Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Reflections on Yesterday’s Forum on Women’s Reproductive Health

Yesterday I was a member of a nine-person clergy panel that participated in a forum on “Religious Perspectives on Women’s Health Issues”; the focus was on abortion and contraception. We were supposed to be a ten-person panel but the scheduled imam was unable to make it; I regret that because it would have been interesting to hear his perspective. The members of the panel were identified beforehand as “pro-choice” or “pro-life.” The pro-choice folks had green name placards and the pro-life folks had blue ones. I don’t think there was any significance to the color choices. On the “pro-choice” side were two ministers in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., one from a Church of God congregation, one from the Unitarian Universalist Church, and a Reformed Judaism rabbi. On the “pro-life” side were a Roman Catholic, a Presbyterian Church in America pastor, a Lutheran, and me, the Baptist. All of the members of the panel were bright, articulate, and concerned. I liked them all; some of them I had met before and some I met for the first time yesterday.

All of the members of the panel have a lot of compassion for women who find themselves in the position of having a problem pregnancy. I think it’s fair to say that the “pro-choice” folks tend to focus their compassion more on the women who are dealing with the issue while the “pro-life” folks tend to focus theirs more on the fetus. Baptist ethicist Paul Simmons once wrote that pro-life people are really pro-fetus while pro-choice people are really pro-woman. While I think that is overstating the case, there is some truth to it. Extreme pro-lifers, those who believe that abortions should absolutely never be performed, even if the life of the mother is in serious danger, value the life of the unborn over the life of the mother. Extreme pro-choicers, those who believe that abortions should be available to any woman who wants to get one no matter what the reason, value the life (here I’m defining life broadly—physical, social, emotional, mental) of the mother over the life (here I’m defining it narrowly as physical) of the fetus. Again, though, in their own way everyone on every point of the spectrum exhibited compassion.

It seemed to me that eight of the nine members on the panel, including me, believe that therapeutic abortion should be available as an option in certain cases, such as risk to the life of the mother, pregnancy resulting from rape or incest, or the probability of severe fetal malformation. I think that everybody on the panel would welcome a situation in which there would be no more elective abortions (“abortion as birth control” or “abortion on demand”). Some would want to outlaw those via legislation or via a constitutional amendment. Others believe that the better avenue to reducing them is to do a better job of educating young people and parents on sexuality and specifically on birth control. Some believe that much more attention should be given to developing more effective and reliable methods of birth control.

The need for us all to work together in the prevention of unwanted pregnancies was a positive theme of the afternoon. Now, there are people who strongly believe that the use of artificial birth control is wrong and that the only moral type of birth control is natural family planning. That seems to me, with all due respect, an abrogation of the duty with which God endowed us when he gave us the ability to reason and the responsibility of stewardship over his creation. While procreation is a blessing we also need to take steps to prevent overpopulation and its subsequent strain on our planet’s limited resources. I believe along with some of the other panelists that the church should do a better job, in cooperation with parents, of teaching our young people about sexual matters. I’m not quite sure how that should look in practice: I’m open to suggestions. Abstinence is the ideal and we should promote that. Given the realities of adolescent life, though, young people should also know about contraception. Again, any talk about that in the church surely must involve a partnership with parents.

I am grateful for the opportunity I had to participate in the forum because it forced me to do some hard thinking about where I really stand on this issue. I have expressed in previous posts my reticence at talking about abortion because of the fact of my gender; I’m not a woman. Also, my wife and I never had to face a problem pregnancy and thus never wrestled personally with the choice. Still, as a Christian and as a minister I need to be able to articulate a response.

So, here I stand. I do believe that the fetus is a life. Actually, that is not a matter of belief; by any legitimate definition I think it is a matter of fact. I also believe that the fetus is a potential person. It is not a “full-blown” person because that means a certain level of independence and the ability to live in relationship with others. Still, I cannot get past the fact of potential personhood in the fetus; that makes the life worth preserving. Nevertheless, I believe that therapeutic abortions are sometimes regrettably necessary, particularly if carrying the pregnancy to term would put the life of the mother at serious risk. In such a case a decision must be made to value one life over the other and that is very difficult. There are cases in which the already established personhood and relationships of the mother might be judged to be more valuable than the potential personhood of the fetus. That would be a terribly difficult call for a Christian woman who believes that sacrificial love is a hallmark of her faith, but, if she dies for the sake of the fetus, she may actually be selfishly putting her commitment to the fetus ahead of her commitment to her other family members. Again, it’s a tough choice to have to make.

I believe that we should work to eliminate elective abortions or “abortion on demand” or “abortion as birth control.” Should that be done legislatively? I’m not sure. My impulse is to say “Yes.” The problem would come in criminalizing elective abortions while not criminalizing therapeutic abortions. How would such a law be enforced? There are a lot of issues involved with such an effort. I absolutely believe that we Christians ought to do all that we can to educate toward the eradication of unwanted and unplanned pregnancies. Abstinence before marriage and faithfulness in marriage is our ideal and we must stick to it. But we must also counsel responsibility for the sake of our children’s health and their future.


jeremy said...


I've enjoyed reading your thoughts on this issue over the past couple of weeks. I think it is good that we look at abortion from a number of perspectives--particularly, that multiple religious groups get a say, as they often have very strong feelings on the issue.

I agree that most everyone who is educated on this issue and has given it thought is probably motivated to their position by compassion, either for the mother or for the unborn child. It is often the strategy of extremists on both sides to attempt to villainize those who hold the opposing point of view. This is not only inaccurate, but it works against the process of dialogue. I am glad to hear that an attempt is being made to explore the many sides of this issue.

You have given me a lot to consider through these readings. I have always considered myself pro-life, but your recent blogs have helped me to clarify my thoughts in some areas... and have opened up new internal debate in others.

I also agree that the best policy is preventing unwanted pregnancies before they occur, and that abstinence before marriage and faithfulness within marriage are the keys to this. It is difficult, though, as you say, to determine how education on these issues might best be handled.

Yes, ideally, I suppose the church would be involved. However, my personal experience with my conservative Southern church attempting to 'educate' us on matters of sexuality was, quite frankly, a frightening and emotionally scarring affair. We were taught by a lay-person, not a minister, and we were told things that I now look back on with incredulity. I am sure this man was well-intentioned, but I cannot imagine any adult believing that telling teen boys the sorts of things he told us could ever be productive.

I relate this story only to point out that any issue involving sex and sexuality is going to be both complex and delicate. We should (as the panel you were on has) give very serious thought to these issues, and should consider their many sides before simply rushing to conclusions or attempting to implement solutions.

Thank you again for sharing your thoughts this week. I wish you blessings.

-Jeremy W

Mike Ruffin said...


Thanks for your comments. You are right that any effort to deal with sex ed in the church is going to be a challenge. One scenario might be to bring in "outside experts" (doctors, psychologists, social workers) for forums with the youth. Again, parents would need full disclosure about what is being said and taught. But that would at least avoid the danger of well-meaning but untrained people trying to fill the educational role.