I was in marching band in high school. We were good. At times very good, because we worked hard at it. Practices were intense, both physically and emotionally. Our band directors expected a lot. One of them, Mr. Shaw, always had the most colorful responses when we weren’t doing things right.
“Kids, that was ATROCIOUS!”
“Oh my God! What has gotten into you students?!”
“STOP! STOP! STOP! JUST GO HOME AND STOP WASTING MY TIME!”
He would save the grandaddy of them all, however, for very rare occasions of exceptional failure.
(In a quiet voice.) “Kids.” (Long Pause.) “That.” (Longer Pause.) (Next clause shouted.) “Was an ABORTION!!!”
Our jaws dropped. I’m sure a lot of us didn’t even really know what abortion was. We certainly were all unaware of the larger culture wars going on outside of our small town around what the word represented. But I think something deep within us knew it was a word and subject reserved for the most sensitive of topics. (In spite of the fact that is was just used to describe a failed marching band drill.)
Twenty five years later and the word is still as charged as it was then. At the same time, it’s thrown around so much as an accusation and attack, that I think we have lost an ability to approach the subject the word represents with reverence and care. I suppose this is my attempt to do this, knowing full well that I might fail.
But first, a couple of preliminary considerations…
Sometimes abortion involves an embryo and sometimes it involves a baby/fetus. (More on terminology later.) At times abortion involves a baby/fetus that is viable outside the womb. Other times it involves a baby/fetus that is either not currently viable outside the womb, or has been deemed to never be viable outside the womb. There are debates about when and to what extent a baby/fetus feels pain. But what is always true, and never up for debate, is that in 100% of all abortions, a woman’s body is involved. (Except in very rare exceptions of trans men who were assigned female at birth. There’s a place to have a conversation about this exception, but not here.)
Because abortion always involves women’s bodies, women’s lives, and women’s futures, women’s voices should always have a preferential place in this conversation. So if you haven’t reverently and actively sought out and listened to or read stories from actual women about the subject abortion, please stop reading this post at the end of this section, and start seeking them out.
Find the voice of the woman who had an abortion because the fetus/baby she was carrying had a near zero chance of making it outside the womb, and carrying it to full term would have been detrimental to her health, and listen to her.
Find the voice of the woman in a similar situation, but who decided to carry the baby/fetus to full term, just so she could hold it in her arms for a few minutes and tell it that she loves it and did everything she could, and listen to her.
Listen intently to the woman who walked into her abortion with an incredible amount of guilt and shame, but who would later in life come to peace with it as one of the best decisions she ever made. And then listen intently to the woman who walked into the clinic casually, even militantly, but who walked out haunted by what she did for the rest of her life.
There’s a woman out there, probably not too far from you, who was trafficked and pimped out from an early age. She made a decision, maybe multiple decisions, to terminate her pregnancy because what was growing inside her would have been a daily reminder of the trauma she was forced to live through. There’s another woman in a similar situation who carried the baby to term because she decided, damnit, something good is going to come out of this tragic life, even if it takes a lifetime. Listen to their stories like you are standing on holy ground, because you are.
Find the woman who has lived and struggled with infertility, and whose heart shatters to think of someone else terminating a pregnancy. Then find the woman who gets pregnant every time her husband so much as winks at her, yet who feels trapped in a religious system that doesn’t allow birth control. Listen to them.
There are women who once worked at Planned Parenthood and left because they felt they had an encounter with God that compelled them to get out of there as fast as they could, and there are women working at Planned Parenthood who feel called and compelled by God to provide these services to women who are at the end of their ropes. I know old women in my city, “church ladies” to be exact, who give cash donations to Planned Parenthood so their conservative husbands don’t find out. The organization was there when they were younger to provide an array of services for them, and they want to make sure it continues to be there for other women. There are women who stand at the entrance to Planned Parenthood and whisper to ladies walking in, “I will raise your baby.”
Listen to them. All of them.
Some of you think that even though these experiences are valuable to understanding, they shouldn’t be the determinative sources in coming to a conclusion about abortion. Rather, it is the Bible (or another religious text) that should have the final say. I get that. In which case, find the female preachers, Bible teachers, Bible scholars, theologians and mystics, and listen to them. All of them. Listen to Beth Moore and Jen Hatmaker, Nadia Boz-Weber and Anne Graham Lotz. There are theologians, women of color, who love Jesus, KNOW the Bible, and many of them would answer your phone calls and emails if you reached out to them: Wil Gafney, Bishop Vashti McKenzie and Ekemini Uwan. Your third grade Sunday School teacher would be a good source, as would the single young female who hides in the shadows of your church. Read their work. Call them or message them and ask their thoughts. Listen to them.
And then there are those who say, “I don’t need to listen to any of them. I have the Bible, that’s all I need. The clear meaning is right there in the text.” To which I would ask, why are you still reading this? Get back to your Bible and to formulating reasons for why you eat shellfish, wear clothes made of blended fabrics, and have yet to sell all your possessions to give to the poor.
Once you’ve spent some time listening to the women, feel free to continue reading what this middle aged, single guy has to say. Just carry my words much more loosely than you carry theirs.
We waste way too much time arguing over terms in this conversation. I know, and firmly believe, that words matter. We are all aware that the phrase “pro-choice” can be problematic, because one life, or potential life, involved in the conversation doesn’t get a choice. And “pro-life” people can legitimately be critiqued for not advocating for the lives of all people after they are born as much as they do for the lives of people before they are born. All that is true, and I will likely cover some of that ground. However, those arguments are often used as a distraction from having an actual conversation about abortion, on its own terms. So for the sake of respect, I will refer to people’s positions the way people who hold those positions tend to refer to them. I do this also recognizing that people on all sides of the subject would nuance these terms, even as they refer to their particular beliefs. But we have to start somewhere, and here’s where I start:
Pro-Life: The belief that a baby/fetus is as much a person at some point (usually early on) during pregnancy as it is after birth. As such, laws protecting human life after birth should apply to human babies/fetuses before birth.
Pro-Choice: The belief that individual women should have sole agency over the decisions made about their bodies, even when those decisions involve a baby/fetus growing inside of them. As such, laws protecting human life after birth do not extend to babies/fetuses before a certain time leading up to birth. (Current legal restrictions made crafting that previous sentence extremely difficult.)
Baby/Fetus: In this post, I’ll refer to the organism growing inside a woman as a baby/fetus. This is to give voice to both sides of the conversation. I place “baby” first, not to tip my hat to where I stand, but because “b” comes before “f” in the alphabet. I also recognize that words and phrases such as “embryo,” “life,” “potential life,” “mass,” etc. could be employed. I also recognize that this paragraph has likely angered a LOT of people. That wasn’t my intention. I just believe that agreeing on common language is simultaneously nearly-impossible, and nearly-necessary in order to even hear each other, so I’ve had to split some hairs.
Aside from having a vague notion that it was a politically hot button issue, and hearing the word occasionally from my high school band director, I had little exposure to the conversations surrounding abortion while I was growing up. I assume this was normal, and probably more than a little healthy. Also, I like to joke that the 1960’s didn’t make it to East Texas until sometime around 1987, so that’s another explanation for why I was in the dark for so long.
I first began thinking about the subject around the time I was questioning many of the political suppositions I was brought up in. This was thrown into overdrive one summer when I was working at a camp with a guy named Tim, a Marine veteran of the first Gulf War. Tim was older than the rest of the staff. And he believed, strongly. Which is to say, regardless of what he believed, the way in which he believed the things he believed was very intense. This was new for me. I grew up in a culture where if you were passionate about anything that may be divisive, you kept it to yourself. Tim kept little to himself, including stories from his personal life.
Also, he listened to Rush Limbaugh. A lot.
At about the same time, after I graduated high school I began running in church circles that were far more connected to what I now know as the “culture wars.” This included pastors who weren’t afraid to speak at political rallies, (all Republican,) and congregations that passed out “voter guides” to their people. These voter guides presumed to be nonpartisan, which is necessary to retain tax protection as a religious institution, but were worded in a way that clearly preferred one candidate over another.
“Support Welfare Queens who steal your tax dollars?”
Candidate 1: Against!
Candidate 2: For.
“Stance on sexual debauchery of gays, most of whom prey on little boys?”
Candidate 1: Against!
Candidate 2: For.
You get the gist.
It didn’t take long for me to feel at home in this world. The ways in which I understood and approached my faith in Jesus led me to believe that what I was hearing from Tim and the church leaders I was influenced by seemed to naturally lead into this political realm. The strongest component of this culture, something many young people were longing for in those days, was certainty. “Conversation” and “Dialogue” were not values we held in high regard. “Nuance” was a word I probably didn’t hear with any regularity until well into my 30’s. Not only could you have certainty about every issue known to humanity, you should have certainty. No issue was this more true of than the issue of abortion.
Aside from sexuality, abortion was the issue associated with conservative Christian politics that seemed to me to legitimately have a straight-line connection to the Bible, theology, and the Christian life. Tax policy, business regulations, and even war were never issues that I saw as having much resonance with regards to the Christian faith. But abortion, as it was talked about in my world, was literally a subject of life and death, which is of ultimate concern within Christianity. The effect of this was that even as I went through a decades long process of moderating my views about just about everything, abortion was the one thing that kept me tethered to conservative politics.
And then Donald Trump happened.
From the beginning, there was no condition under which I could vote for that man. No one with eyes to see or ears to hear needs an explanation for that last sentence. Everything I had ever been taught about the world, including from people who are now his most ardent supporters, pointed away from ever willingly giving power and influence to such a person as him. But while not voting for him required zero thought, voting for his major opponent, rather than a third party or not voting at all, took a little more consideration. Which required me to think deeper about abortion, and my stance toward it.
I’ll spare you the entire process, but in short it consisted of two questions:
When does life begin?
How often do abortions even occur?
The first question is one I had long stopped assuming I know the answer for. Psalm 139:13, “…for I knit you together in your mother’s womb” is a beautiful line from Scripture that is part of a song that proclaims to God that God is the source of all that is good, that God cares for us and has our best interest at heart. But its author didn’t have developed knowledge of, and never intended to make a statement about embryos and implantation and the development of a baby/fetus inside the womb. To hijack it for that purpose is to rob it of its power.
But I couldn’t completely dismiss what my faith tells me about life, just because an ancient text doesn’t address the modern practice of abortion. After a lot of searching and prayer, I came to the conclusion that I had essentially believed for some time– That I don’t know when life begins. I’m certain it happens somewhere in the womb, but I can’t bring myself to believe that a fertilized egg is a life the moment a sperm penetrates its barriers. There’s clearly a line of continuum, between sperm/egg and life, but I can’t claim expertise on where on that continuum life falls. Other people seem to be able to do so with certainty. I can’t.
This doesn’t mean I started being ok with abortion. I believe abortion is always a tragedy– Whether because the circumstances of life compelled a woman to end what would otherwise be a healthy pregnancy, or because of a health issue with the baby/fetus or mother made it a preferable option to carrying the baby/fetus to term. I believe it is always an indicator that something is wrong, an echo of the fall. I also believe that some abortions are the unnecessary ending of a life. But I had to ask myself the question– If I can’t come to any conclusive certainty about when life begins, why should I expect others to shape their worldview around my uncertainty?
An aside: This is a good place to communicate what you have likely heard quite a bit, but it is something we all need to be reminded of continuously: No woman skips into an abortion clinic excited about her circumstance. I’ve known a small handful of women who have had abortions, all for various reasons. For each of them it was a gut-wrenching decision made between them, their partner and their doctors. But it was a decision made with reverence and care. This isn’t to say we don’t get to have a conversation about abortion. It just means that we don’t get assume, well, anything about specific women who get them.
A closely related aside, based on the small handful of women I have known who have had an abortion: When you hear stories of women who have chosen abortion because of a health issue with either the baby/fetus or with her, that is your cue to listen, to love, and to hug. It is not your cue to share a story about someone you know or read about who was given the same prognosis by their doctor, decided to carry the baby/fetus to full term, and everything turned out just fine. This seems like basic human decency, but I think social media has made that more difficult to drum up.
The second question I asked, about the data regarding abortions, was much easier to come by, and made my vote much more clear. Abortion rates have been on a slow but steady decline in our country over the last 4 decades, from a high of almost 30 for every 1,000 women in 1980 to less than 15 for every 1,000 women in recent years. This is huge. Under Democratic and Republican Presidencies, Supreme Courts that leaned left and Supreme Courts that leaned right, abortion rates have declined. Not only have abortion RATES declined, the NUMBER of abortions saw a consistent decline in the Obama years. In fact, there were only two years between 1980 and 2014 that had an increase in the abortion rate over the previous year, and both of those were during presidencies of someone whose last name was “Bush.”
It seems like what I started wanting in the early 1990’s, fewer abortions in our country, has been happening regardless of who I was voting for. People far more informed than I am can speak into the causes of this, but I suspect increased access to contraception, sex education in schools, and the destigmatization of sex all have something to do with it.
What We Actually Believe
When I share this data with both pro-lifers and pro-choicers, it’s never enough cool down the rhetoric. My pro-choice friends fear that an emphasis on the reduction of abortions will serve to further erode abortion rights in this country, and to attach unnecessary shame to women who make the choice to terminate their pregnancies. My pro-life friends fear that if we take the focus off of legislation that restricts abortions, we are heading down a “slippery slope” that would allow the termination of life in cases that occur after birth.
This has led me to a couple of conclusions. The first one is an infection that affects every area of public discourse, and that is fear. In this case, fear of losing our argument. This is especially strong when we have placed so much of our emotional energy and social capital on defending our positions regarding “choice” and “life.” We are afraid of losing.
But secondly, I’ve come to believe that none of us, pro-choicers or pro-lifers, actually fully believe the things we are saying.
Imagine: There’s a clinic in your town that provides a service to women with infants that are less than a month old. The service is that the clinic will terminate the life of the infant for any reason. This service has been going on for decades, and all the courts have deemed it legal, with only a few minor regulations.
100% of the people I know, both pro-life and pro-choice, would be furious about this and would take actions to make it stop. Once all the legal options were exhausted, they would spend every possible hour they have blocking entrance to the clinic. They would chain themselves to the doors. Ideally this would all be done nonviolently, but everyone I know would raise holy hell to make this stop.
It’s a ridiculous scenario, one fraught with many logical holes, I know. But I think it reveals something about what we actually believe vs. what we say we believe.
Very few, if any, pro-choice people I know support late term abortions for reasons other than the health of the mother or child. Which means they’ve asked and answered the question of when life begins. The answer they have fallen on is one of viability. A baby/fetus that is a day away from birth is basically identical to a day old baby that has been born, so they agree that the laws regulating abortion at a certain point should be similar to the laws regulating infanticide. So they agree that choice isn’t an ultimate right and that parameters should be placed around it. This brings up a question about how the advancement of medical science has moved the goal posts of viability. A baby/fetus can survive outside the womb much sooner now than they could have when Roe v. Wade was passed. Shouldn’t that cause us to rethink things?
(I am aware that a very small number of people reading this support late-term abortions, right up until the moment of birth, even in cases where the health and life of the mother or baby/fetus isn’t in danger. To you, all I can say is that I fear the world views we both espouse are so far apart that fruitful dialogue seems near impossible.)
Most pro-life people I know assert that the termination of a pregnancy at any point, (except POSSIBLY in the case of danger to the life and health of the woman and fetus/baby,) is basically identical to my fictional scenario of a clinic that terminates the life of newborns. To which I wonder, why do so few people show up every single day at abortion clinics for acts of nonviolent protest? I don’t think I’m off base in my assumption that there would be massive crowds at the fictional clinic. If both are the same, then am I off base to assume that everyone who screams “MURDER!” with regards to abortion would spend every last waking minute blocking access to these clinics? On top of this, why do pro-lifers get uncomfortable and have a hard time answering the question of whether women who receive abortions should be punished with imprisonment or the death penalty?
I can think of a couple of possible answers to these questions. My strongest hunch, though, is that deep down we all have a feeling in our gut that tells us there is something fundamentally different between a baby/fetus at, say, 6 weeks, and a day old infant. On the spectrum of development, regardless of where we say we believe life begins and should be protected, our actions really reveal what we sense deep inside.
Where I Stand
I just wrote a lot of words, most of which were designed to help me sort out my thoughts on what has become the grand-daddy of all contentious subjects. I’m not sure I brought any clarity for you, the reader. But I do think I’ve given myself clarity on where I stand. Which is, essentially, well, it’s complicated.
I am against abortion, but I recognize the excruciating choices women have to make for themselves. It’s very difficult for me to believe that a recently fertilized egg or a baby/fetus without a brain stem should be afforded the same rights as an infant child, but I’m I have a strong conviction that a baby/fetus at a certain point in pregnancy, pending any serious health concerns, should. I want there to be fewer abortions, regardless of how much that angers my pro-choice friends who believe that even writing those words only serve to stigmatize and place shame on a difficult situation for a woman. I also recognize that there are ways to reduce the number of abortions that doesn’t include more regulation or defunding of Planned Parenthood. In fact, doing so would likely INCREASE the amount of abortions that occur, because that organization is one of the primary providers of sex education and contraception in our country.
I believe a lot of the accusations hurled across the aisle from both sides to the other about this issue, but none more than this one: It would be far easier for me to continue to stand with the pro-life crowd if they worked harder at proving they care as much about life as they care about birth. A group that doesn’t fight for a living wage, is ok with a healthcare system that places millions of people one sickness away from poverty, and responds to migrant children being separated from their parents at the border with “Well, the other guy did it,” doesn’t actually give a shit about all life, just pre-born life. There are systems in our country that make bringing a baby into the world EXTREMELY difficult, and these are systems that can’t be transformed with more charity, philanthropy, or GoFundMe campaigns. They require change in our collective institutions.
The only way this transformation will happen is if we stop wielding the way we talk about this subject like a weapon or a device of distraction. I really want to pull a “both-sides” type argument here, because yes, both sides do this. But it would be disingenuous to suggest that both sides do this equally. In this sense, the pro-life crowd certainly has the advantage. Screaming “STAY OUT OF MY UTERUS!”, is pretty powerful, but not nearly as powerful as “MURDERER!” It seems to be the new stun-grenade, designed to distract from any uncomfortable conversation, particularly these days, Donald Trump.
I think we need to listen to each other. Pro-choice people need to go to a Bible Study with one of their pro-life friends, and pro-life people need to go listen to women whose lives have been saved by Planned Parenthood. We need to have good, robust conversations about choice and freedom and autonomy and privacy and life and God, but on their own terms– not as a distraction from another conversation.
We also need to love. The woman who made a decision to terminate her pregnancy deserves the same amount of dignity and support as the woman who carried her child to full term. Of all the things I regret during my earlier days of certainty about this issue, the thing that grieves me the most is knowing that there was likely someone I knew, cared about and loved who had at one time had to make an extremely difficult decision about her pregnancy, and who had to listen to me heap even more shame upon her than she already felt. For this, I repent.
I’m sure there’s a lot I need to repent of. Probably some things I’ve written in this post. I am under no illusion that anyone’s mind will be changed. I’ve been around enough to know that’s not how any of this works. But I hope I’ve modeled honesty, curiosity, and grace. Where I have fallen short, please forgive me.