Lately, womens’ bodies and health care and pregnancy and contraception and abortion and religious freedom and laws and the kitchen sink have been tossed around and talked about ad naseum.
My twitter feed blew up with critiques and praises of the Susan G. Komen Foundation. My newsfeed from facebook was littered with comments about rights to health care and freedom of religion. Over breakfast, having coffee, in person, on the phone, the issues these questions raise are all around me.
And I guess why this is so exasperating for me, personally, is that I can’t figure out what to say and where to stand. I see all sorts of different sides to these issues. There are a thousand shades of grey to understand in the conversations and multiple “goods” that unfortunately do not play well together. And so when I’m asked my opinion or what I think about it, it would probably take three hours just to lay out all of the pieces of the puzzle… and that doesn’t include any time spent trying to actually give an answer.
Most often, however, the arguments are boiled down to two positions.
On the one side – let’s just call it what it is – the left side – the argument comes from a question of whether or not people have access to resources they need to care for their bodies, make informed decisions, and lead autonomous lives. It is about rights and conscience.
On the other side – the right side – the argument begins with the beliefs/traditions/morals that institutions hold about our bodies. It is also about rights and conscience.
You could start trying to pick a side by asking yourself -well, which is more important? An individual’s rights? or an institution’s beliefs?
But then that leads to questions about what happens when one individuals conscience leads them to harm another? What happens when an institution’s conscience leads them to harm another institution? or an individual? or a group of individuals? Who/what is more valued? Which institution gets the say? The government? A church? Are any particular persons more “persons” than others?
(we aren’t even dealing with details, yet… just the big picture of rights)
Take the issue of birth control and the mandate (or whatever it is) that all institutions will have to provide contraceptive coverage to their employees through their health care. It doesn’t apply to churches, but it would to educational institutions, hospitals, etc. that are religiously affiliated. Which puts the issue of institutional vs. individual right smack dab in the center of the debate for an institution like the Roman Catholic Church that does not see contraceptives as a moral good. It prevents life, therefore they are against it. I can completely understand and respect an institution’s beliefs and values and want them to have the freedom to stand by them. But I would also like for the many Catholics who actually use birth control pill to have the ability to have it affordably. I would like for the teenagers covered by their parents insurance who use birth control pills to mitigate acne to get it for a good price. I would like the women who suffer with long and painful periods to be able to make a choice and have it covered by their employeers insurance if they need to use the birth control pill or IUD or other method to help regulate their cycles. I recently read that over 50% of the women who use the birth control pill do so for a reason besides pregnancy prevention. That number absolutely floored me.
As I heard on NPR this afternoon – if it is an argument about religious freedom… the bishops win. If it is an argument about accessibility of contraceptives for individuals… then the administration wins. I want both institutions and individuals to have the freedom to make informed decisions and to stand by their convictions. But in these particular issues, we just can’t have it both ways. So which is more important? Religious freedom? or access to health care? Pressed to make a choice, I take the fifth.
I think I struggle also with the issue of abortion because it is not clearly a black/white issue… as much as people try to frame it that way.
The official United Methodist position regarding the issue can be found in The Book of Discipline:
The beginning of life and the ending of life are the God-given boundaries of human existence. While individuals have always had some degree of control over when they would die, they now have the awesome power to determine when and even whether new individuals will be born.
Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion. But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother, for whom devastating damage may result from an unacceptable pregnancy. In continuity with past Christian teaching, we recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures. We cannot affirm abortion as an acceptable means of birth control, and we unconditionally reject it as a means of gender selection.
We oppose the use of late-term abortion known as dilation and extraction (partial-birth abortion) and call for the end of this practice except when the physical life of the mother is in danger and no other medical procedure is available, or in the case of severe fetal anomalies incompatible with life. We call all Christians to a searching and prayerful inquiry into the sorts of conditions that may warrant abortion. We commit our Church to continue to provide nurturing ministries to those who terminate a pregnancy, to those in the midst of a crisis pregnancy, and to those who give birth. We particularly encourage the Church, the government, and social service agencies to support and facilitate the option of adoption. (See ¶ 161.K.)
Governmental laws and regulations do not provide all the guidance required by the informed Christian conscience. Therefore, a decision concerning abortion should be made only after thoughtful and prayerful consideration by the parties involved, with medical, pastoral, and other appropriate counsel.
From The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church – 2004. Copyright 2004 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Used by permission.
I appreciate the nuance that our position holds. I believe it tries to hold up the goods of not only life, but also the good of family, responsible parenting, a woman’s body. It also leads us into prayer about “the sorts of conditions that may warrant abortion.”
One of my most memorable experiences in seminary was attending the Cal Turner Center for Moral Ethics retreat. Graduate students from five different fields were brought together to discuss issues that we all will face in our career fields. I was surrounded by students from the law, business, medical and nursing school – along with my colleagues from the divinity school. The presenter that really helped me to understand the “gray” area of the abortion question was Dr. Frank Boehm, who had written a book called, “Doctors Cry, Too.” He talked about his experiences in the emergency room treating young women who had either tried to perform abortive measures on themselves or had recieved “back-alley” abortions. They found themselves in the E.R. with deadly infections, rips and tears, and irreparable damage. Some died. He struggled with his convictions about life and the pragmatic reality that safe and legal ways of terminating a pregnancy were needed or these women would continue to use whatever means necessary. His story has caused me to truly not have an answer when asked if I am pro-life or pro-choice. I both want to uphold the sanctity of life and want those who see no other options to have safe and legal options available to them. I also firmly seek to provide options and resources and hope to those who find themselves in those positions.
The UMC position also tries to bring some nuance to the very term “abortion.” We make a distinction between the stages at which procedures are performed. But mentioned here in this piece is no mention of the “morning-after pill.” Some who are pro-life today would oppose use of the morning-after pill because it would prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg. And yet, most morning-after pills are merely strong doses of the same ingredients found in other contraceptives. In reality, many contraceptives are effective in part because of this reason. At the same time there is national conversation about mandating the coverage of contraceptives in health care, states like Mississippi have proposed legislation that take the definition of abortion to extremes that could potentially make said contraceptives illegal. That measure was NOT passed thanks to 58% of the voters of the state rejecting the measure. We have to have these conversations because even if and when we agree that protecting life is good, we don’t agree about what life is and when it begins. Fertilization? Implantation? when an embryo becomes a fetus? According to some places in the Old Testament, life was determined by the breath. We have talked about life ceasing with heart beats, so does it also begin with them? What about brain waves? It is a complicated and difficult conversation with no easy answers.
In all of these questions, there are goods that we are trying to achieve. Goods like health, life, equality, choice, accessibility, convictions, morality, community, and accountability. And unfortunately, sometimes those goods compete and we have to choose between them. And sometimes our decisions are merely choices between evils rather than goods. I see so many different sides and truly faithful and good people coming from all different perspectives. My number one hope is that we might have these conversations with civility, respect, and a willingness to listen to the heart and experience of another person.
I just wish that these debates weren’t always about women’s bodies. It is frustrating that we live in a world in which so many of these complicated issues have to do with what women can and cannot do with their bodies and have so little to do with the physical bodies of adult men. I sometimes wonder if the conversations would be different.