Abortion and Pastoral Care Ministry: What do we need to know about the community in which women make abortion decisions PDF Print E-mail

Posted May 29, 2002

Terry Schlossberg
Edited version of presentation at Princeton Theological Seminary
April 11, 2002

Read: Psalm 145:8-9,13b-20a (RSV)

The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The LORD I good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.
The LORD is faithful in all his words, and gracious in all his deeds.
The LORD upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down.
The eyes of all look to thee, and thou givest them their food in due season.
Thou openest thy hand, thou satisfiest the desire of every living thing.
The LORD is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings.
The LORD is near to all who call upon him, to all who call upon him in truth.
He fulfills the desire of all who fear him, he also hears their cry, and saves them.
The LORD preserves all who love him.

There are roughly 1.3 million induced abortions recorded every year in the U.S. Some observers of the abortion debates over the past several decades note that while the great legislative and ideological conflicts rage in the culture and in the church, 4000 women are making decisions to have abortions every day. Nearly 50% of those women have already had at least one abortion. That makes it obvious that there isn't a single congregation in our country that is untouched by abortion decisions.

No reasonable person doubts the reality that someone's child dies in every abortion. That means there are spiritual consequences that go well beyond the discussion of rights and for which the discussion of rights is irrelevant.

The church has been guilty of allowing itself to be led and dominated by the public policy debates. As a mainline denomination, like all the rest, we've adopted policy statements at our General Assembly. We employ a Washington Office staff that lobbies Congress against any restrictions on abortion. We have organizations related to our denomination that support abortion rights with arguments that ostensibly are meant to represent what pregnant women want or need. But the reality of abortion isn't in any of those places. And the public representation of women's needs is often very different from the actual experience of most women who have the abortions.

It was author Frederica Mathewes-Green who wrote several years ago that "No woman wants an abortion as she wants an ice-cream cone or a Porche. She wants an abortion as an animal, caught in a trap, wants to gnaw off its own leg." Mathewes-Green says she was surprised by universal affirmation of her statement. It was not only repeated by pro-life people. It was the quote of the week in Planned Parenthood's Public Affairs Action Letter. When Isabel Rogers, who is a staunch supporter of abortion rights, was running for moderator of the Presbyterian General Assembly, she said she didn't know anybody who thought abortion was a good thing. It seems clear that whatever we believe about legally preserving a woman's right to choose abortion, nobody regards abortion as a decision to celebrate, or an act to which God gives his blessing.

Mathewes-Green found it curious that so many people would advocate for something they believe is, at best, a necessary evil--something that results in the desperate act of killing our own offspring. So, with the support of a couple of foundations to do some investigating, she developed a survey form and conducted hundreds of interviews around the country with women who had had abortions. She duplicated questions that Planned Parenthood uses in their surveys, added some additional questions, and then conducted personal interviews in a number of group settings around the country. She published her findings and analysis in a book called Real Choices.

I'm going to read to you from the list of the reasons women gave for having their abortions. This is in ranked order, the most frequently given answers are at the top. I'll begin with the top three reasons: 1. Adoption appears too difficult (practically or emotionally); 2. husband or partner is absent, undependable, or insufficiently supportive; 3. woman says she can't afford a baby now. Those are the top three. Matthewes-Green goes on to list another 24 reasons. Her research showed that the reasons least often given are 1. Fetus has a possible health problem; 2. woman was a victim of rape or incest; 3. woman herself is tempted to batter or abuse.

Mathews-Green noticed that the highest ranking reasons given had nothing to do with conditions of the pregnancy itself; they were related to anticipated conditions at birth. In only a few cases was abortion chosen because of an immediate pregnancy condition.

…most women don't choose abortion because they lack some service or material goods. They choose abortion mostly out of an unmet need for a supportive relationship.

Mathewes-Green pursued in her interviews the reasons most commonly given by women in her interviews, and says she found the unspoken reason behind the articulated reasons women gave. She thinks that what she uncovered ought to help those who want to support women in unplanned pregnancies. Her basic conclusion was that most women don't choose abortion because they lack some service or material goods. They choose abortion mostly out of an unmet need for a supportive relationship. In the words of one of her respondents, "Honey, what I need is a man."

Indeed, pregnancy works best in a family--the design God has for pregnancies--where the most basic support system for the mother and baby is the father, but which can include a host of other relatives. Most pregnancies that end in abortion are lonely affairs and you can hear in the reasons women give the expressions of loneliness, abandonment, isolation, inadequacy, apprehension. Most of the decisions are relationship based.

Here is one testimony published in Gear Magazine in March 2001:

She was 10 weeks pregnant when we found out....Two days later she went for a sonogram, kept the printout--a radar smudge, fetus already with arms and eyes and a heart beating....She wanted her child, but everyone was against her--me, her parents, her friends, the abortion counselor with the big oak desk and red carpet. She never stood up and said it: I want my child.

In the cab home [after the abortion], we said nothing and sat at opposite sides of the car....I asked her if she was all right. She told me to go away.

After that, there was no more dialogue for many months, for she was in mourning....

It was the end of something between us--on her side, it had killed off trust and a lot of hope, and on my side, all I felt was her resentment and bitterness and it pushed me away.

Attorney Thomas Strahan has followed the research on abortion since the early 1970s when Roe v. Wade was decided. He has recently released the third edition of a book called Detrimental Effects of Abortion: An Annotated Bibliography With Commentary. His work is the result of examining hundreds of studies conducted reported in such standard research journals as the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, The Lancet, Military Medicine, the Journal of Pediatrics, and the American Journal of Psychiatry.

At the top of his list, too, is the effect of abortion on relationships. According to the research, he says, abortions tend toward an increase in break ups in relationships, sexual dysfunction, communication problems and increased isolation.

The research shows that women who have an abortion are approximately four times more likely to have a second or third abortion compared with women who have never had an abortion. And among women who have repeat abortions, there is a higher rate of suicide attempts than among women who have had only one abortion. A recent Finnish study found the incidence of suicide in women following induced abortion is six times higher than suicide following childbirth.

Strahan's work also reveals that abortion makes a substantial contribution to reproductive complications in subsequent pregnancies including low birth weight, risk of handicapping conditions in the baby, and increased maternal death.

A new study published in the British Medical Journal found that women who abort a first pregnancy have a significantly greater risk of subsequent long term clinical depression compared to women who carry an unintended pregnancy to term.

Women who think abortion will improve their lives and relieve an immediate trauma often are surprised by the aftereffects that no one warned them about.

The work that has been done shows significant negative physical but especially psychological effects from abortion. Women who think abortion will improve their lives and relieve an immediate trauma often are surprised by the aftereffects that no one warned them about. Presbyterian Kathy Banaszak tells her story about a relationship that led to pregnancy just as she was accepted into law school. Her lover left the decision in her hands. She says she had no one to turn to but felt she could not face a pregnancy at that point in her life. She made the appointment and describes herself as numb throughout the experience and afterwards. She also says she felt intense relief. But she was surprised that she could not shake the guilt of her decision. Her relationship ended shortly thereafter and she never entered law school. Finally, years later, she found forgiveness and peace in encountering Jesus Christ. She didn't know as she struggled with the abortion decision that she would be living with it for the rest of her life. But she also did not know when she made the decision about the richness of the mercy of God and the miraculous healing available through Christ.

Abortion ranks with the many destructive behaviors of our modern culture that the church has a life-giving and life-transforming answer to in Jesus Christ.

None of the research I've reported deals directly with the spiritual effects of abortion on men and women, who give assent to the death of their own children. But we in the church ought to be concerned about all of these effects. We ought to be in a vigorous search for how to help women find healthier physical, emotional, and spiritual solutions to problem pregnancies. Abortion ranks with the many destructive behaviors of our modern culture that the church has a life-giving and life-transforming answer to in Jesus Christ.

This is an area of ministry where the church has not distinguished itself. We have been too content to allow debates with abstract arguments substitute for pastoral ministry.

You represent a new generation in the church and a new opportunity to tackle issues as tough as this: to apply the Gospel to the problem of abortion in the lives of women--and men--in our culture and in the pews and the youth groups of our churches.

…stop affirming abortion as a good decision…

You represent a fresh opportunity for the church to take the hard road to helping. We are going to have to care enough to be clear about what God has revealed to us in Scripture about abortion because that has to be the moral framework in which we do our pastoral care ministry. And we are going to have to do much better at initiating relationships with the grace that abounds in Jesus Christ. James 2 is a reminder that our faith has to be manifest in the most practical of actions. It tells us that if a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food and one of us says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled," without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So, it is living out the radical caring of Jesus, in engaging the lives of those around us in need, that we show our love for each other. The very first step we need to take as the Body of Christ in response to abortion is to stop affirming abortion as a good decision when we know it is not, and second to stop telling ourselves that because a woman has a right to make that decision, we must leave her alone.

…go there where she is and walk alongside her and give her the support she needs…

Rather, we must learn to do the opposite. We must go there where she is and walk alongside her and give her the support she needs to make difficult decisions that ultimately bring blessing.

The decision to continue an unintended pregnancy is not an easy choice, but the long term benefits greatly outweigh the temporary obstacles. We have to start asking what is required of us in these circumstances. Here's one story told to me recently in an email message from a Presbyterian woman in Blountville, Tennessee:

Not long ago, I was at a restaurant with friends and the waitress kept glancing over at me and finally blurted out that I had counseled her years ago when she came to our center pregnant, seeking an abortion. She said that our ministry made a commitment to stand beside her through thick and thin, so she decided to keep her baby and that baby son was now 16 years old and the light of her life. Through tears, she thanked me over and over. I could not respond very well because of my own overflow. Of course I remembered her case well but did not want to violate her privacy in front of my friends, strangers to her. She was a high school girl who lived with her very strict grandfather and she was scared to death to tell him she was pregnant because he was a terrible racist and the baby's father was black.

Once she decided not to abort, she said she needed help/protection while telling Granddad. She and I drove up into the remote countryside to an old dilapidated farmhouse and he sat rocking on the front porch, overall clad. I wasn't sure whose heart beat more frantically, hers or mine. As we approached, he stopped rocking and eyed us both with suspicion and ill-temper.

I graciously launched into what was one of the more difficult conversations of my life. Predictable, he ran the gamut on reactions/emotions: disbelief, anger and ultimately resignation to her plight. He agreed to let her stay there but swore he would never touch the "nigger" baby she would deliver. But, grandpa's are grandpa's the world over and that little fella eventually became the apple of his eye, too.

If Isabel Rogers was right, and nobody thinks abortion is a good decision, then let us start to ask the questions about what we can do to help women find their way to better decisions.

It is our calling to be God's instruments of his righteous compassion and goodness toward those who are in need. The women among us who daily face decisions about their unborn babies need to find in us the visible evidence of what the Psalm I read at the beginning promises: The Lord is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings, and near to all who call upon him, fulfilling their desires, hearing their cries, and saving them.



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