“RH Reality Check” (“an online community and publication serving individuals and organizations committed to advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights”) today hosts an attack on a beautiful group of women from my native New York, the Sisters of Life. They are a Catholic group of women religious established in 1991 by the late John Cardinal O’Connor, “for the protection and enhancement of the sacredness of every human life.” Eleanor Bader, co-author of Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism, is outraged that the Sisters have been so successful in their mission to serve women, children, and families who feel hopeless in the face of a pregnancy. They take women in, they take their children in, they serve them, encourage them, feed them, and get them on their feet. They also serve women that liberal feminism, all too often, leaves behind: those who are mourning the loss of a child who was a casualty of the celebrated “freedom to choose” that isn’t always actually a choice, due to desperation and a failure to see viable alternatives. These are some of the most loving, radiant women you’ll ever meet. And young women! This congregation of women religious has been known to have waiting lists full of women who want to join them in their charism for life.
For all this, the Sisters are “Stoking Fire,” the piece insists. That, or serving their fellow women (among others).
Bader portrays these women as Sisters Moneybags, accumulating convents and other property in a city where non-fetal people (as the RH Reality Check stylebook might have it) are struggling. The Sisters, however, don’t actually own any real estate. Their convents are owned by parishes or the Knights of Columbus. These women take vows of poverty and live them.
Bader earnestly and fiercely attacks the Sisters because one of their convents sits across the street from a now-closed Catholic health-care facility. She writes: “Are the lives of the facility’s former patients — most of them low-income men, women, and children who relied on the hospital for both emergency care and the treatment of chronic conditions — less important than the fetal life that they purport to nurture in the convent across the street? Do the Sisters of Life see the incongruity? Do they care?”
They care, Ms. Bader. And RH Reality Check could benefit from giving them another look. Take for instance, among their beautiful services, their Visitation Mission. You can get a taste of the work they do on their website, which reads:
Our whole lives are spent planning. From the time we can barely talk, people are asking us what we’re going to do with our lives. After so many plans and expectations, an unanticipated pregnancy can seem like your life is over. Especially if it seems like no one but that little voice deep in your heart hopes there is any possibility for making this work. Well, what if that little voice is right? What if this pregnancy isn’t the worst thing possible? What if everything will again be all right, and even better than all right? The Visitation Mission is here to help you unfold the beautiful promise that lies hidden in the unexpected: your greatest self, waiting to emerge.
You have a lot of dreams yet to accomplish. The powerlessness you feel now is not who you know yourself to be. There are so many unanswered questions, so many seeming impossibilities. But the passion that has already given shape to your hopes and ambitions in life is what reveals the strength you are capable of as a woman, even in the most confusing of circumstances.
YOU CAN DO THIS, AND YOU ARE NOT ALONE.
The Sisters and Co-workers of the Visitation Mission are eager to listen to you, your hopes and your struggles. We can help find real possibilities during a difficult time. We want to walk with you and see you thrive. Take that first step. Call us.
That is the new feminism Pope John Paul II (most famously) spoke of. Motherly. Mothering. Through their dedication to the sanctity of life, they not only save lives but change lives, helping people be who they would be and can be with a little support. And helping them heal, discovering mercy and forgiveness through witness and service. It’s beautiful work. But pieces like Bader’s suggest its incompatible with traditional feminism. That’s right only if traditional feminists aren’t willing to admit some of the costs of the past few decades to women, men, and families in America (which, in fact, some feminists may be).
What Bader misses in her earnest Gotcha! attempt is that the closed health-care center stands as a reminder of the crucial role Catholic women religious have played in the history of the United States — Catholic nuns were some of the first CEOs, as National Review Institute president Kate O’Beirne loves to point out (in her book Women Who Made the World Worse, she doesn’t forget about those who have made the world better!). It’s a rich history some thriving orders like the Sisters of Life and others work to continue. And to suggest that the Sisters of Life, by living their particular mission, are cavalier about the lives of others they can’t directly serve is a downright silly non sequitur.
These women, by the way, also help direct the archdiocese of New York’s family life activities — not just abortion-related education and service but marriage prep and support and education, among other things. Because in the end, these things are all related. Their leadership role in the Church, in New York and the nation, stands in graceful contrast to the view of Catholic women religious often portrayed by the media, including and maybe especially their hometown paper.
This attack on these self-sacrificial women comes at a time when the New York City Council has been taking aim at New York City Crisis Pregnancy Centers that provide alternatives to abortion, often in close vicinity to abortion clinics. It’s almost as if some legal-abortion activists aren’t all that into the “rare” part of “safe, legal, and rare.”
We can and will continue to debate abortion in America. But these women deserve better. Which, as it happens, is what the Sisters believe about all women who fall victim to choice, one way or another.