I have never related comfortably to traditional images of Mary the mother of Jesus. Statues and paintings of Mary frequently seem too unreal, too porcelain, and it’s been important for me to seek out more earthy portrayals of Mary, especially at Christmas. I don’t refer to her as the Virgin Mary because it matters to me that Mary is a woman who gave birth. This season I’ve been noticing all over again the absence of Mary’s body from the nativity of Jesus. The Gospels provide no details of the birth process. Only Matthew and Luke contain infancy narratives at all, and Matthew’s skips over the birth altogether, going right into the Magi arriving to pay homage to the baby. Luke briefly summarizes the event with a single sentence: “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son.” (2:6-7). Then Luke moves on to several paragraphs about the shepherds and choirs of angels, also present to honor the newborn baby.
In my imagination, I flesh out the story by adding in a community of women who gathered to support Mary during labor and provide practical help such as food and baby blankets, but I wonder: If Mary’s birth story were part of scripture, would childbearing women today be valued and respected? Does the invisibility of Mary’s bodily participation in our sacred story contribute to today’s too-common mantra that “the only thing that matters is a healthy baby,” disregarding the mother’s experience, whether she is traumatized by non-consented medical procedures and disrespectful, even abusive treatment? Birth trauma is a growing phenomenon in this country, and more women are taking legal action against health care providers. To raise awareness, last summer two enterprising advocates toured the country photographing mothers and documenting their distressing birth stories to “expose the silence” about birth trauma. It is painful and unsettling to witness their terrible experiences which leave permanent scars, but the incarnation calls us to do it anyway.
If Mary’s birth story were part of the Gospels, would the bodies of pregnant women be treated as fully human persons and not just vessels for gestating and delivering babies? While there is consensus among medical professionals that addiction is a public health issue and that criminalizing drug use during pregnancy undermines the health of women and children, increasingly pregnant women (mostly poor) are being convicted and jailed for addiction itself as a form of civil child abuse, the combined effects of fetal personhood laws and the war on drugs. Last year Tennessee passed a new law so that women may be charged with assault for illegal behavior while pregnant. It threatens up to 15 years in prison “for the illegal use of a narcotic drug…while pregnant.” A woman’s enrollment in drug treatment could serve as a defense in court but they often are unable to obtain these services. If a newborn tests positive for any drugs, the mother can be arrested right from the hospital. Last year in a New York Times op-ed, leaders of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women outline examples from around the country of legal action against women who had miscarriages or stillbirths, ranging from forced cesarean to charges of homocide. The op-ed also cites a study documenting 413 cases of actions against pregnant women depriving them of physical liberty during the 32-year period between 1973 and 2005. In the subsequent nine years, they identified an additional 380 cases, all based on the principle that fertilized eggs, embryos and fetuses are persons or at least have separate rights the state must protect, resulting in the pregnant woman being denied medical decision making, medical privacy and bodily integrity. May this feast of the incarnation increase our reverence for women’s bodies and inspire new action supporting the rights of childbearing women.