STOKING FIRE: Sisters of Life

Eleanor J. Bader

Sisters of Life take an oath to work "to enhance the sacredness of human life,” a vow making them the world’s only religious order to make opposition to abortion their sole raison d’être.

As legend has it, when New York Archbishop John Cardinal O’Connor visited the Dachau concentration camp in the mid-1980s, he was horrified by the massive evil that the site represented. Eager to do something tangible to counter Nazi hatred, he might have launched an all-out campaign against racism and homophobia or intervened to protect those who continue to be exterminated by genocide.

But he didn’t. Instead, he petitioned the Vatican to establish a new religious order to oppose abortion.

Called Sisters of Life, the 19-year-old New York City-based group is described on its website as “a contemplative and active religious community.” Under the leadership of Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, a middle-aged woman with a Ph.D. in psychology, the group is one of only a handful of Catholic communities to be growing. Indeed, what began in 1991 as a fellowship of eight women is now a group of 64. What’s more, 10 postulants between the ages of 21 and 35 entered the convent in August, taking the first steps in the more than seven-year process of becoming a nun.  The Sisters have also moved north, establishing a five-nun convent in Scarborough, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto.

Unlike other orders in which members take vows of chastity, obedience, and poverty, Sisters of Life take a fourth: “working to enhance the sacredness of human life.” This last vow is what sets the Sisters apart, making them the world’s only religious order to make opposition to abortion their sole raison d’être. Secondly, they adhere to old-school values, wearing the habit, spending at least half of each day in prayer, and fasting regularly. One day a week, and one Sunday a month, is spent in silent devotion. They also engage in activism, participating in 40 Days for Life protests in front of local clinics. Stepping Out of the Boat, an Archdiocesan blog written by Edward Mechmann, further reports that the Sisters have traveled to Albany, “bringing Jesus to the [state] capital, to the Senate chamber, and to the people they encounter.”  Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the Sisters take in a small number of pregnant women, folks their website describes as being “at high risk for abortion.” A January 2010 article posted on AmericanCatholic.org reports that in its first 18 years, 150 women and babies were hosted. 

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Guests, the website continues, are required to work or go to school by day, but share an evening meal with the Sisters before they deliver their babies and for up to six months afterwards. During their stay they receive counseling and social service assistance through the Catholic Home Bureau and are barred from watching TV, listening to the radio, or using the Internet.

“Prayer forms the walls of our home,” Sister Agnes Mary Donovan told an interviewer from America Magazine. “The goal of our work is evangelization…We provide the spiritual setting and support throughout the pregnancy. Our emphasis is on the spiritual side.”

While Sisters of Life denied my request for a face-to-face meeting or telephone interview—“It wouldn’t be the best thing for us to speak with you since you’re from a pro-choice site,” Sister Bridget told me—it doesn’t take much probing to conclude that the group is anomalous. As a time when the Church is facing mounting debts–$2 billion in reparations have already been paid to those abused by priestly pedophiles and there are many more claims to be settled—and Diocesan officials, particularly in the northeastern United States, are closing scores of churches, hospitals, and schools, the Sisters of Life seem to be continually expanding their real estate holdings.

The irony of this discordant reality is particularly blatant at their Sacred Heart of Jesus convent on Manhattan’s West 51 Street. The convent—which has a fenced in garden full of plants, trees and sculptures of the Madonna–is literally across the street from the now-shuttered St. Vincent’s Midtown Hospital, a 73-year-old health center that closed in 2007. The 250-bed facility is one of six Catholic medical centers in Gotham to be closed in recent years. The largest, St. Vincent’s Downtown, was founded in 1849, had 3000 employees, and provided care to approximately 263,000 outpatients and 62,000 emergency room patients each year. In addition, the hospital delivered an annual crop of between 1800 and 2000 babies before being padlocked last April.  

This, of course, begs the question: Why are the Sisters of Life–with two convents in Manhattan; a Stamford, Connecticut retreat house where they conduct workshops for those “who have experienced the suffering of abortion and the joy of healing in Christ;” and three additional convents in Yonkers, the Bronx, and Canada—given the means to expand when other Catholic institutions serving far larger constituencies are left to wither and die?

One can’t help wonder what crosses the Sisters’ minds when they pass the doors of St. Vincent’s and see the dog-eared signs covering the now-bolted doors: “No trespassing. No loitering. No sleeping. No panhandling.” Are the lives of the facility’s former patients—most of them low-income men, women, and children who relied on the hospital for both emergency care and the treatment of chronic conditions—less important than the fetal life that they purport to nurture in the convent across the street? Do the Sisters of Life see the incongruity? Do they care?

News Race

At ‘Pro-Life’ Conference, Silence on Police Violence

Amy Littlefield

Among the only contributions to the national dialogue taking place over racial justice and state violence was a card circulated in the exhibit hall by a group called the Radiance Foundation that read “All Lives Matter In & Out of the Womb.”

As one of the nation’s largest anti-choice groups launched its three-day conference in Herndon, Virginia, Thursday, a very different conversation was underway on the national stage.

Across the country, peaceful protests erupted over the police killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota.

As Rewire’s Imani Gandy has documented, the anti-choice movement has long attempted to appropriate the language of racial justice and the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag as part of a wider effort to shame Black women and cast abortion as “Black genocide.”

But at the National Right to Life Convention, the overriding response to last week’s police killings was silence. Among the only contributions to the national dialogue taking place over racial justice was a card circulated in the exhibit hall by a group called the Radiance Foundation that read “All lives matter In & Out of the womb.”

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Rewire asked convention director Jacki Ragan whether she thought the issue should have been raised explicitly at the conference.

“We are very single issue,” Ragan said. “We are here because of a threat to human life. We believe the unborn child is a human being from the moment of fertilization. We believe the disabled should have the same rights, [the] elderly should have the same rights, so we’re very single issue. So, no, I don’t really think it would be appropriate to address what had happened other than through prayer at the conference.”

At a prayer breakfast on Friday morning, after conference-goers awoke to the news five police officers had been killed by a gunman in Dallas, Rev. Dennis Kleinmann of St. Veronica Catholic Church in Chantilly, Virginia, prayed for guidance “to make this a better world, a world free of war and violence of every kind, including attacks on those who protect us.”

Ernest Ohlhoff, National Right to Life Committee outreach director, addressed the violence more directly.

“I don’t know if any of you heard the news this morning, but unfortunately we had another catastrophe in our country,” he said. “Five police officers in Dallas were killed in a shooting and [at least] six wounded, and I would ask you to pray for them and their families.”

No prayers were offered for Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, or their families. 

Culture & Conversation Abortion

The Comic Book That Guided Women Through Abortion Months After ‘Roe’

Sam Meier

Abortion Eve used the stories of fictional girls and women to help real ones understand their options and the law. At the same time the comic explained how to access abortion, it also asserted that abortion was crucial to women's health and liberation.

“Can you picture a comic book on abortion on the stands next to Superman?”

In June 1973, Joyce Farmer and Lyn Chevli wrote to the National Organization for Women in Chicago, asking this question of their “dear sisters” and pushing them to envision a world where women’s experiences could be considered as valiant as the superhero’s adventures. They enclosed a copy of their new comic book, Abortion Eve.

Published mere months after the Supreme Court’s January 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, Abortion Eve was intended to be a cheap, effective way to inform women about the realities of abortion. Like the few other contemporaneous comic books dealing with abortion, Abortion Eve‘s primary purpose was to educate. But for a comic dominated by technical information about surgical procedures and state laws, Abortion Eve nonetheless manages to be radical. Though abortion had so recently been illegal—and the stigma remained—the comic portrays abortion as a valid personal decision and women as moral agents fully capable of making that decision.

The comic follows five women, all named variations of “Eve,” as counselor Mary Multipary shepherds them through the process of obtaining abortions. Evelyn is an older white college professor, Eva a white dope-smoking hippie, Evie a white teenage Catholic, Eve a working Black woman, and Evita a Latina woman. Evelyn, Eve, and Evita are all married and mothers already.

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Their motivations for getting an abortion differ, too. Evita and Eve, for instance, wish to protect themselves and their loved ones by keeping their families smaller. Sixteen-year-old Evie is the poster child for sexual naiveté. Pregnant after her first time having sex, she spends most of the comic wrestling with guilt. “It’s all so ugly!” she exclaims. “I thought sex was supposed to be beautiful!”

Teenager Evie, one of the characters in the comic book Abortion Eve, breaks down as counselor Mary Multipary asks questions about her pregnancy. (Joyce Farmer)

Nonplussed, the older Eves talk her through her choices. As Eve reminds her, “Like it or not, you are a woman now, and you are going to have to decide.”

In an interview with Rewire, Farmer said that the plot of Abortion Eve was a direct outgrowth of her and Chevli’s experiences in the nascent women’s health movement. Both women had started working as birth control and “problem pregnancy” counselors at the Free Clinic in Laguna Beach, California, soon after it opened in 1970. Archival documents at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute show that Chevli and Farmer visited Los Angeles abortion providers in December 1972, on a business trip for the Free Clinic. According to Farmer, one of the doctors they met approached the pair with the idea of doing a comic about abortion to publicize his clinic.

Earlier that year, the women had produced one of the first U.S. comic books written, drawn, and published by women, Tits & Clits alpha (the “alpha” distinguished the comic from subsequent issues). So they took the doctor’s idea and ran with it. They decided to use their newly founded comics publishing company, Nanny Goat Productions, to educate women, particularly teenagers, about abortion.

At the Free Clinic, Chevli and Farmer had seen all kinds of women in all kinds of situations, and Abortion Eve attempts to reflect this diversity. As Farmer noted in an interview, she and Chevli made sure that the Eves were all different races, ages, and socioeconomic backgrounds in order to demonstrate that all kinds of women get abortions.

Farmer had made the choice to get an abortion herself, when her IUD failed in 1970. The mother—of a 12-year-old son—who was putting herself through college at the University of California at Irvine, she decided that she couldn’t afford another child.

California had liberalized its abortion laws with the Therapeutic Abortion Act of 1967, but the law was still far from truly liberal. Before Roe, California women seeking abortions needed doctors (a gynecologist and two “specialists in the field”) to submit recommendations on their behalf to the hospital where the abortion would take place. Then, a committee of physicians approved or denied the application. Only women who could pay for therapeutic abortions—those needed for medical reasonscould get them.

For Farmer, as for so many others, the process was onerous. After an hour, the psychiatrist who had interviewed her announced that she would not be eligible, as she was mentally fit to be a mother. Stunned, Farmer told the doctor that if he denied her an abortion, she would do it herself. Taking this as a suicide threat, her doctor quickly changed his mind. She wrote later that this experience began her political radicalization: “I was astounded that I had to prove to the state that I was suicidal, when all I wanted was an abortion, clean and safe.”

Farmer and Chevli began work on Abortion Eve before Roe v. Wade, when abortion was still illegal in many states. After the Supreme Court’s decision, they added a page for “more info” on the ruling. Yet even as they celebrated Roe, the women weren’t yet sure what would come of it.

The comic reflects a general confusion regarding abortion rights post-Roe, as well as women’s righteous anger over the fight to gain those rights. On the day of her abortion, for example, Evita tells Eve that, at five months pregnant, she just “slipped in” the gestational limits during which women could have abortions.

Eve explains that women now have the right to an abortion during the first three to six months of a pregnancy, but that the matter is far from settled in the courts. After all, Roe v. Wade said that states did have some interest in regulating abortion, particularly in the third trimester.

“I get mad when they control my body by their laws!” Eve says. “Bring in a woman, an’ if the problem is below her belly button and it ain’t her appendix, man—you got judges an’ lawyers an’ priests an’ assorted greybeards sniffin’ an’ fussin’ an’ tellin’ that woman what she gonna do an’ how she gonna do it!”

Abortion Eve Dialogue

Abortion Eve confronts the reality that abortion is a necessity if women are to live full sexual lives. Writing to the underground sex magazine Screw in September 1973 to advertise the comic, Chevli noted, “Surely if [your readers] screw as much as we hope, they must have need for an occasional abortion—and our book tells all about it.”

Six months after they published the comic, in December 1973, Chevli and Farmer traveled to an Anaheim rally in support of Roe outside the American Medical Association conference. They were met by a much larger group of abortion opponents. Chevli described the scene in a letter to a friend:

300 to 8. We weren’t ready, but we were there. Bodies … acquiescing, vulnerable females, wanting to show our signs, wanting to be there, ready to learn. Oh, Christ. Did we learn. It was exhausting. It was exciting. We were enervated, draged [sic] around, brung up, made to feel like goddesses, depressed, enlightened … bunches of intangible things. I have rarely experienced HATE to such a massive extent. 

That wasn’t the last feedback that Chevli and Farmer received about their views on abortion. In fact, during the course of Nanny Goat’s publishing stint, the majority of complaints that the independent press received had to do with Abortion Eve. Several self-identified Catholics objected to the “blasphemous” back cover, which featured MAD Magazine‘s Alfred E. Neuman as a visibly pregnant Virgin Mary with the caption: “What me worry?”

As archival documents at the Kinsey Institute show, other critics castigated Chevli and Farmer for setting a bad example for young women, failing to teach them right from wrong. One woman wrote them a letter in 1978, saying “You have not only wasted your paper, time, money, but you’ve probably aided in the decision of young impressionable girls and women who went and aborted their babies.”

Farmer and Chevli responded to such charges by first thanking their critics and then explaining their reasons for creating Abortion Eve. In another response, also in the Kinsey archives, Chevli wrote, “Whether abortion is right or wrong is not our concern because we do not want to dictate moral values to others. What we do want to do is educate others to the fact that abortion is legal, safe, and presents women with a choice which they can make.”

Today, abortion opponents like Louisiana Rep. Mike Johnson (R) frame abortion as the “dismemberment” of unborn children, suggesting that women who seek abortions are, in essence, murderers. With Abortion Eve, Chevli and Farmer dared to suggest that abortion was and is an integral part of women’s social and sexual liberation. Abortion Eve is unapologetic in asserting that view. The idea that abortion could be a woman’s decision alone, made in consultation with herself, for the good of herself and of her loved ones, is as radical an idea today as it was in the 1970s.