On August 29, 2021 Hurricane Ida hit as a Category 4 hurricane, tying Hurricane Laura last year as the strongest hurricane to hit Louisiana since the Civil War. As I write this, most of New Orleans is still without power and drinkable water. On September 1 I did a quick survey of the damage, visited some folks, and brought back a friend who needed out. We are definitely at a new normal.
On that same day a new law took effect, one of 666 new laws that took effect September 1 in the State of Texas. Several are particularly troubling. One bans teaching Critical Race Theory (without even naming it). It is bad enough to pretend that racism doesn’t exist. It is the ultimate expression of racism to ban people from talking about it. Another law, Senate Bill 1, claims to address voter fraud, even though there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud. It limits the hours of voting, bans drive-thru voting so helpful in urban areas, and significantly curtails voting by mail. A third law has eliminated the need for a gun permit. Wouldn’t want the government regulating people’s freedom would we? Anyone can now carry a gun in public in Texas, as long as it’s in a holster. No permit necessary. I’ve spoken to law enforcement officers and deputies that are deeply concerned about this law. It makes them less safe and criminal guns more at the ready. You have to have a license to fish, but not carry a gun.
A fourth law is Texas SB 8, the so-called “heartbeat law.” The law prohibits all abortions once a heartbeat is detected (around six weeks). There are no criminal penalties. Instead, private citizens can sue providers for up to $10,000 per violation. “Heartbeat” is misleading. While there is cardiac activity, the fetus has not yet developed a heart. Why is this law problematic? Let’s begin with a look at the ELCA’s 1991 Social Statement on Abortion, a long-standing statement that is 30 years old.
The 11-page social statement, linked above, lays out a theological and ethical framework, while acknowledging differences people have on the issue. People of faith disagree on things. The church is called to be a community of moral deliberation, where we can talk about tough issues. I have tried to summarize the statement in 24 key points and a few bullets:
- God created us and all that exists.
- All of life is a mysterious, awesome gift of God.
- The life of the mother and the life of the child are sacred.
- Human judgements, actions, organizations and practices are distorted by sin.
- Therefore we cannot pretend abuse and violence do not happen.
- We are called to repent and live in forgiveness offered in the cross of Christ.
- We are freed in faith to love one another, to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.
- This church is deeply concerned about the number of abortions. We grieve the loss of life.
- As a church we seek to reduce the need to turn to abortion as the answer to unintended pregnancies.
- We are also moved by the anguish of women who face unwanted pregnancies alone.
- Parenthood is a vocation. This must be taught along with sex education.
- This church, in most circumstances, encourages women with unintended pregnancies to continue the pregnancy.
- This church encourages and seeks to support adoption as a positive option to abortion.
- This church recognizes that there are sound reasons for ending a pregnancy, for example, rape, incest, and when the life of the mother his in jeopardy.
- A woman should not be morally obligated to carry the resulting pregnancy to term in cases of rape or incest.
- In circumstances of extreme fetal abnormality, which will result in severe suffering and very early death of an infant, an abortion may be the morally appropriate choice. That decision is made by the mother, in consultation with doctors, pastors and family.
- This church opposes ending intrauterine life when a fetus is able to live outside the uterus.
- What is legal is not necessarily moral, and what is moral should not necessarily be enacted into law.
- Prevention of unintended pregnancies is crucial in lessening the number of abortions. Contraceptives must be available.
- Many women choose abortion in a desperate attempt to survive in a hostile social environment. In order to affirm the value of life and reduce the number of abor- tions, it is essential for us as a church to work to improve support for life in society.
- The position of this church is that government has a legitimate role in regulating abortion.
- Proposed regulation should not generate problems worse than those it seeks to address.
- In the case of abortion, public policy has a double challenge. One is to be effective in protecting prenatal life. The other is to protect the dignity of women and their freedom to make responsible decisions in difficult situations.
- In its advocacy, this church should exert every effort to see that the needs of those most directly affected, particularly the pregnant woman and the life in her womb, are seriously considered in the political process.
Because of our conviction that both the life of the woman and the life in her womb must be respected by law, this church opposes:
- the total lack of regulation of abortion;
- legislation that would outlaw abortion in all circumstances;
- laws that prevent access to information about all options available to women faced with unintended pregnancies;
- laws that deny access to safe and affordable services for morally justifiable abortions;
- mandatory or coerced abortion or sterilization;
- laws that prevent couples from practicing contraception;
- laws that are primarily intended to harass those contemplating or deciding for an abortion.
The position of this church is that, in cases where the life of the mother is threatened, where pregnancy results from rape or incest, or where the embryo or fetus has lethal abnormalities incompatible with life, abortion prior to viability should not be prohibited by law or by lack of public funding of abortions for low income women. On the other hand, this church supports legislation that prohibits abortions that are performed after the fetus is determined to be viable, except when the mother’s life is threatened or when lethal abnormalities indicate the prospective newborn will die very soon.
After re-reading the ELCA social statement and in light of our new laws in Texas, here are some of my personal reflections.
Social Statements in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are not edicts upon which everyone must agree or that everyone must obey. They represent the range of views, and the consensus of this church, after thoughtful study and deliberation. It is unlikely that every Lutheran will agree with every conclusion.
One point not addressed in the statement is the question of when life begins. There are, of course, many forms of life, from plants and viruses to more complex forms of life. When does human life begin? This is a hotly debated topic. Throughout most of its history, the Christian church taught that life began at birth, not at conception. This was based on the biblical teaching that humans become alive when God breathed into them the breath of life.
Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground,
and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life;
and the man became a living being.
– Genesis 2:7
The story of the dry bones in Ezekiel 37 reinforces this viewpoint. The bones come together, but aren’t alive until God breathes into them the breath of life. Jesus died when he breathed his last breath. My goal is not to give a definitive answer to the question, but raise it as a point of discussion. It wasn’t until recently that Christian Evangelicals began to define the beginning of life at conception.
So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
– Ezekiel 37:7-10
Given this brief summary of a very complex topic, one can see the problems with this new legislation in the State of Texas. While we wish to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and the number of abortions, we recognize that there are morally justifiable reasons for seeking an abortion. This law denies safe and affordable services to women seeking morally justifiable abortions.
Additionally, many women don’t know they are pregnant until they are already six weeks pregnant. A woman may not recognize a missed period for four weeks, and then not get medical confirmation of pregnancy until the six-week mark. This leaves no time to pray, come to thoughtful decisions, and make arrangements before the six weeks. We know that younger women are often afraid and therefore slow to talk about an unwanted pregnancy. Additionally, women who are raped are sometimes in shock and unable to make clear decisions, putting things off while they recover from the trauma.
This law robs women of the ability to make the choice about their own lives and bodies, giving this life choice to the government. We are at risk of living in an Orwellian world where nothing can be done without government consent. Under this law, a woman raped by her father could be forced to carry the baby to term. This is unconscionable. We believe a woman should not be morally obligated to carry a pregnancy to term in cases of rape or incest. To do so is a violation of her rights.
Under this new law, in cases of fetal abnormality or where the life of the mother is in jeopardy, the woman can apply for an exception. Read that again. If her doctors have determined that her life is in jeopardy, she will have to go the court and ask permission to terminate her pregnancy. Good heavens, are we now under Taliban rule? The U.S. was founded by Puritans, and much of the Puritan mindset is still embedded in our way of thinking. We may not be putting witches to death, but the belief in the inferiority and subservience of women seems present in this legislation.
This legislation also invites a kind of vigilantism. Friends, relatives, and religious extremists are encouraged to file lawsuits that become a financial and emotional burden to vulnerable women. It is hard to not see this as an outright attack on women. It is interesting that the legislature has not put out any vigilante reward for rapists. There are no vigilante rewards for unmarried fathers who don’t pay their child support.
Some have pointed out that a woman seeking a morally-justifiable abortion should just leave the state, but many don’t have the means to do so. The law disproportionately affects women of color, poor women, young women, and rural women. This law is discriminatory. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 70% of abortions in Texas in 2019 were provided to women of color.
The number of abortions in the U.S. has been coming down steadily since 1979. During this same time, the population of the U.S. has skyrocketed. Abortions decline most when major efforts and legislation are put in place to address poverty. If we want to continue the trend of declining abortions, if we want to reduce the number of non-essential abortions, we should address the root cause: unwanted pregnancies. This means access to contraceptives and a focus on reducing poverty. This will require establishing a livable wage for all full-time work, and a strong safety net for women in poverty.
We need to make adoption and foster care a high priority. This issue hits close to home for me, for two reasons. First, we adopted. There are hundreds of thousands of children in orphanages around the world. Even here in Texas, there are needs for foster and adoptive parents. In most cases, the State of Texas will support adoptive families financially, and even pay for college. We need to encourage every family to at least consider adopting. The second reasons this hits close to home is that our daughter became pregnant at 18. Despite the challenges, she chose to bring her child into the world. None of this is hypothetical for us. We believe in the sacredness of life, and the dignity of women, which is why this legislation seems particularly misguided and counterproductive. It will make things worse.