Abortion, angel, Birth Control, Catholic, chimera, Christ, Conception, Elizabeth, Embryo, Feminist, fertility, Gender, God, Grabriel, heresy, inter-sectional feminist, Jesus, Jesus Christ, John the Baptist, Life-at-conception, misogyny, Privacy, Pro-Choice, Pro-Life, Rape, rape culture, Religion, sexism, Twins, Virgin Mary, Women, Zechariah, Zygote
The gospel of Luke begins with two announcements. First in a conversation with an old priest named Zechariah, and then in a meeting with Zechariah’s cousin, Mary, the angel Gabriel declares that there will be another baby born, to change the fate of the world.
The first annunciation (Luke 1:5-20) is set up as a foil for the second (1:26-38). Zechariah and Mary each ask the angel how could they, given their strange circumstances, parent a child? But whereas Zechariah is struck voiceless because of his doubts, Mary’s voice only grows stronger.
“Behold,” she tells the angel, when it has been explained to her that no word from God will ever fail. “Behold,” meaning, look at me. Then she says: “I am the handmaid of the Lord.”
Taken out of context, this might be read as a declaration of passivity. However, just a few verses before, Gabriel responds to Zechariah’s skepticism with a similar introduction: “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you.”
Serving God was given, not as reason for dismissal, but as the source of the angel’s authority. Anyone who disbelieved God’s servant was kindly invited to shut his mouth for the next nine months or so.
After Mary speaks, it is the angel, and not the woman, who has no more to say. He stays just long enough to hear her final answer: “Be it done unto me according to your word.”
So active and forceful is her consent – practically a command – the annunciation is painted as a sort of proposal in most biblical interpretations. But Mary assumes a question that was never asked. By her yes, she still asserts that she has the right to say no.
Most traditions on the matter hold that without her permission, God would never have made her pregnant. The narrative has been used in theological circles as a parallel for sexual consent. However, Mary wasn’t consenting to sex. She was consenting to pregnancy. And Jesus, though not incarnate, was fully-formed. Gabriel knew his name and gender and what his destiny would be. Mary accepted, regardless, in a way that made it clear – she didn’t have to do this.
Jesus was a choice that she was making.
Though no story was recorded, it is evident that Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, experienced some form of annunciation as well. She knew her son’s name was John, though her husband couldn’t tell her so, and shouted as soon as she saw her cousin again that Mary was the mother of her Lord. We aren’t privy to the way that Elizabeth spoke with God. Elizabeth ensconced herself in solitude for the first five months of her pregnancy, so perhaps this missing story speaks to how highly she valued her privacy. But she issued a statement during this time that rings loud and strong across the ages: the Lord had done as she requested. John was a choice made, too.
Neither lady seems to have been particularly phased by the knowledge that whole nations and peoples would be shaped by their decisions. Of course, as they were women, this knowledge was nothing new.
Women are socially prepared, in great and subtle ways, to foster the life of the species. Identified females at every age are discouraged from partaking in activities, diets, and habits considered unhealthy in any given culture. Women must be clean and cautious, discriminating in our mating and producing the right number of offspring.
Conversations concerning family planning invariably fall under the umbrella of women’s issues – from secular spheres where chemical birth control has never been developed with men in mind, to the natural family planning promoted by most Christian groups, wherein the prescribed ingredient is a wife’s unerring knowledge of her own menstrual cycle.
Worldwide, fertility rates have always been determined according to the number of children per woman born. We are reminded again and again that our bodies represent the greater public good. Those like Elizabeth, who can’t or won’t have children, have long borne the shame of society’s disappointment. So, too, the teenaged mothers, poor and unmarried, like Mary.
Popes and presidents, scientists and prophets all have voiced their strong, conflicting opinions on the way that female bodies should further human aims. The fate of the world’s population is given as ours to decide. John Paul II preached that, as the family goes, so goes the nation, and so goes the whole world in which we live. This follows his appeal for married couples to see children as “God’s special gift to them and to society.” He suggests, but doesn’t say it: As goes a woman, so goes her family.
It adds up to a political reality wherein no choice regarding pregnancy is ever isolated from societal concern. This has always been the reality. Those who become pregnant are required, rather than called, to serve the highest good – independent of which choice is made – by the very act of choosing.
Mary certainly knew her pregnancy had a political context. The Jewish people were an oppressed minority within the Roman Empire, and the long-discussed Messiah was expected to flip that paradigm. On her visit to Elizabeth after speaking with the angel, Mary sings that the Lord has “brought down rulers from their thrones but lifted up the humble.” God was doing a great thing for her in making her a part of his revolution. Her choice is a power that she is proud to wield – not in a general pro-life way, but specifically for the advancement of Israel’s people. Mary demanded, before Gabriel knew her answer, that the angel recognize her as someone God trusted to make such great decisions.
To call abortion selfish is to ignore the sociological landscape that demands women choose, in every moment of living, the highest manifest good of our communities. Fleeing abusers, hunger, political unrest, unemployment, or the violence of neighborhoods guarded with suspicion by established authorities – the choice of abortion has very often been a choice in pursuit of conditions that are safer and more conducive to life. We have it on biblical authority that pregnancy is not always a blessing. Cursed be the breasts that suck and the wombs that bear in days of tribulation. Luke said so a few times, and Matthew said so once.
Those who have small children, and who plan to have children in future, acutely know that a risk to their own lives is a risk to others’, too. You may argue that there are very few circumstances where abortion can be seen as a defense of a pregnant person’s life. You would be wrong. Pregnancy and childbirth always include the risk of death. Hence people hurry to hospitals at the first signs of labor, preferring that medical professionals with surgical equipment actively supervise delivery. Throughout a pregnancy, medical check-ins are normal and encouraged. Rising and falling blood pressure throughout gestation can cause deadly clots, strokes, and heart-attacks. Hormone-related psychosis and depression, and other conditions which during pregnancy could not be treated with prescription pills, have even taken their share of lives via suicide. Everyone who ever died giving birth or under the cesarean knife would have lived had they instead chosen a safe, legal abortion during the typical first trimester. There is no knowing in advance who will die; the risk is there for every pregnant person.
Life is not a miracle, in the word’s most common sense. It’s not something that just happens, as though by magic – nor is it, as children may be told, born by stork through open windows. The creation of a human being requires the physical suffering of another person. Symptoms of a typical pregnancy would certainly be termed illness – and often severe illness – if experienced by any category other than the pregnant. Nine months is a long time to be so incapacitated, but many of these symptoms, such as tooth decay, have permanent effects. Childbirth and the major abdominal surgery known as cesarean sections are, of course, objectively damaging in the best of circumstances and require many weeks and months of medical recovery. Very often the person bringing life into the world sustains serious injuries rarely acknowledged, affecting areas of the body considered unfit for public discussion. Tissue damage may result in enduring painful intercourse, or incontinence. Permanent pelvic fractures are all too common.
It is sensible to presume that, even if no laws enforced it, the vast majority of abortions would continue to occur within the first trimester. A person who endures five or six months of pregnancy clearly intends to have a baby. Late-term abortions are overwhelmingly the result of dire health concerns, and not what any compassionate person would call “elective.”
The Catholic Church, easily the most prolific and influential pro-life organization globally, enshrines a much more stringent definition of non-elective abortion. Even when the termination of pregnancy will most certainly save the life of the person who is pregnant, and when the life of the unborn otherwise will certainly not be long, no abortion is moral that intends the death it causes. For example, in the case of ectopic pregnancies, an embryo found developing in a place other than a uterus may only be terminated indirectly, by, say, the removal of a lady’s fallopian tube.
Following what is characteristically Catholic logic, it can be argued that the intent of an action is as important as the impact of the action. But following what is characteristically Catholic prejudice, intent is treated as more important than impact when the subject is abortion. Further, and uniquely here, intent is treated as external, rather than private – visible to the Church and open to public evaluation.
As a Catholic, you are taught in other contexts that a person’s heart and mind are private spheres, and that this privacy is sacred. Not even angels can read minds. It can’t be assumed that the intention of abortion is to kill a zygote or embryo anymore than it can be assumed that the intention of a fallopian tube’s removal is not to kill a zygote or an embryo. Excepting such specific, individual cases where, say, a pregnant woman appeals for advice to her parish priest, then – the logic that is being used to tell us that it’s wrong to have an abortion, can’t be used to tell us that it’s wrong to have an abortion.
By a similar prejudice, the Church’s reasoning regarding self-defense is never applied to pregnancy. However, abortion removes the risk of death from one person at the expense of another. Because pregnancy cannot be ended with less than lethal force, lethal force is proportionate to threat. On these grounds, abortion should be considered valid self-defense.
You may balk at categorizing a helpless embryo the same as a willful assailant. This, too, is bias. According to the Church, we have no right to distinguish the value of lives based on guilt or innocence. Regardless of what crimes a person has committed, Catholic teaching holds that human being as incalculably precious and worthy of life. A child-soldier, blameless and vulnerable, is to be shown the same mercy as the commanding warlord when either are removed from battle and posing no active threat.
While in battle, the Church’s longstanding support for the concept of Just War argues that (arbitrarily contrary to what we’d argue with abortion) it is permissible to organize and intend the use of lethal force. A pregnant woman is different from a soldier only in that she is neither following orders, nor recognized, by the Church, as an authority over the territory of her body.
Interestingly, though the Church does specifically proclaim bodily integrity to be a value worth the outlaw of slavery, torture, and medical experimentation enacted voyeuristically, we have never been clear that a violation of bodily autonomy, even including rape, justifies defensive homicide. It was, however, once considered acceptable to kill yourself in the event that you were a virgin girl on the verge of being raped. And if you died while “defending your virtue”, you might just earn your sainthood.
There is something to the Church more precious than a life.
Abortion is a special crime not because of death – for all life is to be equally valued, and every child born requires the risk of another. What rankles so throughout the Church is the fact, the known fact, that a pregnant person made a choice about it.
If it were known to all that the Virgin Mary was pro-choice, would we take her experience into consideration? Or would we dismiss her? Would we hate her? Would we call her an enemy of life? Would we, solemn and troubled, ponder the idea, that mother though she was, and Mother though we call her, she was able to hold her head high and consider, just a minute, a world where we didn’t belong?
Does that thought bring us too near for comfort to the brink of non-existence? Can we feel the power slipping from us if we place it in her hands? Does it make us feel better to imagine that she had no choice, that she was God’s servant in the sense that she couldn’t say no?
Or maybe we’ll just compartmentalize, again, to save ourselves from considering abortion in one vein with the rest of our theology. The Annunciation will have nothing to do with questions of life or death. The main difference, we’ll conclude, is that – regardless of whether God was obliged to respect her wishes – a hypothetical no from Mary wouldn’t have physically killed Jesus.
According to the Vatican, life begins, case-closed, at the exact point where a sperm and egg cell meet. The angel says, you will conceive – Jesus wasn’t there, yet. Of course, conception as the starting point makes it theologically difficult to determine when Christ’s life did begin. There was no sperm involved. Unless it was God-sperm spontaneously generated. Maybe zygote-Jesus was entirely concocted from divine genesis, or one of Mary’s egg-cells divinely mutated. The point is, we have no canon idea when or of what Christ was made.
So life-at-conception isn’t inclusive of Jesus.
Nor is he the only one left out. Identical twins, springing from a single zygote, would have to be considered half-people if personhood could not begin after conception. Chimeras, splicing from multiple zygotes into one, contain multiple living strands of DNA. Such people can sometimes be identified by two differently-colored eyes. If both zygotes are people, and neither one dies, a chimera is a couple.
Great though it would be to watch the Vatican back-dooring acceptance of “them/they’re” pronouns and polygamia, the prospect of forcing a several-soul identity onto a child born chimera should remove from us such arrogance as would assert we know no mystery regarding life’s beginning.
What we have learned through science is that, including those zygotes who fail to implant, three-quarters of all conceived are lost naturally before they are ever born. That the Church does not condemn unprotected sex as reckless endangerment, but rather endorses it between married persons, is a valuation unexamined. It states that an infant is worth the sacrifice of every life lost in utero. In the Church’s eyes, the born child is worth more – by far – than any developing embryo.
Humility could spare us heresy and bless us with compassion, when, without it, our quest for righteousness entitles us to tramp beyond the veil of a breathing human’s flesh. Is there no reason, after all, that God saw fit to bury the sphere of life within us? Are the insides of our bodies not private, and sacred, just like the insides of our minds?
Mystery has its job to do. It stands as shield between us and a knowledge too profound. Protecting us from heartbreak in the wake of zygotes gone. Blowing away our labels before we stick them to each other, and lifting from our backs the weight of explanation. Some things don’t fit neatly into boxes. The straightest path has always been to accept that we’ve been confounded.