Childbirth as hospitality: "The beginning of her ministry of hospitality was the hospitality of the womb."


As we observe the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade: a section from the second chapter on childbirth.
Hospitality. Many people are familiar with the story of Servant of God Dorothy Day (1897-1980), co-founder of the Catholic Worker, a radical movement dedicated to serving the needs of the homeless and vulnerable through depending on God’s providence.  As a young adult Dorothy– a strong-willed young woman in love and living with a man named Forster Battingham, writing for socialist and communist papers in New York City, and joining marches for women’s suffrage and worker’s rights–found herself pregnant.  In fact, she was pregnant for the second time; she had an abortion of an earlier pregnancy by another man.  This pregnancy, wholly unexpected since she had thought she was barren after the earlier abortion, she was determined to bear–despite Forster’s objections and her own precarious financial situation.  While pregnant, she decided that the baby must be baptized in a faith she wished she could fully embrace herself.  She was attracted to Catholicism—sitting in the backs of churches full of people she was trying to stand in solidarity with, the working poor of New York City—but she hesitated to become Catholic, in significant part because it would mean the end of her relationship with Forster.  When recounting this story, Jim Forest, a friend of Dorothy Day as well as her biographer, said “And this birth, the birth of Tamar Teresa, was a turning point, the beginning of her ministry of hospitality.  It all began with the hospitality of the womb.”[1]
The striking beauty of this insight–that the radical hospitality of the Catholic Worker began with the hospitality of the womb–is also a sad comment on modern realities.  More than any time in history, we can deny children the hospitality of the womb.  Much of the first trimester, in many clinics, is spent determining whether to extend the hospitality of the womb or not to any given child.  At this writing, a new noninvasive prenatal test for Down Syndrome has been developed, which detects Down Syndrome with accuracy at nine weeks gestation, and is planned to be available at relatively low costs in 2012.[2]  While some will take the test, receive a “positive” for Down syndrome, and use the remaining months to prepare for a child with special needs, it is likely than most will choose to abort the child.[3]  It is a new and fearsome control, and one that denies not only the dignity of the child, but also the spiritually formative powers of maternal hospitality: the crucible of otherness.


[1]Jim Forest lecture, March 2002, Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota (Winona, MN).  Forest’s most recent biography of Dorothy Day is All Is Grace: A Biography Of Dorothy Day, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books 2011.
[2]Rupert Shepherd, “New Blood Test for Down Syndrome – During Early Pregnancy,” Medical News Today, http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/236256.php.
[3]The current abortion rate of women whose unborn children test positive for DS through amniocentesis and CVS is approximately over 90%.  See Amy Harmon, “Prenatal Test Puts Down Syndrome in Hard Focus,” The New York Times, May 9, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/09/us/09down.html
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