mardi 10 novembre 2009

The Square of Angels and the pursuit of happiness

Or, The Garden of Innocents

Since the passage by the house of HR 3962 Saturday, my inbox has been mercifully inactive. Only a handful of new messages every day, and many of them offering great holiday deals from Amazon or announcing the imminent shipment of the "dazzling tulip and daffodils displays for spring". I stayed up all night Saturday, watching the debate on C-SPAN through Livestream (it didn't skip and required only very occasional refreshment, like I). I chatted by email with other political stalwarts back in the US, similarly glued to their screens, and only insisted my husband listen occasionally. He finally went to bed around 3 pm, as the estimated time for the vote was moved further and further back.

"Tu as entendu ça?" It was rhetorical, largely. I didn't really expect him to be following from where he was sitting on the sofa behind my post at the kitchen table, not far away. He does not boast passable English, and our very public and even more voluble political life, with our placards and t-shirts, our coolers and our beach chairs in front of the cameras and microphones puzzles him. We trot out our personal stories for speeches, with props -- mute children or adults with a politician's hand on their shoulders in a gesture of empathy, to lend support to any point they are trying to make --, the baby kissing, the shouting and grandstanding , the hyperbole and nonsensical arguments conceived to whip up visceral response, they say, "American politics. You are politically immature."

It's quite a hopeful point of view, really. Immature can always mature. They watch us fondly, like children they like a lot, busy growing up, while they have been through it sometime in their long history and come out seeing other things, "We discuss ideas; you try to move emotions."

It was watching the procedures that reacquainted me with the facts of the American political landscape and the real hopes for more than we got Saturday. It wasn't enough, but only Kucinich could afford to make the symbolic vote to which he was entitled against HR 3962, The Affordable Health Care for America Act. Conyers split their vote and voted for its passage, along with my congressman, who endeared himself to me as a man of principal and spine, standing with 193 other Democrats and voting "no" to the Stupak Amendment, an assault on women's reproductive medicine and her right to chose whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term. I view that as an assault on men, as well, because there is an overlooked aspect in the epic struggle over abortion, the bioethical.

Not all pregnancies are terminated for carelessness. Some are terminated because the fetus is found to have severe chromosomal abnormalities, such as trisomy 13 and 18, which means that baby is likely to die before birth, and if it survives birth, it will, in some 87% of cases, die in the first days or weeks of its life. The baby will suffer during this time. Ask a neonatal pediatrician, or an ob. The children who survive will be severely mentally and physically handicapped. There is no hope for them to live the life a child born with trisomy 21, or Downs Syndrome can hope to lead. No couple is told they must terminate the pregnancy for such devastating diagnoses made during pregnancy, but late-term abortion is offered as an option, and humanely, even by doctors who do not choose to practice elective first-term abortion.

But what happens in the United States in such cases? Politicians and pro-lifers begin to yell about "partial birth" abortion. My husband, an ob/gyn practicing in France for more than 25 years, did not know what they could mean by this. I explained. He was aghast, "But, why do they do this? They cannot!" He meant, Surely they cannot really do such a thing. "It is not necessary," he said; he still didn't believe me, "It is barbaric."

"Congress passed an act that became law in November 2003 against it. Congress does not pass laws against procedures that are not performed." He shook his head. "Tell me, how is it done here?"

"It is not done in this way." He said, and he explained how it is done.

In the cases where the couple elects to end the pregnancy, always a heart-wrenching decision for the parents, looking forward to welcoming a healthy baby to their family, the fetus is given a suitable dose of anesthesiology by an anesthesiologist. His department was one of the first to develop this procedure, back in the 1980's. Years ago. Once asleep, and unable to feel, a dose of heart-stopping medication is injected into the umbilical cord. It reaches the heart nearly immediately, ending the baby's life instantly, without pain or suffering. This is of huge comfort to the parents, who understand very well what they are doing, and are hurting. Then, the medical staff, in hospitals -- public and private --, wait for labor to start; the body knows when a fetus has "demised", and begins to expel it on its own. If this takes too long, artificial hormones will be administered to help labor start.

Once the baby is born, just like in most American hospitals offering similar procedures, the grief counseling team steps in. The parents are allowed to hold and to photograph their child. If far enough along in the pregnancy, to name their baby, which will receive a birth and a death certificate so that they may arrange for burial, or other funeral ceremonies. In France, if the baby is not old enough or large enough to have a good chance of survival -- the official age is 22 weeks gestation, or 500 grams in weight to be able to receive a birth certificate --, the parents may still hold their child, who will be cremated. The family may then hold a funeral to bury his ashes in le carré des Anges, or the The Angels Square, of certain local cemeteries, with all the other babies whose parents had to make such a terrible decision, or who lost their child to a miscarriage, before their child was even old enough to be officially recognized as a viable life.

Le carré des Anges

Un petit espace à gauche, prêt de la sortie du cimetière, semble indépendant ; à l’abri des badauds, presque hors du temps, sobre et propre, ce lieu n’a aucun signe particulier. Pas de fleurs, pas de plaque.

Cet endroit est la ; c’est tout.

Mais quel est ce lieu, qui attire sans que l’on sache pourquoi?

Ici on l’appelle pudiquement le jardin des innocents...

C’est le carré des anges.

Joli nom, mais pourquoi avoir baptisé ce lieu ainsi?

C’est en fait l’espace réservé aux anges, c’est ainsi que l’église nomme les enfants morts avant d’avoir reçu le sacrement du baptême. Les enfants mort-nés principalement.

Carré des anges ou carré des limbes, limbus du latin qui veut dire lisière. L’église dit que ces petites âmes, si elles ne reposent pas dans le carré des anges, se perdraient dans le néant et erreraient pour l’éternité... bon un endroit est consacré aux repos des anges, c’est bien.

Le nom de faiseuse d’anges donné aux femmes (principalement) qui faisaient « Passé les bébés non désirés » a retenu ange dans le sens donné par l’église, des enfants mort-nés, juste après, ou un peu avant, avec l’aide d’une faiseuse d’anges.


The Square of Angels

A small space to the left, near the cemetery gate, seems independent; protected from gawkers, nearly outside of time, sober and clean, this place has no sign. No flowers. No monument.

This place is here; that is all.

But, what is this place that draws us, while we cannot say why? Here, we call it modestly "the garden of innocents"...

It is the Square of Angels.

A beautiful name, but why baptize this place thus?

It is, in fact, the place set aside for angels, for this is how the Church called children who died without receiving the sacrament of baptism. Babies still-born, principally.

The Square of Angels or the Square of Limbo, "limbus" from latin which means the edge or the limit. The Church says that these young souls, if they do not rest in the Square of Angels, would become lost in nothingness, wander for eternity... and so a space is reserved for their souls. It is good.

The name of "angel maker" given to women (principally) who caused undesired children to die has kept the word "angel" as intended by the Church, to indicate babies who are born stillborn, dying just before or just after birth by the act of the "angel maker".

These carrés des Anges are common in France, this officially secular but traditionally Catholic country once known as la belle-fille de l'église, or the "daughter-in-law" of the Church, where abortion became legal in 1975 under Minister of Health Simone Veil, herself a French Jew who survived Auschwitz-Birkenau. Her mother and one of her sisters did not. While public funds were not made available to pay for IVG, the French term for abortion, until 15 years later, no one has ever seriously challenged the legalization of abortion in 34 years. Catholic Bishops do not lobby the Chamber of Deputies before important new health legislation. Abortion is available legally to anyone, including a woman who finds herself pregnant through a failure on the part of herself and her partner to protect themselves during sex, and who does not wish to have a baby. Abortion was legalized in France upon medical terms: to ensure that no woman should find herself in the frightening position of needing to seek an illegal and possibly life-threatening abortion.

But, we have forgotten, or in the case of younger women, come to sexual maturity since Roe v. Wade in 1973, never known what that meant.

, one friend writes to me of an illegal abortion she had in 1969, being dropped off on a remote corner in Chicago, cash in your hand, someone picking you up you have never seen before, blindfolding you, being taken somewhere you don't know where you are and no one else knows where you are -- in the days before cell phones --, and this unknown person is going to give you an abortion of which you are terrified anyway, and confused.

I harbor huge hatred for those who would force women in THIS COUNTRY into circumstances like that, and I was lucky because maybe the guy really was a doctor. I'll never know. Getting onto a table blindfolded.

Then being dropped off alone on a corner to wait for them to call your ride to come pick you up.

You don't know if you are going to be robbed, killed. And this was supposedly a good guy... but the terror around the entire situation, at least not knitting needles in the alley, has never left me not for one minute. I become so angry I could have a stroke. Women nowadays have no idea what they are loosing if they should ever have to have an abortion, and they CANNOT. They just have no idea what women used to go through.

Those who know, we cannot let those who would return us to the practices of the centuries before abortion was made legal -- for don't think for a moment that abortion has not existed since men and women first understood that the sexual act brought pleasure and pregnancy, wanted or not -- achieve their goal. This is not a moral question; it is a medical one.

Further, as anyone who has read me before knows, France has had a mixed private/public single-payer health system, paid for largely by social taxes imposed on workers and employers, in addition to taxes on certain insurance policies, the purchase of alcohol and tabacco, and etcetera, since the end of the 19th century, at which time it was provided alongside education to workers by the large corporations for which they labored, la Sécurité Sociale, and given legal definition as the the Second World War was drawing to a close by the National Council of the Resistance in the first article of the Law of October 4th, 1945:

art. 1er — Il est institué une organisation de la sécurité sociale destinée à garantir les travailleurs et leurs familles contre les risques de toute nature susceptibles de réduire ou de supprimer leur capacité de gain, à couvrir les charges de maternité et les charges de famille qu’ils supportent

This says, essentially, "There is instituted a social security organization designed to guaranty workers and their families against risks of all nature causing them to suffer a reduction or the elimination of their ability to earn a living, to cover the financial demands of maternity and the ensuing financial needs of the family."

In the United States, we must fight for the most basic of what are considered human rights, as defined by article 22 of the Universal Human Rights Declaration of 1948, while much of the rest of the world bases its fundamental social economic policy on it:
Article 22
Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

It sounds remarkably like these words from our own Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, and quoted by some of the Democrats who rose to support HR 3962 Saturday in the United States Congress:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

It even (gasp!) sounds as if this is the purpose of government.

Even taking the text as literally as the teabaggers take the Bible in their own American Christianity, relying now, it would seem, on the Catholic bishops to do their shared Christian -- for once, Protestant and Catholic working in harmony -- work to prevent women, and the many men who love them, from pursuing their happiness, preserving their dignity and allowing the free development of their personalities by passing The Stupak-Pitts Amendment prior to and as a condition, even, of bringing the bill to the floor for a vote and its passage.

If we have been wrong to accept the passage of The Hyde Amendment, as an attack on low-income women, we are wrong to accept The Stupak-Pitts Amendment, an attack on all women, now.

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