Keeping The Faith On Abortion

Brownie Ledbetter

Vol. 12, No. 1, 1990, pp. 1-4

The argument about abortion must develop into a substantive debate. We must deal with questions of morality, medical ethics, medical technology, health care, environment, economics, separation of church and state, individual rights, and women's rights, to name a few.

What decisions about life and death should we make now that we have choices we have never had before as a result of increased medical technology? Who should make them? Are the laws regulating such questions adequate protection for individual rights? for doctors? for hospitals? for family planning and abortion clinics? should we put limits on medical research? what about the effects of overpopulation on the environment?

Who pays for welfare, health care, and education of the increasing number of poor women and children in this country? in other countries?

If a fetus has civil rights does that include inheritance? Does extending legal personhood to fetuses mean that women of childbearing age must be prohibited from any job that could endanger a fetus or a woman's right to become pregnant?

Issues relating to human sexuality in this country have become so complex and frustrating to many of us that we advocate single-issue solutions. We do this, generally, out of abysmal ignorance of the biological and social development of human life. We have allowed only minimal education on human development in our public schools and that little is way out of date now. It must be nonexistent in many sectarian schools. We are


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bemoaning the fact that few high school graduates know where Florida is. How many ever even heard of DNA?

But changes have come about awfully fast. I can remember when virginity was a requirement for marriage (for women only, of course), when movies could only show stars fully clad in separate beds, and even two-piece bathing suits covered most of women's bodies. And I'm not even sixty yet! Now you take a person like me and jerk me up into the '80s and '90s with pornographic TV ads and movies in which stars have intercourse right there on the screen and you are talking major shock treatment.

Young folk have trouble coping with all this sexual activity as well. They need some support if they are going to be able to "just say no" when they believe none of their peers would and certainly very few adults do. Besides, all that stuff on TV looks pretty tempting. Kids do mirror our values, after all.

A lot of folk in my vintage-and younger-just figure we have to put our collective foot down. If we look for a nice simple reason for all of this "moral degradation," the 1973 Supreme Court decision protecting a woman's right to choose an abortion is a pretty good target. Throw in the women's movement-all that freedom for women-and you have yourself a good, clear, scapegoat. Up to date, too: it can be characterized in a broadcast sound bite-"abortion on demand"-now used by the media as if it were an objective description of the pro-choice movement. Well, if every woman would just stay home and teach these children the right moral values everything would be back to normal, right? Wrong.

Arguing over when life begins as a basis for solving this moral controversy is taking the issue out of context, the context being the welfare of the species, the planet, the creation and sustenance of all life forms. The context being the lives and relationships of human families...mother, father, and children already born and living...the unborn child herself...the very child over which this irrational conflict supposedly rages. What effect will an additional sibling have on the family relationships? On the well-being of existing children? On the contributions the mother is making to the welfare of the total family? What will be the new child's acceptance by the rest of the family if the mother's health is affected or if she dies in childbirth? What child would trade her or his mother for an unknown baby? What husband would trade his wife for a new child?

What is responsible about requiring a mother to complete a pregnancy regardless of the health risk, or the economic risk, to the family in order to bring another life into being? Is that not potentially destructive to existing


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family relationships? And what if the mother is a single parent? Is there a clear moral answer to these concerns that fits every situation?

AND IF THE PREGNANT woman is single? Even irresponsible in her use of abortion after a carefree sexual encounter? Would she make a good mother to this unwanted child? Why is it more morally responsible for her to give birth to a child she does not want or is in no position to raise responsibly? Is it that she should be punished by having to go through nine months of pregnancy? Is pregnancy a punishment? What respect does that attitude show for life? What does that do for the child?

What ever happened to the belief that one has no right to bring a child onto this earth unless she and he are committed to providing for the welfare and education of the child? Is that an immoral belief? I thought it was Judaic-Christian stewardship.

The furor over abortion has little to do with the welfare of babies, born or unborn. If it did we would spend more than a token amount on the welfare of children in this country so that we could bring them up to be the responsible citizens and leaders we need. If the folks calling themselves "pro-life" who are raising the issue of abortion as a child-centered concern had child welfare in mind they would not oppose public spending for child care, for pre-school education for every child, for school lunches for poor children, for prenatal care for pregnant women and other measures to decrease infant mortality, for an adequate national immunization program. for identifying and treating child abuse, for accessible and medically safe birth control, and above all, for increasing funding for public education and health care.

Unfortunately, they are joined by many other American voters who appear to have little sense of responsibility for the welfare of children other than their own...especially if it means paying more taxes.

There is an area of agreement even among the more vocal and polarized movements. We would all like to see an enormous decrease in the incidence of abortion. But here again there is conflict in how that goal should be reached.

Pro-choice groups believe that could be accomplished by increasing the use of medically safe birth control methods and education about the reproductive process and responsible sexual behavior. Anti-choice groups, believing those methods to be an inducement to increasing sexual activity, advocate abstinence enforced by law and outlawing birth control as well as abortion to accomplish that goal.

I believe the rhetoric about unborn babies is yet another way to exploit children, to tug on our emotional reaction to perfectly formed and adorable little babies (usually white) for other purposes. If we can use babies to sell everything from soap to long distance telephone service, why not?

For some this tearful rhetoric about unborn babies is a way of avoiding the tough new choices we can make about life and death rather than being able to dismiss them as "God's will." For others it is a way of punishing those who sin. For still others it is simply a way of resisting change. For many it is a method for re-establishing a more subservient position of women, a way of stopping the increasing independence of women.

And where are the churches on this


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moral question? Protecting their institutions, whatever their doctrine. That appears to be the one common denominator among our diverse religions. The linchpin of the great American experiment, separation of church and state, protection for individual diversity, is in danger yet again. Cries of "this is a Christian nation" are heard once more across the land. And where are the clergy and lay leadership alike who are not ignorant of the historical fact that many of our most-revered founding fathers were not Christian or that they created constitutional protection for the diversity of religious citizens as well as non-religious citizens?...They are silent. Even those religious leaders who represent a faith with long-held positions of support for the separation of church and state are silent, or outvoted by newly organized voices as in the Southern Baptist Convention.

That is not to say that there are not groups of religious clergy, laywomen and men within many faiths who are trying to speak responsibly to these issues. There are many traditional women's organizations within a variety of religious institutions across religious faith groups struggling as catalysts within their institutions-all of which arc male-dominated. But rarely are they heard by the general public because they are not the established leadership.

I have always believed that religious faith is a very private and personal matter and although it is the basis of my moral value system and I see it as the reason for my work as an activist, I do not feel comfortable articulating my faith in secular settings, or to religiously diverse groups unless it is the stated topic for dialogue. However, since so much of the debate on abortion is characterized as "religious" I may be wrong about that.

Probably my own reluctance is a mirror of the unbelievable reluctance and inaction of religious institutions like my own who claim to be "mainstream" and yet allow absolutist groups to speak for Christianity as if there were no other Christian perspective. There is also a certain "classism" among our so called "mainstream" Protestant denominations. Perhaps guilt over our mild contempt for "lower class" evangelical or fundamentalist denominations has motivated the current efforts of mainstream denominations to work towards some sort of vague coming together. It also may have something to do with the fact that we are losing membership.

THE RELIGIOUS RIGHT has every right to speak for their position, but so does the rest of Christendom-not only the right, hut the responsibility.

The culture in which we exist in this world and the circumstance of our lives have such enormous bearing on our religious preferences that I have always believed separation of the church and state to be the only way we can coexist. It is also the only way of avoiding religious wars. Religious wars, whether they are fought with words or weapons, are clearly blasphemous in that any group who claims to be defending the only religious truth is pretending to be God. That kind of arrogance must feed the very devil that they are so busy personifying.

Human life cycles are longer than those of many of God's creatures, and we have perhaps more ways to affect life and death, but we are still within the constraints of mortality, just like all other living things. Human life gets renewed just like all other forms of life. We are not unique in that sense. After all, every form of life is unique in its own characteristics. The Christian insistence that we are superior to other forms of life we believe to have been created and sustained by God seems to me to be the height of arrogance. Maybe that is our "original sin." It is surely a part of our self-centeredness.

Most human religions advocate some level of responsibility for or toward other living things. We humans are finally beginning to be concerned about our environment. But until we realize that we arc only one of the many forms of life created by God with considerably greater options in our reproductive processes than other creatures, and learn to use those options in more morally responsible ways, we are incredibly poor stewards of life.

We Christians should speak out with different perspectives, as citizens who have honest disagreements. Instead we swallow our commitment to our own beliefs. We try to reconcile ourselves in some way with those of our faith who want to enforce their particular religious beliefs in secular law and thereby separating the goats from the sheep as if we had that kind of authority.

After all, the pro-choice movement does not advocate laws forcing women to have abortions. But what is being advocated by the anti-choice movement is forcing women to complete a pregnancy regardless of the circumstances that brought about that pregnancy, her circumstances, or the circumstances of her family. Those among us who believe abortion is immoral no matter what the circumstance are free, as they should be, to practice their belief within current legal requirements. Why should they force those of us who do not share their belief to conform to their absolutism? We advocate personal private choice, not abortion.

Dialogue among religious faiths and denominations is vital and it can solve a lot of conflicts. Heaven must know that we Protestants have a proclivity for starting a new denomination over the silliest disagreements. But at some point judgments must be made, not postponed, in the name of avoiding conflict. Often that strategy only prolongs and exacerbates the conflict. l he public welfare is at stake. Prolonging the debate has become destructive.

Somebody has to call for the question. I so move.

Brownie Ledbetter is a Presbyterian elder in Little Rock, Arkansas' and a longtime civil rights activist.