The ‘A’ bomb
How has religion changed its view toward abortion?
Drop the “A” word in a group of religious clergy, and you’d expect them to pull out their “choose life” pamphlets, rife with full-color portraits of aborted fetuses and a proud list of embargoed clinics. But according to four of Sacramento’s Christian leaders, this intolerance toward the complex abortion issue is exactly what churches have a responsibility to change.
I’m a 17-year-old girl not yet out of high school, and I just found out I’m pregnant. I’ve been with my boyfriend for more than a year, but neither of us is ready to be married or have a child. I want to finish high school and go to college. My dream is to become a doctor. I’m not religious, but my mother and stepfather are, and I’m afraid if I tell them, they’ll make me keep the baby for their own moral reasons. How do I go about making such a huge and overwhelming decision?
“I’ll walk this child through it,” began Sherwood Carthen, pastor at Bayside Church of South Sacramento, “but it’s gonna be mandatory that she tell her parents.”
Carthen, who was raised in a Christian home and experienced “a spiritual awakening to preach the gospel” at 19, believes that “the state is somehow always separating parents and children” in allowing minors to make major decisions alone—something he is vehemently against.
“People are not going to like this answer,” he contended, “but this is one I’m going to go to my grave with. I’ve seen too much division in families already: parents and children separated by the government, by institutions, by Planned Parenthood.”
Pastor Kathi McShane, of Midtown’s First United Methodist Church, acknowledged a wide range among 17-year-olds in their capacity to make such a serious decision. For this seemingly more mature teenager, “I think I would ask her, ‘Who are all the people in your life that you wish you could hear what they had to say about this, as part of your making your decision?’ And then I think part of my work would be trying to talk her into believing she could have a conversation with all of those people, including her parents.”
Carthen explained “some of the fuel for [his] fire,” sharing that his 28-year-old daughter has had two children out of wedlock. At 20 years old, pregnant for the second time, “she didn’t have to tell us,” Carthen said. “But she chose to, and we chose to let her make that decision. … And I am so glad she chose to keep Ben.”
However, had she chosen to “go the other way,” Sherwood said he would have “still supported her, because that’s my child.”
Charles Warner, pastor of Christ Temple Apostolic Church since 1995, reiterated Carthen’s commitment to “walking the individual through.”
“Even though I may not believe in abortion, she has to make her own decision, and how can I educate her?” said Warner. “How can I try to help her see clearly, so she can make a decision she can live with?”
Carthen proposed another option in the decision process, one he considered several times while his daughter struggled to finish school as a single parent: If the young woman chooses to keep the pregnancy, does she want the grandparents to raise the child?
“On the other side, if she has the abortion—right-wing folks are gonna kill me here—this ain’t the end of the world,” he continued. “It’s a choice she has to live with, and I’m not gonna try to scare her, but I am gonna tell her that every Mother’s Day, I have people in my church who come to me weeping because they aborted their child.”
Brian Baker, pastor at Trinity Episcopalian Cathedral, endorsed McShane’s method of “inviting [the young woman] to figure out who her allies are. Because regardless of her choice, she’s going to need support. And particularly if she has this child, what can support her is realizing that she’s not alone in the decision and, potentially, in the raising of the child. Hopefully, she has resources she hasn’t thought of, and being asked that question and going through that process can open up more possibilities.”
The most important thing, McShane said, is “how are you going to live most comfortably with whatever decision you make? The thing that is going to change your life has already happened.”
Carthen claimed that people may be surprised to hear such an accepting perspective from Christian pastors, given that “the world has already made up our minds for us. … They’ve already said that this child, if she chooses abortion, she’s through, as if it is an unpardonable sin, and that’s not true. I don’t know how we change that message unless we get some right-wing conservatives and tell them to lay off abortion clinics. … Am I for it? No, of course I’m against it, but I’m against a lot of other stuff, too, and I don’t throw folks out because they do it.”
One issue facing Christian churches “is that people in the world have heard so much about what we’re against, that they have no idea that we’re more for this girl than against any decision she makes,” Carthen said.
However, “there’s a huge range within the Christian tradition,” countered McShane. As the pastor of a more liberal church, she said people have expected her to provide the blasé attitude that “there are no bad choices.”
“I’ve changed on this issue over my life,” McShane said. “I feel now some responsibility to say, ‘There is an unborn child who ought to have a voice somewhere in this conversation and in this decision. And part of what the voice of God is, is to say, ‘It’s not just about you.’”
And because it does indeed take a village, “there’s a responsibility, if we’re going to advocate for this unborn child, for us to be a community in helping make that a possible choice,” said Baker.
Carthen decried the Christian church’s history in “abandoning” folks in this situation, no matter what their decision is. “That’s a no-win situation that has to change. And I think the change is, ‘We’re gonna love you whatever decision you make,’” he said.
After a short pause, Baker grinned. “What’s historic about what you’re witnessing,” he said, “is that when I went to seminary from ’88 to ’91, the abortion debate was so hot and divisive that there were people who didn’t think there was such a thing as common ground. And we have here two people who are from the liberal perspective and two people from the more conservative perspective talking common ground about abortion.”
McShane nodded. “There’s hope for the world.”