Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Trickiest Issue in Today's Church

In 2009, there's absolutely no social issue driving more of a wedge between conservative and progressive Christians than abortion. Today on Religion Dispatches, three faith-based reproductive rights activists describe the challenge of finding common ground with pro-lifers in the abortion debate:

It is hard to take seriously a movement that thinks they can dramatically reduce the number of abortions while largely ignoring access to contraception—including emergency contraception. One understands that they feel their hands are tied by the official position of the Catholic church against contraception and by evangelical opposition to comprehensive sexuality education for adolescents and sex outside of marriage. But it is hard to join a movement that fails to support the measures proven most likely to achieve their goals.

The abortion reduction movement is thus left with a focus on doing something after women become pregnant rather than preventing unintended pregnancy. They emphasize helping women who are pregnant continue difficult pregnancies and either keep the baby or give it up for adoption. Even here, they fall far short, offering rhetoric, not a plan. According to the Guttmacher Institute three-fourths of the women who have abortions say they do so in part because they cannot afford a child. That is about 800,000 women and girls each year...

On adoption, the movement presents no plan at all. We have no idea what changes in adoption policy they think would lead to more pregnant women to continue their pregnancies and give the child up for adoption? Have they studied the issue or relied on existing studies? And how many abortions a year do they think this strategy would prevent? ... Have they talked to women who have given children up for adoption to understand from a pastoral perspective what effect this decision has on a woman’s life?

Historically, activists on both sides of the abortion debate have presented it as a black-and-white issue: abortion is either murder, or a meaningless medical procedure. But those who are fixated on the rights of the fetus often lack compassion and respect for the mother; while those who think only of the mother's rights like to gloss over the idea that a fetus is the first stage of a human life. As long as both a mother and a child are involved -- as long as contraception and sex education are denied by the government, as long as adoption and foster care are in desperate need of an overhaul, as long as mothers live in poverty -- reproductive rights will never be a black-and-white issue.

And this is where pro-choice Christian activists can help. Because on the whole, Christians who support legal abortion do want to see abortion rates go down; but they'd like to see that happen in a way that shows compassion and respect for women. The best thing we can do for our national conversation about abortion is to start exploring these gray areas, and to start looking at both lives involved in an abortion: the child's and the mother's.

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