I have borrowed this title from Alexander Pope and his Essay on Criticism; he and I both know dangerous ground when we see it.
…fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
Distrustful sense with modest caution speaks,
It still looks home, and short excursions makes;
But rattling nonsense in full volleys breaks.
Sense and Nonsense are as prevalent now as when Pope penned these words 300 years ago. And still we fools who comment on the world around us either use words “with modest caution” or our words throw caution to the wind. In this essay, I’m aiming to offer a tiny effort of “distrustful sense.” I want to be careful with my words rather than reckless in a public dialogue that too often rattles with rushing non-sense: our conversation about abortion. Where angels fear to tread.
Let me say clearly: I am pro life.
But let me also say: that may not mean what you think it means.
I love life: the goodness, the beauty, the resilience of it. I love the infinite variety, the unsearchable mystery, the faith-love-hope of it. And I hate whatever steals life, subverts or perverts life. I hate whatever sucks life out of us to make us fragile and fearful and small. “Pro Life” for me is much larger than a bumper sticker; it is a joyful passion that seeps into my religion and my politics and all my different relationships with all kinds of people.
Years ago, as a young mother shaped by a conservative Christian ethic, I volunteered in a crisis pregnancy center, encouraging women to continue their pregnancies instead of choosing abortion. As I came to understand the challenges they faced, I worked with a childbirth educator friend to create a prenatal clinic for uninsured women in our county. All of us – doctors, nurses, friends – volunteered to support these women as best we could as they carried this precious spark of life within them.
Years later, as the mother of a teen daughter, I saw the challenges women face from a wider angle. If my child became pregnant and if that pregnancy, for whatever reason, was a circumstance that stole her life away from her, then I realized I would choose the wholeness of her life over any other potential life. When my daughter was approaching adulthood, safe and legal abortions were widely available in our nation, and I was very grateful to know we could make that decision if we needed to without her being considered a criminal or without having distant politicians impose themselves into our personal situation. I would grieve, yes. We would struggle, yes. And we would choose life: her life.
A friend who made the choice for abortion years ago commented how grateful she was for the safety, the privacy and the freedom to make that decision. As a single mom with two small children on a tight budget, she knew well she was choosing the lives of these precious ones over the possibilities of another one. Was it a challenging choice? Yes. Does she regret it? No. She chose life: her family’s life.
Before I became a minister, I was a nurse. I listened to fetal heartbeats in our volunteer prenatal clinic. I watched babies emerge from the womb. I held them as they took some of their earliest breaths. I love life. I love the unsearchable mystery of it.
Since I’ve been a minister and a chaplain, I’ve stood by the bed of a new mother as she took her last breaths and said goodbye to her newborn. I’ve agonized with parents who struggled with their decision to end the spark of life in one fetus in order to choose life for the other. I’ve cried with women who lost the dream of a child they had desperately wanted and I’ve cried with women who found themselves responsible for a child they never wanted and were ill prepared to care for. I’ve seen what happens to these children when Child Protective Services removes them from parents who never should have had children in the first place.
Sometimes choosing life is deeply complicated. There is nothing black and white about the decisions women make, parents make; the choices go far beyond bumper sticker solutions made into laws. This is life: complex and good and resilient.
And I love what Sister Joan Chittister says:
I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.
I believe abortions are sometimes pro-life.
I believe laws that appropriately regulate abortion providers and provide for contraception and education are pro-life.
I believe laws that appropriately regulate gun ownership and lessen gun violence are pro-life.
I believe laws that provide access to health care, good food, quality education and a safe environment are pro-life.
I believe dismantling the racism that is institutionalized in our laws and entrenched in our hearts is pro-life.
I believe peace accords are pro-life.
I believe it is possible for us to find our way in this messy abortion debate if we will seek a middle path beyond the “rattling nonsense” of extremes on all sides; if we will stop cramming profound discussions into small, black and white boxes; if we will embrace the wide wholeness of what it truly means to be “pro life.”
After all, life is what we all are after.
Life with its infinite variety.
Life with its ever present faith-love-hope.
Life with its unsearchable mystery…
Mystery “where angels fear to tread…
but where we find ourselves nonetheless.
So I say, let’s rush in like fools to live our lives with joy and passion and purpose. Let’s seek ways to help all our neighbors live with joy and purpose as well. Let’s stop our foolish rushing to define how other people should live their lives and pay attention instead to our own choices; to our own business of living well – living with grace and gratitude. Living with humility and hope.
I’m well prepared for the critiques that are bound to follow this essay and so if you think good sense is lacking, I beg patience based on good intentions. As our friend Alexander Pope reminds:
Good-Nature and Good-Sense must ever join;
To err is Human; to Forgive, Divine.
Find an interesting article in The Guardian analyzing Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism.
See here a blog by Ann Voskamp, another essay that raises some of the same issues, struggles with a middle way and comes to a different conclusion than I do. Healthy helpful conversation requires that we give each other a respectful, open minded hearing.
Charlotte Vaughan Coyle lives in Paris TX and blogs about intersections of faith and politics. She frequently shares her thoughts with Coffee Party USA as a regular volunteer.