The Morality of Abortion

February 16, 2014

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

Today I want to question the politics of abortion, ethically. Not politically, but ethically.

When an ordinary woman comes to visit a pastor and asks the question of abortion, these are the words she uses. "Should I keep this baby?"  The verb is the important part. To keep or not to keep, that is the question.

Because the clock is ticking, she will want a quick answer. Ethics is usually no good in the short term. Ethics hears the keeping in the keeping. Ethics is unhurried by the moment’s demands and puts its arms around the whole and the long and the consequential and the next. When we talk about keeping a baby, we aren’t talking about the delivery. We are talking about the days and weeks and months and years after the delivery.

Those of us who have grown children – an oxymoron if there ever was one – know that we are still their parents, whether we are the parents of a 24 year old or a 50 year old. My 89-year-old mother this week had to deal with her 66-year-old daughter about a matter neither of us wanted to discuss. My granddaughter turned 2 this week. We bought her a tea set and a tow truck, just to keep our bases covered. My 4-year-old grandson got into kindergarten this week. Next week it will be college. Children do grow but so slowly that we don’t notice how much keeping is involved. If we knew at the outset, we probably would keep many fewer children!

Thus when an ordinary woman asks the question about keeping the baby she is asking a question with long legs. I may be thoroughly impressed by Chinese women who deliver babies on their factory job and then go back to work. I had a midwife for my twins’ birth who was also a medical missionary from Guatemala. She was not impressed with all the high tech equipment that got them out safely when they came prematurely. She had delivered twins in the forest herself. You can decide to have a baby and deliver it under very interesting conditions. But you can’t keep a baby well under every condition. If you have the freedom to choose how to keep a baby well, why wouldn’t you use it?

What you can’t do is what Ruth did for Naomi under all conditions. Ruth didn’t just say she would walk with Naomi a while. She said I will walk with you. She said your people will be my people. There is a partnership in the choice to parent a child that means just that. Your people will be my people. Your college roommate will stay over. Your first wife will still get a Christmas card. Keeping is what Wendell Berry meant when he had to leave his beloved farm. He mourned, using the language of keep. “I am no longer the keeper of what I was,” he said. He knew what it meant to keep a farm and he knew he wouldn’t be keeping the same farm again. Robert Frost also loved the word Keep. In his new book of published letters, the reviewers notice that the word keep comes up again and again. Frost also was a keeper of farms, which are a lot like children in their need of constant keeping. He finally defined what he meant by keeping in one of the letters. He meant, “strongly spent,” and said that strongly spent is synonymous with keeping.

When you keep a child and go ahead with a birth, you agree to be strongly spent. You agree to spend down what you have. You agree to walk with the child into adulthood and beyond. You become Ruth to the child’s Naomi.

Once we understand what it means to keep a child, which is not just birthing a child, we become free to reassess the technology of abortion. Finally, it is nothing neither more nor less than a medical technology, more like an appendectomy or tonsillectomy than anything else. Forgive me if you find that offensive. It is not. It is about the decision to keep or not to keep and making sure you know what the word means. The last thing the world needs is more unaccompanied minors or Naomis or Ruths who lose everything and have to march on alone. Whenever it is possible and however it is possible, it is important to plan parenthood and to prepare parents to be parents. The harm done to divorced children is sometimes horrifying. The harm done to children with only one parent is sometimes frightening. These are not necessary conditions. If anything children need dozens of parents – mentors, teachers, coaches, Boy Scout leaders and more. When people decide short term to keep a child whom they can’t truly keep long term, it’s like forgetting to water the chickens or manure the field in the right season. It is stingy and stupid and lacks virtue. Virtue and ethics understand consequences and always move to maximize human being and doing and living. When you can live well, you should live well. When your circumstances are mitigated you should minimize the mitigations, as well as you can.

Frost also understood that some kinds of losses were also gains. He put is as the act of self-emptying, leaving you with one less detail to be bothered with. Frost said the act of emptying was a holy one. I agree, especially in the face of people who want to enforce fertilization instead of make choices about life.

We don’t live in China nor Guatemala. We live in an advanced society, which enjoys medical technologies of multiple varieties. Choosing not to parent or to have a child or two is one of the greenest things you can do. It honors science as opposed to desecrating it. When you need to have an appendectomy, you don’t feel guilty about having it. You feel great about having it because you have made a choice to decrease pain and increase pleasure.

Unfortunately ethics have gotten all gobbed up with sexuality. If men had abortions, they would be a sacrament. Men are encouraged to make choices all the time and are granted absurd amounts of sexual freedom. The same freedoms can and do apply to women. Just think of Pussy Riot’s extraordinary courage for a moment. It is downright ethical, putting the short term aside for a time on behalf of the longer one.

Listen also to R. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, suggesting that some evangelicals are rethinking their acceptance of contraception on ethical grounds. “A good many evangelicals hope to do far more than sow seeds of doubt about the morality of birth control. Our concern is to raise an alarm about the entire edifice of modern sexual morality…..” They’re not even talking about abortion here. They are talking about the entire edifice of modern sexual morality…and about how contraception may aid people in having nonproductive or recreational sex. They are anti woman and anti-science and anti-choice. We have long known that this position was driving the anti-abortion movement. Thank God they are finally being honest about it.

Because I can think, I prefer to base my argument for the virtue in choosing an abortion in the word to keep and its beauty and its maturity and its common sense. I am tired of the defensive position that lets the Albert Mohler’s of the world frighten me to smithereens, gets me angry that he would dare to take birth control away from me or my granddaughter. I am tired of being attacked and getting angrier and angrier. Thus, I prefer to keep, to empty when the time is right, to tend when the time is right, and to enjoy the gifts of modern science and medicine to my ability to keep. I am exhausted by the cheap politicization of a woman’s right to choose an abortion. These are parenting questions, not political questions. These are parenting questions, not sexual questions.

Robert Dahl, who just died, defined politics as the “process that determines the authoritative allocation of values.”I am wiling to be political on behalf of parenting but first I want to be ethical and that means stating a positive value, like keeping, and asking the anti sexual people to come to terms with the fiction that they are pro life.

Dahl also said that the beset society is one where there are multiple centers of power, such that no one can be authoritative over the others. We Protestants really need to come to terms with the anti-sex, anti-life, anti- choice and anti-keeping Christians who are a part of our own family, as well as requesting the Roman Catholics to knock off their theological imperialism. These political questions are important. They are important to the ordinary woman who asks the question whether she should keep the child. They are also important to the child. And they are important to the keeping. Amen.

55 Washington Square South New York, NY 10012 | phone: 212-477-0351 | fax: 212-995-0844