Commentary

Jericho woman met Mother Theresa in Calcutta, urges lawmaker to support unborn

by Katie Coons

This letter was sent to the author’s representative in the Vermont House, Dr. George Till (D-Jericho/Underhill), to support crisis pregnancy centers. Rep. Till is the sole sponsor of H634, which “proposes to prohibit a limited services pregnancy center from disseminating any advertising about the services or proposed services performed at that center if the management of the center knows or, by the exercise of reasonable care, ought to know it is untrue or clearly designed to mislead the public about the nature of services provided.” It was not passed out of the House Human Services Committee by last Friday’s crossover deadline and is therefore unlikely to pass this year.

Dear Representative Till – I am writing you to raise concerns about legislation that would be harmful to crisis-pregnancy centers and the unborn. I’m going to share my stories of life in India and China, and my own experience of a mother so that you may more fully understand why these concerns are so near and dear to my heart.

Thick air, the smell of garbage and flowers, industry and humanity fill my senses as we walk the streets of Calcutta. It is early morning and many street people are waking to the golden haze of an Indian morning. Horns, cows, vendors, buses, and voices fill the air. My senses are in overload as our small youth group makes our way to the cement doorway of the Sisters of Mercy ministry in the heart of Calcutta. There is a stark difference as we cross the threshold of the concrete building. It is cool and quieter inside, and the Sisters of Mercy welcome us to visit.

I found my journal from January 11, 1995: the day I met Mother Teresa. The moments of that conversation have woven themselves into my story and changed me deeply. The conversation where I was challenged directly to welcome children like Jesus commanded, to realize that I am loved and adopted by God, and that abortion, at its core, is wrong.

“When we got off the bus, it was just like any street in the city—I don’t know exactly what I expected. We dismounted from the bus and beggar children surrounded us, and we went down an alley to a door which had a small sign. It said, “Mother Teresa MC.” That’s it. We walked through the door and there was an open courtyard where some nuns were washing the floor. We continued up some stairs. At the landing in the stairs there was a cross with Jesus and a sign that said, “Give the Spirit of Adoption to all who seek you”. Finally we could see Mother Teresa. We had to take off our shoes and as we got to the top of the stairs Mother Teresa was standing there. She was short, wrinkled and smiling.”

It’s amazing how a single encounter can change one’s life. My pastor and leader of our youth group trip, an Indian pastor himself, had heard that in order to gain an audience with Mother Teresa, you would have to know that every day during chapel services she stands by a certain pillar in the building. Suda found a way to stand by that same pillar while we listened to chapel. Soon, mysteriously to us, our group was ushered into a simple concrete room to have an audience with Mother Teresa — something we could have only dreamed may happen.

It was what she said next that shocked me. “You Americans, you kill your unborn babies. Every life in the womb is precious, every life is made in the image of God. If you can’t raise your children, bring them to me and I will raise them. Choose adoption. Don’t abort your babies.” She then quoted scripture that says, “Whoever receives a little child in my name will receive me.” – Katie Coons, Jericho

In her mid- 80s, Mother Theresa was small, dressed in her blue gown and simple white head scarf. She wore no shoes and gave to the poor whatever clothes were donated to her mission. We had been learning about and visiting many places in India that were doing the work Jesus called them to do. Feeding street children, providing vocational training for women in the “untouchable” caste, visiting Ashrams and respite homes that give dignity to the elderly and dying. The entire three-week trip had been an eye opener for how the mission of the church could and should be lived out by actually doing the work that the Bible asks us to do, and having joy in that kind of life. Finally, we were offered a rare and momentous audience with a woman whose life epitomized the message that all life was sacred, and all humans were worthy of love and respect simply by being human.

Mother Teresa’s voice was soft as she spoke to us— I sat literally at her feet on the cool concrete and contemplated her gnarled hands and bare toes. I was close enough that if I were tired, I could rest my head on her lap. As she spoke, I cupped my ears to hear her clear and wise voice over the cacophony the open windows let in from the Calcutta streets. Whatever she was led to share in that moment, I’d better hear it— these could be the wisest words I’d ever hear spoken by a living person.

She began with the mission of the Sisters of Charity: To give the spirit of adoption to all who seek Jesus. It was what she said next that shocked me. “You Americans, you kill your unborn babies. Every life in the womb is precious, every life is made in the image of God. If you can’t raise your children, bring them to me and I will raise them. Choose adoption. Don’t abort your babies.” She then quoted scripture that says, “Whoever receives a little child in my name will receive me.”

She then told us about the Sisters of Mercy’s vows of Service, Holiness, Chastity and devoting their lives to help the poor. My final journal entry of that encounter were her words “We have to love each other.” It has been twenty-seven years since that day, yet as I’ve relived that pivotal moment and those quiet words, I’ve grown to honor the sanctity of life, especially for those lives in utero.

I was fifteen when I first visited India, and that whetted my appetite for living and serving overseas. Though I’d grown up in a tiny town in Northern NY, I went to college outside of Chicago, lived in Mongolia for a summer, and moved directly to China after graduation to work in an international school.

I was lucky to be an art teacher in Tianjin, China, and to have a couple of Chinese artists work by my side teaching. I got to know them well and heard their stories of their childhood—one who grew up in the countryside with many siblings, and one who lived in the city with her sister and parents. We were all the same age— born the year before the one-child policy was enforced in China. I heard their stories and their sorrow as they watched their American co-workers have multiple children and mourned that they were only allowed one.

As I lived longer in China, I also began to volunteer in the local orphanage. Many were orphaned because they had been born with cleft lips or simply because they were girls. They weren’t “perfect,” and their parents wanted their only child to be perfect (or capable of financially supporting their family in old age). The orphanages were overflowing with children who hadn’t met the standard that was hoped for. It was a grief too deep to bear. Some babies were left in a back room, exposed to die because of a physical defect. Some were tied to their cribs or to chairs in a room because they were too difficult to care for. These toddlers would grab my legs and body and wouldn’t let go if I drew close enough to give them a hug or play with them.

I began volunteering at the orphanage regularly to hold babies, and my apartment mate and co-teacher began taking children home for the weekend, checking out a baby like checking out a library book. Cuddling and feeding babies became our weekend routine. Mother Teresa’s words continually echoed in my heart and mind: “do not hinder the children, let them come to me” and “choose adoption.” Though I continued to be an art teacher at the international school, my heart for orphans and unwanted children grew. I began to understand that many parents and grandparents were seeking economic stability in their retirement, and this drove mothers to abandon children with disabilities at the orphanage. I also saw that the orphanage was a last-minute rescue effort by mothers who chose to deliver their children rather than abort them, in hopes they would be adopted.

A terrible lie was told to women—that abortion was an easy and expected solution for unwanted pregnancy. Abortion clinics were plentiful. One of my colleagues had taken a friend to an abortion clinic for an unwanted pregnancy. They were told that the baby wasn’t yet a human being and that this was the best thing she could do for herself. At the end of that day, my friend came to my apartment in tears and deep grief over what she had witnessed. She had been told this was a routine procedure and that the pregnancy wasn’t actually a baby. What she witnessed was a terribly messy procedure where a baby was pulled from the mother’s womb and discarded in a bucket along with hundreds of other babies. She described the horrible scene—buckets filled with small dead babies, like piglets piled at a sow’s breast. She had tried to find a place to run and had vomited from horror of the slaughter of little children whose bodies were dumped in buckets on the way to a landfill. She described this scene to me in limited English, through tears, and told me that the government and the doctors had lied. These were real, live children with human features that had been slaughtered.

She vowed never to help anyone have an abortion again. Years later, as she and her family began to follow Jesus, I had the opportunity to see her faith in action. A friend of theirs was pregnant with a second child they couldn’t afford, as second children were legal citizens only if their parents paid a fine—usually several months or even years’ worth of an average salary. My friend’s mother saw the distress of her friend, recognized the image of God in this unborn baby, and promptly paid the fine for a second child and in retirement raised the baby as her own.

I simultaneously grew to see the subversive and powerful choices made by the underground Church to value human life. One woman I became friends with later in graduate school belonged to a church whose pastor had encouraged the congregation to put the local orphanage out of business by fostering or adopting all the orphans in the institution. The message was simple—these children were God’s children, and the Christians were the hands and feet of Jesus, so don’t hinder the children and adopt them. That message sounded familiar!

All this of course, was what I learned from others and through my exposure to children needing a home. It wasn’t until I was pregnant with my first child that I knew that life is sacred from its very conception. Any pregnant mother feels the effect of making room for another life, and one’s life radically changes because of that. At my first-trimester checkup, I was in awe to realize that I was carrying an eternal being in my body, and this baby was a person whose soul was being formed in my womb. It is truly mind blowing to consider that there is a beginning to a human life, and an eternal life after that point. I can’t even express the humility and awe that came with the awesome responsibility of becoming a mother.

During my 20-week ultrasound I came face to face with an ideology split: humans as Imago Dei at conception versus a replaceable fetus. My ultrasound showed that I had placenta previa, and my physician offhandedly mentioned that if I lost this baby, I could just have another. I was floored. My body had held a life for 20 weeks. This baby was God’s child, in my womb, fearfully and wonderfully made. This was an eternal being, not just another number! I was so scared that I would lose the child or that something would go horribly wrong, and my entire life became about protecting my little girl. We named her and asked our community to pray for her wellbeing. Many people had laid hands on me and prayed that my placenta would move. I felt the palpable presence of the Holy Spirit in that place. I knew this child was no number, no replaceable being. She was my baby, my daughter, and I would fight for her life. A follow-up ultrasound the next week revealed that my placenta had moved to a safe position and the image showed my daughter’s two little fingers giving me the peace sign. “It’s going to be ok, mom, be at peace.” I knew then that no mother willingly gives up her child. It’s not possible.

A mother who has now given birth to three children, I know the amazing and holy responsibility of letting my body be home to another life. Another human image of God, a cell-splitting, genetically-embodying, image-bearing, amazingly created person. 

I lived in Shanghai, China, when my third baby was born, a second daughter. That was the year the one-child policy was lifted. Now a married couple could have two children without paying a fine. I gave birth in a Chinese hospital with seven midwives and doctors cheering me on in an epic delivery. Hundreds of women were lined up that month to have second children, something they hadn’t been able to do for 36 years. I had to pay extra for a vaginal delivery because so many c-sections had to be scheduled that month to accommodate the number of children being born. My tired doctor had delivered seven babies by c-section while I was in labor, and he gave me a weary smile and congratulations when I finally delivered my little girl. The government and the people had realized that the one-child policy had been a terrible mistake. The kinds of pressure and family and economic systems that had yielded a country of “little emperors” was unsustainable. What had been pushed as government propaganda was wrong. Children were a blessing, children were important to a country, children were celebrated. (Bring your children to me, do not hinder them….)

As the weeks followed, I held my baby to my chest, breathed in her newborn smells, felt the release as she nursed at my breast, smiled in her sleep, and laughed in my embrace. This child, this life, is good. Life is a gift, this baby whom I loved broke my heart for those babies in Shanghai who had been shut up in orphanages or left to die because of a simple physical defect. Months before, I had made several trips to a local orphanage to see if there was any way to help in the adoption process. We were connected to an organization called “Bao Bei” that advocated for babies born with heart and other defects who, without an advocate, would be left to die. Bao Bei provided funding for heart and other life-saving surgeries for orphaned infants. They also fostered these babies until adoptive families could be found. I felt led to advocate and spread the word to friends who had the ability to be foster families for these children. What a joy, and what a challenge that year was! I found that my gift was in connecting babies to foster families. During that time, our church raised money to complete an adoption of an older child with severe neurological challenges who desperately needed a home. After we raised the funds, she was adopted into a family with twelve siblings!

We moved to Vermont six years ago, and we were happy to find a place to raise our three children. We were lucky to find a loving and close community in Jericho through our church and a supportive school and preschool. We quickly found a place in the community to connect and nurture friendships. We have a strong desire to raise our children in a place that is safe, a place where our family and others can flourish, and a place to belong.

Mr. Till, I write to you today because I’m concerned about three bills that are in the House that seem to be undermining the safety of children, and those who seek to help pregnant mothers bring their children into the world and care for them. I draw upon my story and my experiences because I deeply believe that we are most fully human when we love one other, care for children, and protect the vulnerable and unborn. Having lived in China under Communist leadership, and having seen first-hand the complete disregard for human rights, I am seeing and hearing in my own beloved country the same contours and echoes of what I witnessed in China. With Mother Teresa’s voice echoing in my conscience, I feel the need to use my voice to speak for the vulnerable, the unborn, and for those who have given their lives to serve pregnant mothers at risk and unborn children.

I just got off the phone with Aspire Together, a crisis pregnancy center in Williston that has raised concern about three bills currently in the House. They believe these bills will undermine their work to help pregnant mothers in crisis find a way to give birth to their babies. It is a courageous act to give birth, and women with crisis pregnancies need support and encouragement to do so.

The first bill I’m deeply troubled by is the recently passed Bill 5, to be voted on in November. We need laws that help to protect the unborn from cruelty and inhumane treatment at every stage of pregnancy, not laws to promote abortion at any stage of human life. Shame on Vermont.

My friends at Aspire Together, as a pro-life pregnancy center, feel that bill H 634 is a direct attack on them. The bill calls for truth in advertising, which seems to be a good thing. If applied to all pregnancy centers to promote truth in advertising, then pro-life pregnancy centers would promote their efforts to support a mother though her pregnancy and pro-abortion centers would promote their abortion and life-termination services. If I were woman in crisis, I would want to know the truth that I have viable options other than abortion. In a crisis, I would feel alone and afraid that I couldn’t provide for my child, and that the timing of this baby would ruin my life plan. However, I would also want to know that abortion has long term detrimental effects to my body, my emotions, my relationships, and my life. I would want to be told the truth that my baby was a living human being, a fragile life with a soul and a future. I would want to know that as a woman I have the right to give life and a future to my child. I would want to know that giving birth would be a courageous act that stood directly against any act that caused the untimely pregnancy. I would certainly want to know that I had the right to be protected, and my child had the right to have life. If this bill is truly concerned with truth in advertising, please make clear that pro-abortion clinics are under the same microscope to be true about the death dealing services they offer.

The third bill, H 481, seeks to hinder advertising for mobile clinics. As Aspire Together is outfitting a mobile clinic to offer ultrasounds and counseling for pregnant women, this bill would directly inhibit their necessary work.

Before I met and spoke with Mother Teresa, I thought that abortion was a sad but necessary decision pregnant teens were given the option to make. I was sympathetic to pregnant teen mothers who chose abortion. But when a basketball teammate of mine gave birth in high school, I watched her courageous move to give birth to her son. She continued to graduate, attended college, and became a professional. She took a hard road, but she would tell you, she is so glad to have her son now, and wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Now, as I hear more and more stories, I hear that so many close friends who have had an abortion regret that decision every day. Many have learned to accept what happened and move on, but many are stuck in their trauma and suffer because of the decision to abort their children. As a society concerned about our rights, let’s take a good look at how we take away the voice of our most vulnerable—the right for mental health and spiritual health of both mother and unborn child.

Mr. Till, I am your neighbor, and my children go to school in Jericho. As their mother, I am using my words to speak for all the children born and unborn in my community. I want this to be a place where I feel safe to bring life into the world and to support all pregnant women.

I gave birth to all three of my children in other countries during our international work and travels. It was with great relief after giving birth to two daughters in China that I walked into the US Embassy, past the crowded lines of people vying for a visa, and into the passport office where my husband and I presented our US passports and applied for US citizenship for my daughters. By birthright, they were given all the rights of a citizen of the United States, a country I was proud to call home. I knew my daughters would have the basic human rights that many girls in the world do not enjoy. It scares me to see legislation in our own state that takes those rights away from unborn children and to see the words “enjoy abortion rights” strung together. The cries of aborted babies are silenced in utero. That is not the inheritance or the climate that makes me proud to bring my children into. We can change this. We can speak for the unborn, especially you, as an OBGYN. Let’s work together, pulling together our efforts to love our children, support our mothers and fathers, and use legislation to support groups of people whose life’s work is to bring babies safely into the world. I know we can do this, together.

The author is a Jericho resident. Photo credit thequint.com.

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