March for Life, 1978

Earlier than I would get up for school and before the snowy roads were cleared, an eager catechism teacher drove me and a friend through a snowstorm to walk in the March for Life, an annual event opposing both the practice and legality of abortion, culminating with a rally at our State Capitol. In my sixth-grade CCD class (circa 1978), I had recently learned about abortion and was taught that unequivocally, it was wrong.

I learned that morning that not everyone sees abortion, or pro-life issues, the same way. I was stunned as we entered the Capitol that there were women already positioned on the balconies, holding signs and shouting at marchers about having rights to their own bodies. It left me very confused—a woman’s body is different than an unborn baby, I thought, and yet there was such passion, so much anger. (Photo credit: Lincoln Journal Star, NE State Capitol, 2019)

As an outspoken pro-life teenager, I was so sure of what I understood about abortion that in 1984 I wrote a letter to the editor of the Daily Nebraskan, my college newspaper. I pulled that old newspaper out of storage a few days after Roe vs. Wade was overturned. Nearly four decades later, I am uneasy with what I wrote. What I used to be so sure of, I am now less certain of and often, in complete disagreement with my younger self.

What I have learned since then about life and choice.

Two things can be true at the same time. I believe BOTH that human life is sacred from the time of conception AND that we are created to have free will. We have agency over our own bodies, choosing whether our life continues and/or whether we will bring life forth. Embracing a culture of life is respecting not just the unborn child, but also the pregnant woman while advocating for issues including prenatal care, childcare, gender equality, trafficking, healthcare reform, gun safety, racism, climate change, LGBT rights, capital punishment, and so much more.

We are BOTH created in the image of God AND given a life of choice, of free will, from the beginning. As the story goes, Adam and Eve were gifted with a beautiful garden and the choice to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, or not. They were given agency over their bodies, and from the beginning were able to choose their actions. Humans make both good and bad choices—and we suffer the consequences. Further, Christian tradition holds that the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will conceive and bear a child who will be named Jesus, the Incarnation (Luke 1:26–38.) In her “fiat,” Mary consented; she said yes.

“So could Mary have said, “no?” Let’s start by saying that she was completely free and that her freedom gave her power to choose…She could have said whatever she chose to say. God did not program her to do his will like some kind of holy robot.” (Was Mary Capable of Saying No to the Angel Gabriel?, Colin MacIver, March 26, 2019) Having free will is the foundation of the Christian faith, our God-given birthright. We have been given choice from our Creator.

Identifying as pro-choice or pro-life is a false dichotomy that limits the possibility of discussion. Advocating for the legal right to choose may not mean that one is pro-abortion, but that one believes that women should be trusted to make that decision, not the government. Despite political efforts to force us to choose sides, there is a third way, a both/and perspective, that includes more expansive, nuanced, and compassionate attitudes, behavior, and policies.

We live in a pluralistic society with many religious beliefs; not everyone agrees about the morality or legality of abortion. According to the First Amendment, it is unconstitutional to impose one’s religious beliefs on others; the United States was founded on the separation of church and state. Despite the belief by many that life begins at conception, it is not held by all religions. Some believe life begins at quickening or the first breath.

 “The Torah, the Mishnah, the Talmud and later rabbinic sources consider the woman’s physical and emotional health before that of the fetus. Until the baby is born, Judaism considers the fetus to be part of the woman’s body. She is never the villain when difficult choices need to be made.” –Rabbi Mara Nathan

I cannot imagine the difficult circumstances that would warrant a pregnancy termination or what a forced pregnancy or birth would feel like. Forcing compliance with laws prohibiting abortion is a clear violation of human rights and could very well compromise a woman’s mental, physical, and spiritual health. A “crime against humanity,” according to the United Nations includes rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity. Just as one cannot be forced to love another, a woman cannot be forced to embrace the sacred mystery of pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting without their whole mind, body, and spirit being on board. Legal mechanisms, power, and oppression—efforts to push an agenda or a belief on another—never result in peace.

Definitely uncomfortable with much of what I wrote; I address a few aspects in this blog post.

Is the unborn child human? I wrote.

According to my 1984 letter, “Nothing is added to the fertilized ovum except nutrition.” Indeed, it is miraculous to behold week-by-week images of a baby growing in the womb; I journaled through forty weeks of pregnancy with Jessica and for weeks with my other pregnancies, reflecting on the changes and potential. But, it takes more than carrots and broccoli to nurture a pregnancy—providing nutrition for the unborn child is dependent solely on the woman; it requires her cooperation and welcoming womb to bring forth new life, to co-create. We must consider the circumstances that might make a woman unable to carry a pregnancy (for whatever reason) and what the impact is on her and others.

Life experiences and the stories of others can change our hearts and minds, giving us a different perspective. I have sensed the souls of three babies that were gifted with possibility, and I felt a profound loss when I miscarried—one which required an abortive procedure (referred to as a dilation and curettage). The experience of carrying a healthy child for a full nine months is a sacred experience, but postpartum depression and years of chronic pain issues followed. My experiences give me insight into what pregnancy requires of a woman’s body. I am a woman who deeply desired a child, who nurtured my child in and outside of the womb; when my daughter was born, I knew I already knew her.

I have seen the pain that abortion can cause women who choose that path. I have felt a loss when learning a student and family members chose abortion, especially as I struggled with my own fertility. When my daughter was a teenager, I was clear that if she had an unintentional pregnancy that we would have a baby.

So, yes. I believe the unborn child is human and that their life is sacred, but my argument in the 1984 letter is that the unborn child’s rights are being violated. Looking solely from a constitutional perspective, it is the woman, not the unborn child, who has the right not to be deprived “of life, liberty or property without due process of law.” Both the body and the intellect of the unborn child are still developing—insufficient to be treated as a person by law.

“I frankly cannot understand why women’s health issues or abortion is absolutely the only life issue that the church has not nuanced. We nuance that men can kill for all sorts of reasons. Men can kill to defend themselves. They can kill to defend the state. They can punish by killing in the name of the state. “But women, never — not even to save their own pregnant life. It seems to me to be morally confused. Certainly, it’s morally inconsistent.”

—Joan Chittister

Meeting others with compassion

Our greater call within Christianity, among all world religions, is to love one another—to listen to women’s stories, to empathize with their life circumstances, to have compassion, and offer support no matter their choice.

We must ask: How do I respond to the person who wants to have a child, but now would be a devastating time to bring forth new life (for any number of tragic reasons—trauma, mental health, financial, domestic issues, rape, or incest)? How do we respond to women whose life would be at risk if continuing a pregnancy (ectopic, miscarriage, cancer or other physical or mental health risks)? How do we respond to a woman who must be pregnant for nine months knowing she will birth a stillborn baby? There are far too many scenarios to have an either/or solution to abortion.

I am encouraged by Fr. Edward Beck, a Catholic priest who suggests a more compassionate, rather than celebratory response to the reversal of Roe v. Wade. He shares Luke 9:51-62: Jesus’ message is met with resistance in one village and his apostles ask him to “call down fire from heaven to consume them.” Jesus responds by simply moving along to another village. Fr. Beck uses this gospel to address how a reversal of Roe vs. Wade may impact women, especially those marginalized. He suggests that the celebration of the Supreme Court decision is not a compassionate response, that “the problem” has not been solved, and perhaps it has been exacerbated.  

Watch Fr. Edward Beck’s homily June 26, 2022 “Roe v Wade—ing into difficult waters…”

Perhaps this is the third way, our call to call to action to live our truth, sharing it with others, accepting whatever their response may be and offering compassion—never to judge or condemn others for their choices. I consider Pope Francis’ infamous response to a reporter on another controversial issue: “Who am I to judge?”  

Being a mother is the greatest gift in my life, but it doesn’t give me the right to choose for others who may believe differently. I have chosen to fall on the side of compassion no matter what a woman chooses, knowing that the decision is likely not made without much torment. We have all suffered in some way; we can transform that suffering into a compassionate heart, tenderness, and grace towards the other. We can accept their journey as uniquely their own.

“To the woman who is pro-life,

You are loved beyond measure

To the woman who is pro-choice,

You are loved beyond measure.

To the woman who is on the fence,

You are loved beyond measure.

To the woman who is heart broken from being told she is unable to have children.

You are loved and created for a purpose.

To the woman who is excitingly pregnant with her fifth child even though her family says it’s “irresponsible”

You are loved and created for a purpose.

To the woman who found out the child inside of her would cost her her life and chose to abort,

You are loved and created for a purpose

To the woman who’s world has been turned upside down when her child’s heart stopped beating inside her womb,

There is endless unconditioned love for you

To the woman who is on the bathroom floor looking at two pink lines after running from their abusive partner.

There is endless unconditional love for you.

To the woman who has to make an impossible decision when she was told her child was not forming properly and was in extreme pain.

There is endless unconditional love for you.

To the woman who’s abortion haunts her everyday,

There is grace and incredible love for you.

To the woman who was raped and found out she was pregnant and decided to not carry the child.

There is grace and incredible love for you.

To all of the woman who had to make a choice to bring life into the world or to end it and to the ones who were not given a choice. I hope you know that His grace and love is endless for you.

Regardless if people say your choice was “right” or “wrong” and with all the hatefulness on both sides. I hope you know that you are loved by the savior of the world. He understands your pain/grief/worry/doubt/ and every other thing you had to go through. And you are priceless and endlessly loved in his eyes. And mine. (I apologize for those who told you different)

You are loved beyond measure.” -Written by Mel (Melissa Mayberry)

© Jodi Blazek Gehr, Being Benedictine Blogger