By Susan Malthouse
All of us have watched the recent USA Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe V Wade and the rights of women to access safe abortion.
Many of us have watched with shock, helplessness, horror and with a deep sense of sadness for women across the world.
It can only be seen as a backwards step for women everywhere as we watch the former world power re-entrench patriarchal, racist and economic oppression on those who most need help and empowerment.
Many years ago, as part of an inner exploration of where God might be calling me, I contemplated a “religious” life. Attending Catholic school, I saw amazing women devote their life to faith and advocacy, education and compassion — and I saw it as a very tempting life. The fact that women were not considered equal to the tasks of priesthood and leadership was the initial road block, but I distinctly remember the moment it became the deal breaker.
I was still thinking and developing in who I was. I was unsure of what my church believed (the Uniting Church) and I was jealous that my friends had the Catechism to tell them what to believe, so they didn’t have to think for themselves. But then, for some reason, as part of a conversation around ethics and religion, I learnt the Catechism orders that there is never a valid reason to have an abortion, not even after being raped.
Nope, done, no way.
I was never going to be Catholic.
But it turns out not just Catholics, but also our evangelical siblings that take such a harsh, stark position on this issue. Arguing that life begins at conception, and that abortion equates to murder, would seem to be the argument that has now been affirmed by the US Supreme Court, and yet there is so much more nuance and thoughtfulness required.
Before I explore this nuance, let me share some things: I am an anglo, cis-gendered, middle-class, woman. I have experienced only one pregnancy, which resulted in the birth of my son, and he was a result of some fertility treatment, though not IVF.
My experience with conception and birth has been incredibly fortunate and lucky, entirely planned and structured, and my son is a one-hit wonder for a variety of reasons.
While I name my own incredibly limited experience, I have witnessed friends and family endure miscarriage, abortion, morning-after pills, years of failed and successful IVF treatment, as well as witnessing friends who seemingly only have to sneeze to get pregnant, and those who, for all the trying in the world, will never be parents.
The solid line-in-the-sand for those who stand against abortion is that it equates to murder, as life begins at conception. OK, I can acknowledge and comprehend that argument and its basis in the Ten Commandments is obvious and held firm, but, I have few big BUTS!
If we truly wish to use “Do Not Murder” as the basis for an argument, how can these same people not advocate as loudly and boldly about capital punishment, or on military retaliation and engagement? How can the argument that abortion is murder be held in equality to the American “right” to bear arms and ability to carry and use a weapon?
The truth is that withholding a woman’s right to abortion is designed for the patriarchy, and results in oppression and often poverty for too many women.
And it is at the expense of their education, employability and future. And I don’t have to Google too hard to see that in the US this statistic is so much higher for Black and Latina women.
Even the notion of having autonomy over our own bodies, for women, is a relatively recent evolution in human history, and clearly not one to be taken for granted. And while the biblical affirmation that “there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28b) might be aspirational, it is not the lived experience of most women, and some members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
It’s not far beyond living memory that women were regarded as property, belonging to their father’s and then their husbands, with only rare exceptions. But after fighting long and hard for steps towards some forms of equity, like the right to vote, suddenly women are again vulnerable to their own bodies and a system that seems determined to stifle once again.
Abortion is a word that, medically, defines many different situations that can occur with a woman’s body. They can range from miscarriage, to needing to remove an embryo that has implanted in the fallopian tubes rather than the uterus, to taking the morning after pill, to the ceasing of an unwanted pregnancy. And behind each of these definitions and experiences are stories of women who experience a diversity of responses and emotions to what they feel as a result.
The experience of a rape victim who discovers she is pregnant; the woman experiencing domestic abuse who finds the strength and courage to escape only to discover she is pregnant; the person whose seventh round of IVF was finally successful only to miscarry and have to read the term “natural abortion” in her medical records; the teenager who dreams of attending university but who discovers that the condom broke. These are broad stories that are real, that happen every day and need to be heard. And again, these are stories from within a western first-world perspective, so the stories from women outside this perspective can be, and are, even more devastating.
For those who argue that abortion is murder, none of the women in any of these stories has any options or choices — never mind the physical or psychological trauma already endured, there is no choice but to exacerbate those traumas.
Those that argue against abortion choose not to see the story or hear the voice of the woman. They simply deploy, “you shall not murder”, choosing to ignore the other forms of murder in our communities as if they are insignificant.
Are those who protest outside family planning clinics also protesting outside weapons manufacturers? Are they delivering food and education to those families who had no choice but to welcome their fifth or sixth child but cannot afford to feed, clothe or appropriately home any of those children?
Are they babysitting for the teenage mum who is desperately trying to keep up her education, but sleeplessness and caring for a baby are making her consider giving up? If they are not already doing those things, then they are already ethically compromised.
At a fundamental level, abortion provides choice and options. A freedom that cannot be underestimated. Nor should it be taken away.
Dwelling upon ethical issues is hard work — and there are always two sides, if not more, to explore. There is always grey where many choose to see black or white.
Being human means we are all open to make mistakes and have the freedom to make choices for ourselves. As Christians, who praise and worship God, we hold firm to the fundamental belief that we are loved, and that, sometimes, despite our mistakes and choices, God is big enough, almighty enough to still hold us in love.
When God sent Jesus, Jesus taught us that the most fundamental rules are to love God and love our neighbour. Despite what others may try to argue, there are no exceptions to those rules.
Choosing not to love a sister who is experiencing a situation that includes considering an abortion is against the core teaching of Jesus. For me, this is an issue of faith, of ethics, of compassion and of justice. Choosing to persecute, ostracise, condemn and judge a woman who makes a decision about her own body and for her own future is precisely the type of person Jesus would have gravitated to and shown love.
Exploring issues such as abortion is precisely why exploring ethics is important for us to do as individuals and as a church. While dwelling in these spaces is hard, and can lead to a variety of responses and conclusions, we shouldn’t be afraid to spend time in this space.
Rev Susan Malthouse, Synod Ethics Committee Chair
The views expressed here are those of the author only.