Learning from Success

I don’t say this too often, but it’s a proud day to be a UU. This denomination — I say this as a historian who swims in footnotes — can be proud of its courageous and consistent witness for honesty in sexuality and equality in relationships. And to my many sisters and brothers who can only gaze in envy at those of us who enjoy fully equal relationships, I promise not to say, “We’re done here,” but to give you support and encouragement as you struggle, each in your own lonely outpost, toward this finish line.

But this is only one of the campaigns this denomination has engaged on behalf of honesty in sexuality and love in all relationships, and it behooves us to pause in admiration of the lone Lone Star legislator who stood up — literally — for more than thirteen hours on behalf of a woman’s right to choose, if she deems it necessary, to safely and legally terminate a pregnancy.

How can we bring the lessons of success to this more difficult issue?

1) First, admit it really is more difficult. When a couple choose to marry, they affect no one who doesn’t choose to pay attention. Even their parents — who in most cultures assume it is their right to dictate the lineage and religion of their grandchildren — actually only believe this. It is not a biological fact.

But to terminate a pregnancy is indeed to rob an incipient person of their very life. Yes, it’s true. From those first weird flashes of nausea and encroaching emotional intensity, two bodies are fighting for the same territory, and both of them know it. So while love may be enough of a reason for two people to marry, the decision to terminate a pregnancy is a sad one, a reasoned one, and yes, a source of sadness. If, as is now is for the majority of women making this choice, poverty is what drives the decision, anger, too, is a natural reaction. There is no such thing as “Happy Roe v. Wade Day,” as one insensitive (male) once wrote. And the right to choose is not a joyous step forward for any of us: it’s a last resort in a toolbox of major importance to everyone who uses it.

2) We need to separate the civil and the religious interests in these tough situations. As private citizens, we may strongly support the right to choose an abortion, but as a religion, we need to speak openly about how we expect individuals and families to make these decisions. We need to state that for some people, as impossible as it seems at first, completing an unplanned pregnancy might be the best decision. For women of my generation, this brings up painful memories of clearly imaginary propaganda disseminated to us in the twilight of whatever we call the era that stretched from V-E Day to 22 November 1963. Those films and tv shows of teenage girls tempted to rebel but turned into happy suburban mothers by the smooth progression from adolescent babysitting to parties in well-chosen colleges. How we shuddered. But I know people now for whom all that turned out to be the truth. And I know women who delight in recovering contact with children they gave up for adoption, even as I know women who rejoice in children they raised without spousal support. I know fathers who delight in children they didn’t think they were having. Kudos to all of you. Let the diversity of your stories be our new theological touchstone.

3) But being a religion means more than opening up the airwaves.  Part of the support for legal abortion, especially back when contraceptives were somewhat less reliable or accessible, came from parents with strong alternative visions of young adult achievements. Internships, professional degrees and associations, publications and organizations brought to fulfillment as part of learning how to parent. And we have sacralized NONE of this. We have no blessing for a first apartment, even though signing the first lease is for many young adults a milestone of unparalleled importance. How many couples have, somewhere in the basement or attic, a beat-up couch that someone has schlepped through every housing upgrade as a reminder of that first nest? We have nothing for the first college break when the offspring brings home the guest that everyone hopes — believes — “might be the one.” Nor have we anything for that couple, as they meet each other’s families for the first time. No pastoral care. No liturgical care. They might say something in Joys and Sorrows, right after the rejoicing for fresh snow or sorrow about somebody else’s civil war. Trust me: even the people fighting those civil wars are only trying to set up a system in which their children can bring home aspiring fiancees. When we present these alternatives to parenthood as part of full human and spiritual development, it provides some context, some alternative explanation, for folks who wonder why a woman or couple would want to terminate a pregnancy.

Today’s victory in the Supreme Court began with a combination of public outrage and private outing.  It is said that nowadays everyone knows someone in a happy, healthy same sex committed relationship. Or they love a young person for whom they hope this will be their future.  It is time to remember that the other tough issue is called “Freedom to Choose,” and to firmly shift our public presentation from the “right to an abortion” to “how we help someone figure out whether abortion is right for her right now.”



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