Cleansing by Tears

by Renee Zitzloff

In the early eighties I became involved in the pro-life movement, first as a crisis pregnancy counselor, later as a "rescuer." Rescuers at that time staged peaceful sit-ins at abortion clinics, hoping to give sidewalk counselors a longer period of time to speak to women coming for abortions. At one Rescue I was stationed as a sidewalk counselor outside the third largest abortion clinic in the USA, a center specializing in abortions for unborn children three to six months old. I spoke at length that day to a couple who had come for an abortion. The woman was four months pregnant. I explained I was a pro-life counselor and asked if I could offer them some alternatives to abortion. Immediately the woman said, "I am pro-life too." The couple told me they had decided to abort their fourth child because they could not afford it. Along with another counselor I spent an hour or more telling them about the financial, emotional and spiritual support available to them, but when they left, they were noncommittal. I do not know what happened to their baby. I suspect it did not live.

Over the years I haven't forgotten this couple, especially the wife saying, "I am pro-life," and both of them expressing a good deal of what is commonly termed "family values." Yet because of financial pressures, they saw abortion as a solution. I still wonder how these parents who had experienced the joy of birth three times could consider terminating the life of their children's brother or sister. Perhaps part of the answer lies in the fact that the husband never referred to himself as being pro-life.

I have learned that many women who choose abortion are themselves willing, even eager, to have the baby, but are subjected to outside pressure from the baby's father or other people they rely on. Women often indicate that if just one person had stood by them, their aborted child would have been born.

An Orthodox priest recently told me that he is considering giving a sermon on abortion in which he will never once mention women. He is beginning to feel that the problem is not necessarily the hardness of women's hearts but something more insidious -- the apathy and blindness of a society that no longer supports pregnant women and does not recognize the vulnerability of their situation. Women are supposed to be tough these days. Simple motherly love has been replaced with the concept of "super mom," a woman who can bear children, keep advancing in a full-time career, cook hot meals in a spotless home, and meet her husband in the evening attired in diaphanous clothing.

A friend of mine, Laurie, once made an advantageous career move. She was on her way up when she found she was pregnant with twins. Everyone in her office saw abortion as the obvious solution, some reminding her that she could have other children any time later in life. Laurie debated what to do. She was torn. Finally she decided to have the babies. She was quite unprepared for the chilly reception her "friends" gave her when she told them of her choice. Laurie said that once she decided to give birth she felt she was on her own, whereas if she had chosen abortion she would have had plenty of sympathetic support -- although one wonders who would have been there to hold her if ever she found herself grieving for her children.

My sister, Ronda, formerly worked at the Pregnancy and Infant Loss Center in our area, a job she took after her eight-month-old unborn son died in a head-on car collision. Most of the women calling the Center had recently experienced a miscarriage. Ronda began to notice a perplexing pattern. Frequently these women would tell her that they had aborted one or more babies before the miscarriage. They were confused. They were feeling tremendous grief about the miscarried baby, but this loss reminded them of the one or more babies for whom they had not grieved -- a real dilemma. Unfortunately many people (including abortion providers) who encourage women to have abortions are unconcerned about the long-term consequences; indeed do not even believe they exist. These people often are not available when the woman finds herself overcome with grief for the lost child; she grieves alone. Thank God, more and more abortion aftermath groups are forming in the US to give support and guidance to women dealing with the often-overwhelming pain that comes with the realization that abortion is not the panacea it is portrayed to be.

The Orthodox Church in our day has yet to play a major role in addressing the problem of abortion. Except for the pioneering work of Frederica Matthewes-Green with the group Common Ground, which consists of abortion advocates and pro-lifers meeting to listen to each other, struggle with their differences and look for points of agreement, I know of no original ideas that have come from within Orthodoxy for confronting the issue. If we have done anything, we have mainly latched onto the coat tails of the Protestant and Catholic Churches in their quite admirable efforts. While this is a healthy form of ecumenism, if we truly gave ourselves to studying the issue and wrestling with our response, might we not come up with our own unique way of addressing this ongoing, painful dilemma? Is there something we are missing or have not yet addressed? Though abortion has quickly taken root in our society, it is as wrong to live with it and look the other way as it was for Germans in the Hitler years to ignore the plight of their Jewish neighbors. Each age has its own challenges. The issue of abortion is a challenge Christ expects us to confront.

The Bible is full of Scripture admonishing us to care for widows and orphans. Who more than unborn children -- and many of their mothers -- are orphans? Each Christian must decide how to live out the text: "Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter." (Proverbs 24:11)

When I was involved in a teen church program, one of our leaders used to ask the question, "If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?" The same question can be posed in the pro-life arena, "If you were arrested for being pro-life, would there be enough evidence to convict you?" In many ways these two questions are the same. How are people to know that Orthodox Christians believe that each person bears the image of God and seek to live in a way that honors and protects the lives of others? What in our lives sets us apart from those that do not espouse such a view?

I suspect that the Orthodox answer to this question has at least one component that must involve the totality of our lives.

A powerful example in our age is Mother Theresa, who stood before President Clinton and others political leaders and called the US "the poorest country in the world" because of its failure to protect its unborn children. Here was one of those rare persons who helps many begin to see God's image in others, no matter how young or old, rich or poor.

A convert to Orthodoxy involved in pro-life activities told me of a dream he had in which he found himself in an ancient church where many pro-lifers were gathered, mostly Catholic and Protestant. A guide in white met my friend and pointed to a wagon in which only one seat was vacant. "This is for the Holy Orthodox," said the guide. The guide told the man to enter the church to venerate an icon of the Theotokos. The doors of the church opened, the man crossed himself and entered, but he did not see a typical icon of Mary. In its place was a tiny brain and heart of an unborn baby. Flowing down the wall next to these organs were sheets and sheets of water, a waterfall of tears. The man let the tears flow over his hands. In touching them, he felt cleansed.

This dream carries a powerful message. We are the Body of Christ, and his hands in this world. We are not called to aloofness, apathy or isolationism. What are we doing to help prevent and heal the wounds of abortion which effect us all, whether we realize it or not? We can all be cleansed of this sin, but only by drawing close to the waterfall of tears and immersing our hands until they overflow. Then let us be convicted.

Rene Zitzloff, mother of six, directs the church school program at St. Mary's Greek Orthodox Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota.