We Need to Talk about Abortion.

I met Pam when I was buying a car a number of years ago. I had worked for weeks with the salespeople and, after jumping through a lot of hoops, I was finally ready to sit down with the finance manager, Pam. She was a lovely person, in her early forties, with dark brown hair, olive skin, and very intense eyes. Somehow, within ten minutes of being in her office, she began to tell me about her life. I hung on her every word.

She had been part of an arrangement for marriage in her country of origin and moved to the U.S. about a year before they were to be married. He was very domineering and aggressive but she liked him – in time she began to love him. She was much more pious than he was so they had a lot of conflict over remaining sexually abstinent. He pressured her to have sex with him while they awaited the marriage ceremony. As a white, American man, it is not possible for me to understand nor capture the dynamics between men and women in her culture so I will not attempt to do so. What was clear to me as a listener is that she felt that she lost some of her agency in navigating this issue and she ultimately agreed to have sex with him prior to their marriage.

I don’t want to, but we need to talk about abortion – because I don’t want women like Pam to die.

Then she found out she was pregnant – that’s when the abuse began. He badgered her to get an abortion and she vehemently refused. So he began to threaten her. He told her that he would kill himself if she didn’t terminate the pregnancy, he would publicly ruin her in their community; a community where women are punished for having children outside of a marriage. This abuse was non-stop and he would break things and punch holes in the walls. She was afraid. And she loved him. So she terminated the pregnancy.

Then he left her.

We need to talk about abortion for a number of reasons, but mostly because there are lives at stake. For most of my life I was extremely conservative on this issue. I grew up Pentecostal which is to the right of most fundamentalist, evangelical churches. As my experiences grew more diverse, my perspective on abortion followed. This issue is the issue for so many “single issue voters” that we have to address it openly or we risk endangering more lives and building a government where catering to this one issue is all that extremist politicians have to do in order to gain power. I don’t want to, but we need to talk about abortion – because I don’t want women like Pam to die.

Before I begin, I want to put my cards on the table. I believe that the human activity of abortion is a tragedy. Every time. My belief that life should be preserved, cultivated, and endorsed is inextricably bound up with my religious identity. As a result of such a belief system, I hold that all efforts should be made to prevent the antecedent conditions that result in abortions: like rape culture, lack of sexual education, lack of access to contraceptives, toxic theology that inhibits people from using contraceptives, desperate socio-economic conditions that affect women of color at widely disproportionate rates, systemic white supremacy which (among other things) reduces the bodies of black women to objects that must be exploited and controlled, etc. Similarly, as an advocate for life, I am an undying supporter of access to safe, legal abortions everywhere. Let me explain:

As an advocate for life, I am an undying supporter of access to safe, legal abortions everywhere.

It seems to me that most positions regarding the abortion debate in America do not proceed in a way that allows for the dissenting view to change their mind. Since before I was born, hard lines have been drawn on the issue of abortion or reproductive rights, and groups have been established on either side. Even the language we use around the topic is an identifier as to which camp we belong.

For instance, if someone begins a discussion by presenting the differing sides as “pro-life and pro-abortion,” I already know which side they are on; they’re on the side that actually believes there are people who are “pro-abortion.” Hint: no one is pro-abortion. Exactly zero people make their New Year’s Resolution to get as many abortions as possible. I’m not sure any of this language is useful anymore. Once the lines have been drawn, very few people are likely to switch sides and anyone who was going to switch likely has already. If we are going to get anywhere on this issue, and we really need to, then we have to examine what’s at stake for these differing positions and what can be accurately stated by each side.

The Left has made the mistake of dismissing the Right’s claims that a fetus is a living human being. I do, however, understand the reason that they’ve dismissed these claims. The Right has been notoriously hateful (especially the “christians”) and abusive toward women who have received abortions. They have, at times, been violent. The vast majority of those on the Right who have not been violent have been complicit through their silence and thinly veiled approval of the bombing of abortion clinics and the abuse of women walking into Planned Parenthood, the dehumanization of women and the assault on their agency and autonomy. But the evil committed by the Right does not necessarily negate the validity of their claim, though it may negate their moral standing. Their claim, that life begins at conception, is a theological claim that cannot be proved or disproved. This is a tension that we must hold.

Hint: no one is pro-abortion. Exactly zero people make their New Year’s Resolution to get as many abortions as possible.

In response to this tension, the Left has committed itself to changing the narrative; they choose instead to talk about “women’s rights,” and “women’s autonomy.” Now, given the historical and present dehumanization of women by men in power, I believe women’s rights, autonomy, and agency is something that we should talk about loudly and often. But it should be noted here, that to a person who genuinely believes that a fetus is the same as a baby, the mother’s body is not the topic of conversation. They believe they are talking about a separate body that is connected to, and dependent on, the mother; that is not the same thing. To them, talking about women’s rights is non-sequitur.

My suggestion is that the Left should begin its argument from the assumption that the Right is correct about life beginning at conception. I know that sounds antithetical, but hear me out. The research by the World Health Organization and the Guttmacher Institute that has spanned the globe for over 15 years has produced unmatched data on the rates of incidents of abortion that must be recognized. Key findings for the purposes of this post are:

  1. Rates of incidents of abortion are not changed by the legal status of abortion.
  2. The number of women who die during the abortion procedure is correlated with the legal status of abortion.
  3. Rates of incidents of abortion fall when access to sexual education and contraceptives rise.

For this reason, the “Pro-Life” position of working to overturn Roe v. Wade is falsely named; it would result in more death.

What that means for the issue of abortion in the United States is that overturning Roe v. Wade will not mean that abortion rates would fall. In fact, abortion rates are lower now than they were pre-Roe v. Wade. What making abortion illegal would do is increase the number of women who die as a result of receiving an abortion. Women like Pam.

If we assume that life begins at conception and every abortion is a lost human life, making abortion illegal would result in more human deaths since the number of abortions would not change but the number of mothers who die as a result of receiving abortions would rise. For this reason, the “Pro-Life” position of working to overturn Roe v. Wade is falsely named; it would result in more death. Pam’s pregnancy would have ended still, but Pam would have died too.

This is the reason the Left should disengage from the debate about the beginning of life. In fact, they should concede this point in order to win the argument. The Right says, “Life begins at conception,” to which the Left should respond, “but it does not end at birth.” A genuinely pro-life position is one that must advocate for access to safe, legal abortions.

In their attempts to stop legal abortions, the Right often targets organizations like Planned Parenthood. De-funding Planned Parenthood has become a way for GOP politicians to score quick points with their conservative bases for a generation. But this is anti-life given the facts that are spelled out in the above cited study.

This kind of hatred cannot be argued against intellectually; it must be confronted theologically.

Planned Parenthood provides safe and legal abortions which preserve lives (again: since the number of abortions is unchanged by legal status and more mothers die when abortion is illegal – resulting in a net loss of life (fetuses + mothers)). Perhaps most importantly, Planned Parenthood offers sexual education and contraceptives to women of all walks of life. Access to sexual education and contraceptives are directly correlated with reduced rates of incidents of abortion. To put it another way, the best thing a person who wants to end abortion can do to achieve that goal is protect the funding of Planned Parenthood!

While the Right has been calling themselves “Pro-Life,” the Left has been actively working to preserve life and protect life by keeping abortion legal. While the Right has been calling themselves “anti-abortion,” the Left has been actively reducing the rates of incidents of abortion by increasing access to education and contraceptives. For this reason, the Left is truly the “Pro-Life” position while the Right, if they had their way, would actual be responsible for more abortions (by decreasing access to sexual education and contraceptives provided by Planned Parenthood et al), and more dead mothers (by making abortion illegal). The Left should abandon their attempt to change the conversation and should instead turn and face the Right and beat them on their own terms.

In my experience, however, the more religious factions of the Right are not moved by this empirical data. They either dismiss it outright or they respond by saying that abortion is immoral and should therefore be illegal. This is an entirely different argument, however, as what is moral and what is legal rarely overlap. Racism is immoral though it is entirely legal. Sexism is immoral and legal. The dehumanization of the poor is evil and it is the backbone of: capitalism, prosperity gospel, red-zoning, gerrymandering, “right to work” laws, city ordinances targeting unhoused people, the war on drugs, “three strikes and you’re out,” the private prison industry, and the list goes on and on.

Ordained Evangelical ministers have argued to my face that these women’s lives should not be their concern – the concern of ministers.

The other argument the Right makes is that women who get abortions deserve to die, therefore their deaths should not be factored into the equation. Ordained Evangelical ministers have argued to my face that these women’s lives should not be their concern – the concern of ministers. When I’ve told them the stories I’ve listened to, when I’ve told them about Pam, they responded with mistrust – they didn’t believe her. They discredit her story and her in order to hold on to their ideological position, their hatred. This kind of hatred cannot be argued against intellectually; it must be confronted theologically.

Just as any position that advocates for making abortion illegal must not be called “Pro-Life,” but must instead be called “Pro-Punishment,” or “Pro-Death,” for the sake of accuracy, any person who is not advocating for the preservation of life, even the life of a teenage girl who got an abortion or for Pam who was coerced into the pregnancy and forced to have an abortion, must not call themselves a “Christian,” for the sake of accuracy. They must instead accept that theirs is a position of retribution, and is therefore the opposite of our self-sacrificing Christ.

In conclusion, I believe the Left has given too much ground to the anti-choice movement by dismissing the theological claims at hand. The facts are clear, though one must read beyond the abstract of the study. Regardless of when life begins, overturning Roe v. Wade would result in more deaths – with the same number of aborted fetuses and more dead women. To advocate for the deaths of these women by making abortion illegal, even though it would not save even one fetus, is not “Pro-Life,” it is not morally superior, and it certainly is not like Christ. If the Right is truly Pro-Life, they will end their campaign for retributive death and join those of us who are actually trying to stop abortion – by focusing their efforts on fighting the systems like rape culture that produce unwanted pregnancies, keeping abortion legal, and funding Planned Parenthood so that more women can have access to education and contraceptives. What happened to Pam is a terrible tragedy. It would have been a greater tragedy if she had died.

To Dust You Shall Return

When I was 14 years old I was masturbating… a lot. The fundamentalist evangelical culture that I was raised in drilled it into my head that this was a surefire way to end up in hell. I would go to the altar at church, weep and beg for God’s forgiveness – and within 24 hours I’d be guilty again. Twice.

Worse than the shame and guilt was the loneliness of living with the secret. I couldn’t talk to anyone about it. I couldn’t talk to my pastor because he was my dad. I couldn’t talk to my dad because I was 14. I couldn’t talk to my youth pastor because he worked for my dad and I couldn’t talk to my friends because I had a reputation to uphold. I was the leader of the intercessory prayer group and I even preached youth revivals in the summer. I was trapped and ashamed and I had nowhere to turn.

So one Wednesday afternoon, I took the train to Chicago and made my way to St. Michael’s Catholic Church. I was far enough from home that I didn’t have to worry about seeing anyone I knew and no God-fearing Pentecostal would ever be caught dead in a Catholic Church anyway so I might as well have been on Mars. As soon as I walked in the door there was a queue of people waiting to enter the confessional. When it was finally my turn I entered the confessional, ready to unburden my soul.

The ritual felt ancient and sacred and the ashes felt holy on my forehead; not because I’m a sinner, but because I’d been redeemed.

I explained to the priest that I was not Catholic, but needed someone to talk to. In the movies, priests in confessionals always listen no matter who is confessing and this priest did not disappoint. I wept as I told him of my inability to control myself despite my deep desire to please God. I told him of how ashamed I was of my hypocrisy.

“First of all,” the priest began, “I hear you weeping and I don’t think I’ve ever met a boy as young as you who wanted to please God more than you do. God is not mad at you, son. He must be so very proud of who you are. And don’t worry so much about this sin. It sounds to me that you are mostly guilty of being a teenage boy. That is not your fault. When it happens, ask God to forgive you if you feel you’ve sinned and then go on with your day. This is a part of growing up and you are just adjusting to new hormones and instincts as your body changes. You are loved. You are forgiven. God is proud of you and your church is lucky to have you.”

“And give your dad more credit,” he concluded, “You should talk to him. I’m sure he will understand more than you think he does.”

It was Ash Wednesday.

Five years later, I attended an Ash Wednesday Mass at Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I walked up to the front when they administered the ashes and as the priest smudged my forehead he said, “Turn from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” I remembered the confessional from five years earlier and the way that day changed my perception of myself. I remembered that liberating redemption and my heart leaped. The ritual felt ancient and sacred and the ashes felt holy on my forehead; not because I’m a sinner, but because I’d been redeemed.

I eventually left the Pentecostal church I was raised in. I left as a licensed minister with a full time gig as a youth pastor in the very church my father once pastored, though he had long since moved on to a different congregation two states away. I left that tradition for a lot of reasons, but the biggest reason was because I felt that they were incapable of distinguishing between their culture and their doctrine. It seemed to me that their cultural orthodoxy was identical to their definition of piety and I found that to be dangerous. It proved dangerous when President George W. Bush waged war on the LGBTQIA+ Community via the “Marriage Amendment” and the evangelical church-world celebrated and rallied for a change to the U.S. Constitution that would only serve to ostracize and marginalize an already marginalized people. I was confused. How could the world “know us by our love,” if we were supporting a gesture of intolerance and hate?  

It seems as though I left just in time.

So why the fuck should we bother with any of it at all anymore? Why bother with religion or ritual when it has failed us at every turn?

In the 2016 Presidential election the white evangelical church sold its gospel for political power and supreme court justice seats when over 80% of them voted for the most godless president we’ve had in recent memory – and they did so while praising the name of Jesus. Even after he praised white supremacists who murdered an activist in Charlottesville, they support him. The Roman Catholic Church has just begun to acknowledge the systemic war they waged on children around the world and they will never be able to right what they have wronged. The Mainline Protestants are having an identity crisis right now as the United Methodist Church just voted to exclude members of the LGBTQIA+ Community instead of loving them. Conservatives in virtually every Christian sect have been anti-Semitic, homophobic, white supremacists, racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, abusive colonizers, and the list goes on and on. So why the fuck should we bother with any of it at all anymore? Why bother with religion or ritual when it has failed us at every turn?

It’s a legitimate question, and one worthy of substantial consideration. Some have chosen to walk away entirely; chosen not to bother with it anymore. Many needed to walk away in order to preserve themselves and I hold these siblings in my heart and pray that they find nourishment for their entire beings in the ways they want and need to find it.

Others have wrestled with this truth for centuries since the birth of the Christian institution and its first failures. When the ancient Christians sold their gospel for political power under Constantine, the Desert Mothers and Fathers fled the cosmopolitan cities and embraced God in solitude, silence, and stillness. When the American Protestants bent the Holy Scriptures to defend and uphold chattel slavery in the Antebellum South, black and brown enslaved people cried out to a God who liberates and sets the captives free. They cried out to a black Messiah who was murdered by the State – who defeated death itself so that ALL may go free! Like Daniel in the lion’s den, while the Church has persecuted the Queer Community throughout history, queer folks have exalted a God of Love who courses through their veins and calls them righteous! And while the Church has attacked trans-folks and even rallied to police where they can use the restroom, our trans siblings have boldly stood like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – refusing to bow to a hateful god but insisting that there is another, higher, mightier God who cannot be contained in a binary but exceeds all human understanding. These failed institutions may own the buildings we once worshiped in, but they don’t own the Truth. They don’t own our Faith. They don’t own our rituals, and they damn well don’t own us.

The witness of the oppressed is the tradition I seek to follow now. They have led by example all along. As Millenials leave church en masse (pun intended), as the evangelical world and the UMC mortgages its future for points in a culture war, we find ourselves in a diaspora of sorts. We are homeless for now, but we are not alone. We have each other, and the witness of the saints who have gone before us (and died at the hands of oppressors, may they rest in power). We must learn from their example if we are to carve out a path in this wilderness.

These failed institutions may own the buildings we once worshiped in, but they don’t own the Truth. They don’t own our Faith. They don’t own our rituals, and they damn well don’t own us.

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday and I will once again stand in line for ashes. This time I’ll be on the steps of Legislative Plaza in Nashville, Tennessee in protest of the anti-Queer legislation they continue to push and the white supremacists symbols and statutes they continue to live by and venerate. This time the ashes will be mixed with glitter as the ritual of Ash Wednesday grows to reflect, and shine, and TESTIFY to the lives and witness of the Christians pushed to the margins by those who used the Gospel for their own pursuit of power. And later in the evening I’ll meet with the faith community I belong to as we dine together at Christ’s Table and conspire to live out God’s Kingdom here on Earth!

And perhaps, on some Ash Wednesday in the future, the institutions that have failed us and failed to execute the Great Commission will humble themselves and join us in repentance. Perhaps, someday they will “turn from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” But if they won’t, we will mix them with glitter, smudge them on our foreheads, and declare that Christ is Lord!