May 26: “Against My Religion” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
Click here to start at the sermon.
There is no way to talk about this subject that is not wrenching, which usually means that we are at the edges of something sacred. Most of us would probably agree with Albert Schweitzer and others that what he famously called ‘reverence for life’ is a religiously appropriate attitude. All life is amazing, an awesome process that human intelligence only partially understands, and only partially controls. Most of us, most of the time, value our own lives dearly, and cherish the lives of those other creatures we care about. We understand the lives of people we do not know to be one of the fundamental human rights that is worthy of our respect. We cannot always create life, nor prevent death, just because we want to. It is well for us to hold such mystery and power in reverence. Yet that does not make life the one supreme value, to which all other goods must necessarily be secondary.
We have been hearing a great deal in the past week about whether it is appropriate for a woman to decide whether she will cooperate in bringing to birth a fetus that forms in her reproductive organs. Several state legislatures, including Missouri, have just passed laws seeking to control how, when, and why a woman may choose to end a pregnancy, with the ultimate goal of enforcing all pregnancies to result in births. People who advocate for this kind of restriction claim that human life begins at conception, and that an unborn baby is entitled to the same legal rights as a child already born. Some would go so far as to ban those methods of birth control which prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg into the womb, on the theory that even the microscopic zygote is a human person, already possessed of rights.
As you may be able to tell, and as you might expect, I do not agree with this position. My own beliefs are to some extent beside the point, but what I want to you to understand this morning is that there is religious grounding for what I believe, and for the position that a woman has the right to choose whether to continue carrying a pregnancy to term at any point during that pregnancy. Decisions about abortion should be made by pregnant women, their doctors, and the people who love and support them. The rest of us are entitled to our opinion about those decisions, but not to control what people other than ourselves may decide to do. Now some folks would claim that this is a “secular view,” but I argue that it is just as much a religious belief as is the idea that the rights of a zygote are the same as yours and mine. It is becoming increasingly important for all of us to be vocal and articulate about our own personal convictions, and also about the teachings of our religious tradition, as this cultural reconsideration of how womens’ bodies are controlled progresses.
Our religious heritage as Unitarian Universalists has always urged us to pay attention to the facts, including the facts of nature, the facts of history, and the facts of science. All of these suggest considerations that I think are relevant to the debate about abortion. The world of nature teaches us that conception, pregnancy, and birth are all much more complex processes than most of us understand. Nature, or god if you understand a god to be involved, is profligate with conception in the human species. Various research has led groups like the March of Dimes to conclude that 20 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage or still birth. A 2014 study of in vitro fertilizations found that more than half of the created embryos had abnormal numbers of chromosomes, making them non-viable. If these were natural pregnancies, they would all end before a woman was likely to know they had occurred. The evolutionary geneticist William Rice of the University of California, analyzes health databases from around the world, and concludes that a woman in her 20s who conceives is just slightly more likely to lose the pregnancy than to carry it to term, and those odds against conception resulting in live birth get sharply steeper as maternal age increases. They also vary dramatically depending on access to nutrition and pre-natal care. In other words, all kinds of genetic happenstance and environmental factors end pregnancies all the time, often before they are evident. It seems reasonable to me that human intention might legitimately be one among those factors.
The facts of history demonstrate that women have always used whatever means they had at their disposal to make choices about whether and when to have children. The more patriarchal the culture, the more hidden the networks by which women have helped each other to prevent and to end unwanted pregnancies, and the more likely they have been to die as a result when something goes wrong. Abortion has never been eliminated; it is only made illegal, secret, humiliating, and dangerous.
I am inclined to think that we would not be having this cultural conversation with such intensity if it were not for relatively recent changes in the facts of science. Some folks from the generation that came of sexual age before the introduction of the hormonal contraceptive pill for women in the 1960s are still alive, and even legislating. More significantly, the population balance is yet to tip in favor of those who have come of age since the development of reliable medical abortion using the drugs mefipristone and misoprostol, which only became available the US twenty years ago. These scientific advances have put women more in control of their own reproductive functions than ever before in history, and this latest slew of legislation appears to me as a last desperate grasp by privilege at control over others, including women, that is fast slipping away. As the cocaine and opioid crises have both demonstrated, if a drug exists that people want, they will find ways to produce, distribute, and access it, regardless of the law. Since both of these medications are on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines, it seems clear that they will be manufactured somewhere around the planet, and find their way into the hands of women who choose to end unwanted pregnancies. The facts of science have changed the realities with which culture must deal, and our society is scrambling to catch up.
These are the facts we need to take account of, and not just try to wish away, but what about values? Is not the right to life a sacred thing? Doesn’t our tradition affirm ‘the inherent worth and dignity of every person’? I believe that you can affirm both of these propositions, and still defend a woman’s right to end a pregnancy.
I should be clear that I am, strangely perhaps, in agreement with the hard line policies of those who hold no special exceptions for cases of pregnancy resulting from sexual abuse or assault. I do not see how the circumstances of conception impact the rights of the fetus; once born, the person whose life is the result of rape has no lesser rights than the person whose life resulted from consensual sex. If it is morally repellent to force a 12 year old to give birth to the child of a rapist, then we are conceding that the woman’s rights, well-being, dignity, and choices supersede those of the fetus. There is no moral or logical reason to privilege some fetuses above others; the rights of one are the benchmark of the rights of all others. I do not see how proponents of fetal right to life in the womb can view with indifference the discarding of viable embryos by fertility clinics – why are those conceptions less endowed with an absolute claim to life?
Yet even supposing for the sake of argument that the fetus is a human person of sorts, this does not in my view mean that the person in whose uterus it is growing has an absolute obligation to bring it to birth. As Judith Jarvis Thompson elegantly demonstrates, we do not, in fact, have in our culture the belief that someone else’s right to life takes precedence over your choices about your body. You are not obligated to lend the violinist the use of your kidneys for nine months, no matter how urgently he needs them, let alone care for him for 18 years thereafter. We cannot even mandate that life-saving transplant organs, for lack of which existing human people lose their lives every day, shall be harvested from the deceased bodies where they can no longer do any good. A society that cannot bring itself to interfere with choices of dead people in the service of the living, has no business telling women what we must do with our bodies on behalf of the not yet born.
But most significantly, our religious tradition, like many others, teaches us to hold in honor many people who have chosen other values over life itself. On this very Memorial Day weekend, we recall our gratitude to the fallen soldiers, who gave up their right to life in favor of duty, freedom, and love of country. We cherish the story of Michael Servetus, who went to his death among the flames, in defense of reason, and freedom of conscience. We remember enslaved and oppressed people, who died in resistance rather than submit, as well as the founders of our nation, who risked honor, fortune, and life itself for the sake of independence and liberty. Let’s acknowledge that none of these people were perfect. None of their motivations were perfect, none of their circumstances were perfect, none of their choices were perfect. But all of them lived and taught that life itself alone is not the most important consideration. And we do not have to be perfect people, in ideal situations, to have the right to choose among those values what matters most to us, and how to create our own best lives. That is what I learn from my religion.
How are we to address the recent spate of attacks on the right to choose abortion, as well as the long term effort to erode its accessibility for many women, and people with a uterus? I have to admire the dogged determination of the Satanic Temple, which keeps filing lawsuits challenging Missouri’s existing abortion restrictions on behalf of the religious beliefs of its members. These folks do not actually worship, or even believe in the existence of, a literal being called Satan, but rather regard it as a metaphor for rebellion against tyrannical authority. Although previous similar suits against the state’s governor and attorney general have been dismissed by the Missouri supreme court, most recently last February, the Temple continues to claim that its members’ protected religious beliefs – including that human life does not, in fact, begin at conception – are being infringed. You should know that as part of the arguments in the February case, it was determined that the supposedly ‘required’ ultrasound and fetal heartbeat procedures mandated by state law are technically voluntary, and in theory at least, could be refused by a patient seeking abortion. It may sound amusing, and even trivial, but this is important. It seems to me that those of us who have similar convictions, and whose religious traditions might be taken more seriously, need to be advocating the same position, and have their backs.
UUA President Rev. Susan Frederick Gray recently posted this: “As a woman, a mother, a person of faith, and the leader of the Unitarian Universalist faith movement, I wholeheartedly affirm every person’s right to make their own choices about their reproductive health, including the choice to end a pregnancy. Abortion bans are a completely inappropriate overreach of the government into an individual’s First Amendment right to live by their own religious convictions.” Our Associations president speaks not for us, but to us, as fellow Unitarian Universalists, modeling the kind of clarity that we each must cultivate about our own beliefs. That clarity will be needed if we are to respond effectively to these latest efforts to reassert patriarchal domination over women’s health, choices, and lives.
It is important to keep in mind that none of these new laws is yet in effect, and all are being challenged in court – successfully as of yesterday in Mississippi, and earlier in Kentucky. Abortion remains legal, though often difficult to access, in all 50 states at present. The Missouri law is slated to go into effect at the end of August, if it is not pre-empted in the courts. Meanwhile, it seems to me that we have work to do, including preparing for the worst case scenarios. I was barely sexually active by the time of Roe v. Wade – do the math, if you want – but I remember hearing about networks of people, including ministers, who would help pregnant women access abortions in those days. Some did this by knowingly breaking local laws, others by helping women travel to states or countries where safe legal abortions were available. There is enough collective memory to reconstitute such networks if we need to; both social media connections and the discretion of medical abortion using pills will make it that much easier than it once was. Nevertheless, it will still be risky, for individuals and organizations; that is one path. The other path is that must also be pursued is public witness, both locally and nationally. I am persuaded that we must speak out, specifically to demonstrate that religious people support the right to choose safe, legal abortion, and trust people with uteruses as moral agents who should not have their private decisions controlled by the state. Some of us will also want to be practically helpful to people seeking abortion care, and we will need to balance what we say publically with the risks of calling attention to activities that may or may not be considered legal. Finding that balance will also be a personal decision for each individual, based on a variety of considerations, just like the decision to carry or to end a pregnancy.
Life is indeed sacred, and worthy of our reverence; my religion doesn’t argue with that premise. But it does invite me to consider a complex network of values, no one of which is always supreme; a network that weighs the well-being and dignity of existing life in the balance with the possibility of new life, and honors the autonomy of women in the long history of male domination over our bodies, our sexuality, and our lives. What is, and has always been, and will always be, against my religion, is taking someone else’s word or law over the call of my own informed and thoughtful conscience – or enforcing my individual convictions on another person’s choices. Over the course of my career, I have had occasion to confer with women and with couples confronting the joys, the tragedies, the traumas and the heartbreaking dilemmas around pregnancy. Never have I seen this be off-handed or trivial; always it has been clear that we were on sacred ground, dealing with matters of ultimate value and profound meaning. Never has it been my task to tell anyone what they must do, but rather to help hold a space in which they could clarify their own highest good. That will always be my goal, for to do less would be against my religion.
If you have the time on this holiday weekend, and if you are interested in a discussion of what we might do next, I would be glad to have a conversation after the service ends, here in Bragg, and hear your thoughts and ideas. Both outrage and worry are appropriate responses to what is happening in our state and in our nation, but let’s not lose sight of two great gifts that we still have. One is the opportunity, when the time is right, and the forces of nature align favorably, to pass on the miracle of life, and bring a new generation into the world. Despite all its hazards and complexities, in the appropriate circumstances this can be a very wonderful blessing. The other gift is the option to choose the values we serve, and to which we give our highest loyalty; to shape our own lives by intention and action to their best potential. In the end, no one else can answer for the most intimate and ultimate decisions each of us must make; we can share wisdom and care with each other, but it is our own task to be faithful to the ideals we hold dear, and to lean in to the consequences of our choices as together in this world we strive to live, to learn, and to love.