A Word With Evangelicals (about abortion)
OK, this isn't really a sermon. It's a speech I just rediscovered. Although delivered almost 10 years ago the issues, alas, remain unresolved. If anything, they've simply grown more intense. It does, though, illustrate that the pro-choice community's call to "the other side" to work with us to make abortion less often necessary is not new. We've been pleading for help in giving women more options for a very long time.
A Word With Evangelicals
Mars Hill Forum
The Rev. Katherine Hancock Ragsdale
Thank you for the invitation to speak with you tonight. I’ve been asked to pose to you what I consider to be the three toughest questions facing evangelicals who oppose a woman’s right to choose abortion. I am, of course, a pro-choice Christian. I speak to you tonight as an individual Christian trying my best to discern and act on the will of God for my life; and as a priest, who has vowed, before God and the people of God, to care for God’s people and most especially those who are poor, vulnerable, or oppressed; and as the President of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, a coalition of 36 national organizations from over a dozen denominations and faith groups all of which support a woman’s right, and, indeed, acknowledge her responsibility, to make reproductive choices, including, sometimes, the choice to abort a fetus. Our coalition represents the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterians, the Disciples of Christ, the Moravian Church, and the reform, reconstructionist, and conservative movements of Judaism, the Unitarian Universalists, the American Ethical Union, the American Humanist Association, and the YWCA, as well as the women’s caucuses of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Church of the Brethren.
This is the position from which I address you tonight. Although the Coalition is not an exclusively Christian organization, I am a Christian minister asked to address evangelical Christians and so my remarks tonight will assume that shared faith. And from this perspective I do see three questions. The first is one I would address to all of us, regardless of our position on choice. The second is more complex and specifically addresses areas where we disagree. The third has to do with how we disagree – with how Christians conduct ourselves in the midst of passionate disputes.
So, the first question – addressed to us all – is: what are we doing to reduce the need for abortions? None of us, regardless of our position on choice, approves of a world where pregnant women are faced with despair and see no viable options but to abort. But what are we doing, as God’s agents in the world, to change that situation?
Are we struggling – with the same fervor we invest in our anti or pro choice battles – to insure that women who wish to bear children can afford to do so? Are we working to reduce joblessness, to support wages that are sufficient to support families, to see that safe and affordable child care is available to every family that needs it, to provide adequate parental leave, and to assure that everyone has access to adequate health care?
Do we support comprehensive sexuality education and the availability of safe, affordable, and effective contraceptives so that those people who choose to have sex (including young people who choose to have sex) do not find themselves facing a pregnancy with which they are ill equipped to cope?
Finally, are we working to provide adoption services and supports so that those women who choose to bring their pregnancies to term but cannot care adequately for a child can see that child placed in a safe and loving home? And I mean every unwanted child, not just healthy, white infants.
Doing these things will not eliminate abortions. There will still be women whose health would be jeopardized by bringing a pregnancy to full term. Women who know that they cannot care for a child but who can also not face the prospect of nine months of intimate relationship with the developing fetus only to turn it over for adoption upon its birth. Women (and children) pregnant as the result of rape and incest.
No, we cannot eliminate the need for abortion. But we could dramatically reduce it. What are we doing to make our society more supportive of children and families? What are we doing to reduce the need for abortion?
My second question has to do with our areas of disagreement. But I need first to note those things about which I suspect we do agree. I suspect we agree on the marvelous goodness of God the Creator. I imagine you agree with me that all life, indeed all of creation, is sacred and that our stewardship of it is a holy trust given us by God in creation. I trust you believe, as I do, in the infinite love of God, revealed in Jesus, the Christ, through whom we have been redeemed and are offered, in every moment and circumstance of our lives, indeed, with every breath we take, are offered the opportunity to turn from sin and faithlessness and to bring our lives into conformity with God’s will and God’s plan for us.
These foundations of my faith are verified for me in Holy Scripture, by my faith tradition, and through my own experience as a person trying to live faithfully in this world. These are, in fact, not uncommon beliefs among the body of faithful Christians. Yet, although we may hold these foundational beliefs in common, it is also true that there are differences of opinion between faith groups, and even within faith groups, about what it means to put these beliefs into practice.
We differ as to whether faithful application of our beliefs requires vegetarianism, or tithing, or pacifism. We differ about whether capitalism is compatible with Christian faith and life. We disagree about whether conscientious objection to military service should be merely an option, or, instead, a requirement, of all Christians.
We disagree about whether women should be ordained, or infants Baptized, or whether to use wine or grape juice when we gather at table together. We disagree about whether Churches should offer sanctuary to refugees fleeing El Salvador or Haiti and about whether the government should respect that ancient concept of sanctuary. About whether our institutions should have divested their business interests in South Africa. About the intifada and the Persian Gulf War.
There are so many important issues about which we disagree passionately. Yet somehow we manage to disagree with mutual respect. We respect one another’s consciences and the faith that under girds them.
Why, then, is the issue of abortion different? Why do so many anti-choice Christians presume to deny pregnant women the right to consult, and act upon the dictates of, their own consciences? I respect your right to decide for yourselves what would be the most faithful response to your own unwanted, or untenable, pregnancy. Should you decide that abortion would be an inappropriate and faithless choice for you I would applaud your courage in making and living with hard decisions.
Why can you not show the same respect for others? It is not true that only those who do not know, or care about, God seek abortions or support the rights of those who do. On the contrary. If any one thing is demonstrably true from the last 20 years it is that people of faith, people of good will and informed conscience, disagree about when, if ever, abortion is an appropriate choice for a woman to make
That should not surprise us. That is the nature of moral discourse. It is characterized – always – by ambiguity, conflicting needs and values, and disagreement. It should also be characterized by mutual respect and tolerance.
I think of Evangelicals as a group characterized by respect for individual moral agency; a people who rely not on papal mandates or edicts from church bureaucracies, but on the discernment of individual conscience guided by prayer and Scripture. Why, then, do you so adamantly deny this moral agency, this respect for individual conscience, to pregnant women?
I imagine you will respond in one of two ways. That you will tell me that the Bible prohibits abortion and so there is no room for individual conscience. Yet surely you know this is not true. The Bible is silent on the subject. Or, perhaps you will try to tell me that abortion is the taking of a human life and this is proscribed by the Bible. Again, I would point out first that the Bible is, indeed, not so clear that it is always wrong to take a life. But, more to the point, to attribute personhood to a fetus begs the question.
This is, indeed, the crux of the moral discourse upon which we are engaged and the answer is not so easy as many anti-choice protestors would have it. The Bible does not make a claim for fetal personhood; indeed, it suggests otherwise. Science cannot make that claim for science cannot be expected to answer what is essentially a theological question.
The bottom line is that we disagree. Why can we not do so with tolerance and respect and without imposing our answers upon another’s conscience? We do so in so many other areas of serious and faith driven disagreement. Why not here? I must tell you that it appears to many of us that the answer to that question is that in this arena it is women who must make the final decision and that you do not respect the moral agency (or full personhood) of women simply because we are women.
My final question is related to the last. It has to do with how we disagree. Because I believe many of our diverse positions are rooted in our common faith, and because I believe that the members of Christ’s body have much to learn from one another – especially in those areas about which we disagree—I think it’s vitally important to all of us that we be able to engage one another in moral debate.
I confess that the liberal branch of the body has often thwarted this good end by failing to hear respectfully and consider seriously the arguments and insights of our conservative sisters and brothers. We have too often and too easily merely dismissed your perspectives as naïve, outdated, or evil.
I think, though, that we are not alone in this sin. Too often we have felt that our faith was not taken seriously; that you have dismissed us as slaves to current trends who don’t pray, or read the Bible, or care about the will of God.
When we dismiss each other so easily, we sin. We individual parts of Christ’s body say to one another, I have no need for you. We are foolish and we will be judged for it.
But far more serious than this is the violence that has come to characterize the struggle to eliminate safe and legal abortions. Doctors have been shot; one was killed. Clinics have been bombed. Doctors, nurses, and other health care workers have been stalked and harassed. Women have been accosted as they sought health care. Women who struggled, who sought godly counsel, who prayed, and then decided, with deep regret, but with a conviction that abortion was the best, and most faithful, choice available to them, have had to endure gauntlets of shrieking, insulting, frightening people, claiming to act in God’s name, as they sought to enter the clinics and act upon their decisions of conscience.
You who argue against abortion in the name of God must stand up and clearly and unequivocally oppose this violence and the violent rhetoric that spawns it. This violence is enacted in the name of pro-life Christians. This violence is perpetrated in your name. If you do not clearly, constantly, and publicly denounce this violence, you implicitly condone it. Furthermore, the name of God is invoked in support of this terrorism. That, it seems to me, is blasphemy. It is not something I would like to have to answer for at the day of judgment.
And so my question to you is – what are you doing, what will you do, to put an end to this terrorism? What will you do to assure that the members of Christ’s body can engage in moral discourse, can disagree, even passionately, without disrespecting, or killing, one another?
Those, then, are my three questions to you, and, in some cases, to all of us. I look forward to your questions and comments.