Abortion's Moral Value

By Rev. Christine Robinson

Sermon Preached at the First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, New Mexico on January 9, 2005

This morning, we are going to be talking about a difficult subject: abortion, and the moral values which come into play in the case of unintended pregnancy. Since nearly 60% of women experience at least one unintended pregnancy between the ages of 14 and 44 (a percentage that includes women who don’t have sex at all, or who don’t have sex with men, or who can’t conceive, which means that women who are actually at risk of an unintended pregnancy have an even higher chance of experiencing one) and 43% of women (again, a percentage which includes those who don’t have sex, don’t have sex with men, or who can not conceive) will have at least one abortion at some point during their fertile years, we’re talking about an extremely common dilemma and decision. A large percentage of those dilemmas and decisions are shared by women and their husbands and boyfriends together, or by a girl and her mother, and with the help and support of sisters, other family, and friends. That means that unwelcome pregnancy and abortion are issues which are likely to have touched most people in one way or another. It’s often a very painful time, a very difficult decision which feels like deciding between the lesser of two evils, and many, if not most people in this society have scars, mixed feelings, and outright pain about this issue. If you are one, you are not alone.

It is also important to acknowledge that even in this room, where the majority think of themselves as feminists, politically liberal, and pro-choice, that there are likely people here who are not in agreement with the current law which restricts abortion to the first six months of pregnancy unless a medical condition imperils the life of the mother, and who would like to see Roe v. Wade overturned because of the ultimate value they place on life. If you are in this category, I respectfully congratulate you for your open mindedness in being here this morning to hear my take on this difficult subject.

We’ve all heard that abortion stops a beating heart, is a variety of murder, and that those who value life will not only not have abortions, they will not tolerate a society which allows them. We have heard that the presence of abortion cheapens life in society and facilitates sexual irresponsibility. The moral values; respect for life, and responsible action, are values that we all, liberal and conservative alike, take very seriously and apply carefully to the world we live in. The value of life and respect for life are extremely important values, for instance; both liberals and conservatives claim to take them seriously, although they tend to demonstrate their claims with different issues; conservatives, usually naming abortion and euthanasia as their “life value” issues, while liberals call peace, gun control, and capital punishment their “life value” issues. But the starting point here is that we all agree that human life is precious and to be valued.

The problem comes because life is not our ONLY moral value. Another value we all, liberal and conservative alike, find precious is freedom. In most cases, as a matter of fact, when these two values clash, we opt for freedom over life. “Give Me Liberty or give me death!” is engraved on the American psyche, and we often believe that a life that cannot be lived freely is not worth having. We tolerate considerable loss of life in this society because we will not impinge on the moral value of individual human freedom. The freedom to have a gun for instance is so important to many political conservatives that we tolerate 80 gun-deaths a day, most of them of innocent persons, in this nation. Some liberal thinkers, on the other hand, believe that the freedom of a person to end their life when they want to is so fundamental that they should be allowed aid in doing so; this in spite of considerable evidence that this would result in a cheapening of the moral value of life in our society.

When a woman is unwillingly pregnant, for whatever reason…the most common is failure of birth control…. the moral values that clash are the moral value we place on the life of the fetus, and the moral value we place on the freedom of the woman to give, or not give, her body to another being.

I’m going to sidestep the endlessly fascinating debate about when a fetus becomes human because it doesn’t really matter. Person or not, the fetus is developing human life and therefore of considerable consequence. Whether you count the fetus as a full human person with a “right to life” or simply as an awesome being whose life deserves respect, we place a moral value on the life of the fetus. However, the fetus does not exist independently, it can only exist in the body of a woman. And that woman has precious rights, one of which is a right to decline to use her body to nurture another life. Freedom means nothing if it does not mean this. We all believe this, liberal and conservative alike.

To make this crystal clear, let’s leave the issue of fetuses, with their ambiguous status, and women, whose right to freedom is still a matter of debate in some places, and think about an extremely clear clash between the rights of two grown men, one of whom is dying because he needs a donation of matching bone marrow, and he needs it from his uncle. His uncle, sorry to say, refuses to consider this, and the desperately ill man takes the matter to court. His attorney argues that no other matches are possible for his client, and that the sick man’s right to life is more important than the reluctant uncle’s freedom which would only be briefly and safely breached. It was as clear a case of the clash between the moral value of life and the moral value of freedom as one could imagine, and freedom won. The judge ruled that there was simply no way a free man could be compelled to give up so much as an ounce of bone marrow against his will, even if it meant his brother would die. Philosophers would say this: that the right to life does not extend to a claim on the bodies of others. Philosophers would further say that Human freedom begins with the freedom to decide how to use one’s own body.

Now some people would say that when the conflict of rights between a woman and a fetus is different because the woman chose to involve herself in activity…having sex…that resulted in calling that fetus into life, and that, therefore, she has a responsibility to continue to nurture that life. This reasoning is behind the widely approved-of exception that abortion is to be allowed in the case of rape…where the woman didn’t choose to have sex. But if calling life into being entails the responsibility to give of one’s body to support that being’s right to life before birth, what about after birth? If mandatory pregnancy is the law of the land, what about mandatory parental organ donations to their sick children?

Now of course, the real life fact of the matter is that most parents will gladly donate blood or an organ to save the life of their children. But the courts have weighed in on this matter. Some years ago, a child was dying and her father, who was divorced from her mother, was the only likely tissue match for the kidney she needed. The father refused to be considered for the donation and the mother sued. There was no question that this man was the father; that his choice to have sex 10 years previous had resulted in this child whose right to life was indisputable. But did her right to life mean that she had a claim on her father’s body, as the desperate mother pled? The court ruled that it did not. The father had to be left free to make his own determination about how to use his body. The tone of the ruling, as the tone of the media commentary at the time was incredulous…who did that woman think she was to demand such a sacrifice…a part of his body, surgery, recovery time? Really! The man has things to do!

Actually, I can understand not only the woman’s desperation in the face of her daughter’s impending death, and I can understand how a person who has undertaken the sacrifice of pregnancy can imagine that somebody else might be asked to sacrifice, too.

In pregnancy, the fetus, the developing child, is using the woman’s body, making increasing and considerable demands on it. Even if she has chosen to be pregnant and wants that baby with all her heart, she is going to find those demands irksome; at times perhaps nearly intolerable. If she has not chosen to be pregnant, if sharing her very body with another life is not her choice or her desire, she will feel enslaved. And, matter of fact, she would be…conscripted by fate, birth control failure, or carelessness to bodily servitude to another. It would be cruel and terrible enough to suffer this intrusion on her bodily integrity if she could tough out the pregnancy, which is no small matter in itself, and go through childbirth, which is a spiritual and medical crisis from which few, even the observers, walk away unchanged. But it’s even more than that!

Sometime during that pregnancy, evolution decreed that a bonding should take place between mother and infant; a bonding of such depth that the new infant would be cared for even after it had caused intolerable pain and had become an intolerable pain in the neck. This bonding is no small matter, and it is something which is society’s best interest to encourage as a moral value in every way it can so that children are not just kept alive but truly cared for by their parents. Those who believe that the problem of unwanted pregnancies would be solved if women would bring their babies to term and then let them be adopted don’t reckon with this incredible gift of Mother Nature. The fact of the matter is, that most women become too bonded to their babies, even before they are born, that they can’t give them up even if they know the child will be better off raised elsewhere. 4 million years of evolution created that bonding; we owe the success of our race to the fact that our foremothers didn’t crawl off like turtles and leave their babies to die. So an unwanted pregnancy, carried to term transmutes, for most women, to motherhood, with all that means of emotional, physical, and financial labor over years. Most women who choose abortion choose it because they know they wouldn’t be able to do it well enough by that bond; their poverty, the amount of attention their other children need, their own need, for the sake of those children, to finish school, to take responsibility for supporting themselves and their families…all of which are profoundly moral values of responsibility at odds with the value of having and raising a baby, or another baby.

Now, you could say to the unmarried teenager, “Just say no!” Don’t have sex, and you’ll never be unwillingly pregnant! Your responsibility at this stage of your life is to grow up, develop your independence, your talents, your maturity, your employability!” All well and good. But are you going to say it to the married 19 year old (and her husband?) “Folks, if you are not yet ready to drop everything you are doing to have a baby, (or a second baby,) just don’t have sex until you are!”

Speaking of moral values, most people believe that the bond between a married couple is deeply important to them and to society, to their children present and future, and that deepening that bond is a moral activity. There’s no doubt about it, Mother Nature or father god, take your pick, wired human beings to deepen their bonding through sex. Once upon a time, the human race needed all the babies that resulted from all that bonding, but this is no longer the case. But our human race still needs that bond, and we need all the help we can get to nurture that bond. Very few people live their lives having sex only when they are open to having a baby, not even the people whose religion teaches that as an official position. It’s not, as the young say, “real”

When two extremely important moral values clash, there can be no completely moral solution, and we are thrust into the world of making the best of bad choices. If the pregnancy is unwanted, either the life is ended or the woman’s precious freedom is abridged. Both of these results are tragedies. And that’s why the decision must be left to each unwillingly pregnant woman and the people she asks to help her. It’s not that the law can’t legislate morality; it is that there is no moral solution to legislate. Only love can balance the equation, and many initially unwillingly pregnant women find within themselves and their support systems, enough love to mitigate the tragedy. But you certainly can’t legislate love. Therefore, each woman and family must thread her way through competing values, pros and cons, rights and responsibilities, and make her own decision.

There is a lot about that “and make her own decision” that is profoundly threatening to all of us at some deep levels. We’re all reduced to uneasiness when confronted with how profoundly dependant we were on our mother’s love. Many people who hold traditional values about men and women are profoundly uneasy when they realize how much more power women have than men do in this area. And many people believe that removing the ultimate consequence of pregnancy from the equation of sexual ethics will only cheapen sexuality and make it a more disruptive force in our society. Traditional families, which include early marriage and women remaining in the home sphere have much less difficulty rolling with the punches of unplanned pregnancy than the late-marrying, employed women, small, egalitarian families. Many things divide us. One thing that unites us, however, is that when faced with an unwanted pregnancy, ourselves, regardless of what our churches or communities teach about the value of life, the place of women, or the meaning of sexuality, about half of the people, liberals and conservatives alike, choose abortion. With all due respect for life, we have many other moral values. Freedom. Responsibility. Love. Bonding,

As to our respect for life; we have that, too. Respect for life is something we want to inculcate in our children, to practice ourselves, and to encourage in society. And there is no question in my mind that almost every abortion performed, however justly chosen, tears just a little bit at those values and desensitizes us just a little bit to what we hold dear. Mandatory Motherhood would tear at other values, just as much, perhaps more, but still, pro-choice respect for life must do whatever we can to minimize the need for abortion. That includes encouraging teens to postpone sexual activity, including putting ourselves out to keep them occupied in other activities, and to give them a good sex education which includes answering all their questions with the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. That is the only way to earn their respect and therefore the best way to help them postpone sexual activity as well as teach them what they will need to know when they do become active as they virtually will 2 or 5 or 10 years hence. I must say that after last week’s flack about misleading and missing information in public school sex education courses, I was surely glad that my child has had, as yours have or will have, as a part of his religious education a “whole truth” sex education course. We offer it at considerable expense and trouble because we reverence life and want our kids to, too. And our kids are much less likely to experience an unwanted pregnancy or to have an abortion, and one important reason is the extensive education they get. Now, that’s real!

In the best of all possible worlds there would be very few, tragic abortions, arising because of complications of health in mother or fetus. There would be no unwanted pregnancies, because birth control methods would be safe, foolproof, and easy to use, and because teenagers would know enough and feel good enough about themselves to postpone their sexual activity until they were old enough and wise enough to use them, because media glorification of sex would be as little seen as media glorification of alcohol, and because there would be no rape or incest. In such a world, almost every pregnancy would be a wanted pregnancy, and the conflict between the moral value of freedom and the moral value of life would be rare, arising from unforeseen tragedies and unavoidable medical circumstances. But we don’t live in such a world; it is not even in sight. Until it is, those faced with unwelcome pregnancies will have to consider all of their moral values; the value they place on life, on fulfilling responsibilities to self and others, to love, and their responsibilities to themselves and others and make a painful decision when there is no good decision to make.

Amber Royster