Diary of a Delegate: Reproductive Rights and Doing no Harm

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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.]

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17 Responses

  1. great i love ur words 🙂

  2. Bless you, Becca. From your words to your church’s ears. Would that your position could transcend your conference and become part of the national political discussion instead of contributing to the red/blue divide.

    • Amen to that! And, to Becca, no “enjoy the vacation,” but a heartfelt bon voyage, and prayers that you and the other delegates may find the experience a truly meaningful and Spirit-filled one. So–enjoy the moment, such as it can be enjoyed.

      • Thanks, Jeff and Clay! And thanks for being such wonderful and empowering men to the women in your life!

        Becca

  3. you are a brave soul. I will be praying for you at GC. I have recently attended a discussion by a local pastor near here who is also on the same committee. I have passionate views. I have counseled women before and after decisions on abortion and you are spot on that these women (and their partners) NEED a place where they are safe to get emotional and spiritual HELP in the form of a non-judgmental, compassionate, loving ear. Blessings.

    • Thank you Tommy, and thanks for your prayers. I give thanks to know that women have been able to receive compassionate counsel in your care.

      Blessings,
      Becca

  4. Your words are so refreshing. As a young women who’s struggling with her faith, it’s great to see such compassionate and rational words from a leader in the Church. Keep on writing!

    • Thank you Sarah.

      Faith can be a struggle sometimes, I hear you. I take comfort in knowing that it is God we serve and not a human institution. We try to follow and imitate as best we can, but mess it up royally. May you find much to bring you faith, hope, and love in your journey!

      Becca

  5. Becca, as usual, I applaud your writing. Well-written ideas like these are long overdue. But I’d like to engage you on a few points, mostly with questions.

    If we don’t discuss the point at which life begins, don’t we miss an opportunity to prevent some of these decisions that have caused so much pain?

    You mentioned some of the reasons for abortion as including financial inability. If life is thought to begin at conception, doesn’t it become absolutely necessary to encourage adoption?

    I was also confused by the emphasis on using different terms to describe the facts in evidence, eg “tissue” instead of “baby.” Changing the words doesn’t actually change the terms. It may make the woman feel better to say “tissue” instead of “baby,” but there is no consolation in that for the child whose life was terminated because its mother couldn’t afford to raise it and didn’t pursue adoption as an option.

    Life begins when life begins. And so much pain could be avoided instead of assuaged if there were a better effort to reach young women with unwanted pregnancy. I am thinking of the ambulance analogy with a fence at the cliff instead of parking an ambulance at the bottom of the canyon.

    Perhaps I’ve misread you here, but this seems to miss several opportunities to apply the maxim of “do no harm” to many of the unnecessary deaths of children in utero. I was particularly disturbed by the tacit approval of abortion for financially unable mothers.

    Your admonition to remember those hurting in the wake of abortion is timely, and well-heard. But I do hope that there is another component to this both/and conversation that involves prevention rather than a misplaced focus on our response after the fact.

    • “But I do hope that there is another component to this both/and conversation that involves prevention rather than a misplaced focus on our response after the fact.
      hmm, too often, we only come in contact with the situation AFTER the fact. To suppose our focus on after the fact issues is misplaced is part of what causes those who have dealt with abortion up close and personal to feel judged. I will not speak for Becca, but my understanding of what she was saying is that since we seem not to be able to agree on whether or not we support a woman’s right to choose, then we can at least agree NOT to judge or appear judgmental. In ALL counseling situations with those who have lost or terminated a pregnancy, language matters and terms we use have a HUGE impact on how the person who came for help FEELS. We CAN have an impact there and her “emphasis” on different terms was addressed to that aspect. When someone comes in hurting after having an abortion (many of us have been in that counseling situation as pastors), if THEY use the term fetus and hear us repeatedly use the term “baby,” then our ability to reach them with the love of Christ may be lost forever. The focus AFTER the fact MUST be on healing, love, and an atmosphere of not judging. Blessings

    • Hi Joey,

      Tommy has answered well for me, but let me add a couple things. One thing I will say, and this may sound cold– I mean do no harm to the women. Our ministry is with them. Yes, we have an opportunity perhaps to counsel for options other than abortion, but only if the people considering abortion feel we are people we can talk to and that we will listen with compassion and not judgement. I will argue that the only way we can help the children and future children of women considering abortion is if we help the women themselves. Otherwise, we’re not even in the room to have the discussion.

      Although Tommy did mention this, I’ll reiterate that the language is profoundly powerful. To get technical, and I apologize in advance for the frankness here, when I talk about my second pregnancy and my miscarriage, I talk about my baby that I lost. But when I talk about the medical procedures– the one that happened spontaneously in my home over the course of an evening and the one that happened under mild anesthetic on a hospital table– I talk about my body expelling tissue. I simply cannot cannot cannot think about the– yeah, that– the stuff I saw and I know was removed– I cannot think about that as a baby. It hurts too much. So when my language switches from baby to tissue or conceptus, whoever is trying to listen to me and support me has to switch too. I didn’t pass parts of my baby into the toilet. I didn’t. I can’t. Get me?

      So, should we punish a woman and cause her pain by reinforcing in our counseling language as well as our Discipline language the term “baby” or “child” when she is saying “tissue?” Does the answer to that question change if the woman’s abortion was induced (medical intervention) or spontaneous (natural miscarriage)? Pardon me, but I sure as hell don’t think so.

      Finally, I think the financial stability and provision for a new life entering the world are profoundly important. Finances are most certainly a reason a person might consider abortion. Now I think that’s shameful– and the shame rests not on the woman but on a society that fails to care for the vulnerable. But they are a reason. “Should” a woman then be encouraged to carry a child to term and give him or her up for adoption? You know, I can’t imagine the pain that would cause. I can’t even begin to fathom what it would be like to consider that. Some women clearly can do it, but they are stronger women than I. We can’t simply assume that this is an option that works for everyone (not to mention that pregnancy and delivery themselves are very expensive, especially for the un/underinsured– again, the shame rests on our society).

      So complex. Which is why I think especially in such a complex situation, we have to deal with the people we have before us, and first do no harm.

      Bless,
      Becca

  6. Thanks Tom. I see your points on practicality. I still hold that we have sent the wrong message to young women with our lax stance on abortion. Yes, there are times when it is warranted. And after-the-fact is not the time to point out that a woman’s choice to terminate a pregnancy was wrong.

    My point is that this conversation must include some before-the-fact conversations, and a clear understanding of the sanctity of human life.

    We must also be careful not to offer false grace in cases where abortion was used as birth control, by confession or de facto. By that I mean forgiveness by eliminating the sin, not offering God’s forgiveness and encouraging the woman to forgive herself.

    Becca, I understand that you are talking about the after the fact scenarios. Those are the ones I’ve dealt with more frequently in my ministry as well.

    I think we could do a better job (including in this dialogue) differentiating between those who are avoiding responsibility and those who have valid reasons for terminating a pregnancy. I have no intention of grouping miscarriage and abortion. Nor do I think we should group all abortions together. Some are warranted and some are not.

    I did not hear any differentiation in what you wrote. If it was there, I apologize for being obtuse.

    As for those who are financially unable to care for their child, I hear what you are saying, but respectfully stand well away from your point. I see no way to justify the sacrifice of an unborn child simply because a) she feels financially unable to support the child and b) the woman is unable to deal with the pain of carrying the child to term and then give it up for adoption.

    We should be able to ask someone to do a hard thing if it is the right thing. How do we compare the harm of giving a child up for adoption with the harm done to the unborn child in terminating the pregnancy? One is recoverable (though without guarantee) with loving community and the grace of God. The other is death for the fetus.

    • Quite simply Joey, I think we will never have the chance to have any before-the-fact conversations if our position pushes people away because they feel they will be met with condemnation for even considering abortion in a situation that is not “warranted.”

      You did not misunderstand me. There is no distinction for me between when an abortion is “warranted” or not. That is not for me to decide. To counsel perhaps, but not to decide. That is between a woman and her partner/support network and her God. I’m not in her shoes, and I don’t know the road she’s walked. My job is to offer grace.

      That’s all I’ve got.
      Becca

    • It seems pretty simple to me. If any United Methodist such as yourself wants to “ask someone to do a hard thing if it is the right thing” and wants to prevent any false grace from being offered prematurely, that same United Methodist must be fair and go after every single man in their congregation who did not come to the latest blood drive or sign up as a living organ and tissue donor. Every single man must be subjected to guilt-inducing before-the-fact conversations about the sanctity of life. The man who fails to donate his body through such procedures – which are much simpler than the excruciatingly hard work of forming and birthing a new life – is completely guilty of killing another clearly living person, and the church is remiss to take a lax stance on such sinful behavior. If we are to go around judging whether or not a woman’s decision to have an abortion or intentionally miscarry as “warranted” or “unwarranted,” we must be equally judgmental of every single man’s decision about donating his own body to save another’s life every time his is given the opportunity. Pregnancy, like other forms of body donation, is active work that requires prayerful cooperation with God and ongoing consent… abortion is withdrawal of consent to continue the work, and it is something many of us women have felt God calling us to do at some time. How the church handles such situations must be the same as how it treats men who kill others through failure to consent to giving up their bodies. That is, if we are truly in support of “the (non-biblical concept of) sanctity of life.”

      • Nothing is ever “simple” in a conversation this broad.

        I agree with the sentiment. And I do place the responsibility for pregnancy squarely upon those responsible. It does take two. In the churches I serve, the conversation about abortion involves as many young men as it does young women.

        And it starts with topics like the sanctity of marriage and the mistake of premarital sex.

        Incidentally, I do encourage men (and women) to participate in the programs you mentioned.

        You are absolutely correct in drawing the correlation between action and inaction. And I invite you to join me in spreading the word about organ and tissue donation and becoming a regular blood donor. You might even choose to use the shaming tactics you mentioned in your post. I will not be doing so in either discussion.

        How does a before-the-fact conversation result in “inducing guilt?” That’s like blaming the one making the laws for feeling bad after you get a ticket.

        It is precisely the problem in our Church (which I mentioned in my earlier post) that we too often wait until a woman has aborted a pregnancy to get involved.

        And you are incorrect regarding the non-biblical nature of the concept. God is holy. God’s breath is the animating spirit of the soul (spiritus – breath, wind, etc.). Thus life is of God and holy. Unless you want to take the (unbiblical) secular point of view.

        Thank you for your views. I hope my questions will be received in the spirit I asked them.

  7. As a United Methodist layperson, I totally agree that I do not find it necessary for the church to have an abortion policy. We should first, do no harm–absolutely!

  8. I just now finished reading this post, Becca, after having a long conversation with some of the anti-choice protesters outside the convention center today. Your thoughts here are so articulate and I appreciate your clear vision of what ministry with women and families in crisis pregnancy SHOULD look like! Thank you!

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