts are pushed aside. Fostering deep listening and a desire to understand the other might bridge the divide. Such an effort would honor the words of Phumzile, and create a form of advocacy for reproductive rights that is compassionate and respectful of all human dignity.