05/04/2011 11:34 am ET Updated Jul 04, 2011

Dishonoring Mothers with the Sixth Commandment: We Need Reproductive Rights for Mother's Day

When I was a feminist seminarian in the late 1970s, an older woman named Jessie attended a meeting of our Claremont, Calif., seminarians and wives group to enlist us in her cause for mothers. She was appalled that new apartment complexes could ban children and were clearly designed to discourage families. She wanted us to join her effort to make such bans illegal and to require playgrounds and child-safe architecture.

We thought she was from another planet. We weren't rude to Jessie, who'd been a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt; we just couldn't figure out why someone the age of our grandmothers wanted us to focus on mothers. Americans value novelty and progress -- being a mother seemed old-fashioned and regressive. We knew feminists who advocated for the financial worth of motherhood. But we were feminists because we wanted careers in the church and academe.

This weekend, we will focus one day on mothers. The rest of the year, we abuse and disrespect them. The greeting card sentiments bombarding us right now cover a deep contempt for mothers' intelligence and moral capacities. One special day a year is woefully inadequate as compensation, especially since shallow sentiments have overrun the original meaning of Mother's Day as a call for peace in the world.

Three hundred and sixty-five days a year, our laws and health care policies increasingly make it as difficult as possible for women to decide when and how they will become mothers. Using lies to pass laws, predominantly male legislators in states like Missouri harass women, violate our privacy, and force us to listen to distortions and emotional badgering regardless of our circumstances or reasons for seeking abortions.

A friend's daughter-in-law in her second trimester of pregnancy discovered that the fetus was anencephalous -- it had no upper skull or brain and would never achieve human consciousness. If they survive to delivery, they usually die within hours and look like bug-eyed monsters. She needed an abortion immediately, but instead of caring for her as a grieving mother, Indiana required her to watch films about the fetus as a human and about why it was better to carry a baby to term. On top of being devastated at the loss, she felt treated like a criminal. Eventually, they gave her the abortion in some remote section of a hospital basement. She wanted to be a mother, so she tried again and gave birth to a healthy infant last month.

Planned Parenthood's mission is "every child a wanted child," which captures the power and importance of choosing motherhood, rather than forcing it on women. Before legal abortions were available, some women risked death rather than have a child. The early feminist reproductive rights movement, therefore, focused on legalizing abortion. Avoiding or ending pregnancy became the dominant framing of "choice." Unfortunately, white middle-class feminists under the reproductive rights banner largely ignored women who had been subjected to forced sterilizations, were targeted by eugenics and were denied the right to have or raise their own children. This split among feminists did not mean, however, that some women did not need abortion services, and the current state of abortion politics has hurt poor women the most.

In Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical's Lament Randall Balmer revealed that the religious right seized upon abortion as a wedge anti-feminist issue to leverage their racist, sexist, pro-corporate agenda, which they deemed "family values." They've done their best to prove that the only "pro-life" position is to shut down abortion providers. They cite the sixth commandment "do not kill" as unequivocal proof of a biblical ban on abortion.

The religious right is wrong. The sixth commandment does not prohibit abortion. It's quite clear that the intended audience for the Ten Commandments is men: the last one prohibits the coveting of a neighbor's wife, who is on a list with his donkey and house. Even though women could own property in Moses' time, they did not have wives. I'm usually in favor of inclusive language, but sometimes, it is best to note when the Bible really is speaking to men, a point Jewish theologian Judith Plaskow made in Standing Again at Sinai.

The Commandments are not consistently sexist, however. Numbers five to 10 govern human relations, and the first on the list, number five, commands men to "honor your father and your mother so that your days may be long in the land." Honor, kaved, means to respect parents to the point of accepting responsibility for their well being, even when it creates a burden, all year round. "Do not kill," number six, follows this commandment.

Jesus' discussion of the sixth commandment (Matthew 5) makes it very clear that it prohibits revenge, murderous anger against another and other nasty forms of men behaving badly. In Mark 10, in a conversation with a rich young (male) ruler, Jesus lists the five commandments governing human relationships and adds another, "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."

The Bible does not mention abortion. Using the Bible to prohibit it, as if the intimate, tangled relationship of mother and fetus were an equivalent to battle begins with the wrong premise. It treats the two parties as independent adult human beings at war.

This relationship does not apply to abortion. Society does not treat the pea or grape-sized remains of a fetus the same as a child's death -- a woman may flush a late and heavy period down the toilet without ever having known she was pregnant. Spontaneous abortions are fairly common. Women's bodies reject fetuses for complicated and sometimes mysterious reasons. Biologically, a pregnant woman's immune system treats a fetus as a foreign body to be expelled. To stay pregnant, a woman's system has to suppress her immune functions, which puts her own body system at greater risk of sickness. Late in a pregnancy, a woman's life may be endangered if a fetus dies in her body and is not expelled completely, or a late term fetus can suddenly poison its mother and take both their lives.

The denial of federal funds for safe, legal abortions disrespects mothers because it denies a life-saving medical procedure to women who want to become mothers. Only a mother knows the full extent of what threatens her life. The dangers may be medical, such as eclampsia; or spiritual, such as suicidal feelings because of guilt and shame from molestation. They may be emotional, such as fear of violence; or they may be psychological, such as PTSD in the aftermath of rape or war. Women pregnant by rape are sometimes murdered by their husbands or communities. Poverty and single-motherhood can threaten her children if a mother dies or is too weakened by pregnancy to feed them. All these dangers are far too common and afflict millions of poor 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 mothers. For women who become pregnant, the fifth commandment is clear: priority goes to the mother, and men are supposed to honor this. A rabbi and scholar of Jewish law once noted to me that his tradition believed a fetus could not be in better, more moral hands than those of its mother.

Should any doctor be licensed to practice obstetrics medicine without knowing how to perform late-term abortion procedures that save women's lives? While I did not know Dr. George Tiller, I have the privilege of serving on the board of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice with his close friend Dr. Lee Carhart. Dr. Carhart respects mothers as moral agents and does his best to offer what they need. He has begun training doctors in performing late term abortions and regards his work as a ministry to women and their families. I wish my friend's daughter-in-law had been able to have a doctor like him.

It's time we saw abortion services in this way, as a ministry to mothers.

If we really cared about the most important, indispensable social role in every society, we'd make the welfare of women, children and mothers the measure of our worth. But we don't. Instead, we prize the wealth of the greediest, most amoral men on Wall Street and allow misogynist legislators to control their bodies. Unfortunately, though, no matter how rich or powerful we are, we can't fix miserable childhoods by creating more prisons or training more therapists and social workers. It's better to invest in supporting mothers.

If we respect and want good mothers, we have to respect the rights of women as full human beings all year round. We have to guarantee every girl the best education possible and lifelong health care. We must assure women financial security and meaningful work, as well as freedom from intimidation and violence in their own homes, workplaces and neighborhoods.

Unlike the right-wing ideologues who have tried to defund Planned Parenthood, even religious people morally opposed to abortion usually support the use of it to save a mother's life. Some even regard rape and incest as grounds to allow it. This latter qualification shifts the moral grounds for allowing abortion from the life of the mother to how pregnancy occurred and her feelings about it, which is crucial since suicidal feeling is a life-threatening condition. Both positions require access to safe, legal abortion services.

Becoming a mother is not destiny, fate, biology, intuition or divine will (except, perhaps, for virgins). Mothering begins with a commitment to a lifelong relationship with a new or young human being. It's a learned skill and a difficult, painstaking journey. Nothing can substitute for having been raised by an intelligent, resourceful, loving mother. Whether or not our mother is biologically related to us, she knows us like no other person, bodily, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. She teaches us our value as a person and the values we need to live responsibility with others. Those who have a good mother, have tried to mother or are mothers know how hard it is and what it takes to do it well.

Mothering is hard enough without being forced to be a mother against one's will. Some women may come to regret having children, which is a terrible fate to inflict on a child with far more devastating social consequences than an abortion. Some women may come to regret making a decision to abort. Remorse or regret for a decision is not a reason to deny women the right to make a moral choice. No woman should be required to use her body to make babies for someone else. And no woman's life should be sacrificed by those whose religious beliefs subordinate her to men, by those who sentimentalize motherhood as divine will or intuition and by those who do not respect her.

Plenty of responsible, good mothers bear children they love, while also having one or more abortions. While opponents of abortion highlight women who have been traumatized by it, many women are relieved to have one. I once talked to a woman who got pregnant eight times, even though she and her husband were using two forms of birth control to avoid conceiving. They wanted to provide responsibly for their children, so she aborted three of her pregnancies, grateful that she had a safe and legal way to do so. They finally gave up on birth control after the eighth failure, and he had a vasectomy. She raised five happy, thriving children -- the family joke is all her children were "unwanted." She's a Methodist church leader and a dedicated advocate for women's reproductive freedom.

Women are moral decision-makers who can weigh if, when and how we will have children. Protecting women's right to decide 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.

Protecting the moral freedom of mothers is not enough, however. The mantra of safe and legal abortions means nothing without access to services. Three states currently have only one abortion provider, and others heavily restrict abortion, ban abortions in clinics or any facility that receives public funds, or ban abortion counseling or clinic recommendations. In the U.S., 87 percent of all counties have no abortion providers.

Perhaps, if you've faced a life-threatening emergency and could not to find a hospital or doctor who could or would perform the procedure that could save your life, you may have a sense of what these numbers mean for millions of women. When young women die in pregnancy, they never get the chance to become mothers. We must not just protect the legal right of reproductive freedom for women, we must protect abortion providers, encourage them into our communities and support them with federal funds as we do other important forms of health care.

This Mother's Day, we need to commit to restoring federal funding to ALL the health care needs of mothers, including reproductive health services: access to affordable birth control, abortion services, prenatal maternal care, safe delivery and postnatal care -- all the way to menopause. We could make it the other life bookend to Medicare, the piece that sustains life between birth and old age. That would truly be a way to honor mothers and potential mothers, so that our days may be long upon the earth.