The subject of abortion is once again topping headlines, with the recent passage of restrictive legislation in several states. Much is now being written and said about this, by voices in all sides.
One of my current spiritual heroines, The Rev. Tawnya Denise Anderson (Co-Moderator of the 222nd General Assembly of the PCUSA), wrote on Facebook: “FWIW, I’m super okay with men not talking right now, just for a little while.”
To honor Pastor Denise, I would like to shut up and welcome this guest post on the subject by another one of my spiritual heroines: The Rev. Sarah Schmidt-Lee (Co-Moderator of the Schmidt-Lee household from 2004-present… my partner).
The following words are Sarah’s, slightly edited for continuity and shared with her permission, from a private online conversation we had with an evangelical seminary classmate.
SARAH: I grew up pro-life and I’m still inclined toward treating conception as the beginning of life, mostly because I want to affirm to women who have experienced miscarriages and still births that their loss is real and their motherhood counts. So all the debate over when life begins and how we read passages of the Bible about breath=life or being known in the womb, etc, are not particularly interesting to me.
Where I come down is that no human life trumps the bodily autonomy of another person.
Now, I know that some people turn this around and say a pregnant woman’s life shouldn’t trump the bodily autonomy of a fetus growing in her body, and that because of their vulnerability/voicelessness, the woman should not have the right to cause them harm.
But that fetus does not yet have the ability to exist independently of the woman.
And there is no other situation in which we would force a person to make huge donations of their time, energy, health, future, and risk their own lives to save the life of someone who was unconscious, unable to communicate, and medically dependent upon their organ donation, blood or plasma donation or other donation.
As a Christian pastor, I would counsel a person asked to donate blood marrow or a kidney to a dying family member in the hopes they would make the choice to donate and save another human life, but I would still consider it a choice.
And I would never support legislation that would make such a donation required, or the refusal to donate a crime punishable by incarceration.
In a similar way, I would (and do) work with pregnant women to find ways for them to continue their pregnancy and bring a human being into the world who can live independently from their bodies. But I consider it the woman’s choice whether to offer her body in that way.
Now, my father, for instance, makes the case that a pregnant woman is responsible for the existence of this completely dependent life in a way that the organ donation illustration does not parallel.
Because, presumably, she chose to have sex, knowing that conceiving life was a possible outcome.
But, 1) that’s presuming a lot. It doesn’t take into account rape, lack of sufficient sex education, inadequate education in how to effectively use contraception, or those cases when the contraception fails.
2) There is also a man who is, presumably, equally responsible for the creation of this new life, but who cannot share in the donation of his own body and risk of his own health in the nine months necessary to nurture that life to independent existence. It is absolutely unjust for the woman to be legally required to bear sole responsibility for that shared decision.
I think the only piece I have to add is that criminalizing abortion is not (and has never been) effective at curtailing abortion rates. It does, however have a profound impact on mortality rates among women seeking abortion. And poverty of women and children. I found out a couple years ago that in the decades before Roe v Wade, there was a national network of safe, vetted abortion providers, and the network was led by mainline clergy. It was called the Clergy Consultation Service, and was formed by clergy in urban settings who were tired of finding out that poor women in their outreach ministries and congregations were dying from sepsis and other complications from backalley abortions. They were hearing horror stories of doctors who would charge women huge sums of money and perform illegal abortions, but then rape the women at the same time and the women could not report the assaults because they would get in trouble for seeking an abortion. These clergy ended up working with women in their churches to visit known abortion providers, going undercover to test their safety, sanitation, and ethics. And they would help women travel across the whole country to get to providers they could ensure were safe. You can learn more about this network through this book, among other resources: https://offercompassion.com/author/offercompassion/
I posted a couple days ago about shifts in state laws and federal law about fetal personhood that mean that the overturning of Roe v Wade (or “chipping away” at it, as some politicians suggest) would leave already vulnerable women in our society far worse off than they were prior to Roe v Wade.
And concerned clergy across the country are already beginning to organize in case something like the Clergy Consultation Service becomes necessary again.
Do I believe life begins at conception? Yes. Do I value unborn life as fully human? Yes. But legislation that prioritizes the rights of unborn lives over the bodily autonomy of women only causes harm to women and children, and I believe, our society as a whole.