The Compassionate Case for NY’s RHA

Eve Ettinger
Jan 28 · 8 min read

by Eve Ettinger & Debbie Holloway

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We grew up pro-life, wearing red duct tape on our mouths on the anniversary of Roe v Wade, carrying signs at protests, saying “Planned Parenthood” in whispers like it was a curse, crying for unborn babies all over America.

But as we got older, watching older siblings marry and have children, and researching birth control options before our weddings (because good Christian girls like us don’t usually get taught about these things before marriage) we discovered that we had been misled about how contraceptives work by the pro-life teachings of our community. The Pill doesn’t cause fertilized eggs to be aborted, it actually prevents fertilized eggs from being sloughed off before implantation at a rate that suggests it’s more pro-life to be on the pill than not. Plan B doesn’t kill a fertilized egg; the method by which it’s designed prevents ovulation and thereby prevents fertilization until the survival time for sperm in the vagina has expired. And maybe God doesn’t mystically micromanage pregnancies, Debbie realized, as her sister-in-law had three pregnancies in three and a half years…maybe the human body is a creature vulnerable to unprotected sex just like it is to gravity and germs!

Learning these things made us realize that we didn’t know the whole story, that we had been sheltered from information to keep us in line with our parents’ ideals and the political agenda of the Moral Majority and their heirs: vote pro-life above all else. Some of us were forbidden from asking too many questions. Others were too often given answers lacking complexity or empathy. When we asked “Why would anyone get an abortion when they could give it up for adoption?” Or, “Why would ANYONE get a late-term abortion?” we were answered with slow, disgusted head-shakes. “There is no reason. Only the evil and selfishness of the human heart.” A missed opportunity to cite Atticus Finch’s remonstration: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from [their] point of view — until you climb into [their] skin and walk around in it.” But once more facts and stories were available to us, we kept exploring and as we did, the cognitive dissonance between what we grew up being told and the facts we learned ballooned.

The history of human rights in the church is one that is often misunderstood both by Christians and by outsiders. There is a deep history of Christian thinkers arguing for “natural law” as opposed to an ethic of compassion; this is where you get arguments about LGBTQ people being “unnatural” and against taking someone off life support (like in the horrific case of Terri Schiavo), because these actions are not “natural,” which is considered the measure for determining what God’s law is. Therefore abortion is “unnatural,” and by that logic so is contraception of any kind, whether or not it kills fertilized eggs. It interferes with the “natural” order of things, therefore it’s morally wrong.

This is a deeply simplistic view within theological discussions, and bears reconsidering by the church. As the theologian Dr. Iain Duguid once told Eve, “If it reduces or mitigates the effects of the Fall, we should consider it as a gift from God.” This was said in the context of reducing human suffering by using vaccines and other similar scientific developments, but the broader implications are valuable here. If suffering in childbirth is the effect of the Fall, then having an epidural is a humane choice, and honors the process of renewing creation. If a mother and child dying during labor is preventable, it follows that supporting scientific developments to reduce that suffering and extending the life of the mother so she can perhaps have a viable birth later on would be the humane, compassionate theological choice.

The New York state legislature updating its statute on abortion to be consistent with Roe v Wade is causing a reaction in the Christian community that largely consists of misplaced grief. Grieving the loss of children, grieving death and miscarriage is a very normal human reaction, but that is simply not what the NY law is about. The Reproductive Health Act is a law that is far more compassionate and pro-life than Christians understand, and they should take the time to understand why.

If asked, most pro-life Christians would agree that a person seeking an abortion should not be thrown in jail. Many would extend that compassion to abortion providers as well — recognizing that the “sin” of abortion is a societal one: a grievous consequence of a system that makes a person feel like they have no choice other than to seek out the procedure. In that vein, the RHA decriminalizes abortion, first — which is good because it acknowledges that people who have abortions are often under other forms of duress and do not need to be slapped in the face with a felony when they are just trying to stay afloat financially, preserve a relationship they’re invested in, or keep themselves from being neglectful parents to their other children. The infrastructure to support people who are having an unexpected extra child (or to give them the resources to practice effective birth control) is simply not good enough to prevent some people from needing to terminate a pregnancy. This is the real crime.

Second, the law expands the terms where someone is able to access an abortion after 24 weeks — such abortions are exceedingly rare — to not just situations where continuing the pregnancy will inevitably kill the mother, but also to situations where continuing the pregnancy will put her health at serious risk and when doctors have identified a pregnancy as, tragically, nonviable. This expansion is tiny in terms of semantics, but the implications are incredibly kind.

People who get late-term abortions are ending wanted pregnancies, walking around with already-dead babies in their uteruses, or carrying children who are terminal, destined to endure increased suffering and unable to live outside of the uterus. They are not participating in eugenics and aborting disabled children who could live after birth, they are not killing a child that they just forgot to take care of before the 24 week mark. They are grappling with irreversible medical situations where a mother might bleed to death, or her uterus might be so damaged in the process that the injuries would be severe enough to derail the entire course of her life. This has been documented over and over again, and yet the Christian community seems to still deliberately misunderstand this fact.

These parents who have to terminate a pregnancy after 24 weeks are grieving. And undoubtedly it’s an ethical grey area, like so much of life. Is it more compassionate — or more selfish — to give birth to a child who is missing half its brain, and whose lungs developed on the outside, on the fractional chance that it might not only survive birth, but a few more hours? When parents opt to terminate during pregnancy out of compassion for the suffering of their wanted child and to save the life of the mother, it’s a situation so medically similar to a D&C after a miscarriage that it’s absurd to not extend these grieving parents the same compassion given to those grieving a miscarriage. A century ago, these situations would be indistinguishable but for the fact that too often the mother, not just the child, would also be dead.

Deliberately misunderstanding this reality is not empathetic, nor is it in keeping with the teachings of Jesus, who listened to those who asked for his help before responding. The “natural” order of things is a world where the privileged get more rich, the weak are left behind to die, and children more often than not don’t make it to adulthood — this is not a theology of restoring creation, it is a theology of the survival of the fittest. It presumes that those who have abortions are merely doing so because they are evil, and asks no questions. This is not anything like how Jesus ministered, seeking out the poor, the weak, the socially disenfranchised and helping them up.

The evangelical pro-life ethic is a noble instinct, but fractured. This week, we heard Christians exclaim that “taking a life under any circumstance is wrong,” even people whom we personally know to support government sponsored wars, the unfettered power of cops, and the death penalty. This dissonance occurs because the evangelical pro-life ethic is also deeply theoretical, and seems to be based on a sliding scale of innocence vs. guilt. Unborn babies are the most innocent, and already-born people are sinful. So when a child-bearing person is also an “innocent” (pregnant due to rape or incest, for example) they are still not quite as innocent as an unborn person. And therefore, the more innocent takes precedence, which is a bizarre ethical code for a group of people who claim to be all about being made new and living like Jesus.

Tragic though abortion may be, a pre-Roe v Wade society proved to us that this sliding scale lacks the necessary justice and equality for women to flourish in the same way that men are allowed to. So until our healthcare, education, and technology can improve the state of birth control, Christians would be wise to consider adopting a more nuanced ethic based on compassion and justice, rather than innocence vs. guilt. While it is grievous when an unborn child is terminated because society is full of discrimination, maleducation, and insufficient health care, compassion and justice must push us to offer some protection for the futures of those who are facing unviable pregnancies.

A pro-life theology is one that recognizes quality of life as a significant factor in enabling people to act justly, walk humbly, and minister to others. Without access to humane healthcare and hope for a future where they can thrive, people get ground down by our broken social support systems and ostracized by the church for making pragmatic decisions that they don’t want to have to make. We are grateful that the RHA has been passed, and that some of these difficult choices are made a little bit less frightening than they were before. Whether or not Christians would make the same choices themselves, whether or not they agree at all with the ethics involved, those who consider themselves the church should at the very least extend empathetic support for the few, burdened individuals who truly need this compassionate law.

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Eve Ettinger is an MFA in Creative Writing candidate at Hollins University (May ’19) where she is working on a memoir, Scapegoat. She is a board member for the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, and served in the Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan (2015–17). Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Autostraddle, The Establishment, The Rumpus, and Cosmopolitan. Listen to her podcast, Kitchen Table Cult, and follow her on Twitter.

Debbie Holloway works for the James Beard Foundation by day and reviews movies and books for Narrative Muse by night. She loves cooking, eating things her husband bakes, paperless community singing, her nephews and nieces, yoga, GIFs, rush tickets, and reading on the subway. She helped launch the Museum of Food and Drink in Brooklyn and has done editorial work for The Swan Children Magazine, Upstreet: A Literary Magazine, and Salem Web Network.

Eve Ettinger

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Writer, editor. MFA in Creative Writing, Hollins University. Working on a memoir about growing up in a fundamentalist Quiverfull cult. http://eveettinger.com