“You’re a wicked woman, you know that? You’re a wicked woman!”
“You know there’s a God. He’s full of mercy, but he’s also full of wrath.”
“Shame on you, you wicked, pathetic woman. Wicked Jezebel feminist!”
I was standing outside a health clinic, my way in blocked by a throng of protestors screaming these and many more epithets at me.
Except I wasn’t really. I was sitting in a chair at Artworks Gallery in downtown Winston-Salem, wearing virtual reality goggles and headphones. I was encountering a Planned Parenthood production called “Across the Line,” a virtual reality experience that simulates a woman being accosted by protestors while trying to enter a health clinic. It uses actual audio recorded at protests across the country. The words being hurled at “me” through the VR interface had been shouted in actual reality, directed at real women.
I was there because I had been invited to be a panelist at an event marking the 45th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. I was honored by the invitation but also deeply anxious about it. I was to be the voice of the faith community writ large, the moral/religious/theological authority on a panel that also featured a lawyer, a journalist, and a medical provider.
I worried that church members sensitive to the ways Planned Parenthood’s work has been politicized would take offense at my presence there. I worried I would say something awkward or wrong. Perhaps most of all, I worried that the attendees would see me as just another religious person they could expect to scream at them.
I am pro-life. I believe that life begins before birth (but don’t ask me too many questions about exactly when—I’ll just end up mumbling and backing away). I believe that life is sacred.
But “life” is an extremely broad term. Too often, when you say you’re “pro-life,” what people mean (on both sides, whether they realize it or not) is “pro-birth.” Too often in the pro-life movement, the sanctity of life is cherished from conception to birth but not, in any way meaningfully discernible to me, beyond that.
For me, being pro-life means being against a lot of things—against the death penalty; against war; against gun violence; against drone strikes; against racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia; against bullying; against deportations; against sexual harassment and rape—and for a lot of things—for quality public education; for universal health care; for harm reduction; for comprehensive immigration reform; for policies that combat poverty, illiteracy, and homelessness and promote social mobility; for community policing; for compassion, empathy, respect, and love.
Isn’t it funny how we set up these labels around the abortion debate? “Pro-life” means “pro-birth.” “Pro-choice” means “pro-abortion”—but of course it doesn’t. No one is pro-abortion. And why should being pro-life exclude the possibility of choice?
A few weeks ago, I attended the Triad Women’s March. I’ve never been a sign-carrier, but I love seeing others’ signs. Most of the ones I saw were funny or clever, but one made my throat tighten with emotion and sudden comprehension. One woman had put photos of her two adorable kids on a piece of posterboard. Underneath, she had written: “Here By Choice, Not By Force.”
At the Roe v. Wade event, a high school student who’s part of Authoring Action, an incredible nonprofit here in Winston-Salem, shared an original spoken word piece about what a gift it is to bring life into the world—and how important is it for bringing life to be a choice. Every child deserves to be chosen, loved, and cherished.
That choice is often dictated by factors the narrow pro-life approach overlooks—many women seeking abortions are young, poor, and without access to healthcare. They often feel they could not possibly support a child (or, in many cases, another child). They did not intend to get pregnant and cannot see how they could possibly carry that pregnancy to term for any one of a million different reasons.
I am the result of an unintended pregnancy—but my parents were married, had planned to have children (just not quite so soon!), and had enough financial means, access to healthcare, and family support to make room in their lives for me. I was unexpected, but still I was chosen, a choice that was far easier for my parents to make than it is for many others.
I am pro-life. But the screamed words of protestors blocking entry to health clinics are not compatible with life. The shame we heap on women who face the difficult choice of whether to carry an unexpected pregnancy to term is not compatible with life. The refusal of Christians to address the root causes of unintended pregnancy does nothing to promote life and in fact is at odds with it. Making abortion illegal does not stop abortions from happening—it only makes them more dangerous, more of a threat to all the lives involved.
Are you pro-life? Then start interrogating poverty, racism, sexism, violence, and inequality in all forms. Start asking how we can give women more choice, not less—not just when the pregnancy test is positive, but when they become sexually active, when they pursue education, when they seek employment, when they need healthcare—so that we all might be equipped to choose life in the fullest sense of the word.
Note: The denomination where I serve as a pastor, the United Methodist Church, has an official position on abortion, which I have not attempted to represent but which informs my thinking on the topic to an extent. You can read it here.