Abortion is not a topic I want to spend much time on in this space. It arouses viciousness when what each side of the debate claims to want is mercy. Each side thinks itself the most humane and life-affirming, then proceeds to dismiss the humanity of the other and to affirm only the persistence of hatred. The ground we’re fighting over isn’t a woman’s body or an unborn life and hasn’t been for fifty years. It is more about the existence of who gets to determine the course of other lives.
I make an exception here because this morning a parishioner calls me asking for prayers for a couple she doesn’t know, doesn’t even know their names. All she knows about this couple is that, after many years of trying, they are expecting their first child. Routine first trimester tests have revealed the brain and spine are developing abnormally. If it comes to term (they don’t yet know the sex) the child will be severely disabled and is unlikely to make it home from the hospital.
I’m sure you see where this is going.
They are understandably stricken, paralyzed with indecision. My parishioner tells me that friends from their church are pleading with them to see the pregnancy through and to pray like mad for God to grant a miracle and make the baby right.
This is a hard prayer to pray. I believe in prayer’s power. I believe we live in the presence of mystery and out of that mystery inexplicable mercies sometimes come to pass. What I believe still more certainly is that imposing expectations on God—particularly when they involve a miracle tailored to my preferences—is more than a little presumptuous. It asks the giver of life to exempt me from obligations the gift of human life entails.
One such obligation is to face up to decisions I can’t pray my way out of. This life sometimes presents horrific options and I have to make choices I will never know are right and may never be sure aren’t evil.
The assumption underlying the couple’s church friends seems to be this: I can measure God’s goodness, or my own, by the goodness I receive or by the degree to which I am spared from loss and what is ugly and painful and (in my estimation) “unfair”. It seems to me this takes neither the life I’ve been given nor the giver of it very seriously. It looks the gift horse in the mouth.
Of course the couple should pray. Who wouldn’t want a healthy baby? Who wouldn’t want to be spared agony? Jesus prays for this at Gethsemaneº, why shouldn’t we? But what happens after the last ‘amen’?
If the couple had come to me, I couldn’t tell them what they should do. There is no way for me to know what they should do. Even if I had an opinion—which I would try like hell to resist—it would be wrong to voice it. Wrong because opinions are not the same as knowing and I can’t know what anyone ought to do in life-altering, no-going-back circumstances unless those circumstances are mine, staring at me, nose to nose, blocking out the sky and demanding a response. Of me. No one else. If my body was occupied and soon to be torn open by a growing life gone tragically wrong, I would have a say. If it was my marriage about to be tested beyond what the covenant envisages, if it were my eyes having to behold the mangled fruit of my love only to begin its deathwatch, only then might I know if I have the inner resources necessary to take up the burden of care and ruinous medical expense and the wits to be anything other than defeated by the powers arrayed against this child’s flourishing. Unless that child’s life is quickening in me I have no basis on which to discern what possibilities that life portends. Even then I could never be sure.
No one except this couple will have to rearrange the fixtures of their lives around what this decision will gouge into their future. No one who can walk away from the life they have no choice but to inhabit has the authority to determine the righteousness of their decision. Even though we might care greatly, even though their decision might leave a gouge in us.
We clamor for general rules and absolute laws to govern the power and the freedom we have to make life and death decisions. Yet we make such decisions—guided by nothing more than personal interest—all the time. We couldn’t escape them if we tried. We choose life and death for ourselves and others in ways we are aware of, in ways we are unaware of and in ways we take pains to remain naïve of. Do I need to cite examples?ºº
We face terrible decisions in this life and we must make them. And I will pray for miracles.
º Mk 14:36; Mt 26:39; Lk 22:42.
ºº Here’s one that fits all three categories: the choices we’ve made concerning our nation’s gun laws.