If there’s one thing that everybody can agree on — men, women, gay, straight, Republican, Democratic, religious right, religious left, non-religious – it’s that in a perfect world there would be zero abortions. I know because I’ve taken a survey. OK, maybe it wasn’t the most scientific survey. But I challenge any of you to find a person who believes that terminating an unplanned pregnancy is better than no pregnancy at all.
I don’t know anybody who is pro-abortion. I am pro-choice. But I don’t think women should have to make that difficult choice. My religion, my experience, and the opinions of people I respect all tell me the same thing: Don’t have an abortion if you can possibly help it.
I have two grown children, and I had an abortion when I was 19, way back before abortions were legal. The procedure itself was not a scary thing for me. Nor was it fraught with moral angst – perhaps because I was so young and not a deep thinker in moral terms. For many at that time, seeking an abortion was a life-threatening nightmare. I was lucky.
What was scary for me was telling my Dad, a Texas congressman — deciding that I needed his help and knowing that it could put his political career at risk. My stepmother asked if I really wanted to do this; my pastor advised me to have the baby, live with the consequences of my actions and learn from it. But I had no second thoughts. It was as if I missed a couple of periods and then had a particularly heavy period — after which my stepmother’s gynecologist did a D and C to make sure my uterus was back to normal. And the problem was solved. I didn’t feel like I had destroyed a person. Still don’t. And yet I think my decision was at its root selfish.
Trust the universe to offer me a parallel decision in due time. My daughter, at about the same age, thought she was pregnant. She’s unequivocal in her belief in a woman’s right to chose to terminate a pregnancy. But she would never do that herself. We discussed her options and we decided that if she were pregnant, she’d have the baby and I would raise it.
Turned out she wasn’t pregnant. Today she is a superb gynecological oncologist. She has no problem performing abortions and is an adept healer and surgeon, as well as a new mom. Her technical expertise combined with her acute empathy for her patients as they are born, as they die, and as they deal with disease, are an enormous inspiration for me.
Theologians have been grappling with the status of the unborn for quite some time. In the fifth century St. Augustine accepted the distinction between “formed” and “unformed” fetuses. He did not classify as murder the abortion of an “unformed” fetus because he wasn’t sure that it had received a soul.
Thomas Aquinas accepted the biological theory that a human soul was infused only after 40 days for a male fetus and 90 days for a female. In Islam abortion is strictly forbidden after the fetus is a living being, which most Muslim scholars consider to be 120 days.
When I was 19, I figured that if a soul had attached in my womb, it could unattach and that God would probably find a safer body for it to adhere to. Back then, that was as deep as my theological reflection went.
The Episcopal Church (to which I belong) sees “all human life as sacred from its inception until death,” and all abortion as having a tragic dimension calling for the concern and compassion of all the Christian community. As was resolved at the 69th General Convention in 1998, it is to be used only in extreme situations. I would call that pro-life, and I would agree.
The 71st General Convention of the Episcopal Church expressed its “unequivocal opposition to any legislative, executive or judicial action on the part of local, state, or national governments that abridges the right of a woman to reach an informed decision about the termination of a pregnancy or that would limit the access of a woman to a safe means of acting on her decision.” I would call that pro-choice, and I would agree.
As a country, we seem to be moving in the right direction. The Associated Press cites a study issued earlier this month showing that the U. S. abortion rate has declined to its lowest level since 1973. The number of abortions fell by 13 percent between 2008 and 2011, years which predate the recent wave of laws restricting access to abortions.
And yet Catholic Archbishop Gregory Aymond recently took out a paid advertisement in the Advocate and issued an open letter to the faithful condemning Planned Parenthood and particularly its new facility planned on South Claiborne Avenue. Ninety-seven percent of Planned Parenthood’s services are dedicated to primary care, education and preventive medicine. Lord knows we need that — with Louisiana ranking first among the 50 states in syphilis and gonorrhea infections and fourth in AIDS. Fifty percent of all pregnancies in Louisiana are unintended. Access to contraception has been shown to reduce abortion rates. I have a friend, Jose Miranda, a six-foot-five Cuban-American who served on the Planned Parenthood board for 12 years. He abhors abortions. He considers Planned Parenthood — with its educational programs and easy access — the No. 1 anti-abortion organization in the United States.
And yet the position of the Archbishop is: “. . . the archdiocese, including its churches, schools, apartments for the elderly, and nursing homes, will strive in its privately-funded work not to enter into business relationships with any person or organization that participates in actions that are essential to making this . . . facility a reality. This policy applies to all businesses regardless of religious affiliation or non-affiliation.”
He goes on to say, “. . . affiliation or support of Planned Parenthood by Catholics is a matter of serious scandal,” scandal being defined as “an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil.” Instead of shunning anyone who screws in a light bulb at Planned Parenthood, wouldn’t it be more effective — and indeed more Christian — for these two institutions to support each other in their common goals of taking care of the poor and working to achieve zero abortions?
Orissa Arend is a mediator and psychotherapist in private practice in New Orleans. She is the author of Showdown in Desire about the Black Panther takeover of the Desire public housing project.