To strive for life

It grieves me when I read or hear about my Christian brothers and sisters for whom abortion is the highest priority in their participation in political life. We slap labels on each other with so little nuance that the distinctions become meaningless.

My views on abortion have been shaped by being a chaplain caring for women in many different circumstances related to pregnancy and childbirth.

What if Anabaptists and other discipleship-oriented Christians were known as fully apart from any political bloc or party? What if no one issue made politicians think they could count on our vote? What if our churches were known as places where people struggling with unwanted pregnancies could turn for support without judgment? That support can come in the form of providing for the financial and physical needs that increase with raising children. It can come with providing compassionate listening and considering options — but never with manipulation and falsehoods, as can be the case at some pregnancy help centers.

I’m not arguing about whether abortion is moral or not. I don’t see the fruitfulness of arguing this question. I’m asking my Anabaptist brothers and sisters to consider a request: set aside striving to criminalize abortion.

We can consider the example of El Salvador in envisioning what it would like to criminalize abortion. “For 20 years, the procedure has been banned without exceptions,” I read recently in The Christian Science Monitor. “Dozens of women who maintain that they suffered miscarriages or stillbirths have been imprisoned.” It is a grave injustice that women are being imprisoned with little evidence that their loss of the pregnancy was due to any action on their part. But even apart from that, what good is it for anyone to imprison women who have abortions — women who often have other children left without a mother?

My views on abortion have been shaped by being a chaplain caring for women in many different circumstances related to pregnancy and childbirth. I’ve witnessed the range of emotions around elective abortion and spontaneous abortion — the medical term for a miscarriage. I’ve said prayers over the bodies of stillborn babies. I can easily recall in my mind a baby at 20 weeks of development in the womb. I feel sadness when I remember those miscarried and stillborn babies. I feel sadness for every situation in which a pregnancy ends, and I believe abortion opponents feel it, too. The grief of parents of stillborn children is unlike any other kind of grief I’ve witnessed in hospital and hospice rooms.

When abortion opponents call it murder to terminate a pregnancy, they are cruelly simplifying the messiness of reality.

I wish no one were ever in a situation where they had to think about ending a pregnancy. But it is a reality, and criminalizing abortion doesn’t make it go away. What we can do is address the circumstances that lead people to seek an abortion, as well as the circumstances that cause miscarriage and stillbirth. Poverty is a major factor many of the times when pregnancy ends, chosen or not.

Debates over abortion are “distracting us from the plight of those most affected by our abortion laws: the most marginalized women in the country,” writes law professor Michelle Oberman in Her Body, Our Laws: On the Front Lines of the Abortion War, From El Salvador to Oklahoma. “What would it look like to design a policy around the idea that no one should have to choose abortion because she is too poor to have a child?” Let’s dedicate the resources we have to reducing poverty, both in our communities and through our engagement in political life.


Celeste Kennel-Shank, is an editor and community gardener in Chicago.