The Old Testament records the deaths of Jacob’s wife Rachel (Gen 35: 16-18) and the wife of Phinehas (1 Samuel 4:19-20) after pregnancy-related complications. That these stories are recorded at all tells us something about their significance within the family and community. Both women were cherished. Although these women had little explicit authority, their roles in raising children and tending to fields and livestock were valued and necessary for socio-economic stability.
Complications during pregnancy and childbirth remain a problem today — they are a leading cause of death and disability among women of reproductive age in developing countries. Every day, approximately 800 women worldwide lose their lives due to pregnancy-related causes.
When mothers die, their children, families, and communities suffer. A mother’s death leaves her child up to 10 times more likely to die prematurely. Women are usually primary guardians of the health, education, nutrition, and social well being of their children. In many cases, they are also the breadwinners, making the impact of maternal mortality in affected families traumatic.
In developing countries, maternal deaths may result in decreased school attendance, especially in young girls, and attention to basic health care. Research suggests that a woman’s income goes toward food, education, medicine, and other family needs. The loss of this support and income affects the family, and in turn the community.
But 1 in 3 deaths related to pregnancy and childbirth could be avoided if the estimated 222 million women who wanted effective means of delaying pregnancies and spacing births had access to them.
Faith communities are vital to the international health sector, often working in remote areas where health-care access islimited. Many have supported the development of life-saving vaccines and technologies that have improved lives, to include providing access to contraceptives to space births.
Yet concerns linger regarding the compatibility of contraception use and religious beliefs. The New Testament doesn’t include specific guidelines regarding contraception or birth spacing, but it does offer concrete insights into how Christ responded to women, which can offer wisdom to those currently wrestling with issues related to birth spacing and faith.
Ample evidence exists in the New Testament suggesting that Christ viewed women as worthy of respect. He ignored impurity laws in one of the most-quoted passages of the Bible — “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” In Mark 5:25-34, he cured a woman who had suffered from menstrual bleeding for at least 12 years, and in Luke 13, he healed a woman in the synagogue at Capernaum on the Sabbath — an outrageous act in the eyes of the men who were there to hear him teach. In each of these situations, the woman in the story pleaded for help and Christ responded to her human need.
Christ opposed prejudice against women, criticizing religious leaders who took advantage of widows by claiming their property (Luke 20:47). Jesus’ teachings underscored the importance of compassion and justice, especially to the most vulnerable within the community, which reflected the Old Testament prophets (Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:7-8; Isaiah 61:1-3). His ministry focused on holistic well being for all.
Christ not only rejected the exploitation of women, but he also included women in his inner circle (Luke 8:1-3). He appeared first to Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” after the resurrection, and it was to them that the angel said, “Go and tell his disciples.”
On Mother’s Day, we offer sentimental tributes to mothers and women in general. We briefly celebrate the tender virtues of compassion and tireless caring for others — in short, the role mothers play in making the lives around them more joyful. While this is a happy time for many, it is equally difficult for others who have experienced maternity-related losses.
Christian scriptures abound with personal stories that are not too different from those in our twenty-first century world. What is different is the scope of improved health technologies, including child spacing options. Our call within faith communities is to open dialogue about this important, life-saving opportunity. To remain silent is to fail to honor the mothering Christ who desires that all, including women, experience health and life.
When Mother’s Day is over, it is easy to return to a view of women, particularly poor women, as individuals who are morally untrustworthy and don’t have the capacity to think and act for themselves and their families. Copious data proves that access to birth control reduces abortion, a fact often lost in debates over contraception. It is often easier to be punitive than to be compassionate.
In the midst of all our muddling stands the mothering Christ, who nurtured and supported women from all walks of life, and who invites us to care for one another cloaked in compassion, humility, and respect for all.
On this Mother’s Day and those to come, might we in the faith community emulate Christ’s merciful, affirming ministry to women? Enabling birth spacing by offering access to contraception and allowing women and mothers to choose based on their own needs and preferences is consistent with New Testament doctrine, and it affirms our respect for the dignity of all women.