All Souls Kansas City

September 15: “It Takes a Village” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons

Click here to start at the sermon.

Tell him to buy me an acre of land
Between the salt water and the sea strand;

Tell her to make me a cambric shirt
Without a seam nor needlework…

But why parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme? Does anyone know?

Abortion used to be women’s work, like birth, and pregnancy, and menstruation, and pregnancy prevention. These were trade secrets; the private competencies of the world’s largest guild, women. Whispered from mother to daughter, traded among midwives, discretions of the herb garden and the sewing room, with the silent understanding that what men didn’t know about wouldn’t offend their lofty principles or hurt their fragile egos, or get anyone in trouble. Yet the conundrum was always insoluable – impossible, like the field in between the sea and the sand, or the shirt with no sewing – like once upon a time love, the consequences of which might endure far longer than its promises.

We are living with that impossibility still today, with young women weeping in medical offices, and protestors screaming for the lives of babies, waving bloody pictures, and doctors gunned down in broad daylight for trying to help. As a society, we can find no middle ground between life and choice, between mother and child, between trauma and tragedy. Our laws cannot solve the problem, but only serve to reflect and magnify it. The ocean and the shore contend, and there is no inch between them, never mind an acre.

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme are all herbs that have been used in various combinations with other plant and animal substances, both to prevent pregnancy, and to produce abortions. For the truth is that women have been seeking to control their own fertility ever since the dawn of human understanding of the reproductive process. Sometimes with comic or repulsive misunderstandings, but often with surprising — though never perfect — success.

Nature, of course, has a strong hand in this process, and the forces of natural selection privilege those genes that manage to find their way into the next generation. Not surprisingly, there are creatures whose survival strategy as a species is sheer massive numbers of offspring, but this is not the only card that nature has up her sleeve. The investment of resources required for procreation only pays off if those individuals survive to reproduce in their turn, which means that parents who can protect and nurture fewer offspring may be more successful genetically than parents who leave massive numbers to fend for themselves and perhaps all perish. These strategies can be observed in species where pregnant females can respond to a stressful environment either with embryonic diapause, which holds the fertilized zygotes in a kind of suspended animation until conditions are more favorable for a successful pregnancy to proceed, or with fetal resorption, in which the conception with its proteins and nutrients is absorbed back into the mother’s body. Another option is spontaneous abortion, in which the pregnancy ends and the contents of the womb are expelled in response to environmental changes, such as the takeover of a new dominant male among gelada monkeys. More than 60 percent of a troops females will abort their current pregnancies when this happens, knowing that their new born infants will be killed by the alpha male who cannot be their father. In short, a completed pregnancy is not always a path to long term reproductive success.

There is another quirky evidence of nature’s multiple strategies, at least for human beings, in the existence of menopause. As far as we now know, only our distant relatives, the toothed whales, like Belugas, Orcas, and narwhales, have a process like ours by which older females undergo active endocrine changes that make them entirely unable to reproduce during their older years. Other female animals, including almost all mammals, remain fertile until they die. In his entertaining and thought-provoking book, Why Is Sex Fun?, historian and anthropologist Jared Diamond suggests that for a social species for whom intelligence and memory are important survival strategies – like homo sapiens, for instance – the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of elders is more valuable than the chance of their additional reproduction to the community as a whole, and especially for their particular grandchildren. Among the whales, a grandson is three to eight times more likely to die in the year following his grandmother’s death, even when he is past thirty years old, well into whale adulthood. A grandmother who herself can no longer reproduce is not competing with her daughters or grandchildren for mates, or for resources for new offspring of her own. Instead, her energy and skill can go into supporting her daughters in mothering their children, and into nurturing those grandchildren directly herself. This resource contributes so heavily to genetic success that it has evolved separately in us and in the whales.

What seems to me significant in these two biological details is that pregnancy has never been, even at its most instinctive, an individual phenomenon. The conundrum of abortion is not reducible to a question of personal rights or freedoms, even as we seek to protect, and must protect, the rights and freedoms of women. Rather, abortion has always been a social reality, much like birth; it happens in, and affects, a circle of people around a particular woman; her family, her caregivers, her network of friends and elders, her sexual partners, her potential child, her community. It seems that what evolution teaches us is that in social species, it takes a village not just to raise a child once it is born, but to also to nurture gestation and establish the conditions, either for successful birth, or choice otherwise. For human beings, that process includes the cultural function of making meaning; to know what it ‘means’ even just to have sex is complicated – love, lewdness, abuse, duty, pleasure, sin, resistance to authority, submission, rape, self-expression, generosity, lack of self-control, hunger for approval, to name only a few of the myriad possibilities – and all of these notions are created social constructs. So too what it means to give birth, or to not give birth. In some indigenous American Inuit cultures, literal villages may be dismantled and relocated because of the malign forces supposedly attracted by a woman who miscarries, even if she was not aware of being pregnant at the time. Birth and non-birth have public meanings, not merely private ones; this is why our current struggle is not, and cannot be, resolved by the mere claim of privacy.

The women’s networks of European tradition – which I understand to have some parallels in Asian and African cultures, at least – had awareness of female sexuality and fertility choices that were more nuanced than those of the male dominated public spheres. And it is clear that for several millennia at least, part of the agenda of that public sphere has been to use the social creation of gender identity and sexuality as one of many tools to maintain the power of patriarchal dominance. Women’s reproductive secrets were part of a quiet resistance to that dominance, which also wove its own complex sub-culture that in some ways challenged patriarchy, and in other ways enabled it to persist. Today’s more dependable medical knowledge and technology would make this all so much more simple – if only we had a social consensus about what it all means – which, as anyone paying attention to the news here in Missouri or around the country can see, is not the case.

I want to suggest that the progressive project of protecting women from state-enforced child-bearing cannot ultimately succeed as an argument between the stand-alone rights of potential mothers and the stand-alone rights of potential children, or the claim of privacy. I think we need to lift up the reality that for homo sapiens, sexuality and fertility are social events with constructed meanings, and we need to be advocates for the meanings and values we understand them to have. The cultural moment is propitious, despite the current intensity around issues of reproduction, because the forces of tradition are losing a significant part of their unquestioned status. As the Princeton interviews we heard about in the reading suggest, the fundamental human aspirations for pride, esteem, and belonging have not changed, but how they manifest in the structures of nation, faith, and especially family – that’s a shifting landscape just now.

The thing is, we want connection; we always have; that yearning is bred into us; it is part of what makes us human. But connection is messy, and it requires building meaning together. None of us can create a family single-handed, or raise a new generation in utter independence, without the support of elders, and healers, and friends, and communities that help us understand who we are, and what we are doing on behalf of the whole. The decision to end a pregnancy is impacted by that same interdependent web, and challenges our collective understanding, even when it is a private choice. It is our communities that define what we think motherhood, or parenthood, is; and what supports we offer to those who undertake that task, or what burdens we lay on them; what it means to be responsible, or not, in the choices that go with those roles.

Minerva Jones, the awkward young woman poet of Spoon River, was not isolated in her death from an abortion following the rape committed by one of the town bullies, Butch Weldy. She appealed to Doctor Meyers, who had compassion on her situation, but perhaps not adequate skills for the help she sought. Doctor Meyers’ wife speaks on behalf of the town, who judged both Minerva and the doctor as having violated the laws of god and society. Did they know about her assailant? Did they judge him, publically or privately? It takes a village to turn Minerva’s story into the tragedy that it became, through the meaning that they collectively made of what happened to her. How might that story have been different if Minerva had had a wise and loving grandmother to confide in? Someone with a long view of life’s urgencies and options, who might have judged differently than the Spoon River newspaper? How do we judge, you and I, the traumatized children of our own place and moment?

It takes a village to enforce a secret, to create shame, to condemn. It takes a village to share wisdom, to offer options, to respect, and encourage and support. It takes a village to recognize parenthood as something more than a private joy and responsibility, but as a public good essential to our shared human future, as well as a sacrificial commitment to the well-being of another person; as a commitment in which we might all share. It also takes a village to make other choices possible; to recognize that at times completing a pregnancy is not the best option; that sometimes the situation is as impossible as farming the space between the beach and the tide, or stitching without needles. Time was when there was the village of women, helping each other as best they could, sharing the old wives’ tales in whispers – parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme. But today it is time to claim our power and our responsibility – the moral authority of birth givers as full participants in the meaning our public culture makes of sex, and children, and choices.

The old empire of patrilineal domination is dying; its vestiges will be with us awhile yet, but its force is spent. What shall we have instead? Maybe this time, start with the women’s wisdom; with listening, with compassion, with care; above all, with connection. With a concern for the well being of the future as it is shaped in our midst. The great liberal religious educator Charlotte Perkins Gilman once wrote that to have the central question of theology be, What will happen to me when I die, was a form of posthumous egotism. More mature and enlightened, she felt, was the religious question What needs to be done for the child that is born? a form of immediate altruism. These questions were entirely collective in her mind, for every member of the community to ask themselves, and each other. What do we owe to the future that we share? Another child is not always the best answer; sometimes, in society as in nature, an alternate path is better.

That too is an event that has impact on us all, and whose meaning we culturally help to define. That choice, difficult and dangerous as it has often been, has nevertheless been made since we first became reflective, intentional creatures. It is a choice made sometimes with assurance, and sometimes in defiance, but more often in regret and sadness. Just as we must all be the village that sees and guides and loves the children growing among us, so let us also hold in tenderness and dignity the stories of those who choose otherwise, and the skillful hands that give them help and care. The connections that we crave, that nurture our humanity and make us whole, are possible only as we undertake obligations to each other. The point is not the freedom to do whatever arbitrary, selfish thing that suits you; the wisdom of women has never been about that. The freedom that best becomes us as rational, caring creatures is the ability to choose what serves the good of our shared future. In the village which understands and honors that knowledge, we shall realize that every decision happens in a web of connection; that we belong to one another, that none of us is entirely alone.