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.]