Religion, Government and Women’s Health by Catherine Fahringer (December 1996)

Recently one of my favorite-columnists-to-hate, Cal Thomas, asked, “Why should politicians without medical training make a one-size-fits-all decision for every mother?”

In this instance, Cal was referring to President Clinton’s “stupid new law” which mandates a 48-hour hospital stay for a woman who has given birth. Cal stated, “Government is far less effective than individuals when the object is to make the right decision for themselves and their families.”

Well doggone! Cal has either hoist himself on his own petard, or I somehow missed the column in which he said those very same things about a woman’s right to choose. What a penny ante thing for Cal to select to chide the government for! He should back up nine months for his governmental complaints. According to Cal a woman is bright enough to know how long she needs to remain in the hospital after giving birth (so long as it isn’t longer than 48 hours of course), but needs the help of the House, the Senate and the Christian Coalition to decide whether or not to become a mother in the first place.

I have often thought how insane it is for governmental bodies to debate abortion at all. The requirements for filling a Congressional seat do not include an M.D. degree. Who are these arrogant fools who think they should decide women’s reproductive fate?! Recently they wrangled endlessly over something they call “partial birth abortion.” They do not even know the proper terms for health procedures they would categorically deny to any woman caught up in a frightening, emotionally-wrenching experience.

When we say that government is meddling in women’s health issues, we are really saying that religion is interfering in government by means of its adherents who hold positions of power. Make no mistake about it, the Vatican exerts an enormous influence through these communicants. Henry Hyde is one of the better-known “protectors of human life” at the federal level, but there are thousands of Catholic Henrys scattered about the country interfering in women’s health matters, not to mention thousands of fundamentalists in the mold of Right-to-Life zealot, Randall Terry.

To understand fully the far reach of the Catholic or fundamentalist hand manipulating with (or without!) the government glove, a woman need go no farther than the nearest military recruiting office, or marry a man in the service. Think not that you will have control over your body if it is your misfortune to be a service woman or a military dependent stationed where there is no option to military medical care.

Such was the case for me in 1948 when I sailed off on the converted service hospital ship, Thistle, bound for Japan where my husband was serving in the Army of Occupation at Itazuke Air Force Base near Fukuoka. My traveling companion was our three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Devon.

Life in Japan during the Occupation was an odd mixture of feast and famine. We had hot and cold running servants; that was the feast. The food was the famine. We were not allowed to buy on the Japanese market, so fresh things came by military transport and were a long way from fresh by the time they arrived. The meat situation was, say, pork for six weeks — and nothing but pork — and, then, no pork to be had, but plenty of wieners and hamburger meat for a stretch. We ate lots of canned things. There was no such option as going to a restaurant. All of the Japanese ones were off limits to U.S. citizens. And what other kind were there, anyway? An evening out meant going to the small dining room at the Officers’ Club which never served anything but canned chop suey over rice. With food such as that, why not get pregnant and lose it all? There really was nothing to lose.

Of course it wasn’t the bad food which influenced my decision, but the fact that I was now two and a half years past an emotionally and physically disastrous second pregnancy which had put further adventures in motherhood on hold indefinitely (another real-life religion/health horror story!). Comfortably surrounded as I was by two maids, a seamstress, and a cook, my maternal instinct rose from the ashes. At least the mundane matters of maternity clothes, colic and diapers were not threatening. Under those circumstances I felt I could devote all my strength and attention to the Main Event without worrying about the nitty-gritty aftermath. With two maids I should pace the floor!

So I launched into my up-chucking marathon with no real worry about the type of medical care available. Although Itazuke had only a small dispensary for treating simple medical problems, the big station hospital in downtown Fukuoka served Itazuke and surrounding military bases on the whole island of Kyushu. It was a mere eight miles away, and it wasn’t a Catholic hospital! Hey, no problem! (I marvel now at my na?vet?.)

Luckily there were no problems. In spite of the fact that I was RH negative (married to an RH positive), the hospital seemed up on the complications which that condition could cause. My blood was monitored regularly, and although the doctor seemed oddly reluctant to make an appearance for the delivery (it was badly timed, occurring during his lunch hour), he did arrive for the curtain calls.

Six weeks later I trotted in to the 118th Station Hospital for my check-up and a discussion of “family planning.” I got the checkup, but the family planning was going to be a problem: the doctor was a Catholic! He didn’t say so, but it might as well have been branded on his forehead. After telling me that he didn’t do “that sort of thing” (fit diaphragms), his parting words, accompanied by a meaningful wink, were a cheerful, “See you in a year!”

Had I been, then, the person I am today, the volcanic ash would only just be settling over the entire island of Kyushu. But, I was a passive, mousy person, afraid of my own shadow. I practically saluted authority figures. These handicaps might have been overcome had I had a glimmer of the bigger picture of the problem, a sense of the overall injustice of it, an awareness of the violation of church/state separation, anything that would have made me realize that there was an issue involved. I saw it only as a personal problem. I saw it in terms of more labor pains in a year, and I was not going to be ready for that, then, or perhaps ever!

Driving home I anguished over what to do, and the choices weren’t numerous or attractive. A nunnery? Not likely, not with my burning dislike of nuns (that account is another religion/health cliff-hanger!). The only other one was to approach a doctor who happened to be a personal friend. I groaned at the thought. But that’s the route I would have to take.

I mentioned that there was a dispensary at the base, and in charge of that dispensary was this personal-friend/doctor. As we military were so restricted in our outside activities, we were thrown together in a much tighter-knit group than one would find in a normal civilian community. We ran into each other constantly . . . at the commissary (buying the meat-of-the-month, and guessing which vegetable the bin of brown slime used to be), the PX, the dispensary, the gym, the bakery (with its whale wheat bread, 1 roaf 15?), and the Officers’ Club.

Trying to inject an air of professionalism into friendship, I chose not to discuss my predicament with my doctor friend over chop suey, or at a basketball game, but sought him out at the dispensary, giving some lame excuse to the eighteen-year-old enlistee behind the check-in desk as the reason for my visit. Even with the contrived professionalism, it was an ordeal. I began with, “Frank, I have a problem,” instantly realizing I should have addressed him as ‘Dr. Kelso,’ and that I had not the faintest idea if he had any religious hang-ups! Not attending base chapel, how would I know if he did?! Luckily, he had no interfering scruples, and my problem was solved (six weeks thence by mail order).

Reflecting upon this experience over time, I have come to realize that this problem stretched, and still stretches, around the globe, not just for indigent women in backward countries, but for American service women, and for female military dependents. When these women are sent to places where there is no alternative to military medical services, they are in jeopardy as regards the reproductive spectrum of health care. Fairly recently the government banned abortion in all military hospitals. I think this has since been eased to allow for exceptions, but, then, who decides what the exceptions are? Certainly not the woman most directly affected.

The Catholic doctor who practiced his faith instead of proper OB/GYN medicine at the 118th Station Hospital in 1949 was only one of many, past and present, in that singular position of power. They exist wherever U.S. forces are based. Besides the random religious doctors in the military who object to certain medical procedures because they are hobbled by their faith, there are hundreds of other military doctors not hobbled by their own beliefs, but by that far-reaching religious hand in the government glove.

The writer is a Foundation officer.

Freedom From Religion Foundation