As a seventh-grader at a Catholic high school in Mississippi I volunteered several hours for a local pro-life organization. My work consisted of assembling informational pamphlets to be distributed at the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, now as then the only remaining abortion clinic in the state. The pamphlets featured graphic images of aborted fetuses and contained literature encouraging women seeking abortions to “choose life.” They supported their plea with dubious research about fetal capacity for pain; testimonials from former abortion doctors who experienced spiritual epiphanies and gave up their work; and claims about the prevalence of long-term regret and depression among women who terminate pregnancies.
My school required students to complete Christian service hours each term. Assembling the pamphlets was just one of many avenues for service, most of which (walking dogs at an animal shelter, preparing and serving meals at a soup kitchen) were less politically charged. I did these things as well, but I chose the pro-life center because I could set my own hours, mechanically folding and stacking at home while I watched TV. Furthermore, I believed the cause to be worthy. As I worked, I imagined a young woman sitting in the Jackson clinic’s waiting room, leafing through one of the pamphlets, being horrified by its images and swayed by its assertions, before changing heart and rushing off the premises like Ellen Page in Juno, a movie that, at the time, formed my only impression of unplanned pregnancy. I think of this now with a flush of shame. I hope to God none of the materials I put together made it past the clinic’s front steps.
Reproductive rights are under attack in Mississippi. The state’s only abortion clinic regularly faces the threat of new legislation that could force its closure, not to mention vandalism from pro-life fanatics. Picketers routinely crowd before the building, creating a hostile environment for women seeking help. My own role in this conflict may have been small, clerical, but the disturbing fact remains that I was a thirteen-year-old boy who felt he was doing honest, spiritual work by helping an organization harangue women into continuing unwanted pregnancies.
The religious education I received was catholic in a lower as well as uppercase sense, spanning everything from Biblical minutiae to Church history to (introductory) metaphysics. I had many stellar teachers. I learned the values of Christian charity and compassion. But the time and energy my school spent trumpeting the pro-life cause often eclipsed other concerns to the point of single-mindedness. The spiritual became overtly political. Certain teachers spoke of the Jackson Women’s Health Organization as the last bastion of the enemy, which might someday, with enough prayer and activism, be shut down. We held school-wide periods of silence to honor the inability of the unborn to speak up for their rights. At one assembly, a speaker recounted her faith-informed decision not to terminate her pregnancy after doctors warned her of the perilously slim chances that either she or her child would survive delivery. Thankfully, both mother and child survived; the speaker beckoned her young daughter, to whom she referred as a miracle, to come up and hug her where she stood at the podium. I was overwhelmed by the speaker’s courage in the face of near-certain death; but remembering the talk now, I am troubled by the message such narratives present to young women: that a woman’s faith in God should compel her to reject a potentially life-saving procedure, that to do otherwise would be a sin. I found a similar line of thinking in a section of the pro-life pamphlets dealing with rape. According to this literature, a fetus resulting from an act of rape is an innocent who did not choose to be created through violence and should not be punished with termination. What, then, of the woman who did not choose to be raped and impregnated? Must she be robbed of bodily autonomy a second time by being compelled to carry a forcibly induced pregnancy to term? This thinking does not belong in the 21st century. It smacks of the medieval logic that whatever happens to one’s body is God’s will, defining medical intervention as a form of heresy.
Education–even Christian education–should not entail the politicization of young people. Catholic school equipped me in many ways for my academic and creative future, gave me a working knowledge of Scripture, an introduction to philosophy, an appreciation for art and history and languages. But I left with a skewed perspective on sexuality and reproduction that has taken years to correct. Planned Parenthood, an organization that has provided valuable services for thousands of women, faces federal defunding. Here in Mississippi, a single clinic stands between women in need and a contingent of religious conservatives who believe they are advocating for human life even as they oppose these women’s basic healthcare. Some of the people involved in these aggressive campaigns are children–middle-schoolers holding picket signs, folding pamphlets, wearing t-shirts emblazoned with sketches of fetuses. They should be taught how to think for themselves, not indoctrinated into the causes of their elders.
Charles McCrory is a senior English major from Florence.