Pro-life and social justice work can merge to help mothers in need
Rachel Dougherty Hendricks is a Catholic wife and mother of five who has served as the coordinator for Respect Life Ministries in the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey, since 2017. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, she worked in the pharmaceutical industry, teaching disease state management, pharmacology and presentation skills to sales and management teams. While embracing full-time parenthood, Rachel's interests in medical and bioethical questions has continued to inform her extensive involvement in pro-life and pro-family endeavors which, as she tells Charlie Camosy in an interview for OSV News, she believes have the potential to bring pro-lifers and social justice champions together in a post-Roe world.
Charlie Camosy: In recent writing and talks I've described this post-Roe moment as "Pro-Life 3.0." What do you understand that to mean? And what's your view of the opportunities presented at this particular time, for the pro-life movement?
Rachel Hendricks: After Roe's overturn last June, we realized pro-life work was entering an inflection point that would require us to work in new and different ways. Understanding the history of the pro-life movement as you've described it in your own work has helped many to see where we've been – from since before Roe, and through decades of the political influences that have sometimes helped efforts, but have also caused wounding divisions among the staunch “pro-lifers” and the social justice folks. I understand Pro-Life 3.0 as a sort of new beginning, harkening back to the days of standing in solidarity on the issues of human dignity, regardless of political party, but in a new and refreshing way forward.
Our endgame will always be to attain the full protection of every prenatal child under the law and to advance a cultural shift that recognizes the inherent dignity of every human. But this moment is calling us to realign our efforts in a way that would rejoin forces with social justice advocates. Banding together would help reduce the demand for abortions by working on the structural and societal obstacles that often leave women feeling coerced to choose abortion. This may make some of our staunch pro-lifers a bit uncomfortable due to political affiliations, but if we are serious about being pro-life, we should be confidently heading in this direction.
Camosy: What do you think this means, practically speaking, in states like New Jersey which are extremely unlikely to pass significant laws in support of prenatal justice?
Hendricks: In New Jersey, abortion access is increasing. Last summer our governor and legislative leadership sadly began efforts to make New Jersey an "abortion sanctuary" state. We must come to terms with the fact that there's just no chance N.J. legislators are anywhere near being willing to place any kind of restrictions on abortion. We often hear about the need to ensure "access" to abortion, but I believe there is great hope for measures to be enacted that can ensure all women have "access" to choosing life. Here is the reality: Challenges like housing, poverty, intimate partner violence and limited access to adoption services often restrict a woman's "access" to choosing life. By working to mitigate the obstacles that often place women between a rock and a hard place, we can open up a space where choosing life is possible for every pregnant woman. I believe this can be done if we're willing to find common ground on these issues with legislators who often disagree with us on the abortion issue.
Camosy: What is the Catholic Church doing on the ground in N.J. in this regard? Has the U.S. bishops’ "Walking with Moms in Need" program made any difference?
Hendricks: Many parishes are shifting their ministry focus from the divisive areas of politics to that of service and mercy. In the Diocese of Trenton, the "Walking With Moms in Need" (WWMN) initiative is proving to be a timely vehicle to advance pro-life ministry work in new ways that are making a real difference.
By engaging folks in the pews with the real struggles of a challenging pregnancy, WWMN works to equip parishioners with local resources that help make the choice for life more widely accessible. These efforts are slowly but surely making a difference on at least two fronts. One, as WWMN parishes build awareness of local help, and seek ways to fill gaps in resources, more women in need are accessing those resources. Second, the "walking with" – or accompaniment – part of this initiative, is allowing opportunities for Catholics to journey a bit closer with the pregnant mom in need, which is opening their eyes to the complexities of the abortion issue. In turn, this is leading to a better understanding that building a culture of life is the work of the entire Church, where interconnected ministries working together can best serve the needs of women and families in need.
Camosy: Stories are often the best way to demonstrate how an abstract idea is true. Can you go into any more detail with an on-the-ground story?
Hendricks: I was recently involved in assisting a young undocumented mom who courageously chose life for her newborn daughter, despite having no support other than an abusive boyfriend. It is a complicated situation, as she spoke little English, was alone and needed everything from diapers to urgent rehousing, to legal help with restraining orders and custody issues. Because of our diocese's head start with WWMN, I was able to quickly connect this mom with two local parishes who, working together, were able to provide her with everything she and baby needed to escape the abusive relationship and to start on a new path. This was a collaborative effort between two social concerns ministries, St. Vincent de Paul Society, Knights of Columbus Council, and a Hispanic ministry. These groups, most of whom had never worked together, amazed me with their dedication, their collaborative efforts and sincere interest in the long-term welfare of this mom and baby.
Camosy: Finally, what about public policy? Is there room for the pro-life movements to embrace state and even federal level policies in support of women and families?
Hendricks: Absolutely. While we are obliged, by virtue of our baptism, to care for our struggling neighbors, we need to be realistic about the overwhelming need that is out there. The church itself does not have the financial resources to serve every pregnant mom and family in need, so it is imperative that we exercise our call to faithful citizenship and responsibly engage in those areas of common-sense public policy that support women and families, and that encourage active fatherhood. This necessary engagement will require pro-lifers to begin dialoguing with some who may very well align with pro-choice agenda -- and this will push many outside their comfort zone. But finding common ground in these challenging exchanges will lead us to the types of structural support and protection for vulnerable pregnant women and families that will allow a culture of life to prosper. We're already seeing bipartisan support on the federal level for things like the PUMP and Pregnancy Workers Fairness Act. At the state level we're seeing unprecedented GOP support for expanded Medicaid programs for postpartum care. All of this is so encouraging, and it is my sincere hope that it continues.
Charlie Camosy is professor of medical humanities at the Creighton School of Medicine and moral theology fellow at St. Joseph Seminary in New York.