Before You Were Born
Rev. Frank Yates
Sermon delivered at St Andrew Presbyterian Church, Albuquerque, NM, August 22, 2004
In 1973 the Supreme Court handed down the Roe vs. Wade decision. In 1974 Sarah Weddington, the Austin attorney who argued that case, spoke in our Christian ethics class. Perhaps no other outside speaker during my seminary career created quite the stir as did Ms. Weddington. The issue of a woman’s right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy still stirs much debate-as much now as it did thirty years ago. Christian folks have long debated intensely the issue of abortion. This morning I would like us to consider this issue-in a calm and hopefully thoughtful way. Decently and in order, as befits good Presbyterians.
In a perfect world, pregnancy would be a joyful occasion. In a perfect world, the love of woman and man may issue in new life welcomed into the world. Before a child is born God knows us by name, knows every strand of DNA that will make us who we become. Before a child is born, God calls us into a covenant relationship. Even before we are born. The Bible is full of such stories of God’s love and concern for us even before our birth.
Take for instance the prophet Jeremiah. Before he is born the Lord says this, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you and appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Jeremiah was called from the womb to speak the hard truth to Jerusalem, a hard truth about the destruction of the holy city and the deportation of her leaders to Babylon. Even before he is born Jeremiah’s vocation is laid out for him.
Two of the most significant people in the Bible are called even before they are born. Elizabeth and Zechariah are told that their child will be filled with the Holy Spirit “even before his birth” (Lk. 1:15). And indeed John who will be called the Baptizer is filled with the fire of the Spirit to call Israel to repentance. Mary is told that the same Spirit will come over her and fill her womb with the One who will be “called the Son of the Most High” (Lk. 1:32). The announcement of the births of John and Jesus bring salvation and hope for Israel. These births are God’s provision for a people in need. Jeremiah and John and Jesus are gratefully received as the gifts of God for the people of God.
In a perfect world all children would be received as good gifts of God. In a perfect world we would all be loved and welcomed even before we are born. Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world. Rather, we live in a very broken and fallen world, where the prospect of pregnancy is too often experienced not as a gift but as a burden. The Presbyterian theologian Gloria Albrecht notes that a gift must be received with gratitude for it to be a gift. Sometimes a gift has too many strings attached. Such a gift is a form of domination.
Albrecht notes, “A gift which places burdens upon a recipient who has no choice but to submit to the gift is not a gift at all.” An unwanted pregnancy does not feel like a gift–especially if the woman has experienced rape or incest or problems with the pregnancy either physical or emotional. If you are poor and you are 18-19 years old, a pregnancy may be especially troubling. That group of women in our country is the most likely to seek an abortion. The pregnancy is not seen as a gift–rather a burden they are not able to receive with gratitude.
In such a situation we enter into one of the deepest tragedies in life-the problem of an unwanted pregnancy. We enter a dark gray area of profound human emotions-love and lust, pleasure and pain, grace and guilt. Here no one is a winner. Everyone is sad. All are troubled. Hurt piles upon hurt. Tears and anguish-words fail to describe the abyss of feelings involved. What should be an occasion for joy becomes an occasion for extraordinary pain. I have seen it and many of you have seen it. Here we tread on very tender ground-that place in human life where the gift of life becomes a burden.
In 1990 the prominent legal scholar, Laurence Tribe, wrote a powerful book entitled, “Abortion: The Clash of Absolutes.” The absolutes of which Tribe wrote are found in the preamble to the Constitution: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The reason the abortion debate generates so much passion is that it presents a great clash between the right to life and the right to choose. Life and liberty are two absolutes that face off in the abortion debate. And that is why the issue is so very painful and why no one can be happy how this issue is resolved.
So what does our faith, specifically the Reformed Tradition, say about this clash of absolutes? First, we would be careful how we describe human life, what it means to be a person. Although we as Presbyterians may agree that there is “sanctity” about life, we are reluctant to call life, any human life, “sacred”. The realm of the “sacred” belongs only to God. To elevate anything or anyone created into a “sacred” position is to commit a kind of idolatry. To say that there is “sanctity” to human life is to say that God cares about the created order, most especially human beings.
But Presbyterians are careful not to call human life in itself “sacred”. The notion that at the moment of conception an immortal soul is thus formed and is thereby “sacred” is not Reformed Theology. In fact, such a notion unfortunately was early on imported from Plato’s philosophy and declared to be official Roman Catholic theology. Such enormous confusion has resulted from this notion. It makes a fertilized egg in itself a sacred immortal soul. For Presbyterians there is sanctity to human life, even microscopic life, but it is not sacred.
For Reformed Theology, there is more agreement with Jewish theology, which defines human life as “nephesh”. That means a “living being, a breathing being”. For us, as a fetus develops lungs able to breathe, then we can wigh confidence say that a human person is present. To put it another way, whenever a fetus is viable outside the womb, whenever to lungs are capable of breathing, then we are dealing with a human person. That’s why the issue of viability is such an important issue for us. When the fetus becomes a “nephesh”, a living, breathing being, then for sure we are dealing with a human person. Most would agree that viability outside the womb develops between 20-24 weeks from conception.
That means in Reformed Theology we talk about the fetus having a developing personhood. The fetus develops and moves steadily toward breathing and thus ever more progressively toward personhood. There is sanctity of life from the beginning to the end of our journey. That we believe. But we should not describe human life as sacred. Nor should we say an immortal soul in conjoined to a fertilized egg at the moment or conception. Rather for us a human person is a “nephesh”, a living, breathing person at the point of viability.
Secondly, our Reformed Tradition teaches us to take very seriously our freedom. Our right to choose involves a profound responsibility. We respect the right of a woman to make very difficult choices-choices regarding what is happening within her own body. We acknowledge that an unwanted pregnancy places her in a very stressful dilemma. But we also believe that a woman is capable of making responsible decisions. She may consult many people-her doctor, her family, her spiritual advisor, her sexual partner. But finally it is her decision, her responsibility, and her body that is at stake here. We in the Reformed Tradition respect and honor her. And we realize that she may feel deep ambiguity, even guilt about her decision. But it is HER decision she will live with for better of worse all her life. And no one-not the church, not the state-should treat her as less than a fully responsible being in her moment of decision.
So what does the Reformed Tradition say to a woman who faces the prospect of terminating her unwanted pregnancy? We need to inform her about our understanding of human personhood. We do take very seriously the issue of viability outside the womb. We would see grave moral problems with late term abortions. Only if the life of the woman were seriously threatened would such procedures ever be appropriate. We would say also that a woman should be allowed to terminate her pregnancy most especially in the very early stages of pregnancy if certain tragic conditions exist, as I have already noted. But we do not approve of abortions as just another form of birth control.
We would counsel some women to consider giving birth and then giving her child up for adoption. For those women who would choose to give birth and raise her child, we would promise to stand with her. And we would promise to work for affordable health care, maternity leave, accessible child care, and economic opportunities for her and her baby. We also promise to offer her a community of faith, hope and love where parents are supported and children are loved. What ever decision the woman makes, we must insist that it is her decision. It is what is happening inside her body that makes this most profoundly her personal choice.
This in conclusion should be said. The Reformed Tradition is not pro-abortion. But we do see the termination of a pregnancy in some circumstances as an appropriate if not tragic decision. The General Assambly of the Presbyterian Church is pro-choice and has been for over 30 years. WE as a denomination have struggled mightily with trhis issue. We do not all agree. That is painfully obvious. This sermon may have profoundly disturbed you. Please know it was offered to you for your “prayerful consideration”. I invite you to join me in the library after worship for more dialogue about this deeply tragic and troubling issue. At stake are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
But even more than that, our faith is at stake. A faith that takes with great seriousness the sanctity of life. A faith that takes with great seriousness our freedom and our responsibility. A faith that trusts a loving and grace-filled God to guide us through dark and troubling waters.
Like all of you, I yearn for a world where the promise of new life is a blessed event. A world where every pregnancy is greeted with joy. A world where every child is welcomed with open and loving arms. A world where God says to every infant, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I loved you.” That’s the world we all yearn for. A “kingdom come” kind of world.
Meanwhile we live “east of Eden” where “life liberty and the pursuit of happiness” know all too often the pain of pregnancy and the pain of childbirth. God speed the day when there sill be no more pain, no more tears, and no more sorrow. Only love and joy and peace. May God speed the day. Amen