Six and a half years ago, I had an induction abortion. I’ve never used that term to describe what happened, but terms matter and it’s important that we use them correctly.
While carrying identical twins that shared the same placenta, I contracted a severe infection that threatened to lead to sepsis. As a result, I was administered medication that caused my uterus to contract and my body to go through the stages of labour and delivery.
Before the procedure, at the moment I had to decide whether to go through with it, I learned that both of my babies still had heartbeats, but they were slow and terribly weak. I was in my second trimester, halfway through my pregnancy, but at 21 weeks and four days, my pregnancy was not medically viable and my babies were not expected to survive outside of the womb. If I chose to keep my pregnancy, I would be risking sepsis and death. If I went ahead with the procedure, I would effectively be ending the lives of my precious girls.
I have been thinking a lot about the U.S. Supreme Court decision that recently overturned Roe v. Wade and what the issue of abortion means at the intersection of faith and female reproductive rights. Watershed moments have a way of doing that. They make you reflect on issues that may not always be at the forefront of your mind.
For a long time, I thought of my experience as a late term miscarriage. In large part, I think that had a lot to do with my own conservative Christian upbringing. Growing up, I had a very limited view of what abortion was – not that anyone in church or even at home bothered to explain it to me and the complicated moral dilemmas involved, or the benefits of abortion access for female healthcare. Like many kids from conservative Christian households, we never talked about such things. It was enough to know that there was absolutely no moral or biblical justification for abortion. It was a get-out-of-jail-free card, something that sex-crazed and promiscuous women had to terminate unwanted pregnancies because they didn’t want the inconvenience and responsibility of caring for a baby. That was it, no exceptions.
Which is why on March 7, 2016, I never thought I was having an abortion. I wanted these babies and truly loved them. Yes, I was terrified of the responsibility, but I was determined to be ready for it. What happened to me was nothing like what any woman who dares to have an abortion goes through. I wanted my babies, and women who have abortions don’t.
If only the world were this simple and straightforward, but it is not. As humans, we seek fixed definitions for everything, only to learn that not everything can be neatly defined. Ask 10 people when human life begins and you’ll probably get as many different answers. Some say it begins at fertilization and others say that it begins the moment a baby is born. Not even scientists universally agree on the answer to this question (though it is telling that Christians will appeal to science to argue that life begins early in the womb, but repudiate science when it says that we share a common ancestor with modern apes). We also insist on the certainty of our beliefs, as if our beliefs are the only accurate models of the world around us, but fail to recognize or admit that being certain of our beliefs does not make them true – at all or for all people. Do all women that have abortions choose this procedure to avoid the burden of parenthood? No. And I know that because I was one of them.
Even if women do have abortions to avoid the burden of parenthood, what business is it of anyone to impose their beliefs on another by regulating what that person cannot do with their body? How is that any different from someone imposing their beliefs on another by regulating the day on which they can worship? One could argue the difference has to do with the “life” the woman is carrying inside herself, but what if that woman has very different beliefs about when life begins? Is it fair to her that others should be able to decide what she can and cannot do with her pregnancy? What about Paul’s counsel in Romans that we should allow each person to be “fully convinced in their own mind?” In his own words,
Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls.Romans, Chapter 14, verse 4
The fact is, I didn’t have a late term miscarriage. A miscarriage is what happens when a pregnancy ends on its own before 20 weeks. It is nature taking its course uninterrupted. That is not what happened with me. When my doctor did my last ultrasound, our babies still had heartbeats and were very much biologically alive, though unequivocally dying. As a result, they were not yet stillborn either. But waiting until they died naturally to make that decision would have meant endangering my life even further. Should I have waited until both my babies were dead inside of me and I was (likely) septic before I gave my doctors permission to intervene? Or did I make the right decision to abort my babies to save my life? By choosing the latter, did I murder my children?
There are many anti-abortionists that sincerely believe it is not up to humans to decide whose life holds more value. That in the case of a medical emergency like mine, doctors should do everything they can to save both the life of the mother and the baby and that if one of them dies in the process, it was God’s will and in his hands. (In the state of Wisconsin, this is precisely the position of one anti-abortion group that is lobbying for legislation totally banning abortion, without any exceptions to save the life of the mother. Some groups think the lifesaving exception gives doctors too much interpretive latitude to give women abortions on demand.) But what if nothing within reason or medical power can be done to save the baby, as it was in my case? Does God ask us to wait for the baby to die naturally so we can say we did not end its life, and to risk the health and safety of the mother in the process? What does it say about God if he would ask us to risk the lives of pregnant mothers? What does it say about him if he could will the death of babies in the womb? What exactly does God expect us to believe about this issue, and what is the Christian thing to do?
These are loaded and complicated questions, and ones that are not so easily answered when you are caught in a high stakes situation. It’s one thing to come up with answers in your leather wingback chair when you’ve had time to ruminate over the questions, but another thing entirely when you’re living it and emotions and stress levels are running high. In those moments, sometimes our beliefs go out the window and we act on instinct. Just ask the 1 in 4 atheists and agnostics who turn to prayer in times of crisis. If it was your wife or sister or daughter’s life at risk, what would you do? Would you support a total ban on abortion? Answering that question now is a bit premature. You won’t really know the answer until that moment comes.
The truth is, we are always deciding whose life holds more value whether we like it or not. We do this when we enact policies that benefit the rich and disadvantage the poor. When we discriminate and use violence against someone because of the colour of their skin or their religious beliefs or even because of their views on polarizing issues like abortion. We do this when we prioritize the lives of young working and able-bodied people over the elderly, disabled, and immunocompromised by rejecting a national lockdown in the middle of a global pandemic. Not to mention the value that we place on the people in our families over the people outside of them. Given the choice between saving the life of your five year old and the life of someone else’s, and knowing you couldn’t save both, which child would you save? You could say that both lives are inherently valuable, but the fact is, they are not both extrinsically valuable to you. In the words of the English musician Phil Collins, “That’s just the way it is.” To say that it’s not up to us to decide whose life holds more value – mother or child – in a medical emergency is a fallacy. It is up to us, no matter how unpalatable it may be. The people responsible for killing abortion providers certainly felt that their lives were more valuable than the people providing these services to vulnerable women.
Knowing that life and the choices before us can be messy and complicated, how do we make sense of and apply God’s commandment not to kill in the context of abortion rights and access?
In my view, the answer to this question (and so many others) really depends on you, not on what the Bible says. This may be troubling to hear given the high value Christians place on sola scriptura, but the fact is the Bible doesn’t address what abortion is from a moral point of view (i.e. whether it constitutes murder), or whether we should be for it or against it. You won’t find a verse that says “Thou shalt not abort babies at any stage of fetal development because it is murder” or a verse that unambiguously defines when life and personhood begin. Even the verses used to support the anti-abortion fight are tenuous at best. The Bible doesn’t tell us what to do in a pregnancy-related medical emergency or when a 10 year old is raped and becomes pregnant or when a single mother in poverty with six children becomes with-child for a seventh time with a baby she never wanted and cannot afford. The sixth commandment is also so broad that it almost loses all meaning. “Thou shalt not kill”? What exactly does “kill” mean here? Is it killing when you are ending a life without malice (such as in euthanasia) or exacting capital punishment? And kill what or who and in what circumstances? How can we justify war when people can universally agree that war involves the blatant killing of people, but say abortion is murder when we cannot even agree on whether the fetus is an actual person or that terminating a pregnancy amounts to killing? Does this commandment apply to human relationships only, or to our relationship with the plant and animal kingdoms as well? What about smushing spiders brazenly crawling up our shower curtains, or shooting deer obliviously prancing across a field mid-day, or dousing plants with salt and vinegar? Isaiah says that he who “slaughters an ox is like one who kills a man” but I don’t see any groups lobbying to make veganism the law of the land. Some bright lines on such a significant commandment would be helpful.
But the Bible gives no bright lines. In fact, it is silent on so many issues that we face in modern times that it can feel a lot like we need to grasp at straws and pull biblical texts from here and there, from this century and that one, from one context to another, and one literary style to the next, to try to formulate a cogent argument that supports our position on a matter so that our belief system doesn’t fall apart like a house of cards.
Perhaps the Bible’s silence is God’s silence, giving us the space to exercise our sacred responsibility to “get wisdom” and “get understanding”. This silence undoubtedly makes things harder for us because getting wisdom and getting understanding is a long, difficult and complicated process. It means being willing to explore different perspectives and learning to be comfortable with tension and complexity and opposites and mystery. It means living the questions and exercising discernment, something no one else can do for you.
No doubt, it is much easier to be told in black and white, in no uncertain terms, what is right and what is wrong, and what exactly we should believe. And yet the Bible doesn’t do that, definitely not on this subject. Instead, it forces us to get outside our comfort zone and to go on a journey to get understanding that will likely “cost all [we] have”, not the least of which is our certainty.
Ironically, by going on the journey and acknowledging that the answer depends on us, we are doing exactly what the Bible says.
The decision overturning Roe v. Wade is Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
The moment I decided to go through with the induction abortion, my babies were still alive, but by the time I had them my daughter Summer was stillborn. My daughter Malia was breathing for a brief period when she was born before she passed away.
The verse from Isaiah is from chapter 66, verse 3.
Proverbs, chapter 4, verses 5 to 9, counsels us to get wisdom and get understanding. Verse 7 says to get understanding, “though it cost all you have.”
Leave a Reply