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Rita Nakashima Brock, Ph. D.

Rita Nakashima Brock, Ph. D.

Posted: January 23, 2011 09:33 AM

"What do you think of Obama?" My evangelical, Republican aunt and uncle asked me two years ago. "We think he's a murderer!" They had concluded this because he supported women's right to safe and legal abortions. I was pretty sure we weren't going to reach common ground, so I pointed out that, if they made such an accusation, they would also have to call me a murderer because I agreed with our new President. When faced with having to call a member of their own family a murderer, they started back-tracking. Eventually, they were willing to agree that we held different positions on abortion and that both were moral, just different. I don't think they really believed my position is moral, however.

My aunt and uncle put everything on the sixth commandment, "thou shalt not kill" in King James and "you shall not murder" in the NRSV. They were certain it referred only to abortion -- not to war or capital punishment it. I think the reverse is true.

The Bible supports women's right to reproductive moral decision-making, and I think those who try to use it to deny women's reproductive freedom misuse it.

Applying the sixth commandment to abortion doesn't work at all. It's quite clear that the intended audience for the ten commandments is men because the last commandment prohibits the coveting of a neighbors wife, which a woman could not do (though gay marriage might make this more inclusive these days). Commandments five to ten govern human relations, and do not murder comes after the command to honor mothers and fathers.

Jesus' discussion of the sixth command in Matthew 5 makes it very clear that it prohibits revenge, murderous anger against another, and other nasty forms of men choosing to behave badly. I'm usually in favor of inclusive language, but sometimes the Bible really is speaking to men. In Mark 10, Jesus, in a conversation with a rich young ruler, lists the five commandments governing adult relationships and adds one more, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." Neither Jesus nor any of the biblical texts mentions abortion, so we have to extrapolate from other texts how the Bible might apply or not apply.

Using the sixth commandment on the question of abortion does not work because it has the wrong premises. It defines all mothers and fetuses as angry enemies, equals in a fight, or at war. The Christian tradition identified sins such as adultery or murder as so grave they damaged the soul. Shedding human blood or breaking a sacred vow did not just hurt the other, but also injured the sinner's capacity to be moral because he harbored hate, anger, or lust.

This understanding of mortal sin does not apply to abortion. I've known plenty of women who had an abortion and still raised wonderful children. While opponents of abortion want to highlight women who have been traumatized by it, many women are relieved to have one and are grateful they could do so. I once talked to a woman who got pregnant eight times while she and her husband were using two forms of birth control, doing their best not to get pregnant. She raised five happy, thriving children and aborted three of her pregnancies because she and her husband wanted to provide responsibly for the children they had. She and her husband finally gave up on birth control, and he had a vasectomy. She's a dedicated Methodist church leader and a dedicated advocate for women's reproductive freedom.

Women who want to have a child and spontaneously abort usually grieve such a loss. Women's bodies reject fetuses for complicated and often mysterious reasons. A woman's immune system will regard a fetus as a foreign body to be expelled. To stay pregnant, her system has to suppress her immune system, which puts her own body system at some risk because it is less able to fight sickness, which might also cause the death of the fetus. None of this is willful behavior, but fetuses are killed nonetheless. Society does not treat the pea or grape-sized remains of a fetus the same as a child's death because spontaneous abortions are fairly common -- a woman may flush a late and heavy period down the toilet without ever having known she was pregnant. At the late term end of a pregnancy, a woman's life may be put at risk if a fetus dies in her body and must be extracted. Dr. Lee Carhart, friend of the late Dr. George Tiller, has committed himself to training OB-GYN doctors in this procedure because he is committed to saving women's lives. He regards his work as an important ministry, and I think it is.

For women who become pregnant, want the child, and find the pregnancy threatens their lives, the fifth commandment is clear, priority goes to the mother -- and men are supposed to honor this. As a Rabbi once said to me years ago, a child can be in no better moral hands than the hands of its mother, and the decision about abortion must be hers. It must be hers because only she knows adequately what threatens her life. The danger may be medical, such as eclampsia; it may be spiritual, such as suicidal feelings because of guilt; it may be emotional, such as fear of violence; it may be psychological, such as PTSD in the aftermath of rape or war; or it may be a circumstance such as poverty and single-motherhood in which her death would threaten all of her existing children. All these dangers are far too common and afflict millions of women around the world. Women require safe, affordable and legal abortions to save their own lives and, sometimes, the lives of their other children or families. To deny this reproductive freedom is not pro-life, and it dishonors the moral capacities of mothers.

Women possess the capacities for moral decision-making that can weigh if, when and how we will have children. Some may come to regret making a decision to abort, but others can come to regret having children, which is a terrible fate to inflict on a child. Remorse or regret for a decision is not a reason to deny the right to make a moral choice that is best for the circumstances and for the well-being of all concerned. Protecting women's right to make moral decisions about whether or not to have children is an important way to honor mothers and to assure that every child is a loved and wanted child with a chance at a good life.