This sermon was given by Anna Rich, a lawyer and member of our congregation. An audio version of the sermon is available here. (The audio begins at about the second paragraph below.)
Intro—Why I Am Doing This
Several months ago, right after the Supreme Court issued its decision overturning Roe v. Wade, Sheri mentioned that in all of the time she’s been at First Mennonite Church, we’ve never actually talked about abortion as a congregation. I’m up here this morning because I have a leading that our collective silence on this topic does not necessarily come from a healthy place. Silence certainly doesn’t help us to have difficult conversations when we, or our friends and family, are faced with the common occurrence of an unplanned pregnancy.
This morning, I’m not planning to talk abortion law, or politics, or what I see as the structural justice issues behind abortion politics. Just find me during fellowship hour if you want to talk about any of that! Today I am interested in talking about faith and abortion, and what has been going unsaid during all those decades when we’ve been politely avoiding the subject.
Kenda, I want to thank you very much for your and Leena’s advice about hard conversations. It is quite possible—in fact, I think very likely—that we will not all agree about abortion, even if none of us is happy with the Supreme Court’s decision. So let’s do as Leena suggests: take a deep breath, and be grateful that we are here today among friends. [pause for deep breath.]
Christian Church History
When I started preparing for this reflection, I thought to myself: “I know a lot about abortion, because part of my job as a lawyer has involved protecting access to reproductive healthcare. This will be my chance to really dive deep into religious traditions and learn more about what those have to say about abortion.”
And I did read – a lot. I learned that, although there was some variation, generally in the early church (when all written records were written by men), abortion was considered a sin in the same way that masturbation was a sin, or contraception was a sin. Speaking of men, I learned that the Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas thought that all embryos began as biologically male, and half of them got “deformed” and ended up female. Therefore, Aquinas thought “ensoulement” (supposedly the moment when a fetus acquires a rational soul rather than a vegetative or animal soul) happens 40 days earlier for a male fetus than a female fetus. I also read that some men were convinced that every sperm contained a little tiny human that only needed to be planted in a uterus to grow. I learned that condemnation of abortion from the moment of conception only became a mainstream position among religious leaders in the second half of the 19th century.
At some point, I stopped researching church history on abortion. It didn’t feel helpful. There is just too big a gulf between our current understanding and historical church leaders’ views about sexuality, and gender, and the rights of women and LGBTQ people, not to mention basic biology. Thank God for that.
I turned, instead, to the Bible, a text I personally do not take literally, but do try to take seriously.
The Psalm Kenda read earlier [Psalm 139, verses 1-17] is one of the most commonly quoted passages supporting the position that the Bible forbids abortion. When I read that Psalm, however, I find beautiful spiritual truths that don’t really speak to abortion. To me, the psalmist is describing our connection to the divine: this impossible and amazing idea that we are just one speck in this vast universe yet still absolutely known and unique, loved and important. It would be less poetic, but the same sentiment, if the psalmist told God, “you have known me since I was a twinkle in my mother’s eye.” And you don’t have to read far to find language that most of us really wouldn’t want to take too literally—that particular psalm continues with its author pleading with God to “kill the wicked.” (That part doesn’t get quoted as often!)
Another often quoted Bible passage that arguably speaks most directly to abortion is Exodus, chapter 21, verse 22, which says: “When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine.” That passage continues: “If any harm follows,” (by harm, they seem to mean a harm that is more than miscarriage), “then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” and so forth. This passage gets quoted on both sides of the abortion debate. On the one hand, clearly, this law condemns people who fight and cause miscarriage! On the other hand, it says that the penalty for causing a miscarriage is whatever the husband and judges think it should be, and only if there is “further harm” would the “life for life” rule apply. Moreover, this chapter in Exodus contains verses that can easily be read to support slavery, and the concept that it is ok to treat people like property.
I could spend all morning doing exegesis of supposedly abortion-related passages, but the bottom line is that I do not think the Bible provides us a specific roadmap for ethical choices when it comes to abortion.
Is Abortion Murder? My Perspective
The real question, in my mind, is whether abortion is wrong because it is murder. Does “do not kill” apply to an embryo, or a fetus? We Mennonites are accustomed to taking important Biblical commands like “do not kill” very seriously, and to give powers and principalities the side eye when they start coming up with convenient justifications for killing, and the same to religious leaders who go along with those justifications. We appreciate the value of bright lines, for instance, that lead us to oppose capital punishment and refuse military service.
Not being a theologian, the best insight I have to whether “do not kill” applies is from my own individual abortion story. At the time, I didn’t think of it as an “abortion story,” because it involved a wanted pregnancy. When Colin and I first decided we were ready to have kids, I was in my early thirties, and it took a while for me to get pregnant, so when I finally did, I was ecstatic. I felt really ready to be a mother. My first prenatal appointment was not until I was 7 or 8 weeks along, and by then I was fully invested in welcoming a baby. But they couldn’t find a heartbeat. I was still technically pregnant, but the embryo wasn’t viable. The midwife explained my choices. I could just wait; my body would eventually figure it out and I’d have a miscarriage. I could have a surgical procedure to remove it, but only after waiting a few days; or I could take one of the pills used in medication abortions and have a miscarriage right away, at home.
I chose a pill, and it was a miserable experience. I remember being curled up in a fetal position on our bathroom floor. Colin remembers the pain rendering me unable to even speak for a long stretch. We grieved that pregnancy loss hard. If any of you were here in the sanctuary the Sunday after, more than 15 year ago, you may have seen me sobbing during joys and concerns. But – here’s the thing— for me, I did not grieve the loss of a person. It was a loss of potential life, a loss of my pregnancy, of Colin’s and my plans for parenthood, but not a death.
I recognize that different pregnant people could very easily have very different views on that experience. Certainly, Colin and I had the privilege in hindsight of eventually ending up with exactly the size family we’d hoped for, although I know there are never any guarantees.
To me, the real miracle is this: the two children Colin and I have been lucky enough to have and love are EXACTLY the right people to be born. They are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” just as the psalmist promised! I would never want to undo the miscarriage and the grief, which ultimately led to these particular daughters. In retrospect, I am grateful.
Questions to Think About
In light of all that, my personal view is that embryos and fetuses, precious and beloved though they may be, are not people; and abortion is not murder. Even coming from that perspective, I think a decision to have an abortion would be very hard in some circumstances (though easy in others). It helps me to think of the questions I would ask myself, or my daughters, in those situations.
Question to Think About #1: What is pro-life?
First: what decision would be pro life? I know that it might be hard to separate the term “pro life” from all its political baggage, but I think it is worth trying. I believe that the Bible and our Christian tradition are abundantly, joyously, death-defyingly pro life – a life with the opportunity for relationship to other people, and to Spirit, and to creation. Pregnancy can be an amazing opportunity to continue and celebrate life, potentially worth saying yes to even when it is difficult or inconvenient. But there are also difficult situations in which continuing a pregnancy is emphatically not pro life, especially when we are thinking of life not in terms of a heartbeat on a sonogram, but in terms of the physical and mental flourishing of both the potential parent and the potential child.
Earlier today we sang “In The Bulb There is a Flower,” one of the songs Colin and I always used to sing to our girls when they were little before they fell asleep at night. As an analogy to the difference between an embryo or fetus and a child, it isn’t perfect, but I find it helpful. We care about the lives of seeds and the apple trees that they could become, even though we also know that they are not the same and do not get equal treatment. The entire circle of life is still sacred and known by God.
Questions to Think About: What are our obligations to each other?
The second question, which might be even trickier than “is continuing this pregnancy pro-life?”, is, what burdens and obligations am I being called to uphold? In the case of deciding to continue a pregnancy, should I fulfill the role and duties that come with being a parent, or even only the role and obligations that come with continuing a pregnancy and giving birth?
I believe that one of the main responsibilities in my life is, with God’s help, to love other people. The easiest (but also sometimes most difficult!) place to start living up to that responsibility is in the context of my own immediate family. I am grateful that the relationships I am in were the result of choices I made, and continue to make, rather than coercion. But I don’t assume that God is always calling us toward nuclear families—after all, it is probably easier to find examples of Jesus calling us away from conventional roles and obligations, than towards them.
Whether to continue a pregnancy is an unusually high stakes decision, but every person who is in relationship with other people has to make numerous, more mundane but sometimes difficult decisions about what to do when vocations and family or similar obligations clash. Sometimes, when faced with a choice of whether to accept unplanned burdens, we decide we must say yes. Sometimes, we decide we must say no. Sometimes, saying no carries shame and guilt, and we’re understandably less likely to bring those types of struggles to our public joys and concerns. Usually, the question of what God is calling us to do requires individual discernment. There is no easy, external answer.
My hope is that, as a community, we can have thick conversations that ask these types of questions, even when they don’t come with easy answers. I gave this sermon partly because I want to hear more of your stories—not necessarily about abortion per se, but all of the sticky stuff relating to our obligations to family, whether chosen or biological; to parenting and caregiving; and to our bodies. These are the kinds of stories that have often historically been considered “women’s” issues, but are really just human issues. I want to hear about how we try to be faithful even when it is hard. And when those stories come, I pray to God that we can listen well.