A Day With Feminism (or Why Abortion Rights Matter As Much as Ever!)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

First UU Church, New Orleans

First UU Church, New Orleans

Sunday, July 20th, members of the anti-abortion group Operation Save America (OSA) disrupted the worship service at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans, threatening hell-fire, shouting scripture quotes and lecturing parishioners. OSA was in New Orleans for a week of protests, their primary focus being the construction of a new Planned Parenthood women’s health center. They protested at the construction site, the construction company headquarters, and the offices of contractors. On Sunday, since their regular targets were closed, OSA went to First UU which has been very supportive of the new clinic.[1]

My first reaction to hearing this news was anger that anyone would have the audacity to so blatantly disrespect someone else’s religious observance. Not only was it insensitive and mean, it was un-American. These anti-abortion activists demonstrated a complete inability to live well in a religiously pluralistic society. I disagree theologically, socially and politically with many religious world-views, but I cannot imagine ever disrupting someone else’s worship.

I’ve come to recognize since then that the worship disruption is a minor piece of two larger, related stories. Clearly, one larger story is about the many people who believe with every fiber of their being that abortion should not be legal under any circumstances, or only under extremely limited circumstances such as rape or incest. The Constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy was firmly established with the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. But it turns out there are a myriad of legal and illegal ways to subvert this right, and that is precisely what is happening in many states. A small number of anti-abortion activists will disrupt worship services. An even smaller number will murder doctors and medical staff who perform abortions. Some will engage in civil disobedience, blocking clinic entrances. Many more will protest at clinics without blocking entrances. Still more will lobby for laws that reduce access to abortions. Many more pray daily for abortions to end. That’s the first story: there is a large, well-organized, well-funded movement to contest this constitutional right. It’s been so successful in some states that, though the right exists, it is virtually impossible to exercise it.

I want to ease into the second larger story by naming some of our Unitarian Universalist history related to abortion and also my personal experience with abortion. I begin with a reminder that not every UU embraces abortion. There’s no political litmus test here, though I know it sometimes feels as if there is. Similarly, not every religious or political liberal, not every Democrat supports abortion rights, though it often feels that way because our country has become so politically polarized. The same can be said in reverse of political and religious conservatives, evangelicals, Catholics, Republicans, etc. Not all are against abortion, though it often feels that way. So, I think it’s important to say that it hasn’t always felt this way. A 2012 article by religion scholar Lela Dawson Scanzoni entitled “When Evangelicals Were Open to Differing Views on Abortion,” says, “there was a time in the not too distant past when the majority of Protestant Christians, including … evangelical[s], did not consider the point at which a fertilized ovum or developing embryo or fetus becomes a human being to be clearly defined, indisputable, and settled for all time. There was a time when different viewpoints were accepted and respected and did not serve as a litmus test to determine who was a “real” Christian. A time when many evangelicals thought that the United States Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision might be considered a good and compassionate ruling as it overturned the varied restrictive abortion laws of the states that so often drove desperate women to seek out illegal, unsafe, ‘back-alley’ abortions.”[2] The nation hasn’t always felt as polarized as it does today.

Having said that, it is true: a large majority of religious conservatives oppose abortion today. And it is true: Unitarian Universalists, for more than fifty years, have strongly supported efforts to make and keep abortion safe, legal and rare in the U.S. and Canada. We are a pro-choice denomination. I count at least twelve General Assembly resolutions in support of abortion rights since 1963. I note Unitarian Universalism’s groundbreaking efforts in faith-based sexuality education. I’m mindful of many UUs over the years who’ve worked to strengthen and preserve abortion rights, people such as the late Nancy Lou Lister, a member of this congregation who helped found and then directed the Connecticut affiliate of the National Abortion Rights Action League. I’m mindful of many Unitarian Universalists across the nation who volunteer as escorts or work as staff in clinics where abortions are performed.[3] I’m mindful of Retired Lt. Col. and Unitarian Universalist James H. Barrett, who was murdered in 1993 at a Pensacola, FL abortion clinic while escorting Dr. John Bayard Britton, who also died in the attack.[4]

We UUs have a vibrant and, at times, tragic legacy of personal and institutional engagement in the struggle for abortion rights. I am proud to inherit that legacy and consider myself firmly pro-choice. I also confess that at times I’ve felt ambivalent about being more vocal in this struggle. At times I’ve felt my pro-choice convictions were not entirely my own; that they were instilled in me by the many loving, pro-choice adults who raised and socialized me; that I didn’t come to them through my own moral reasoning, but rather through the reasoning of others. I was taught to be pro-choice, but not encouraged to question that identity. This absence of my own moral reasoning on abortion was fine when, because I had a car in college, on multiple occasions I drove friends to the city to have abortions. It was fine when I was living in Boston in the early 1990s and attended clinic defense actions with other UUs.

However, it was not fine—not at all—when my girlfriend became pregnant and chose to have an abortion. I was just out of college. I was in no position to start a family. It would have been very difficult to become a father at that time in my life. Though I don’t remember if I voiced it at the time, I know in my heart I hoped my girlfriend would terminate the pregnancy. I remember saying I would be supportive no matter what decision she made. I understood it was her decision and I would not violate the sanctity of that decision. She knew pretty quickly she did not want to continue the pregnancy. We were both relieved when the procedure was over.

I didn’t talk about it to anyone. Though I was relieved, I was also embarrassed. After all, I was raised UU. I had taken the About Your Sexuality class in 8th grade. I knew about safe sex. This was not supposed to happen to me. I also felt shame. Looking back, my pro-choice upbringing had prepared me to honor my girlfriend’s decision, and that’s a good thing. But it had not prepared me to wrestle with the profound and conflicting emotions that arise both in the decision-making process and in the aftermath of that decision. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but there was a part of me that could have benefitted emotionally and spiritually from hearing the voices of people who are morally opposed to abortion, people who believe it really is the taking of a human life—not their ridicule or their judgment, but their heart-felt conviction. In opening myself up to their point of view I would have had more room to engage in my own moral reasoning. I could have come to my own conclusion regardless of what my girlfriend decided. I would have honored her choice no matter what, but I also would have been more in touch with my own feelings. I needed that. All I had learned growing up was that those anti-choice people are wrong, misguided. It’s the woman’s choice and that’s final. Great for political posturing, but not for personal moral reasoning, not for digging deep into what it really meant to me.

debateEpiscopal priest, the Rev. Martin Elfert says our national entrenchment on the question of abortion is a shame. “Both the Christian movement and our wider society are impoverished by the absence of a vigorous and mutually respectful conversation around this question.”[5] The incredibly bitter polarization we experience around abortion serves none of us. Women and their partners who find themselves in the heart-wrenching position of having to decide whether or not to end a pregnancy need to hear all sides of the argument so they can make the best decision possible for them. And if the decision is to terminate the pregnancy, they must be able to do so not with fear of ridicule and judgment, but with room to mourn, space to speak openly about what the experience has meant for them, and support from loving family, friends and spiritual communities. I, for one, promise that my office is a safe space for these things to happen. And I trust this congregation is such a safe place as well. No shame. No isolation. Just love.

I don’t feel shame today, though my grief lingers. I am aware from time to time, that there was an unintended pregnancy for which I was jointly responsible; that that pregnancy could have come to term; that there could be another person in the world today; that I would be their father, and my life would be radically different. Rev. Elfert says, “There are times when we do the right thing but we still need to mourn. That can happen when we name out loud … that a marriage has died…. It can happen when we choose to say ‘no’ to a manipulative loved one. And, assuredly, it can happen when a woman chooses to end a pregnancy.”[6]

I’ve been reflecting here on my personal experience and recognizing a personal emotional and spiritual need for a deeper, more productive conversation between the pro- and anti-abortion moral positions because I believe such conversation, in a non-judgmental setting, will help women and their partners makes the best possible decision for them. But please don’t mistake my call for greater dialgoue at a personal level for the suggestion that the erosion of the constitutional right to have an abortion is somehow OK. It’s not.

The reason it’s not brings me to the second larger story in which abortion plays one role among many other characters. We still live in a culture in which it is OK to question whether or not a woman’s body belongs exclusively to her, and to behave as if it doesn’t. We still live in a culture in which women don’t have complete freedom to make what are often heart-wrenching, deeply spiritual choices about: their own reproductive health, contraception, family planning, abortion, neo-natal care, childcare, dating, getting married, staying married, taking sick leave, taking maternity leave, when and with whom to have sex, reporting rape, spousal abuse or child abuse, and whether or not to stay in a job where they equal payearn less than their male colleagues for doing the same work. That’s just the beginning of the list. We cannot have a real and honest conversation about abortion in our nation because women’s control over their own bodies, their families and their livelihoods is still contested at the highest levels of government and society. We have church invasions, clinic closings, bans on medically proven contraceptives, corporations masquerading as people of faith to deny insurance coverage for contraceptives to their female employees, unequal pay for equal work, widespread rape in the home, on the street and on college campuses and among professional football players because as a nation we still haven’t accepted that basic feminist premise that women are human beings. We haven’t yet had, as our reading from Manifesta proclaimed earlier, a day with feminism.[7]

The idea that abortion is morally wrong should be accessible to anyone who is contemplating the termination of a pregnancy. It will help them make the best decision possible for them. But given the way our culture still treats women, banning abortion or access to it through the courts, statutes, the closing of clinics, or the harassment and even murder of clinic personnel is sexist, an ongoing chapter in the story of American misogyny, because it denies women exclusive control over their own bodies. It is a morally bankrupt strategy to work for the abolition of abortion and lift no finger in support of women, their children or their families. To ban abortion without supporting universal, comprehensive sexuality education is a moral contradiction. To ban abortion without making highly effective contraception universally available is a moral contradiction. To ban abortion without establishing laws and policies that provide generous parental leave as well as affordable day care is a moral contradiction. To ban abortion without demanding equal pay for equal work and a living wage for all workers is a moral contradiction. To ban abortion without first ending the American culture of rape is not only a moral contradiction, it is morally reprehensible.

rape culture

Everything I’m naming here—sex education, contraception, maternity leave, day care, equal pay, ending rape—these are the ways to make legal abortion extraordinarily rare. So here’s my proposal: Let’s work for those things first. Let’s have a day with feminism first. Actually, no; let’s have 25 years with feminism first. And then let’s talk about the legality of abortion. My guess is there’ll be nothing to talk about.

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show presented the story of the church invasion on July 29th in the second half of this segment: http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/watch/anti-abortion-extremists-violate-church-313460291585. A year earlier, when the organizers of the clinic’s groundbreaking ceremony had to move the event indoors due to rain, they moved it to First UU. You can find pictures online of Planned Parenthood leaders and city officials wearing hard hats and holding shovels inside First UU at http://www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2013/05/planned_parenthood_kicks_off_c.html.

[2] Scanzoni, Letha Dawson, “When Evangelicals Were Open to Differing Views on Abortion,” (Christian Feminism Today, Sept. 2012): http://www.eewc.com/FemFaith/evangelicals-open-differing-views-abortion.

[3] This Center for American Progress interview with the Rev. Kathleen Green is an example of Unitarian Universalist involvement with clinics where abortions are performed: http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/religion/news/2014/05/01/88781/minister-and-clinic-escort-an-interview-with-rev-kathleen-green/. This sermon by the Rev. Tamara Lebak is another good example: http://www.allsoulschurch.org/Websites/AllSouls/images/Sermons/2012_sermons/06-10-12_A_Womb_of_One_s_Own.pdf.

[4] The story as it was reported in the Baltimore Sun is at http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1994-08-03/news/1994215043_1_annapolis-chapter-barrett-retired-officers.

[5] One of the more beautiful and powerful articles I’ve encountered on the subject of abortion is Elfert, Martin, “How Can I Say I Believe in God and in the Decision I’ve Made,” Religious News Service (Dec. 17th, 2013). See:   http://www.religionnews.com/2013/12/17/father-knows-best-can-say-believe-god-decision-ive-made/.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Baumgardner, Jennifer and Richards, Amy, “A Day With Feminism” in Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000) pp. 315-321.