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Putting Mercy Into Action

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Easter Sunday marks the beginning of Easter season -- ordinarily a joyful time for Christians. Today, in particular, Easter (or Renewal) Monday, finds me considering the value of life, the legacy of my Catholic upbringing, and the problem of criminalizing some of society's most vulnerable members.

I don't know what my devout Catholic parents would think of Tennessee's efforts to allow prosecutors to charge women with criminal assault for giving birth to babies with health problems or for losing pregnancies. I never got a chance to ask them. Mom died last year, a few minutes after midnight on Easter Sunday. Dad passed away very recently, just shy of a year later.

Tennessee's Pregnancy Criminalization Law (SB 1391) has passed the General Assembly and is on Governor Haslam's desk waiting to be signed into law. SB1391 makes all pregnant women subject to the possibility of arrest, but the law also specifically targets some of society's most socially vulnerable women: pregnant women who have become addicted to illegal opiates. Rejecting concerns raised by major medical organizations (including the American Academy of Pediatrics), the bill's backers claim it is a "velvet hammer" that will use the threat of prison to force women to enter treatment -- even though no state has enough treatment for those who need it.

But today, SB1391 challenged me to think beyond its disastrous public health implications to consider the moral ones.

I grew up in a staunchly Catholic family. While there is much about Catholicism that rankles me (for instance, not allowing women to be ordained), these reservations are offset by an upbringing steeped in powerful social teachings about the "preferential option for the poor" and "respect for the dignity of the whole person."

My parents deeply opposed abortion, so perhaps they would worry that SB1391 would pressure some women to end their pregnancies rather than risk incarceration. To reduce Mom and Dad's perspective to their position on abortion, however, doesn't do justice to them or their faith.

I knew it bothered Dad that I had distanced myself from the Church, so, in the past year, I made a special effort to understand and recognize what his faith meant to him. After he died, I found myself searching Catholic teachings and traditions, partly for comfort and partly in an attempt to retain some connection to my parents and their influence. On Good Friday, still concerned about developments in Tennessee, I looked up the meditations accompanying the "Way of the Cross" that Pope Francis presided over, written specifically with the treatment and suffering of society's most vulnerable members in mind. For example, the passage accompanying the third station ("Jesus falls for the first time") says:

Jesus also helps us to accept the failings of others; to show mercy to the fallen and concern for those who are wavering. And he gives us the strength not to shut the door to those who knock and ask us for asylum, dignity and a homeland.

No mention of hammers or handcuffs. Indeed, it doesn't require a degree in theology to conclude that if a person asked "What would Jesus (or Pope Francis, or Mom or Dad) do about pregnant drug-using women?" the answer would be something other than turning them into criminals or undermining their trust in their doctors.

Remembering my parents and the faith that meant so much to them also prompted me to consider how such faith might be put into the service of justice. Both of my parents have sisters who are nuns who belong to the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph in the rural Midwest. In the early 1980s, their order participated in the Sanctuary Movement. They engaged in civil disobedience, providing refugees from Guatemala and El Salvador with food, shelter and medical care. They knew their actions were illegal but they also knew they were right. Their example of "faith in action" left an imprint on me as a teenager that remains to this day.

So in that spirit, and in the name of ordinary, decent people like my parents and parents everywhere, I call on people of all faiths and of none to reach out to Gov. Haslam and insist that all women be treated with dignity and mercy as no less of an authority than Jesus, the pope, and our parents have taught us to do.

Second, inspired by the example and the courage of nuns and lay religious alike, I call on Catholic health care providers and those working in Catholic hospitals in particular to put your faith into action and refuse to implement SB1391 should it be enacted. The bill's sponsors have stated that health care providers have no duty to report their patients; call or write to let the Governor know that you will not abandon your patients to the police.

You can call Gov. Haslam directly with your message, or if you are not a health care provider, sign and share this petition asking him to veto SB1391.

One of the bill's co-sponsors, Tennessee Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, called drug-using mothers the "worst of the worst." I think they are better described by Matthew (25:35-36, 40) who referred to "the least of these."

"For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. [ . . . ] Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'"

May the blessings of spring and this Easter season be upon you and your families.