Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Orphan Trains and Symphysiotomy (and Catholic Connections): Two Recent Items Worth Reading

Though Gerelyn Hollingsworth evidently finds my writing blowsy, I have always found hers sprightly.  I like her wry (and often, subtly irreverent) optic on the lives of the saints and the pretensions of the holy.

(I doubt seriously I'm on Hollingsworth's radar screen in any major way.  My only inkling she finds my written work overblown is an exchange I had some time ago with her at the Commonweal blog site, where we disagreed on how to read the popular television series "Mad Men."  I've shared my own take on this series at Bilgrimage, and when the show came up for discussion at Commonweal, I shared it again--to the apparent consternation of Hollingsworth, who replied to my comment by placing a number of my phrases in meretricious quotation marks.  Which I took to be an indicator of her opinion that they were pretentious and over-written.

In this exchange, I also strongly disagreed with Hollingsworth about a writer I regard as one of the best American prose writers around, Daniel Mendelsohn, whose book The Lost is, for my money, one of the most significant books of the past decade.  Mendelsohn had written a critical review of "Mad Men" that sparked the lively--and perhaps slightly vituperative--exchange at Commonweal).

And to return to my point: though Gerelyn Hollingsworth may find my writing not worth reading (and she may well be right in her estimation), I find what she writes at her National Catholic Reporter blog site well worth reading.  I was struck, in particular, by this recent posting re: the orphan trains that brought children from the east coast (and overseas) to families in the West and Midwest in the 19th century.  And by the information about the role that the Sisters of Charity played in this ambiguous "charitable" disposition of children whose birth families could not care for them or did not want them.

"The little boy or girl which you so kindly ordered," indeed.

And, I don't know why, but reading Hollingsworth's fascinating account of the orphan trains brought to mind another horrifying piece of information I learned the same day, when I read John Spain's article in the Independent about Irish writer John McGahern's critical analysis of the damage that the extremely repressive view of human sexuality in Catholic Ireland often inflicted on its people.  Spain is reviewing a new book by Eamon Maher called John McGahern and the Catholic Question.  

McGahern noted that until the absolute power exercised by Catholic clergy throughout Ireland began to wane in the latter half of the 20th century, church and state collaborated to control the reproductive lives of Irish citizens--of women, in particular--and to impose a traditional, Catholic-centered moral framework on the entire society, through civil law.

And one of the tidbits of information the article mentions, which it says that McGahern discusses in his memoir, is that some Irish hospitals used to perform a procedure called symphysiotomy during difficult deliveries.  Symphysiotomy was the breaking of the bones of a woman's pelvis and the pushing apart of the ligaments holding them together during childbirth, to permit the easier delivery of the baby.

And why go to those horrific limits, when a Caesarean section might have been performed instead?  Though some of those now defending the use of this procedure well into the 20th century, after Caesarean delivery had become much safer than when this procedure first began to be used, want to argue that symphysiotomy was preferred because it was less dangerous than a Caesarean procedure, many commentators are now noting that symphysiotomy continued to be used into the 20th century in predominantly Catholic countries.

Like Ireland, where McGahern thinks it was preferred by some hospitals--and administered to anesthetized women even without their knowledge and consent during difficult births--because it was more "natural" than a Caesarean delivery.

As gay and lesbian Catholics keep pointing out ad nauseam, Catholic teachings about what is natural and unnatural have real-life applications.  And some of those applications can be horrific in the real lives of real people--as the symphysiotomy story reminds us.

And I do know, as I think about it, why my mind connected the McGahern discussion to Hollingsworth's narrative about the orphan trains, when I read both accounts on the same day.  It's because all too frequently in the past, unmarried Irish women who gave birth to children in Irish hospitals or homes to care for "wayward" girls were forced to give their children up for adoption immediately.  These mothers often never saw their children again, after having given birth to them.

Because those running these institutions thought--again, Catholic mores controlling civil law and customary practice--that immoral women who became pregnant outside marriage should not be raising children.  And so I wonder how many of those babies ended up on the orphan trains discussed by Hollingsworth . . . .

P.S. I'm not saying that Catholic religious women have not often done wonderful work with the sick and orphans.  I'm saying that the theological framework within which that work is done, and the application of that framework to civil law and customary practice, deserve constant critical assessment.  Particularly the notion of natural law and its applications, which have sometimes been and remain deeply oppressive for some of us against whom the edge of natural law teaching is turned . . . .

The graphic is an illustration from a PBS "American Experience" program on the orphan trains.

No comments: