When I was in college, one of my closest friends was raped. She didn't tell me about this for year or more, because she said that she thought I would judge her. I was absolutely horrified, both by what had happened to her and by the wrong assumption she had of my potential reaction. To be sexually violated is one of the worst things that can happen to a person, and one which in other cultures attaches as much stigma to the victim as to the perpetrator – witness the so-called "honor killings" of raped women by male relatives in the Middle East. Yet how does being horribly victimized in any justify the reciprocal victimization of someone else?
Pregnancy is dangerous for many. Delivery has been deadly for generations of women; though considerably fewer in developed countries nowadays than in the past, there are still deaths from the accompanying trauma. To come into a pregnancy not of one's own volition is a horrible stress--fear at the outset, fear of rejection for being victimized (even in Western societies), fear of what lies ahead, from the physical challenges to the financial burdens, fear of being alone. But the old rote caveat to justify even "exceptional" abortion ("except in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother") is sophistry, and actually feeds on fear rather than allaying it.
The psychological wounds inflicted by rape will not heal overnight, and may leave scars that linger for decades–the event cannot be expunged by surgery. Likewise, even in the worse case when a young woman has been sexually victimized by one of her own relatives, the evil that has been done to her cries out for legal justice, social compassion and ongoing counseling. Those of us who have enjoyed healthy relationships with male relatives hesitate even to imagine how hard it is for someone to live fearing the touch of a man who should be providing both emotional and physical protection, not tearing it away. After my first round of graduate school, I was in a Bible study with a girl who had been systematically abused by her father for a decade. He had cheated worldly justice, dying young, leaving his daughter shattered. She had no conventional model of a good father-daughter relationship at home; it was not until she became a Christian that she met the real Father, and saw in Jesus someone who like her was a suffering innocent, who knew her pain firsthand. She couldn't undo what had been done to her, but she could intelligently and compassionately reach out to those similarly victimized: she became a foster mother to children taken out of abusive situations by DFACS, and has since adopted several.
What would you do if you might die in the process of allowing someone else to live? Many months ago now, one Briton and three 20-something Americans received the French Legion of Honor for their bravery in successfully confronting what most consider a would-be terrorist on a train--they are credited with risking themselves to save others. Not all such confrontations end so happily (witness the passengers who attempted to reclaim their hijacked aircraft on September 11, who are memorialized at the crash site in Pennsylvania), nor must needs be in opposition to human violence: every day there are cases of "ordinary heroism." In these situations, strangers pull people (and animals) from floods, fires, and other hazards, and many humbly respond upon public recognition that these were simply matter-of-course actions, the natural responses of any caring individual. And occasionally, such good Samaritans lose their lives trying to save others’, and are mourned for their sacrifice.
A missionary named James Elliot once said, "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose." What Elliot could not lose, and what he ultimately was martyred for, was his faith in Jesus as the savior of humankind. But even non-Christians through the millennia have found Elliot's logic persuasive, choosing what they hope is a lasting reputation for honor and selflessness in death over a dubious extension of present earthly life. Isn't withstanding the temptation to sacrifice a fetus in exchange for the possibility of prolonging one's own life a noble action to celebrate?
I hate death. It's an evil, an unnatural blight. We Americans in particular are so afraid to talk about it or think about its reality that when new housing and retail developments are created nowadays, the allocation of space for cemeteries or memorial parks is completely overlooked. We speak about someone "passing away" rather than consider that their bodies are rotting or burnt to ash, and that our own will be, much sooner than expected. We slather ourselves with "youth preserving" serums, covet elective plastic surgery (which most of us can't afford), and gush over celebrities that don't look their age (or, in some cases, their original sex). I don't contend that we each oughtn't to look our best or maintain good health--but it is essential to realize that no matter our best (and costliest) efforts to stave it off, death comes.
However, it doesn't always come when medical professionals say it will. For all the advances in medical knowledge and technology, so much about disease and human health is still unknown. My late father was, my stepfather, my sister, my brother, and my aunt are medical professionals (three doctors, two nurses), and all extremely well-informed about what can and will kill someone, and likely when. But each would say (probably gratefully) that the experts aren't infallible when it comes to such forecasts--people get well unexpectedly, just as they fall ill. And some die in a split second, like my externally-healthy father, jogging cheerfully on a gym treadmill.
I celebrate women who have stood strong in the midst of profoundly challenging circumstances, resisting what may seem to be a quick fix to their prior miseries and current ills, recognizing that legendary bravery is not only achieved by the strong, but by those who cherish the least of these while in the throes of weakness themselves.