Monday, July 20, 2015

The Post I Never Thought I'd Write

This is the post I never thought I'd write, y'all.

This is the post in which I defend Planned Parenthood against the push by Christians to completely defund it.

I don't write an awful lot about abortion because, in all honesty, I don't see the potential in dialogue and persuasion in it.  More than any other issue, at least in my experience, abortion tends to create hardened partisans.  Meanwhile, I wallow somewhere in the middle, drowning in the nuances of reality, tugged on the one hand by the thought of the fetus and its potential for life and pulled on the other hand by the mother and her fundamental need to have her health protected.

In my own congregation, I think, these opinions are likewise split.  I have parishioners who fall on one side or the other of this question, and I encourage those passions as far as I see them leading my people closer to God, because in truth, Jesus didn't come to a world of black-and-white.  He came to a world filled to the brim, overflowing, with various derivatives of gray, and He emphasized relationships first--how else do you think He got a tax collector and a Zealot to follow Him in the same small group of the Twelve?

I say all of that, though, as a pastor who does possess some serious moral qualms about abortion.  I was already sympathetic to a late-term abortion ban before I saw the same footage you did of Deborah Nucatola describing, in clinical style, the extremely graphic nature of a late-term abortion (the editing--to the point of doctoring--that footage out of context is another can of tuna, and one I'll leave to this excellent post from the independent fact-checkers and internet rumor-debunkers at Snopes, but basically, there's no proof from that footage that PP does anything illegal with the fetal tissue it collects with the woman's written consent after such an abortion).

I have already been taught heavily in the Scriptural basis for believing in the inherent dignity and sacredness of life--a basis that shines through so very much of Scripture, even as parts of it call for war crimes like genocide and enslavement of prisoners.  And I oppose capital punishment in all cases in part because of its inherent inhumanity--the same inhumanity involved in a dilation-and-extraction procedure that might well give more importance to preserving fetal organs than the health of the mother receiving the abortion.  Just as we cannot guarantee that we can execute a grown adult painlessly, so too can we not guarantee that we are aborting a viable fetus painlessly.  And the thought of aborting a fetus that is capable of living outside the womb just devastates me.

But what devastates me equally--and if I'm fully honest, even more so, and I'll tell you why soon--is the thought of a world without Planned Parenthood.  Yes, defunding it would strip it of much of its ability to perform abortions.

But it would also strip PP of its ability to perform nearly 750,000 breast exams per year, and even more pap smears per year--the former being a crucial tool in preventing breast cancer, and the latter equally crucial in preventing cervical cancer, both cancers that disproportionately strike down women rather than men.

It would strip PP of its ability to perform nearly 4.5 million STD, HIV/AIDS, and HPV tests it performs every year.

And it would strip PP of its ability to provide affordable access to contraception for over 3.7 million people per year--contraception that should, in fact, be our strongest ally in getting rid of abortion in the United States, because until we can fulfill our latent conservative Christian dreams of legislating away peoples' biologically and God-given libido, hormonal or latex barrier contraception will remain our most surefire way to preventing the unwanted pregnanices that result in abortions.

Yet, none of the (overwhelmingly white and mostly male) Christians who rushed to engage me on Twitter could offer a viable alternative after I posted this:
What I heard were completely microcosmic solutions, of one local clinic here or there that was doing amazing work--and I don't mean or want to denigrate that at all.  But county-run free clinics across the nation suffer from an acute lack of funding and, by extension, staffing.

So where will we get the medical infrastructure necessary to meet the needs of millions of people after we defund PP?  Because, call me cynical, but I'm reasonably certain that any attempt to expand the free clinic network to put more services in underserved areas, hire more staff, and the like will quite likely be met by certain political quarters as another example of the terrible plague of "socialized medicine" and dismissed on spec.

So...what do we do?  Do we just write off the fundamental preventive health care needs of millions of people, mostly women and many of them impoverished?  Because a certain Messiah who healed untold numbers of people in addition to welcoming women, having women followers, and even having a woman (possibly multiple women) as the first witness of the Resurrection might have something to say about that.

I mean, think about that for a second.  Really think about it.  In the Bible, women aren't just the mothers of *first* life, the earthly life that comes from Eve.  They are the mothers of the *second* life as well, the eternal life that comes through understanding the will and teachings of Jesus Christ.

It was a woman, Mary Magdalene, who midwived into being the thought that Jesus could have even resurrected in the first place, and even after she had said it, the male disciples still had to rush over to see the empty tomb for themselves.

And this identity is in concert with the reality of women serving as prophetesses (Luke 2), judges of Israel (Judges 4), and deacons of the church in Rome (Romans 16).

How are we to honor our women, then, these mothers of not only life but of resurrection?  Surely, I hope and pray, not by endeavoring to take from them the tools of life that sustain their health.

I often find myself wondering how many of the Christians who say they are perfectly fine ending this vast network of accessible and affordable preventive health care belong to churches or denominations who, in spite of this lengthy Biblical tradition, exclude women from being ordained as pastors or serving in substantive leadership positions.  Because when you wholly set aside a voice from the tables and seats of power, it becomes that much easier to act as though the concerns those voices might put forth do not really exist, or that those concerns have easy solutions.  I've literally had male colleagues say about domestic violence victims, "Well, they can just leave, can't they," as though the entire problem of DV victims being threatened with even more violence or even death if they leave just plain didn't exist.  When it is only men at the table, magical, not rational or logical, thinking tends to ensue.  Trust me, I speak from experience.

This is why I so value the *other* aspects of what PP does and why a world without it worries me more than anything else here, even as I am grieved by some of the abortions it performs.  It, while not being a Christian organization and while being demonized by a great many Christians, performs what is in point of fact a very Christian and often, a very invisible-to-us-as-men service: keeping whole and healthy the bodies of women.

It doubly worries me that we Christians seem to be striving to rid our women of such care on the basis of false pretenses and outright lies.  Whatever else you may think of abortion, at what point did it become okay for us to break one of the Ten Big Ones (you shall not lie) to try to uphold another (you shall not kill)?  Because that is what happened with this PP footage: it was gathered based on an entire network of deliberate lies, years in the making, in order to deceive fellow human beings.

At what point did we decide that this was okay for us to do?  Do we really think that breaking one commandment for another is acceptable?  Is it okay for us to have other deities before God, for instance, as long as we don't make any graven images to those deities?  (Sorry, Buddy Christ.)  Is it okay for us to start stealing as long as it is only from people who take God's name in vain?  At what point did we begin compromising basic tenets of our Scripture's sense of morality like this?

(A couple of years ago, I wrote a guest piece for a friend's site that delved at greater length into this specific concern that went viral by my own modest standards.  You are invited to read it here.)

Is this really what we want to be known for, Christians?  Attempting to take health care from millions of our neighbors with lies and false pretenses?

I don't pretend to know what to magically do to end abortion other than to make access to contraception free and universal, to educate our children responsibly about the sacredness and science of sex, to tell the truth about the biology of our bodies, and to stop shaming our women for bearing children even out of wedlock when that is in fact precisely what we claim we want them to do rather than seeking an abortion.  I don't have many answers beyond those.

But I do pray.  And I pray that a greater clarity might come to us here, even if--especially if--it is a question of pure black-and-white to us.  Because love it or hate it, the issue of family planning includes so much more nuance than we in our ham-fisted natures are wont to admit: if we get rid of PP, would any subsequent health care be affordable?  Would it be geographically accessible?  Would it be equipped to aid victims of domestic violence or substance addiction?  And would we end up demonizing them in the same way we have PP?

Those are serious, important, life-saving questions I did not see engaged by the Christians who sought to engage me on Twitter, even after I brought them up.  Which convinces me even more that we do indeed need to wrestle and struggle with them, to make those questions part of our dialogue and discussion here.

Which is where I find myself at now.  I simply can't reach for black or for white in a world and a public health concern that is fraught with nuance.  Love me for it, hate me for it, I can't change it.  And given the choice, I wouldn't.  Because I have come to understand that when faced with a nail, I cannot simply be a hammer.  A hammer knows only how to do one thing, and I must know so much more than that.

Because we can't just legislate peoples' sex lives, y'all, even if--especially if--we wanted to.  We cannot just will abstinence into existence for everyone else besides us.  And in the meanwhile, unwanted pregnancies pile up, sometimes precisely because of our own unwillingnness to embrace the contraception PP champions as a means of ridding the demand for abortions to begin with.

So let's be more than the hammer.  Let's meet the nail with the full array of tools given and gifted to us, let's really talk, not mansplain, let's actually engage, not slut-shame, and let's, for God's sake, stop patronizing and minimizing the narratives and stories and experiences women bring forward.  They have been shoved into the private sphere for altogether too long.

I suspect that this might be a better way forward.  For all of us.

Columbus, Ohio
July 20, 2015


  1. I agree, Planned Parenthood has been a guiding light in women's medical care for decades and it is time to stop the attacks and defend the right of women everywhere to care for their own bodies in their way.

  2. Considering the focus on late-term abortions, I thought you might find this article interesting. Women don't (generally speaking) have late-term abortions because they are indecisive. They do because either they could not afford to seek help earlier (abortions are expensive, made more so by closing clinics and mandating waiting periods), or because they wanted this pregnancy, but learned after 20 weeks that it was not viable, and are now facing a tragic decision.

  3. Eric, are you having a hard time determining when human life begins?