"The Spiritual Imperative of Choice"
by the Rev. Krista Taves
January 21, 2007
It is 2 a.m. I am sleeping restlessly in the chaplains on-call room at an inner city hospital in Toronto. It is my night to be available for those unexpected things that happen in the night. But unlike most of my calls as a night chaplain, the call that pierces through my sleep at 2 a.m. is expected.
It began the previous afternoon when I was called to the obstetrics ward. A couple, within one week of the due date of their baby, had come because the baby had stopped moving. An ultra sound revealed that the baby had died. They were preparing to induce labor. I was called in to offer pastoral care to the woman and her husband, and to offer them the option of a naming ceremony once the baby was born. More and more we are realizing that miscarriages and stillbirths require formal recognition, just as we would do with someone who had lived a full life, for these babies are full beings in the eyes of those who lose them.
I was greeted by a nurse who said the couple wanted nothing but to quickly deliver the stillborn and go home. They weren’t calling any family or friends. They wanted this to stay private. So you might wonder why the staff called me? Well, things can change very quickly in these situations. We are usually called in before the woman is induced so that we have a chance to build some trust before the labour begins. That way, if she changes her mind and wants support, she will be more likely to ask for it.
The couple was in a room at the far end of the wing. Women who miscarry are put as far away from the nursery as possible so they don’t have to hear babies crying. It was so quiet. He held her hand. She had her other arm wrapped around her large belly. They looked up suspiciously as I walked in.
“Hello, I’m the chaplain.”
“We don’t want a chaplain.”
“I know. I’m not here to force that on you. I am here to make sure you know your choices.”
“What choices could we possibly have.”
“Well, choices about you want for your baby. You may decide that you would like to have a funeral or memorial. You may want to have a naming ceremony when she’s born You’ve been waiting for your baby, and that isn’t going to happen the way you wanted. But she is still your baby. I’ve brought you a copy of the ceremony I would use, if you wanted it.”
“Thank you. But we really want to be left alone.”
“Alright. I will be here all night if you want me. I can be paged”
Shortly thereafter they induced her. And three hours into labor she changed her mind. She held my hand tightly and said she was so glad I had dared to visit. Would I be there as soon as her baby was born? At 2 a.m. my pager went off. I wiped the sleep from my eyes and made my way back to them. It was a beautiful ceremony. They honored her short life and what she had given them, they named her, and then they prepared to let her go. The moments were tender and raw and love-filled. We were gripped in the power, and the mystery of life, and none of us would ever be the same again.
Now you may be wondering why I am sharing this story with you at a service commemorating the decision of Roe V. Wade which determined that women have the constitutional right to accessible abortion services in this country. This story is not just about a couple losing their baby. It is about the human experience of giving life, growing life, and making decisions about life. It is about how quickly things can change. How what you expected does not come to pass, and what you do with those unexpected, often tragic things that can happen when one is gripped in the power and the mystery of life. It is about having choices when no choice will leave you unchanged.
There is a connection between the woman who wanted her child and lost it, and the woman who decides to terminate a pregnancy. The life giving power of women’s bodies is a deeply personal intimate thing, undefinable by anyone except the woman herself. And yet we can so easily have our power taken from us at exactly the time when we need that power to make decisions about what is best for us and for those we love. What it takes for us to keep our power is a society that deeply values us as women, that deeply honours the life journey in all its manifestations, that deeply reveres the inherent worth and dignity of each person within that interdependent web that we all live in. And that means that when we are talking about reproductive freedom, we are talking about freedom for all of us, because our men cannot be free, and our children cannot be free, when our women are enslaved by their bodies.
At least that is what I believe, and it is what many of you believe as well. Unitarian Universalism has taken a pro-choice position on women’s reproductive choices since the 1960s. Given the strong influence of feminism on our movement, and the theological emphasis on freedom and equality, we have stood firmly behind a woman’s right to choose. Many of us will differ on how we understand abortion. There are those who would not choose it for themselves. However, most of us would be loathe to impose that choice on others or have it imposed through law. So we sit with the diversity, sometimes with discomfort, and simply allow it to be.
Unfortunately, there is a war going on outside of our churches, it’s been gathering steam since Roe v. Wade was handed down in 1973. The goal of that war has been to impose one, and only one meaning for conception, gestation and birth. There is a war going on to force women’s bodies into a father knows best mold with one set of rules that is supposed to govern all. And, all of this is being done in the name of protecting life.
Now I want to honour the intention to protect life. It comes from a well-meaning place. But this well-meaning intention is creating havoc, creating consequences that are hard to ignore. At the state and national levels, legislation is systematically chipping away at the rights set out in Roe v. Wade. Laws that require parental consent for minors regardless of family situation. Legislation outlawing ministers and health care providers from informing underaged women about their choices without parental consent. Permitting hospitals and insurance companies to opt out of providing women with contraceptives and to dispense only selected information regarding reproductive choices. Legal decisions imposing a 24 hour waiting period between first counseling and any abortion procedure. A ban on partial birth abortions that has no clause concerning the health of the mother. Bans on sex education in schools. Attempts at bans on most forms of birth control. Promotion of abstinence only programs rather than offering the full range of safer sex choices.
These anti-family measures are chipping away at the ability to raise healthy families, and of course, they affect poor families and poor women more than anyone else. And it’s not getting any better. There is a real danger that under this Supreme Court Roe v. Wade could be overturned.
It is time for us as liberal religious people to reclaim the moral agenda because those who are controlling it now are damaging this country and its people. And I think that we as Unitarian Universalists are well-placed to do this because our religion, our way of seeing and approaching the world, is a truer way and better reflects the realities of this world than religions that view the world through one lens, one truth.
Now this is not something you usually hear from a Unitarian Universalist pulpit, is it, that we are a better way. In fact, I have to admit, it makes me nervous to say that. We are surrounded by churches claiming to teach the only way, the true way. We are not ones to openly say that what we have is better than another religion. We have been historically quiet about who we are, careful not to become self-righteous for many of us have been wounded by religious righteousness. And yet in our quietness we have allowed ourselves to be marginalized and have often failed to witness to our liberating message of freedom and equality. It is time for us to be very clear about what we stand for because if we don’t, others will do it for us. If we continue to be quiet, we will continue to be branded the religion that stands for nothing, where you can believe anything you want. Then liberal religion becomes synonymous with permissiveness and low moral standards.
But we do stand for something, in fact, we stand for a lot. We stand for freedom and equality and compassion. We stand for all our families. We stand for a world that contains many truths. And for all our acceptance of diversity, this is not a religion where you can believe anything you want. We are called to the free and responsible search for truth and meaning and are accountable for the consequences of our beliefs. This is not a religion for lone rangers. This is a religion for lovers of freedom who are called into webs of accountability like this community, because it is in community that the rubber that hits the road. You figure out which beliefs foster freedom, equality, compassion and responsibility, and which beliefs don’t. This is why I am Unitarian Universalist, and why I think many of you are as well. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t believe that our religion provides a better way to live an ethical life. Unitarians and Universalists have a history of practicing tolerance of religions and beliefs that differ from ours. Our members seem to be able to live within diversity with more flexibility and courage and less anxiety, and have made a real difference in the quality of life in this country.
But sometimes we have allowed our commitment to tolerance derail us from standing for what we believe. In the interests of tolerance and openness, we have abdicated our right to judge. I actually believe that we have a right to judge. In fact, we have a moral imperative to judge when faced with beliefs that are doing real damage.
Now let me be clear here. There is a difference between being judgmental and making judgments. There is a difference between judging beliefs and judging people. Say you’re driving past one of those mega churches, and in front stand lines of people, including little children, holding up images of bloody fetuses. How do you react? My reaction might be self-righteous anger, expressed using a litany of expletives that have no place in a Sunday sermon. My thinking would speed up, restlessly rushing to the place where I make sweeping generalizations about the character of those people. I would also feel fear, and would have absolutely no desire to get anywhere close to them. That’s being judgmental. Those people have been dehumanized, demonized, and dismissed.
Judgment waits out the initial rush of judgmentalism and resists emotional reasoning. It is made slowly and carefully. Judgment is not motivated by anger or fear. It separates ideas and beliefs from personalities. It allows you to hold onto your values, to behave ethically, and to stand firmly for what you believe. When you become judgmental, you have lost the moral high ground. Judgment lets you hold on to it.
I would warrant that many of us have been wounded by judgmentalism, and wounded others with our own judgmentalism. But judgment, when done well, holds the door open and keeps us in relationship with one another. It allows us to hold onto our values of diversity, practice unconditional love, and stand strong. (Terry D. Cooper, Making Judgments Without being Judgmental: Nurturing a Clear Mind and a Generous Heart, Intervarsity Press, 2006)
I wonder what would be possible in the polarized realm of contemporary morality politics, if we practiced judgment rather than judgmentalism. Our liberal religious tradition gives us good tools to practice because judgment needs an engaged heart, an open mind, and the willingness to admit that you might not know everything there is to know. What this means, is that when you pass by that line of protesters, our faith asks us to wait out the anger and fear. We have to be able to love those stand there, or at least entertain the possibility of loving them. Because they are there in fear and anger, and fear and anger are poison, a poison that damages you from the inside out. Proof of the poison lies in the damage being done to women and whole families that are seeing their choices slowly diminish. The anti-abortion agenda poisons not just those they seek to control, it poisons those who push the agenda itself. And that should leave us feeling some compassion.
We need to firmly and lovingly reclaim this nation’s moral values. It is the only way to counter a movement based on fear and anger. We need to firmly and lovingly reclaim what it means to be pro-life and pro-family. All of us have a moral imperative to speak against the violence being done to our families in the name of fundamentalist moralities, and we need to witness to the values of freedom, equality, compassion and responsibility. That is why I hope that we are all being generous with our offertory this month, because Planned Parenthood is in the vanguard of witnessing to those values, and they are increasingly isolated in their struggle because many churches and organizations, wracked with internal divisions, won’t touch them. We need to lend our support to the Missouri Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, because they are providing a religious voice for freedom, providing a dramatically different religious witness which is so desperately needed in this conservative state. My vision of our truly pro-life liberal religious morality sees us reclaiming and reconnecting to the power, the wonder, and the mystery of life.
The couple that lost their baby had choices, even in that difficult time, and so their journey grew richer and deeper. That is pro-family. That is pro-life. Everyone deserves the right to journey on that path.
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Send Questions or Comments to Rev. Taves: Minister@EmersonUUChapel.org