My wife recently posted a question on Facebook, asking any of her pro-choice friends to offer their rationale for abortion in the wake of the current Planned Parenthood revelations. The question was couched in terms of a desire to "understand" the basis for such thinking and involved a request of any pro-lifers that they refrain from turning the comment thread into a boxing ring. Essentially, my wife was attempting to create a "safe space" for people with contrary views to express them, the thought being that under such non-confrontational conditions, the likelihood was higher that a clear statement of pro-choice rhetoric might be forthcoming. I'm glad my wife did that, because the two pro-choice responses that she garnered--one in particular--offer a teaching opportunity. In the interest of preserving that safe space on my wife's Facebook wall, I decided to offer these thoughts here on my blog.
Anyone who's even half serious about the issue of abortion, regardless of his persuasion, recognizes that there are some frightening moral dilemmas that have, do and will occur, wherein aborting a baby seems merciful. One thinks of rape victims. Is it "merciful" to the victim to force them to carry their rapist's child to term? Is it "merciful" that a child should go through life with a violent crime existentially imprinted on his identity? What about situations where a mother's life is at grave risk if she carries the baby to term? Is it "merciful" to put a moral burden on that mother that she risk her life? Is it "merciful" that a husband of such a mother be morally required to risk losing both wife and child? These are legitimate questions asked by anyone earnestly thinking through the question of abortion.
One of the individuals who responded to my wife's Facebook query offered the story of WW2 Auschwitz abortionist Gisella Perl as an instance where abortion (in her case, thousands of them) was "saintly." I have a great many thoughts about that formulation, but I don't believe forming beliefs about abortion in our 21st-century American context is served well by focusing on the extremely unique horrors of Auschwitz in 1940s Germany. For our purposes here, I will reserve judgement about Gisella Perl's predicament and that of her patients and simply say, "Lord have mercy!"
In the interest of laying my cards on the table, I am in principle not in favor of abortion in any circumstance. My ability to hold such a view rests not in having successfully navigated the moral and philosophical complexities of rape and other kinds of crisis pregnancy. Instead, my view stems from my faith in God. If that sounds trite, it's not meant to be. The phrase often invoked by traditional Christian ethicists in criticism of their opponents is that they sometimes stray into "playing God." While I essentially agree with that charge, I think a better and more descriptive way of putting it--especially when it comes to justifying abortion in most edge cases--is that God is simply being forgotten.
The entire impetus for Christian pro-life thinking is the belief that life itself is the property and province of God, in Whom life has its ultimate source (cf. Colossians 1:16-17, Acts 17:28). This is not to say that God is the author of rape. We know from the Genesis creation account that God gave mankind procreative capacity, dominion over the Earth, and most crucially, freedom. The Fall and all of history since have been an experiment in misusing these gifts to one degree or another. And in a very real way, it might be said that rape itself is the acme of that misuse, since all three of those Divinely-given faculties are made manifest in the act. But what then? Does the life that results from such a crime necessarily not have its source in God, as if a frankenstein? Will not a concern for the so-called damaged ontology of a "rape baby" necessarily fuel such a destructive self-perception in those children who are spared from abortion? Should not Christians be about the business of dispelling such harming, dead-end rhetoric where it is found? Is it the moral right or burden of "the born" to not entrust the unborn to the God who makes beauty from ashes?
Decisions for abortion in such cases are made out of despair, fear, and confusion, and the women who are counseled that direction or who resort to such measures out of loneliness deserve our pity and our embrace, not our judgment. But these are necessary questions. And while I would never presuppose to know in what manner a pregnant rape victim should be counseled and cared for, I do know that she needs both, and that she needs to be surrounded by people who can offer her these things with clear eyes and with grace and love. To the Christian who would advocate for abortion in such circumstances, I would challenge you with this question: is there not a great moral and cognitive dissonance in suggesting that the solution to a pregnant rape victim's despair is the services of someone who kills babies for a living? Is killing the baby really a more certain means of mental and emotional recovery than entrusting the future of both mother and baby to the God who makes all things new? Just think on that for a little while. Also consider reading the stories of rape victims who have chosen to keep their babies, such as this one.
I also want to offer some perspective on crisis pregnancies where the life and health of the mother are at great risk. On the one hand, I wholly reject the purely mathematical approach to this dilemma, which says that killing the baby in order to preserve the mother is a moral good, because MATH. And to be gracious, I think most Christians who parrot this view are doing so out of moral and theological laziness, rather than a sort of depravity. What I think bears noting with regard to moral mathematics, is that the raising of life to a place of Divine sanctity simply does not entail calculation on our part, but a holistic submission and ascent to the Source of Life Who is Love. Our spirit should at all times be that of the biblical Hannah, who, after being granted a son, returned him to the service of God at the Temple in humility and worship.
A family who exemplified this spirit very recently is that of Fr. Matthew Harrington of St. John the Theologian Orthodox Church in St. Francisville, LA. Already with three children, he and his pregnant wife Anna learned that their fourth child would be born with significant disabilities, and further, that both the latter stages of pregnancy and the birth were going to present enormous health risks to both mother and child. From the GoFundMe account set up for the family:
While joyously expecting their fourth child, Irene, they learned they must also prepare for health issues for both mother and baby. Due to complications with Anna's pregnancy, Irene's delivery will require her month-early arrival (July 21) by a complex surgical procedure. She will also be born with a special condition called hemifacial microsomia that includes pronounced spinal scoliosis.
Neither priest nor "Matushka" viewed the situation in mathematical terms, but rather as a monumental opportunity to submit themselves and their lives--and the life of the unborn child--to the God of Life. And their approach to the issue was not a "transaction of faith," as one might cynically characterize it. They did not view their ascent to God as a token given in exchange for the favor of a successful birth. They saw their lives and the life of their unborn daughter ontologically as gifts to be offered to God, for His care and keeping. The child was born on July 21st, and you can read about the extraordinary ordeal both at the aforementioned GoFundMe page, as well as on the widely popular blog of one of their parishioners here.
To borrow a line from The Manhattan Declaration, may we Christians ever seek to embody "an ethic of love and life for all humans in all circumstances," and may that ethic have its foundation in Who God is, rather than the muddled moral calculations of those who are not yet in Christ.
Lord have mercy.
Ancient Faith Ministries
Ancient Faith Publishing
Becoming Truly Human
Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy
Roads from Emmaus
On Behalf of All
Journey to Orthodoxy
Fr Patrick Henry Reardon
Orthodox Arts Journal
Glory to God for All Things
Crown Them With Glory
Paracletos Monastery Icons
Orthodox Church in America
Orthodoxy in America
Antiochian Western Rite
ROCOR Western Rite
St Anna GOC of Utah