Rachel’s Lament: In Communion on Abortion
The Orthodox Peace Fellowship is pro-life but not exactly in the way the term is typically used. Pro-life movements are normally associated with particular political agendas that differ across countries where they are active, but within our fellowship we simply self-identify as children of the Orthodox Church who seek to have our worldviews shaped therein. We recognize the inherent impotence of political ideology in transforming lives and would rather bring our Orthodoxy to our political activities than the other way around. The life of the unborn was cherished by Christians long before modern political realities came into being and will be long after they, as they inevitably will, fade into the past.
In 2000, In Communion published a special issue dedicated to the topic of abortion that was introduced by a letter written by Jim and Nancy Forest:
"Jaroslav Pelikan, distinguished Christian scholar and longtime professor at Yale University, also a member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship advisory board, speaks of abortion as “the great human rights issue of our time.” Sadly, many do not see it that way. Even in some parts of the Christian community, traditional opposition to abortion has slowly been transformed to toleration or even abortion advocacy."
No less surprising, those active in peace organizations—people who might be found protesting at military bases or at prisons where executions are about to occur—are rarely found engaging in efforts to make abortions less common. (On the other hand, it must be noted that many who campaign for the right to life of the unborn child often seem much less disturbed by war and executions.)
For the vast majority of feminist groups, endorsement of abortion has been a litmus test. Anyone troubled by abortion, who speaks of an “unborn child” in the womb rather than using Latin terms with a dehumanizing effect—embryo or fetus—is someone to be denounced. At all costs, the unborn must not be recognized as human beings with as much claim on social respect and protection as their parents. (Yet how readily an unborn child is recognized and celebrated as human by those who look forward to any child’s birth.)
In this issue, we follow with a few paragraphs from Michael Gorman’s excellent essay surveying the early Church Fathers’ view of abortion, which itself succinctly states our pro-life attitude. Next we offer an excerpt from an article by Frederica Mathewes-Green. The section finishes with an article by Nancy Forest.
The earliest specific written references to abortion in Christian literature are those in the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas. The Didache combines a code of Christian morality with a manual of church life and order, while the Epistle of Barnabas is a more theological tract on Christian life and thought. While both of these probably date from the early second century, they most likely drew on Christian sources which had their origins in the late first century.
Both these writings also contain a section based on a Jewish oral and written tradition known as the “Two Ways.” This tradition contrasts the two ways of Life or Light and Death or Darkness. Athanasius notes that it was used extensively in the early church, either as a separate document or as part of the Didache , especially for the training of catechumens and new converts.
The Didache maintains that there is a great difference between these two ways. In an exposition of the second great commandment (“Love your neighbor as yourself”) as part of the Way of Life, the author makes a list of “thou shalt not” statements obviously modeled on, and in part quoting, the Decalogue of the Septuagint. Literally, it declares: “Thou not murder a child by abortion.”
Similarly, the Epistle of Barnabas, in its practical section on the Way of Light, repeats the same words in a list of “thou shalt (not)” statements including, just before the abortion prohibition, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor more than thy own life.” The fetus is seen, not as a part of its mother, but as a neighbor. Abortion is rejected as contrary to other-centered neighbor love.
A woman with an unplanned pregnancy faces more than “inconvenience”; many adversities, financial and social, at school, at work, and at home confront her. Our mistake was in looking at these problems and deciding that the fault lay with the woman, that she should be the one to change. We focused on her swelling belly, not the pressures that made her so desperate. We advised her, “Go have this operation and you’ll fit right in.”
What a choice we made for her. She climbs onto a clinic table and endures a violation deeper than rape—the nurse’s hand is wet with her tears—then is grateful to pay for it, grateful to be adapted to the social machine that rejected her when pregnant. And the machine grinds on, rejecting her pregnant sisters.
It is a cruel joke to call this a woman’s “choice.” We may choose to sacrifice our life and career plans, or choose to undergo humiliating invasive surgery and sacrifice our offspring. How fortunate we are—we have a choice! Perhaps it’s time to amend the slogan: “Abortion: a woman’s right to capitulate.”
If we refused to choose, if we insisted on keeping both our lives and our bodies intact, what changes would our communities have to make? What would make abortion unnecessary? Flexible school situations, more flex-time, part-time, and home-commute jobs, attractive adoption opportunities, safe family planning choices, support in handling sex responsibly––this is a partial list. Yet these changes will never come as long as we’re lying down on abortion tables 1,600,000 times a year to ensure the status quo. We’ve adapted to this surgical substitute, to the point that Justice Blackmun could write in his Webster dissent, “Millions of women have ordered their lives around” abortion. That we have willingly ordered our lives around a denigrating surgical procedure—accepted it as the price we must pay to keep our life plans intact—is an ominous sign.
For over a hundred years feminists warned us that abortion is a form of oppression and violence against women and their children. They called it “child-murder” (Susan B. Anthony), “degrading to women” (Elizabeth Cady Stanton), “most barbaric” (Margaret Sanger), and a “disowning [of] feminine values” (Simone de Beauvoir). How have we lost this wisdom?
Abortion has become the accepted way of dealing with unplanned pregnancies, and women who make another choice are viewed as odd, backward, and selfish. Across the nation, three thousand crisis pregnancy centers struggle, unfunded and unrecognized, to help these women with housing, clothing, medical care, and job training before and after pregnancy. These volunteers must battle the assumption that “they’re supposed to abort”—especially poor women who hear often enough that their children are unwanted. Pro-choice rhetoric conjures a dreadful day when women could be forced to have abortions; that day is nearly here.
More insidiously, abortion advocacy has been poisonous to some of the deeper values of feminism. For example, the need to discredit the fetus has led to the use of terms that would be disastrous if applied to women. “It’s so small,” “It’s unwanted,” “It might be disabled,” “It might be abused.” Too often women are small, unwanted, disabled, or abused. Do we really want to say that these factors erase personhood?
A parallel disparaging of pregnancy itself also has an unhealthy ring. Harping on the discomforts of pregnancy treats women as weak and incompetent; yet we are uniquely equipped for this role, and strong enough to do much harder things than this. Every woman need not bear a child, but every woman should feel proud kinship in the earthy, elemental beauty of birth. To hold it in contempt is to reject our distinctive power, “our bodies, ourselves.”
In a recent letter, a friend explained his reluctant acceptance of abortion with the statement: “I also believe that the human race is overrunning the planet and destroying our Mother the Earth.” While recognizing abortion as a moral problem, he saw it as the lesser of two evils. The cost of saving the planet is to reduce the human population. This is a widely accepted notion, and there are many who have succeeded in making us believe that over-population is the problem and that birth control and abortion are the answers.
Population control is often an attempt by Western, wealthy nations to impose their values on poor, usually non-white nations, and these countries are not happy about it. At a 1998 Population Consultation of the UN NGO Committee on Population and Development in New York, the ambassador from the Dominican Republic, Julia Alvarez, shocked the audience with a speech in which she sharply criticized groups such as Zero Population Growth and Planned Parenthood for trying to reduce fertility in countries that don’t want it (and thinking that it’s for their own good, etc.). She accused the West of targeting poor and darker-skinned countries, such as her own. “It used to be,” she pointed out, “that older women could depend on their adult children to care for them in old age. In 1960, for example, a Jamaican woman had an average of six children; by 1990 she was likely to have fewer than three. Now typically she has two. Who will supply the support system for this mother when she is old?”
Even more amazing was the speech by Dr. James McCarthy, Head of the Center for Population at Columbia University, who called himself a “recovering demographer” and told the audience that “population doesn’t matter.”
In her book Sex and Destiny, feminist Germaine Greer comments, “we [should] abandon the rhetoric of crisis for we are the crisis. Let us stop worrying about a world crammed with people…stop counting the babies born every minute…use our imagination to understand how poverty is created and maintained…so that we lose our phobia about the poor. Rather than being afraid of the powerless, let us be afraid of the powerful—the rich, sterile nations who have no stake in the future. More ‘unwanted’ children are born to us, the rich, than to them, the poor.”
Although there are clearly some over-populated places in the world, this does not mean that the world is over-populated. There are many, many factors involved. Someone told me recently that the entire population of the world, if it agreed to live at the same density as New York City, could fit into the state of Texas. Not a very savory prospect, but interesting.
Justifying abortion by the population-control argument boils down to saying that we should encourage the use of abortion as birth control. But there are already countries that use abortion as birth control—Russia and other former East bloc countries—and the women there are in despair. Some women have several abortions in their lifetime because the birth control possibilities are so limited, and they are urgently demanding better conditions so that they don’t have to resort to abortion just to limit births. So this argument just doesn’t hold water. Not only do the poor countries not want population control, not only is the whole over-population argument questionable, but individual women who are forced to control births through abortion are crying for help.
I would be surprised if any woman ever had an abortion for the sake of the planet or because of her concern for over-population. Among the women I have known who had abortions, none of them, at that terrible point in their lives, cared a hoot about over-population. Women have abortions because they feel cornered, abandoned, hopeless, scared, manipulated. At least my friends all felt this way and, after the abortion, mourned deeply. They may still be mourning. Frederica Mathewes-Green, in her book Real Choices, explains the psychological after-effects of abortion: if they had it to do over again, most women admit that they would choose not to abort.
My personal feeling is that abortion is just as much a feminist issue as it is a pro-life issue. I think women have been sold a very shoddy bill of goods. Radical feminist leaders have played right into the hands of Hugh Hefner types: abortion is a wonderful solution for both of them. Women are expected to make the “right” choice as soon as a problem pregnancy comes along (at least the playboy philosophy hopes they will).
The other argument one hears is that abortion is a more merciful solution for the children of the poor than growing up in destitution. My friend asked: “Isn’t poverty and isolation a slow, cruel death as opposed to an operation that deals with the new life before it can actually think and breathe?”
Not necessarily. That’s implying that poor people should consider abortion when they get pregnant, because it’s sure better than raising children in poverty and isolation. But there are lots and lots of poor women who curse their poverty, and then on top of it all they feel driven to the abortion clinic when they get pregnant, just because society has few other options.
With all our collective intelligence, with all our social science, with all our money, society in the West should be able to come up with a better solution for dealing with problem pregnancies (not medical problems) than abortion. Abortion leaves far, far too many psychological scars. But it’s the cheap way out. What abortion does is pressure the most vulnerable—scared pregnant women—into “getting rid of the problem” so that society doesn’t have to deal with it.
My friend wrote: “I shudder to think of our making common cause with the so-called ‘Christian’ right who are militantly against abortion but endorse war, sexism, and capital punishment.” But must we be inconsistent simply because others are inconsistent? Just because the far-right seems to have co-opted the pro-life argument doesn’t mean that nobody else can endorse it. This calls for a little bit of courage. I urged my friend not to let the agenda of the far right limit his agenda. If you think abortion is wrong, oppose it bravely!
Here in the Netherlands we have the lowest abortion rate in the entire Western world. And, says the Minister of Health, “we’re proud of it.” Proud to have a low abortion rate? That must mean that lowering the abortion rate, or trying to, is a thing worth doing. What I’m saying is, let’s try to lower the abortion rate everywhere. Let’s not abandon women to their own private darkness where they have to make these impossible decisions alone (and then face a society that shrugs its shoulders).
William Styron’s book Sophie’s Choice is about such an impossible choice. On one level it’s about the Holocaust, but on another level it’s about the pressure to decide which of your children you will allow to live and which you will abandon to the hand of violence. Sophie could not live with her choice and finally took her own life.
One can find women who are no more troubled about an abortion they had than they are troubled about a missed bus, but for every woman who is blasé about having abortions you will find many more who wish they hadn’t had to do violence to their unborn children and to their consciences. I’m not insisting that the laws be changed (although it would be good if it did eventually happen), or that all women be forced to go through with their pregnancy no matter what (even if their health is at risk), or that we abandon women to back-street butchers. I’m saying, let’s work from the other side. Let’s try to create a society in which abortion is unthinkable. A society that forces the weak and frightened to shoulder the burden of a social problem should be ashamed of itself.
How do we do it? That’s a good question. My hope is that peace organizations will at last begin to explore rather than ignore the problem, to start some dialogues, to try to cut through the rhetoric and terrible division and to address a problem that everybody can rally around. IC