Prayers & Sermons
A Sermon for Christian Congregations
Scripture - Mark 5:21-43
Some time ago, a woman called the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, looking for pastoral counseling. She was 12 weeks pregnant, had a heart condition, was diabetic, and was now on bed rest. The doctor told her that the fetus probably would not make it to term, and there was a strong possibility that she might not, either. She had to make a decision about having an abortion within the week. An abortion any later would be dangerous for her, possibly life-threatening. She came to the Religious Coalition, asking for advice and counseling, and also wanting to know if God would ever forgive her if she "killed the baby."
Many, many women who consider abortion go through the same religious questioning and trauma that this woman experienced, sometimes supported by the love of their partners and family members but often without that support. Stories such as these are doubly tragic not only because of the terrible situations women find themselves in but also because women so often are unable to find comfort in their faith, instead seeing their faith as a source of fear, guilt, and rejection. They are too often unaware that their faith can be a source of comfort, love, compassion, and strength.
The gospel narratives show Jesus as compassionate, forgiving and healing-especially to those in great distress. In the stories from the 5th chapter of Mark we see Jesus even willing to heal under duress, such as when a very ill woman startles him by touching his clothing. According to the laws and practices of the time, Jesus had every reason to ignore her, indeed to stay far away from her. Not only was she a woman, but she had been bleeding for 12 years, making her perpetually unclean. Unable to get control of her own health, she undoubtedly lived at the extreme margins of the society because everyone would be squeamish about having contact with her. Jesus had every right to reject her and rebuke her for what she did, but instead he called her "Daughter" and brought healing to both her body and her spirit. As people who follow Jesus, that's what we should be doing as well-bringing healing and wholeness to those in distress.
The Religious Right would like the American public to believe that to be religious is to be anti-choice. In reality, religious leaders worked toward legalizing abortion for years before Roe v. Wade. In the 60s, horrified by the injuries and death suffered by women around the country due to illegal, unsafe abortions, religious leaders responded as people of faith and conscience must. Reverend Howard Moody and Arlene Carmen organized the first Clergy Consultation Service in New York City, a network of clergy who agreed to help women gain access to safe abortion providers. Similar services soon developed throughout the country, and provided thousands of referrals for abortions that were necessary-but illegal-prior to the Roe decision.
Many Christians avoid thinking or talking about abortion because it makes them squeamish. But abortion is a topic that we must talk about from time to time, even in the church. And it is a topic that is directly related to freedom, especially religious freedom.
All of us, regardless of our denomination, have an interest in protecting the integrity of the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion, which says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Without this guarantee, we would be in danger of losing a most fundamental human right, living out our faith only with the permission of whoever could gain official sanction for their religious views. And at the center of religious freedom is keeping the government out of personal moral decisions such as terminating a pregnancy.
I want to acknowledge that some Christians believe that life begins at conception and therefore abortion is wrong. They are entitled to that perspective, even though both the biblical basis and the historical basis for it are flimsy. However, having said that they are entitled to that view, we must also acknowledge that millions of Christians-indeed a majority of Protestants in this country-have a different view, believing instead that a fertilized egg is potential life but not actual life. These Christians hold that the life, health, freedom, and moral agency of the pregnant woman are more important than the potential life in her womb. The religious liberty that lies at the bedrock of our free society provides a basis for people with these competing beliefs to live together in one society, assured-we hope-that government will not choose sides.
On January 22, 2004, we observe the 31st anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, which made abortion legal in this country. And as we observe, we celebrate-not because abortion is terrific or wonderful, but because women have the ability to make health care decisions for themselves, and as a result, women's lives are saved.
According to fact sheets from Planned Parenthood and the Center for Reproductive Rights, in the pre-Roe year 1965, abortion was so unsafe that 17 percent of all deaths due to pregnancy and childbirth were the result of illegal abortion. It is estimated that illegal abortion led to between 5,000 and 10,000 deaths per year. Today, abortion is 11 times safer than childbirth. Legal abortion has been associated with decreases in both maternal and infant mortality. According to one estimate, 1,500 pregnancy-related deaths were prevented in 1985 alone, because women were able to obtain abortions for difficult pregnancies.
We also celebrate this anniversary because we embrace the value of full equality for women, and we recognize that true equality can only be fully realized if women have control over their own reproductive lives. Justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote the majority decision in Roe, recognized this. He called the decision "a step that had to be taken as we go down the road toward the full emancipation of women."
Unfortunately Roe v. Wade came under attack almost from the moment it was decided. Today, 31 years later, Roe v. Wade is still under attack and is in real danger of being overturned, or so seriously undermined as to be de facto non-existent. Largely due to the efforts of the Religious Right, Roe v. Wade has been compromised and diluted and currently hangs by a judicial thread.
The First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom was eroded by the Religious Right's efforts to have its narrow view of when life begins become the law of the land, as in the 1989 Supreme Court case, Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services. This restrictive abortion law passed in Missouri contained in its preamble the statement that life begins at conception. The Supreme Court allowed that statement to stand in the preamble. Many religious, God-fearing people have a different view. Thus, the Webster decision struck at the very heart of the Constitutional guarantee regarding the separation of church and state, as it enshrined into law a religious belief held by some, but by no means all, Americans. Similar attempts by the Religious Right to enshrine in law their idea about the morality of abortion threaten to strip away once and for all our right to believe and practice our own faith.
Roe has been undermined in a host of different ways. In 1992, the Supreme Court decided, in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, that states could impose restrictions on access to abortion, as long as these restrictions did not pose an 'undue burden' on women's rights to reproductive freedom. This has opened the floodgates to all kinds of restrictive and even punitive laws, including waiting periods, so-called informed consent laws by which women are made to listen to false and misleading information on abortion that is designed to discourage them from making this choice, and parental consent and parental notification laws, designed to make it extremely difficult for a minor to obtain an abortion.
These are just some of the legal barriers placed on a woman's right to choose. The facts on the ground are in some ways even more disturbing. Today, 87 percent of counties in the United States have no abortion provider at all. And the population of doctors who are willing and trained to perform abortions is aging, with few young doctors being trained to take their places. Religious institutions are taking over public hospitals and HMOs and imposing their religious views on abortion, contraception, and sterilization on the general population whom the hospitals serve, often resulting in an end to these reproductive health services.
The latest, and in some ways most egregious, of the legal challenges to Roe is the so-called Partial Birth Abortion Ban, which President Bush has signed into law and which is being challenged in the courts. The rhetoric surrounding the debate on this law would have us believe that thousands of women, up to the final moments of pregnancy, are deciding on a whim to terminate their pregnancies and are obtaining abortions. This caricature is nonsense. In fact, 88 percent of abortions occur in the first 12-13 weeks of pregnancy. According to the National Abortion Federation, "Women have access to abortion in the third trimester only in extreme circumstances. Fewer than 2 percent of abortions are performed 21 weeks or after, and they are extremely rare after 26 weeks of pregnancy. generally limited to cases of severe fetal abnormalities or situations when the life or health of the pregnant woman is seriously threatened."
In reality, this legislation arose from a deceptive and corrupt misinformation campaign to inflame the public, confuse the media, criminalize doctors, and strip women of their ability to make medical decisions. Thirty-one years after Roe v. Wade, it should be unthinkable that a doctor could be prosecuted as a criminal for performing an abortion procedure, yet that is what would happen under this bill. The absence of a health exception makes it clear that the purpose of this legislation is to undermine the legality of all abortions throughout pregnancy, not to outlaw some procedures.
In 2000, the Supreme Court struck down a similar bill in Nebraska, in the case known as Stenberg v. Carhart. The vote was 5-4. This 5-4 vote in Stenberg is an ominous sign for Roe's future. The Supreme Court is only one vote away from overturning Roe, which would be one of the most radical actions taken in the history of the Court. Without Roe, life for American women would be thrown more than 30 years in reverse, returning them to the days when women could not fully control the number and spacing of their children. Without Roe, women will be forced to carry fetuses to full term - even when those fetuses have no brain, no limbs, no heart.
It is our responsibility as Christians who believe that God has given freedom to all of us -including women-to do all in our power to keep Roe as the law of the land. You may not choose to have an abortion yourself, but the right of women to obtain an abortion when needed is a right you should care about strongly. We must speak out, we must vote, we must march, picket and protest. We must let our lawmakers know that we will not allow them to take us back to the days of back-alley abortions that threaten women's health and even their very lives.
Abortion is a difficult subject, but it does not arise in a vacuum, and we should never try to think about it in a vacuum. How we think about abortion is inextricably linked to the core values of our faith. Jesus' life among us demonstrated God's compassion and love for every person, as well as God's deep desire for justice and health to prevail. Jesus' teachings emphasized the religious freedom and moral agency of each person, male or female. Thus I believe that we are called by God to be active in the struggle to preserve and enhance reproductive choice for all people. As Christians who strive to follow Jesus, we can and must be both compassionate and pro-choice.