Why We’re in Birmingham

Starting July 13, people of faith will be coming to Birmingham because the two women’s health clinics that provide abortion services there are under attack. Clergy and laity will be there to show how we as believers feel about the hot-button issue of abortion. We will be in Birmingham to support the clinics, to support their staffs, and to support the women who make the difficult decision to terminate a pregnancy.

Here in the deep South, that may come as something of a surprise. After all, a group that cloaks the venom of their rhetoric in religious language will also be in Birmingham. They, and the large publicity machine that supports the anti-abortion movement, have spent decades trying to persuade people that the only acceptable position for people of faith is to oppose abortion.

I am hesitant to speak for traditions of which I am not a member, but as an evangelical Christian pastor and scholar, I can say with absolute certainty that it is possible to be a good and faithful Christian and to support legal access to abortion. The wide variety of official statements collected by the Religious Coalition of Reproductive Choice confirms this reality, and the statements made by other faith traditions indicate that the same is true for members of other religions as well.

How can this be? How is it possible that people can be part of religious traditions that value life and simultaneously support protecting the right of women to terminate their pregnancies? Speaking for my own tradition, the answers are varied.

Some Christians are satisfied with noting that the Bible offers at best a mixed perspective on the personhood of a fetus. Because of the ambiguity of the biblical writings, they are comfortable with leaving the decision up to the individual conscience of the woman who involved. This is the simplest approach to the matter: if the Bible does not say abortion is wrong, many Christians are not willing to say that it is.

Other Christians, however, take a more nuanced approach. These Christians recognize the complexity and interdependence of all life. They realize that we make thousands of decisions as individuals and as a society that privilege some lives or forms of life over others. The most obvious example is the decision by a nation to declare war, a regrettable but sometimes necessary action that will invariably cost innocent lives in an effort to protect other lives. Other decisions – about the environment, the economy, or even the educational system – are also ethical choices about innocent lives.

Recognizing the difficulty of those issues, many Christians are all the more cautious about making unilateral moral pronouncements on the issue of abortion, where the debate is over the loss of a potential life and where the decision to terminate the pregnancy can be based on a variety of medical or ethical factors. These Christians trust that the pregnant woman is in the best position to make decisions about her pregnancy. Often they have spent time in women’s health clinics and have walked alongside the women who are faced with this difficult decision. They understand that sometimes the decision to terminate a pregnancy is the most moral decision a woman can make, and that supporting her in that decision is the loving thing to do.

The staff at these clinics understands this very well. Contrary to the mischaracterizations in the literature published by anti-abortion groups, the women and men who put their lives on the line to keep abortion a safe option for women are providing a caring ministry of compassion and support to women who desperately need both. All of us who desire to protect and aid those women are their colleagues in that ministry, and so we will go to Birmingham to stand by their side.

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Lacking Basis, Christians Fight Abortion

This originally appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on March 20, 2006.

Those who seek to outlaw abortion often use the rhetoric of “protecting the most vulnerable and helpless” in our communities. Many of them are Christians who see their opposition to abortion rights as inextricably linked with their faith and their understanding of Christian ethics. After all, wouldn’t a God of love and life want us to protect life wherever we found it?

If only it were that simple. In practice, there are other questions we must ask. Does a God of love and life ever support war? Does such a God understand that some innocent civilians will die when we fight to protect our freedoms? In other words, does God approve when we make the decision to kill other people to protect our quality of life? What about when we kill to prevent genocide? Does God have a holy balancing scale that weighs intangibles like “intent” and “the greater good,” or one that compares the number of innocent lives lost against the number of innocent lives saved?

We do not know. For every Christian with a “God Bless Our Troops” sticker on their bumper there is another with “Who Would Jesus Bomb?” on their rear windshield.

If my experience as a pastor is any indication, it is unlikely that the driver of either car would be making their point from the kind of complex theological arguments I learned in seminary. In practice, our upbringings and our biases and our circumstances have much more to do with what we believe God thinks; and we are often inconsistent. How else could we re-interpret Jesus’ teachings, which were widely regarded as purely pacifistic in the Early Church, as an argument for violence in some cases and an argument against it in others? How else could we spend millions of dollars to oppose abortion – despite no clear biblical argument for or against it – and ignore the overwhelming number of biblical texts that explicitly command us to care for the poor.

For the vast majority of Christians, it is not about consistency – it is about convenience. Even those of us who speak passionately about protecting the weak often forget that our willingness to purchase cheap goods produced by exploited workers sentences children to poverty, disease, violence and death. The cars that we drive, the food that we allow to be marketed to children, the tax breaks we support or oppose, they all have a life-or-death impact on the most vulnerable among us. It is not only in war that we make decisions to value one life over another. Consciously or not, we do it every time we go to the supermarket.

The issue of abortion is not about whether life starts at conception. There are convincing arguments either way. The issue is which carries more weight: the life that may be in the embryo or the life and needs of the woman in whose body that embryo was conceived?

After spending time in women’s health clinics, I have come to realize that the “most vulnerable and helpless” who need our active protection are the women and couples who are faced with the agonizingly difficult decision to terminate a pregnancy. As a Christian pastor, I strongly support protecting the right of women to make this decision. Other Christian pastors have chosen otherwise, and our division on this issue is proof that there is no Christian consensus here.

The far-right, however, has been able to set the issue of abortion apart from all of the other controversial, life-or-death decisions we make every day. Abortion is not a special case; and I pray that the guardians of our Constitution will continue to protect our freedom to choose our own priorities in all of these weighty matters. The beliefs or prejudices of some, regardless of who has a majority, should not be used to take the choice out of the hands of the woman who will be the main bearer, perhaps the only bearer, of the consequences of her decision.

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A Familiar Pattern

In 1870, with the passage of the 15th Amendment, the right of people of color to vote received Constitutional protection.  This kind of liberalism on the federal level was intolerable to the good people of the South, so they quickly elected state legislators who understood their traditional, conservative values.  Since theses legislators could not change the Constitution, they hid their agenda in seemingly innocuous “protections” which they placed on the voting process.  These restrictions included literacy tests and poll taxes; shameful excuses for discrimination that persisted nearly 100 years and led to the March 7 march at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

Everything old is new again.  Georgians have elected a reactionary state legislature that seems intent on using the first part of the twenty-first century to turn back the progress our state was making into the twentieth one.  As much as they might like to, the legislature cannot subvert the constitutional protection that women have over their own bodies.  They can, however, introduce their own type of “literacy test” – and that is just what they have done with the ironically named “Woman’s Right to Know Act.”

In the minds of some Georgia state legislators, apparently the “right” to hear the legislators’ views on the consequences of abortion supersedes the right of a rape victim to not be forced to carry the child of her rapist.  Apparently our legislature thinks that fear of physical pain, family recrimination, social stigma, and guilt are not sufficient impediments to abortion.  Their obvious hope is that a woman who has already grappled with these concerns and made the difficult decision to seek an abortion will, upon being forced to seek the procedure twice, lose her resolve.

I suspect that, in this regard, the legislature has underestimated the determination of Georgia’s women fight back against this kind of bullying.  Nevertheless, our state senators and representatives should be ashamed.  Women who seek abortions do not do so in a state of ignorance, and the physicians who perform the procedure are not incompetent or insensitive amateurs incapable of assessing the physical and emotional impact of terminating a woman’s pregnancy.  There is no need for this law, and the fact that its only supporters are people who want to outlaw abortion entirely demonstrates this.

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