Tuesday, May 21, 2019

New anti-abortion laws are contrary to the sanctity of life

Below is my column in today's issue of the Grand Haven Tribune.

Last week, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed into law a near-total ban on abortion. Under Alabama’s new law, abortion will be a felony punishable by life or 10-99 years in prison. The only exceptions in the law are if the life of the woman is at stake or if there were circumstances that would already result in the death of the unborn child. There are no exceptions for sexual assault or incest.

The resistance to these exceptions rested upon the arguments of the bill’s proponents that the personhood of the unborn child is paramount.

Not to be left behind, the GOP-led Legislature of our own state has passed legislation that criminalizes an abortion procedure performed in the second trimester called dilation and evacuation. Democrats fought against this legislation because this procedure is often the safest option for women who are faced with this tremendously difficult situation. This legislation also provides no exceptions for rape or incest. Our own governor will likely veto the bill (if she hasn’t already by the time this column is published).

What we are seeing in these legislations is the increasing success of the so-called Right to Life movement, a movement which claims to be predicated upon Christian teaching about the sanctity of life. However, this legislation — and much of the Right to Life movement — rests upon modern political and philosophical arguments and not upon the actual biblical witness.

I want to be clear; abortion is a massively tragic choice that women face. My own denomination, The Episcopal Church, spoke clearly in a 1994 resolution that “all human life is sacred from its inception until death.” The resolution continued with two important points. First, it was clear that abortion should only be used in extreme situations and certainly not as a means of birth control. At the same time, the resolution was clear that legislation will not address the root cause of abortions. Our church expressed “its unequivocal opposition to any legislative, executive or judicial action on the part of local, state or national governments that abridges the right of a woman to reach an informed decision about the termination of pregnancy or that would limit the access of a woman to safe means of acting on her decision.”

This position rests upon an acknowledgement that the biblical witness on the question of abortion acknowledges the nuance of personhood and the sanctity of life. Those who claim that a fetus is the equivalent to a human being from a moral and ethical standpoint cannot make that claim based upon Scripture. Exodus 21:22–25 is clear that if violence causes a miscarriage, the penalty is different than if you murder someone. Numbers 5:11–31 describes a ritual a woman must go through if she is accused of adultery, where the priest gives her something called “the water of bitterness.” If she has indeed committed adultery, the water will “make your uterus drop, your womb discharge.”

Both of these texts absolutely reflect the patriarchy of the time (in the Exodus text, the husband determines the punishment for the loss of the fetus, and there is not any corresponding violent ritual a for a man accused of adultery). Thankfully, given the fulfillment of the law through Jesus Christ, we are no longer bound by these commandments. Instead, Jesus told us that love of God and love of neighbor is the principle upon which all laws must rest.

So, the question for the Christian is what does love of God and love of neighbor require? What does a true respect for the sanctity of life require?

First, it requires respecting the sanctity and personhood of the life of a woman. That means that when a woman is faced with tragic and difficult circumstances, the church should support her and help her make her own informed decision about what is best. And then, after she makes that decision, the church should walk alongside of her.

The church should also advocate vigorously for maternal health care and for social programs that help women and small children. The continued GOP attempts to dismantle programs that help women in poverty who make the brave choice to bear children — alongside the legislation on abortion currently being passed — is an evil hypocrisy.

Though abortion rates have declined for years, research by the Guttmacher Institute indicates that nearly one-in-four women will have an abortion by the age of 45. That means it is likely that there are many women sitting in the pews of churches right here in Grand Haven who have been told over and over again that they are murderers. This is not only contrary to scripture — which nowhere refers to abortion as murder — but it is a cruel and evil message to send to women who are hurting. It does not respect their sanctity.

The second thing a Christian should do is advocate for policies that reduce the number of abortions in society. We must be clear, countries with the most restrictive laws on abortion also have the highest rates of abortion. A 2016 analysis found in the Lancet found that the average abortion rate in countries where abortion is illegal is 3.7 percent — but it is 3.4 percent in countries where abortion is legal. Furthermore, when there are highly restrictive abortion laws, women are also far more likely to have serious health problems and die as a result of an abortion.

However, comprehensive sex education reduces teen pregnancy rates (and the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases) far more than religiously based abstinence-only education. Providing free birth control also results in far fewer abortions. A Contraceptive C.H.O.I.C.E. project in St. Louis gave women free contraceptive counseling and the contraception of their choice and the average annual abortion rate was 0.97 percent — compared with the 4.2 percent rate of sexually active teens. This reality also makes GOP and conservative Christian attempts to limit access to contraception massively hypocritical.

It is time for Christians to refuse to support anti-abortion legislation that results in danger to women. It is time for Christians to insist that our faith requires us to demand instead better access to health care for all women, stronger social programs for those who struggle. And it is time for Christians to repent of language that has cruelly and painfully wounded the hearts of women who have been faced with this tragic reality. A true value of the sanctity of all life — including the lives of women — demands no less.

The Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven. Information about his parish can be found at www.sjegh.com