This is one of those sermons that seemed like a good idea at the time. Next week, Rev. Dr. Charlie Parker from Metropolitan Memorial UMC is joining us and bringing the sermon. I thought I was doing myself a favor by assigning him the “sex” sermon. I may have made an error in judgment there.
Because abortion is one of the most divisive issues we have in the country today. And it has been for a long time–since before most of the people in this sanctuary were born. It is an issue that continues to inspire much passion on both sides of the aisle. An issue wherein compromise is viewed as extraordinarily difficult. And I must say, an issue that for a protestant clergyman, who doesn’t have the happy role of simply telling you what Mother Church says on the matter, is a political minefield to navigate.
The modern abortion debate began with Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973) which legalized abortion in the United States. Prior to that ruling, abortion had been illegal in many of the states, with criminal penalties attached to the performance of abortions. The Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Harry Blackmun, ruled that there was a constitutional right to privacy that provided that the state could not completely outlaw abortion altogether. Blackmun, who had a medical background, relied extensively on medical evidence to divide the pregnancy in terms of trimesters. The trimester scheme then became a legal framework against which the court could balance the competing interests of mother and fetus. During the first trimester, the state had the least interest in being able to assert control over the pregnancy, while during the final trimester, the state’s interest in protecting the unborn child was the greatest. And so began the modern era in the abortion debate.
It is a debate that has continued and not always in helpful ways. Partisans on each side have coalesced into two camps: Pro-Choice and Pro-Life. Each trying to out argue the other. Each engaged in a war of rhetoric and emotion with the other. It should be said that each side has a passionate core and an ideological center to its position. On one side are those who see themselves as defenders of innocent unborn life. On the other are those who see themselves as defenders of a woman’s autonomy, of her right to have control over her own body. Each is sincere. Each is committed. And it is a debate that does not seem to be coming to a close any time soon.
II. THE WESLEYAN WAY
So, what do we do? How should Christians feel about this issue? Which side are we on?
John Wesley, our Methodist founder, whose name we invoke a lot around here, had a particular way of examining theological and ethical questions that has come down to us as the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”–a four-part examination of an issue using Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. It seems like a good place to start.
We read two passages of scripture earlier that are often cited as lending support to the position that life begins before birth. First is this passage from Psalm 139:
For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.
And then we read this from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians:
But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being…
Both texts point toward an understanding of being known by God even before birth. The Psalmist speaks of a frame “not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret…” Paul writes that God had set him apart before he was born. Both are quoted often by those who oppose the practice of abortion.
But the Biblical witness is not as clear as we might initially think. For it seems that the bulk of the passages in the bible identify “breath” with “life”. In Genesis 2:7 we are told that God breaths into the human being the breath of life and “the man became a living being.” In numerous examples throughout the Old Testament, “breath” and “life” are made equivalent. This is one of the reasons that in Judaism, abortion is permitted–in some cases required. While there is a belief in Jewish thought that the human soul pre-exists birth, that human life does not. A fetus, until it draws its first breath is viewed as a “potential human life.”
Another passage in Exodus (21:22-23) describes a situation in which during a fight, a pregnant woman is injured and caused to miscarry. In that circumstance, the father of the unborn child can demand compensation. There are no criminal charges attached.
In light of this, we might read the other passages from the Psalms and Galatians as saying nothing more than that God has foreknowledge of us even before we are born. But those same authors would agree that God has foreknowledge of us before we are conceived as well. This point alone cannot answer the question with certainty.
But honesty requires us admitting that the scriptures say nothing about abortion at all. They only speak to some of the underlying issues and in ways that are not always the clearest, in spite of what people on either side of the issue might say.
When we look at the traditions of the church, we likewise discover a diversity of opinion. The Catholic Church has been steadfast in its opposition to abortion–an issue that is often central to Catholic reflections on public policy. Most of the evangelical protestant churches are likewise opposed to the practice. The United Methodist Church has somewhat of a nuanced view. In our Social Principles, the Church’s articulation of our position on various social issues, we read the following position:
Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion. But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother, for whom devastating damage may result from an unacceptable pregnancy. In continuity with past Christian teaching, we recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures. We cannot affirm abortion as an acceptable means of birth control, and we unconditionally reject it as a means of gender selection.
The United Methodist Church is also, through the Board of Church and Society and the Women’s Division of the General Board of Global Ministries, a member of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.
Now, it should be pointed out that there is nothing libertine in the Church’s position. It is a reluctant position. The Church does not endorse abortion, but concedes that there are those times when there are “tragic conflicts of life with life” that may justify abortion. There is no approval of abortion for birth control and it is rejected altogether as a means of gender selection of the child. It is a middle of the road position, trying to respect the claims of both sides of the issue.
Reason does not necessarily clear up the issue for us. Science can tell us, for example, when a fetus has certain internal organs. It can tell us when it develops certain features, like fingernails. Science and reason confirm the fact that a fetus is, in fact, human. A fact that anyone opposed to abortion will tell you.
But what it cannot tell us is when a fetus becomes a “person”–which is all the law protects. In fact, one of the most misunderstood parts about the whole debate is the assumption that the law as it stands does not consider an unborn child a human being. It does. But under the law, a “person” is one who has rights before the law, and prior to the third trimester, when a fetus is “viable”, that is, when it could survive on its own outside the womb, it is not considered a person. According to the law, then, the lack of protections for a fetus in the first and second trimester is perfectly reasonable. And so, like so many things that lawyers come up with, such an answer is neither morally nor spiritually satisfying.
It is why the Church, in its position on abortion, continues by saying:
Governmental laws and regulations do not provide all the guidance required by the informed Christian conscience. Therefore, a decision concerning abortion should be made only after thoughtful and prayerful consideration by the parties involved, with medical, pastoral, and other appropriate counsel.
And so we look to experience. Experience that informs both understandings. Experience tells us that women will suffer harm if forced to carry pregnancies to term that harm the health of the mother. Others will speak to the emotional harm that women will suffer if forced to carry a child to term that is the result of rape or incest. And others will point out that those who have abortions will often themselves experience remorse and loss. A point the United Methodist Church makes in its Social Principles, where it calls for counseling with and ministry to women who have experienced abortion. Our experience also tells us that the legal prohibitions against abortion have not always prevented abortions. In fact, those prohibitions have often driven women to take unsafe measures, often putting their own health at risk.
III. WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE QUESTION
But there is one other thing that our experience tells us. And that is that the current debate has not yielded any resolution. Part of it has been that each side in the debate has chosen names that seek to demonize the other: Pro-Choice and Pro-Life. Stop and think about what those names say about the opposition–that they are against either life or choice, neither of which is a desirable characterization in a country devoted to the Inalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” All we need is for a third group to weigh in called Pro-Happiness.
This debate is unsatisfying because as Christians we are called to be pro-Life and pro-Choice. We believe in a God of life and a God of liberty. What then can we do?
When I was in law school, I took a course in Electronic Media law with my favorite professor, Jerome Barron, professor of Constitutional Law. We were discussing the question of cable regulation–a topic that I am sure has concerned many of you. The question was: what kind of speech is a cable company engaging in? Is it more like a newspaper, which cannot be regulated at all? Or is it more like a television broadcaster, which because it is using finite airwave frequencies, can be regulated by the government. The arguments went both ways: cable companies are not limited by frequencies. Cable companies are limited by technology limits. And so on.
And then in the middle of the conversation in our class, Professor Barron said the following thing: “Let me ask you this: are cable companies even speaking?” That is, are they engaged in speech, or are they just packaging together other people’s speech and selling it to you, the way a newsstand operator might?
That question about an arcane topic of first amendment law changed much of the way I now see things. For what it taught me was, when all the answers to a question are unsatisfying, then the question is likely the wrong one.
For the question is not are we pro-life or pro-choice. Those are false dichotomies. In fact, you get a completely different breakdown on the issue if you change it to “abortion never” “abortion always” and “abortion sometimes”. It turns out that most people are “abortion sometimes” people. And that opens a new realm of possibility.
IV. THE WESLEYAN WAY (AGAIN)
Because what it means is that we as Christians have the opportunity to bring meaningful change to this issue, mostly in the way we address it. For we as Christians can help to bring healing to what has been a very fractious debate.
John Wesley said, “Though we may not all think alike, may we not all love alike?” We Christians have for too long been on one side or the other of a very shrill debate. We have the opportunity–indeed the responsibility–to try to sow reconciliation. If we cannot come up with a solution to the problem, can we not at the very least help the resolution to that problem by building the kind of trust across this divide that is necessary?
For if we can be honest and admit that very few people think of abortion as a good thing, then perhaps we can work at making the incidents of abortion less necessary. Because the very fact that abortions are ever deemed necessary is a symptom of even greater brokenness in the world.
It is the result of too many unwanted pregnancies. The result of too many people living in poverty, afraid they cannot raise their children. The result of the failing to properly educate about prevention and the consequences of sex and pregnancy. The result of the lack of proper pre-natal and post-natal care in too many of our communities.
There are so many things we can do to make this debate unnecessary. There are a whole host of justice issues underlying the abortion debate and too often we focus on the wrong questions. Too often we are more intent on proving ourselves to have the moral high ground and our opponents as enemies of all that is good and true to realize that we are not accomplishing anything.
Jesus tells us that peacemakers will be called “children of God.” Too often Christians have not contributed anything but more shrill voices to the abortion debate. We have ignored the real issues: the well-being of the women and children involved and used the terms “babies” and “women’s bodies” instead as terms designed to score political points for a legislative solution.
We are called to do so much more. For as Christians, pro-life and pro-choice are false options. We are a people that are meant to be “both/and” not “either/or”.
I didn’t want to give this sermon. At times the prospects for reconciliation on this issue seem so hopeless. And as long as we keep putting our trust in political solutions and law it will be. But as Christians, we put our hope not in politics. Not in law. We put our hope in the love that binds us to God and one another. A love that is able to bring reconciliation and healing in all that divides us.
Psalms 139:1-6, 13-18
O LORD, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it. For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed. How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them–they are more than the sand; I come to the end–I am still with you.
You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.