As a married, father-of-two, Christian pastor who was raised in the rural South as an evangelical Southern Baptist, many are quick to make many assumptions about me.
The most prevalent assumption is that I am on the Pro-Life side of the abortion debate, as many assume that one simply cannot be both a Christian and Pro-Choice. Many believe it is a black and white issue, a simple decision between good and evil, life and murder.
As a married, father-of-two, Christian pastor, I strongly support the 1973 decision of the United States Supreme Court in the case of Roe v. Wade. And, of course, I do not believe I am making a decision to choose evil. My convictions about abortion are strong, because my convictions are personal.
My Personal Story
It was the summer 1993. My wife Lori and I had been married five years and were expecting our first child. I had graduated from seminary the previous year and was serving with my first church as a Southern Baptist pastor in rural, Northeast Georgia. At our first OB/GYN appointment in Athens, we were told that our baby was due to be born on November 25.
During the last week of July, we drove to Athens for a highly anticipated appointment with our OB/GYN. We were scheduled to have an ultrasound that would hopefully determine the sex of our child. I remember being more excited than anxious about this appointment. The baby was already moving and kicking quite a bit. Lori would often call to me from another room in the house asking me to rush over to her. She would grab my hand and place it on the exact spot the baby was kicking so I could share her excitement. Lori was clearly showing at this time as strangers were beginning to approach us in public to offer their congratulations and to inquire when our baby was due.
As the doctor moved the ultrasound wand around on Lori’s abdomen and the black, white, and gray images of our baby appeared on a computer screen, I remember feeling like a wide-eyed child at Christmas getting a glimpse of the best present I could ever receive. We immediately heard a very strong and fast heartbeat. We then saw the outline of a head and a face. We saw arms, hands, legs, feet, even toes. After a minute or so, I impatiently asked: “Can you tell if it is a boy or a girl?”
Following my question, my anticipation heightened as there was a brief period of silence in the room, with the exception of the loud echo of a rapid heartbeat. Finally, the silence was broken as the doctor said, “It is really difficult to tell sometimes with our outdated equipment.” He moved the wand around for another minute and said, “The equipment that they have in Atlanta is far more advanced than mine. We probably need to make an appointment for you.” But before I could express any disappointment, he added: “There’s also something else going on that needs a better look.” He then handed the wand to the nurse and asked for us to come to his office where he would make an appointment for us to go to Atlanta. It was at that moment that my excitement was completely replaced by anxiety. Suddenly I no longer cared if it was a boy or a girl.
In his office, our doctor tried to break the news to us as compassionately as he could break it. It was obvious that he was struggling to communicate. At first, he seemed to blame the bulk of his concern on what he called his “antiquated ultrasound equipment.” I remember being irritated as I had no sympathy for the envy he possessed towards the doctors in Atlanta. As he seemed to be avoiding telling us anything specific, frustrated, I remember asking him directly, “But you suspect that there could be something wrong with our baby. Don’t you?”
He responded, “Yes.” A wave of anxiety came over me intensifying my stress. But then he added, “Again, you need another ultrasound before we can really determine how bad it is.”
It was a long and difficult two weeks before we could see the doctor in Atlanta. Every time our baby moved or kicked, it produced a wide-range of emotions in both of us. We did not know whether to cry, giving into grief; or smile, opening ourselves to the prospects of hope. Of course, hope is what we wanted. It is much easier to hope than it is to accept anything that brings grief. We asked one another: “How can there be something wrong with a baby whose heart is strong?” We conjectured: “Perhaps the more advanced ultrasound equipment in Atlanta will tell us that everything is ok.” The second week in August, we nervously drove to Atlanta holding on to hope, even if was just a sliver.
I will never forget the way we were greeted by the medical team we met in Atlanta. They could not have been more hospitable and caring. After they greeted us like family, we proceeded to an examination room for the ultrasound. Again, as soon as the gel on the wand touched Lori’s abdomen, we heard the heartbeat, a beat that was so strong that it could not help but to grow that little sliver of hope. As he moved the wand, we could see the same beautiful images, perhaps a little clearer, that we saw in Athens. We easily recognized a beautiful head, but this time, we saw more pronounced facial features, a nose, lips, even eyes. Again, limbs, hands, feet, fingers and toes came into focus. Nevertheless, I still did not possess enough hope to allow one thought to cross my mind about trying to determine the sex of our unborn child.
The doctor, who had been attentive yet quiet during the entire exam, spoke for the first time by pointing out a curvature in the spine. He called it a “neural tube defect.” This was the first time I had ever heard of a “neural tube.” However, upon hearing the term, one does not need to be familiar with the importance of the neural tube to be alarmed, as the word “defect” that was attached to it is more than enough to cause one’s heart to sink, especially when it is said to describe your unborn child’s spine.
Immediately following the ultrasound, we met with the team of doctors, nurses and a genetic counselor in a large consultation room. In a compassionate, yet straightforward way, we were told that our baby’s spine “twisted,” probably during the early weeks of the pregnancy, and prevented the formation of an abdominal cavity. We were told that although our baby seemed to have healthy organs, there was nothing to contain those organs. Surgery was not an option. Our baby will certainly die during the birthing process. A counselor put her hand on Lori’s shoulders and handed her a tissue to wipe tears from her face.
The team graciously addressed all of our questions. They told us that many severe neural tube defects end in miscarriage in the first trimester, but in some unfortunate cases such as ours, they do not. They assured us that we could soon try again to have a child, as they believed the defect was more of an anomaly than it was genetic. They then presented us with our options.
One option was to do nothing but wait until the pregnancy reaches full term and the baby is able to be born naturally or by C-section. However, because of the severity of the defect, we would be unable to hold our dead child, and may not want to see him or her. Our baby’s remains would be immediately prepared for a funeral service.
The second option was to terminate the pregnancy immediately. However, if we chose this option, it would be considered an abortion, and due to the political climate of the day, there was only one hospital in the state of Georgia which would perform an abortion this late in the pregnancy. He said that we could go to several clinics, but we may have to endure picket signs and possibly hecklers from religious groups opposed to abortion. The thought of my wife, who was still wiping tears from her eyes, being called a “murderer” or a “baby killer” by people claiming to follow Jesus, people who had no idea who we were, or what we were going through, made me furious. We were also told that although our child had a strong heartbeat, because of politics, for the record they would state that our child had “no viable heartbeat.”
Although the second option sounded dishonest, even illegal, it was obvious to us that it was the best, most compassionate option. I could not imagine Lori waiting three more months, feeling the baby move and kick, feeling another life inside of her, all the while knowing that this life will never have a chance. We scheduled an appointment for a procedure to end the pregnancy two days later.
That night, we checked into an Atlanta hotel to await our next appointment. The grief we experienced was immense. All of our dreams for the future were suddenly taken away from us. Furthermore, although the doctors and genetic counselors assured us we could one day have a child, we knew that in life there were never any guarantees.
That evening, we decided to go see a movie to try to get our mind off our grief. Although I never second guessed our decision to terminate the pregnancy, our decision was affirmed by a stranger as we stood in line to purchase our movie tickets. A woman who was also obviously expecting to have a baby approached us. She smiled and said, “Aww. When is your baby due?”
My chest tightened as I looked at Lori and saw tears begin to well up in her eyes once more. I was amazed when Lori smiled at the stranger and said, “November 25.” She then somehow found the courage to graciously reciprocate the question. Politely, she asked the woman who was glowing with anticipation, “When is your baby due?” So much for us trying to escape our grief.
During the movie, Lori put her hands on her abdomen and told me that the baby was moving. I thought to myself that these next two days were going to be a living hell. I could not imagine asking Lori to wait three more months, not only feeling the baby’s movement, but to endure more oohing and awing and questions from well-meaning strangers, for me, was as unconscionable as it was inhumane. As I watched the movie that I really never watched, I remember thanking God for the gift of medical science and compassionate physicians that could help bring healing and wholeness to our broken lives.
As planned, two days later, the pregnancy was terminated in the hospital without complications. However, as the next several weeks and even months proved, terminating the pregnancy did nothing to immediately heal our enormous grief. When we came home from the hospital, Lori went to bed and stayed there for nearly a week. She did not feel like talking to anyone. During that mournful week Lori would not even talk to her mother, who called several times a day, every day.
Now, over twenty years later, our grief has long subsided as Lori and I are the proud parents of a 19-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter. However, because of our experience, I continue to possess a very personal interest in the abortion debate which continues in our country.
The abortion debate centers around the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision of 1973. If many evangelical Christians had their way, and the Roe v. Wade decision was overturned in 1993, Lori would have been forced by the government to endure three more months of her pregnancy. Although her physical health was not in danger, as mentioned above, I cannot imagine the psychological trauma that continuing the doomed pregnancy would incur upon Lori. Today, we continue to be grateful to God for the healing gift of medical science, a compassionate team of doctors and nurses, and for the opportunity and freedom to make a safe and humane choice, a choice that we and our doctors believed would bring us the most wholeness and healing.
The issue of abortion is a complicated one. Like every person I have ever talked to about the subject, I do not believe abortion should be used as birth control. As a follower of Jesus who gave his life standing up for the rights of the poor and the marginalized (he also stood up for the rights of women who were treated unjustly by a patriarchal system), I believe very strongly in the sanctity of life. This is the reason I do not support capital punishment. However, the decision to terminate a pregnancy is a personal and oftentimes complicated matter. Thus, I believe the only ones who should be a part of that decision are the parents of the unborn child, especially the mother, the doctors and God. The government should not be involved.
I fully understand the strong, moral desire of Christians to limit abortions in America. However, I do not think a government can legislate morality. This is why I believe the church should always be strong proponents of sex education and of the use of contraceptives. Unfortunately, the church has been either silent when it comes to sex education and contraceptives or has flat-out discouraged both. It is strange to me that many Christians who are against the Roe v. Wade decision are supportive of the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision to deny women healthcare coverage for contraceptives. It is also interesting to me that many Christians who claim to support a limited government are also the same ones who believe the government should be involved in matters as personal as pregnancies.
Life is not easy. Sometimes difficult decisions have to be made. Sometimes the solutions are not black and white. Sometimes those decisions are not between a clear good and a clear evil. Sometimes we are forced to choose the lesser of two evils. I want to live in a country where I am free to prayerfully make such difficult choices, especially choices that are so personal in nature, without any interference from the government.