Episcopal Diocese of Washington

Engaging a changing world with
an enduring faith in Jesus Christ

Starting with the Compassion of Jesus: Abortion and Women's Reproductive Health

May 23, 2019

Now there was a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years; and though she had spent all she had on physicians, no one could cure her. She came up behind Jesus and touched the fringe of his clothes, and immediately her haemorrhage stopped... Jesus said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.’
Luke 8:41-48

With the news of legislation passed in several states greatly restricting a woman’s access to abortion with the expressed intention of setting the stage for the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, I commend to you a Summary of the Episcopal Church statements on Abortion and Women's Reproductive Health.

It begins in the context of pastoral care:   

Clergy throughout The Episcopal Church counsel women, men, and families who must make decisions relating to pregnancy and childbirth, adoption, family planning, and who face infertility. Our ordained and lay leaders walk alongside Episcopalians and others who struggle with this intimate and challenging aspect of human life. Over the past several decades, the General Convention has addressed the topic of abortion from a position informed by this ministry and personal lived experience of clergy and laity within their own families. As a result, the General Convention of The Episcopal Church recognizes the moral, legal, personal, and societal complexity of the issue. The diversity of views within the Church represents our common struggle to understand and discern this issue.

My colleague, Bishop Jennifer Reddall of Arizona, wrote a thoughtful piece on this issue, Call the Midwife Meets 2019. With gratitude, and her permission, I share it with you here: 

Call the Midwife has been one of my favorite TV shows since its premiere. It is set in 1960s London, and the main characters are midwives and nuns living in Nonnatus House, an Anglican convent dedicated to women's health. The personal and professional dramas are often reflected upon in prayer and meals around the community table. Any TV show that includes women's voices singing Vespers is a show I am inclined to love.

The narrative arc of the current season has been threaded with storylines about abortion, along with the issues that accompany abortion: maternal health, poverty, social stigma of unmarried mothers, mental illness, inaccessibility of birth control, and domestic violence. Abortion in the show's context is illegal--but not inaccessible--and extremely risky.

I've been intrigued by the intersection between this fictionalized, historic narrative, and the present-day national conversation around the recent, highly restrictive laws controlling access to abortion services, and women's health more generally.

In Call the Midwife, characters are consistently presented with situations that do not fit into their ideal moral view. Mothers face hard choices; the midwives are caught between caring for their patients and fulfilling their legal obligations. The midwives--both lay and religious--are not of one mind about whether abortion should be permissible. But to a person, they always respond to their patients with compassion and empathy--and they allow themselves to be changed by the stories they encounter.

Jesus taught using stories. When we hear about characters who struggle with issues we struggle with, it can open our minds and hearts to the Love of God, and reminds us how Jesus interacts with the people around him. The Gospel consistently recounts that Jesus 'had compassion' on people and crowds, and his compassion leads him to action to relieve their suffering and hunger. I see the face of Jesus in the characters in Call the Midwife: they love, they weep, they care, they heal, they pray, and they stand by their patients through joy and grief.

I wish I heard more compassion and more love towards women in our national and legal debates--and not just when they have an unwanted or unviable pregnancy. The lifetime of stories I have heard and shared with the women I know have moved my own thoughts and opinions about abortion into a place that is roughly equivalent to what The Episcopal Church has stated in our General Convention resolutions.

One in four women in the United States has had an abortion by the age of 45--which means that every one of us knows many people who have those stories; but our culture doesn't make them easy to share. Maybe it's easier to turn to fictionalized stories like Call the Midwife to inspire our compassion.

But I pray that our congregations will always be places where people can find the compassionate face of Jesus, no matter what story they have to tell. And those other issues--maternal health, poverty, social stigma of unmarried mothers, mental illness, inaccessibility of birth control, and domestic violence--these are where we, regardless of our beliefs about the legality and accessibility of abortion services, must find ways to draw closer to the love of God and concretely demonstrate our love of God's beloved children.

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