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Abortion and the Moral Choice

Sermon - 1/23/11
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Mark 5:24b-34

And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. 25Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. 26She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28for she said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.’ 29Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ 31And his disciples said to him, ‘You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, “Who touched me?” ’ 32He looked all round to see who had done it. 33But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.

34He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’

A priest, a Protestant Minister, and a Rabbi (yeah, one of those), engaged in a debate on the beginning of life. The priest says: "Life begins at conception". The Protestant Minister says: "No, no, life begins at birth". Priest says: "No, conception". "Birth", "Conception", "Birth", and so on.

The Rabbi breaks in, and says: "You're both wrong. Life begins when the children leave home, and the dog dies" :).

It's an old joke I've told for years, but it suddenly dawned on me -- it's come true! I'm there! Life has just begun in our household :).

Well, the issue of when life begins, of course, is a very serious matter, not a joke. And has all kinds of serious consequences. And sadly, one of those has become very evident locally, when Catholic Community Services announced that they were withdrawing from the funding mechanism for United Way because Planned Parenthood also receives funds from United Way. Last year, Planned Parenthood began offering for the first time medical abortions (that's not surgical, but an abortion that's induced through medication), and the Bishop said if you wish to remain a Catholic organization, you cannot participate with Planned Parenthood. Even though none of the funds received from United Way support abortion in any way (they're used for very specific education programs run by Planned Parenthood), still, the decision was that they had to go their separate ways.

I have watched this decision unfold like a slow train wreck, because I serve on the Board for both United Way and Planned Parenthood (or did, up until the end of the year for United Way), and knew about this for some time. The Executive Directors of both organizations shared with their respective Boards the discussions and dialogue going on before it finally became public.

And the first thing I want to say about all of this is that all of the agencies involved have been incredibly respectful of one another. They have been models of civil engagement, of which we as a community can be very proud.

We work with all 3 agencies.

I decided, then, that I should speak on this topic, especially as it relates to abortion, for several reasons. First of all, it's an important issue in our community -- all of the agencies are worthy of our support and should continue to receive that support. Secondly, I have never spoken on the subject of abortion before -- I don't know why (probably because I was scared, you know how I hate controversy :).

Third, and most importantly, it is an issue with which many people struggle. And for any woman in particular who has had, or is considering an abortion, it is a deeply personal issue with all kinds of long-lasting impacts and consequences. 

So, before I go any further, I want to make a full disclosure: I have worked with Planned Parenthood for years, especially their programs to educate youth on sexual health and reproductive rights and responsibilities. I think Planned Parenthood has done more in our country to reduce teenage pregnancy since the invention of the automobile. Which of course has probably done more to create teenage pregnancies, so maybe they balance each other out :).

But until recently, I have had no involvement with health clinics and related services run by Planned Parenthood. But that all changed a little less than 2 years ago when Dr. Tiller was murdered, in his church in Wichita, Kansas, where he served as a Deacon. Dr. Tiller, you may recall, was one of the few doctors in the country who was willing to perform 3rd-trimester abortions, what sometimes are called partial-birth abortions, and had been subject to numerous death threats before he was finally gunned down in front of his fellow parishioners in that church.

Cynthia Pappas, who is the Executive Director of Planned Parenthood, asked if I'd be willing to come and offer a prayer at a vigil held here in our community after Dr. Tiller's murder. And at that same vigil, there was another doctor who was a personal friend of Dr. Tiller's, a local doctor. He shared with us some of the conversations that he had had with Dr. Tiller and how Dr. Tiller counseled every single woman he saw on all of the alternatives, to try and make sure they were making the right decision, to see if there were any other possibilities besides abortion.

The speaker shared with us that all of those women came to Dr. Tiller in pain, in agony, because in almost every incidence it was out of some medical necessity -- it was something they did not want to do -- either because of a severe deformity, or because of a danger to their own health. These were women who wanted to have a child, but came to a very painful realization that they could not bring this particular fetus to term. And hence, sought him out, coming from all over the country.

No one who has not been there can sit in judgment on those women.

But it was out of his sense of compassion for these suffering women that Dr. Tiller continued his practice, in spite of the many death threats that he had received. By the way, because of my involvement with Planned Parenthood, one of the things I've learned is that less than 2% of abortions are done after the 21st week of pregnancy. 88% are done before 13 - 14 weeks. It's a very small number that are done in the 3rd trimester.

Upon hearing that story of Dr. Tiller, I concluded that it was important for faith leaders to stand up and speak out for the rights of women who face such personal dilemmas. So I agreed to join the Board of Planned Parenthood at that time.

By the way, this is a very closely related issue to the one I spoke about last week, in terms of vitriol in the public square. Those who use violent language in public dialogue need to be held accountable for violent acts -- done by others -- but against public figures. Like Dr. Tiller, or Representative Giffords.

After Dr. Tiller was murdered, Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, who has made frequent public statements about the need to try and execute doctors who perform abortions, declared that Dr. Tiller got what he deserved. His only regret (Randall Terry) was that Dr. Tiller was killed before he could be put to trial and "properly" executed. That is the kind of vitriol that I am talking about, that has no place in a civil society, and should condemned by all. And I think people like Mr. Terry should be held accountable, indeed liable, for their words. By the way, Randall Terry has declared himself as a candidate for President in 2012, so you may be hearing more from him. 

While his views may be too radical to get him elected (even for dog-catcher, let alone President), the religious belief that he supports -- that life begins at conception -- is not radical at all. It's held by many, probably many here. And it's having a significant impact on the laws of this country. For good, and for ill. So I believe it's important for us to think theologically about these issues. What do we believe about the origins of life? About the rights of women? About the responsibilities of reproduction? And how does our faith inform us on any of these issues?

And so this is my attempt to articulate my own views on these matters. As always, you're free to disagree, accept or reject any of my viewpoints, but I do hope that some of what I have to say helps you to think through these issues for yourself.

Time does not allow me to cover every issue, I'm not going to talk about contraception for instance, and there are many more things to be said about this, but I am genuinely interested in your own response, and how this helps, or doesn't.

Many of you are aware, yesterday was the 38th anniversary of Roe vs Wade, the Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal in this country. Even though I was not aware of it at the time, when I set this as the topic for this morning, it does seem like this is a very appropriate time for these reflections.

The first word I want to give is pastoral. The decision to abort a fetus, or not, is likely the most difficult decision a woman will ever face in her lifetime. I cannot conceive of any decision I would make as a man that would compare, even if it were my own wife that was pregnant and we were considering this. It would not be the same for me as a man, as it would be for a pregnant woman.

The sharp condemnation by some, like Randall Terry, used against women, attempting to shame them with their protests at abortion clinics into their way of thinking, is cruel and unusual punishment, and is simply another form of violence against women.

I chose this text, from Mark, about the hemorrhaging woman for this reason: here is a woman who is deeply shamed by society for her "unclean" condition. Now, we can say it wasn't her fault, you know, from our perspective with our modern medical knowledge. But in those days, that wasn't the case at all. If anything, most would have assumed it was her fault. It was a sign, or a punishment for some sin, most likely the assumption was whatever sin she committed was of a sexual nature. And hence the hemorrhage.

The words of Jesus, therefore, are words that especially every woman who has had an abortion and feels any guilt or shame needs to hear: daughter, your faith has made you well, go in peace, and be healed of your dis-ease. Go in peace, and be healed.

Now, the second word I want to offer is on the importance of religious freedom. Debating when life begins is like debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. We probably have many different views just right here in our own church. There is no one, single religious view, or even scientific view, or philosophical view.

Phillip Calef has written a great book on the topic, "Being Honest About Abortion", which Joanne Flanders brought into me last week, not knowing this was going to be my topic this Sunday, because she knows the author and he gave her a case of these books. So we have them to give out to anyone who is interested. He makes the point that life doesn't begin at birth, it doesn't begin at 24 weeks, it doesn't begin at conception, or at anywhere along that continuum. He says if you've ever looked at a human egg, or a sperm, under a microscope, if you've ever seen pictures of all those hundreds of sperm desperately trying to get in like would-be rock-stars at an American Idol audition, you know that life exists before conception. There is no one point where you can say "Boom! That's it! There's a human life, there's a human soul".

The prophet Jeremiah says before he was formed in the womb, God called him. And in Hebrews 7, we read that Levi was in the loins of Abraham, and if you know your genealogy, I'm sure you all remember that Levi is a good 2 generations removed from Abraham. He's a great-grandchild of Abraham. He's in the loins of Abraham, long before he was conceived.

Biblical authors did not know women carried an egg to be fertilized. They had no concept of conception. Women were simply the fertile ground where men implanted their seed. To say that the Bible affirms life begins at conception is therefore nonsense. 

The Mishna, part of Jewish scripture that came into being about the same time as our scripture, says specifically that life does not begin until the head emerges. And up until that point, an abortion was permitted, especially to preserve the life of the mother. 

Yesterday in our workshop on the Bible and homosexuality, we discovered, once again, how little the Bible says about homosexuality (and what it does say is often not what people think is says) -- the Bible says more about how we dress than it does about homosexuality, but that's another issue -- on abortion, it says even less. In fact, it says nothing at all.  [Note:  after I gave this sermon, I discovered a fascinating text in Numbers 5:11-31 which allows for a man to require his wife to submit to a ritual if he suspects that she has been unfaithful. The ritual includes an oath and the drinking of a potion, “water of bitterness that brings the curse”, which will make her womb discharge and her uterus drop if she has indeed been unfaithful.  In this case, if her unfaithfulness resulted in pregnancy, the ritual will cause the fetus to abort.  The passage is problematic on many levels, but just the possibility of an officially sanctioned abortion in the case of infidelity is considerable cause to question the concept of life beginning at conception.]

There is one passage about miscarriage in Exodus 21. It says if you injure a pregnant woman and cause a miscarriage, you are liable to pay a fine -- to the husband. To the husband. Right after that is the famous passage about an life for a life, and eye for an eye, and a tooth for a toot, which applies if the woman is injured, not the fetus. 

And of course, you remember that on the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus replaces that when he says "You have heard it said an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you 'do not resists an evildoer, if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn your other cheek also'.

Any passage used to condemn abortion, therefore, is simply reading into the text what is not there.

That's not to say one cannot make a sound religious argument, a theological argument, against abortion. As of course the Catholic church has done, and many others. And I respect that argument. But to make a Biblical argument requires putting words into the mouths of Biblical authors that are just not there.

So, finally, is there, then, a religious argument one can make for abortion. We all know the religious argument against -- primarily that life begins at conception and since all life is sacred to God, abortion is not permissible. And by the way, as I understand Catholic doctrine, that includes even when the life of the mother is in danger by the fetus.  There was an article in the paper just recently about a hospital in Arizona that was informed it could no longer use "Catholic" in it's name because they allowed an abortion to be performed to save the life of the mother.

So what is the religious argument for abortion? And I have to tell you, in all honesty, there isn't one. At least not one that I would make.

There is a religious argument for women. There's a religious argument for the freedom to choose. There's a religious argument for not sacrificing a life of a full existing human being for a not-yet born potential human being.

Which is to say, the religious argument is not for abortion. I don't think anyone can be for abortion. Abortion is always a painful and not to be preferred choice. But sometimes it is the least bad choice, when all of the other options are worse.

The moral choice is for the empowerment of women, and the sacredness of life. All life.

So let me just elaborate a little bit. First, on the respect for life. The life of the fetus, as well as the life of the mother and any other children in the family, as well as society, as well as the global community of human beings, all needs to be taken into account. In the case of severe deformities of a fetus, one has to ask what kind of life will that child have if born, if at all? Will it be a life free of pain & suffering? How will the lives of others be impacted? Will the birth of these fetus deprive other children of the care and nurturing that they deserve? Will carrying this fetus to term mean giving up the possibility of other children to be born to that woman, or that couple?

Or, consider the case of a pregnancy caused by a rape, especially if it is a young teenager. Frankly, I cannot make any moral argument that says that young teenager would be required, absolutely required, to carry that child of the rapist to term.

True respect for the sacredness of life does not mean that one potential life is more important than all other existing lives, but it does mean that we weigh all these issues carefully, prayerfully, spiritually, as we seek the will of God for the unborn as well as for the already-born.

Secondly, respect for women. For too long, men have been making the decisions for women regarding their bodies and reproductive rights. The Representative Barbara Gerlach, United Church of Christ Pastor in Washington D.C. put it this way in her sermon on the topic: "No state or religious authority, no parent or boyfriend, should be able to force a woman to bear a child, abort a child, or put up a child for adoption". 

I would add that no woman should face that decision alone, or be forced to make that decision without the support of caring friends and family, and medical professionals. And sadly, too many women feel they do not have the luxury of such support, and are forced to carry that burden alone. We as a society add to that burden when we heap not compassion, but shame, on women in that position. The shame, however, is ours, not theirs. It is time we recognize as a society that women are moral agents, capable of making moral decisions of their own. We need to be there to help them, support them, not to condemn them. To make the most difficult decision of their lives, and government has no business in such highly personal, moral decisions.

Justice Harry Blackman, who wrote the majority decision for Roe vs Wade, called it "a step that had to be taken, as we go down the road toward the full emancipation of women". Such emancipation is rooted in Christian belief in the full humanity of women, created equal with men, not as lesser partners incapable of making the right decisions for their lives, their bodies, or their fetus.

Mark does not tell us what caused this woman, who touched the cloak of Jesus, to hemorrhage for 12 years. Most likely, no one knew, and perhaps not even the woman herself. Was it because of a miscarriage? Was it because of a botched abortion attempt?

We know that 5 to 10 thousand women, every year, died because of such botched abortions, before Roe vs Wade. Whatever the cause, in spite of the shame it carried, this woman had the 'hutzpah' to do what she needed to to. To find healing and wholeness, that she could reclaim her life as a daughter of God. She is in many ways a role model for all women, maybe men too, who dare to assert their rights over their bodies as their faith and conscience would lead them.

"Go in peace", says Jesus, "your faith has made you well". Go in peace, your faith has made you whole.


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