Recently, Texas promulgated a regulation that requires burial for aborted fetuses. And as we go to publication, we have learned that the Ohio Legislature has adopted a prohibition on abortion as soon as a fetal heartbeat can be detected–as soon as six weeks after conception (no word if the bill will be signed by Governor Kasich). This has made Robin and I both consider that, in the midst of talking about sex, bodies, sexuality, reproduction, etc., we have not talked at all about abortion.
For the longest time, I believed that everyone around me- obviously- believed in a woman’s right to choose whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term. One day, I was sitting in the car with my birth mother, and we were talking about (among other things) the death penalty. I mentioned that I was against the death penalty because I didn’t believe that the state had the right to punish someone through taking their life. My mother then asked where I stood on abortion and, without thinking twice, stated that I was pro-choice. She responded, “So you’re against killing people who deserve it but for killing people who don’t?”
This is the first time that it occurred to me that there were people in my life that might not be pro-choice. I was flabbergasted and felt (and still feel) that the argument she made was a false analogy (involving a divergent definition of “life,” as well as the concept of “deserve to die,” something that I believe no person is able to decide for another person).
Growing up in MCC, abortion wasn’t something that was often discussed in my church. I maintained my pro-choice stance, but felt that abortion wasn’t something that was as relevant to our church as other worship spaces. We were a predominantly queer church, so many of the couples that were pregnant had gone through expensive medical procedures to conceive, and abortion wasn’t on anyone’s mind. We also didn’t have a lot of teenagers and younger folks, so our youth ministry wasn’t as focused on things like sex ed and contraception (although I did receive the best queer safer sex talk of my life from a person I met through the church. They sat me down with gloves, a dental dam, and a pint of ice cream and didn’t mince words on the importance of protection and safer sex practices.)
In my life, I have always been pro-choice. I think abortion is a tragic reality that should be a whole lot more rare than it is now, but without proper sex education and access to contraceptives, abortion continues to be the most well-known (if controversial) method of not having a child.
Pro-choice, to me, does not mean “pro-abortion.” It means the ability for each person to make the decision that is best for their body, circumstances, and beliefs. It has been my belief, for example, that I could never choose to have an abortion. I have (for the most part) always known that I wanted kids, and my sex life has not been such that I have been in many situations that could have resulted in my pregnancy. I thought, therefore, that if ever I found myself pregnant, I would, of course, keep the child and raise it.
But an interesting thing happened two summers ago. I had gone to a kink event and ended up in a situation in which I had sex with multiple people in a short span of time, the majority of which had anatomy that could result in my getting pregnant. I used protection and, while I had some complicated feelings about the situation, all was well.
Until my period was late. A couple of days and then a week or so. I started to panic. I didn’t want to be pregnant from that situation. This wasn’t just a one-night stand situation… this was multiple people in a gangbang-style situation. I had used protection; my partner was there the entire time and helped make sure that everyone wore condoms. I recall sitting on my back porch, freaking out, talking to my partner and chain smoking, feeling immensely guilty but not sure what else to do.
“Maybe I should have an abortion,” I said, and I couldn’t believe I was saying the words. Me, who never thought I would consider that an option. Me, who was very strongly pro-choice, and I felt the shift as my choices began to change. I took a pregnancy test a couple days later, and it came back negative. The next day, my period started, and all was well.
But something in me changed during this situation. Something in me realized that there were situations that I would consider that as an option, something I never thought would be true. Something in me realized the importance of going through that situation and being faced with the reality of a choice- although I wasn’t pregnant, I had to grapple with many of the same feelings as people do when the do find themselves unexpectedly pregnant.
The reality is, of course, that this is all about choice. It’s all about
recognizing a person’s bodily autonomy. This is the crucial point: for so long, people have tried to legislate and codify what people are allowed to do with their own bodies- sex work, what types of sex people can have, what types of relationships people can have, how certain genders are expected to present themselves, what types of hairstyles are considered professional. So much of this comes down to the idea that there is an inherent “right” and “wrong”- and how interesting that the “right” answer is so often white, hetero-centric, and male-determined.
Pro-choice is not about “pro-abortion.” It’s about the fundamental belief in another person’s bodily autonomy. And laws like the ones we are seeing in Texas usurp the ability of a person to make the best choice for themselves by making one option significantly more painful than it already is (and trust me, the decision to have an abortion is not an easy one for most people). Pro-choice is the belief in a person’s God-given right to be, and celebrate, who they are, free from interference or discrimination from others.
I am still pro-choice. I am pro-people’s abilities to make choices about
their own bodies. I am pro- people decided what kinds of sex they want to have (and don’t want to have). I’m pro- people deciding whether sex is something they want to trade as labor for income. I am pro- people deciding what kinds of clothes, makeup, and presentation they want to have today, regardless of their genital configuration. I am pro- all kinds of hairstyles in the workplace- including locs, braids, and ‘fros. And I am pro- people deciding whether this is the time, situation, and circumstance to carry a child to term.
What an easy way to generate a heated debate or silence—perhaps on occasion a thoughtful discussion.
I am a committed feminist, a committed male-identified feminist. My default position, in the current lingo, is pro-choice. That is in line with my own commitment to supporting and safeguarding the innate and lifelong integrity of every human body.
At the same time, I am aware all the public statements and political positions in the world do not fully address the complex issues and experiences—physical, emotional, spiritual, and social—connected to making an individual choice about pregnancy and reproductive health.
For example, in 1974 my new wife, Judy, and I went to a clinic for her to have an abortion. This was about a year after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in Roe v. Wade. We had engaged in pre-marital sex, she became pregnant despite my using a condom, and she became pregnant. We were scared—she was a school teacher in our small town, and I had been a local official—and decided to seek an abortion. We told people our honeymoon in Bermuda would be for about 10 days, but we arranged to return home several days early so we could keep an appointment at the clinic in a nearby city. Fortunately, she was not so far along at the time of our wedding to be noticeable.
Times have changed, yes. The fear, and shame, we felt forty years ago are not so prevalent today. But even now having an abortion is not something women generally announce on Facebook.
Like many things that are complicated, and involve sex and bodies, most of us—the women actually undergoing the procedure plus the men involved and other family members and friends—tend toward privacy. So often, there is deep pain involved, a real sense of loss and perhaps even failure.
There also is awareness that others may not approve, or even be angry. The division within the United States over abortion is acute, and the edges feel very hard.
Driving by a Roman Catholic Church, as I do often, one sees a sign, “Pray to End Abortion.” Sometimes a sign promoting an adoption program is nearby as well.
When we lived in Richmond, VA, my daily route to and from church took me by a family planning clinic. Twice each week, on Tuesdays and Saturdays, there were protesters, including children, with signs and flyers. I cannot imagine how hard it was for women and their allies to traverse the gauntlet to get to their appointment (whether for an abortion or not).
All of this campaigning against abortion is legal and is an exercise of constitutionally protected speech. But, as is so often the case with religion, especially Christianity, bodies—women’s bodies most of all—are missing.
And when women’s bodies are missing, women’s moral agency is missing. The authority of women to determine what goes into and what comes out of their bodies is central to their well-being. This is true of men as well, of course, but the specifics are different. Plus, men, as men, especially white heterosexually-oriented men, have not suffered so directly from patriarchal oppression.
As my former ethics teacher, the late Beverly Wildung Harrison, wrote in 1983, “a woman denied access to an abortion she wants is, de facto, compelled to childbearing against her will (Our Right to Choose: Toward a New Ethic of Abortion, Beacon Press; emphasis in original). This simple fact remains just as true today.
That others view abortion as always homicide does not negate, in my view, the imposition of bodily violation against the pregnant woman. Indeed, this insistence on valuing the fetus more than the woman is yet another iteration of the patriarchal subjugation of women. It is no accident that the primary religious advocates for the anti-abortion position are part of Christian communities that do not allow women to exercise all leadership roles and often insist on relegating women to one particular set of social roles—wife and mother, and homemaker.
That the decision to abort a fetus can be fraught with anxiety and deep internal conflict is not an argument to abolish the right. It is, like unpopular free speech, precisely the opposite. If we only protect popular speech, we no longer have free speech. Now, in Texas, state regulations will begin requiring burial or cremation of fetal remains—a practice which clearly seems to be an effort to shame women and medical practitioners who participate in aborting a fetus (click here for more). The legislatures of Indiana and Louisiana have passed similar laws but the regulations to carry out the law are tied up in litigation (Indiana’s law was signed by Governor, and now Vice-President-elect, Mike Pence).
Women must have the right to control their own bodies. In fact, I contend that the right to engage in embodied activity, so long as it does not violate the body of another person, is a form of free speech. This certainly applies to sexual activity, and it logically applies to that which arises from such activity.
There is a theological thread here of immense importance—and it is the integrity of the human bodies created in God’s image. My own religious movement, Metropolitan Community Churches, is clear about this: “MCC affirms that all people are entitled to the rights and resources that equip them to make their own decisions about their bodies, their sexuality, and their well-being, including the inalienable right of women to control their bodies.” (Click here for the full statement)
Racism, for example, is a denial of this integrity. Some abortion opponents equate support for abortion with slavery or racial discrimination—saying that denial of life to the fetus is at least as egregious.
But it is not the same. Slaves were fully grown humans—including their children—as are those who are victimized by racial prejudice and active discrimination and repression in our own time. Slavery was wrong in that it devalued the personhood, the embodiment of God in the person of its victims.
Justice is always embodied justice. You can tell where justice is missing by how particular bodies, and groups of bodies, are treated. And when it comes to sex, it is no accident that women as a group are second-class citizens (even though men are victims of sexual abuse too). Indeed, Simone de Beauvoir captured this in her 1949 classic, The Second Sex.
Did Judy and I come to regret our decision in 1974? Yes. Did we also know we did the best we could? Yes.
Yet, did she carry a burden to her grave in 2001? Did she and I weep together before she died, of cancer at age 60, because of this? Yes.
Does that mean other women, with the counsel and support of their husbands and lovers, families, friends, clergy—should be denied the right to make their own choice? No. In fact, Judy and I admitted to each other, that were we to face the same situation again, we could not be sure we would not repeat our action. Ultimately, I knew then, as I know now, the decision was hers. And I believe it must always be so for women who bear the fetus and whose health is intimately affected by giving birth and nurturing the child.
Malachi and I are engaged in this blog to encourage a new focus on bodies, sex, and spirit—working to increase awareness that these are not separate categories of existence and human activity but instead divinely ordered and connected. We also know that God gives us the precious gift of sexuality in our bodies in order to bring us closer to each other and to God. When we create hierarchies of value based on humanly defined gender categories and other criteria we deny the God in each, and all, of us.
God gives us the right, and the responsibility, to choose how we live in our bodies. No law, no court, no church, should take that away.
We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!
What do you think influences your sense of your own body, your relationship with your body? And what influences how you see and evaluate the bodies of others? What bodies are most sexy for you? Is your own body sexy for you? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.
Join Us Third Thursdays!
Please join us THURSDAY, December 15th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST/19:00 UTC. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A sidebar chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components. If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.
Sacred, Not Secret, Part 2: Beyond the Norm
We invite you to join us on Thursday, Dec 15th for the second part of the series, “Sacred, Not Secret” where Malachi Grennell and Rev. Dr. Robin H. Gorsline continue to discuss alternative expressions of sexuality and intimacy from a Christian perspective. On December 15, they will begin to explore non-normative relationship structures, focusing on non-monogamous relationships. This one-hour workshop will examine different aspects of non-monogamy, as well as discuss ways that we can be more open and inclusive to non-monogamous families in our churches and communities–because do not doubt that you know and interact with such families, in church and elsewhere.