This year has been difficult for a Christian with certain traditional commitments, and all the more so for a traditionalist Episcopalian. The Supreme Court decided 5-4 to redefine marriage; and in an exuberant and expected follow-up just days later, the Episcopal Church’s General Convention meeting in Salt Lake City changed its canons and approved new liturgies to achieve the same end as the state. This distressed me, but something else that happened this year distressed me a lot more. It was the Planned Parenthood videos — hour after hour of shocking discussions about the commercial destiny of body parts taken off babies. A young man named David Daleiden turned his passion for unborn life into one of the most extraordinary feats of entrepreneurial activism in recent history. Leave it to a millennial not to wait for politicians to act.
As I considered these videos, I remembered attending a summit on children’s ministry in a very liberal Episcopal atmosphere several years earlier. I was a new parent and a new priest. I benefited from many of the teachings, but halfway through the day I thought to myself, “How can I take seriously anything I learn here about catechizing children? My son could just as well be dead to a lot of these people.” I had this thought because of something I didn’t understand about pro-lifers when I was trying to be pro-choice in my teens and twenties. It is the thing that drives my pro-choice friends and family members crazy about me now: My complete inability to see a difference between terminating a pregnancy and shooting a man in the street in cold blood. For abortion advocates, it’s about the woman’s body. For pro-lifers, it just isn’t. It can’t be. It’s about defenseless human beings made in the image and likeness of God. God knows and loves these creatures before they are ever in the womb, and he is knitting them together even as doctors destroy his handiwork. We can have no part in it.
And so when my liberal colleagues voted to change marriage this summer on the basis of a fundamental human dignity (among other reasons), it stung. My mind leapt to tens of millions of dead children — the result of the same overarching progressive project. For my own sanity — particularly in the Episcopal Church — I mostly push this disgust down and try to ignore it. But it rips me up inside. In the wake of the Planned Parenthood videos, several of my Episcopal friends posted rose-colored “I stand with Planned Parenthood” pictures on their Facebook pages. Some of them were the same friends who had adopted the rainbow background weeks earlier with the Supreme Court decision.
While the Episcopal Church recognizes a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy, the church condones abortion only in cases of rape or incest, cases in which a mother’s physical or mental health is at risk, or cases involving fetal abnormalities. The church forbids “abortion as a means of birth control, family planning, sex selection or any reason of mere convenience.”
Recognizes? Condones? Forbids? What does any of this mean in practice? And what kind of abnormalities? Hydrocephalus? Spina Bifida? Downs Syndrome? What else? Our church includes a former seminary dean, Katherine Ragsdale, who gave an astonishing talk called “Abortion is a blessing” in Alabama in 2007. And to pile on to all of this (and the reason I finally felt compelled to write something here), the dean of one of our Episcopal cathedrals recently blessed an abortion clinic in Cleveland. She said, “Bless this building. May its walls stand strong against the onslaught of shame thrown at it.” Shame indeed — shame on the Episcopal Church for colluding in death.
Pro-lifers have, however, done some shameful things in response to abortion. Some of these things are high profile and just as troubling as the abortions themselves. But what about subtler problems?
I wonder how well we care for women who have had abortions. Do we keep quiet and therefore let them suffer without hope? Do we talk about it in a stigmatizing way and compound the heartache? We ought to name the fact that women who have had abortions are themselves partly victims. They are victims of a world that offers them this diabolical choice, and many are victims of deadbeat male partners who force their hand. They can be forgiven. They can forgive. Abortion survivors are among us all, and they bear a great burden that we, under Christ’s easy yoke, ought to help them carry. We can be agents of God’s healing, and I suspect that too often we are not.
And we pro-lifers can be hypocrites. We want to end abortion, but we often do not champion the kind of consistent life ethic that we have heard from Pope Francis, most recently in Laudato Si. What would we sacrifice politically for the single goal of saving unborn children’s lives? And how many of us few pro-life Episcopalians bother to support or participate in the vast pro-life resources and efforts of the Roman Catholic and evangelical churches? Do any of us find the courage to talk or preach in our parishes about abortion with both the urgency and pastoral sensitivity it demands? Why aren’t there Episcopal crisis pregnancy centers?
Katherine Ragsdale infamously said, “Abortion is a blessing, and our work is not done.” For us who say abortion is never a blessing, our work has barely started. What a witness it would be for some of us who do this work to be Episcopalians — both to atone for those of our tribe who have erred in the wrong direction, and as a sign of hope that God can use anything and anyone to advance his cause.
Abortion is not a blessing. Let us in all humility never be afraid to say so. And may the prayers of the Holy Innocents ascend to the throne of grace to strengthen us in God’s saving work.