Sentiment and Sentimentality: Woman’s Choice

MARY SHIVANANDAN

Women’s responsive and receptive nature, as wife and mother, is expressed by empathy, sensitivity and openness to others. This exposes her to the temptation to place affection (sentiment) above reason and objective truth. Only when she acknowledges the fullness of the image of God in herself and places her own integrity and obedience to God’s law above sentiment does she avoid the destructive path of sentimentality.

INTRODUCTION

Women’s responsive and receptive nature, as wife and mother, is expressed by empathy, sensitivity and openness to others. This exposes her to the temptation to place affection (sentiment) above reason and objective truth. Only when she acknowledges the fullness of the image of God in herself and places her own integrity and obedience to God’s law above sentiment does she avoid the destructive path of sentimentality.

Woman’s role as mother is at the heart of the struggle for her soul. It makes her both powerful and vulnerable. Feminists seek the power without accepting the vulnerability. Sentimentality or false sentiment leads them from empathizing with the plight of women with problem pregnancies to removing the reputed cause of the difficulty, the unborn child. The true sentiment of motherhood, which accepts pain and sacrifice for the care of both herself and another, succumbs to sentimentality. Her own integrity is compromised first in yielding inappropriately to a man in sexual intercourse, then even more in destroying her child

Reflection on this topic will begin with a theological account of the nature of man and woman. Since Pope John Paul II’s theological and philosophical anthropology has been the primary focus of my study during the past few years, I shall be drawing especially on his work to illuminate the nature of woman. Both his apostolic letter, Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women) (John Paul II, 1988) and his Wednesday Catechesis, refer back to the first pages of Scripture, Genesis (John Paul II, 1981). The Genesis account is also the target of several feminist theologians such as Phyllis Trible and Phyllis Bird. Their interpretation gives a clue to the nature of the feminist distortion of woman’ s nature.

Theology, while the primary source for John Paul II ‘s understanding of the nature of woman, is by no means the sole source. He is also a keen philosopher (Schmitz, 1993). In Love and Responsibility he deals directly with the issue at hand, the temptation of woman to sentimentality (Wojtyla, 1993). A distinguished Catholic philosopher, Edith Stein, also has much to say on woman’s strengths and weaknesses in this area. Turning to feminist sources, it is interesting to note that Elizabeth Cady Stanton, considered the philosopher of the woman’s movement in the 19th century, made much of woman’s intuition as superior to the logical, rational mind of man. At the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, Cady Stanton with four Quaker women drew up the Declaration of Sentiments, modeled on the Declaration of Independence. Many of the strands of current feminism can be seen in her work.

Turning to the psychosocial area, I have chosen to highlight two works that deal with women’s confrontation with motherhood: Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice (Gilligan, 1982) and Kristin Luker’s Taking Chances: Abortion and the Decision Not to Contracept (Luker, 1975). Gilligan’s thesis is that choosing abortion is a step forward in a woman’s development and maturity, choosing to take control of her circumstances rather than be a victim. Luker’s work, more sociological than psychological, comes closer to the heart of what contraception and abortion mean to women’s lives. Instead of giving them true freedom it has actually restricted their opportunities to be appropriately assertive and to protect their integrity.

Finally we shall look at the Church’s prescription for restoring woman’s dignity and subjectivity, especially in honoring motherhood. As Christian women, however, Scripture provides the most complete models and Mary is the model par excellence not only of women but of all human beings in their receptive relationship to the Triune God. In both the birth and death of Jesus she accepted the pain of the cross with both courage and compassion.

THEOLOGICAL UNDERSTANDING

The Genesis accounts of the creation of man and woman have particular significance for John Paul II because of his preoccupation with the dignity of the human person and the communion of persons in marriage. He states in his Wednesday Catechesis, published as Original Unity of Man and Woman (John Paul II, 1981), that he is returning to “the beginning” because in St Matthew’s Gospel Christ referred the Pharisees to “the beginning” in answer to their question on the indissolubility of marriage. But he has referred back to Genesis in many other contexts. In Sign of Contradiction (1978), his retreat for Pope Paul VI, he calls the biblical account, “something like an embryo, containing all that will in time make up the full-grown person” (Wojtyla, 1979, p. 24). In Mulieris Dignitatem (1988), he also makes reference to the fundamental inheritance of all humanity that Is “linked with the mystery of the biblical ‘beginning’ “ (John Paul II, 1988, no 1).

He detects three levels to the human being made in the image of God from the Genesis text. The first and deepest is the level of the person although all three levels are simultaneously present. As equal persons, man and woman each have a direct relationship with God. As what he calls an “original solitude” they share dominion over creation. But they cannot be complete in solitude. After forming Adam from the dust in the second account of creation, as God says, “it is not good that man should be alone. I will create a helper fit for him” (Gen. 2:18). And so he created Eve.

John Paul II is at pains both to affirm the absolute equality of Adam and Eve as persons and to maintain a certain order in creation. More and more man and woman as a communion of persons are seen to reflect the Trinitarian community of persons. Orthodox theologians are coming to see that gender in human beings may image the Trinity in some way. David Schindler has brought this out well in the theology of Hans Urs Van Balthasar. While the Father is the principle of generativity in the Trinity itself, the Son is receptive to the Father and the Holy Spirit is receptive to both the Son and the Father. Joyce Little has also linked the Trinitarian relations to a theological anthropology of sexual equality and difference in the Church.

Receptivity is not a lack but a fullness of being. Without an answer, the Word is barren. Towards the Father, the Son is total receptivity. Yet towards the world, the Son is the principle of generativity and all human beings stand to Him in a receptive, bridal relation. In this way, the man (Adam) represents the Father’s principle of generativity and the woman Eve, the receptivity of the Son towards the Father and that of the Holy Spirit towards both Father and Son. Femininity reflects this Trinitarian receptivity of the Son. Just as Father and Son are equal persons so man and woman are equal yet different. Note that it is an active not a passive receptivity, one that actively responds

The difference is most clearly visible in the respective roles of men and women in parenthood. That is the third level of the person John Paul II finds in Genesis. The blessing of fertility flows from their creation as two sexes. This is precisely the level that feminist Scripture scholars have the most difficulty with. Because the Genesis account seems to introduce a hierarchy that is detrimental to women, Phyllis Bird declares the creation narratives “deformed” and “limited” by their cultural and historical context (Bird, 1994 #16 pp. 527-528). Another feminist scholar, Phyllis Trible, devalues the role of parenthood asserting that ‘‘parents are not part of God’s creative activity (Trible, 1978, p.104). Parenthood is made possible through sexuality but the roles of mother and father are not central. Bird dissociates the difference of the sexes from the idea of the divine image and associates it simply with material creation and the regeneration of the species. Such an interpretation of Genesis profoundly devalues the role of woman especially as mother. It also introduces a sameness that undermines the equality of initiation and receptivity that characterize masculinity and femininity. The denial of difference, far from benefiting women leads to an inability on the part of woman to integrate into her personality, the specific characteristics associated with motherhood, empathy, sentiment, and care for the weak arid vulnerable (Bird, 1981, p.134).

Because woman represents the receptivity of mankind towards God, one might surmise that Satan particularly tempted Eve. He proposed to destroy the very icon of receptivity towards God. But he also approached Eve for another reason. Carol Gilligan cites the research of Janet Lever on the different developmental paths of boys and girls which shows different attitudes towards rules. In middle childhood, for example boys “play by the rules.” Girls, on the other hand, make exception to rules because they shy away from confrontation. Their empathy for others influences them to bend the rules (Gilligan, 1982, pp.9-11). God had given a very definite command in the Garden of Eden not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:16). Satan knew that the man would not as readily go against a rule. Eve could be more easily swayed. Both were at fault as John Paul II says, but in different ways. Eve was influenced by appearances not truth, while Adam was influenced by her. In pronouncing punishment, God castigates Adam for listening to the voice of Eve rather than His voice.

The temptation of Eden, John Paul II says, is repeated throughout history. While the women’s suffrage movement has accomplished much in championing legitimate rights such as the right to vote, its flawed philosophy has also gravely hurt women. Cady Stanton lauds Eve’s role in the Garden of Eden. She wrote in her newspaper, The Revolution, March 25, 1969: “When Eve took her destiny in her own hand and set minds spinning down through all spheres of time, she declared Humanity omnipotent, and today thinking people are rapt in wonder and admiration at the inventions and discoveries of science, the grandeur of man’s conceptions, and the magnitude of his works” (Sibel, 1982, p.189). It is ironic that the date of this pronouncement is March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, the day we celebrate when the new Eve gave her momentous fiat. Nearly thirty years before in 1840, Cady Stanton had made a bold statement by convincing the Scottish clergyman to leave out the word “obey” in the marriage ceremony (Sibel, 1982, p. 8). How reminiscent of Eve’s non serviam, I will not serve!

Cady Stanton rejected the Calvinism of her childhood and became a deist much influenced by New England Transcendentalism. While rejecting the divine inspiration of the Bible, she acknowledged its importance and recognized that it contains “some grand and beautiful sentiments” (Sibel, 1982, p.149). She declared:

Men write Bibles and translate them from their own standpoint, they make constitutions and states in their own interest, and then claim that they, being in direct communication with the Most High. speak by special inspiration. (Sibel, 1982, p.252)

She edited a two-volume work called The Woman’s Bible. As John Sibel says, “Cady Stanton saw that her task was to search out the true intuitions in the Bible and then to rectify the aberrations that had been introduced by the male element” (Sibel, 1982, p.252). Surely as Ecclesiastes says, there is nothing new under the sun.

PHILOSOPHICAL ANTHROPOLOGY

Cady Stanton had a great deal to say about the nature of man and woman. She was especially fond of the notion of sentiment as a particular feminine gift and its superiority over logic and understanding which she saw as the male’s lesser gift. Sentiment did not mean for her something derived from emotion but the way to arriving at truth by intuition rather than by argument. Sentiment is the process of reason intuiting as opposed to the process of ratiocination. In her view, the individuals’s natural rights are intuited by transcendental reason and the logic of understanding guides their exercise according to the individual’s desires, capacities and powers. As a result the rights of the individuals are supreme (Sibel 1989, pp 147, 163). (She was much influenced by John Locke, John Stuart Mill and Thomas Paine. She preached, in her own words, “the new gospel of individual sovereignty.” The highest good for the individual, which brings about true happiness and salvation, is self-development (Sibyl, 1982, pp.169, 193).

Cady Stanton began her reflections on women’s rights by adopting a “single anthropology,” in which there is little difference between the sexes but changed later to endorsing the complementarity of the sexes. She believed that it was easier to argue for sexual equality if it could be seen that men need women and vice versa. She maintained women’s moral superiority versus men’s physical superiority. Her view of the male might be complementary but not complimentary! He is governed by animal appetite and functions through understanding not intuitive reason. She described the male element as:

a destructive force, stern, selfish, aggrandizing, loving war, violence, conquest, acquisition, breeding in the material and moral world alike discord, disorder, disease and death...The male element...has fairly run riot from the beginning, overpowering the feminine element everywhere, crushing out all the diviner qualities in human nature itself.” (Sibel, 1982, p.183)
Yet she approved of girls carrying fire-arms to protect themselves and of wearing unisex costume such as the so-called Bloomers, which she wore herself (Sibel, 1982, pp.173, 238, 239).

It is especially pertinent for this topic that Cady Stanton felt the marriage relation to be pivotal for women rights. She rejected marriage as a sacrament, holding it to be a mere human institution based on the mutual help and happiness of the spouses which is its first object. Its second object is the establishment of a home and family. If the spouses cease to live harmoniously and to bring each other companionship and happiness, then for that very reason the marriage ought to be annulled. Individual sovereignty and happiness are the supreme criterion. This includes “a wife’s right to her own body.” We are familiar with Margaret Sanger’s battle cry “a woman’s right to her own body,” but Cady Stanton claimed this right well before her. Cady Stanton did not endorse promiscuity or free love but asserted woman’s right alone within the marriage relationship to “say when a new being should be brought into the world.” Since there was no reliable contraception at that time, she recommended abstinence from sexual intercourse as the way to secure her reproductive rights (Sibel, 1982, pp.205-213).

Cady Stanton’s philosophy, while it erred in many respects, acknowledged the complementarity of the sexes and sought to give due weight to women’s particular gifts. It also affirmed her as an individual. A philosophical analysis of women by a Christian philosopher shows that while some of her insights are correct, her downgrading of motherhood vitiated her overall view of women and their relationship to themselves, men and society. “The clear and irrevocable word of Scripture,” writes Edith Stein, “declares what daily experience teaches from the beginning of the world: woman is destined to be wife and mother” (Stein, p.43). From this it follows that, while she shares the same human nature with man, her faculties differ in a basic way.

Woman seeks to embrace what is “ ‘living, personal and whole.” Her maternal desire is to protect and nourish others. She is not at home with abstraction or with lifeless facts unless they advance the personal. Her thought is naturally directed towards an intuitive and emotional grasp of the concrete whole rather than being analytical and conceptual. An attitude of caring extends to her role as life companion to a man. While he is absorbed in “his enterprise,” he expects those around him to be equally consumed and finds it difficult to interest himself in the affairs of others. The woman’s sympathetic concern, on the other hand, empowers her children as well as the adults in her life. She seeks to become and help others become a whole human being. Obedience and subordination as directed by God’s work (my emphasis) are required by participation in her husband’s life. Such obedience also extends to his role as protector of the family (Stein, 1987, pp.44, 248).

Having given a portrait of the feminine ideal, Stein points to the distortions of woman’s nature resulting from original sin. Her penchant for the personal can become self-centered so that on the one hand she gives in to vanity, the need for praise and unrestrained self-disclosure. On the other, she takes an exaggerated interest in the lives of others. Her tendency to grasp the whole influences her to a superficial dabbling in many areas because she lacks the requisite discipline to master one. She becomes absorbed in the affairs of others in an unhealthy way to her own detriment and that of others (Stein 1987, p.45). While it is the role of both men and women to understand, enjoy and create, woman’s joy in things and desire to enjoy the good life can make her greedy and lead her to yield to her own desires in relationship to a man. (In the Garden of Eden. Eve coveted the fruit for its beauty and usefulness.) She has a tendency to surrender completely to another human being. The selfish woman either shirks her maternal duties or treats children as her possession (Stein, 1987, pp.73, 74, 250).

Woman, however, has a special sensitivity to moral values and a desire for union with the Lord. Her strength lies in her receptivity and her emotional life which suits her orientation to the personal (Stein, 1987, pp.77, 78, 222). Emotions “occupy the center of her being.’’ Stein gives a definition of the emotional life somewhat akin to the “sentiment” of Cady Stanton:

It (emotion) has an essential cognitive function: it is the central pivot by which reception of the existent is transmuted into personal opinion and action.

Through the emotions, it (the soul) comes to know what it is and how it is; it also grasps through them the relationship of another being to itself, and then, consequently, the significance of the inherent value of exterior things; of unfamiliar people and impersonal things. But the emotions need direction through the intellect and will. If discipline of mind and will are lacking, the woman may yield to sensuality. (Stein, 1987. pp. 96, 97)

SENTIMENTALITY vs. SENSUALITY

Cady Stanton and Edith Stein have given us definitions of sentiment that are both similar yet differ in some respect. For the feminist, sentiment is the primary way of arriving at truth, is less involved with the emotions and holds greater cognitive value. An alternative word for her is intuition. A specifically feminine gift, it incorporates mercy and love (which, incidentally, have to do with emotions) and stands in contrast to the cold and barren logic of masculine understanding (Sibel, 1982, pp.182, 183). For Edith Stein, emotions are central to sentiment. They are the gateway through which the person grasps what exists, forms an opinion and acts. Cady Stanton’s minimizing of the emotional aspect of sentiment is in line with her depreciation of the maternal role of women.

Webster’s New World Dictionary gives as a definition of sentiment: “a complex combination of feelings and opinions as a basis for action or judgment’’ or “A thought, opinion, judgment, or attitude, usually the result of careful consideration, but often colored with emotion.” It can also refer to a “generalized attitude, the sentiment of romantic love.” Its root is the Latin word for feel or sense.

Both Cady Stanton and Edith Stein view sentiment in a positive light. It can degenerate, however, into sentimentality which, in its mildest form according to the dictionary, “suggests emotion of a kind that is felt in a nostalgic or tender mood” or in its negative definition is “having or showing such feelings in an excessive, superficial or maudlin way: mawkish” or “influenced more by emotion than reason.” John Paul II, as the philosopher Karol Wojtyla, makes several references to sentiment and sentimentality in his book on responsible parenthood, Love and Responsibility, which are particularly relevant to the discussion.

In discussing the person and love, he distinguishes between sentimentality and sensuality. In relations between the sexes there is always an impression which may go with an emotion. When the emotion is connected with the possible enjoyment of the body as an object, it is sensuality. But the emotion may be connected to a response to the masculinity of the man or the femininity of the woman. In that case it relates to an impression of the whole person and is called sentiment “Sentimental sensibility,’’ says John Paul II, “is the source of affection.’’ Sentiment is not associated with the desire to enjoy or use the other person; and is congruent with a desire to contemplate and appreciate beauty. As such it is good (Wojtyla, 1993, pp.109-110).

Such a sentimental love draws the two people together and absorbs them. They want to be continually near each other and to express their love eternally. This may be by words or looks and not necessarily by bodily contact since such an affectionate love is not centered on the body as such. But it can easily lead to sensuality although in a disguised way. The man is generally more attracted by sensuality and the woman by sentimentality. The man more readily recognizes the sensual nature of the relationship while for the woman, sensuality is hidden by sentimentality. (Wojtyla, 1993, pp.110-111).

The memory and imagination are active in a sentimental love. The person becomes idealized in the eyes of the lover, out of all proportion to reality, and such an idealization strengthens the emotional commitment. These idealized values are usually ones which the lover wants to find in the beloved. As a result the person is not so much an object of affection as the occasion for affection.

Sentimentality is, above all. subjective and exaggerates values which the person yearns for in himself. In this aspect it is less objective than sensuality which is focused on the body of the other person. When the person discovers that the values do not actually exist in the beloved, disillusionment and even hatred may set in. Neither sensuality nor sentimentality are adequate as the basis for love between the sexes, says John Paul II (Wojtyla, 1993, pp.1 12-113, 124). Emotions which are at the base of sentiment, can protect the love between a man and a woman, since they do not view the other as an object of enjoyment, but they cannot guarantee it. And they can easily degenerate into sensualism if the love is not safeguarded by the virtues, particularly the virtue of chastity. (Wojtyla, 1993, pp.151-153)

Up to this point we have been discussing theological and philosophical perspectives on differences between men and women. It has become clear that women’s natural strengths and weaknesses are particularly evident in their lives as wives and mothers. Women, as psychological researcher, Carol Gilligan of Harvard has posited, adopt an ethic of care rather than an ethic of justice. When she presented moral dilemmas to a group of grade school students she found that the solution of the girls differed significantly from that of the boys. Where one boy saw a cut-and-dried case of logic and law, the girl viewed the situation in terms of a problem of relationship. Someone is going to be hurt (Gilligan, 1982, pp.25-31).

It is not coincidental that Gilligan has chosen the abortion decision to highlight women’s different approach to moral problems. As she says,
When birth control and abortion provide women with effective means for controlling their fertility, the dilemma of choice enters a central area of women ‘s lives. Then the relationships that have traditionally defined women’s identities and framed their moral judgments no longer flow inevitably from their reproductive capacity but become matters of decision over which they have control (Gilligan, 1982, p.70).


Gilligan makes a number of assumptions: (1) that there is a basic conflict between femininity and adulthood, (2) reproductive sexuality binds women to a self-sacrificing dependence and (3) the abortion decision involves a conflict between autonomy and compassion (Gilligan, 1982, pp.70-71).

Seeing that the abortion decision goes to the heart of women’s identity, a study was designed to clarify how women “construct and resolve abortion decisions.”‘ It was a small study, mainly significant for the personal stories of the women. Twenty-nine women of different ages and backgrounds participated. Most of the pregnancies occurred because of a failure to use birth control but in some cases the pregnancy was a way of testing the relationship itself. Twenty-one of the women chose an abortion while four chose to have the baby. The women were interviewed in the first trimester of pregnancy and at the end of the following year (Gilligan, 1982, pp.71 72).

Women in the study posed the dilemma of abortion in terms of selfishness versus responsibility rather than one of rights and rules. Gilligan traces a three-stage evolution of moral thinking on the part of these women which she characterizes as the development of an ethic of care. Initially the women focus on their own survival, then they come to consider that attitude selfish. They articulate a concept of responsibility and maternal caring. But since this seems to place care of others above care of self, there is a further development towards validating both care of self and care of others. The woman takes responsibility for the decision but places her own needs and those closeest to her above the life of the baby. Gilligan clearly sees this as a step towards maturity especially in moral judgment (Gilligan, 1982, pp.73-74).

Gilligan illustrates her conclusion from the testimonies of the women themselves. In doing so she shows how superficial her own understanding is of woman’s nature. She describes how 17-year old Josie, for example, was initially happy at being pregnant. It made her feel good. “I started feeling like a woman,” she confessed. But she soon realized the difficulties of the situation. Then she interpreted the situation in terms of her own selfishness at wanting a child and concluded that the more adult thing to do was to do what was necessary and get an abortion. Josie describes herself as feeling more mature from making a “hard decision.” Gilligan confirms this judgment by saying: ‘‘For Josie, the abortion decision affirms both femininity and adulthood in its integration of care and responsibility.” She applauds another adolescent who says: “Abortion, if you do it for the right reasons, is helping yourself to start over and do different things” (Gilligan, 1982, pp. 77-78). Absent from all Gilligan’s judgments is any recognition that killing an innocent human being is objectively wrong, or that it violates in a fundamental way the nature of woman.

In the case of a 24-year old Catholic married woman called Janet, Gilligan spells out how the legalization of abortion, which changed the rules, impacts the lives of women

In the absence of legal abortion, a morality of self-sacrifice is necessary in order to ensure protection and care for the dependent child. However, when such sacrifice becomes optional the entire problem is recast.

Janet wants an abortion because the pregnancy would strain the financial and emotional resources of the family and she claims it is against medical advice. In addition she doesn’t want to be tied down with two children. Yet Janet believes that abortion is taking a life. She comes to the conclusion that her own concern with the morality of the abortion decision is selfish. Putting it aside both for her own convenience and in deference to the wishes of those around her, she aborts her child (Gilligan, 1982, pp.83-85).

Another Catholic, Sandra, also considers abortion “murder” but rationalizes it as a lesser sin when you “have to do it.” Sandra had already put up one child for adoption and did not think that she could go through the same emotional experience a second time. Sandra is also concerned about the effect having a child would have on the parents with whom she lives. But she acknowledges that she, herself, does not want the burden of a child now. Sandra comes to the conclusion that “the abortion is morally wrong but the situation is right, and I am going to do it.” She realizes that now she has a conflict between two definitions of right and wrong. Asked how she can reconcile them she says.

I would have to change morally wrong to morally right. (How?) I have no idea. I don’t think you can take something that you feel is morally wrong because the situation makes it right and put the two together....They don’t go together. Something is wrong, but all of a sudden, because you are doing it, it is right (Gilligan, 1982, pp.85-36).

Gilligan’s comment on Sandra’s dilemma is that “the morality that condones self-destruction in the name of responsible care,’’ i.e., having the baby, “is not repudiated as inadequate but is rather abandoned in the face of its threat to survival.’’ The woman’s survival becomes the paramount moral concern. (Gilligan, 1982, p.87)

In the case of another woman, Gilligan frames what seems to be her own solution to the abortion dilemma as the woman coming to equate her own self interest with that of others, primarily the adults in her life. In the process the child’s interests find little or no place (Gilligan, 1982, p.92). Objective morality is brushed aside in favor of a concept of caring based on relativity and self-interest. The trend noted already in the early feminist philosopher, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to exalt individual sovereignty at the expense of motherhood is evident in Gilligan’s work. That the women in this study were ambivalent about motherhood points to the need to take a deeper look at the issues surrounding procreation. For that we shall turn to a study by sociologist, Kristin Luker, Taking Chances: Abortion and the Decision Not to Contracept.

Luker states the reason for her study was to discover why California women with ready access to contraception prefer abortion as fertility control. The study was conducted in the early 1970s of women undergoing abortion in a clinic in California. The book, containing the study results and Luker’s recommendations, was first published in 1975 and was reissued in 1991 since it was still considered valid in the 1990s. Certainly the statistics have changed little. Abortion was made legal in California in 1967. The abortion rate went from 5000 in 1968 to 65,000 in 1970, to more than 103,000 in 1971. In fact it had become a de facto method of birth control. And it was not because contraception was not readily available. (Luker, 1975, pp.x, viii)

A study of the clinic records revealed that more than half of the women seeking abortions had used a prescription method of birth control in the past and 86 percent had used some form of birth control (Luker, 1975, p. 20). The latest figures show that there has been little change. More than 90 percent of sexually active women in the United States use a contraceptive. Studies in the 1990s show that 58 percent of women undergoing abortions were using a form of birth control when they became pregnant, up from 51 percent in 1987. A related study revealed that many of the women were using the birth control method incorrectly (Family Health International, 1996). Luker argues that not becoming pregnant is only one concern of women who are making decisions about contraception. (Luker, 1975, p.16)

Luker is not making any moral judgments in her book. Rather she is showing that women in weighing the relative costs of contraception, pregnancy and abortion are making “rational” decisions. Using contraception is an extremely complex decision, involving notions of sexuality, masculinity and femininity, cultural and political norms. To use contraception well, the woman must plan ahead for possible sexual intercourse, which means acknowledging that she is a sexual being; think of herself as a sexually autonomous individual rather than a woman who is aroused by a man. She must be able to articulate her desires openly and finally she must place her long-term needs ahead of the man’s immediate pleasure (Luker, 1975, pp.xi, xii). In other words it involves a series of deliberate acts that do not accord with woman’s sentimental nature in relationship to a man.

Luker lists the immediate costs of contraception to women against the less immediate costs of pregnancy. Taking the necessary steps to obtain contraception “can make a desirably warm and intimate emotional experience appear impersonally `cold-blooded’ and hence costly.” This is not limited to the woman. One boy friend said: “It seems kind of phony to use contraception. It doesn’t seem natural or the right way.” To be effective contraception must be used consistently and many of the women in the study were not even in steady relationships. In addition, to be prepared for intercourse is to lose face as the promiscuous woman is regarded with contempt. Women rarely continue contraception after a steady relationship breaks up. If sex is a woman’s “way of giving everything,” because she is ‘‘very much in love,” to continue using contraception is to devalue both herself and the gift. Luker acknowledges that this is a heavy emotional cost to a woman. There are also costs to spontaneity. The mechanics of barrier methods can interfere with spontaneity. Then there are the costs of obtaining contraceptives, the medical and biological costs and the costs of maintaining contraception. (Luker, 1975, pp.42, 44, 47, 49, 51-64)

Opposed to the immediate drawbacks of contraception are the perceived benefits of pregnancy. Luker recognizes that “to be pregnant is to be at the core of the traditional definition of the female role. “ Here Luker makes the same discrimination as Gilligan of a distinction between femininity and adulthood. She pits “all the traditional female virtues — compliance, nurturance, dependence, self-effacement” against the assertiveness and independence of adulthood. Becoming pregnant increases self-worth since becoming a mother is a time-honored role. Pregnancy confirms that a woman is fertile. Getting pregnant can be a way of clarifying the relationship, pushing for commitment. It can also force a situation with parents or act as a plea for help. Risking pregnancy can also add excitement to the act of sexual intercourse itself. (Luker, 1975, pp.66-77)

Luker’s conclusion to her original study was that, since abortion had become de facto a method of birth control, clinic delivery services should be organized to take that fact into account. (Luker, 1975, 143) This recommendation is made in spite of the fact that Luker recognizes that current social acceptance of contraception and abortion greatly diminishes women’s power in man-woman relationships. Modern hormonal contraception such as the pill and injectibles, has changed the pattern of courtship and responsibility and accountability in the sphere of sexuality and reproduction. Luker describes the change in courtship patterns as “extraordinarily pervasive and dramatic” to the detriment of women. (Luker, 1975, pp.113, 114)

In the traditional courtship both men and women stood to gain. In addition to a good partner, each obtained the right to sanctioned intercourse, enjoyment of a more efficient division of labor and the opportunity to bear and raise children. Modem society has made it possible to obtain services such as laundry and cleaning much more easily from outside the home. Children have also been devalued so that bearing children is less of an inducement to marriage. The devaluing of these rewards of marriage affect women the most but the greatest loss to women, says Luker is in the area of sanctioned intercourse as a bargaining power for marriage” “The stricter the norms against premarital intercourse,” she says, “the more valuable sex becomes as a currency of bargaining the marriage market.” (Luker, 1975, pp.114-116)

The sexual revolution of the 1960s was especially related to women engaging in premarital sex, made possible by contraception. It is now considered “old-fashioned and unliberated” for a woman to withhold sex. Even when a woman does withhold sex, her bargaining power is diminished because sex can be so easily obtained elsewhere. If she risks a pregnancy to force the man’s commitment, it is seen as her responsibility for failing to use contraception. Women, in general, prefer to risk pregnancy than ask a man to use a condom. Yet she feels used since she takes all the responsibility for contraception, pregnancy and abortion. She also has the sense that she must use contraception to “have control of her own body.” It is part of the mystique of liberation. Luker calls this liberation “illusory” since rights only having meaning in the context of choice.
Women have the right to control their own bodies, because neither the social structure nor the normative climate permit them any other option — it is a right that society is only too willing to accord them (Luker, 1975, pp.122-130).

This dubious liberation extends beyond courtship, marriage and the birth of a child. As Deborah Shaw and Charmaine Crouse Yoest write in Mother in the Middle: “Mothers no longer have the power to expect the men in their lives to provide for them (either financially or emotionally) so that they can work at mothering small children” (Straw, 1996, p.113). Mothers feel deceived and angry because no one told them the cost of subscribing to the new liberated social contract, which requires them to work outside the home, especially when their children are small. Whether women were employed or stay-at-home mothers, Shaw and Yoest found they were “tired of knowing, with all their hearts, that caring for their children was important — and too seldom feeling that belief validated by their men (Straw, 1996, p.119).

It is in the light of these facts that we can see the wisdom of John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter on the Dignity and Vocation of Women, Mulieris Dignitatem (August 15, 1988). The pope recalls the fundamental nature of human persons as willed for their own sake and only able to find themselves by a sincere gift of self to another. This truth, he says, “opens up the path to a full understanding of women’s motherhood” (MD, no.18). Parenting is a shared task but the woman has the more demanding part. “It is the woman who ‘pays’ directly for this shared generation, which literally absorbs the energies of her body and soul,” says John Paul II. And there can be no program of equal rights if the man does not acknowledge that fact (MD, no.18).

When the woman is deprived of the opportunity to give herself to the child she cannot fulfill herself. All in the family are impoverished, the child who is deprived of the mother’s loving care, the woman herself, and the husband who becomes the object of resentment as so many women told Shaw and Yoest.

This is where the Church’s teaching on the inseparability of the unitive and procreative aspect of marital love is so providential. It restores fertility to its rightful place which is especially important for the woman. It affirms her potential to be a mother and stresses the joint responsibility of the man as father. On the part of the woman it requires a choice to place her integrity before any sentimental yielding to her own or her husband’s inordinate desires. It is in honoring her own dignity as made in God’s image that she becomes both fully a woman and fully adult.

One husband referred to his wife’s “tough love “ She once told him that she might not have married him if he had insisted on a chemical form of family planning. He described his experience of marital sexuality using natural family planning (which enjoins abstinence during the fertile phase if the couple seek to avoid pregnancy) as “a mixture of pain and redemption.” He discovered that the difficulty with the abstinence period was not so much continence but what continence revealed, that he was continually tempted to place genital intimacy before true relational intimacy. “Continence,” he says, “does me a favor. It provides me with a “rhythmic” opportunity to make sure it is love and intimacy, not sex, which bind me to my wife.” Natural family planning both keeps the procreative aspect of sexuality to the fore and aids the man especially in the growth of relational intimacy (Bishops’ Committee for Pastoral Research and Practices, 1990, pp.25-27). (Chastity provides the same opportunities for growth before marriage.)

It is significant that John Paul II begins Mulieris Dignitatem with a reflection on the Mother of God and the moment in salvation history when Jesus became incarnate in her womb. At that moment, he writes, Mary attained ‘‘a union with God that exceeds all expectations of the human spirit” (MD, no.3). Mary represents the whole human race in her union with God in Jesus Christ. Her fiat expresses her total awareness and acceptance of herself as a creature of God, reversing Eve’s refusal to acknowledge God’s fundamental rights over the human person (MD, no.4).

TRUE CHOICE

Just as Eve in seeking what was forbidden by God’s command came under the domination of man instead of sharing dominion with him, so the woman today suffers when she seeks a power over herself contrary to God’s command. Her choices are diminished rather than expanded. She suffers both as wife and mother fulfilling the prophecy in Genesis, 3:16.

To the woman he said, ‘‘I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing, in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.’’

A choice was given to Eve in the Garden and it is given to woman today. Will that choice be one of sentiment, which incorporates feelings appropriately in judgment of right action or will it be one of sentimentality which brushes aside truth in favor of giving in to feelings of false compassion, romanticism and an illusory liberty? Mary is the model of the valiant woman, courageous, competent and compassionate. She accepted God’s plan for her in spite of the suffering it caused in her life, especially as a mother. It is precisely through her acceptance that she became co-redemptrix with Christ. Perhaps we can paraphrase the Letter to the Hebrews, “It is not as though we do not have a mother who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (cf. Heb. 4:15).

REFERENCES

  1. Bird, Phyllis. 1981. “Male and Female He Created Them:” Gen. 1?27b in the Context of the Priestly Account of Creation. Harvard Theological Review 74 (2).
  2. Bird. Phyllis. 1994 ‘‘Bone of My Bones and Flesh of My Flesh”. Theology Today 50, no 4 (January): 521?534.
  3. Bishops’ Committee for Pastoral Research and Practices, and National Conference of Catholic Bishops. 1990 Parenthood. Washington, DC United States Catholic Conference.
  4. Family Health International 1996 Newsbriefs. Network 17 (no. 1. Fall):2
  5. Gilligan, Carol 1982. In a Different Voice Psychological Theory and Women’s Development Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  6. John Paul 11 1981 Original Unity of Man and Woman: Catechesis on the Book of Genesis. Boston. St Paul Editions.
  7. John Paul 11 1988 On the Dignity and Vocation of Women (Mulieris Dignitatem), Apostolic Letter, Aug. 25, 1988. Washington ton, DC: United States Catholic conference.
  8. Luker, Kristin. 1975 Taking Chances: Abortion and the Decision Not to Contracept paperback ed. Berkeley. CA:! University of California Press.
  9. Schmitz, Kenneth L 1°.9}. At the Center of the Human Dramas The Philosophical Anthropology of Karol Wojtyla / John Paul II: Washington, DC: Catholic University Press.
  10. Shaw. Deborah, and Charmaine Crouse Yoest. 1996. Mother in the Middle: Searching for Peace in the Mommy Wars. paperback ed Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, House.
  11. Sibel. John J. 1982 Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Philosophy of Woman’, Rights: Sources and Synthesis. ad lauream, Philosophy, University of St. Thomas, Rome.
  12. Stein, Edith 1987 Essays on Woman. Translated by Freda Mary Oben. Edited by L. Gelber and R. Leuven. paperback ed. Vol. Two. The Collected Works of Edith Stein: Sister Benedicta of the Cross. Washington. DC: ICS Publications.
  13. Trible, Phyllis. 1978. God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, Overtures to Biblical Theology. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
  14. Wojtyla, Karol. 1919 Sign of Contradiction Slough, England: St. P Paul Publications.
  15. Wojtyla, Karol. 1993 Love and Responsibility. Translated by Willetts, H.T. Revised 1981 ed. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Shivanandan, Mary “Sentiment and Sentimentality: Woman’s Choice” FCS Quarterly Spring 1997.

Reprinted with permission of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.

THE AUTHOR

Mary Shivanandan is Associate Dean and Professor of Theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, Washington, D.C. Her most recent book Crossing the Threshold of Love: Contemporary Marriage in the Light of John Paul II’s Anthropology is the  “…most exhaustive and scholarly assessment of [John Paul II’s] Christian anthropology ever written.”  It examines the scientific data and the theological analysis that underlie his teaching on marriage and sexuality and is both lucid and multidisciplinary.” She is also the author of Challenge to Love, a book on couples’ lived experience of the Church’s teaching on responsible parenthood. Mary Shivanandan is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Educator’s Resource Center.

Copyright © 1997 Fellowship of Catholic Scholars


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