A Woman’s Choice

The Word became flesh and lived among us. (John 1:14)

In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself. (2 Corinthians 5:19)

Incarnation has been, for me, the defining issue, the guiding light since I was ordained to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church. God, we dare to believe, cares so deeply about the world and humankind as to enter history in the man Jesus and, in that man, to live a life in human society with all its raw humanness and need, its tawdriness as well as its beauty, its moral complexity as well as its goodness and selflessness, its petty betrayals as well as its loving, life-giving relationships. He reached out to people in need, people on the margins, sick and oppressed people, healed the sick, welcomed the excluded and offended the guardians of the status quo. He scandalized traditionalists by presuming to redefine morality and goodness and virtue. Finally, he so challenged the political order, the Pax Romana, that he was arrested, tried and executed by Rome for sedition.

So, I have always reasoned, the institution that calls itself his body on earth, the church, should live in the world and the political, social and economic structures of society, as deeply and intentionally as he did. If religion and politics don’t mix, as general wisdom has it and as many have argued, Jesus would never have left the security of his parents’ home in Nazareth, would surely never have gone to the political capital of his nation on a particularly volatile day and entered the city in what was, at the very least, an act of courageous political provocation if not outright civil protest.

With incarnation as its pole star life has been interesting, to say the least, and not without conflict and controversy. Trying to be in the world just as Jesus was has inspired involvement in issues roiling society: racial justice, war and peace, poverty, gender, sexual orientation, all in his name, and, of course, reproductive rights, pro-life, pro-choice, abortion. That issue has generated as much, if not more, conflict and controversy as any other. And, because of a resurgent right-wing ideology supported vigorously by Evangelical Christians, the issue is at the forefront of the body politic today. Several states have recently virtually banned abortion, often times using religion as inspiration and justification. Evangelical Christian anti-abortion advocates argue that their position is the Christian position: that to be a Christian is to be opposed to abortion and reproductive freedom. The pro-life position is often based on the belief that human life begins at conception and thus a fertilized egg, a fetus, has rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is an ideological, not a scientific or biblical position. Scientists are in no way of one mind on the matter of when human life begins. In fact, the oldest Judeo-Christian position on the matter is that life begins when the new baby takes a first breath. They called it “ensoulment.” Other conclusions are that human life begins when the fetus is viable outside the womb, or at first movement, or at first heart beat or measurable brain wave.

But surely of equal importance is the life and rights of the pregnant woman. Opinions on all sides are deeply and passionately held.

When the church I served as pastor in Columbus, Ohio, allowed the local chapter of NARAL, the National Abortion Rights Action League, to use office space in the church building, local anti-abortion organizations protested and organized pickets on Sunday mornings. The sound of the demonstrators’ bull-horn amplified chanting was heard inside as worshippers sang hymns and prayed. After worship on one of the first Sundays I invited the protesters to join me and a female colleague in my study for a conversation. Expecting a respectful exchange of ideas, the experience quickly deteriorated into hurled accusations and shouted insults. We never got a word in. My last Sunday in that church was memorable. The pickets were back in force, larger and louder than ever, working the sidewalk in front of the church and the parking lot behind, carrying large colorful posters announcing: “Buchanan is Leaving – Good Riddance!” and “Buchanan is a Baby Killer!”

It is a difficult issue. I have five children. I have loved being a parent. I have thirteen grandchildren and love being a grandparent. And for seven months I have been astonished to be a great-grandparent and have loved every minute of it. Human birth is wondrous. My first four were born when expectant fathers were banished to a waiting room to pace back and forth, smoke cigarettes and nervously glance at the tattered pages of an old Field and Stream Magazine until a nurse arrived to announce the safe arrival of the baby. A progressive OB-GYN doctor and friend invited me to accompany him to the delivery room, put on a gown and mask and observe baby five arriving. It was one of the most unforgettable experiences in my life.

Context is all-important. Without context, that is, abortion in the abstract, I am not an enthusiast. Without full consideration of context abortion seems tragic. But the truth is that the context is often more tragic: a pregnancy as a result of violent assault or rape, for instance; a fetus with serious, even fatal abnormalities whose birth would be full of pain and suffering; an infant unwanted, born into a situation of utter poverty with no hope for loving care, health and a future. In those instances, and others like them, I am convinced that the greater good is choice; the freedom of the pregnant woman to decide for herself how to proceed. I support Planned Parenthood and, not in spite of my Christian faith but because of it, I believe the decision to end a pregnancy is a matter between a woman, her physician and God and/or her moral values. The responsibility is hers. I am pro-choice. I believe every human life is a gift from God, including the woman’s. She is free and responsible to make moral decisions, this one I believe, particularly. To take that moral responsibility and freedom from her, as the new laws do, forcing her to complete the pregnancy begun by a rape, it seems to me, seriously violates her as much as the rapist did.

During the time my church was being picketed and I was struggling with the issue myself I asked my mother, in her seventies, what she thought. I have never forgotten her immediate and clear response. “What happens in my body is nobody’s business but mine. It certainly isn’t the business of a group of men in the state legislature.”

Laws do not seem to prevent abortions. The data is clear on that. What anti-abortion laws do is fall squarely on poor women. Women with means can, and always will, be able to travel and afford to pay for the procedure and related expenses. A New York Times editorial by a former staunch abortion foe and evangelical Christian minister, Rob Schenk, describes how experience caused him to change his mind and his position. “Over the last decade I have changed my view on Roe. I’ve come to believe that overturning Roe would not be “pro-life”: rather it would be destructive of life…..What is pro-life about putting a woman in a situation where she must risk pregnancy without proper medical, social and emotional support? What is “pro-life” about forcing the birth of a child, if that child will enter a world of deprivation and insecurity, to say nothing of the fear and danger that comes with poverty and a lack of educational and employment opportunities?” (The New York Times, May 31, 2019, page A25, My Reversal on Abortion Rights)

The number of abortions does decline whenever sex education and birth control are widely available and affordable. Curiously, many of the people adamantly opposed to abortion under any circumstances do not support accessible sex education and birth control.

So – instead of condemning one another, picketing, hurling insults and worse, denying the faith of those who differ and denying the full humanity of the pregnant woman, doesn’t it make more sense for people of faith to get behind what can truly make a difference, sex education and birth control, and always, always available, accessible, safe, medical services when that becomes a woman’s choice?

John M. Buchanan

 

Comments

  1. J. R. Briggs, MD says:

    Right on John! Thanks for your reasoned approach to this polemic issue. J. R. Briggs, MD

  2. Elise Magers says:

    Thank you for such an inspiring discussion of this issue.
    Sadly, the insult-hurlers seem unable to hear or entertain anything but their own
    strident voices. He who yells the loudest is often not making faithful or loving
    sense and lacks knowledge of what Jesus was all about.

  3. Sarah Odishoo says:

    Thank you, John, for giving such a powerful defense
    For a woman’s decision over her own body! If men
    could imagine the rules that govern them in the
    Terms they legislate for women, the severity of
    misunderstanding might be lessened…
    Thanks again for writing what needs to be
    articulated to All…Sarah

  4. Stephen W. Littell says:

    Thank you, good sir, for thoughtfully clarifying some of the inconsistencies in the “pro-life” fiction. I love your mother’s response. Eventually, if a new generation gets to the polls, sanity should prevail. Yet we may be in for some very difficult decades considering the radical ideologies of five Supreme Court justices.

  5. Carole Ogden says:

    Amen!

  6. rocksolidxprtt says:

    As usual…profound, articulated so well, and spot on!

  7. robert bates says:

    Thank you John. Common sense and sensitivity in the context of Christian love, responsibility and heritage. I have long described the conflict over abortion as two combatants standing on each side of our national collective street hurling bricks at each other with the unfortunate women and their born and unborn children standing in the street at great risk of harm and fear. Often both sides of this question have regrettably lost sight that we are dealing with humans, our fellow citizens and the future of our democratic process. Bob

  8. thanks

  9. Robert M Winter says:

    John, this is one of the clearest explanations of the pro-choice position I have ever read. As John Leith, my theology professor used to say, Sometimes all that is available is a decision among the least of unhappy options. I, too, wonder why so many abortion opponents also disapprove sex education and birth control. Some clearly believe that the more babies, the better. But others seem uncomfortable with the idea of sex at all. Anything involving sex is “the worst sin.” Too bad. Thanks again for writing.

  10. timjweaver says:

    Thank you for this deeply thoughtful and insightful piece. I have a number of anti-abortion acquaintances who stridently defend the rights of the unborn, yet when babies happen to be born into lives of poverty, deprivation, and even violence, my acquaintances’ passionate concern shuts off. Their impassioned concern evaporates and is replaced by derision and contempt for the struggling mother who receives food stamps. Defend the fetus, but after it’s born, “God help it.” Where is the Christian love in that?

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