Speakers address how local churches can protect lives of mothers and their unborn children from domestic violence

This illustration depicts domestic violence. “The Centers for Disease Control as well as the World Health Organization make it very clear that domestic violence is a health issue — a mental health issue to begin with,” said Sharon O’Brien, co-founder and director of Catholics for Family Peace, during a workshop at the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Washington. (OSV News illustration/CNS file by Emily Thompson)

By Kimberley Heatherington

WASHINGTON — In October 2022, the New England Journal of Medicine reported a statistic both shocking and grim: “Homicide is the leading cause of pregnancy-associated death in the United States; pregnant and postpartum women are more than twice as likely to die from homicide as from either hemorrhage or hypertensive disorders.”

However, the journal invoked the statistic as part of its argument that state abortion restrictions, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Women’s Health Organization decision, would lead to negative consequences for pregnant women experiencing intimate partner violence. “Studies show,” the NEJM article continued, “that abortion access plays an important role in reducing IPV.”

Addressing this all too common notion that protecting women from domestic violence requires abortion — as well as discussing the ways Catholics can accompany pregnant women failed both by their partners and those who counsel abortion — was the subject of a Jan. 29 session during the 2023 Catholic Social Ministry Gathering on “Peace Starts Here: Healing Wounds from Abortion and Domestic Violence.”

Organized by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, 10 other USCCB departments, and 20 national Catholic organizations, the CSMG was held in Washington Jan. 28-31.

Mary McClusky, assistant director of Project Rachel Ministry Development at the USCCB Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, said that, despite the fact that the lives of both pregnant women and their children in domestic violence situations are often at risk, there is always hope.

Sharon O’Brien, co-founder and director of Catholics for Family Peace, echoed this, saying that although the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as the World Health Organization, make it clear that while domestic violence is a “mental health issue” that ends up being a “physical reality” and “oftentimes, a fatality,” the “good news is, it’s completely preventable.”

According to the CDC, about one in three women reports having experienced severe physical violence from an intimate partner in their lifetimes.

Domestic violence signifies a pattern of behavior used to control an intimate partner through fear and intimidation. “When you’re in a domestic violence situation,” O’Brien told the audience, “you make some pretty scary decisions in order to keep you and your children safe.”

However, domestic violence isn’t limited to physical abuse. “Fifty percent of domestic violence is actually the emotional, psychological aspect,” O’Brien explained. Neurologists have observed the brain interprets verbal abuse and insults identically to a physical slap. There also is an impact upon spiritual health.

A woman with an abusive partner may be coerced to terminate a pregnancy; her refusal to do so can, statistically, lead to murder. “The relationship between abortion and domestic violence — they’re not two independent things — is deep, and it’s mind-boggling, ” O’Brien reflected.

While previous generations of spouses may have believed they had to remain in an abusive situation for the sake of a marriage, “the church actually has a long history of being crystal clear that domestic violence has no place in any family,” said O’Brien. “It has no place in a Catholic family.”

In 2002, the USCCB updated its statement “When I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence Against Women.” In the opening paragraphs, it declares: “…we state as clearly and strongly as we can that violence against women, inside or outside the home, is never justified. Violence in any form — physical, sexual, psychological, or verbal — is sinful; often, it is a crime as well. We have called for a moral revolution to replace a culture of violence.”

Amy Erardi, coordinator of pastoral care in the Office of Life, Justice and Peace in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, proposed the audience could help pregnant domestic violence victims protect their lives and the lives of their unborn children by asking three questions: “What?” “So what?” and “Now what?”

“What” should recognize that pregnancy is not always a happy event, especially for victims of violence. Pregnancy resource centers must be sensitive to the fact that patients, even when they arrive on their own, may still be tracked or monitored by an abusive partner. Erardi said that at the pregnancy resource center where she volunteers, “we’re seeing women come in with an earpiece, or their cell phone is just left on, for someone on the other end to listen to the entire conversation.”

To assist at the parish level, Erardi suggested the USCCB-designed program Walking with Moms in Need, as well as Project Rachel.

The “So what?” component of her model, Erardi said, asks why we should care. The answer is because we are messengers of God’s grace — people of peace — who “stand against violence. This includes domestic violence, and violence of abortion.”

Prevention underscores the third and final question, “Now what?” Education at the local level, Erardi added, is crucial. “That is our call to action,” she said. “To find resources — to share resources — so that we can educate within our dioceses.”

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