As a preacher, teacher and spiritual leader, I start to get the nervous armpit sweats at the mere thought of speaking on the topic of abortion among church folk. The dialogue always feels more like a Medieval witch trial that ends with everyone hot and bothered and my pastoral career smoldering in the ashes.
Engaging the issue of abortion to anyone, especially people of faith, is like walking in on your parents trying to embrace the privacy of intimacy. No one wins. Whether you’re talking about Roe v. Wade or pro-life versus pro-choice, there appears to be no wiggle room for real change.
I wonder if a better place to begin dialogue about abortion is to be open about the birds and the bees. This child-like approach to baby-making is an important starting point to talking about abortion. Birds laying eggs is likened to a woman’s reproductive systems, and bees depositing pollen is likened to a man’s reproductive pollination process. Abortions would not occur without intercourse; well, there are other methods for making babies outside the bedroom such as inside laboratories. However, I would venture that almost all abortions are direct effects of intercourse.
Unprotected sex aside, people of faith have a bigger problem. The church doesn’t know how to talk about the birds or the bees, let alone our God-given human bodies. Historically, the church has kept the buzz about baby-making to the confines of not only marriage but also for the strict purpose of procreation. Fortunately, these beliefs about bedrooms and breeding practices have flown out the window over the past century, leaving an empty nest for theological approaches to sex.
Yes, it is difficult to shake centuries of beliefs about having sex outside of marriage or making love without the intent of reproduction. But these were and in some religious circles still are considered sinful and outside of God’s plan. God’s plan meaning Genesis 1, “go forth and be fruitful.” This primitive biblical interpretation meant men and woman were expected and even commanded by God to have babies.
Well, what if your body won’t allow you to make babies or — God-forbid — you don’t want to make a baby?
I am a 34-year-old woman who does not want to physically have a baby. I have felt this way since puberty, and yet my unwillingness to bear children still gets me shamed by society, family and, strangely enough, by complete strangers. I’ve been told by older women to freeze my eggs just in case I change my mind. But the only things I want in my freezer these days are pizza rolls and Trader Joe’s pastries.
“The fear of getting pregnant was terrifying to the point where I contemplated every possible outcome if my birth control were to fail.”
Snack food aside, I, like many women, have contemplated the possibility of having an abortion. These horrifying thoughts haunted me in my early twenties when I had no money, was in the middle of a seminary degree and trying desperately to ignite a pastoral career in the Baptist world. The fear of getting pregnant was terrifying to the point where I contemplated every possible outcome if my birth control were to fail.
Here’s the bigger rub: Birth control side effects, like pregnancy, are the burden women have been bearing since the beginning of time. This brings us to another archaic argument religious folks make for Genesis 3 — that since the woman sinned, women for all time must bear the painful burden of childbearing. If this is truly the case, men got punished too and had to toil the earth, well, until tractors were invented. Without going into a debate about who was damned more — men or women — the real question here is how we all can work together to decrease the number of abortions in our country.
If you want to end abortions, begin with the issue of birth control. The right to have an abortion, the right to choose what is best for our bodies, never should be dictated by government policy, Supreme Court rulings or self-righteous religious regulations. And yet, we live in a country where women have had to fight for agency over their own bodies, birth control being one of the biggest issues.
Side note on abstinence: Not having sex is not a contraceptive. For that matter, the demand for abstinence has been a scare tactic by the church rooted in the purity, power and grotesque manipulation of the soul that keeps all children of God from living healthy, safe and sexual lives in their God-given bodies. Actual birth control such as condoms, pills, implants and other surgeries not only cost money, but the female body often pays the highest price.
“If you want to end abortions, begin with the issue of birth control.”
Last week, I had a form of birth control removed from my body. It is a relatively new option for women that implants a small spaghetti stick of sorts in your arm. The birth control works against unwanted pregnancy, but for some women like me the side effects come at a higher cost to the body and mental health. I called my mom the moment I left the doctor’s office and informed her that I had it removed. She asked why, with the slight delight of grandmother. I quickly explained that I couldn’t stand the side effects any longer.
She encouraged me and told me I was brave — before she proceeded to unearth her own horror stories of birth control back in the 1980s and ’90s. Praise Baby Jesus, birth control has come a long way throughout the decades and throughout the centuries.
In the ancient and Medieval days of civilization there were tribes, villages and communities of people who had wise women with medicinal knowledge that got passed down through generations — wise women who cared for both women and men when it came to birth control and pregnancy. These primitive physicians were labeled witches, midwives and healers. They used herbs to ease menstrual cramps. Condoms were made from animal intestines. They healed the body, held the burden of births, miscarriages and abortions, while protecting the birth rites of everyone in community. Check out Exodus 1 for a powerful story of midwives protecting birth rites when the government passed a violent law on birth control.
Conversations about pregnancy and abortions have been going on since before ancient Egypt. And yet, even in the 21st century, barbaric practices around birth control continue to leave women and their bodies at the bottom of the pyramid scheme. The church cannot be silent on these matters — for the sake of women’s health and for the sake of empowering men to find their role and responsibility on reproduction. Women and men can carry the burden of reproduction rights together. Church leaders must find common ground concerning everybody’s body by acknowledging that humans are created to embrace one another in loving relationships that promote everyone’s health and wholeness in a holy way.
Let’s begin again at the beginning when God said, “Let us create them in our image. We created them and they are good.”
Erica Whitaker serves as associate director of Baptist Seminary of Kentucky’s Institute for Black Church Studies. She lives with her husband, Josh, in Louisville, where she previously served as pastor of Buechel Park Baptist Church. Erica is a Baptist News Global and board member. She holds an undergraduate degree from the University of North Texas and a master of divinity degree from Baylor University’s George W. Truett Seminary. She is currently writing a dissertation for a doctor of philosophy degree at International Baptist Theological Study Centre in Amsterdam.
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