an intermezzo about abortion

“There aren’t ‘women who have abortions’ and ‘women who have babies.’ Those are the same women at different points in their lives.” — Rachel Atkins, PA, MPH, Executive Director, Vermont Women’s Health Center

My children are the joy of my life. I love them more than I would have imagined possible; they add depth and meaning to my days and challenge me to seize the moment, to see the good, to be true to my best self far more effectively than anything else ever has.  That these things are true, and that the idea of having another child, at least right now, is impossibly frightening, is one of those strange paradoxes of life.  My husband and I have our hands full in every possible way. The past year has been very interesting around here, and in the midst of it, I took a pregnancy test, got an unexpected result . . . and I cried.

And eventually, I thought the unthinkable—the dark whisper that comes after, “I cannot be pregnant right now.”  Or, I halfway thought it, only to be overwhelmed by fear, guilt, shame . . . in the hours between taking that test and talking with my husband, I felt something like despair.  I knew that in even thinking about ending a pregnancy, I was turning away from my faith in God.  And I knew equally that my marriage, while wonderful in many ways, had been strained to the limit by our two career, two commute lifestyle, a series of significant (and horrifically expensive) health challenges and an ongoing, soul-gutting lack of sleep best employed in the context of a gulag.

Having a third child is an expensive proposition by any measure, but in this reality, it felt like the true cost might be my soul.  And of course, I worried about that fairly literally on the other side, not because I believe in eternal damnation, but because I believe that we are responsible for our decisions, and there was no potential cost that made this one feel defensible.

In short, I didn’t feel free to think about abortion.  I also didn’t feel like I could talk about my fear and internal struggle, not anywhere, but particularly not in the context of church.  In the Christian church, I’d find platitudes and guilt . . . and in the Unitarian church . . . I wasn’t sure. And after some soul-searching, I decided not to find out.

Ultimately, it wasn’t fear of God, but fear that I would not, could not be heard on my own terms in the Unitarian context that kept me silent.  I was afraid I might lose UU as a safe space for my family—not because I’d be shamed for considering an abortion, but because I might be encouraged to, in a way that would let me know, irrevocably, that my own spiritual experiences are not taken seriously by this religion.

This is unfortunate, as I have rarely felt so acutely in need of spiritual guidance.   I was terrified—and my terror at the situation was compounded by fear of becoming an unwitting case study for those determined to view “crisis pregnancy” as solely a medical decision or even a political statement.  I feared being ideologically manhandled by people whose devotion to their cause makes it difficult for them to acknowledge the toll that “choice” can take—even where that choice seems the more survivable one for the members of our family living outside of the womb.  And I realize now—I realized then; irony is bitter—that I had helped to build the ideological walls that entrapped me.

By framing the issue in black and white terms, by choosing a “side,” and then choosing another; in agreeing, tacitly or explicitly, to be identified as part of a group differentiated from another group on the sole basis of my thoughts about abortion, I had left myself precious little room to manage the actual events of life.  By reducing this life circumstance to an “issue,” my response to it was equivalent to a “statement” . . . unless I’d prefer to remain anonymous.

In the end, it wasn’t a decision we had to make.  I wish I could tell you I was entirely happy about that.  I wish I could tell you I wasn’t.  The reality is, it was a terrible, scary, confusing few days . . . and I’m still confused about these issues, it still scares me to think of becoming unintentionally pregnant, and it continues to feel terrible to weigh quality of life (mine, my husband’s, and our children’s) versus actuality of life (an unborn child’s).  The best thing I can say is that I have a deeper understanding of how incredibly complicated and fraught these decisions are—not unlike end of life decisions, which in some ways this is—and greater empathy, on both sides.  I hope that this more nuanced picture of reality enables me to respond more creatively as a participant in our ongoing dialogue about abortion.

Partly this means a change in the way I envision the conversation.  It also impacts the way I engage with the social justice piece of reproductive health.  Thus, as part of our family’s inaugural Chalica celebration this year, we made a donation on day 2 to celebrate justice, compassion, and mercy. I considered our local battered women’s shelter, the rape crisis center . . . and Planned Parenthood.

After careful consideration, I chose Planned Parenthood—not because I feel any less conflicted about the moral issues we confront in the abortion debate, but because the work that they are doing to allow women to lead healthy and productive lives—and here I am talking about basic and essential preventive health care, friends—is simply not being routinely provided by anyone else.  In fact, in many communities it is no longer being provided by anyone at all, and there is every indication that this trend will continue.  This is unacceptable; it is, in fact, an sign that we have lessened the humanity of women in poverty.  I felt a bit strange, but also proud, making this donation, and the same mix of pride and apprehension in posting about it on my facebook page.  I may have lost a few “friends”—or not—but the world continued to turn despite my embrace of a messy take on morality.  Nothing of note changed . . . except for me.

In this conflicted, messy, imperfect action–in recognizing the humanity on all sides of this conflicted, messy, and imperfect discussion–I took a small but significant step away from polarity.  What started with my wallet—and believe me, I experienced no small amount of cognitive dissonance making this donation; I really did have to force myself—ultimately brought my heart along for the ride.

I am not somebody’s pawn in this conversation.  And as it turns out, you don’t have to be, either.  How often do we paint ourselves into a corner of a discussion that shouldn’t have corners in the first place?  Why do we let others define the terms of our thoughts and opinions on some of the most nuanced issues we confront?  We step into the midst of a polemic that we had no role in creating (most of us, anyway), mentally check one of two boxes available, and accept the entire adhesion contract that the movement—whichever movement—places into our hands (if it is not instead shoved down our throats).  It will take a conscious, informed effort on each of our parts, but what if we simply stop allowing the discussion to be framed this way?

Another option: a continued challenge toward self-reflection and a renewed commitment to self-responsibility—including the insistence that this right extends to others.  As above, allowing each woman to manage her own life leads to decisions that are messy, imperfect, and conflicted.  Thus, the greatest challenge of all might be a quiet one: the inner work that allows us to accept this.

Perhaps we could call this the theology of life.  We seek the ideal, we acknowledge what is real, and we render unto each other the terrible, wonderful power to make decisions for ourselves.  Ultimately, we do this not because we know things are going to work out the way that we want them to, or because we are entrusting others to make the same decisions that we would make, but because, in the words of Nelson Mandela, “to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

To that end, this past week, I went farther, making a donation—and a significant one, for our family—to the Peggy Bowman Second Chance Fund.  Our church has contributed to this fund at least once per year for as long as I’ve been a member.  My family, on the other hand, has contributed never.

Unlike my Planned Parenthood contribution, this isn’t something I can rationalize by explaining that I’m covering costs for preventive care; someone who believes in it more can foot the bill for abortion services.  No, I made a donation that will help pay for abortion expenses for a woman in a personal and financial emergency.  And I have to tell you: it hurts a little.  This is true despite what I shared with you earlier—and I think it’s because, at its heart, this isn’t what we pretend it is.

Abortion isn’t an issue.  It is rights and lives and real people clamoring for recognition of worth and integrity.  It is balancing that which cannot be balanced.  I continue to stretch myself, and it continues to hurt a bit because this isn’t a process that makes things feel less fraught or somehow numbs me to reality.  There is a woman out there making a choice that ends a possibility for another human being, and I am helping to make that choice possible.

For me this awareness touches both a great sadness and a great mystery.  That sadness and mystery too often go unacknowledged—because we know there is power in this pain, and we fear it.  But let’s acknowledge it, just as we acknowledge that there is wonder and revelation in allowing for human freedom, whatever great things or terrible wreckage that freedom may leave in its wake.

It could be a choice.  It could be a child.  And, just maybe, it could be your family.

If so, I’m trusting you to make your decisions, and to live with them and make sense of them, in the best way you know how.  I simply don’t know what else to do.

fewer lines in the sand, more listening (part I)

Recently, the Rev. Tom Schade published a series of posts suggesting that today’s political conservatism is wholly inconsistent with the values of Unitarian Universalism.  To those who claim both allegiances, Schade says “Show your work”—how do you get from your faith to your politics?  I take issue with this, not because I don’t think the questions are valid, but because I’m not persuaded that it makes sense, given the number of ethical and practical conflicts that we all live with each day, to level these challenges at one particular group of UUs.

Maintaining right relations—with each other, with our communities, and with the broader world—is demanding, soul-searching work.  But it’s not work that belongs most particularly to one group or another—it’s the work of all of us.  And so, perhaps we can say, to conservative UUs, to liberal UUs, and to everyone in between: Tell your story.  Explain your reasoning.  Show your work.  And then listen, in a spirit of honest curiosity, as we consider the answers.  What does our religion require of us, individually and together?

As we examine these questions—stepping up to the plate ourselves–carefully and respectfully, freely and responsibly—we create the safe space that might allow others to do the same.  This is valuable, as those who choose to worship among us have self-selected, perhaps more than they consciously know, to invest some effort in the task of living spiritually-connected lives.  As Unitarian Universalists, we are not the Nones–those who have opted for a life of secularism–but a religious people who have entered into a covenant that includes invitation to spiritual growth.

So let’s provide that challenge to grow, and Rev. Schade has highlighted some areas where discussion in our congregations might be helpful and illuminating.  But let’s also accept that the invitation to self-examination, and the discoveries that follow, are going to change not just the one we think needs to be changed, but us, too.  In talking openly with those with whom we disagree, we will be made different, and we need to be.  Not because we need to believe in equality of opinion, as individuals or as a movement, but because we believe in the power of stories to shape the world–and to reshape our perceptions of it–and we each must tell our own.

On that note, here is a little piece of my story, as it relates to opinions, values, politics, and our relationship to and with the Infinite.  Our minister–let’s call her Jane–occasionally posts an article or meme related to a social justice issue on her publicly-accessible facebook wall.  One recent post was about abortion; I responded to it explaining that I don’t think the discussion needs to be all-or-nothing on either side, and that I, for example, am both pro-choice and a supporter of the codification of some fetal rights.  Conversation up to that point had been a range of “Amen!” and “Rah-rah!” comments about the original post.  After my response–cue crickets.  (Jane respectfully acknowledged my post and looked for areas of agreement, but the silence from other participants felt deafening.  On the whole, I wondered if it was perhaps shameful in UU circles to even frame the issue as two sets of rights to balance, rather than as an outrageous usurpment of one.)

Not long afterward, some members of my church were socializing together before a meeting, and the topic of the anti-abortion movement in the U.K. came up.  Opponents of abortion reportedly staged silent vigils across from women’s clinics, handing out leaflets to women who passed by.  “Those people are just crazy!” exclaimed one member, and the others nodded their agreement.  My husband replied that he didn’t think it was that the protesters were crazy, but that they were living their values—different, but strongly-held—in a way that made sense to them.  Crickets again . . . and then a hasty change of subject.

I share this example because it is one in which my husband and I hold what is—so far as I can tell—a fairly moderate view [namely, that abortion should be safe, legal, and an option of last resort, one particularly eschewed after the point of viability] in terms of the range of opinions in our society, but which is an extreme view in the context of Unitarian Universalism. I will share more about this, from a different perspective, in my next post.  For the moment, a few words about how my take on abortion fits with my larger faith—my response to the calling to account for which Rev. Schade speaks.

I arrived at this opinion—having spent much of a decade information tabling for Planned Parenthood—through my experiences of pregnancy, childbirth, and pregnancy loss.  It is a view dictated by my heart and my soul more than by my head, and it’s been both challenged and supported in my journey since then.  I have researched and written in the special education context in support of fetal rights—and the rights to life, dignity, and bodily integrity of all who cannot speak for themselves.  Far from conflicting with my UU faith, it is my deep concern for the inherent worth and dignity of ALL people that leads me to reflect upon and speak about my own views on abortion, counter to prevailing UU opinion though they may be.

Do my fellow congregants agree with my thoughts about this?  I’m not sure, as we haven’t found a space or format in which we can really discuss it [aside: this space is sorely needed, as are the willingness and practical skills to engage, and it’s not just UUs that are missing these–it’s our society], but my guess is no.  Should I be called to account for my reasoning should I decide to stand and speak for what I believe to be just and humane?  Definitely.  But do I have a higher burden of obligation to do that than someone speaking on the other side, simply because my opinion is less common in this faith?  What presuppositions do we make about the values and scruples of those who reach different conclusions—and what do those judgments say about us, as a movement?

To those who would assert that this calling-to-account of some members is not because their opinions are different, but because the opinions conflict with our principles, I ask: how do we get from “our principles” to the intolerance of some theological beliefs within individual UU congregations?  How do “our principles” guide our blindness to the empty plate at our own congregational table, or inspire us to do first for ourselves and share with others what is left over?  They don’t, of course, but our congregations deal with both of these issues–or in some cases, choose not to deal with them–constantly.

I suspect that we each struggle, at least insofar as our eyes and hearts are open, to discern the meaning and the imperative behind our values, and to live in accord with that.  That’s part of why we need religion–it’s hard to live a life of worth and decency without examining our choices.  Thus, the hypocrisy we’re talking about today is just easy pickings–it’s visible, and it’s about “someone else.”  Just this once, let’s skip the low-hanging fruit and see if we can go deeper into what matters.

The reality is, those who disagree with us are, in general, not crazy.  They are people, often people who care deeply about the same sorts of things that we care about, who have arrived at different conclusions.  But a common reaction—perhaps even our default reaction, these days—is to view those people as “the other,” and to see them only through the lens of our disagreement on an issue.  And there are tangible benefits to doing this.  First, fear of the Other can unify a group into a cohesive Us like nothing else—for an extreme example of this, consider the instant national unity, from the mountains to the prairies to the halls of Congress, after 9/11.  Further, it feels good; righteous outrage stimulates the pleasure centers of our brains, and makes the complicated, headache-inducing dilemmas we face everyday seem much simpler.  And while it’s disappointing, we UUs are not immune to this simplification-by-way-of-Other . . . sometimes it is even preached from our pulpits.  (Perhaps this surprises you—I hope it does, actually, as that might mean it is rare—but I have seen it happen.  And friends, it is ugly.)

Drawing a line in the sand.  An old metaphor.

Why is this call to establish [and enforce?] a UU line in our politics happening now?  Is it necessary?  And where else might we choose to go in the call to deepen our commitments to living our spiritual principles?

More on that soon.  In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on any or all of this discussion.

j