My husband warned me not to bring this issue up, because it’s one of those topics that makes people squirm and in some cases scream at each other. But, I was often one of those kids growing up who would see a “Danger” sign and think, “Hmmm…looks like something to explore.” Maybe some things don’t change.
I’ve been following with interest the sometimes loud debate over health care reform as it relates to women’s reproductive rights. Some of you, like my husband, will wish I had never brought this issue up because of the direction it inevitably takes. Please don’t throw a flour pie in my face (and I submit that the comparison to Kim Kardashian extends no further.) There are people whom I love and respect deeply who strongly disagree with me on this issue. I want them to know- and you, my reader, and fellow saint and sinner- that I can appreciate how painful and complex the moral and ethical ambiguities at play here can be, and that no simple “pro-life” or “pro-choice” check next to our name will ultimately solve them. Still, simply to ignore the issue because it’s “prickly”- the other day my friend who works for a women’s reproductive health organization referred to it as “A.B.,” as if to make it more palatable to say in public- is, I think, a moral failure on the part of those of us who describe ourselves as people who worship a God who gives and takes away life.
By now, you may have guessed what I’m about to talk about. Yes…it’s “abortion.” The ending of a woman’s pregnancy, and the ending of a growing life within a woman’s body- a life that in essence, from even its earliest beginnings, is a developing human being (no matter whether we call it a “foetus” or a “baby”).
Here are some experiences, impressions and thoughts that lately have been coalescing:
I’m sitting in a move theater watching “Juno.” The movie tells the story of a teenager who finds herself pregnant. At one point in the movie, when Juno is considering whether to abort, a couple of women a few rows back from me begin to yell at the screen, “Abort it!”
The other day a friend tells me about a close friend who is still haunted by her decision to get an abortion years ago.
I’m pregnant and in the throes of morning sickness with my son when an insensitive colleague chalks up my grumpiness to the “growth” (think cyst, wart, etc) inside me. I’m non-plussed.
I’m at CVS waiting for a prescription. That’s when I see her step tentatively up to the counter. She’s taking out her wallet. “Plan B” is in her hands. “I’m proud of her,” I’m thinking to myself. “Because while we all can make mistakes, she’s taking the precautions now.”
I’m eight weeks pregnant with my second child, and begin to bleed. In fact, I’ll keep bleeding off and on throughout my first trimester. I go to the ER. They do an ultrasound. Samantha, who will grow into an active, inquisitive little girl, has a very discernible heart beat…at eight weeks.
My friend (the same one who uses the “A.B.” lingo) is celebrating that my very conservative state of Georgia is one of the few in the Union to allow women to obtain abortions in their second trimester.
Now rewind to about thirty six years ago.
A young, pregnant woman is told by her doctor that she has a cyst the size of a grape fruit in her uterus. Both her baby and her own health are at risk, according to the doctor. Her best option? To abort.
The young woman, at 24, goes home and prays. She asks God to show her what to do. She needs help. She needs direction. She later says God gives her a great sense of peace in that moment that everything is going to be okay, that she should have the baby.
So she goes to a second doctor. The doctor tells her the same thing. One, ugly word: “abort.”
The young woman finally goes to an older missionary doctor who assures her that he has operated on women in her condition before. Six months into her pregnancy, the woman undergoes surgery to remove the cyst. The doctor opens her up and exclaims, “You have a healthy, little girl!”
I am born a few months later with no abnormalities other than a particularly cone-shaped head. 8lbs, 6oz, 22 inches long.
I kept growing. Now I’m 6 feet.
These days when the rhetoric on both sides of the aisle is shrill, from Republicans and Democrats alike, I as a Christian and a feminist feel shipwrecked by both parties. I find it hard to understand why so many Republicans, those most vociferously against abortion as the greatest of evils, refuse to allow women access to contraception that will help them prevent abortion. In my book, Republicans should be the first to be stocking pharmacies with prescriptions for “Plan B.” They should be the first to be supporting women’s access to birth control, if they really mean what they say- that abortion is a terrible thing.
Republicans have also been consistent at speaking out on this issue of sanctity of life, but then poor at coming alongside women who bravely make the choice to have their babies in difficult circumstances. The right to life can tend to displace quality of life. And, let’s face it: Republicans these days have been poor at supporting women in general (Rush Limbaugh’s comments, Rick Santorum’s implicit prescriptions for women, which it seems would have us all barefoot and pregnant with little else to contribute, and Gingrich and Kain’s philandering and disrespect, are cases in point)
On the other hand, I hear Democrats railing loudly in support of “women’s reproductive rights” with an almost callous willingness to lump abortion into the broader category of contraception, so that the separate yet dependent life a woman is carrying is rendered as nothing more than an inconvenient “growth” or appendage of sorts (because he or she can’t speak and doesn’t yet look exactly like you and me). Then, just the other day, Democrats were renewing the “Violence Against Women Act,” yet strangely are largely silent about the hidden violence against women that takes place in doctor’s clinics across this nation.
The legislator who recently wrote to a constituent insisting that women should have to watch an abortion procedure may have been regrettably rash and insensitive, but I can appreciate some of the sentiment behind the remarks. Because abortion is a revolting form of violence against a woman’s body and the life inside her.
It seems to me that we, the church, need to be doing everything we can to understand abortion for what it is- tragedy for all persons involved, demanding a deeply compassionate and creative response to the failure of our society to honor, support and empower women’s flourishing at every level (not to mention, of course, the God-breathed, growing life inside of them).
What circumstances contribute to a woman thinking that the life inside her is disposable, and that she is making the best decision for her child and her body to abort? Any number of things, to be sure. Rape and incest? The pain and inconvenience of a child with severe disabilities or mental retardation? Economic distress? No access to birth control? Single parent households with little support? A man or woman in a white coat worried about a potential lawsuit? Lack of education about the life inside her? A disregard for the sanctity of life? Any or a combination of these things, I suspect. And the women who have been in these places, and their families, know best the painfulness and moral complexities of a decision about whether to abort.
But it seems to me that the church has not just an opportunity but a responsibility to come alongside women and speak out against this violence against their bodies and in support of life wherever and however it develops- to honor a commitment to both the sanctity and quality of life from conception on. And it seems that where we can be working to invest in systems of support that do these things for women and children, we should be, so that abortion really does stand a chance of becoming a mode of last resort.
If the Incarnation teaches me anything, it is that God cares a whole lot about women’s bodies. God, after all, inhabited one. The great miracle, mystery and “inconvenience” of pregnancy and birth were things that God chose to acknowledge and affirm when Jesus was conceived and born into this world. How might we both acknowledge and affirm them, too?
The below video is an amazing description of a baby’s development starting at eight weeks. In posting it, I also want to issue the disclaimer that I don’t necessarily support the agenda of the organization that produced the video: