Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Least of These

Abortion has been in the news as the Republican Party debates a constitutional amendment banning all abortions and Rep. Todd Akins squirms in the spotlight glaring down on his assertion that victims of “legitimate rape” rarely get pregnant.

I’ve set myself the goal of thinking and praying my way through important political issues of the season. This is one I’ve been dreading - but here it is.

I’ll start with a confession: as a young parent I participated in the March for Life. Our church at the time was the headquarters of N.O.E.L., National Organization of Episcopalians for Life, and our rector, John Howe, was the founder.

Several years in a row, I drove to church with our youngest child, loaded her and a stroller on a bus, and drove into D.C. to affirm my belief that fetuses are people, deserving of our protection.

Life was simpler then. Solutions seemed possible.

I still believe that fetuses are people, deserving of our protection, but I’m less sure that marches and slogans are the best way to make that point, and I’m not sure that overturning Roe v. Wade would take us where we want to go.

For me, this is a topic where justice, mercy, and humility collide, and I find myself grieving, repenting, and wishing I lived in a time that allowed sackcloth and ashes. I’d go find some.

Here’s what I grieve:

  • Political rhetoric that makes light of the experience of rape, that dares to suggest that some rapes are more worthy of sympathy than others.
  • Junk science masquerading as fact that somehow ignores the experience of an estimated 32,000 women with rape-related pregnancies each year.
  • The flurry of punitive and mean-spirited laws promoted, in some cases passed, with no clear justification: how many men who voted for transvaginal ultrasounds had any idea of what that might be like?
  • Attempts to limit access to contraception, cut food aid to mothers and children, limit early education.

Lennart Nillson, Life Magazine cover, 1965
But my grief goes deeper.
  • I grieve the death of over 54 million babies in the years since Roe v. Wade. Call them fetuses if that makes it less painful, but I know my own kids had personalities long before their due dates. 
  • At the same time I grieve the death of all the women, most of them far too young, who have lost their lives in illegal abortions. When I was first married, my neighbors, sweet aging sisters sharing a West Philly row home, pointed out a house across the street where they said an illegal abortionist had plied his trade for years. “Women died in that house,” they told me, sadly. 

Do we go back to the days of illegal abortions? Do we go on legally ending 800,000 lives a year?

Or do we stop and wonder why our culture puts so little value on life, finds unexpected babies so disturbing, has so little room for the unwanted, born and unborn?

The late Hispanic activist Grace Olivarez said:,
"Those with power in our society cannot be allowed to 'want' and 'unwant' people at will.... I believe that, in a society that permits the life of even one individual (born or unborn) to be dependent on whether that life is 'wanted' or not, all its citizens stand in danger." 
Just yesterday a seemingly innocuous column in The Economist described “the mommy track: the real reason women don’t rise to the top of companies:”

Brett Ryder, The Economist, August 25, 2012
[T]he biggest obstacle (at least in most rich countries) is children. However organised you are, it is hard to combine family responsibilities with the ultra-long working hours and the “anytime, anywhere” culture of senior corporate jobs. A McKinsey study in 2010 found that both women and men agreed: it is tough for women to climb the corporate ladder with teeth clamped around their ankles. Another McKinsey study in 2007 revealed that 54% of the senior women executives surveyed were childless compared with 29% of the men (and a third were single, nearly double the proportion of partnerless men).

Many talented, highly educated women respond by moving into less demanding fields where the hours are more flexible, such as human resources or public relations. Some go part-time or drop out of the workforce entirely.

And others, if a Slate article from last fall is to be believed, limit family size with abortion.

Here’s another note from the Economist column:
“Putting women in the C-suite is important for firms, but not as important as making profits; for without profits a company will die. So bosses should try hard to accommodate their employees’ family responsibilities, but only in ways that do not harm the bottom line.”
What I grieve most deeply? Somehow we’ve moved from being a culture that valued children and families and believed in protecting them, to a culture that puts profits first, as an inviolable priority, while the human needs of people are a distant, diminshing second.

Mary Meehan, an antiwar activist in the sixties, self-described liberal feminist, has been writing about abortion for over thirty years now. Last summer, she explained “Why Liberals Should Defend the Unborn”:
“Defending those who cannot defend themselves has long been the pride of the left. When no one else would do it, liberals and radicals stood up for the little guys and the little gals: day laborers and domestic workers, abused children, African Americans and other minorities, elderly patients with dementia, the poor, the unloved and unwanted, the down-and-outers. The unborn are the most defenseless members of the human community. Others can cry out for help, and some can defend themselves, but unborn children cannot.”
Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggeman describes two kingdoms: the Pharoic kingdom – empires of power worlds of oppression, violence, anxiety, myths of scarcity that keep us all in line. (His examples? Ancient Egypt and Babylon, corporatist America.)

And then there’s the prophetic kingdom, the kingdom of God – world of promised plenty, empire of welcome, place of peace where all are wanted. The challenge, as a follower of Christ, is to make the prophetic kingdom visible, while surrounded, held captive, by the kingdom of Pharoah.

Abortion is sign and symbol of the Pharoic kingdom: violent response to those tiny usurpers who would steal our rights, upend our systems, spread our scarce resources even thinner, trip us on our way to the top.

But it’s only one sign of the kingdom, just one more symptom, set beside scapegoating of the poor, imprisoning the addicted, stockpiling weapons, arming ourselves against intruders.

Wendell Berry, in Common Dreams, laments:
We cling in our public life to a brutal hypocrisy. In our century of almost universal violence of humans against fellow humans, and against our natural and cultural commonwealth, hypocrisy has been inescapable because our opposition to violence has been selective or merely fashionable. Some of us who approve of our monstrous military budget and our peacekeeping wars nonetheless deplore “domestic violence” and think that our society can be pacified by “gun control.” Some of us are against capital punishment but for abortion. Some of us are against abortion but for capital punishment.
One does not have to know very much or think very far in order to see the moral absurdity upon which we have erected our sanctioned enterprises of violence. Abortion-as-birth-control is justified as a “right,” which can establish itself only by denying all the rights of another person, which is the most primitive intent of warfare. Capital punishment sinks us all to the same level of primal belligerence, at which an act of violence is avenged by another act of violence.
What the justifiers of these acts ignore is the fact—well-established by the history of feuds, let alone the history of war—that violence breeds violence. Acts of violence committed in “justice” or in affirmation of “rights” or in defense of “peace” do not end violence. They prepare and justify its continuation.
Meehan Reports
Will you see me again at a future March for Life?

I’m not sure. Although I'm interested to see that the march continues to grow, with a younger, wider demographic every year.

From what I read of history, any attempts to impose the kingdom of God through political power end badly. And yes, lives are lost every day that abortion is legal, but the losses accrue, not from permissive laws, but from our misguided values and priorities and the belief that somehow we’ll be better off if we can rid ourselves of those we don’t want, think we don't need. We have no idea what we're losing, no idea the lasting harm not only to ourselves, but the children we do choose, and the culture we leave them.

So how best to affirm the kingdom I believe in?

I’ve been wrestling with that in the years since those marches two decades ago. I believe I’m called to live in a way that puts people over profit, that affirms children, families, life together over stuff, reputation, privilege. I look for ways to stand by the most marginalized in my own little world, to let them know that to God, to me, they are valued, worthy of time, help, resources, respect, and love.

And when it comes time to vote?

I’ll be looking for candidates who have a big picture view of the value of people, the value of family, the value of the least, the smallest, born and unborn, wanted and unwanted.

This is part of a continuing series on politics and faith: What's Your Platform?

Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.