“One of the lucky ones”: A testimony on the trauma inherent in adoption

November is National Adoption Month.  Last week, I talked to Wendy, a Canadian mental health professional who was adopted in the early 80’s and met her first mother at the age of 29. Wendy is Black, and her adoptive parents are white.
 
Our conversation (which has been edited for length and clarity) began when I first asked her if my perception was accurate, that we’re much more likely to hear the testimony of adoptive parents, than the stories of adoptees. 
 
W: Yes. Among the adoptee community, that is our biggest complaint, esepcially during National Adoption Awareness Month. Did anybody ask us?
 
It’s quite appalling, the extent to which people who are hoping to adopt only want to hear the positive side; they only want to hear the fairy tale. And if you say, “That’s not the whole story,” they don’t want to hear it. We are called names, we’re gaslit, we’re told to get therapy.
 
On certain platforms, whenever I open my mouth to say, “Okay, but adoption is not a fairy tale” at 8:30 in the morning, I put my phone down, and by lunch time there are twenty-five people calling me bitter, angry, and ungrateful. Here we go, another day on social media as an adopted adult. 
 

Why are people so unwilling to hear it?

 

W: Adoption is an industry. The industry has to advertise itself.
 

As an entire society, we have really bought hard into this “adoption is a beautiful option,” especially in pro-life circles. It’s, “If you can’t parent, here’s this almost uncomplicated, beautiful option.” 
 
If I say to an adoptive parents, “No, it’s not beautiful, and it’s very complicated,” what they’re not saying, but what I hear, is, “I thought we were doing a good thing, and you’re telling me we’re not. If you’re telling me all of this is true about adoption, then all of this is true of what my child has experienced. But my child is happy to be adopted, and my child is well-adjusted.”
 
I would have told you the same thing until I was 34 years old. 
 
What happened?
 
W: We have this phrase called “coming out of the fog.” In oversimplified terms, it refers to realizing adoption is not a fairy tale. As an adopted person, you get this narrative growing up: “We chose you from all the other children to be part of our family; isn’t that special?” You have to explain it to children in a way they can digest, and people want to make it a good story for a child. They tell it as a fairy tale, so you grow up thinking, yup, it’s a fairy tale. 
 
The other part of the story for me is, I am a transracial adoptee, which means I’m of a different race from my adoptive parents. My adoption is very visible. I’m a Black woman with a very Irish last name. 
 
Growing up, people ask you, “Are you adopted?” It’s amazing the questions people think they have a right to ask. You’re coached to answer the questions as a fairy tale. Looking back, those were very intrustive questions they had no right to ask, but I was encouraged to answer them, because it’s such a beautiful story. That’s the lens I had for the longest time. 
 
Even while having that lens, there were times, from the age of 11 or 12, that I would have these very negative emotions that didn’t seem to be attached to anything. My life is fine; why am I feeling like this? 
 
I was 20 or 21 and I realized I was not a big fan of my birthday. On the day, I didn’t want anyone to talk to me, I didn’t want to make a big deal of it, and I didn’t understand what that was.
 
Finally, years later, I said to a friend of mine: “As an adopted person, that’s the day I lost my first mother, and I do not feel like celebrating it.” 
 

How did she react?

 

W: She was able to take it on board. Some people really are not. Some adoptive parents can’t get their heads around it. They want to celebrate their child’s life. But whether your child has realized it or not, it’s a day that marks loss. Of course, not every child feels like that; maybe not every adult feels like that. 

Did you know other adoptees? When did you start realizing this was a common experience? 
 
W: Other than three cousins, also adoptees — they are indigenous. The Sixties Scoop  is most likely how they came into our family. I don’t have a lot of contact with them. One is not alive anymore. We’ve never had a conversation about adoption as adults.
 

It was as an adult, and it was on social media, that I had my first honest conversations about adoption. It’s interseting now to see new people come out of the fog, and the response you see over and over is, “I’m not weird; I’m not messed up. Everyone is telling me adoption is this beautiful thing, and I just thought there was something wrong with me.” No, there’s a whole other side to this.

What are some things your parents could have done differently, that would have given you a different experience? Or is it almost a rite of passage that everybody who’s adopted has to come to terms with at a certain age?

 
W: When I’m getting that backlash, the implication is that I should be grateful, and a lot of people want to run to the defense of my parents. They put a roof over my head and treated me like their own.
 
The thing that was missing is the realization that every single child who has been adopted, especially if it was not a kinship adoption [placement with relatives], has been traumatized by the separation from the first mother. The story started with trauma. 
 
The phrase that’s often used is “Adoption is trauma.” Yes, it’s the trauma of separation. The more I think about it, the deeper I realize it goes.
 
People will say, “But you don’t remember. It’s not like you were five and dragged screaming away from your mother. You were a baby.” But if you know trauma, you know about preverbal trauma. You don’t have to be old enough to have a narrative of it, for it to affect you. It shows up in the body. I can’t tell you a story of what’s troubling me, but I’m feeling a certain way. 
 
Then recently I was led to think about the effects of prenatal trauma. If a woman is pregnant and is she is abused, or is experiencing poverty or food insecurity or is homeless … what’s the effect on the child she’s carrying? 
 
It’s not so much what my parents could have done differently, it’s what the agency and adoption professionals could have done differently. I would bet my bottom dollar [my parents] were told, “Love will be enough. Take this child into your family and love her as your own, and everything will be fine.”
 
But if the trauma is there, and it absolutely is, you can’t love it away. But if you’re informed about how trauma works, and what a traumatized child needs, you can parent differently. When that trauma starts showing up, if you know why, maybe you don’t take it personally as parents. 
 
A hopeful adoptive parent recently told me all she hears about adoption lately is trauma.  She asked me if she should adopt. What I said is, If you’re not prepared for your child to look you in the face, a child you did your best to love and provide for, and for that child to say, “You’re not my real mother,” you’re not ready to adopt. If you can’t sit still for that, please don’t adopt.  
 
Are you concerned that this will scare people away? That children who would get homes are not going to get homes, because of your cautions?
 
W: Maybe this is callous, but if my speaking honestly scares you off, you’re not suitable to adopt.
 
And I absolutely believe that. Until we get to a conversation where we can say adopted children carry the trauma of separation, and until this conversation is happening at the industry level, we’re gonna get people who are surprised by this. We’re gonna get people who hear this talk about trauma and are scared away. 
 

So what do we do about that?

This hopeful adoptive parent I was talking to said, “It sounds like you’re saying the whole system is rotten.”

 
I said, “Yeah, it’s rotten to the core.” 
 
I say this because vulnerable women who approach adoption professionals, some health care professionals, some mental health professionals,  are pressured and often shamed to give up their babies for a promise of a “better life” with other parents, instead of having a conversation about whether she wants to parent, what supports she would need in order to parent, whether there is any way to involve family or community so that she can keep her child.
 
There are many cases, more than most people know, and more than “adoption professionals” will admit, where a mother or the mother’s family could have cared for the child if supported to do so.  But instead, we terminate parental rights, change the baby’s name, alter the birth certificate and put the child in someone else’s arms.  It’s rotten to the core. 
 
But until we arrive at adoption reform, this system is what we have. There are children who cannot safely remain with their parents.  There are children who have already endured that trauma of separation, and are in foster care, and right now adoption is the way we provide care and permanency.
 
I don’t think adoption, the way we do it right now, is a good thing. Why do you need to erase someone’s indentity, ancestry, and history to provide them with stability and care? You don’t. But that’s what the adoption industry does.  The unspoken idea is that if you erase a child’s history and identity, they can be easily inserted into a new family, and be “one of them” the way a biological chid is.   But that adopted child already had a family and an ancestral history.   That doesn’t cease to exist because someone altered some paperwork.
 
So for right now, it is what it is. There are kids that need care and permanency, and right now, we do that through the adoption system.
 
That’s my quandary, as a mental health professional. If you can’t recognize and support a traumatized child, you should not be parenting an adopted child. I will die on that hill. So what do we do with these children who are already in care and experiencing this instability? They need a solution. The current way we do adoption is not it.
 
What I hear a lot from foster parents is, “You might think you have to be the perfect parent and know exactly what to do, but you don’t. You just have to do your best, and be there for that child.” Are they wrong? Or is that situation just too different from adoption? 
 
W: It’s in the same broad circle. The idea that you don’t have to be perfect, you just have to do the best you can, there is absolutely a lot to that. 
 
You can’t go back and make that separation not happen. I think the best an adoptive parent can do is be willing to learn about the trauma that is inherent in adoption, and be willing to do the work to understand how to support a child who has been traumatized by the process.
 
That’s where the thick skin comes in. Do the work. Go to your own therapy. Talk to adopted adults. There are things you can to.
 
As a mental health professional, I get to have this moment where someone is sitting in front of me, and they’re experiencing depression or anxiety or OCD, and by the time they get to me, someone’s already given them a diagnosis, but no one has talked to them about what it means. I get to say to them: “Here’s what it means. Here’s what you might be experiencng.”
 
The facial expression, the relief in their voices: “You get it. You said it. It’s real. Someone understands.” I didn’t cure your depression; I just told you you weren’t going crazy.   And so, with adoption, you can’t erase the trauna, but you can acknowledge it and support your child through it.
 
Can you tell me some more about your own circumstances, your birth mother? 
 
W: I’m “one of the lucky ones.” I’m in reunion with my first mother. 
 
Sorry, it’s “first mother,” not “birth mother?” How did you land with that term? 
 
W: If I say “birth mother,” that feels like that’s the body I came out of, and then she ceased to matter. Well, she didn’t. Her absence mattered to me, and will matter until the day I die. And my absence mattered to her, from the day I was born, and will contine to matter to her until the day she dies. 
 
“First mother” is like: I have a mother in the mother who raised me. But I had a mother before her, as well. 
 
So you’re in reunion with your first mother? When did that happen?
 
W: I was able to contact her in 2011. I had just turned 28.
 
Did you express any interest in meeting her growing up? 
 
W: Yes, but even when I was a kid, I could sense there was some discomfort around that. When it came out was when I was angry or upset: “You’re not my real family. I’m gonna go find my real family.”
 
But in addition to that, my parents had a very surprise baby when I was ten, and there were all these conversations about who that child looks like and takes after. I didn’t have any of that. I didn’t look like anyone. 
 
I met my first half sister in 2002. We have similar mannarisms and similar brains, but we don’t look like sisters. Whereas my other half sister, I couldn’t stop staring at her. I was 28, and I had to say, “I’m sorry I keep staring at you, but you have my face.”
 

And growing up, what was it like, thinking about your first mother? Was there a longing?

 

W: A longing, and a wondering. I don’t think I uttered the phrase “you’re not my real parents” after the age of about 8, because I realized that it landed, and really landed really hurtfully. In a way an eight-year-old can, I realized that whatever else was going on, don’t say that. 

But until I entered reunion, there was that longing. That’s really what I was feeling on my birthday, before I even realized it. That date brought it home.  

 
How was it, meeting your first mother? It must have been a lot. 
 

W: It was a lot. I don’t think I processed how much it was. I think I’m still processing how much it was.

We met in person in the summer of 2012. It was just so strange. Because so much of it was so normal. But meeting your first mother you’ve never met until the age of 29 is not normal. It’s not a normal thing to do. Yet all that happened was she hopped on a train and came to the city where I lived, and I met her outside this random building. I walked up to this woman, and this city does not have a lot of Black folks, so I knew who it was, even if I hadn’t seen her close enough up to realize she looks exactly like me.
 
I’m trying not to fall apart. We’re in the middle of the public square. I was physically shaking. She was extremely stoic; I was not. I was crying, but trying to hold it together. We embraced.  We didn’t speak in the first moments.  I bought her lunch, after. We just sat there and chatted. It was very strange that we were doing such normal things. I just kept looking at her, like, is this happening? Is this real?
 

It will never not be strange. Here’s the thing about reunion. It’s beautiful, and wonderful, and absolutely terrible, and heartwrenching, all at the same time. The intensity of it. Nothing else I’ve experienced has the strange intensity of being in reunion.

One of my sisters and I didn’t undersand how to be in each other’s lives. We fought, and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. Fighting with a sibling after being in reunion, it was terrible. We have to be very careful now. 
 
It’s nature and nurture. We are both people who will argue that the grass is blue and the sky is green if we think we can carry it off. We have to be right. When two people like this get in a fight, it’s freaking ugly. And so at a certain point, I said, “I can’t talk to you. I’m in danger of saying something unforgiveable, and if I don’t, you will; so we’re not going to talk right now.” We didn’t talk for a year and a half. 
 
You’ve had this longing for connection, authentic connection and belonging —  the belonging is a really big piece — and then to fight with the person you finally experience it with? No thank you. 
 
When that relationship went wrong, did it make you feel like there was something wrong with you, like maybe you don’t know how to have relationships with people?
 
W: This fighting was happening before I came out of the fog. I got the fairy tale ending with the reunion; how did this go so wrong? Is it me? Is there something wrong with me?
 
I’ve said to my first mother, “You and I, we cannot fight. We have to be able to have a conversation before it turns into a fight.”
 
There have been times when we had a miscommunication or missed contact] and I was having a reaction like, “You’re leaving me again!” and I’m in a panic. And I have said to her, “We can’t have a fight, because I will go out of my mind.
 
 Is your first mother motherly to you? Does she perform the function of a mother, or is it a different kind of relationship?
 
W: This is one of the griefs I carry. When we have those moments when she’s acting in a motherly way, that brings into sharp relief the relationship we lost. Even though we have those moments, we can’t get back what we lost. She is my first mother, but she wasn’t my mother for 28 years. You can’t come into somebody’s life when they’re twenty-eight and be their mother, you just can’t. 
 

This may be a loaded question, but do you call yourself a pro-lifer?

W: I consider myself pro-life. I’m not a huge fan of that term. That has more to do with what comes out of the mouths of other people that associate themselves with that term. One of the arguments pro-lifers come at me with is, “Well, would you rather have been aborted?” No, and if you see those two options in such a black and white dichotomy, you’re not very intellectually flexible, are you? 

I’ll say that, as a Catholic and someone who is pro-life and as an adopted person, and someone who sees this tension and the trauma that is inherent, I find myself in a very precarious position. 
 
The adult adoptee community are vehemently prochoice. I can see exactly why. For some adopted people, they’ve been so affected by this trauma, some will say, “Yeah, it might have been better for me if I had never been born, than to live in this much pain.” And then there’s the concern that if someone does not want to carry a child and give birth, they should not be forced to; they should have that option to terminate. And from a bodily automomy perspective, I can see that. But as a Catholic, I see that new life, that soul.  If I weren’t Catholic, I would probably be pro-choice. I probably wouldn’t have been, until I came out of the fog.  
 
I am the only practicing Catholic in my immediate family, one of two in my extended family. The story of my Catholicism is a whole other story. The bottom line is, by the time I came out of the fog, if I hadn’t been Catholic, that would have been the end of me being prolife.  And though I am, I make a lot of Catholics angry by saying I don’t think legal prohibition of abortion is a good answer.
 
 As vehemently as I am prolife, I can absolutely see the other side. I can see both sides, and when both sides dig in their heels, this is how we don’t make progress. Both sides are busy screaming at each other and vilifying each other. 
 
Wendy, I appreciate you sharing all these personal things with me.
 
W: Well, nobody’s been telling me to get therapy or calling me a horrible ungrateful wretch, so this is new, this is good. The funny thing about the “get therapy” thing is that good therapy is the reason I’m able to have this conversation in this way.
 
That’s one of my things. Adoptive parents, go to therapy. I know you don’t think you need it, but you freaking do. Don’t you dare adopt a child until you’ve been to therapy. 
 
That surprises me. I would kind of assume that people would. 
 
W: I don’t know what the process is like now, when someone approaches an agency to adopt a child. I’m so interested to know if it’s suggested, strongly suggested, required? 
 
When the older of my half sisters and I first connected, before we were allowed to talk to each other, we were supposed to have 4 or 6 separate [therapy] sessions about this reunion experience. Then there was this other option, where they would send you all this reading material, and you had to sign sworn statement that you had read it and don’t have questions. I’m waiving any right to say I was harmed by this process, because I’ve chosen not to do the therapy. 

Who required this?

 

W: Family and Children’s Services. You could ask to be named on the adoption registery, and if someone else who they could trace as being related to you was also named, you would get this official letter that this relative has also registestered. If youd  like to have contact, you can. 

There was a social worker assigned to our case. She could talk to my sister and she could talk to me, but we weren’t allowed to talk to each other until either the therapy was complete, or we’d signed that waiver. I called the social worker one time, and my sister was in the office, but it was against the law to talk to each other. It’s against the law for me to talk to my flesh and blood sister.
 

There was another time. I got what’s referred to as “non identifying information about my first mother and her family. It was biographical information without identifying details, and it was like, pastimes and hobbies and how tall they were. No medical information; why would I need that? That’s another fun thing, when you have medical mysteries going on, and you go to the doctor and they say, “Do you have a family history of this?” and you say, “I don’t freaking know.”

The other time this weird gate keeping happened, was I was already in reuinion with my first mother, and I thought, what happens now if I ask for non-identifying information? Because the one I had from when my parents requested was so redacted, whole paragraphs were missing. 

 

So I requested it again in 2011. I called the F and CS office in my hometown and was told, “When you come in and pick it up, we’ll have you sit down with a counsellor. There’s information you might find distressing.”

I told her, “Let me tell you, I have met my first mother, and she told me the story, and yeah, it’s pretty damn distressing. Whatever’s in that document, I already know about it, because she told me. If I have to get therapy, I’ll get therapy. I live five hours away; I’m not coming in to do therapy five hours away.  Mail the documents, please.”

 
Finally I had to write a whole letter saying I understand there’s distressing information in this file, I probably aready know it, and I’m releasing you from any liability if I’m emotionally damaged; now give me my freaking documents.
 
And they were still redacted.
 
It’s your history, and they’re keeping it from you. That must feel so strange.
 

W: You get that growing up. I knew my parents knew more than they were telilng me, because of this non-identifying information.

It’s my information; how am I not ready to have it? Some of it would have been pretty difficult to find an age appropriate way to say that, but by the time I was thirteen or fifteen. Tell me something. 

 
When people say, “Why are you so angry?” I am.  It’s that erasure of history. That erasure of ancestry. That erasure of identity. It’s actually not necessary to provide care and stability to someone. But the adoption industry wouldn’t thrive without it. Because it has to be the fairytale where you live happily ever after with a new family.  No one wants to talk about what you lost, first.
 
 
 
 
***
Image via Pxfuel 

“I shouldn’t have to earn my welcome.” Being Black in the American Catholic Church

What’s it like to be a Black Catholic in America today? In June, four Black Catholics joined me to talk about what they’ve experienced, to explain what makes them feel like they belong, and what makes them feel like they don’t, and what needs to change. 

Alessandra Harris, Marcia Lane-McGee, Andrea Espinoza, and Eric Phillips began the conversation by using history and statistics to dismantle Abby Johnson’s racist argument in her video about her biracial son, and it’s well worth listening to.

But that was only half of our conversation. Today I’d like to feature the sections where they talk about their personal experiences in the Church and with the pro-life movement. White Catholics, in particular, I hope you will read it carefully and take to heart.

 The full video response and transcript are here.  The transcript here has been edited for length and reading clarity.

Do you think the pro-life movement has a racism problem? 

Marcia: Yes, absolutely it does … I feel the pro-life movement only insists racism exist in the womb. They want to talk about Planned Parenthood’s only being in predominantly Black neighborhoods, and they’re like, “That’s awful,” but they’re not thinking about how their mindsets, and policies that they vote into place, and the way that they continue to villainize Black fathers and Black culture, affect our lives out of the womb.

…[T]here were pro-life protesters outside of a Planned Parenthood right after the George Floyd was murdered, and … their sign literally said “More George Floyds will die here today than on the Street.” … She’s like, “That’s the real problem, that’s what you should be upset about.” It’s that whataboutism we get when we want to say Black lives matter, but they go, “What about Planned Parenthood?”

They are trying to deflect, and because they don’t want to deal… They don’t want to deal with the whole person after they are born. I firmly believe once a Black child is born, that is when we need the pro-life movement even more. We need you to vote in polices that help mothers, policies that are able to abolish those laws like the “man in the house” laws, because that still exists. Right now it still makes more fiscal sense to not be married to the father of your children if you are struggling in the Black community; it makes sense. Because you’re more likely to struggle when you’re married, because your government benefits will be cut; it’s less food stamps, less everything. And that is frustrating. So pro-lifers aren’t there for that, and I absolutely believe it’s because racism exists. They already have an idea about us in the mind.

Someone said to me once, a friend of mine — she’s Black, and she said, “I don’t understand why you’re pro-life,” and I was like because “you know, everyone needs to live and everyone needs to get what they need.” She goes, “Issue is that it seems like pro-lifers only want us; they don’t want to kill us in Planned Parenthood because to want to be able to kill us in the street, whether it’s a death slowly death by starvation, or if it’s death by cops.”

[J]ust like this country, the pro-life movement was not built for me right now as I am.

America wasn’t built for Black people; it was built by Black people, let’s be real. But the pro-life movement wasn’t built for Marcia at 40 years old, right? Me in the womb, my 17-year-old mom, absolutely. But now. as I am, they don’t care about my spirit or my wellbeing. And you know what, here I am still fighting for life because I know it’s the right thing to do. 

Does the Catholic church in general have a racism problem? 

Andrea: It’s like the house is on fire, and there are people in the house that’s on fire, and people outside the house are trying to say, “Hey, your house is on fire,” but the people in the house are like, “No, it’s not.”

We would be kidding ourselves if we said the American sector of the Catholic Church didn’t have a racism problem, and I’ll tell you why. Because the same people that … believed that Black people were 3/5 of a person, they were the same people that built the Catholic church; they brought in those prejudices with them.

They were the same people who forced native Americans to give up their culture, change their names, attend these Indian boarding schools to rehabilitate them and make them more European. These were the same people that refused to ordain Black priests so that the Venerable Tolton had to go to Italy to seminary. These are the same people that denied Black nuns the opportunity to become novices in their orders, so they had to create their separate orders.

The thing that makes it worse is that a lot of Catholics do not know this information, because we teach the faith, but we don’t teach the history, and because we don’t teach the history, it perpetuates on and on and on. So, the same stereotypes perpetuate on and on.

I bet you a lot of Catholics in America do not know that the reason why there are so many Black parishes in certain dioceses is because, when Black families moved to the area through historical periods like the Great Migration … the neighborhood parishes said, “We don’t want any n-words in our parish.” So, they would send them to parishes in the Black part of town that were underfunded and ill prepared …There’s a reason why Malcolm X said the most segregated hour in America is 11:00 on a Sunday morning. And we still have that.

Then, nowadays, we have a specific religious movement that worships in a specific form of the Mass, which is a beautiful form of the Mass, but it is built on the idea that if you are not this, if you don’t meet this condition, this condition, this condition, you’re not Catholic enough. For a lot of us, I can’t relate to that. I grew up in the Caribbean. We didn’t have organs. Have you ever seen what happens to an organ at 95-degree weather with 100% humidity? It warps! So, we had to create our own traditions, but it doesn’t make it any less Catholic.

The key problem with the racism in the American Catholic church is that it’s predicated upon the idea of whiteness, and it will always have that problem unless we do something, because guess what? The majority of the world’s Catholics, they’re not white. 

If this is your experience of the Catholic Church, what is it that keeps you coming back? 

Eric: Thank you for the question. Simply put, what keeps me coming back? Primarily the Eucharist.

But let me say this first. I think a lot of African Americans, and the enslaved in the slave times, saw this same story in the Exodus and Moses; how the Hebrews 400 years being enslaved, God came to their salvation. As a Catholic it’s hard; life here in this nation’s hard; and as a Black Catholic, it’s even harder … but if you look at the story of Christ, it was not an easy life. He had 12 apostles; 11 of his apostles were martyred.

[T]he Jews living in the Roman Empire, they were looked down upon because of their culture. I find myself in the same situation today, but that doesn’t mean I have a right to turn my back on the Church that Christ founded. I have to accept this fight. I think we’re all born here for a reason, not by happenstance. God willed us into existence for times like this, to fight the good fight. And fighting the good fight means suffering, but because you suffer, you don’t abandon the fight. You stand for the Cross; you stand by the Cross of Christ. That’s how I approach it.

So, what can we say, what keeps me coming back, there’s nowhere else for me to go. This is the truth. [Amen]

Also, how do we make progress? The thing Alessandra said in her video, is prayer and fasting, that’s always worth prayer and fasting, and after that comes action.

So, before the quarantine, what I would do is go to different churches in the city, some on the Southside, because I was primarily going to churches on the Southside, and then I would go to predominantly white churches because I just wanted to see how they did things differently. I just wanted to get a feel for the community… We have to find ways to build camaraderie with one another, to the point where we start asking each other over to each other’s houses. I’m telling my people with different ethnicities and cultures: I think white parishioners should visit a Black parish, try to build some relationships, try to get involved in some of those ministries, and vice versa, to the point where you can start inviting people over to dialogue.

Because just like there’s a Theology of the Body, there’s also a theology of food, and I think that really helps break down ignorance, because a lot of people, I would call racist– not because I think they hate me, although there are people who hate me because of the color of my skin. I think some are racist because they’re just racially ignorant, and so I think eating with one another, doing things with one another, helps break down that ignorance and helps us understand one another better, so that one side does not think the other side is just trying to be the victim all the time. 

Can you think of a time when you really did feel a fully seen member of the Catholic Church?

Eric: I’m with another organization called the Camino Project, long story short we send young Catholics on pilgrimages. So, the first time I was there [at St. Josephat on the north side of Chicago], I was talking to the priest. I was trying to see if they could help us out with a certain fundraiser. It fell through, but one day it came to me, you know what, that church looks very interesting; let me attend at the Mass.

So, I went to the Mass there, and the time came for the homily, and the priest there was a white priest. He started to talk about something that Andrea alluded to, how he used to work in the Black community. It was actually half Black and half white, and the priest went on to say how the Black people would go to mass but would be treated like second citizens of the mass, had to sit in certain spots, had to be the last to receive the Eucharist. Then he went on to say that one of the Black parishioners approached the head priest about it, and the priest rebuked her, said she was being selfish and things like that.

So, one day that lady just stopped going to Mass. And he went onto explain that this is what a lot of times racism does. When you treat a fellow person like that, Catholic or not, you kind of help them lose their faith. He … said we need to check ourselves as people, find out where our faults are at, repent of our faults, and do what we can to do better, because no person, especially at a Catholic at Mass, should be treated like that, regardless of color of that person’s skin.

And so, I was happy I came that day. It was just a random day and it was not Black history month; it was on his heart. It was one of his experiences. His experience was hearing this woman’s story of her experience. And eventually she started going back to Mass again and receiving the Eucharist.

I felt appreciated by it because I didn’t think the homily was said because it was expected … [During] Black history month, I expect to see people honoring Black history, but this was just totally out of the blue. And I felt appreciated because from that time on I knew that experience was in his heart and mind, and it changed him, and I know that wherever he’s at now, he’s preaching that same homily somewhere else… But I felt appreciated that day. 

What should white Catholics know about the experience of being a Black Catholic?

Alessandra: [T]here’s Black Catholics spanning the continents, there’s Black Catholics all over the place, and we all worship differently and have different traditions, but we all have a relationship with Jesus Christ, and we believe in the Eucharist, and we believe in the Church.

So even though we all have different experiences and different traditions and different ways we worship and different parishes, we all want to be seen as the body of Christ, and we all want to be recognized as being made in the image and likeness of God.

But with that being said … people want to have white Catholics see their Blackness.

And as a writer, in fiction, the default is white, so unless you say “this character has brown skin,” you’re going to assume that character is white. So too, if you say, “I don’t see color,” you’re defaulting to the white experience. So, when we say we’re Black Catholics, it doesn’t take away our Catholicism at all, but it acknowledges our culture and our traditions and our skin color and everything that encompasses. 

Is there anything you would like from white Catholics in particular. Is there something that you would request or that you would hope for?

Marcia: [J]ust say “welcome” when we walk into your parish. Don’t make me earn my spot there.

I sing at church, I’m a cantor at the masses here at church, and I have a very pretty singing voice. Like that’s a fact, it’s not like “oh, I’m so great.” But I know that if I want to feel welcome in a church, all I have to do is sit next to an old white lady and sing out of the hymnal, and then someone will talk with me at the sign of peace, and then if I don’t, it’s awkward. I feel that not making me earn my spot in the church is a huge way to actually welcome me in the church, because guess what? I’ve been a member of this church for 20 years. I’m here, whether you welcome me into this building or not, and I think just saying “hey welcome”—don’t tokenize me.

It’s funny how—Eric you mentioned St. Josephat. I used to live in Lincoln Park, I lived in Lincoln Park neighborhood in Chicago for about 5 years, and St Josephat was where I went to mass on Sunday nights. I really enjoyed the mass there. I enjoyed is so much there because I was welcome right away all the time. And I didn’t realize that was it was until I started going to masses other places where I would walk in, they would say “welcome,” I would get this, “Do you want to bring up the gifts?” I would say, “Absolutely,” and then one day, I don’t know if it was the usher or someone heard me sing, and he’s like, “Oh my gosh, I have been trying to figure out how to get you to come back here more times, and now you just need you to join the choir, that’s how we get you to come back here!” And I just thought it was that they were already, they like wanted me there, I always felt like I was wanted there.

Like seriously, just saying, “Welcome.” I know that sounds crazy because you’re just like, “Welcome, we’re Catholic; we welcome everyone.’ That is not true. I feel like an exhibit when I come to mass; people always kind of watch to make sure I know what to do.

I had someone in Mass tell me, “Now honey, this is where we stand,” and I’m like, “I’m a legit catechist; I’m a youth minister. I know what I’m supposed to do.” But the people with the small Catholic microaggressions, like, “Wow, you knew everything?” I’m like, “I am Catholic. I grew up in Chicago, where if you want a good education, you’re more likely to go to Catholic school. So, I knew this before I became Catholic.”

So just treat us like any other Catholic, but also acknowledging our Blackness in that moment, knowing that … our skin comes with baggage, but we’re here to share the faith with you.

[Y]ou know there’s that song “We are one body, one body in Christ,” that we do not stand alone? I feel sometimes as a Black Catholic, I know that we are one body in Christ, but often I feel that I am standing alone when I enter a predominantly white Catholic space.

I was a youth minister in a moderately sized town in Indiana for about 3 years, and the first weekend that I was in church there, I did not feel welcomed. … [T]hey were one Eucharistic minister short because I was going to introduce myself at all of the masses, and I was like “I can do it, it’s fine, just tell me where to stand. I can give them the Cup.” Where there was an older couple, and they looked at me like they were suspect, like, the man just looked at me like, “Who are you with this Cup?” Right? They didn’t have to know anyone at this mass, because it’s the Catholic church; you don’t know everyone who goes there, but they saw me and the wife went to go up to get the cup, and I was ready. And he yanked her back and just gave me this look, and then they went back to their pew.

And I was just like, “I’m so glad I’m here to minister to all the racist kids!” No … really, it turned out to be a fantastic experience, but I will never forget that day. I will never forget that Saturday night mass when, even though he didn’t know anybody else as a Eucharistic minister … I don’t know what they thought I did to the church wine. 

That’s what it was, I don’t feel welcome until I earn my spot, and I shouldn’t have to earn my welcome in the Catholic church. It’s a Catholic church.

 

Image by M W from Pixabay

Small steps to avoid destroying the very thing you’re fighting for

Long before election day, I gave up trying to change anybody’s mind about politics. I jumped into conversations about it from time to time, but I always jumped right back out again before the muck on the bottom could rise up and envelop my ankles.

It wasn’t just that political wrangling is unpleasant, and it wasn’t just because I didn’t want to lose friendships, although both of those things are true. I have been thinking about a quote that I thought was by Winston Churchill. Someone allegedly asked Churchill about cutting arts funding to pay for the war effort, and he responded, “Then what are we fighting for?”

It turns out Churchill probably never said this; but the point stands. If you sacrifice everything to win, then what have you won? You cross the finish line in triumph, and you turn around and, oh dear, there’s nothing left in your wake but a wasteland.

This is what the political arm of the American pro-life movement did when they championed a man who clearly despises the weak and who has no understanding of the inherent dignity of human life: They hollowed themselves out. They made it abundantly clear to the world that it was victory they craved, and nothing more.

Some in the pro-life movement backed Trump cynically, calculating that they could enrich themselves this way; and many others did it out of fear, thinking there was no other way open to them. I think of a scene I saw once in a TV crime show: A terrified mother crouches under the table, hiding from her abuser. She’s so afraid her precious baby will cry out and betray them that she holds him tighter and tighter — and she ends up crushing him to death.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

For some reason, the link above is not working for some people! Sorry about that. Here is the correct link to the full essay:

Simcha Fisher: When fighting a war, don’t destroy what you’re defending

Image: Detail of sculpture from Frogner Park, Oslo via Needpix

Graphic abortion images have their place, but they don’t belong at the March for Life

Are you going to the March for Life, either in DC or in your state?  If so, are you planning to display graphic photos or videos of aborted babies?

If so, I’m begging you to reconsider.

I understand why people use them. Many Americans are still somehow ignorant about what abortion really is — what it really does to real babies.  They believe the lies about a “clump of cells” or “fetal pole activity,” or let themselves get confused in a cloud of euphemisms about “choice.” Many pro-lifers remember seeing those bloody images for the first time, and can recall being shaken out of a vague, fuzzy support for the pro-life cause into the realization that this is a life-and-death struggle — real life, and real death.

These images have their uses.

But a public place is not the place to use these images — ever, I’m convinced.  These images are like a terrible weapon which should be used with fear and trembling, and only as a last resort.  Ideally, they should only be used in the context of a relationship. Why?

Those are real babies.  Christians are almost alone in affirming the dignity of the human person.  The human body is sacred and always worthy of respect.  When we use pictures of real babies as a tactic or a tool, we are allowing ourselves to forget that these are children with an immortal soul, and who have a name that only their Father knows.  They have already been killed.  Let us treat their poor bodies with respect.

There will be children at the march.  Do you let your little kids watch slasher films or play gory video games?  No?  Well, those things show us actors with fake blood, pretending to be tortured and killed, or computer-generated images.  It’s bad enough when it’s fake. Why would you let your kids see the real thing?  The pro-life cause is about protecting innocent life, and that includes protecting the innocence of young children.  Violent images stay with us for a lifetime, and they damage us.

There will be post-abortive women at the march.  Imagine their courage in being there at all.  Then imagine what it does to them to see, once again, the dark thing that keeps them from sleeping at night — the thing that often keeps them in decades-long cycles of self-loathing and despair.  We don’t ask victims of rape to look at videos of rape in progress.  We don’t ask holocaust victims to look at huge banners showing the piles of emaciated bodies.  As pro-lifers, we must remember that every abortion has two victims:  the child and the mother.  We must never be on the side that hurts mothers.  Never.

Women who have miscarried will be there.  Thousands of the women at the March are mothers — mothers who have already given birth, mothers who are pregnant as they march, and mothers who have miscarried, delivered dead babies.  For many of them, the grief over a miscarriage never goes away entirely.  Many women stay away from any public march for fear of being subjected to these images so similar to the thing that caused them so much pain.  Motherhood makes a woman’s heart tender.  The pro-life movement should be a shelter that protects that tenderness — because the world needs it desperately.

Public image matters.  Some people’s only contact with obvious pro-lifers is with people who shout and condemn and terrify.  It’s just basic psychology:  if you want people to listen to you and have sympathy for your cause, don’t come across as a lunatic.  You’re not a lunatic — but to people who don’t already agree with you, you sure look that way if you’re out in public with an oversized photo of gore flapping in the wind.  Yes, your cause is worthy.  No, you’re not helping it.

They’re not an unanswerable argument that pro-lifers imagine, because people see what they want to see.  When the apostles begged the Lord to send the dead to persuade people to repent, He said that if they didn’t listen to the prophets, then they wouldn’t be impressed by the dead coming back to life, either.  Many pro-choicers speak as if it’s a foregone conclusion that pro-lifers use photoshopped images — that the tiny, mutilated feet and hands and heads are a hoax that’s been thoroughly debunked.  It’s a lie, of course.  But people believe it all the same, because they want to (and pro-lifers don’t help their cause by being sloppy about things like identifying gestational age on photos).

Desensitization is a real danger — even among pro-lifers.  It’s just how humans are made:  see something too often, and you stop really seeing it.  I thank and bless those who work so tirelessly for the pro-life cause, including those who had to spend time up close with the heart-rending remains of babies, rescuing them from dumpsters and photographing them.

But to those who use these images routinely everywhere, indiscriminately, I beg that they to stop and consider that, like policemen or like soldiers, they are human, and are in danger of becoming hardened out of self-preservation. People who have become hardened must never be the public face of the pro-life cause.  If you, as a pro-life activist, see a bloody image and you don’t flinch, then it’s time to take a break — move into a different segment of the ministry, perhaps one that emphasizes prayer and reparation.

*****

These are all arguments against using graphic images indiscriminately, in a public place. Does this mean they should never be used?

Absolutely not.  Bloody and shocking images have their place.  Pro-life activists are right when they say abortion depends on silence and darkness, and that truth must be exposed.  Too many people who are pro-choice because they somehow still don’t know what fetuses actually look like, or what happens to them when they are aborted– or because they’ve simply slipped into a comfortable shelter of euphemisms.  These lies, this comfort must be stripped away.

So when should you use graphic images?  When a teenager shrugs and says, “My health teacher says it’s not a person until 25 weeks.”  When someone who works in the front office of a clinic says she’s doing a gentle, compassionate work of mercy.  When your boyfriend wants you to get rid of “it” before it becomes a real baby.  When a college girl likens unborn babies to tumors or parasites.  Then you can respond to the actual situation, to the actual person.  Then you can take out the picture and say, “Is this what you’re talking about?” And let the poor, dead child speak for you. 

I believe that everyone should see an image of an aborted baby once in their lifetime.  And I believe that, like any traumatic image, it will stay with you.  Once or twice in a lifetime is enough. 

Abortion is violent.  Abortion is cruel.  Abortion inflicts trauma and pain on the vulnerable.  Abortion is dehumanizing to mother and child. As pro-lifers, we should have no part in any of that.  Let use those graphic images with care and respect, as a weapon of last resort. 

***
Photo used with kind permission of the photographer, Matthew Lomanno, from his photo documentary of the March for Life 2014.

 

I’m done letting anger separate me from pro-life work.

I made a mistake.

When I realized the GOP was going to nominate and elect Trump, I became so disgusted by that conspiracy of gullibility and corruption, I allowed myself to become distanced from pro-life work.

I still donated to pro-life organizations; I still prayed every night for the protection of unborn babies; and I still agonized over my moral responsibility at each and every election. But, while I still challenged readers not to accept the horror of abortion, I wrote less frequently about explicitly pro-life causes. Because of my anger, I stopped engaging with and promoting explicitly pro-life work.

I’m still angry, and justifiably so. I’m angry that there is abortion in the world. I’m angry that it feels necessary to so many people. I’m angry that born and unborn babies, pregnant mothers, and all women aren’t cherished and protected. There is no bond like the bond between mother and child, and it tears me apart when they are dehumanized and brutalized by anyone. Sometimes I’m so angry, I can hardly breathe.

But that was my mistake. Moloch doesn’t care who you’re angry at, as long as your anger keeps you from fighting for innocent lives. So I’m taking a breath. If you’re as angry as I am, I’m inviting you to take a fresh start with me, and see what good we can do.

Last night, at the State of the Union speech, President Trump said some good words:

Let us work together to build a culture that cherishes innocent life.

And let us reaffirm a fundamental truth — all children — born and unborn— are made in the holy image of God.

His speechwriter is absolutely correct. This is what we must work for.

How? For a quick and easy way to push back against laws that would allow for late-term abortions and infanticide, you can use this form to urge your senators to co-sponsor and vote for the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act. This is a good and possibly even a useful thing to do, and I’ll do it today. But it’s not enough, especially when I know the pro-life politicians are only pro-some-lives. Voting for them feels like planting a victory flag in quicksand.

Not everyone feels this way. If you think the Trump presidency has been good for the pro-life movement and has made the world better and safer for babies and their mothers, this post isn’t for you. I know I won’t change your mind, and I’m no longer trying to. I can’t seem talk about it without getting angry and losing focus. So right now, I just want to write about groups doing genuine pro-life work.

One such organization is Immigrant Families Together.

Who do they help? They help innocent life made in the holy image of God. One example (a real person, whose name is protected for her privacy):

A seventeen-year-old girl in Guatemala who was sold to a gang leader. He raped her and got her pregnant, then beat her so badly, the baby died. Then she got pregnant again.

This time, she decided to get out. So she began to walk, with her innocent unborn child inside of her. She crossed a thousand miles to present herself and her unborn baby at a legal port of entry at the U.S. She broke no laws; she followed the protocol. She just wanted to live, and she wanted her baby to live.

But you know what happens when people present themselves at our borders. They are not cherished. They are not treated as if they are made in the holy image of God. They are caught up in our political wrangling, and they suffer, and their children suffer.

Families are still being separated as a matter of course; children are being thrust into foster care and lost track of permanently. Pregnant mothers are miscarrying while they languish in custody. Mothers who wanted life for their children are having their children taken away. They have not done anything immoral by looking for help. They simply want to live, and they want their children to live. Helping them find each other again and live together in peace is pro-life work.

Immigrant Families Together goes right to the people caught in that tangle and helps them in immediate, tangible ways. They are currently helping that Guatemalan woman through her complex legal process so she doesn’t lose another child.

The first woman they helped was Yeni Gonzalez Garcia, whose story is here.  Through the work of IFT, Gonzalez-Garcia has been reunited with her children.

Here is a summary of their work:

  • Raising of bond funds through coordinated crowdfunding and individual giving in order to post bond for parents separated from their children at the US/Mexico Border.
  • Paying bonds and providing pro bono legal representation to fulfill all legal responsibilities while awaiting trial so that they may be with their children.
  • Arranging safe transportation from state of detention to the city where children are currently in foster care.
  • When needed, finding longterm housing in the destination city while they await trial.
  • Connecting parents in cities with resources in order to sustain them during the process of being unified with their children.
  • Working with local organizations and government to expedite the process of achieving full custody of their children while they await trial.
  • We have expanded our services to also include a legal referral services,  AYUDAS and have rapid response response teams to assist recently released detainees and families.

You can donate through their site, or find a Facebook page that’s more local, such as Immigrant Families Together MidwestImmigrant Families Together – CaliforniaImmigrant Families Together East Coast, Immigrant Families Together South.

I would like to routinely highlight the work of organizations doing pro-life work like this. If you work with or know of a group doing this kind of work, drop me a line at simchafisher at gmail dot com.

Anger is only good when it propels you to do good works. Let’s take a breath and start again.

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What the Catholic Church teaches about death with dignity

“Death with dignity” laws are both sensible and compassionate; religious prohibitions of suicide are both emotional and cruel.     

Too often, that’s how the narrative goes when we discuss end-of-life issues and the laws surrounding them. Secular folks claim that, when people of faith protest against legalized suicide and euthanasia, our arguments are based in emotion, passion, or even a sadistic appetite for pain and suffering.

On the contrary, the Catholic Church’s teachings are both consistent and compassionate.

In light of recent discussions of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch and his views on assisted suicide and euthanasia, and in light of the story of a Dutch doctor who directed family members to hold down a struggling old woman so he could carry out her “assisted suicide,” I’m sharing again this article from 2013. The research I did for it corrected many of my own misconceptions about what it means to be pro-life at the end of life.

***

“Technology runs amok without ethics,” says Tammy Ruiz, a Catholic nurse who provides end-of-life care for newborns. “Making sure ethics keeps up with technology is one of the major focuses of my world.”

How do Catholics like Ruiz honor the life and dignity of patients, without playing God—either by giving too much care, or not enough?

Cathy Adamkiewicz had to find that balance when she signed the papers to remove her four-month-old daughter from life support. The child’s bodily systems were failing, and she would not have survived the heart transplant she needed. She had been sedated and on a respirator for most of her life. Off the machines, Adamkiewicz says, “She died peacefully in my husband’s arms. It was a joyful day.”

“To be pro-life,” Adamkiewicz explains, “does not mean you have to extend life forever, push it, or give every type of treatment.”

Many believe that the Church teaches we must prolong human life by any means available, but this is not so. According to the Catechism of the Catholic ChurchDiscontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of “over-zealous” treatment” (CCC, 2278).

Does this mean that the Church accepts euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide—that we may end a life to relieve suffering or because we think someone’s “quality of life” is too poor? No. The Catechism continues: “One does not will to cause death; one’s inability to impede it is merely accepted” (CCC, 2278).

Richard Doerflinger, associate director of Pro-Life Activities at the USCCB, explains that caregivers must ask, “What good can this treatment do for this person I love? What harm can it do to him or her? This is what Catholic theology calls ‘weighing the benefits and burdens of a treatment.’ If the benefit outweighs the burden, in your judgment, you should request the treatment; otherwise, it would be seen as morally optional.”

Palliative care is also legitimate, even if it may hasten death—as long as the goal is to alleviate suffering.

But how are we to judge when the burdens outweigh the benefits?

Some decisions are black and white: We must not do anything, or fail to do anything, with the goal of bringing about or hastening death. “An act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator (CCC, 2277).

The dehydration death of Terry Schiavo in 2005 was murder, because Schiavo was not dying. Withdrawing food and water had the direct goal of killing her.

But if a man is dying of inoperable cancer and no longer wishes to eat or drink, or his body can no longer process nutrition, withdrawing food and water from him might be ethical and merciful. He is already moving toward death, and there is no reason to prolong his suffering.

Moral Obligations

Our moral obligations are not always obvious. Laura Malnight struggled with doubt and fear as she contemplated the future of her tiny newborn quadruplets. Two of them had pneumonia.

“It was horrible to watch them go through what they had to go through to live, being resuscitated over and over again,” Malnight says.

One baby was especially sick and had suffered brain damage. The doctors who had pushed her to do “selective reduction” while she was pregnant now urged her to stop trying to keep her son alive. “They said we were making a horrible mistake, and they painted a terrible picture of what his life would be like in an institution,” Malnight says.

Exhausted and overwhelmed, Malnight was not able to get a clear answer about the most ethical choice for her children.

Everyone told her, “The baby will declare himself,” signaling whether he’s meant to live or die. “But,” says Malnight, “my only experience with motherhood was with these babies, in their isolettes. The thing was, we would put our hands over our son and he would open his eyes, his breathing would calm.”

“We just kind of muddled through,” she says. Her quadruplets are now 13 years old, and her son, while blind and brain-damaged, is a delightful and irreplaceable child.

Doerflinger acknowledges Malnight’s struggle: “Often there is no one right or wrong answer, but just an answer you think is best for your loved one in this particular situation, taking into account that patient’s own perspective and his or her ability to tolerate the burdens of treatment.”

The key, says Cathy Adamkiewicz, is “not to put our human parameters on the purpose of a human life.”

When she got her infant daughter’s prognosis from the neurologist, she told him, “You look at her as a dying system. I see a human being. Her life has value, not because of how much she can offer, but there is value in her life.”

“Our value,” Cathy says, “is not in our doing, but in our being. Doerflinger agrees, and emphasizes that “every life is a gift. Particular treatments may be a burden; no one’s life should be dismissed as a burden.”

He says that human life is “a great good, worthy of respect. At the same time, it is not our ultimate good, which lies in our union with God and each other in eternity. We owe to all our loved ones the kind of care that fully respects their dignity as persons, without insisting on every possible means for prolonging life even if it may impose serious risks and burdens on a dying patient. Within these basic guidelines, there is a great deal of room for making personal decisions we think are best for those we love.”

Because of this latitude, a living will is not recommended for Catholics. Legal documents of this kind cannot take into account specific, unpredictable circumstances that may occur. Instead, Catholic ethicists recommend drawing up an advance directive with a durable power of attorney or healthcare proxy. A trusted spokesman is appointed to make medical decisions that adhere to Church teaching.

Caregivers should do their best to get as much information as possible from doctors and consult any priests, ethicists, or theologians available—and then to give over care to the doctors, praying that God will guide their hearts and hands.

Terri Duhon found relief in submitting to the guidance of the Church when a sudden stroke caused her mother to choke. Several delays left her on a ventilator, with no brain activity. My husband and I couldn’t stand the thought of taking her off those machines. We wanted there to be a chance,” she says. But as the night wore on, she says, “We reached a point where it was an affront to her dignity to keep her on the machines.”

Duhon’s words can resonate with caregivers who make the choice either to extend life or to allow it to go: “I felt thankful that even though all of my emotion was against it, I had solid footing from the Church’s moral teaching. At least I wasn’t making the decision on my own.”

Adamkiewicz agrees. “It’s so terrifying and frustrating in a hospital,” she remembers. “I can’t imagine going through it without having our faith as our touchstone during those moments of fear.”

 *********

End of life resources

Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Healthcare Services (from the USCCB)

Evangelium Vitae

Pope John Paul II, To the Congress on Life-Sustaining Treatments and Vegetative State, 20 March 2004 

NCBCenter.org provides samples of an advance directive with durable power of attorney or healthcare proxy.

This article was originally published in Catholic Digest in 2013.

What the Catholic Church teaches about care for the dying

“Death with dignity” laws are both sensible and compassionate; religious prohibitions of suicide are both emotional and cruel.

Too often, that’s how the narrative goes when we discuss end-of-life issues and the laws surrounding them. Secular folks claim that, when Catholics and others protest against legalized suicide and euthanasia, our arguments are based in emotion, passion, or even a sadistic appetite for pain and suffering.

On the contrary, the Catholic Church’s teachings are both consistent and compassionate.

In light of recent discussions of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch and his views on assisted suicide and euthanasia, and in light of the story of a Dutch doctor who directed family members to hold down a struggling old woman so he could carry out her “assisted suicide,” I’m sharing again this article from 2013. The research I did for it corrected many of my own misconceptions about what it means to be pro-life at the end of life.

 

***

“Technology runs amok without ethics,” says Tammy Ruiz, a Catholic nurse who provides end-of-life care for newborns. “Making sure ethics keeps up with technology is one of the major focuses of my world.”

How do Catholics like Ruiz honor the life and dignity of patients, without playing God—either by giving too much care, or not enough?

Cathy Adamkiewicz had to find that balance when she signed the papers to remove her four-month-old daughter from life support. The child’s bodily systems were failing, and she would not have survived the heart transplant she needed. She had been sedated and on a respirator for most of her life. Off the machines, Adamkiewicz says, “She died peacefully in my husband’s arms. It was a joyful day.”

“To be pro-life,” Adamkiewicz explains, “does not mean you have to extend life forever, push it, or give every type of treatment.”

Many believe that the Church teaches we must prolong human life by any means available, but this is not so. According to the Catechism of the Catholic ChurchDiscontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of “over-zealous” treatment” (CCC, 2278).

Does this mean that the Church accepts euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide—that we may end a life to relieve suffering or because we think someone’s “quality of life” is too poor? No. The Catechism continues: “One does not will to cause death; one’s inability to impede it is merely accepted” (CCC, 2278).

Richard Doerflinger, associate director of Pro-Life Activities at the USCCB, explains that caregivers must ask, “What good can this treatment do for this person I love? What harm can it do to him or her? This is what Catholic theology calls ‘weighing the benefits and burdens of a treatment.’ If the benefit outweighs the burden, in your judgment, you should request the treatment; otherwise, it would be seen as morally optional.”

Palliative care is also legitimate, even if it may hasten death—as long as the goal is to alleviate suffering.

But how are we to judge when the burdens outweigh the benefits?

Some decisions are black and white: We must not do anything, or fail to do anything, with the goal of bringing about or hastening death. “An act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator (CCC, 2277).

The dehydration death of Terry Schiavo in 2005 was murder, because Schiavo was not dying. Withdrawing food and water had the direct goal of killing her.

But if a man is dying of inoperable cancer and no longer wishes to eat or drink, or his body can no longer process nutrition, withdrawing food and water from him might be ethical and merciful. He is already moving toward death, and there is no reason to prolong his suffering.

Moral Obligations

Our moral obligations are not always obvious. Laura Malnight struggled with doubt and fear as she contemplated the future of her tiny newborn quadruplets. Two of them had pneumonia.

“It was horrible to watch them go through what they had to go through to live, being resuscitated over and over again,” Malnight says.

One baby was especially sick and had suffered brain damage. The doctors who had pushed her to do “selective reduction” while she was pregnant now urged her to stop trying to keep her son alive. “They said we were making a horrible mistake, and they painted a terrible picture of what his life would be like in an institution,” Malnight says.

Exhausted and overwhelmed, Malnight was not able to get a clear answer about the most ethical choice for her children.

Everyone told her, “The baby will declare himself,” signaling whether he’s meant to live or die. “But,” says Malnight, “my only experience with motherhood was with these babies, in their isolettes. The thing was, we would put our hands over our son and he would open his eyes, his breathing would calm.”

“We just kind of muddled through,” she says. Her quadruplets are now 13 years old, and her son, while blind and brain-damaged, is a delightful and irreplaceable child.

Doerflinger acknowledges Malnight’s struggle: “Often there is no one right or wrong answer, but just an answer you think is best for your loved one in this particular situation, taking into account that patient’s own perspective and his or her ability to tolerate the burdens of treatment.”

The key, says Cathy Adamkiewicz, is “not to put our human parameters on the purpose of a human life.”

When she got her infant daughter’s prognosis from the neurologist, she told him, “You look at her as a dying system. I see a human being. Her life has value, not because of how much she can offer, but there is value in her life.”

“Our value,” Cathy says, “is not in our doing, but in our being. Doerflinger agrees, and emphasizes that “every life is a gift. Particular treatments may be a burden; no one’s life should be dismissed as a burden.”

He says that human life is “a great good, worthy of respect. At the same time, it is not our ultimate good, which lies in our union with God and each other in eternity. We owe to all our loved ones the kind of care that fully respects their dignity as persons, without insisting on every possible means for prolonging life even if it may impose serious risks and burdens on a dying patient. Within these basic guidelines, there is a great deal of room for making personal decisions we think are best for those we love.”

Because of this latitude, a living will is not recommended for Catholics. Legal documents of this kind cannot take into account specific, unpredictable circumstances that may occur. Instead, Catholic ethicists recommend drawing up an advance directive with a durable power of attorney or healthcare proxy. A trusted spokesman is appointed to make medical decisions that adhere to Church teaching.

Caregivers should do their best to get as much information as possible from doctors and consult any priests, ethicists, or theologians available—and then to give over care to the doctors, praying that God will guide their hearts and hands.

Terri Duhon found relief in submitting to the guidance of the Church when a sudden stroke caused her mother to choke. Several delays left her on a ventilator, with no brain activity. My husband and I couldn’t stand the thought of taking her off those machines. We wanted there to be a chance,” she says. But as the night wore on, she says, “We reached a point where it was an affront to her dignity to keep her on the machines.”

Duhon’s words can resonate with caregivers who make the choice either to extend life or to allow it to go: “I felt thankful that even though all of my emotion was against it, I had solid footing from the Church’s moral teaching. At least I wasn’t making the decision on my own.”

Adamkiewicz agrees. “It’s so terrifying and frustrating in a hospital,” she remembers. “I can’t imagine going through it without having our faith as our touchstone during those moments of fear.”

 *********

End of life resources

 

Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Healthcare Services (from the USCCB)

Evangelium Vitae

Pope John Paul II, To the Congress on Life-Sustaining Treatments and Vegetative State, 20 March 2004 

NCBCenter.org provides samples of an advance directive with durable power of attorney or healthcare proxy.

This article was originally published in Catholic Digest in 2013.

I’m a single-issue pro-lifer in a swing state, and I cannot vote for Trump

I’m a pro-lifer. I believe that the term “pro-life” encompasses so much more than abortion; but I also believe, as Flannery O’Connor says, that you can’t be any poorer than dead.

So when I vote, I vote for the candidate whose presidency will result in fewer dead babies, because you have to start somewhere.

Many of my friends who think the same way are voting for Trump. This is something I cannot do.

As a single-issue, pro-life, swing state voter, here’s what I know:

The President doesn’t just rush over from the swearing-in ceremony, wielding a copy of the Constitution and a Sharpie, passing laws or repealing laws by fiat. They are required to work with Congress. A President Hillary can’t just repeal the Hyde Amendment on her own, any more than a President Trump can’t just repeal Obamacare on his own. So if you’re voting for Trump just because you think Hillary will repeal the Hyde Amendment, then think again. The Hyde Amendment comes down to budgetary issues, and who passes the budget? Congress. So if you’re worried about specific legislation, think of who you’re voting for down ticket. They’re the ones who hold that power.

Presidents also don’t just show up at work and decide who’s going to be on the Supreme Court. The president can nominate someone, but then Congress must approve the nomination. Remember? Remember how Obama shamed the GOP by nominating Merrick Garland, who is widely known as a thoughtful, rigorous, non-partisan judge, and the GOP dug in its heels and blocked him out of spite? That’s how that works.

So if you’re voting for Trump just because of potential Supreme Court nominations, think again. The president can’t put anyone in place without congress’ say-so, and congress has shown that they’re more interested in vengeance and grandstanding than in anything to do with Roe v. Wade or any other pro-life legal case. They’ll say yes to any idiot Trump chooses if they think that idiot will grease their palms in matters that are actually important to them, and they’ll say no to any good judge he might accidentally choose if they think that it will impress their constituents to stand up to Trump.

Congress. Doesn’t. Care. About. Abortion.

Speaking of the Hyde Amendment and Obamacare, if the fate of tens of thousands of babies really does come down to funding, as I keep hearing from the “But the Hyde Amendment!” crowd, then riddle me this: The Hyde Amendment (and I keep accidentally typing “Hype Amendment,” which is pretty accurate) means that federal tax dollars can’t go for abortions. And it’s completely bogus. The federal government funnels millions and millions of tax dollars to Planned Parenthood, and has done so for years. Planned Parenthood is mainly in the abortion business. Money is fungible. Your tax dollars have been paying for abortions forever. The Hyde Amendment  is there so republicans can point to it and say, “SEE? This is why you have no choice but to vote for me!” That’s its only function.

But what about Obamacare? It’s a huge friggin’ mess. Lots of my friends are suffering because of it. But also, it pays for things like prenatal care for poor people who have no other insurance. It pays for thing like the delivery of babies, and for healthcare that keeps alive already-born babies (and children and teenagers, not to mention pregnant and non-pregnant women, and men). One of the reasons people seek abortion is because they think, “How can I possibly afford a baby?” And . . . Trump has sworn to repeal Obamacare.

So if you really believe that it’s mainly big government funding that makes the difference between life and death, you might as well vote Hillary, because she’s not talking about yanking Obamacare. (But those are ugly, leech-like Obamacare babies, not clean, noble Hyde Amendment babies, so screw ’em, right?)

Where do pro-life laws or pro-choice laws really come from, anyway? The president has all kinds of ways of influencing what kind of laws come before congress. The president can make deals with legislators, appointing people heads of committees, and promising rewards in return for favors done; and the president can occasionally pass executive orders or try to repeal certain laws, if they are extremely important to him and worth making a stand over.

But the political will and clout for big, important, life-changing laws come from the ground up, from the states and from individual communities. That’s where the momentum comes from. That’s how legislatures get the idea and the courage to introduce new bills: if they think their constituents will like it, and if they think someone will put money behind it. That’s also, frankly, how laws come before the Supreme Court: if someone has the stamina to keep challenging it, and if someone puts up the money to keep championing it.

I know you don’t want to hear that our legal system rises and falls on popular opinion and money, but it does. It’s really not mainly about who’s president. That’s simply not how it works.

So what happens (and what’s already happening) when pro-lifers openly support Trump and say that he represents our goals and values? Checks come pouring in to pro-choice candidates. Sane people take one look at him and say, “If that’s what it means to be pro-life, then helllllll, no.” A Trump presidency backed by pro-lifers would energize the pro-choice movement in ways we’ve never seen before, ever. Money, enthusiasm, legislative pressure, local and state election — all, all will go shrieking away from pro-lifers. And this is one thing that you really can pin directly on who’s president.

What happened during the Obama presidency? The pro-life movement was tremendously energized. Dozens and dozens of pro-life laws have been passed. Abortions have gone down. This is what it looks like when pro-lifers look at the president and say, “This is the enemy. Let’s fight back!” The very same thing will happen if Hillary is president.

And the very same thing will happen is Trump is president — only it won’t be pro-lifers saying it; it’ll be pro-choicers, and it will be pro-choice laws being passed, and pro-choice causes gaining clout and energy and donations. If I were pro-choice, I’d vote for Trump.

And now let’s talk about pregnant women in crisis. Let’s talk about how they get that way. Let’s talk about the fact that so very many pregnant women who seek abortion say they felt pressured into it. Where could that pressure possibly come from?

Maybe from men who treat them like sex objects. (This is how Donald Trump treats women, past, present, and future.)

Maybe from men who hear that their wife or girlfriend is pregnant and immediately see it as a problem. (This is how Donald Trump treated his wife.)

Maybe because they think they can’t afford to be pregnant and can’t afford to take care of a child. (Donald Trump doesn’t want poor women to have access to free healthcare.)

Maybe because they’re involved with a man who doesn’t feel any need to honor his promises. (Donald Trump is a rich man because he routinely backs out of his promises, refusing to pay contractors and declaring bankruptcy.)

Maybe because they’re living in a culture where men feel that they have a right to push their way into women’s lives, grab whatever they want from women, blame and shame women for anything that happens next, and leave whenever the relationship becomes inconvenient for him. (Donald Trump Donald Trump Donald Trump Donald Trump.)

Women end up having abortions mainly when they feel like they have no other choice: when they feel that their lives and their identities are only worthwhile if they’re more serviceable to people who have power over them.

And I have just described the world that Donald Trump builds around himself, and will continue to build as president.

Just yesterday, Baby Christian Trump said that a reporter’s accusation of sexual aggression isn’t credible because “look at her.” This is how he operates. This is how he sees women: as either pretty enough to be worthy of his sexual onslaught, or as too ugly to be worth anyone’s time.

Women seek abortion for a reason. Donald Trump, and the people who admire him and imitate him, are that reason. Trump has been telling us who he is. Pro-lifers, let’s believe him.

So how to vote, then?
-Vote for Hillary if you think she’ll be better, in the long run, for the unborn. Since I live in a swing state, this is probably what I will do, because I think it’s the least un-pro-life option.
-Vote for a third party candidate if you think he can’t win, but you just can’t stand to vote R or D.
-Vote for a third party candidate , or write in someone if you can, if you think your candidate won’t win, but it will crack open the monstrously dysfunctional two-party system that got us here in the first place.
-Leave your ballot blank, if you think that’s what this election deserves.

But don’t vote for Trump because you’re pro-life. It would be better to hang a millstone on your ballot and throw it into the sea.