“Last summer, after years of excruciating menstrual pain and anemia caused by excessive bleeding, I saw a gynecological specialist. He ordered an M.R.I., suspecting the cause was endometriosis. I instinctively grab my rosary when I’m anxious. For days after the test, I moved bead to bead, praying that the radiologist would find signs of disease so that I could find appropriate treatment. But the test showed a perfectly healthy uterus.
Normal or not, my symptoms continued to worsen, to the point that the doctor agreed that the answer to ending my pain was a hysterectomy. I was 43 years old. As a longtime advocate for women’s equality and reproductive freedom, I was surprised not to encounter the resistance so many women face from the medical community and society when I made this choice. Women are often told that they will regret losing their ability to have children. My doctor understood I knew what was right for my life, my body and my health. It felt like a miracle.
And yet after I scheduled my surgery, I was haunted by a Catholic teaching about women formulated by Pope John Paul II as part of his larger “theology of the body.” He was deeply concerned about the rising threat of feminism — particularly the growing movement in Protestant denominations to ordain women to the priesthood — and needed to articulate why Catholic women could not enjoy roles equal to men’s. He formulated the phrase “feminine genius” to explain that women’s most essential purpose and their fulfillment are based on their biological capacity to nurture, gestate and give birth. By extension, then, a uterus is God’s way of showing a woman that her primary role is to be a mother, literally and figuratively. . . . “