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Father Knows Best: Is there ever a time that abortion is ethical?


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By Martin Elfert

Hey Rev!

Is there ever a time that abortion is ethical?


House-ad_SPO_FKB_new_0429135Dear Alex:

There are certain questions that are all but impossible to encounter as abstractions. It is hard to meaningfully talk about the minimum wage without knowing someone who is working full time (or more than full time) and yet having to choose between food, rent, and heat. It is hard to meaningfully talk about race when your friends, colleagues, family, and acquaintances are overwhelmingly white. It is hard to meaningfully talk about hunger when you are perpetually well fed. It is hard to meaningfully talk about addiction without knowing someone who is just desperate to get sober.

And it is hard to meaningfully talk about abortion without knowing a woman who is faced with a disastrous pregnancy.

When I think of the several women in my life who were faced with such a disastrous pregnancy and who made the decision to terminate it, I notice that the respect, love, and admiration that I feel for my friends are undiminished. Indeed, my respect for my friends might even be deepened by the bravery and integrity that they demonstrated when faced with such a hard choice. (To be clear, I similarly respect and love and admire the several women whom I know who chose to carry an unplanned pregnancies to term.)

I honor my friends’ decisions. And I certainly can’t find a way to use the language of sin – let alone the language of murder – to describe their actions or the actions of the medical professionals who helped them.

Now, none of this is to say, Alex, that I am blasé about abortion. As I have said in this column before, I find all of the arguments which attempt to turn abortion into a morally simply matter profoundly unsatisfactory. I am as unwilling to agree that abortion is simply a medical procedure as I am to agree that abortion is always wrong. (“Simply” and “always” belong in a linguistic pantheon with “of course” and “obviously”: when you hear these words or words like them, there is a good chance that you are about to hear an oversimplification or a superficiality.)

Sometimes in life, we find ourselves in broken circumstances, in circumstances in which there is no “great” choice. The best you can do in those circumstances is to make the choice that sucks the least. A couple makes such a choice when they name out loud the reality that their marriage has died: it sucks less for them to choose divorce than to continue trying to live in their marriage’s tomb. And a woman makes such a choice with an abortion: it’s virtually never what that woman wants, it comes out of pain, it is deeply disorienting. And it may be the very best thing to do.

Sometimes, abortion sucks less than continuing with a disastrous pregnancy. But it still sucks.

I wish that my friends had not been faced with the broken circumstance of an unplanned pregnancy. I wish that they had not been faced with such an unwelcome choice. I long for a day when such a dilemma is rare and, therefore, when abortion is rare. And I believe, Alex, that such a day can and will come.

There are lots of ways that you and I can help to bring that day nearer. But because this particular not-for-profit has been so beleaguered lately, I’m going to suggest just one:

Those of us who hope to make abortions into something unusual would do well to admit that one of our primary allies in this struggle is Planned Parenthood.

If you and I want fewer unplanned pregnancies and, therefore, fewer abortions, then it is a logical necessity that you and I support comprehensive and comprehensive sex education. Substantial research tells us that abstinence-only education is, at best, useless and that, in many ways, is an example of what the social psychologist Timothy D. Wilson calls “bloodletting” (i.e., it is a well-intentioned program that is actually destructive). The jury isn’t out on this question. Sex-literate people make better, safer, and smarter decisions. And reliable contraception, when it is made available affordably, universally, and without shame or hassle, is highly effective at reducing unplanned pregnancies.

Few or no institutions are better at sex education and contraception than Planned Parenthood. That means that Planned Parenthood (and let me give credit where it’s due: I first heard this pointed out by Dan Savage) is one of the largest single preventers of abortions in our country.

So, Alex, go write Planned Parenthood a check. Go be a part of bringing the day a little closer when few women will have to wrestle with the disaster of an unplanned pregnancy and, therefore, when abortion will be rare. And in the meantime, hold onto the promise that God is making all things new. Hold onto the promise that, much as God can transform divorce into contentment and joy and meaning, so too can God turn abortion into health and possibility and freedom and life.

Martin Elfert
Martin Elfert
The Rev. Martin Elfert is an immigrant to the Christian faith. After the birth of his first child, he began to wonder about the ways in which God was at work in his life and in the world. In response to this wondering, he joined Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he and his new son were baptized at the Easter Vigil in 2005 and where the community encouraged him to seek ordination. Martin served on the staff of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane, Wash. from 2011-2015. He is now the rector of Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Portland, Oreg.

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8 years ago

I appreciate this post a lot. We are so quick to judge women in circumstances we cannot fathom, when what those women need most is compassion. The folks at Planned Parenthood provide that compassion, along with a whole host of preventative services, while protesters claiming to represent Christ threaten and degrade clinic workers and patients.

Abortion is never an easy choice, but for many women and in many situations, it’s the right choice.

Brad Thompson
Brad Thompson
8 years ago

Definitely a good prescription, but I urge you to take it even farther. If we want to reduce/eliminate abortions, we need to address the root causes. And while unintended pregnancy is a big part of it, there’s a lot more that we can do. We need to guarante that having a child doesn’t mean losing your job, that every parent has not only family leave but access to childcare and telecommuting options so no one is forced to drop out of the work force just because they have children. There’s so much to be done, and we can do so much better.

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