The national argument over the question of legal abortion continues, with anger and pain on both sides. I recognize that I am walking into an area about which persons have very strong opinions and much more experience than I have had. Furthermore, the distinction between what is moral and what is legal is at stake. Finally, the role of government and its obligation to balance between honoring citizens’ rights and preserving the common good can create a great deal of passion. (For an article that I found particularly painful and summoned many mixed emotions, please see http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/i-had-an-abortion-because-i-love-my-son_us_58adc80ce4b040d4868a6351?utm_hp_ref=abortion ).
Yet I speak lest silence be misunderstood. Forgive me if I give offense or accidentally wound somebody through what I write. As a pastor, I feel a need to open up the subject and invite your own reflections. I hope I do so sensitively. Please view this blog post as my own search for fuller understanding. Keep in mind I am a guy.
I wish the Bible had a clear prescription for us on these issues. I don’t think it does. Nevertheless, I believe we can say – based on the biblical witness – that God is abundantly in favor of all types of life. The diversity we find in the two creation stories in Genesis (chapters one and two) suggest this to be true. God’s command that humans be fruitful and multiply is an extension of God’s life-giving orientation.
Although the Old Testament Bible writers borrowed from other ancient extra-biblical texts that suggested a deity might wipe out entire nations (tribes) or cities as a punishment for sin, nevertheless the theme of God’s creative activity continues to be asserted throughout the Bible. If we grant (as we do in the Reformed tradition) that through the human Jesus, God sought to clear up misconceptions about who God is, we see also an affirmation of all life, including the lives of sinful persons: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34).” Granted that in the New Testament, we still hear of God striking people dead. Yet in these stories we suspect we are also hearing the writers trying to make sense of their conviction that all occurrences lie within God’s power, even tragedy. Again, we hear Jesus taking a different position: Tragedies don’t always equal God’s judgment (Luke 13:4)
So I believe it is entirely reasonable and right to say that God is in favor of all life, and that means all human life in its diversity: gay life, transgender life, imprisoned life, young life, old life, your life, my life . . . all life. If we have no religious convictions, we can frame this argument differently: The universe in which we live abides by what good atheistic cosmologist call the anthropomorphic principle: The universe bends toward the generation of life, including human life.
Nevertheless, sometimes it is not life but death that seems to triumph. Over the years I have grieved mightily with parents over their stillborn and miscarried children. I cannot put into words the heartbreak I have witnessed and experienced. Good pastoral care of these parents has included funerals and burials to acknowledge the loss of potential personhood and love multiplied in their lives. Not only my ministry but my own choices in life have been altered as a consequence of being with parents in anguish.
In those moments of sorrow, it would have been unseemly, a denial of pain, to have pointed out that in the Bible – according to the law – the loss of a fetus is not counted the same as the loss of a full-fledged person. God is pro-life, yet the meaning of being human is not fulfilled until birth according to the law found in the Hebrew Scriptures. Some suggest that some of the Bible stories and poetry suggest differently, yet for the Israelites it was the law that settled the matter. Of course, this was a pre-science and pre-technology period in human history. There were no sonograms or DNA tests. Naturally losing children was taken for granted, and causing the loss of a fetus was viewed in economic and practical terms.
Times changed. Our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers, based on the Bible texts and embrace of philosophy, now come out in different places. Some point to life as happening at conception. Others suggest that it occurs at quickening – in theory, when the human soul enters the body – which typically occurs at 15-20 weeks. Others sound more like Roe v. Wade. Protestants have tended to track these same opinions. Political battles have been waged over how early a fetus should be considered a person and under what circumstances a woman should be allowed to choose an abortion. The conversation has even turned toward criminalizing abortions and treating them as murders.
I have had pastoral experiences that have shaped my personal deliberations on a subject that is more than a mere issue for me: It has human faces for me. It has confronted me as persons.
Some years ago, I prayed with a family that received devastating news. The child in the mother’s womb would be born with his organs outside of his body. The parents were told that the child would have a life of excruciating pain during the hours the child lived. This led to the agonizing decision to have a late term abortion, a choice made for the child’s sake and certainly not for the good of the anguished parents. They grieved for years thereafter, yet they never doubted the profound love behind their choice.
On another occasion, an unwed eighteen year old came to me who planned to have her baby and marry the father. Taking the position of the Presbyterian Church – that in such cases the best moral choice is to bring a child to term and either keep the child or put the child up for adoption – I commended her for her decision. Later that week her parents threatened her (according to her sister) until she had an abortion. To this day, I do not know the parents’ reasons: I hope they were motivated by their perception of what was good for their daughter. The young woman struggled for some time thereafter.
This second incident may lead you to the conclusion that I believe abortions should be illegal under most circumstances. Perhaps the legal authorities could have saved the mother from her parents? But in truth, I am not so sanguine. I believe the young woman’s parents would have had their way, legally or illegally. Both aforementioned incidents convinced me that the mom is the one person who – within broad limits – should have the authority to be the steward of the growing life within her. No authority outside the mom should hold that power. There are too many agendas at work besides love when the decision is turned over to the state or even other members of the family.
In my opinion, if the church wishes to limit abortions because God is in favor of life, it needs to do so through its teaching and spiritual formation ministries. The church could also urge secular school systems to offer classes on ethics based on philosophical perspectives. Such perspectives would certainly recognize how the universe bends toward life and how we humans should respect life in response (perhaps procreative ethics are already taught in school health classes; they were not during the time I was in high school, however). Certainly the church should not obstruct efforts to teach pregnancy prevention – and yes, chastity is a very good method among methods, and it has other emotional benefits as well. I believe Christians should advocate for all people to receive adequate health care and procreative education in light of the ministry of the Great Physician. I believe our commitment to the realm of God and God’s right relationships should lead us to support vigorously women and their babies following birth and throughout the seasons of parenting. If we want to limit abortions, richly rewarding mothers for bringing unborn children to term should be our priority.
I will admit that when friends and relatives, in the name of being pro-life, wish to deprive the mom of primary responsibility for procreative decision-making, it makes me nervous. When it is men making the decisions, it makes me especially nervous.
I do not insist you should believe as I believe, because my prayerful reflection is not yet finished and we are Presbyterians, after all! Nevertheless, as your pastor, I do urge you to transcend slogans of pro-Life and pro-Choice and reflect on the ethical nuances of the issues raised by child-bearing and abortion. As one who loves God and neighbor, think together with those who may not agree with you. Let us pray for the wisdom of those who govern, and let us engage ourselves in political movements as our callings lead us.