Sacred Choices: Abortion
Rev. Eileen Lindsay, Walnut Creek United Methodist Church
Psalm 139: 1–6, 13–18
1 O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
3 You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.
5 You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.
13 For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.
17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!
18 I try to count them — they are more than the sand; I come to the end — I am still with you.
The 2004 British film, Vera Drake, is about a woman who is a cheerful, helpful, grandmotherly type who’s ready with a kind word or an offer to “put the kettle on.” Then we learn that, she has a secret — she performs abortions for women who can’t afford to get them done “the right way.” She uses a syringe to pump a woman’s womb full of soapy water, which results in a miscarriage. Vera does not view what she does as wrong, even though she is aware it’s against the law. She doesn’t use the word “abortion.” Instead, she refers to herself as “helping women.” Unfortunately, when one of the women she “helps” ends up in the hospital and nearly dies, she is arrested, tried, convicted and sent to prison. The film lays bare the circumstances in the early 1950s that allowed women of wealth to have safe, comfortable procedures in clinics while poorer women were forced to resort to “back alley” operations. This is a world that continued in the United States until just 44 years ago, when the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade.
Psalm 139:13 says “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” More clearly than any other verse, this 3000 year old song of praise states that the relationship with God begins in utero. Jews and Christians take as sacred that we are all made in the image of God, not just those people who happen to be Pharaohs, Caesars, or Kings. Elaine Pagels says, the Bible “forged the basis for what would become, centuries later, the western ideas of freedom and of the infinite value of each human life.” How do we respect human life in a decision about abortion that pits the life of the mother against the developing life of the unborn child?
The Bible does not speak about abortion. The closest it gets is in Exodus 21:22, which speaks of accidental abortion, “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.” If the woman had died, capital punishment would be allowed, but the fetus did not have the same status as the mother in Hebrew law.
Christian theological tradition adopted the idea of delayed ensoulment from the Greeks. It taught that the spiritual human soul did not arrive in the fetus until as late as three months into the pregnancy. Prior to that time, the life did not have the moral status of a person. The common pastoral view was “that ensoulment occurred at quickening, when the fetus could first be felt moving in the mother’s womb, usually early in the fifth month. . . This was the reason the church did not baptize miscarriages or stillbirths.”[i] Church Father, Tertullian, discusses what we would today call a late-term emergency abortion. He calls it a “necessary cruelty.” Augustine pondered whether early fetuses who miscarried would rise in the resurrection of the dead. He said they would not. Even Roman Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas, held the view that the early fetus did not have the status of a person, and that early abortions were not murder.
In the fifteen century, Archbishop Antonius of Florence approved of early abortions to save the life of the woman. He was later canonized as a Saint. In the sixteenth century, Antonius de Corduba said that medicine that caused abortion could be taken even later in a pregnancy if the mother’s health required it. The mother, he insisted, had a prior right. In the nineteenth century, the Vatican was invited to enter a debate on a very late-term abortion, in order to save the woman’s life. The Vatican refused to decide the case, referring the questioner to the various positions of the theologians. What most people think of as “the Catholic position” on abortion dates only from the 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii of Pope Pius XI declaring abortion a sin against life.
The most recent statement on abortion, adopted by the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church is this: “… Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion. But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child.
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 support parental, guardian, or other responsible adult notification and consent before abortions can be performed on girls who have not yet reached the age of legal adulthood. We cannot affirm abortion as an acceptable means of birth control, and we unconditionally reject it as a means of gender selection or eugenics (see Resolution 3184).
Governmental laws and regulations do not provide all the guidance required by the informed Christian conscience. Therefore, a decision concerning abortion should be made only after thoughtful and prayerful consideration by the parties involved, with medical, family, pastoral, and other appropriate counsel.[ii]
It’s important to note that the Church’s statements on social issues, such as abortion, represent the effort of the General Conference to speak to human issues in the contemporary world from a sound biblical and theological foundation. They are intended to be instructive and persuasive, but they are not church law and are not binding on members. Members will hold differing views on abortion. There is no requirement for members to agree with the Church’s view.
The American Baptist, Episcopalians, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, The Quakers, The Disciples of Christ, the Moravian church in American, The Presbyterian church (USA), the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, The Unitarian Universalist Association, and The United Church of Christ, and the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements of Judaism, all have similar statements affirming the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures.
Teilhard de Chardin said that nothing is intelligible outside its history. Christianity was born in a world in which abortion was known and practiced, but deadly. For this reason, throughout the world, the main way of dealing with an unwanted child was infanticide. Jews and Christianity preached against infanticide, but evidence exists that it continued to be practiced. Late medieval and early modern records show a higher incidence of “accidental” infant deaths caused by “rolling over: or smothering of infants, or deaths reported as “stillborn” than would be expected. [iii]
During the Middle Ages, however, infanticide was much less common than abandonment. Infants for whom parents could not provide were most often left at crossroads, on the doorsteps of individuals, or in marketplaces in the hope that the child would be adopted by passerby. More often it condemned the children to death by exposure or a life of slavery. To ease this crisis, the church in the Middle Ages provided for oblation. This meant that children could be offered to the church to be raised in convents or monasteries. Another church response to unwanted children was the foundling hospital. The foundling hospitals were equipped with a kind of wheel, on which the child could be placed anonymously; then the wheel turned, putting the child inside. The good intentions in this were not matched with resources; the vast majority of these infants, sometimes 90 percent of them, were dead within months. [iv] Abortion has become an alternative to infanticide, abandonment and oblation.
Good Christians will disagree about abortion, but there are things we could all agree on. We could all agree that there are too many abortions. We could also all agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies. We might further agree that in a perfect world, there would be almost no need for abortion. And we could certainly agree that this world is not a utopia. It is a world in which rape, sexual abuse, and grinding poverty are common. Sex education is often absent or distorted. Contraception is unavailable for hundreds of millions of women. The question for us is can we endorse the moral freedom of women to make this decision in an imperfect world or should this decision be outlawed by our government?
I distinctly remember that pre-1973 world, when I was in High School in Wisconsin where abortion was illegal. Girls who became pregnant made desperate decisions. The affluent had the choice to fly to California or New York to get abortions. Some girls were forced to drop out of school to have the child and get married. Some girls just disappeared; some no doubt went to homes for unwed mothers and gave their child up for adoption. But some had coat hanger abortions and died. Despite the consequences, the legal situation did not prevent teenagers from engaging in risky sexual behavior.
The need for legal and safe abortion is a deadly serious issue. Every year, worldwide, about 42 million women with unintended pregnancies choose abortion, and nearly half of these procedures, 20 million, are unsafe. Some 68,000 women die of unsafe abortion annually, making it one of the leading causes of maternal mortality (13%). Of the women who survive unsafe abortion, 5 million will suffer long-term health complications. Unsafe abortion is thus a pressing issue. Both of the primary methods for preventing unsafe abortion — less restrictive abortion laws and greater contraceptive use — face social, religious, and political obstacles, particularly in developing nations, where most unsafe abortions (97%) occur. Even where these obstacles are overcome, women and health care providers need to be educated about contraception and the availability of legal and safe abortion, and women need better access to safe abortion and post-abortion services. Otherwise, desperate women, facing the financial burdens and social stigma of unintended pregnancy and believing they have no other option, will continue to risk their lives by undergoing unsafe abortions.[v]
Our church has trained Stephen Ministers to offer Christian care giving to people faced with the complexities of life, including decisions about child bearing, divorce, disease and death. Stephen Ministers meet once a week with a person to listen, share and offer prayer. They are supervised and keep all conversations confidential.
We are a community of faith that takes the sanctity of life seriously. No one has to make a decision about a crisis pregnancy alone. We commit our Church to continue to provide nurturing ministries to those who terminate a pregnancy, to those in the midst of a crisis pregnancy, and to those who give birth. Let us pray.
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[i] Christine Gudorf, International University in Miami, quoted in Sacred Choices, Daniel C. Maguire, (Fortress Press: Minneapolis) 2001, p.32.
[ii] Book of Discipline ¶161.J
[iii] Gudorf in Sacred Choices, op.cit. p.33.
[iv] op.cit. p. 34.
[v] Lisa B Haddad, MD, MA, Clinical Fellow in Obstetrics and Nawal M Nour, MD, MPH , “Unsafe Abortion: Unnecessary Maternal Mortality” Reviews in Obstetrics and Gynecology, 2009 Spring; 2(2): 122–126.