Although I blog about a lot of things, I’ve never written much about abortion or about why I am fundamentally “Pro-Choice.” But my friend Rev. Jim Rigby, a minister from Austin, asked yesterday for clergy who are Pro-Choice to sign their name to statement. I was please to stand with many other Texas clergy who did so, and you can read it here.
But given what the legislature has done to restrict safe, legal abortion in Texas, I feel driven to do much more than sign a statement. I’d like to speak plainly about why I am Pro-Choice. I could also give you very specific reasons why I believe this new law is unnecessary new regulation and intrusion into the lives of women, but I will do that another time. (The letter will have to suffice for now…)
I’d like to tell you the stories of the two women who enfleshed for me the reality of what it means to be Pro-Choice. All this happened very early in my ministry, and I can only tell the story now by obscuring the details enough to protect those involved. (Sufficed to say, if you think you know who I’m talking about in these stories, I would bet there’s a 100 percent chance you are wrong…)
Early on in my ministry, I had the chance to give counsel to two women, both of whom had become pregnant. I will call them Penny and Gail. I can’t tell you how I knew them. It was not through any church I served in my full-time ministry.
Again, the details of this story would make it more interesting to tell, but also give too much away. I can tell you that both were young, single and almost mirror images of each other in terms of education and life. Neither or these women ever met each other, nor did they ever know that they were experiencing similar situations.
Penny was from a small town and had lived there most of her life. She had a boyfriend that she hadn’t planned on marrying, but when she found herself pregnant, that’s what she ended up doing. Both families surrounded the couple with love, support, and made it clear that they would provide a great deal of moral, emotional and financial support.
Gail was in a much different place. She lived far from her family. The young man who got her pregnant also did not have family nearby. In fact, there wasn’t really any real relationship between the two of them. The “relationship” had been an unfortunate “one night stand.” It was very clear that if she had the child, she’d be raising it alone, without the significant support of family or him.
Again, there are more details in both cases that I can’t share. But that’s the outline.
Penny decided to keep her baby, marry her boyfriend, and asked me to do the wedding. Which I happily agreed to do.
Gail decided to have an abortion.
The surreal thing is this: both the wedding and the abortion happened on the same day.
Again, these women never knew each other, and could not possibly have known of the confluence of these two events. In fact, I’m not sure anybody else besides me ever knew.
But on one particular day, early in my ministry, I did a wedding for young, pregnant Penny, on the very same day that Gail had an abortion.
What was clear to me then, and is still absolutely clear to me now, is that both women made the best decision for their lives.
Each of them carried regrets on that day. But each of them had prayed, weighed all the factors involved, and each of them made a good decision. My calling wasn’t to make the decision for them, but to walk with them as their looked for where God, and their life, was leading them.
The truth is that to make either choice these women had before them –to carry a child to term and enter into an unplanned marriage, or to have an abortion– absolutely “closed” certain other doors in their lives. It’s impossible for a woman to make these kinds of choices without understanding that in a visceral way.
Each choice cuts off some potential future decisions, just as every life-choice does for each of us on any random day of our lives.
My own experience?
These women took their situation very very seriously. And they made the best choice for them. The surreality for me was that crucial “day of decision” which ended up being the same day.
And that, my friends, is the heart of what it means to be “Pro-Choice.”
It does not mean you are “Pro-Abortion.” It means you understand that these decisions are gut wrenching, life-changing and that rarely does any woman take them lightly.
The tale of these two women are why I am Pro-Choice. Because, for reasons I cannot share with you, it was so crystal clear to me that each was making a good decision.
And, having told you about them, let me get into some specifics. A few truths about what it means to be Pro-Choice and Christian…
A First Truth: Yes, There Are Pro-Choice Christians
Many Christians, even many clergy, are “Pro-Choice.” They fundamentally believe that a woman’s right to choose is important, and that abortion should be legal, safe, and available to any woman who wishes access to it.
There are many clergy of all Christian denominations, and all faiths, who affirm a woman’s right to choose. The letter I mentioned will show you the names of just a handful. Those names were collected in mere hours yesterday morning.
The United Methodist Church, in our Social Principles, supports the legal option of abortion. The specific sentences about this are here:
“We recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures by certified medical providers…
We call all Christians to a searching and prayerful inquiry into the sorts of conditions that may cause them to consider abortion. We entrust God to provide guidance, wisdom, and discernment to those facing an unintended pregnancy.”
The statement is much longer than this, and says much about working to make sure that abortion rates are low as low as possible. You can read the whole thing here.
A Second Truth: Nobody Comes To Their View Without Wobbling Knees
This is why I told you the story of these two women.
If you think that most Pro-Choice or most Pro-Life folks never have a single doubt, when they are by themselves in the dark of their own thoughts, you are wrong. I’m not taking about “activists” speaking at some press conference. I am talking about average people, in the privacy of their own homes/lives.
Some women who choose to carry a baby to term and give it up for adoption are later beset with guilt.
Others are not.
Some women who have safe, legal abortions are later beset with guilt.
Others are not.
Ditto for the men/fathers in both cases too.
The point is: the decisions are gut wrenching no matter what the decisions are. I know and understand this.
A Third Truth: The Bible May Not Be As Pro-Life as You Think.
In what I am about to say, I am not attempting to belittle those who choose to be “Pro-Life.” God bless you if that is your view. What I am saying is this: If you believe the Bible categorically, emphatically, and with zero ambiguity, declares that “life begins at conception,” you are wrong.
Sorry. That just the plain truth.
The reality is that the Bible says seemingly contradictory things about the beginnings of human life. It does so, primarily, because the Bible is not a science book. It’s not, through its words and stories, trying to relay scientific fact to us. Therefore, the Bible doesn’t seem to care that it appears to be grossly contradictory on abortion, or on any other subject for that matter.
Yes, there are passages that say “I knit you together in the womb,” but these are not said as scientific fact, but as metaphor.
And, there are very clear alternative Biblical views as to when life begins, and when God creates it.
The most impressive is at the very beginning: The creation story of “Adam.” Adam is created “out of the dust of the ground.” God works like a potter at a potter’s wheel and molds the dust into the form a human being. (Again, note how metaphorical these images are…)
But! This mud-figure is not yet alive. It’s what happens next that makes the difference:
“God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man(sic) became a living soul.” (Genesis 2:7)
Using stories that are mostly “stories”….poetry…metaphor….this story is trying to answer some very mysterious questions about all of existence:
What makes all living things different from the rocks and the dirt?
The breath of God, moving through a breathing being.
What happens to us once our physical bodies die?
They go back to that dust where they came from. We are from dust, and to dust our bodies return.
Point is: Before God breathes the “breath of life” into Adam, “the man” is simply a lifeless form. He’s not a human being. In fact, the story makes it crystal clear that he’s a lifeless form.
For the first human being, then, life begins at breath; not at conception.
The thought is repeated in Job: “The Spirit of God hath made me, and the breath of the Almighty hath given me life.” (Job 33:4)
And, lest you believe that Adam’s story was a one-time event, unlike any other, the thought continues in Ezekiel:
“So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army.” (Ezekiel 37:10)
Again, in these last two passages, as in Genesis, the key moment, that dividing line between life and death, is breath.
In the Hebrew and in the Greek, the words for breath, wind, and Spirit are exactly the same word. They’re not kinda of similar. They are literally and exactly the same word.
Throughout the Bible, then, there is a strong metaphorical case –a case made from the same kind of Biblical “warrant” used to assert “life begins at conception”– to say that life begins at the time when breath begins.
According to many places in the Bible, a body, any kind of human body, without breath, is less than a full human being.
Now, am I willing to push this to its extreme and boldly proclaim: “Life begins with birth”?
No. I am not. Because –just as I deeply wish the “life begins at conception” folks could also admit– I know and understand too much of science to do that. I know there is definitely a time of “viability” that come before the moment of birth. I also know that technology is constantly pushing our view of precisely when that moment is.
My point is that I know, with equal and unshakable certainty, that it is just as wrong to say “life begins at conception” as to say “life begins at birth.”
To crow too loudly about the Bible in either direction is a terrible misuse of the Holy Scripture.
But, my original point was this, and I’ll end with it again, because it will remain a shocker to some of you:
The Bible in no way definitively, without ambiguity or with scientific certainty, says “life begins at conception.”
That is the truth of the Bible, whether you understand that or not.
That leads me immediately to another truth: It’s very clear, then, that if a human life does not begin at conception, and that if the Bible is at best inconsistent in what it says about when life begins, abortion cannot be considered “murder.”
Or, at least if you believe that it is, you can’t in good conscience say it’s because “God says so.”
You may believe it. That’s fine. But it’s not clear God does.
A Third Truth: (And a very hard one) Abortion/Miscarriage Happens in Nature
This is hard/awful point to have to make. But given the bold, crowing of some Pro-Life Christians, it must be made.
Taking all moral judgment out what I am about to say, we must admit that miscarriages happen in nature. They are terribly, terribly painful for us human animals, especially the mothers who suffer through them. So, it is terribly difficult for me to even talk about these things, because I understand just how painful the point I am trying to make here is.
We know that miscarriages happen to every animal species on the planet, including some human women. Sometimes, we never end up knowing why they happen. But they do.
Some Christians believe that God literally and intentionally causes and directs all of life’s events. (I do not believe this. I am noting that “some” Christians do).
A great many of these Christians would call themselves “Pro-Life,” and say that God intends for all babies to have the chance at life. They therefore say that abortion takes a life. In fact, they say, as I did in the last section, that “abortion is murder.”
OK. So, let’s push this to its extreme. If that’s the case, then by their own logic, how do they explain the morality of miscarriages?
Again, this is a hard case to make, but bear with me…
Does God love women who miscarry less?
Is God being especially cruel to them?
Being intentionally cruel to them?
No! Of course not! I could not believe in such a God!
I do not believe that God intentionally causes miscarriages to happen to specific women. Like much else that happens to us medically, I believe biological processes simply are what they are. Things happen for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with the specific “will of God.” God does not cruelly force miscarriages on to women.
But! For the staunch Pro-Life, Biblical-literalist how is there any other choice but to say that “God makes and causes some women to miscarry?!!!”
Therefore, taken to its horrid extreme, there is no escaping the idea that God not only believes in abortion, but that God is the spiritual abortion-provider for these women! If you take the Biblical literalist to their own logical extreme (not mine), God –in God’s self– performs abortions.
I do not believe that God is an abortion-provider, any more than I believe that God foreordains every moment of our lives at the moment of our conception. Both of those views violate the idea that God give us free will, which is why I don’t believe them. But, I do believe in free will.
And this gets me to my final point…
Free Will Means Choice
Not only does God not foreordain every moment of life (the fundamentalist, literalist Christian view) but God does give us true free will.
And true free will means this: We have choice. We have decision. What we do matters in the world. Incarnationally, it means that literally every choice we make, every time we make it, every decision-point, affects our future destiny.
Taking all thought of abortion out of this next sentence, I emphatically affirm the following:
To be “Pro-Free Will” means to be “Pro-Choice.”
Again, in that last sentence, I am speaking theologically about the nature of ALL human existence and reality. To truly believe in God and to truly affirm the “free will” God gives us, means we fundamentally affirm that God gives us real choice in life. Not “fake” choice, or choice that just seems like real choice. REAL choice.
As it pertains to the abortion debate, it means this: God gives us the power to choose abortion, or to not chose abortion.
And this, my friends is what it means to me to be “Pro-Choice.”
You can actually be “Pro-Life,” (morally and personally against abortion) and still be “Pro-Choice” (morally and personally for our right to make choices).
These things are not inconsistent, although they are often posited this way in the debate.
God is not the One who foreordains each and every moment of our lives.
The proper way to understand God’s “omniscience” is not to say “God knows our specific life-path,” but instead to say “God knows all our future possibilities.”
God knows and understands the almost infinite possible choices we can make in life at any moment. And, in every moment of life, there are myriads of choices we can make. Frankly, we far too often forget this. We pretend that our choices are made for us, as if everything is planned.
But it’s not. The gift of “free will” is a real thing. Not fake or pretend. It’s a blessing of God. But, it’s also a curse in that it puts hard, moral choices squarely on our shoulders, to live with the consequences, whatever we choose.
The choices we make are, literally, up to us.
Back to Those Two Women
Which gets me, finally, back to the beginning, and those two young women, Penny and Gail.
As I said, I truly believe each of them made the best decision for their lives. The details of their lives help me to understand this in ways I can’t share with you.
Can I say, “They made a decision that would be “morally right in all cases?”
No. I cannot say this.
But neither can anyone else, because that’s not how life works.
That’s now how the universe works. That’s not how God intends for us to live.
For those of us who believe in God, God intends for us to approach our decision-points in prayer, in consultation with family, friends, even clergy perhaps. God intends for us to weigh the “pros/cons” of our decisions.
But since God’s omniscience rests not in knowing our “one specific path,” but in “all our possible paths,” the burden of the free will God has given us means that our specific choices are up to us.
God is present in the choices. God is present in our lives, no matter which roads we choose.
I know that Gail’s abortion was not murder. I know that Penny’s marriage was blessed by God. I know that God was most definitely present with both as they made their decisions. And although I have no idea where they are in life today, I am absolutely confident that God has continued to bless them both with grace beyond measure.
Because that’s what God always does.
The tale of these two women is why I am “Pro-Choice.” They taught me in a powerful way that God is always standing with us in the decision-points of life. They reminded me how God does not foreordain all of life’s decisions. God’s free will very often leaves the choices to us.
It’s a powerful and awesome responsibility.
I’m glad God set up the universe this way.
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