Religious Freedom and Protecting Healthcare for Women and Children
“These are the ones most grateful to you for the new well . . .”
With that, the chieftain of this Islamic village in Ethiopia, not far from Meki, took me over to meet about twenty beaming young girls, all who looked to be about the age of my niece, Grace, seven or eight years old.
I was in the village with a delegation from Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the acclaimed international assistance agency supported by the Catholic community of the United States. We had just been enthusiastically welcomed to this small village to bless and start-up their new well, dug and outfitted by CRS.
The hundred-or-so inhabitants were all ecstatic over the new well . . . but the happiest, the leader told me, through the translator, were the little girls. Why? I inquired.
“Because up to now everyday was the same for them, as it has been for centuries of our women. The girls are the ones designated to walk the daily two-hour trek to the river, to fill up the buckets with water- – enough for their hut and family – – and walk two hours back. Each day, the men go out to the fields; the boys go off to school; the women stay in the village to care for their families . . . and the young girls ‘take the walk.’ They’ll do it until they marry and have a baby. The survival of the village depends on them. But this means,” the chief wrapped-it-up, “that they can never go to school. If they did, who would get the water? But now” he pointed radiantly to the jubilant girls, “they can go to school because we have good water right here because of our new well.”
Episodes like that occur all over Ethiopia, as well as other impoverished, thirsty countries throughout the third world, because of CRS “fresh water projects.” Villagers benefit; crops flourish; livestock fatten; all the people drink; but the girls are the happiest because they’re free and can now improve their lives.
When it comes to the health of women, their babies, and their children, the Catholic Church is there, the most effective private provider of such care anywhere around.
We bishops of New York sponsor an agency called Fidelis, which provides health insurance to low-income folks. I’m told we’re the largest such private provider in our state.
A recent physician survey of Fidelis showed that we got the highest ratings of anybody else in the area of – – guess what? – – supporting healthcare for women and children.
Here’s another illustration:
A couple years ago, I visited India, and travelled to particularly poor areas. At one stop my host-brother-bishop asked me to visit a convent nearby. “The sisters will appreciate your stopping-by,” he told me. “They’re scared, and they might be harmed, run-out-of-town, or even put in jail!”
“Whatever for?” I asked.
“A couple years ago, they opened a residence for young girls. Nearly a hundred of the girls, all Delats (“untouchables”) from the surrounding villages, live there, and go to school, learn handicrafts and skills, and are loved and cared for by the sisters.
“And that’s earning them threats?” I wondered aloud.
“Yes it is,” the bishop explained. “Seems as if the wealthy people depend upon these young girls to clean their houses, cook, and baby-sit their own infants. Now they’re losing this cheap labor source. They’re mad. They don’t like this social upheaval. As one of them yelled at the sisters, ‘You take these girls, who will prepare my tea!'”
You getting a pattern here? I could go on and on: if you want to see creative, daring, lifegiving healthcare for women and their children, look at what the Church is doing.
And now understand why Catholics rightly bristle when politicians and commentators characterize the Church as backwards and insensitive when it comes to women’s health. Yes, the PR experts advise them that this tactic is a proven ploy to take the attention off the current urgent issue of religious freedom. The marketers advise them that, if they can reduce the issue to one of contraception, stereotyping the Church as opposed to women’s rights, they have a chance of clouding the towering issue of the First Freedom.
But the Church should not be the ones on the defensive here. We’re on the offensive when it comes to women’s health, education, and welfare, here at home, and throughout the world. We hardly need lectures on this issue from senators.
We just want to be left alone to live out the imperatives of our faith to serve, teach, heal, feed, and care for others. We cherish this, our earthly home, America, for its enshrined freedom to do so. Those really concerned about women’s health would be better off defending the Church’s freedom to continue its work.
A couple of years ago I visited a woman’s prison. The warden asked me if I wanted to visit the expectant and new mothers’ healthcare center. It then dawned on me that, of course, some women would enter prison pregnant. I was so happy to see the expectant moms, getting good health care for themselves and their unborn babies, and to see the moms with babies under two getting classes in childrearing and parenting skills, with the babies receiving tender care right next to their moms. When I told the warden how grateful I was to see such excellent care for these women and children, he replied, “Thank yourself. Catholic Charities runs it.”
Case closed . . .