Choose Life

by Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton
RCRC Board Member

Choose life.

That’s a religious mandate for many people of many different expressions of faith.

I don’t know about you, but I am sick and tired of being sick and tired of being clobbered by scripture.  I am sick unto death of having this particular piece of scripture used – by some folks – as a guilt trip when I explain to some that I work for reproductive justice.

“But, what about what scripture says?” they ask. You know, ‘Choose LIFE’?”

I’ve made a New Year’s resolution to take back scripture from the misuse and abuse of people who choose to use it for their own purposes. So, what I’m about to offer are a few of my thoughts about “Choose Life” as I reflect on the 40th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

Choose life.  Choose what is good. Choose what is right. For you. For your life.

In a very short, two-words sentence, we are asked to cherish the two great gifts of the human enterprise: free will and the goodness of our creation.

“Choose life.” Not, “Let someone else make the choice for you.” Not, “This is what life is and when it begins and how I define it for you.”

No, the directive is simply, “Choose life.” We are invited to discover the wonder and mystery and complexity of that simple sentence the rest of our whole lives.

Choose what gives you life. What enhances your life. What contributes to your life. For, in so doing, we contribute to the well being of the rest of the world.

Unfortunately, the ability for an individual – especially women – to define and decide what is good for their life is being limited by the definitions and decisions of others.

We have been in this place before.  

In June of 1969, a 21-year-old Texas woman named Norma McCorvey found herself pregnant for the third time. She had left home at the age of 14 and had lost custody of her first child to her mother and had placed her second child for adoption. She was living in Louisiana with her father and working several low-paying jobs.

She grew despondent and depressed and desperate as she began to understand that she would be unemployable as a young mother with a child and no support. Moving back to Texas seemed the only option left open to her. At least there she could claim she had been raped and be allowed to have an abortion. At least, that’s what her friends told her.

Due to lack of documentation and evidence of rape, her scheme did not work. She tried to obtain an illegal abortion at several clinics she and her friends knew, but found that the police had closed them down. The only other option was to seek out non-medical, non-professional “back alley” abortion – a procedure performed by persons either lacking the necessary skills or in an environment lacking the minimal medical standards or both.

It is important to know that, according to a 2002 study by Planned Parenthood, estimates of the annual number of illegal abortions in the United states during the 1950s and 1960s range from 200,00 to 1.2 million. During that same period of time, as many as 5,000 American women died annually as a direct result of unsafe abortions.

Indeed, Leslie Reagan chronicles many of these stories in her book, “When Abortion Was A Crime.” Women often tried to induce abortion or cause a miscarriage by throwing themselves down stairs or inflicting violence on themselves. They ingested, douched with or inserted into themselves a chilling variety of chemicals and toxins – from bleach to potassium permanganate to turpentine to gunpowder and whiskey. Knitting needles, crochet hooks, scissors and coat hangers were all tools used by women who had not choice but to resort to these means.

As Frederica Matthews-Green is quoted as saying, “No woman wants an abortion as she wants an ice cream cone or a Porsche. She wants an abortion as an animal caught in a trap wants to gnaw off its own leg.”

Every young woman, no matter her age, knew a story about a woman – a friend or a friend of the cousin of a distant relative – who had had an abortion. Rarely was the outcome good – which included either the death of the woman or her inability to conceive. Seeking to choose life for herself and her family, McCorvey did seek out legal assistance, turning to attorneys Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington. Ultimately, she gave birth to the child three years before the U.S. Supreme Court finally heard the case.

On January 22, 1973, Roe (AKA Norma McCorvey) v. Wade (AKA Henry Wade, Dallas County DA) became an historical, landmark decision by the United States Supreme Court on the issue of abortion.  The Court ruled 7-2 that a right to privacy under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment extended to a woman’s decision to have an abortion, but that right must be balanced against the state’s two legitimate interests in regulating abortions: protecting prenatal life and protecting women’s health.

In the midst of the tension of these two concerns, the country was plunged into the midst of a passionate national debate which has hardly abated over the last 40 years.

Meanwhile, Norma McCorvey went on with her life, choosing to live quietly and privately with her long-time life partner, Connie Gonzales. In 1995, she was befriended by evangelical minister Flip Benham and was baptized by him in August of that year. She also publicly announced her remorse for her involvement in Roe v. Wade and became an advocate of Operation Rescue’s campaign to make abortion illegal.

She changed her mind. She made another choice. I still shake my head whenever I hear people who are opposed to abortion defend the change of her choice, claim that it is “a woman’s prerogative” to change her mind. They say this without any evidence of an awareness of the irony of that statement.

Twenty-two years after Roe v. Wade, Norma McCorvey made a different choice about the life-altering choice of abortion.  She was able to make that choice because she was free – she had the civil and spiritual right – to make another choice. How ironic that her choice includes restricting the rights of others to Choose Life for themselves.

I confess that the logic of that position completely escapes me. When former Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin discovered that the child she was carrying had Trisomy-21 – a condition formerly known as Down’s Syndrome – she reports that she briefly considered abortion, but then proudly states that she “chose life.”

Yes, she chose the life that was best for her, which included the choice to continue with her pregnancy. However, she and others like her seem not to understand that their choices do not include limiting the choices of other women to choose life for themselves in the way that is best defined for them.

Choose life. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we do this work. We choose to do this work because we want to guarantee that a woman has a choice about what happens to her body. We choose to do this work because we want to guarantee that a woman has a choice about what happens to her family. We choose to do this work because we want to insure that a woman has a choice about her own future. We choose to do this work because we know that what we do is life-giving to millions of women in this country and around the world. Can somebody here give me an “amen?”

According to the World Health Organization, in countries where abortion remains unsafe it is the leading cause of maternal mortality, accounting for 78,000 of the 600,000 annual pregnancy-related deaths worldwide.

According to the Alan Guttmacher Instituted, approximately 219 women die worldwide each day from an unsafe abortion.  219. Women. Worldwide. Every. Day.

Six months after abortion was legalized in Guyana in 1995, admissions for septic and incomplete abortion dropped by 41%. One year after Romania legalized abortion in 1990, its abortion-related mortality fell from 142 to 47 deaths per 100,000 live births.

Legalization of abortion allows women to obtain timely abortions, thereby reducing the risk of complications. In 1970, one in four abortions in the United States took place after 13 weeks gestation. Today, according to the Guttmacher Institute, approximately 88-92% of all abortions in the US take place before the end of the first trimester.

To keep abortion safe and legal for women is to choose life. It is choosing life for women whose life choices are already limited by poverty, unemployment, substandard housing or homelessness, limited access to quality education and few quality health care options.

For those who would choose to reduce or limit the number of abortions, I ask that you consider this choice: Put down your placards and posters that carry grotesque images and dire scriptural judgments and warnings. Seek not to pass laws to make abortion illegal.

Choose instead to change the reasons women have abortions. Work to end poverty. Work to improve education. Work to create jobs. Work to improve health care. Make these choices and you will improve the choices women have and reduce the need for abortion.

Work to repeal the Hyde Amendment which prevents the very women who need it most – women who live in desperate poverty like Norma McCorvey once did and have no support much less resources for themselves and their families – from attaining reproductive justice.

Work to make real the acceptance of contraception as a normal part of a woman’s preventative health care. Can somebody PLEASE tell me why we are still having this conversation in the year 2013?

Work to dismantle the underlying oppressive, interlocking systems of racism and sexism and heterosexisms, so that – to paraphrase the great words of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose spirit continues to guide us and lead us in all matters of justice – a woman’s life may be judged, not by the color of her skin or the contents of her uterus, but on the content of her character.

Choose to understand that, long before a collection of cells grows into and is born and takes that first breath of life and becomes a person, the pregnant woman in whose body those cells gathered and grew was and is a living person whose dignity and free will and civil rights must be respected.

Her life, her intelligence, her integrity, her ability to make choices for herself and her family, her status as a citizen of these United States must be respected, and her freedoms must not be denied.

The choice is really simple: Choose life.

We choose life when we choose to walk together in Love – respecting the dignity of every human being.

We choose life when we choose to walk together in justice – insuring that the civil and spiritual and religious right of free will is protected and guaranteed for all.   

We choose life when we choose to walk together in action – moving ourselves out of our complacency and past our illusions of security.

Choose life, my sisters and brothers, that we may walk together as children of God.

And let all God’s children say, “Amen.”

(This post was originally delivered as a sermon by Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton as part of “Walking Together: Love, Justice, Action,” an interfaith service to welcome, thank and bless RCRC’s friends in Congress, the returning administration, and their staffs on January 20, 2013. It was previously posted on Rev. Kaeton’s own blog at http://telling-secrets.blogspot.com/2013/01/choose-life.html.) 

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