Sunday, November 13, 2005

Is THIS God's Will for Women?

Andrea Yates, the Texas woman who killed her children by drowning them in the bathtub, might be re-tried. Or there could be a plea bargain. But the general idea is that the first trial failed to serve justice and they're going to give it another shot. Of the 6 psychiatrists who testified, only one said that Ms. Yates was sufficiently mentally competent to understand that she was killing her children. And that doctor gave faulty testimony on other points, which the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agrees could have inappropriately influenced the jury.

Legally, the trial is about how we care for people with mental illness. And there's plenty to look at there, heaven knows. But socially, I think we have to give ultra-conservative Christianity and "submitted" relationships a good hard look. (Whether or not that hard look can become a legal inquiry is for someone else to know.) What is their relationship to violence? In spite of their lofty rhetoric, is this working for women and children? Or for men either, for that matter?

Why, in conservative Christian churches, is family planning a sin? Even in Catholicism, it's not inappropriate to control the size of a family. It's how you do it that they want to legislate. However, some conservatives in Catholicism and in very conservative evangelical churches have gone farther. Let God determine the size of your family -no family planning whatsoever. So Andrea Yates had six pregnancies (one miscarriage) in eight years of marriage.

Moreover, she had no authority within the marriage to even suggest that they consider something else. When her husband moved her and four of the children into a bus, where she was supposed to home-school (and I use the term "home" loosely) the children, her only possible response was "yes, dear." Ms. Yates was isolated from other relationships and from loving, external critique of her situation. She could see one friend, they had no church because the husband couldn't find one that met his needs or standards, and she was only allowed to go out on rare and special occasions.

I have grave ethical concerns with medically treating the almost-inevitable suicidal depression that she experienced. Why not look at the power dynamics that (possibly) created the depression in the first place? I hasten to add that I know very little about Ms Yates's actual diagnosis or mental health history -only what's been reported in the news. She may well have had life-long mental illness that can't all be attributed to the marriage that so robbed her of personal power. But there are thousands and thousands of women living in similar submitted relationships. They can't all have life-long mental health issues.

Are they really "liberated from feminism" as the rhetoric suggests -or is Christianity truly this willing to take such grave risks with women and children, who -after all- are also created in God's image? It seems to me that we're right back to "the personal is political." These decisions that conservative Christians want to think of as private and centered in the home really aren't. They have enormous societal consequences. And frankly, I think the power structures that allow or even foster this kind of tragedy need to be critiqued both within the church and externally.

Do we need more evidence that submitted relationships don't liberate anyone -least of all women and children? Women and men of faith need to stand for a more powerful (and harder to figure out) faith. The truncated, isolated life that Andrea Yates was forced to lead is not consistent with God's hopes for us. How we affirm that statement in a way that makes a difference for people is less clear to me, but it could certainly start with removing the onus of sin from family planning. From there, we could move on to helping men let go of the notion that they were put on earth to be stewards of women.

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