Thoughts on Abortion

Dear friends,  

            Last Sunday I heard two different prayers regarding abortion and found myself in both. Earlier, that week, I had barely noticed the 40th anniversary of Roe. v. Wade. The general public seems both apathetic and accepting of the status quo. A recent Pew poll of a multitude of groups found that only white evangelical Protestants (54%) would overturn the law. A majority of Catholics and Republicans would not.

            I confess that the last time I really paid attention was when a man named George Tiller died in May of 2009, handing out bulletins in a Lutheran church while wearing a bullet-proof vest. Dr. Tiller was known to provide late term abortions, meaning abortions after 20 weeks. After his death a number of women came forward grateful to him for help in desperate situations in which the life of the mother or fetus were clearly at stake. There are about a thousand done each year in the United States and they are almost always done because of grave health issues and risk of death to mother and/or baby. A colleague of Tiller said that he did not perform abortions except for these reasons.

            Tiller’s death brought to mind a devout Catholic neighbor near my last congregation who learned late in her pregnancy that there were severe fetal abnormalities that would not allow the child to live long after birth. She was married and already had two children. Her father confided in me that the family brought the matter to their parish priest for prayer and pastoral care. He was in agreement that an abortion was the best choice. I’ll never forget the courage of the family to share this with their pastor and the understanding and care they received. I also witnessed the grief and sorrow of the family at the loss of their child and the agony of their choice.

            After Tiller’s death, I called a physician friend to learn more about what issues can arise later in pregnancy that lead to late term abortions and he was quick with many stories. He mentioned a patient who later in her pregnancy was diagnosed with leukemia. All were in agreement that to continue the pregnancy posed a grave risk to the mother’s already poor health. Other such stories and my own experience at Children’s Hospital have taught me that amazingly awful and sad things can happen in pregnancy for both mother and child. My ongoing concern though, is less about the late term cases than in the choices that are being made earlier in pregnancy.

            While in my first church, I continued my studies in Christian ethics at the Lutheran seminary, focusing on abortion. Part of my thesis included an attempt to address this difficult issue in a sermon which I preached in my former congregation on a summer Sunday when I thought as few people would be there as possible. I used the parable of the Good Samaritan for the gospel reading that day. As I looked out over the tiny congregation that morning I noticed a visitor from my home congregation suburban Maryland. It was the wife of chief justice William Rehnquist, a conservative who cast one of the two dissenting votes in Roe v. Wade.  “You’ve got to be kidding Lord,” I said in prayer and a moment of panic as I began to sweat more than usual under by alb. Not knowing anything of her views on the issue, I wondered what she would think? Would she feel like the sermon was a setup, something I kept on hand on the off chance she or her husband showed up for worship as they sometimes did on their way to Vermont every July (there was a family connection in my congregation). I decided to stick with the plan for the day. I had worked on the sermon for weeks, this was the day, and I didn’t know she was coming.

            The sermon made use of our denomination’s social statement on abortion and I talked about how under some circumstances abortion can be a tragic necessity. But mainly I talked about avoiding it, sexual ethics, the importance of adoption, and how a faithful response to an unintended pregnancy, even under circumstances that would allow it according to the social statement, might be to treat the unborn child the way the good Samaritan treated the man in the ditch: by rescuing and providing hospitality to the stranger in need. After the service Mrs. Rehnquist thanked me for the sermon without comment, and I was grateful that she said anything at all.

            Although abortions are at a 35 year low, there are still way too many (over 750,000 in the United States in 2009 by one count). For the sake of the sanctity of life, let me state the obvious: we need more prevention of unwanted pregnancies and better pathways to adoption. And yet, I believe abortion needs to be a legal option.

            I commend to you our social statements on abortion and human sexuality. I believe these statements are good guides for faithful living and worthy of thoughtful consideration in the wider church and world.

Faithfully, Ross