Where Angels Fear to Tread: Some Thoughts on Abortion

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. Perhaps-im-rushing-in-where-angels-fear-to-treadIn 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.

Amen Sister.

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 loving, caring families (all sorts of families with all sorts of orientations) are pro-life.ACE_PEACE5

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. Sarai-Choose-LifeLet’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.

“An Honest Conversation About Abortion that Asks Us Not to Turn Away — from anyone”



25 thoughts on “Where Angels Fear to Tread: Some Thoughts on Abortion

  1. It’s my google search that brings me here searching for adopted cousin with the same name. I’m glad that her mother didn’t choose her death but life..

  2. Charlotte, your post is profoundly eloquent and compassionate, and I am so very grateful. I am a retired nurse practitioner and midwife, and I have such a hard time with people who believe abortion to be a simple, right/wrong issue. They likely have never supported women who have struggled through agonizing, complex decisions on pregnancy, or helped a woman deliver a fetus she knew would soon die, or watched a woman’s face as you told her that the baby she is joyfully carrying has an anomaly that is incompatible with life … or countless other scenarios that make up our diverse human existence. Abortion is anything but easy, anything but simple. Thank you. Thank you so very much.

    1. Thank YOU for your deeply important work Denise and for your compassionate heart. I think you need to write your own blog about some of your experiences; I would love to read your stories and learn from your wisdom. Thanks for reading and thanks for the conversation. Peace…

  3. Thank you so much for being an articulate voice of reason and compassion. I have never read anything so perfectly balanced, and exactly in sync with my thoughts on abortion. I love that everyone’s comments are polite and well-thought out. I could never imagine having an abortion or struggling with that decision, but working as a nurse in a clinic with drug addicts made me understand why sometimes abortion saves lives. I always think that if someone is anti-abortion, then they should ask themselves if they would be willing to take in DCF foster kids, drug-addicted babies, kids with severe mental health issues. There are thousands of these kids and not nearly enough people to care for them. Thanks for writing such an understanding article!

    1. Our human experience is so very complex; it makes no sense to think in black and white dualities about our most challenging issues. Thanks for writing Michele. And thanks for your important work as a nurse! Peace…

    1. Thanks Kristen. This from my political activist pastor friend, Jim Rigby: “Real love is political because politics is the science of how we share, or refuse to share, power. American Christians were able to participate in slavery precisely because they divorced their religious message from the politics of how they were actually treating people. Thus, they were able to pretend they loved black persons without removing their chains. So it is today when religions speak of love, but do not physically work for the liberation of all humankind.” There are many of us. Peace…

      1. Interesting that you brought up slavery. African-Americans were thought of as less than human, as are children in the womb now. The biggest genocide occurring now is against those children with Down’s Syndrome. When it comes down to it, you are denying the humanity of children in the womb. They are not “potential” lives. They are human lives.

        1. I appreciate your passion for life, Jim, but there is no consensus on exactly when the fetus becomes more than a potential life. Both scientifically and theologically, the issue is complex and all of us will do well to remain humble in face of this mystery. You are focusing on the life of the fetus; I respect that but will always insist the life of the fully human mother must be a prior consideration. I agree with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s comment: The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, well-being and dignity. When the government makes that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a full adult human responsible for her own choices.” Thanks for the conversation. Peace…

        2. No less than people already born. Are we more so fixed on the unknowable potential of a person above those who are here? There’s just not an equivalence to slavery here from many other perspectives. We don’t actively kill people to make room for more to be born. Philosophers grapple with such questions in their moral choice problems. Think of Sophie’s Choice, lose both or save one. All I am for is letting that mother make that choice. Maybe one would have chosen for the 3 of them to die together, maybe she could not have made that choice and all would perish without the choosing. In philosophy they say the train is coming down the tracks and you can save the one trackman, or for sure let him die and save 5 farther down the line. I believe with all due respect, that one must ponder these sorts of things for oneself and let others do the same.

  4. What happen if the father or other family member want the baby and can afford financially and lots of love to give the baby? Does a father (and other family member) of the baby have any right to save his child? I firmly believe live begin with the heartbeat and brain development, and technology will be able to care for that baby until the baby reach term. I also do not think government should fund and support organization that hinder the right of the father to give the baby a chance of good life. We have 3 children of our own and hope one day to adopt a baby, so I am speaker for the unborn.

    1. I mean this in the kindest way possible, Pdvk, but you are not “speaker for the unborn.” You are speaker for yourself, who wants a baby to adopt. It is not the job of a woman facing a crisis pregnancy to bring it to term so you can have the baby you desire.

    2. If technology advances to the point where the father can carry the fetus to term so that he can then give birth to the baby and love and provide for it, amen. But if you would force a woman to carry an unwanted/unplanned/unhealthy pregnancy to term just so the father can have the child, you are reducing that woman to nothing more than “incubator” and denying that she has any right to autonomy over her own body.
      Yes, it’s true that it takes two people to create a baby, but only one has the burden of carrying it inside them for 9 months, so her rights should be given more weight in the decision.

    3. “we have 3 children of our own and hope one day to adopt a baby. .” Well, if you do, that baby will be “your own” too. Please don’t diminish the worth and belonging of an adopted child by suggesting that it is not your own. Also, consider that many, many people want to adopt babies. How about adopting an older child whose birth parent tried and failed at providing him/her what he needed?

  5. Thank you for a thoughtful piece on a difficult subject. I especially appreciate your willingness to share links to those who came to a different conclusion. It is delightful to have a nuanced discussion on the issue.

  6. Please, please read Deathlinks. It is available on Amazon.com and it speaks, in a fictional format, to this issue and to so many others. As an author, I thought that my view, which is yours expressed beautifully, was an isolated opinion. It plagued me that I felt torn about abortion. I, too, am pro-life, but understand well what women face as I am a sociologist dealing with poverty and homelessness. The rawness of the problem is not addressed enough. Thank you for your article.

  7. I have been waiting a long time to read an article such as this. Thank you so much for writing this and expressing all these life affirming truths in such an eloquent, compassionate and reasonable manner.

  8. I came to the consideration of abortion from working with handicapped children. I have seen the couples who deny themselves a family because they had a sibling with downs syndrome, muscular dystrophy, or any one of a long list of other genetic problems. I have also seen their pain at discovering their unborn child has a serious defect. It isn’t always a matter of whether they can handle having a handicapped child. It often means the baby will be born with such serious medical problems that they cannot survive. They will be born, live briefly and die, all in tremendous pain. How can bringing such a pregnancy to term be a good thing? There are more questions, circumstances, and answers than a single blanket law can possibly address. I believe these decisions belong to the parents, with the aid of their doctors; not lawmakers in Washington.

    1. Yes! Parents need support, respect, freedom to deal with their unique challenges. Thanks for your wisdom Carla. Peace…

  9. Many years ago I worked for a GYN-oncologist. He was also contracted with a genetics lab to do fetal anomaly TABs. One day a man brought his wife in for prep, and while waiting in the waiting room became visibly upset. I spoke to him, and he came around to my desk and began to pour out his heart. He was a Baptist minister who had preached against the evils of abortion. When his wife was diagnosed with a fetal anomaly they chose to stand on God’s word and bring the baby to term. He described how they then watched the baby suffer until it died, and his wife had a breakdown. Now two years later she was pregnant again, and, again, it was an anomaly. “I cannot allow her to go through that again.” He broke down and wept. He had lost his faith. He quit the ministry. I did what I could to console him. But it wasn’t enough. I sometimes think of him and pray for him.

    1. Oh My Cheryel! Reading this story gave me chill bumps. Thanks so much for sharing it and adding to the conversation. Peace…

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