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Reflections on Personal Discernment
The Abortion Issue, Part 1
by Bill Samuel
NOTE: This is the first part of a paper prepared in December 1993 (very slightly revised since) as part of my participation in the Spiritual Nurturer Program of the School of the Spirit.
While reading Paul Lacey's On Leading and Being Led (Pendle Hill Pamphlet #264), I found myself reflecting on my experience of discernment over the years on the issue of abortion. It seemed right that this should be the topic of my first reflective paper.
I don't remember thinking about abortion or hearing about it when I was growing up. My first memory related to the abortion issue dates from my college years. Some students in my dormitory put up a sign on their door reading:
ACME ABORTION SERVICE
The college administration found this sign so offensive that they put considerable pressure on the students to remove it. However, I don't remember any discussions of what made the sign offensive or of the abortion issue. Although it certainly illustrates the traditional feminist position (still upheld by Feminists for Life) that abortion is a male tool of oppression, I don't remember doing much thinking about the issue at the time. However, the fact that I still recall the sign more than a quarter of a century later would seem to indicate that it had a real effect on me at some level.
As a young adult, I was very involved in peace and social justice causes. I identified with the left and was inclined to align myself with the most common left points of view on matters which I had not personally considered in depth. There was a period in which I probably would have tended to say I was "pro-choice" if asked my position on abortion. However, I was not active on this issue and had no strong views.
Influences of Others
During the Vietnam War, I spent a period of time very involved in a 24-hour-a-day vigil for peace in front of the White House started by New York Yearly Meeting of Friends (Quakers) and later turned over to a local group calling itself the White House Daily Meeting of Friends. The vigilers were my closest friends. I respected the spiritual wisdom of several of the vigilers, and they affected both my spiritual outlook and my views on issues.
One day, a couple of vigilers went off on an errand and didn't come back for some time. When they came back, they explained why they had been gone so long. Their route had taken them past the office of the Papal Nuncio. A group was demonstrating there against the position of the Roman Catholic Church on abortion. My friends felt compelled to counter-demonstrate. They found some cardboard, made some signs, carried them and engaged in dialogue with the original protesters.
Until that time, I had not known the position of these friends on abortion. Their deep conviction that abortion was contrary to the will of God brought me to seriously consider the issue for the first time. I found that other vigilers whose spiritual wisdom I respected had the same conviction on abortion. This was a key test for me. How had God moved those whose lives demonstrated their trust in the Divine Source?
The position of these friends was what has come to be known as the "seamless garment" or "consistency" perspective. They held that all life was sacred in God's eyes, and that all taking of human life (most took it further than human life, and were vegetarians as I had always been) was wrong. Therefore, war, capital punishment and abortion were all evil for the same reason. This view of the Friends' peace testimony made sense to me. Vigil leaflets, which I prepared in consultation with other vigilers, began to include a section on abortion.
After being developed initially through the influence of those to whom I looked for spiritual guidance, my pro-life abortion position has been confirmed repeatedly through this test of the religious convictions of others. I worked for several years in the Legislative Office of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). There came a time when WILPF members began pressing for the organization to work for abortion rights and abortion funding. Our little staff of three - one active Jew, one disillusioned Catholic and one Friend - discussed this in a staff meeting. We found that all three of us felt for religious reasons we could not do such work for the organization.
I was also active for several years in the war tax resistance movement. As the alternative fund movement grew, our local group began to consider starting a local fund. I discussed this with one war tax resistance activist whose way of life exemplified her religious convictions. She told me she wasn't sure if she could participate, because she feared such a fund might give money to abortion clinics. "I have the same problem with abortion that I have with war," she told me.
I have had several friends whose position on abortion has changed towards a pro-life posture as they have spiritually grown. Usually this has come to a surprise to them. Their experience has been confirmed for me through the results of a poll I saw recently. The poll showed that, regardless of religious affiliation, people were more likely to take a pro-life stance the more active they were in their religious faith.
Although these incidents demonstrate the reinforcement of my pro-life position by others whose lives seem to me to demonstrate faithfulness to God, it is also true that many people with whom I share much spiritually have a different position on abortion. But in discussing the issue with them, their arguments have never seemed to me to be fundamentally spiritual. They start with a deep sense of identification with women with "problem pregnancies" and/or with "unwanted" children - an identification that rings true with me as exemplifying Christ's own identification with the "least of these." But this does not separate them from my pro-life friends, who have the same deep compassion.
The difference, as I have discerned it, is in the broader spiritual context. My pro-choice friends basically seem to accept the world's assumptions about "unwanted" children and women's options. My pro-life friends reject these assumptions, assuming that God can redeem any situation. The fact that in our human wisdom we can not see any "way out" for women in very difficult situations or any concrete possibility for a good life for the children is simply unconvincing to my pro-life friends and to me. My faith that God can redeem situations that seem hopeless from a human point of view is strengthened by my reading of many examples in the pro-life press.
I also see a parallel to the issue of war and peace. Serious arguments for violent responses to real problems come not from a love for the response, but from deep concern for the problems the response attempts to address. One can make good human arguments that military action is needed to counter the evil deeds of an Adolf Hitler or a Saddam Hussein. People who make these arguments usually have no love for war, just as most pro-choice people have no love for abortion. While one can always make human arguments against any particular military action, these have never been as convincing to me as the spiritual arguments. The Friends' peace testimony is not based upon a worldly analysis of what works.
Continue on to Part 2
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