By Patricia Ireland | 6 October 1990
This is excerpted from a speech before the thirteenth annual convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Ann Arbor, Michigan, delivered on October 6, 1990.
As someone who was arrested at the Vatican Embassy protesting during the Pope’s last visit here, I share a lot in common with people in this group. We were protesting at that time the recognition by our government of the Vatican as a full government, or foreign power. That means that their center in Washington is an embassy. There was a law at that time that made it a crime to demonstrate in a “distasteful or offensive way” anywhere within 500 feet of an embassy. We went and took what we called the “Last Lunch” to the Vatican, knocked on the door and asked if the Pope were home. They told us he wasn’t there—they did take the wine and the bread that we’ve brought. Then seven of us stood in front of the Embassy and sang a song. For that we got arrested.
We were also protesting the hierarchy’s interference in U.S. domestic policy, either as a religion or a foreign government. In either case, they had no business setting U.S. public policy. At that time were were engaged in a very vigorous three-year campaign to restore civil rights through the Civil Rights Restoration Act, trying to restore some rights that were taken from us by the Supreme Court. We did succeed but we were in a major fight with the Catholic bishops over some antiabortion amendments they succeeded in putting in that bill designed to restore educational equality in the law.
It was quite a treat being arrested with Molly Yard. She was arrested on the second of seven days of protesting. When they took her to the jail they actually put her in a holding cell with a group of women who had been arrested for drugs and prostitution, principally. One of the women who was lying on a bunk bed leaned upon one arm, and recognizing this was not something you ordinarily expect to find in a cell, said, “What did they arrest you for?” Molly, in her best rhetorical tone, said, “I was defending women’s rights at the Vatican Embassy.” All of the women in the holding cell started grabbing the jailer and saying, “Get this one out of here. She doesn’t belong here! She didn’t do anything wrong!” It had an impact up and down the system and ultimately resulted in the laws being repealed that prohibited demonstrating within 500 feet of an embassy.
At that same time, there were some very creative protests going on all around the country. I’m from Miami, Florida. My home NOW chapter in Dade County noticed that the local Catholic Church had put out bumperstickers saying, “I love John Paul.” NOW had printed additional little stickers that would make the bumpersticker read, “I love John Paul George & Ringo.” Who says feminists don’t have a sense of humor?
It’s clear to me that those of us in the women’s rights movement share a great deal with those involved in the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the freethinking movement in the country. We have only to look at the hierarchy of most churches to know that organized religions are predominantly male, and are using the religious dogma to keep women in their place—our place. Of course, we have quite a disagreement about what our place might be. Remember, with all the locker-room sports writers controversy going on now, that many of the sports figures historically have used religion as an excuse to keep women out of positions of authority. I think back to Bob Nepper and the umpire woman. He said his religious view did not include any woman having any authority over any man, so he would not accept her as an umpire. In fact, she has had a very hard time staying as an umpire in the national baseball arena.
The Supreme Court is another common enemy that we share. Remember in this last session they heard a case on separation of church and state where they allowed religious clubs to meet on school property. It was certainly a step backward for all of us, although I may say there may be some slight silver lining in that cloud, given that the women’s rights movement has always had trouble getting into the public high schools. We feel now it would be very difficult for them to allow religious groups as extracurricular activities, and deny the “feminist church” the opportunity to reach the same audience! We will be using that decision to go into the high schools, organizing this next young generation of feminists, women and men, to at least have an opportunity to hear another point of view.
Congress is considering what is called the Act for Better Child Care. From our beginning as NOW in 1966 we’ve felt very strongly about child care and in particular would like to see it not as a poverty program, because that’s very likely to be cut, but as a universal entitlement in the same way that public education is a universal entitlement. That is, early childhood development and the care of our children should be something that all of us have the opportunity to take advantage of. The bill that’s currently before Congress, called the Act for Better Child Care, we have renamed, “The Act for a Bigger Catholic Church.” ABC is another place where we are going head-to-head with the Catholic bishops.
Most child care in this country right now is provided in churches, often by the churches, but certainly in church facilities. The Catholic bishops have knocked out a provision that would have precluded them from taking my tax dollars and your tax dollars and using them to discriminate based on gender or religion. They’ve also succeeded in getting vouchering into one version of the bill, to give people vouchers and allow them to take vouchers to a religious child care facility. They would be allowed to both take federal funds, take vouchers, and use them for sectarian religious instruction. We’re having a major fight on that.
Operation Rescue is a strong symbol, a very good way for us to analyze not just what’s happening in this country but around the world, in terms of the rise of religious fundamentalism. Whether we’re talking about Catholic or Protestant or Islamic fundamentalism, it is the same force that sanctions, or uses the cover of religious beliefs to sanction, the use of force to impose a religious view on all of us, whether we share that view or not. In particular, it’s often imposed in ways that restrict women.
We’ve seen in Algeria, for instance, and in the Persian Gulf, the use of force and threats of force to put women back behind the veil. In Algeria women had made some measure of progress. The new religious fundamentalist government was just elected there this spring. During the period of the election and subsequently, young women who are at the university in Algeria have been beaten by gangs of thugs who are there to enforce the religious requirement that these women wear a full veil.
In the United States we’re seeing the use of force and threats of force against us on the abortion issue. First we see the attempted use of the force of the power of government, that is, attempts to force a particular religious view on the rest of us through law.
I do not relish the idea of spending the rest of my life in hand-to-hand combat going state by state, state legislature by state legislature, trying to preserve reproductive freedom in this country, but that’s where we are right now. We’re facing a very well-funded enemy. You all, I’m sure, recall that the Catholic Church has a $5 million contract with Hill and Knowlton to sell the Catholic hierarchy’s point of view. I’m very careful to speak of the Catholic hierarchy’s point of view because it is not the point of view of all the Catholics in the country. Catholics use birth control, and use abortion in higher proportions than other religions. Why? Because contraception’s supposed to be a sin. So you have an abortion instead. A Catholic woman told me she’d been sterilized. When I asked if that wasn’t opposed to her religion’s point of view, she said, yes, but it was only one sin. She could go to confession and be absolved of that sin, whereas if she used birth control, she had to do it all the time!
We have some very powerful enemies, and they’re trying to use PR to project an image that will allow them to enact their religious views into law… I’m very anxious that we recognize not only the imagery but also the terminology that has been used here, and that we not use it ourselves. When we’re talking about “parental consent,” we give the argument away. What we’re really talking about is limiting young women’s right to abortion. What we’re really talking about is trying to mandate communication in a family. It’s either there or it’s not there. It cannot be created by law. When we’re talking about “informed consent,” what we’re usually talking about is dictating the communication between the patient, a woman, and her doctor, dictating that that doctor has to present her with antiabortion propaganda. When we’re talking about “waiting periods,” again what we’re really talking about is mandatory delays, any type of roadblock that can be put in the way of legal abortion.
We also have direct force at the clinics. Although these people are trying to wear the mantle of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement of the sixties, we are not fooled. These are not people who support women’s rights or civil rights. They are not nonviolent. We have seen clinic invasions where people are injured. The antiabortionists sent a pregnant woman sprawling in the sidewalk in Atlanta during their clinic blockades.
If these people were in the civil rights movement in the sixties operating the way Operation Rescue is acting, the sit-in at the Woolworth’s in Greensboro would not have been a peaceful sit-in. It would have been people bursting through the doors knocking customers down as they went, going up to the lunch counter, grabbing somebody by the collar, throwing them off of the stool, reaching over and pulling the wiring out of the equipment, going home that night and calling the staff and the owners, threatening them and their children. The real equivalent to Randy Terry’s Operation Rescue is Joe Schiedler. Pick your favorite antiabortion bully. The real counterpart are those infamous men who stood in the doorways, blocking blacks from exercising their right to vote, blocking in the same way that these bullies are in the doorways blocking women who are exercising their constitutional right to choose abortion. (applause)
Everything that happens in this country has an impact on women around the world. The Mexico City policy, which I’m sure you’re familiar with, was announced by the U.S. under Reagan. Now Bush has adopted the same policy denying public funding to any group that so much as mentions the word abortion. Countries that are so desperately poor, and so desperate to control their own fertility, accept this restriction because the U.S. provides 40% of the family planning funds worldwide. They are not only not referring abortion to women but are going so far for fear of losing family planning funding that they have turned away and refused to treat women coming to them suffering the effects of illegal, botched abortion.
As a result of our Mexico City policy and other policies, we are now seeing as conservatively estimated by the World Health Organization, 200,000 women dying around the world every year from illegal, botched abortions. That is one woman every three minutes. It’s a public health epidemic in many countries, where scarce resources, hospital beds that are very limited, blood supplies, critical medicines, physicians’ and health care workers’ time, are being used to treat the thousands and thousands of women who are dying, and the hundreds of thousands more who are being maimed.
We’re certainly concerned to see around the world the rise of the Vatican’s influence. All of us, I think, cheered the symbolism of seeing the Berlin Wall come down. We were taken aback by the speed of events, which was very thrilling. At the same time, the results have been very bad for women. Remember in Poland that Lech Walesa and Solidarity are tight with the Pope. That is a place where the Vatican has tremendous influence. What was the first thing that Solidarity came in with? A proposal to limit access to birth control and abortion. They tried to get it through the Parliament and the Polish women demonstrated in large numbers, and forced Solidarity to drop that provision in the first elections. Solidarity simply enacted regulations that were not voted on by anybody but Solidarity and the administration. Abortions can only be performed if they have permission from four doctors, including one psychiatrist. The Catholic Church is providing the list of approved psychiatrists! There is a major fight on our hands worldwide…
Eventually the Catholic Church and the rightwing religious Protestants will have to give, in the same way the Church had to acknowledge that Copernicus was right, and indeed the sun does not rotate around the earth, and the earth is not indeed the center of the universe. In the meantime, a lot of suffering and persecution takes place.
I’m pleased to say that one of the other things that’s happening is that people are fighting back, and fighting back in a big way. I want to remind you that Roe v. Wade did not happen in 1973 because we had seven good justices on the Supreme Court. It happened because we had a mobilized, energized, organized movement for women’s rights in this country, that had impacted the politics and the judicial branch of this country…
We have to create the same kind of worldwide movement against the religious fundamentalism that’s on the rise, against the oppression of women… We’re going to join hands, we’re going to fight together as long as it takes until we truly have equality and justice for all. Thank you.
Patricia Ireland is an attorney and social activist. She served as president of the National Organization for Women, from 1991 to 2001 and published an autobiography, What Women Want, in 1996.
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