The Dignity of Women: A Tale of Two Handmaids

pope, john paul ii

I would now like to speak directly to every woman, to reflect with her on the problems and the prospects of what it means to be a woman in our time. In particular, I wish to consider the essential issue of the dignity and rights of women as seen in the light of the word of God. –Saint Pope John Paul II, Letter to Women [1]

Writing this letter for the Fourth World Conference on Women (1995), St. John Paul II was vociferous in his admiration for the inherent dignity of women. He referred to it as the “feminine genius,” as exemplified in the life of the Blessed Mother.

The Church sees in Mary the highest expression of the “feminine genius” and she finds in her a source of constant inspiration. Mary called herself the “handmaid of the Lord” (Lk 1:38). — Letter to Women, [10]

On January 22, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law his own letter to women, the Reproductive Health Act (RHA). In advocating for the bill, Cuomo also expressed a deep concern for the fundamental rights of women. However, where St. John Paul saw these rights emanating from a woman’s unique role in the creation of life, Cuomo believed they must be rooted in an unlimited access to abortion.

In a perverse way, handmaids were symbolic of Cuomo’s position as well.  In the audience for the RHA vote in the New York State Senate chamber were women dressed in the red cloaks and white caps of the Handmaid characters from Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. The new face of the pro-abortion movement, these figures previously appeared in state government buildings in Texas and Ohio, and in the room during the Kavanaugh hearings. Their message? A world without abortion is a world of slavery for women.

The Handmaid’s Tale

In The Handmaid’s Tale, a woman named Offred lives in the United States of the future. It is a dystopian society which, following a revolution by fundamentalist extremists, becomes the Republic of Gilead. Offred and the other Handmaids form a class of women whose sole occupation is to bear children for the wealthy male Commanders and their infertile wives.  Subservient to men, the Handmaids were kept illiterate and not allowed to work or possess money. All choices were made for them by the government, even as to what they wore or where they traveled. The heavy oppression of the Handmaids is to ensure that they will be entirely focused on their child-bearing function. Their servitude is confirmed with the changing of their birth names to ones reflecting the name of their assigned Commander, thus becoming “Offred” (Of Fred), “Ofglen” (Of Glen), and “Ofwarren” (Of Warren).

It was no wonder that the passage of the RHA was cheered loudly by those who fear the coming of a real-life Gilead is only one Supreme Court justice away. At the signing ceremony, the governor crowed:

Today we are taking a giant step forward in the hard-fought battle to ensure a woman’s right to make her own decisions about her own personal health, including the ability to access an abortion. With the signing of this bill, we are sending a clear message that…, women in New York will always have the fundamental right to control their own body.

Ultimately, the only winner of the hard-fought battle was the abortion industry. As for women, there soon will be a new Handmaid — call her “Ofandrew”– who will find herself used, abused, or even killed, with little legal protection for herself and none whatsoever for her children.

Seeking an Abortion? No Need for a Doctor

A health care practitioner…may perform an abortion when [acting] according to the practitioner’s reasonable and good faith professional judgement based on the facts of the patient’s case…(RHA, Section 2599-BB. ABORTION, No.1).

Of prime concern for abortion advocates is the shrinking number of practitioners, especially in rural areas. The inherent challenges and costs of medical school already limit the pool of candidates. Then, there is the alleged discrimination faced by aspiring abortionists within medical schools and residencies that further reduces the numbers.

The solution? The RHA no longer stipulates abortion be performed by a “duly-licensed physician,” only the more generic “health care practitioner.” By definition, a health care practitioner may be

a doctor of medicine or osteopathy, podiatrist, dentist, chiropractor, clinical psychologist, optometrist, nurse practitioner, nurse-midwife, or a clinical social worker.

Since the New York State Education Department licenses these professions and determines their scope of practice, it has the discretion to allow them to provide chemical abortions. Very likely, warns the New York State Catholic Conference, it won’t stop there. It is possible the Education Department would permit these non-doctors “to do surgical abortions like early suction aspiration abortions.”

Obviously, this puts the pregnant woman’s life and health at some risk. It is doubtful that even a Nurse Practitioner or Nurse/Midwife would have sufficient obstetric skills to handle any possible complications.

Fortunately, the abortionist no longer needs to worry about legal consequences as, thanks to the RHA, abortion can no longer be prosecuted as a separate crime.

For the Sake of “Healthcare,” Protecting the Abortionists…

The pre-RHA penal code in New York contained lengthy sections defining criminal penalties for abortions committed after 24 weeks gestation, or if the abortion was not “justified” by virtue of the woman’s consent or to protect her life. Abortion proponents worried that this potential for prosecution was discouraging doctors.

Consequently, regulation of the industry was removed from the penal code and placed in public health law. Post-RHA, definitions of Homicide and Manslaughter in the First or Second Degree no longer contain language pertaining to abortion.

In their haste to defend the abortionists, however, the protection for women who are victimized by a coerced or unwanted abortion is severely compromised. Prosecutors are limited to charging offenders under different degrees of criminal assault which carry significantly lesser penalties.

In the end, back alley abortionists should find it easier to open up for business.

…And Perpetrators of Domestic Violence

If the RHA removed significant legal protection for pregnant women, it completely abandons the unborn child. The state’s homicide laws re-define the term “person” as a human being “who has been born and is alive.” Period. Furthermore, the pre-RHA crimes of “Abortion in the First and Second Degree” no longer exist. This all has ominous implications for pregnant victims of domestic violence.

Domestic violence is a leading cause of injury, and affects one in four women in the United States. It is more common than any other health problem during pregnancy. Furthermore, studies have shown the adverse effects of such abuse on the developing fetus.

Despite this, the RHA made no provision for victims who miscarry because of their attacker. Under the law, they have no recourse to obtain justice for their wanted child.

Within two weeks of passing the RHA, abortion charges were dropped against a man who fatally stabbed his ex-girlfriend when she was 14 weeks pregnant. According to the New York Times, prosecutors were forced to withdraw the charge against her attacker, Anthony Hobson, because under the new law the crime no longer existed. His sentence now reflects the taking of one life, not two.

Another case concerns a Bronx man who attempted to murder his pregnant fiancée in 2018.  The woman survived, but their 26 week old unborn child did not. Consequently, he was charged with Abortion in the First Degree.  Post-RHA, prosecutors are unsure what to do without a statute that applies to the loss of the unborn child.

Attempts by state legislators to address the problem are facing resistance from the Democrat majority.

“An Understanding of Cradles”

It appears, in the attempt to do the opposite, the RHA will create a world much like Gilead. Cuomo’s message to women is that the so-called fundamental right to abortion is worth the price of the loss of personal safety and legal protection for themselves and their children.

In stark contrast is the attitude of the Catholic Church. In his Address to Women, written at the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, St. Paul VI said the Church is “proud to have glorified and liberated woman, and [over time] to have brought into relief her basic equality with man.”

[The] hour is coming, in fact has come, when the vocation of woman is being achieved in its fullness, …in which woman acquires in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved.

And what did St. Paul VI identify as the source of women’s power?

You women have always had as your lot the protection of the home, the love of beginnings and an understanding of cradles. You are present in the mystery of a life beginning. You offer consolation in the departure of death. 

From the Church’s perspective, the value of women is inestimable considering that the literal continuation of the human race is placed in their hands by God.

“Thank You, Women!”

St. John Paul II demonstrated how this life-giving ability is inseparable from every woman’s vocation. He expressed gratitude to those who are wives and mothers, daughters, sisters, and consecrated women. Notably, however, his gratitude extended to those who work outside the home.

Thank you, women who work! You are present and active in every area of life–social, economic, cultural, artistic and political. In this way you make an indispensable contribution to the growth of a culture which unites reason and feeling, to a model of life ever open to the sense of “mystery,” to the establishment of economic and political structures ever more worthy of humanity. [Letter to Women, 2]

Hardly a call for women to be subservient.  In fact, St. John Paul continued by apologizing for what the world and even certain elements of the Church have done to be an “obstacle to the progress of women.”

Women’s dignity has often been unacknowledged and their prerogatives misrepresented; they have often been relegated to the margins of society and even reduced to servitude. This has prevented women from truly being themselves and it has resulted in a spiritual impoverishment of humanity. [Letter to Women, 3]

Unlike Cuomo, St. John Paul suggested the solution to this injustice lies precisely in celebrating the gift of motherhood, not in the legal right to destroy it.

“A Matter of Justice”

And what … of the obstacles which in so many parts of the world still keep women from being fully integrated into social, political and economic life? We need only think of how the gift of motherhood is often penalized rather than rewarded, [emphasis added] even though humanity owes its very survival to this gift. [Letter to Women, 4]

Given this urgency for the preservation of mankind, St. John Paul implored society to achieve “real equality” in every aspect.

Certainly, much remains to be done to prevent discrimination against those who have chosen to be wives and mothers. As far a personal rights are concerned…equal pay for equal work, protection for working mothers, fairness in career advancements, equality of spouses with regard to family rights and the recognition of everything that is part of the rights and duties of citizens in a democratic state. [Letter to Women, 4]

For St. John Paul, this was not only a “matter of justice but also of necessity.”

Women will increasingly play a part in the solution of the serious problems of the future; leisure time, the quality of life, migration, social services, euthanasia, drugs, health care, the ecology, etc. In all these areas a greater presence of women in society will prove most valuable. [Letter to Women, 4]

And this justice must begin with a commitment to ending “the long and degrading history…of violence against women in the area of sexuality.”

The time has come to condemn vigorously the types of sexual violence which frequently have women for their object and to pass laws which effectively defend them from such violence. [Letter to Women, 5]

Unfortunately, the RHA is a law that will likely perpetuate this systematic exploitation and sexual violence towards women.

“We Will Do All In Our Power to Assist You”

Passage of the Reproductive Health Act resulted in grotesque celebrations by abortion supporters whose cheers echoed throughout the senate chamber. Governor Cuomo added his exclamation point by lighting the World Trade Center Tower in pink in what could taken as a “New York salute” to God.

But nowhere in any of the self-congratulation and rhetoric of empowerment did Cuomo offer any support to pregnant women in dire circumstances who want to choose life for their baby. What of those handmaids?

Fortunately, there is the Catholic Church.

On February 18, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York called a press conference. Surrounded by the Sisters of Life and lay leadership of pro-life apostolates, he offered hope.

I renew and make my own this unwavering commitment of my predecessors: Any pregnant woman can come to this Archdiocese of New York, to its parishes and facilities, and we will do all in our power to assist you, to welcome you, so that you never have to feel that you have no alternative except an abortion.

Cardinal Dolan echoed a 1984 speech in which his predecessor, Cardinal John O’Connor, made a promise to all women no matter “whether you are Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim or any other religion, or of no religion at all.”

You will get help with medical care and …  not have to worry about the bills …If you live in another state, we will help you get service …  or arrange for you to come to New York… If you cannot live at home during your pregnancy, other living arrangements can be made for you.

If you decide to keep your baby, [we] will locate medical services, community resources, financial aid, and support services to help you. If you choose adoption, you will have a choice about the family with whom the baby will be placed…you make the selection.

And for those who do chose abortion and are suffering because of it, the Church and Project Rachel are there to help as well.

“Dying of Too Much Choice”

In The Handmaid’s Tale, the character of Aunt Lydia teaches the propaganda of Gilead to the Handmaids. She suggests that, by taking away women’s ability to make decisions, the world is a better place. She states

We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice. [The Handmaid’s Tale, Chapter 5]

Considering the severely declining birthrate and millions of abortions, Aunt Lydia’s words better describe the real world in 2019.  Multiple researchers, particularly a 2011 study by Dr. Priscilla Coleman, revealed the devastating effect of abortion on women. Dr. Coleman found 81% of post-abortive women were at an increased risk for mental health problems, manifested in anxiety, depression, addictions, and suicidal thoughts.

Ultimately, it does come down to choice. Women can continue to embrace the image of Offred, who wants to separate herself entirely from her ability to have children. Or they can model themselves after the image of Mary, with its affirmation of life, celebration of the feminine genius, and the promise of playing an indispensable part in the salvation of humanity.

The choice should be easy. At the end of the novel, Offred escapes into the darkness, unsure what would become of her. When her earthly service was completed, the Blessed Mother became Queen of Heaven.

Women, you do know how to make truth sweet, tender and accessible …Women of the entire universe, whether Christian or non-believing, you to who life is entrusted at this grave moment in history, it is for you to save the peace of the world. —St. Pope Paul VI

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9 thoughts on “The Dignity of Women: A Tale of Two Handmaids”

  1. So what exactly are you doing to ensure that women have teconomic and social power equal to males? I have read Casta Conubii, Humana Vitae, and the works of almost all conservative Catholics on family structure and ALL of them demand that wives be subservient to husbands. There are no women CEO’s or executives who are saints. In fact, the only canonized women are nuns, Biblical figures, and women who died or were killed for refusing to have sex or because of childbirth. Show me the deeds of your church that put women in positions of equal power and not the words of a woman-hater like JPII.

    1. Yes indeed – what a great article. JP 2 letter to women illustrated how much he loved and appreciated women -of course, that coming from his deep commitment to the mother of God – a woman. Only the Catholic Church raises women to the highest level of dignity. JP 2 -What a great man!

    2. Woman hater? I don’t think you know too much about JP2. Or much about canonized
      Saints. Or much about Catholic Church in general. I am
      Sorry you have so much anger inside .

    3. Mary Pesarchick

      Karen, thank you for taking the time to read the article and comment. To address your points:
      If you perceive that women lack techonomic and social power compared to men, how is increasing access to abortion going to rectify that? As long as there is abortion, men have power over women. On a personal level, they have no compulsion to accept their responsibility for an unborn child when there exists a quick and convenient solution to just kill it. So why would they feel obligated to change the current economic-political system to give women a truly fair playing field, one that would allow her to exercise both her roles as mother and career woman? Right now, the easier and cheaper solution is to force her to choose between one and the other.
      You say that you have read Humanae Vitae, etc. I would encourage you to re-read them. You use the word “subservient”–in this case it doesn’t mean what you think it means. Wives AND husbands are to put the good of the other spouse and of the marriage before their own wants. Read the entire passage from Ephesians 5:22-33 and you will see what these writers meant.
      As for your summation of canonized women, please look a little harder. There are many female saints who were queens, members of nobility, and professional women (for example, St. Giana Molla was a pediatrician). Four women were declared Doctors of the Church because of their brilliant theology and defense of the Faith. St. Catherine of Siena was just such a person, born of a noble family, a Doctor of the Church, and a member of the laity, not a religious sister.
      And, finally, John Paul II a woman-hater?? I challenge you to read not only the Letter to Women that I cite here, but his longer work, Mulieris Dignitatem “On the Dignity of Women.” It was a counter-cultural defense of the value and importance of women to the salvation of the world, written not only for the Church, but for the secular society as well. Read with an open mind and I think you’ll find your characterization of him is misinformed.

  2. Suellen Brewster

    Wow! This is yet another brilliant call to rational thought and true humanity over the abortion pushing propaganda of the day. Thank you, Mary Pesarchick, for this comparison of the true, good and beautiful of Blessed Mother and the Church’s teachings on women against the lies, evil and ugliness of the death culture’s and our once fair state’s teachings. Pesarchick for Governor!

  3. Pingback: EASTER  SATVRDAY EDITION – Big Pulpit

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