Diary of a Delegate: Reproductive Rights and Doing no Harm

General Conference logo, United Methodist Communications

Like all legislative committees, Church and Society B will divide into subcommittees to handle the categories of our (rather massive) load of resolutions and petitions. Although I requested this committee because of my strong desire to see our church change its policy on homosexuality, there’s a good chance I may volunteer for or be placed on a subcommittee handling reproductive rights, something else abut which I am passionate. As I wrote earlier, however, this is a conversation that I find personally painful. I’m therefore working on preparing mentally, emotionally, and spiritually for this task.

In my earlier post on the subject, I focused on how I found our language about abortion painful, especially in some of the legislation that is proposed (seriously, petition 20924, on p. 280 makes me want to revisit my most recent meal). However, I want to be a little clearer about what I think we need to focus on– and avoid– in the conversation about reproductive rights.

1. I neither want to debate, or think it’s fruitful to debate when life begins. I make an odd progressive perhaps, but I will say this up front: I don’t know when “life” begins, because I don’t know what we mean by that. But the only place where I can draw a line is in fact at conception/implantation (which are a few days apart). That’s when you have all the pieces and conditions you need to make a life. It’s not like there’s a day when you can say aha! Here’s an independent life! Well there is– a birthday. But as one who has been pregnant, I identified my baby as a person long before each was born. And I did identify the baby I lost at just shy of 12 weeks as a baby. Emotionally, that’s what it was.

But that’s not a legal or ecclesialogical argument. It’s important for pastoral care purposes that we recognize that women and their partners who are seeking counsel following abortion, pregnancy loss, or infertility, may use different words and concepts for fetuses at various stages. As with any counseling situation, the counselor should mirror the language used by the client/congregant. If I’m mourning my baby, call it a baby, even if the zygote never implanted. If I can only talk about the fetal tissue that I lost, call it fetal tissue; it may be too painful for me to say baby right now. Pastorally, in the practice of lay and ordained ministry, we don’t argue about when life begins. All we do is listen to the person.

2. This brings us to an important point in my mind: I don’t think it is necessary or helpful for the church to have a policy about when and how we think abortion is appropriate/necessary/permissible/not a terrible sin. This differs from the homosexuality debate. It matters as a church what our policy is about the ordination of or marriage of glbt persons, because as a church, we are in the business of ordaining and marrying. As a church, we are not in a position of providing abortions, fertility treatments, or adoptive services. We are in the business of being in ministry with women and their partners and support systems before, during, and after the medical situations and decisions. We don’t decide which treatments for cancer we think are best before we are in ministry with people living with cancer or families who have lost a loved ones to cancer. Our job is to be a compassionate presence. In order to minister with women who are considering or have had an abortion, we don’t need to make a statement as to when we think it’s okay. She may or may not have taken that into account. So what? Our ministry is now. Abortion happens. I think we need to say that we believe abortion should be safe, legal, and rare. The rest is not in our hands. What is in our hands is whether or not we are able to respond with compassion to the people who have walked that road.

3. And so, we need to first do no harm. Our language in the Social Principles in the Book of Discipline and in the Book of Resolutions has to do no harm to the women and their support persons with whom we hope to be in ministry. In order for people to seek out the church for counsel and support in this difficult time, they need to feel that they will be met with compassion, not judgement. If a woman believes that her church or pastor will condemn her as a murderer because she chose abortion when her life was not in immediate physical danger, will she ever mention it to the pastor? Lift it up in a prayer group? If she thinks the church or pastor will dismiss out of hand one of the options before her without hearing or caring about the complex factors involved, will she seek counsel? Not likely. She will bury it in the shame and guilt and pain she many feel. She will not seek the forgiveness she may feel she needs, or have the support of her church family in the midst of a difficult choice. Our language will have harmed her because it will have prevented her from seeking support, healing, and wholeness.

I have heard from a dozen or more women (and some partners and parents of women) who have had abortions or considered abortions. I’ve not personally encountered a single one who chose abortion because her life was in immediate physical danger. The reasons were as different as the women: massive birth defects that would cause the baby to live only a few days and in excruciating pain; mental or psychological well being of the mother; inability to care for a child mentally, emotionally, physically, or financially; being young and scared. And like their reasons, the level of healing they had or felt they needed differed wildly, from feeling they made the right choice and had nothing for which to apologize, to agonizing every day. Some had made the choice decades ago, and some during the time that I knew them and knew of their situation. Some were grieving, some relieved.

But across the board, they had one commonality: they wanted to speak to me “off the record,” outside my role as a pastor. Across the board, each of them said that they had not and/or would not seek the support of their church or their pastor at the time (I was not the pastor of any of these women– curious. A safe outsider perhaps?). Across the board, each of them said that they did not feel they could turn to their church or their pastor because the church believes abortion is wrong, or at least wrong for the reasons they chose it, and they each expressed that they felt the pastor and/or the other members of the congregation would condemn them for the choice they had made or were contemplating.

Sisters and brothers, there are people who are hurting. People at a crossroads, making what may well be one of the most difficult decisions of their lives. People who have done something they felt they had to do, and grieve it or feel guilt and shame for it. People who have been afraid and alone and with no one to turn to. And they feel that the church is the very last place they can go for help. Is this what we want? Is it so important to those who believe that abortion is wrong that we hold a principled stand? Is that more important than having the opportunity to minister with women in the midst of their decision? Is that more important than the ability to help someone heal or seek forgiveness (again– using the language of forgiveness only if that’s what she articulates she needs)?

It is not. In order to do all the good we can, we have to first do no harm.

I support language that says abortion should be safe, legal, and rare, and then focuses the rest of our attention on the compassionate response to those considering or dealing with the aftermath of abortion: education and advocacy to reduce unintended pregnancies, promoting maternal prenatal health, ministries that lift up all options for unintended pregnancies, strengthening the ministry of adoptive services, and bolstering support for single mothers and for women whose financial, psychological, social, etc. conditions make caring for a child difficult or nearly impossible. To do this, we have to be part of the conversation and part of the support network for women at all stages of this issue. And to do that, we have to do no harm with our policy so that we are a place women and their support persons can turn.

[Edited to add: all this, and I didn’t even mention rape, sexual abuse, and incest. I can’t believe I left them out– I’ve never counseled a woman who disclosed that her pregnancy was the result of rape or incest– but they are of course factors in the discussion as well. Let us never add trauma to trauma.]

Diary of a Delegate: Abortion and the language of abuse

The following conversation will be very blunt, and may not be for the faint of heart. Persons having experienced pregnancy loss may want to skip this one.

General Conference logo, United Methodist Communications

Being on the Church and Society 2 Committee for General Conference means that, in addition to reading and talking about homosexuality a lot, I also have the privilege of reading lots of legislation about abortion.

I have to say that if I had known how hard this particular part was going to be personally, I might actually have requested a different committee. I’m surprised by how challenging I find this reading and this conversation.

You see, my friends, I’ve had an abortion.

It’s not what you think. I was just as surprised as you might be.

I didn’t choose to have an abortion (although– another topic for another day– a woman over the phone representing my health insurance provider BlueCross BlueShield of Illinois, the plan *provided by my employer, the United Methodist Church,* hinted that I might consider one because I expressed that I was not going to be able to afford my copays and coinsurance under their plan, which covers only 80% of prenatal, delivery, and postnatal care. This all turned out to be a moot point). I am pro choice, but there’s an emphasis on choice there. My “abortion” was “spontaneous.”

My second pregnancy was a problem from the start. After a year of trying to conceive, I was thrilled to be pregnant, but felt sick– sicker than usual– right off the bat. Several factors caused my OB practice concern and so I had a transvaginal ultrasound at about six weeks. That’s about as uncomfortable and invasive a procedure as it sounds like. Garry Trudeau isn’t far off in calling it rape, although I object to using that word for anything other than actual rape; here, if one did not wish for this procedure, I imagine it’s pretty much the same thing (I’m linking rather than posting because I found it hard to look at and others might too). All the talk in the media lately about requiring this procedure for women seeking medical abortion is painful for me. As people dryly debate whether or not it’s a violation of a woman’s body, I’m taken back to a little room and a little pink hospital gown, and I’m back up on the table. I’ll leave out the rest. There’s a tiny little flutter on the monitor, though. A heartbeat. A living baby at five weeks, five days.

But at eleven weeks and five days (three years ago this past week), there was a different story. First, mild pain and discomfort, but over the course of an evening and a long night, agony. Physical and emotional agony. Praying for it to stop. Praying for it to be over.

Miscarriage sucks.

And a week later, it still wasn’t over. Again, sparing the details, my body needed help expelling the rest of what had been inside. I checked myself into the hospital and underwent the procedure of dilation and curettage. I knew what it was because pro life activists had described it in detail; the only difference between this procedure and what we think of as abortion is that the tissue removed from my body was already long dead. I was drugged, but I cried, and only some were tears of relief.

My scrapbook of cards, notes, words of hope and healing following our miscarriage

Turns out, the only medical difference between my procedure and what we think of as abortion is… nothing. I received the bill for my outpatient surgery. Abortion: spontaneous. I of course had to pay it. At a higher rate. And retroactively pay higher copays for the preceding twelve weeks of care, since it was no longer considered prenatal care as my pregnancy “didn’t result in a natality.” I had to put it on a payment plan, and get monthly bills, with that little header at the top. Abortion: spontaneous.

Much of the proposed legislation for General Conference concerning abortion deals with trying to proscribe how churches should be in ministry with people who have experienced or are considering abortion, and makes numerous assumptions about what people may or may not be feeling. I experienced a whole range of emotions as I processed my pregnancy loss. I wouldn’t presume to know what another woman and her partner, if any, might need when they experience miscarriage or pregnancy loss, and the decision to undergo an abortion is far more complex when there’s an actual decision. We can’t know the reasons– birth defects and rape and threats to the mother’s health and inability to provide for another life and on and on (here is a powerful and painful story). We can’t know the tears shed, if any, and if they were of grieving or of relief or a mixture of the two and more. It is extreme hubris to assume that we can know what it means to “heal from abortion.” I certainly don’t know.

What I do know is this: if we desire to first do no harm, then we have to enter this conversation with extreme care. We have to be aware of how the language and images we use wound people who have experienced abortion of any kind. Some of the language, particularly in the rationales of the petitions, is horrifying, representing what I can only assume are attempts to sway people’s minds by descriptions of procedures and flip references to babies and blobs and everything in between. No, I don’t want to look at pictures of what a fetus looks like, particularly at eleven weeks. No, I don’t want to discuss transvaginal ultrasounds and whether, in the opinion of a person who’s never had one, they feel invasive. No, I don’t want to discuss cookie cutter plans to help a person grieve because we think they should and in the ways we think they should. As with so many other issues, we’re not talking about issues. We are talking about people, and people have walked roads we haven’t walked.

I promise to not use my personal experience to try to guilt or shame others. But I will speak from it to try to convey how these words come across to some, how they come across to me, and how very powerful words are. The last thing a person who has made a difficult decision– or one who has had a decision made for her– needs is to be told what it means and what she should feel about it, and what a legislative body is going to do about it. If we want to show reverence for the beginnings– and middles and endings– of life, we must treat all aspects of it with compassion and humility, and listen to the persons walking that journey in the moment, holding them where they are. That’s how we must be in ministry with people. Not people who have had abortions, just people.

Because you had a bad day

Today is a rough day.

In the past 24 hours, waves of loss and worry have swept the world– the world out there and the world closer to home. As with any disasters, personal or global or anywhere in between, I feel a bit at a loss under the weight of all that pain and sorrow. The best I can do is lift a lament:

for the waves of violence and bloodshed washing over Libya as the forces loyal to the government crush uprisings and lash out against civilians

for the waves of political tension and the apparent collapse of workers’ rights in our country as Wisconsin passes and other states consider legislation to deny public workers the right to collective bargaining and pass the “savings” on as tax cuts to large corporations

for waves of trembling, quaking earth, devastating the islands of Japan in the worst earthquake they have seen for 100 years

for enormous waves, crashing through the Pacific, as the quake’s tsunami reminds us how interconnected we all are

for little waves on the rivers and runoffs around my home and my church, as the people of Montpelier brace for a massive thaw and prepare (we hope in vain) to weather a potential flood

for waves of grief beating against and within those who have lost loved ones, today, this week, years ago.

I’ve seen several people write on Facebook and Twitter today, that in light of the earthquake and destruction, they feel petty in complaining about their problems, their griefs, the waves that wash over them. I think perspective is good, and seeing a big picture is good. I think thankfulness that things are comparatively okay or the distance of time as a healer are healthy things.

But I don’t think we need to compare our sorrows and struggles against those of others, and then dismiss our struggles (or those of other people) as unworthy or petty or small. They may be little waves to some, but the waves we weather mean the world to us, and that is important, and sacred. I believe that in God’s sight, our laments, no matter how small, no matter what they are compared with, are heard and held.

Two years ago today, my husband and I miscarried. Compared to the loss in Libya and Japan today, that seems such a small thing. Compared to the joy of the baby who would not have been born otherwise, it seems very little indeed. And yet it is loss, it is grief, and it is it’s own thing, not to be measured against anyone else’s yardstick, not to be bargained or traded away. Simply to be held, side by side with other griefs, side by side with abiding joy, and honored as a part of living, a part of my life.

Whatever waves wash over you today, may you be unashamed to name them. They are yours.

A year and then some

The one year anniversary of my miscarriage came and went, unnoticed by anyone. Including me.

It was a Thursday, a week and a half ago. I was working. When I did realize it, three days later, I didn’t even really feel badly about it. It’s okay. Maybe even a good thing.

But that doesn’t make it gone. The pain has eased a great deal, and being pregnant in no small way alleviates that loss. Looking forward in hope helps me not look backward in grief, but the grief is still there. the loss is still very real.

Perhaps no more so than these couple of weeks: a time of year when, more than any other, I’m reflecting on life and death, how they are woven together, how one feeds into the other, like a dog chasing his own tail. Sometimes death, never redemptive or salvific on its own, but transformative in context, sometimes death brings new and more abundant life. Always life, whether long or short, celebrated or glossed over, always life bends toward death.

And this little life I now carry, unknown but deeply cherished, would not be possible had not that other life, even more unknown, half as developed, and yet no less cherished, been lost.

And so, thank you, my unknown child, my little lost one, for the gift of your life, and of your death, and of this new life. Anniversaries and dates on the calendar may pass unmarked, but you did not.

Addendum

My husband and I received a sympathy card on Friday. It was sent by a colleague in my Annual Conference, and she thought she had sent it out back in March. In an enclosed note, she described how she found the card while moving over the summer and went back and forth about sending it, wondering whether or not it was too late.

I saw her on Saturday, and I assured her that it arrived at precisely the right time.

Guessing at what I need.

book violents broken rocksOn the personal horizon for me this week is a day I can’t avoid.

September 25 was the day I was due to have a baby. On March 11, when I thought I was nearing the 12-week ‘safe’ mark of my pregnancy, we experienced a miscarriage, and that pregnancy– one for which we’d been trying for nearly a year as it was– was lost.

I’ve written a fair amount about it over the past six months. I’ve made no secret of the pain my family and I feel, and the difficulty we face, trying to heal in the various ways we need. It’s a strange minefield of a process, with reminders big and small, sore spots and small joys all mixed together. It’s hard to know where to step for myself, let alone advise anyone of what they could do help me or my family.

Part of me– a big part of me– had really hoped we’d have conceived again by now. Not that you can replace one pregnancy with another and make the sadness go away, but that sometimes the deep pain of what is lost can at least be mingled with the hope and celebration of new life.

Yes, but where’s the opportunity for character development in that? Sorry. Sometimes the sarcasm and cynicism just leak out of whatever box I’ve tried to seal them in.

Anyway, here comes the due date, a day I don’t want to create into a self-fulfilling-prophesied very horrible day, but  also don’t want to try to ignore or avoid and not acknowledge that I hurt and it hurts and I need… well, that’s just it. I don’t know what I need.

book all our loveWhat I’ve discovered for myself is that nothing make the pain go away (congratulations, you win the nobel prize for therapy there, Clark). And there are no happy memories to think back on, and at this point, there’s not even a whole lot of hope of being hopeful in this vein again, so now what? The only thing I’ve found that helps is knowing that people love me.

If it sounds sappy, tough. It’s me and it’s my thing, so listen or navigate away, friend. And maybe you’re reading this because you’ve experienced loss and you’re looking for something that helps, and my suggestion might help you. I hope so. Anyway, this is what helps me. After the miscarriage, people sent me all kinds of cards, notes, emails, prayers, pictures, music, flowers, a shawl, a tree, you name it. And I found that those things helped me feel less desperately sorrowful, and so I even solicited more showerings of love.

And then I didn’t want to throw them all away– looking at them was really helpful on the days it really hurt. And so I got a little kit for a scrapbook, and I saved a bunch of those things (or printouts of them or pictures of them). Making the book was itself a wonderfully healing thing, wading through cards and printing out emails and pictures and pressing flower petals and creating something aesthetically pleasing to me. It brought out an appreciation for beauty and for the act of creating. And since then, I’ve found that it’s helped to look through it. On days when it gets really bad, I open it up and look through and let the tears come if they’re going to (since they’re going to anyway).

book deep peace and shawlIt’s not a fail-safe thing. Sometimes I close the book crying harder than when I started, and twice I’ve thrown it across the room. But most of the time, as I look at the pictures and the notes, I remember. Yes, it was and is a rotten, awful, agonizing time. But I was and am surrounded by people who love me, who hurt when I hurt and smile when I smile, who don’t run screaming in the opposite direction rather than face a friend who feels beaten up by life. I can and have and will get through this, because people are pulling me through.

So what do I need on September 25?

I need you. I need a hug, a phone call, a smile, a flower, a card, a poem, a picture, a song. I need to be reminded that I am loved and supported by people who are not afraid of what promises to be a kind of uncomfortable conversation and are ready to reiterate that sometimes life hurts, and we get no promise it will stop or get better on any timetable even roughly approaching what we would like, but that when we hold each other up, somehow we make it through.

I need to turn the pages, let the tears come, and see the colorful, beautiful evidence that none of us faces grief– fresh or reopened– alone.

Six weeks.

It’s been six weeks, and it still hurts like hell sometimes.

I found this blog entry from another mom. It doesn’t all ring true, but a lot of it does, especially her line, “The truth is it’s not fair to make me feel uncomfortable just because you are.” Well said.

Healing comes in small steps, as ever.

Reconcile

It’s as if a friend came over to visit me
in my time of anguish, and sat on my couch,
waiting.
She didn’t say anything,
didn’t expect
anything.
She busied herself
with a book or a puzzle, never
interrupted me and whatever it was I needed
to do.
She weathered my tears
and raging
and depression without flinching,
and then we were silent for
a long time,
in part
because there was nothing to say,
or because words are
empty or because
I was too angry at her
and everyone else.
Often, I wished
she’d go away,
but more frequently
I was glad
she didn’t.
Without expectation or pressure
or crowding,
she stayed in my space
and waited.

Until,
in small little
fits,
in one
or two
words at a time,
in clipped half-finished
sentences, I broke
our silence.
Like she knew I would,
like she had been waiting for me
to do, I spoke,
at first a shy
hello,
ashamed of my anger
and heavy
silence,
then small phrases
and sentences, tentative
thoughts put to words.

And that’s how I began to pray
again.

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