A mama knows the difference between a playful coo and a hungry whimper, or between a real fever and a valiant attempt to get out of school. A mama can spot a secret in the curl of a smile, an impending illness in the subtle tilt of a head. A mama knows the rhythms of the household — the pitter-patter of toddler feet on the floor, the hurried scratches of forks against empty plates.
And she knows the rhythms of her own body, when it is heavy with milk, sore from cramps, in need of rest.
A mama keeps a running mental inventory, willing there to be enough food for each belly, enough money for the girls to go to school, enough medicine at the clinic. A mama knows what is best for her family, and so a mama is strongest when she is empowered to make good decisions for them.
But not every woman gets to choose. Not every mother gets the chance to do what she knows is best for herself and her family.
There are more than 220 million women in developing countries who don’t want to get pregnant, but who lack access to family planning information and contraceptives. Every year, nearly 300,000 of them will die during pregnancy or from complications giving birth. Far too many mothers will bury their babies before they even get to know the sound of their laughter. More than 2.6 million babies will be stillborn, and another 2.9 million will die before they are a month old.
Giving women the opportunity to time their pregnancies and space out their children through effective, low-cost contraception is key to turning around these heartbreaking numbers.
Not only does access to family planning information and contraception improve the health of mothers and children, it also improves the economies of their households. When a woman has fewer children and more time to work harvesting crops or growing her fledgling business, she brings more resources into the home so her children can be fed and her kids can go to school. A poor family confronted by a drought or famine is more likely to survive with a smaller household and fewer mouths to feed.
These are things that every mother knows instinctively, and yet ensuring that every woman has access to the contraception options she wants is not always a top priority on the global health agenda.
That’s because conversations about contraception, particularly here in the United States, tend to be religiously and politically charged. Some people seem to think that family planning is just code for abortion, when it’s not. Others presume that giving women access to contraception is encouraging promiscuity, even though most of the women who use oral contraception are married. Words like “entitled,” ‘’selfish” and even “slut” get thrown around all too easily.
A woman who wants to live long enough to see her children grow up isn’t being selfish. A woman who wants to provide an education for her girls as well as her boys isn’t acting entitled. A woman who wants to space out her pregnancies so her newborns have a better shot at life isn’t a slut. We cannot allow simplistic, self-focused narratives about contraception and family planning to keep us from helping these women.
For those of us who identify as pro-life, it’s not enough simply to oppose abortion. We must also actively advocate for and invest in those specific actions that not only curb the abortion rate but also save the lives of women and children worldwide. Increasing access to family planning information and contraceptives will result in fewer women and girls dying in pregnancy and childbirth, fewer unintended pregnancies, fewer abortions and fewer infant deaths.
As Christians, we are called to reorient our perspective around the needs of those whom Jesus called “the least of these.” When we lean in close, we learn that they aren’t all that different from ourselves. The mothers of sub-Saharan Africa chuckle the same way over the antics of their mischievous children as do mothers here in America. The women of Southeast Asia share the same instincts and intuition as women in Europe.
A baby’s death is no less tragic when it happens quietly on a dirt floor than when it happens in a high-tech hospital. We may have dissimilar circumstances, but we share a common humanity, a shared dream of raising healthy and happy families.
A mama knows when it is time to grow a family and when it is time to wait. A mama knows how far the rations will stretch, how much school uniforms cost, how long she ought to nurse her baby. And a mama knows how to bring every good thing to that little boy whose head nestles into her soft, waiting shoulder.
This Mother’s Day, let’s give her the chance to do it.
(Rachel Held Evans is the author of “Evolving in Monkey Town” and “A Year of Biblical Womanhood.” This piece was adapted from her contribution to “The Mother & Child Project: Raising Our Voices for Health and Hope,” recently released by Zondervan.)
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