Sunday, thousands of churches observed a day of sorrowful prayer and preaching as we approach Wednesday’s 30th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. I wondered what the Religious Left was up to on what for Roman Catholics, at least, is their annual Pro-Life Sunday. So I attended services at the First Unitarian Church of Brooklyn, which touts itself as “a center of free religion since 1833.”
This Unitarian Universalist parish has had for over 20 years its own abortion-themed service on the Sunday preceding January 22. But in this case, it is a “celebration” (their word, not mine) of the Roe decision. Since 1973, over 40 million unborn children have been legally aborted in the United States — a number equivalent to the population of New York City, plus the entire state of California. Let joy be unconfined.
Sunday morning, Pastor Frederick Wooden, just back from the antiwar march in Washington, D.C., stood at the door of the beautiful 19th-century church warmly greeting parishioners coming in from the cold. No surprise there, for First Unitarian, as we are told by church bulletin, strives “to welcome all people, embracing diversities of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age and ability.”
The mixed-race congregation began with a hymn and “Words of Affirmation,” a responsive reading:
We gather in reverence before the wonder of life —
The wonder of this moment.
The wonder of being together, so close yet so apart —
Each hidden in our own secret chamber,
Each listening, each trying to speak —
Yet none fully understanding, none fully understood.
We gather in reverence before all intangible things —
That eyes see not, nor ears can detect —
That hands can never touch, that space cannot hold, and time cannot measure.”
A lady minister whose name I didn’t get stood to address the children of the congregation. She told them that today’s service was to be about “making choices,” and having the courage to take risks. She read a Unitarian Universalist poem about an egret named Loretta who was afraid to fish, fly, or do the things egrets are supposed to do, until a fellow egret asked her, “Why?” Then Loretta Egret asked herself, “Why not?” — and was thus set free. With that, the minister sent the children off to Sunday school in the church’s undercroft.
Then the adult congregation heard the first of three readings. The first was offered by an elderly woman named Marge, who read from the work of a feminist philosopher, who proclaimed abortion an integral part of women’s liberation, “the latest stage in woman’s revolt against marital dependence and female subjugation.” A young woman gave the second reading from Holy Writ, taken from the Supreme Court’s majority decision in Roe.
And finally, a middle-aged woman read “The Mother,” a 1945 poem by Gwendolyn Brooks. It’s a startling piece of work, this poem, dwelling on the guilt and regret a woman feels over her aborted children. (“Though why should I whine/Whine that the crime was other than mine?”). I thought: If a pregnant woman considering abortion were to read this searing poem, and imagine herself speaking these words, how could she go through with it?
Anyway, the point of including the Brooks’s poem in this celebratory service was to acknowledge that choosing abortion can involve emotional pain. Operating on the principle that C. S. Lewis was wrong when he said that “a long face is not a moral disinfectant,” members of the congregation then came forward to light “Candles of Joy and Sorrow,” meant to “celebrate the right to choose or to mourn … potential life or both.”
Hmm. Does a woman feel that stopping “potential life” is a crime? “You were born, you had body, you died,” the mournful mother in the Brooks poem says to her aborted child. Do potential lives die? Do they potentially die? Do Unitarians have much interest in clear thinking, or are they content, as they say, neither to fully understand, nor be fully understood?
These Unitarians are apparently big ones for garment metaphors. Pastor Wooden offered a prayer in which he spoke of the “tapestry of life” and the “fabric of being.” After the candle-lighting came a hymn titled “Dear Weaver of Our Lives’ Design,” and I couldn’t help recalling these words from Psalm 139 (verse 13, NIV): “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”
Then it was time for the sermon, given today by a guest preacher, a black Baptist clergyman named Carlton W. Veazey, head of the national Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. The Reverend Veazey told the congregation that when he began his full-time ministry on behalf of legal abortion five years ago, some were surprised to see a black man taking a leadership role in the fight.
“I informed them that the black community has invested more in this effort because we know what it means to be without choice in so many areas,” he said.
Veazey is certainly right that the black community is unusually involved in the world of abortion, though not necessarily for the reason he claims. According to the most recent statistics from the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the research arm of Planned Parenthood, black women are three times more likely to have abortions than whites. In fact, blacks make up 10 percent of the U.S. population, but since 1973 have been responsible for 30 percent of all abortions. That’s 12 million dead black babies in the last generation. (For information on black pastors leading the fight against abortion in the African-American community, and the racist-eugenicist roots of the abortion movement, go here.)
Veazey spoke of the fundamental Baptist concept of “the priesthood of all believers,” which implies the primacy of individual conscience in interpreting Scripture and discerning moral principles. This, he said, is why he cannot separate his pro-choice convictions from his religious ones. It would have been interesting to ask the pastor how he would have applied this teaching to those churches which, within living memory, taught as a matter of religious truth that segregation was divinely ordained.
Fifty years ago, Veazey said, in the pre-Roe dark ages, his 13-year-old cousin in Mississippi got pregnant. Her family sent her to live with relatives in Los Angeles until she had the baby. The distressed girl induced her own abortion. She was taken to the hospital hemorrhaging, and doctors saved her, but not her unborn child. Authorities lodged manslaughter charges against the girl, but later dropped them. She returned to Mississippi, then went on to Chicago, married, and had two daughters.
Many years later, one of her daughters, now grown, was killed in an automobile accident. Veazey said his cousin suffered “a total breakdown.”
“The scar was still there,” he said. “How unfortunate. How sad we didn’t have someone there [during her teenage years], like we have now, to counsel that [the abortion] was not against God, that this was a choice you made because of the circumstances of your life.”
It is not clear how the guilt Veazey’s cousin felt over having caused the death of her unborn child would have been mitigated by the abortion having been legal. Either way, she would have willed the death of her unborn child. As those who do post-abortion grief counseling know all too well, the trauma to a woman’s psyche is very deep. The haunting specter of guilt is not easily dispelled by a pro-choice counselor denying that there is any reason for guilt to exist. The scar was still there on Veazey’s cousin’s soul, but not because there wasn’t someone there to tell the poor woman at 13 that she had committed no wrong. Deep down, she knew otherwise.
Be that as it may, the Rev. Veazey was here to tell us that this kind of trauma would be upon us again if the religious community doesn’t “rise up and fight those forces who are determined to roll back this God-given right.” Indeed, the Nazis are at the very gates, he indicated, quoting the Rev. Martin Niemoller’s lines about the cost of silence during the early days of the Third Reich (“First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist…”). Stand up! said the pastor. Fight! Write your Congressperson!
Though the broad-minded divine had earlier issued a plea for more tolerance in American society, especially towards Muslims, the temptation to liken one’s conservative opponents to Nazis will overtake liberals every time. The service nearly over, the people who gathered “in reverence before the wonder of life” to thank God for legal abortion put on their coats and prepared to leave.
The recessional hymn was called “Come, Children of Tomorrow.”