Westminster John Knox Press, 136 pages
Reviewed by Judith Fulp-Eickstaedt
Have you noticed lately that there are issues we can’t talk about? A colleague recently shared that the pro-life/pro-choice debate is one where he can’t get a real conversation going. Extreme perspectives on both sides have left those who want a measured, informed conversation feeling attacked for whatever they might say or bullied into accepting one of these extremes as “correct.” The result is a culture of silence around reproductive rights, especially in the church. Yet, in a conversation with a parishioner, I was reminded of the need for guidance and support around these issues. This young woman struggled with the fear of passing a devastating genetic mutation to her child. “As I weighed the awful possibilities,” she said, “I was not even aware that being pro-choice was part of the Christian conversation.”
My parishioner’s story speaks to the overwhelming nature of the decisions couples sometimes face. Do you carry a pregnancy to term knowing that suffering will mark your child’s entire life experience? Do you bring a child into an abusive relationship? Do you have a child if you are financially or emotionally unable to care for that child? What about a pregnancy resulting from rape or incest? Some extreme positions would not allow the mother the right to end a pregnancy even under these circumstances.
In “Pro-Choice and Christian,” Kira Schlesinger invites us to step back from pre-formed opinions about contraception and access to abortion. She offers a concise, informative history of reproductive rights from ancient to modern times. She also shows the church’s response, including the deep implications of the Protestant/Catholic divide on the morality of contraception. She helps us think clearly about how medical advances have informed the debate, the ethical concerns these advances raise and how such cultural shifts as delayed marriage and childbirth have changed the conversation. Politically, Schlesinger chronicles the early women’s rights movements, changing attitudes brought about by the Great Depression, the ‘50s, and the turbulent ‘60s. She shows us Roe v. Wade and beyond, as the years since have seen growing movements on the state and national level either to maintain or strike down the law.
Spiritually, Schlesinger examines what the Bible does and does not say concerning reproductive rights. She addresses biblical authority and points to Scriptures that might give guidance on the question of when an embryo gains “personhood.” Schlesinger invites us to look at the term pro-choice in the wider theological framework of a pro-life ethic encompassing all creation. In this framework we recognize that God is a God of life, but that God desires for all creation life that is full and flourishing, more than mere existence. Within this ethic, we can name the inherently tragic nature of abortion, and also name how we fail to create a society that welcomes and cares for children once they are born.
The final chapters seek common ground. Here, I think Schlesinger leans a little too heavily on progressive language. Red-flag terminology might push more conservative readers back into the very corners from which she is trying to pull us. Schlesinger does argue convincingly that the church has failed people on both sides in some of their most painful times, and that we need to break through political divides and be pastorally present.
Judith Fulp-Eickstaedt is the pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington, Virginia.