Opinion: Roe v. Wade moral ambiguity
There is a very deep division in the body politic of our country and a Supreme Court case, Roe v. Wade, is at the heart of his breakup. There are constitutional issues that inform both sides of the abortion debate and I am not educated enough in political science or law to confidently offer a considered opinion. I can only speak denominationally on the subject, and here is my attempt.
My wife, Reverend Lynnsay Buehler and I, both graduates of theological school, are parents of an adopted child. For years we tried to get pregnant and for years we passed all the insulting tests that the medical professionals threw at us, only to finally receive the verdict that they didn’t know why we couldn’t get pregnant. child by natural means. We considered alternatives, like IVF, but between this tortured path and the fact that there were so many children in desperate need of homes, we opted to enter the adoption process. After 10 years of an emotional roller coaster and with two days notice, we were notified that a mother was about to give birth to a child she determined she could not raise on her own. Given the situation, an arrangement was made for Lynnsay and I to adopt what would become our beloved son Robert, now 25 years old. I will never forget the lunch I had with his biological mother the day before Robert was born. The first thing I did was thank her for bringing the child to term. At this time in our country’s history, this student had a decision to make regarding her pregnancy, she passed judgment, and Lynnsay’s families and mine were richly blessed throughout Robert’s life. All this to say – I have no joy thinking about an abortion since our family received a great gift whose creation was not ours.
But even given our good fortune, I do not support taking away a pregnant woman’s right to make her own choice about whether to give birth or terminate her pregnancy.
But how can I get to this position?
In my view, the issue we are debating nationally is “morally ambiguous”. This means that there are two opposing moral foundations involved. In this case: the sanctity of life AND the ability of a moral agent to make a choice. This “agency” position is encapsulated in the baptismal covenant that Episcopalians like me affirm: We strive for justice and peace among all and respect the dignity of every human being.
Discussions between doctors and theologians help us understand that agreements about the beginning of life are difficult. Many evangelical Christians lean towards the interpretation that life begins at conception. Jewish tradition says that life begins with the first breath. Despite these differences in understanding, we have in common that life is sacred.
There is another strand in the Christian tradition that offers an important word here, that of Christian realism, a perspective clearly articulated by Reinhold Niebuhr, former minister and professor of ethics at Union Theological Seminary. This theological position holds that we live in a fallen world and therefore there are times when we must make decisions about morally ambiguous matters. This means that there is no completely right or completely wrong answer, and so we must make a judgment based on the practical consequences.
For example, Jesus held that killing is wrong and his life testified that he was willing to die at the hands of those who could not hear or see what he was teaching and offering them, but he was not ready to kill or to harm them. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Christian minister of the last century, must have wondered if it was a greater sin to be part of a plot to kill Hitler, or to allow Hitler to continue persecuting the Jews and placing all the Europe under the dark cloud of Nazism. As you can perhaps see, there is no moral magic bullet in this situation. Bonhoeffer was “stained with sin” no matter what choice he made. This stalwart 20th-century follower made his choice to participate in the (failed) plot to kill Hitler, which led to his imprisonment and execution by Nazi loyalists just before the end of World War II in Europe.
It is my belief that we are ultimately saved by the grace of God and are not condemned by the actions we take or do not take in our broken world. But that moves my confession into the realm of salvation and atonement, and away from the subject at hand.
If we bring Christian realism to bear on the issue of abortion, it seems to me that we have to choose between the sanctity of life (each time we perceive that life begins) and the suppression of the right to a woman to make a choice — in this matter denying her justice and not respecting her dignity. (That’s rude to say, but I think if men could get pregnant, we’d have privileged access to abortion. Such is my suspicion of many men’s stories and our messy relationship, and sometimes misogynistic, with women. Think witch burnings, denial of the vote, and wage disparities.)
And as for the practical consequences, these are the considerations pregnant women have to make “in the trenches” with much of life stacked against them, politically and economically. Men debate this question from the comfort of their legal and moral theories.
Whether the decision in Roe v. Wade was based on a faulty constitutional premise or not, I happen to agree with the common ground it established as it upheld the mother’s right to choose (enforcing justice and its dignity) to the point of fetal viability (honoring the sanctity of life). Forcing a decision earlier than viability is not respectful of the mother’s life and autonomy and deprives her of enough time to make an informed choice. Later, we could deny a life that could exist outside the womb, taking a first breath.
I wish to conclude this confession from my point of view as an American citizen and as a person formed by the Christian faith – I believe that we must respect the plurality that exists within our American democracy just as we try to do in within my church. Why? Because we are all created in the image of God, which confers both dignity and freedom to make the world a better and safer place to live.
I hope these observations will help us maintain a space for democratic dialogue and allow mutual respect, forgiveness and compassion to flourish in our country.
Rob Townes grew up in Grenada. He resides in Decatur, Georgia, but his family, friends, and business often take him back to his ancestral state.