Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Let's talk about birth control pills...



Pope Francis’ appointed Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, Cardinal Sarah…of course he’s a man…don’t be unsettled by his gender-confusing name meaning “princess”…recently offered remarks at a National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C.  The Cardinal delivered a message of woe and bad news, precisely what one might…not…expect from a representative of the gospel’s “good news.”  Ironically, Cardinal Cross-Namer / Princess / Sarah fears, among other things in the US, transgender people.  His list of fearful miseries is so long, I’m impressed he muscled courage to enter my country at all.  His message might be summarized as “gloom, despair and agony on thee.”

His remarks actually aligned with Pope Francis’ bleak outlook on families expressed in Amoris Laetitia, Chapter 2.  I won’t offer too many comments on that document because it truly will require an entire blog article devoted to the topic.  But in that document and Sarah’s comments, in addition to painting families as experiencing numerous miseries, both guys felt qualified to practice medicine without a license, a felony crime in my and many other states.  By that I mean both men disparage, belittle and mock women’s reproductive health.  Sarah outright demonized it and cited it as an example of Satan attacking families.

Paragraph 42 of Amoris Laetitia, “…the  decline  in  population,  due  to  a  mentality  against  having  children  and  promoted by the world politics of  reproductive health, creates not only a situation in which the relationship  between  generations  is  no  longer  ensured but also the danger that, over time, this decline  will  lead  to  economic  impoverishment  and a loss of  hope in the future.”

In this Year of Mercy, Pope Francis doesn't go as far as Sarah's equating it with outright evil.  Francis merely attributes reproductive health as the culprit for economic poverty and losing all hope.  Wow, that is one whopper statement and condemnation which unfortunately is not supported by facts.  The actual facts indicate poverty tends to align directly with cultures having limited or restricted access to birth control...such as those in Cardinal Sarah's beloved homeland continent of Africa, or Francis' homeland continent of South America.

In Cardinal Sarah’s remarks he positioned “…your beginning to accept contraception within healthcare programs” as an example of “demonic” attacks by Satan and overall general erosion of God in America.  How God, an omnipotent, omnipresent being, is eroded escapes me but Cardinal Sarah is quite convinced.

Maybe these guys have the same exemplary grasp of human female biology as the seminarian I mentioned in my last blog article who was convinced that birth control pills abort conceived babies instead of preventing conception. In the interest of educating the clergy, I will spend some time overviewing medical uses for the hormone therapy drugs commonly called “birth control pills.”  If you read this and feel your favorite church hierarchy member would benefit by the education, please forward it to him with my blessing.

O.K. Pope Francis, Cardinal Sarah and all other clergymen severely lacking understanding of female reproductive health, lend me your attention for a few moments.  Sisters of the Poor and other self-righteous religious organizations trying to prevent your employees from accessing these medications, please pay attention too.

First, the hormones in birth control pills are estrogen and progestin.  They are naturally found in the female body.  They are not the anti-Christ.  They are not evil.  They are not going to end civilization. 

The use of these hormones in some medications prevents ovaries from releasing an egg.  A consequence of no egg is there is nothing to fertilize.  However, there are many medical reasons to suppress ovulation. 

Second, surveys have found more than half of the women who use these medications do so for reasons unrelated to contraception.

Third, and this is especially in here for the likes of the Little Sisters of the Poor who sued the US government in an effort to block their employees from having insurance coverage for these medications, insurance covers drugs that are on the formulary.  They don’t give a crap for what reason the medication is prescribed.  If the drug isn’t on the formulary, it’s not covered – case closed.  So, my dear bishop who repeatedly says that women with the following conditions would have their medication covered, you are incorrect.  I can provide you with a copy of the letter my daughter who suffers one of these conditions received from Ascension Healthcare, her employer.  It plainly tells her that her evil (my editorial addition) medication is not covered.  As an aside, the “tsk, tsk, tsk, you bad girl” is actually only implied in the letter.

Here’s a quick list of non birth control reasons to prescribe estrogen and/or progestin http://www.webmd.com/sex/birth-control/features/other-reasons-to-take-the-pill
  1. 10% of women suffer menorrhagia (heavy bleeding) leading to severe anemia in cases such as mine.  Since the guys reading don’t have menstrual periods, let me describe what I mean by “heavy bleeding.”  Think of soaking to the point of overflowing multiple large sanitary pads in an hour.  In some cases, that’s actually multiple Depends adult diaper garments soaked in an hour.  Now go re-read the first part of this paragraph.  10% of women, that’s one in every ten women of menstruating age suffer this.  These medications dramatically reduce menstrual bleeding.  This is not prescribing medication for some sad little hangnail but for a debilitating condition.
  2. 90% of women suffer painful to debilitating menstrual cramps.  Yes, you read that correctly, 90% - nine out of ten women.  The degree to which they experience pain varies but for many women, the pain is debilitating. When the pain is debilitating, these medications often provide great relief.
  3. 60% of women who suffer migraines do so associated with the hormonal swing of their menstrual cycle.  This is also debilitating.  In smoothing out the hormonal fluctuations, these medications can be tremendously helpful  controlling the condition.
  4. 10-15% of women suffer Endometriosis.  This is where the endometrium (uterine lining) grows in places other than the uterus.  It damages reproductive organs and scars sometimes to the point of causing infertility.  It can be excruciatingly painful.  For example, a young lady very close to me used to vomit every day, not every day of her period, EVERY DAY OF HER LIFE from the pain.  Have you ever experienced such pain on a daily basis?  Can you really be so cruel as to expect women to live in that kind of pain without relief when medication is readily available to treat it?  By the way, this same young woman, before hormone therapy, used to bleed rectally, from her breasts, from her nose and even once from the pores of her hands.  This bizarre bleeding is perhaps not always debilitating but it does make socializing difficult.  By the way, women with endometriosis take “birth control pills” so that they can conceive children in addition to relieving debilitating pain.
  5. These medications treat polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a hormone imbalance that causes irregular periods, ovarian cysts (which can be extremely painful), and infertility.  Women with PCOS also take “birth control pills” so that they might be able to conceive.
  6. These medications dramatically reduce risks for some kinds of cancers – ones for which there are not yet good screening tests
  7. Sometimes these medications are prescribed for severe hormone imbalance associated with pre-menstrual syndrome.
I try to live by a few mottos: a) Assume positive intent and b) seek first to understand.  By this I mean I try to assume that people generally do things with a good intention in mind.  And when something seems awry, before drawing conclusions, I try to understand by gathering the facts, talking to people directly involved, and consulting experts.  Why, in the case of hormone therapy, do hierarchy members and religious zealots instead a) assume negative intent and b) ignore facts and/or never bother trying to understand them?

Keep in mind, any medication is a tool and tools can be applied for positive or negative outcomes.  For example, a person can use a hammer to bludgeon someone but a person can also use it to build a home for a homeless person.  Don't condemn the tool outright.  After all, most women using birth control pills are doing it for controlling a medical condition - a positive thing even in the eyes of the clergy.  So, the default view should be with its most common usage...controlling medical conditions.  Instead the hierarchy dismisses the tool as "evil" due to associating the tool only with what it perceives are negative applications of the tool.  Should I await your lobbying for outlawing hammers, too?

In the interest of living by my motto, I assume that Pope Francis and Cardinal Sarah have good intentions and I have tried multiple times to engage in dialogue to understand why the hierarchy comes to such strange conclusions about women without speaking to them.  And so, any clergyman who would like to discuss this topic in sincerity, please contact me.  My daughter who is a doctor is happy to sit with us to discuss female reproductive health.  This is not a pawn topic in world politics as Francis suggests in Amoris Laetitia.  It is something that impacts women every day.  They suffer physical pain beyond some people's imagination and it is wrong to heap psychological pain upon that with fact-free religious edicts trumpeted from high atop Mt. Morality, a land primarily inhabited by single men.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Take this message to my brother...


It’s snowing today although it’s Spring so people are talking excitedly.  But in a few days, the typical warmth of Spring will return and people will forget about it.  This kind of reminds me of last week’s brief flurry around Pope Francis’ desire to form a commission to study women deacons in the early church.  However, instead of blowing snow on a Spring day, it seemed to be a chinook wind bringing warmth in the deep of winter.  It seemed a remarkably rapid thaw after about 1,200 years of winter.  But, within days, the Vatican weather vane twisted again and the climate resumed its typical frigidity..."no, no, that's not what we mean..."

I hope people are not too disappointed or disheartened.  The pope’s statement contained weasel wording a la a marketing pitch.  He merely said he wanted to study women deacons in the early church.  He didn’t say he wanted to ordain women.  People jumped to that conclusion, because it’s justified and logical…but justice and logic are not strong suits amongst many churchmen. 

My guess was Francis suggested the study either to relegate women to some non-ordained sub-deacon status (oh, we already have that….), declare women were never ordained (though neither were any men originally…) and so we must continue marginalizing women and ignoring the Spirit, or offer women deacons as a small, picked over bone to women in hopes people will stop talking about women priests. 

If the commission happens, rest assured, it likely wouldn’t contain any women with a vote anyway.  And after recently discussing female biology with a soon-to-be-ordained seminarian who thought all birth control pills aborted conceived children rather than prevented conception via preventing ovulation (as in there is no egg to fertilize), I don’t hold a lot of hope for a commission of ordained men coming to any reasonable conclusions about women in the church.  So, I’m not sure I care if they hold this commission or not and I’m quite sure I care even less about their conclusions. 

You see, my dear ordained brethren, "You don't know me but I'm your brother," as in your sibling, your equal.  Yes, I am your sibling yet, "you don't know my kind in your world." (Doobie Brothers, "Takin' it to the Streets"). Opting to operate in a world that isolates you from women makes you far from experts about women.  It makes you one of the most ignorant groups of humans on the topic, in fact.  And when the topic of spirit inspired female leadership arises, the collective lot slinks into the vestment closet, fondling your silky robes like children with their security blankets, sucking your thumbs and crying, "Go away! You can't come in my imaginary fort! You have cooties!"

It’s Pentecost but the clergy’s fancy robes seem to shield them from being touched by the Spirit.  Mary announced the gospel’s first good news proclaiming the resurrected Christ to the brothers but women cannot even read the gospel at Mass. “Apostle” means “one who was sent” and Mary definitely was sent by Jesus.  But John Paul II who even admitted she was seen as “an apostle to the apostles” started the adamant, increasingly angry and uncharitable derision and excommunication of women following the Spirit’s call to ordination.  It’s Pentecost but the hierarchy is afraid of the Spirit.

No worries, people are not waiting for the Vatican to acknowledge the Spirit they see in women.  At an accelerating pace, Catholic women are being ordained in defiance of feebly constructed bans against it.  They are simply "takin’ it to the streets" because they are tired of ordained men tellin’ them the things they’re gonna do for them (a)…that don’t connect with history or reality.  They ain’t blind and they don’t like what they think they see so they are sending a message to their brothers (a).

Let the Spirit blow where it may.  Walk without fear, and don't wear such heavy robes that the Spirit cannot touch you.

As a side note, I have no desire to be ordained.  However, the prohibition against ordaining women drilled into the core of my being as a youth because it opened my eyes to marginalization of women, in the church and in society.  It is degrading, demeaning and discriminatory, but most of all ill-founded.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

"Do you have eyes and not see?" (Mark 8:18)



I recently finished a three month Peace Corps Response assignment in Ghana.  Being in Peace Corps required refraining from political commentary and this blog danced along a line regarding that stipulation so I suspended writing during my assignment.  However, I’m back. 

I actually began writing this article on the plane flying home, having just watched the movie “Spotlight” again.  This is the movie about the Boston Globe’s investigative journalism that blew the lid off the systemic nature of the church’s sex abuse scandal. 

After spending three months in a culture that has extensive unreported sexual exploitation issues largely facilitated by cultural taboos against pursuing legal action…much like those the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team exposed in the Archdiocese of Boston…I find myself even sadder for the Church than the first time I watched the movie.

The movie ends by listing 203 dioceses around the world that have had major sex abuse scandals exposed.  A few more have been exposed since the film’s September, 2015 release.  I believe there are probably many, many, many more dioceses that continue enabling abusive priests, especially those in regions with cultural taboos acting as accomplices like in Africa. 

Spotlight portrayed the privileged status Boston’s Catholic hierarchy enjoyed which permitted priests to abuse and bishops to cover it up.  Beyond even Boston priests’ privilege, many African priests enjoy outright demagogue status.  They are untouchable.  They are not to be questioned.  They are in prime positions to abuse without accountability.  I pray that somehow the lid gets blown off of any sex abuses occurring in African Catholic Churches. 

Before I re-watched that movie, I intended to write about attending Mass at the Papal Nuncio’s residence.  He opens his residence every Sunday to anyone who wants to attend Mass – a nice diplomatic touch.  The Mass was lovely, the people were friendly, and I was even asked to join the choir.  The Papal Nuncio is a Francis appointee and works the crowd greeting people and he even engaged in a meaningful discussion with me…more on that in a bit. 

However, he celebrates Mass on his outdoor patio and Mass goers sit staring at the glass patio doors of his residence, the Vatican Embassy.  Clergy abuse issues in every country filter through the Papal Nuncio’s office.  So, although friendliness floated in the air, I kept getting a sick feeling in my stomach wondering how many sexually abusive priests this man knowingly leaves in service in Ghana. I would hope that number is zero but I am skeptical.

Re-watching Spotlight, I was sad for my church that chooses to not see what it does not want to see.  It prevents us as individuals and an organization from achieving our full potential.

By the way, my discussion with the Papal Nuncio was about three points associated with the “Doubting Thomas” gospel reading. 
1.        I am very tired of people preaching about Thomas’ character flaws.  He was the only one not in the locked room paralyzed in fear.  He was brave enough to be out and about. 
2.       People say Thomas doubted because he did not see.  And yet, the reason those in the room believed was because they saw. They saw and believed; Thomas saw and believed – but - most homilies portray Thomas as the only one who had to see to believe.  Whom Thomas doubted was his fellow humans, not God.

I mentioned these two concepts to the Papal Nuncio and he initially said, “Yes, yes…of course” in a dismissive way that feigned interest. 

That was not the case when I mentioned point 3.
3.       In his homily he repeatedly referred to “the apostles” and “the guys.”  I held the gospel reading in front of him and pointed to it saying, “It actually says disciples not apostles; there were women there too.” 

I wish I had a camera for the stunned look on his face.  He laughed and said, “OH MY GOD!  I NEVER SAW THAT BEFORE! THAT IS FANTASTIC!”

His reaction pretty well sums up some issues in the church.  A passage that is used to justify marginalizing women from ordination clearly says disciples not apostles, but he did not read what it actually said.  He read what he wanted it to say.  Things that clearly exist in front of people are not seen because they do not want to see it – whether it is sexual abuse of children, reprehensible reshuffling of abusive clergy by bishops so they can abuse other children or unjust marginalization of women based on not seeing what is clearly written in scripture.  How do we fix willful blindness?

Side note: There were many women disciples.  Jesus breathed on the disciples present, told them to receive the Holy Spirit and if they loosed or held sins, they would be so loosed or held in heaven.  This is a pivotal scripture passage used to withhold ordination from women because hierarchy leaders read “apostle” of which they believe there were only 12 male ones.  This passage is considered instituting the sacrament of reconciliation, granting powers to absolve sins only to male apostles. 

Side note 2: Thomas, an apostle who was not present, did not get hit by this holy hot air yet is considered a full apostle and predecessor to priests and bishops.  However, the women disciples who were present?  The hierarchy evidently believes they had their Star Trek matter/anti-matter shields fully operational and deflected any such holy hot air from touching them. 

I was in Ghana working on girls’ education and empowerment.  As part of that I taught a session on “Finding Your Voice.”  It is a mini workshop I conduct to help people realize their ideas and opinions matter, and to help them cultivate their critical thinking and expression skills.  The Boston church found its voice.  I found my voice. How can we help others find their voices on children’s and women’s rights, especially in the church?