By the Reverend Madison Shockley
|The Rev. Madison Shockley II is the pastor of the Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Carlsbad, CA. He is a board member of ProgressiveChristianity.org (formerly The Center for Progressive Christianity/tcpc.org) and a frequent contributor to www.Truthdig.com|
A critical problem with the “abortion” debate is that the field of concern is far too narrow. Abortion is a procedure. The real issue should focus on the woman whose life and body are the context for a discussion that too often ignores this reality.
When the discussion begins, as it often does, in the most remote quarters (the public square, the church, the legislature ) and moves inward toward the fetus (usually bypassing the woman) we make a non-person of the woman while claiming valiantly to confer personhood on the fetus. We substitute our voice for the fetus and ignore the voice of the woman right in front of us.
To paraphrase I John 4:20-21 20, those who say, “I love the fetus,” and hate or ignore the voice of the woman, are liars; for those who do not love and respect a woman whom they have seen, cannot love the fetus whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love the fetus must love the woman also.
Asking about the role of a partner (spouse or domestic), parent, and the extended family and the ways in which they are impacted by reproductive issues must begin with an inquiry into their relationship to the woman facing the reproductive question. Even this question must begin with the intent of the woman in regards to her reproductive options/choices. Is pregnancy a welcomed and affirmative choice/option for the woman? If the answer is, “Yes,” then it naturally flows that she has/would invite her partner’s participation in the procreative process.
The invitation to participate in the procreative process is the opportunity for discussion of the impact that such a decision will have on the lives of both parties. These discussions can range from questions of family life, health, finances, lifestyles, personal goals and other matters of preparedness. In a marriage relationship one would hope that some preliminary conversation around these topics would have already occurred and indeed may be ongoing. Once a mutual decision has been reached the couple proceeds (joyfully) with a mutually calculated attempt to get pregnant.
In the case where, without or in spite of calculation, pregnancy has occurred the woman must again first determine, to the extent she is able, whether the pregnancy is wanted and welcomed. In a healthy relationship the woman should feel confident, and her spouse should concur, that she would not forfeit her autonomy and moral authority by inviting her spouse into the decision-making process. At this point the same matters of family life, health, finances, etc. would be discussed as part of the process in which the woman determines whether her pregnancy is welcomed and wanted. But at all times it must be recognized as her decision. For even the spouse to compel or prohibit the progress of the pregnancy is a violation of her divinely conferred moral authority and human right to self-determination. It is to take authority over the woman’s body away from her and transfer it to another person. As intimate as the spousal relationship is we only speak spiritually and metaphorically of the “two becoming one flesh”; for the woman and the fetus we are always speaking literally.
Once the woman (and her spouse) has determined to welcome the pregnancy she/they may invite parents, grandparents and the extended family to play a role in supporting the pregnancy and the life that will be born. The role of family is to celebrate and encourage a successful pregnancy and a long and loved life for the one to be born. But if the woman (and her spouse) has not determined to welcome the pregnancy then it is not a decision necessary to be shared with the family.
In healthy relationships a woman’s negative decision can be shared where the nurture of the spouse (parents and extended family) can be a source of support in the actions that would follow her decision not to continue an unwanted pregnancy. It is critical in such situations that spouses (and the family) not allow their own feelings of loss to overwhelm their capacity to compassionately accompany the woman in her journey from pregnancy to non-pregnancy. We recognize in these moments the moral gravity that pulls on the lives of everyone involved. But the woman remains at the center of that moral universe and must retain that role in determining how she will live her life.
Who speaks for the fetus? Certainly not voices from the public square. Not even voices from the church. God has made the first choice by placing the mystery of reproduction inside the woman. In doing so God established a holy partnership with the woman in the procreative process. Many who would claim to speak for the fetus would say that once conception has occurred if it is just left alone it will become a human being and thus consider the same personhood exists at birth as it does at fertilization. But it is vital to recognize that pregnancy is a process of gestation that ends in a human birth. Medicine has recognized that this process is quite often interrupted by physiological processes and that spontaneous abortions (miscarriage in lay terms) occur to as many as 60% of all conceptions. In lay theology (and sometimes in more sophisticated arenas) it would be said that “God decided that it wasn’t the right time.”
Given the divine choice to put this process inside the woman we submit that a woman also has the moral authority to “interrupt” this process when she has determined for health, family, personal and other reasons of self-determination that a pregnancy has not come at the “right time” for her. She may seek another pregnancy or she may continue to care for the children and family that she already has but it must always remain her decision without coercion from the state, the church, her extended family or even her spouse.