General Board of Silly Walks, Part the Fourth

In Silly Walks
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Every so often I find myself feeling a bit down, and the variegated attempts of the internet to lift my spirits end in abject failure. Like the Marshmallow People who find that the magic flying otter doesn’t ever work, sometimes nothing helps.

No, not even my face being pretty soft.

In times like that, I have to pull out the big guns. It usually involves making a visit to the UMC General Board of Church and Society’s blog to catch up on the recent Faith in Action newsletter or various press releases and watch the hilarity ensue.

(Ok, that sounds lame, but whatever.)

Much akin to the Ministry of Silly Walks of Monty Python fame, the General Board of Silly Walks is part of a puffy, somewhat sticky, marshmallowy bureaucracy whose only meaningful contribution seems to be in developing its own brand of silly walks. Unlike the Ministry of Silly Walks, however, the Board of Silly Walks usually stumbles into its silliness quite unawares.

I have documented some of the sillier moments here:

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3,

This installment comes from a press release entitled Clearly more to be done, jointly released by the Board of Silly Walks (GBCS) and the United Methodist Women. (UMW)

Let the fisking begin!

On this 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, some individuals, organizations and churches are celebrating, while others are protesting. Like many other topics of deep social concern, the church is divided on the issue of abortion.

It is difficult to refrain from criticism here, but it is terribly predictable and thus terribly banal to preface these sorts of statements with the obligatory observation of a division of opinion within United Methodism. As this is coupled with the Book of Discipline’s official position  a sentence later, it is equally difficult to suppress one’s suspicion that the regret over division and the Book of Discipline’s imprimatur are cover for a position that will effectively negate the Book of Discipline’s position.

Our Book of Discipline (2012) speaks to the official position of the United Methodist Church by stating, “We recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures by certified medical providers” (Social Principles ¶161J).

While I think the Book of Discipline’s treatment of this matter is only marginally superior to what will follow in the press release, I have always found this line to be intellectually bankrupt. The line: ‘tragic conflicts of life with life’ is as vapid as it is ambiguous, for it posits a ‘conflict’ between two beings which does not actually exist and, under the circumstances of the statement in question, could not exist.

After all, a conflict between two humans is predicated upon intentionality; a fight over resources, an offense to be settled, etc. There might be circumstances in which we say that conflict is ‘inevitable,’ but this parlance revolves around a general approach to human nature that such conversations tend to assume- that is, since each person wants one thing but only one can possess it, they will invariably be in conflict in possessing it, since we simplistically reduce their motivations within the trajectory of the narrative.

But in the case of pregnancy, there is no essential ‘conflict.’ Even a dictionary definition of being at variance or interference is not appropriate, since there is nothing essential to the relationship between the mother and the child in her womb which can cast such an interpretation. Thus, in the case of health-related complications, the conflict is not between one life and another life but between each life and the complication itself. Since pregnancy is something that is natural for humans, the complications that arise in some cases do not thereby oppose the two lives to each other.

To some this may seem like quibbling, but the words we use make a difference in the way we perceive the nature of a certain situation. As the Book of Discipline’s statement is inherently vague, this supposed conflict of ‘life with life’ has no meaningful content, as one could thereby assert any imagined affront to one life as providing the ground for the conflict. While this might be an extreme interpretation, there is nothing in the wording which necessarily rules it out. Seen in this way, the language of the press release may have sufficient grounds. (Ignoring, of course, the context of this quote which the press release omits.)

On this anniversary of Roe v. Wade, as the United Methodist representatives to the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, we look back upon the four decades since the passage of Roe v. Wade as years devoid of widespread coat hanger abortions and unnecessary deaths.

It is certainly true that the last 40 years have seen a distinct lack of ‘widespread’ coat hanger abortions. The use of this statement is curious, however, in that it implies that the years preceding Roe v. Wade were characterized by ‘widespread’ coat hanger abortions.

The difficulty- one might be inclined to call it chuckle-worthy if the subject were different- with such a characterization is that it is widely lacking in evidence. Even one occurrence is certainly tragic, but that hardly makes the rhetorical move of employing language such as ‘widespread’ appropriate. To the contrary, a former director for Planned Parenthood wrote in 1960 that only 8 percent of abortions were self-induced, as opposed to the 90 percent done by physicians.[1. Calderone, ILLEGAL ABORTION AS A PUBLIC HEALTH PROBLEM] Of all the abortions in 1957, “there were only 260 deaths in the whole country attributed to abortions of any kind.”[2. ibid.]

The author admits that this a ‘low’ death rate, indicating that the physicians who perform them must be doing a “pretty good job.” Thus, at least 16 years before Roe v Wade the death rate from abortion- whether self-induced or performed by a physician- was so low that the author cites as a fact that “Abortion is no longer a dangerous procedure. This applies not just to therapeutic abortions as performed in hospitals but also to illegal abortions as done by physicians.”[3. ibid.]

While the 260 deaths is certainly lamentable, it is hardly worthy of the characterization of being ‘widespread,’ especially since the vast majority of the abortions were being performed by physicians. The author also notes that advances in chemotherapy and antibiotics have contributed to keeping the death rate down.

Unfortunately, over 50 years later the authors of the GBCS/UMW press release seem to have bought into the type of emotional and intentionally inaccurate rhetoric that has been admitted by the co-founder of NARAL, Bernard Nathanson. In his book Aborting America, he confesses to making up numbers:

How many deaths were we talking about when abortion was illegal? In NARAL we generally emphasized the drama of the individual case, not the mass statistics, but when we spoke of the latter it was always “5,000-10,000 deaths a year.” I confess that I knew the figures were totally false, and I suppose that others did too if they stopped to think of it. But in the ‘morality’ of our revolution it was a useful figure, widely accepted, so why go out of our way to correct it with honest statistics? The overriding concern was to get the laws eliminated, and anything within reason that had to be done was permissible.[4. Bernard Nathanson, Aborting America, p. 197]

As far as the unnecessary deaths the press release refers to, it is almost breathtaking how the 50+ million lives that have been taken following Roe v. Wade are not even acknowledged. As much as I disagree with the UMC’s position in the Book of Discipline, there is certainly a difference (if in nothing other than degree) between grudgingly permitting abortion in the case of imminent mortality and ignoring the almost unimaginable body count within elective abortion (which comprises at least 92% of all abortions) as epitomized in Roe v. Wade.

We recognize the significance of marking this day as we continue to face opposition to keeping abortion safe, legal, accessible and rare.

The authors of the press release use words like ‘widespread’ and ‘rare,’ without evidently knowing what either of them means. One might be forgiven for thinking that calling 260 deaths ‘widespread’ is a bit overwrought when 50+ million is ushered under the euphemism of ‘rare.’ Let’s see:

Widespread: 260 deaths

Rare: 50+ million deaths

Got it.

We also recognize that there continue to be many obstacles to reproductive justice, both nationally and internationally.

The term ‘reproductive justice’ is such a squishy term that it can become a catch-all for any position one would wish to predicate of it. As I have explained in other posts, attaching the term ‘justice’ to anything but justice (which is rendering to one one’s due) only succeeds in stripping justice of any meaning beyond the position one is wishing to advance.

However, one might ask how any of this could legitimately be subsumed under ‘reproductive justice’ anyway, since any form of justice has to recognize not only the rights of those to whom justice is due but also the responsibilities enjoined upon those to whom justice is directed. In the case of abortion, justice is not within the purview of one person alone, but is relevant for more than one. Since the human life to be taken is inherently under the demands of justice, there can be no meaningful justice- reproductive or not–  in taking such a life.

In the United States, the maternal mortality rate has doubled in the past 25 years.

The difficulty with these types of statements (especially in an article about the anniversary of Roe v. Wade) is that they can give the impression that the reason for this increase is necessarily correlated to lack of ‘reproductive justice.’ There are a number of potential factors which might make the US maternal mortality rate higher than other countries, but it is hardly the case that a lack of accessibility of abortions is primary. (In countries such as Malta and Ireland, the maternal mortality rate is extremely low despite much sterner restrictions on abortions.)

Great racial discrepancies exist, as African-American women are 3.2 times more likely to die from pregnancy and childbirth than white women in the United States.

This is certainly tragic, but equally tragic (and shockingly not mentioned in this press release) is the racial discrepancy in which African-American babies are 4x more likely to die by abortion than white babies.

Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control reports that almost half of all pregnancies in the United States are unintended. According to the World Health Organization, every day approximately 800 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, with 99% of maternal deaths occurring in developing countries.

Again, while it is certainly tragic that there is such a high incidence of maternal mortality in developing countries, and that so many women die every day from these preventable causes, it is no less tragic that more than 4 times this many babies are killed every day in the United States alone.

The United Methodist Church has not been silent or inactive on this issue. Projects of the United Methodist Women and advocacy on the part of the General Board of Church & Society have addressed the issue of reproductive justice, but clearly much more needs to be done. We as the church must more fully devote our time, energy, gifts and service to the following priorities for national and international reproductive justice:

What follows is again as predictable as it is banal.

1. Keep abortion safe, legal, accessible and rare.

By keeping it ‘accessible’ and ‘rare,’ might we assume that the United Methodist Church (for who the GBCS/UMW statement speaks) does not give a fig that abortion disproportionately affects African-American (and Hispanic) babies and worldwide disproportionately affects girls? By keeping it ‘safe’ might we assume that the United Methodist Church regards as irrelevant the emotional trauma (not to mention the deaths that still result) that often follows abortion or the health complications that have been associated with it?

2. Ensure universal access to modern contraception, including but not limited to emergency and over-the-counter contraception.

In the United States access to modern contraception is hardly limited, notwithstanding the blusterings of the GBCS. One would actually be hard-pressed to find a commodity that is so widespread (in the actual meaning of ‘widespread’) at such little cost. Given the nearly universal use of contraceptives by women in the United States, lack of access to contraceptives has not made a tremendous difference in the unintended pregnancy rate. Nor has it in developing countries. In fact, in some instances access to contraceptives has had a negative impact on other medical services, as I noted in a previous post.

4. Provide accurate, scientifically based sex education in our churches and schools.

One might hope that the ‘scientifically based sex education’ provides information on the medical risks associated with certain forms of contraception, the failure rate of certain types of contraception, the statistical rates of contracting STIs, the association of abortion with emotional trauma and medical complications (including infertility), the statistical rates of abortion in their safe, legal, accessible and rare mode, etc.

5. Conduct careful analysis of the church’s support for crisis pregnancy centers that may not offer all options of counseling.

It’s not clear what exactly is meant by this, but given the general timbre of the press release one would be forgiven for suspecting that crisis pregnancy centers which do not offer the option of counseling towards abortion might be on the black list. I’d love to be proved wrong.

In the wilderness of political posturing and divisive blaming and shaming, we seek to be a voice crying out to prepare the way for the Lord to bring about a new era of reproductive justice for our families and communities.

Ah yes, one can see John the Baptizer in the Judean wilderness, with a condom in one hand and RCPC business card in the other, proclaiming the coming of reproductive justice.

We actively await the realization of God’s Kingdom on earth, a kingdom in which all pregnancies are intended, sexuality is safe and celebrated, and families are healthy and secure.

I have looked at the absurdity of the notion of building God’s kingdom on earth here. And if keeping abortion ‘rare’  (so that 50+ million must be sacrificed to attain reproductive justice) is still only our ‘awaiting the realization of of God’s Kingdom on earth,’ one might shudder to think of what the attainment of it must entail.

We cannot afford to allow the heated politics of this issue to veil the fact that women are dying and that childbirth remains one of the most dangerous endeavors a woman faces.

Nor can we allow the heated politics of this issue to veil the fact that even more babies are dying, and a disproportionate number of minorities and females at that.

May God use us to create a world where every pregnancy is a cause for celebration and not fear.

And all it will take is the ‘rarity’ of over 50 million babies killed, thousands of women emotionally traumatized and potentially exposed to further medical complications, and millions of women caught in a prisoner’s dilemma.

If ‘clearly there is more to be done’ means this, one might ask:

Haven’t we done enough already?

Reproductive Justice

 

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