Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Reproductive Health and Marginalized Women



By the Reverend Dr. J Herbert Nelson, II
Director, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of god, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
-John 4:10-11

The United States Congress and Planned Parenthood

Two months ago we were on the verge of a possible government impasse regarding funding for Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “Planned Parenthood” as it is commonly referred is one of the largest reproductive health service providers in the United States of America.[i] The health services they provide include, but are not limited to parenting skills; counseling; mammograms; birth control; and STI testing and treatment. Most notably, Planned Parenthood is known as a provider of low cost healthcare for poor women. Despite the range of services that Planned Parenthood provides, the most debated aspect of its work revolves around abortions. Planned Parenthood reports that only three percent of its services are abortion related. However, when one takes under consideration services related to abortions such as counseling, health education and money received as revenue for services, the percentage of Planned Parenthood spending dedicated to abortion services could rise to 12 percent.[ii]  It must be noted that it is illegal for government money to be used for abortions. Therefore, arguments on Capitol Hill, state legislatures and local municipalities are morally based rather than directly related to the utilization of government funds for abortions. At the center of the debate is discontinuing government contracts for Planned Parenthood as a service provider for poor people.

Since the landmark Roe v. Wade decision by the United States Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a state law that banned abortions except to save the life of a mother, both the Church and Society has struggled with the issues related to abortion rights. [iii] Planned Parenthood is at the center of many debates regarding reproductive rights in the United States, due to its policy of performing abortions. However, these debates often dismiss the good work of counseling and providing other medical services to both children and adults. Oftentimes these services are provided to address both personal and family health issues.[iv]

Jesus’ challenge in biblical scripture with the woman at the well was to take the demonization off of her by the larger society. He counseled her by telling her truths about herself. He treated her with respect and restored her dignity to build a sense of belonging despite her lowly role in the larger society. She could not own property and without a man that she could call her husband was destined to poverty. Jesus named her exploitation by the system by reminding her of the number of men she knew as her husband. Her survival tactics are oppositional to establishing a life in the Spirit. Surely, the laws regarding her personhood did not fully affirm her as a person of standing in the society. However, Jesus challenged her on the basis of learning to affirm her own sense of self worth. He did not tell her what to do, but instead gave her the impetus to make decisions on her own about the life she was living. She heard his voice and walked away from the well a different person. She brought the men who engaged in mutual usury with her to hear the word of Jesus that penetrated her soul.[v]  The issues in this text are not simply about prostitution, multiple marriages,  or abortion, but the integrity by which we live.

Presbyterians have struggled with the issue of abortion for more than 40 years, beginning in 1970 when the General Assembly voted to declare that “the artificial or induced termination of a pregnancy is a matter of careful ethical decision of the patient … and therefore should not be restricted by law”[vi]

Reverend Nelson speaks at a rally in support of
healthcare March 2015
I remember sitting in the Health Issues committee at the 220th (2012) General Assembly in Pittsburgh, PA. while Commissioners discussed an overture titled Calling the Church to a New Way Forward on the Issue of Pregnancies and Abortion. The Health Issues Committee disapproved the overture with comment:

Considering this resolution invited the committee to consider the 1992 report of the Special Committee on Problem Pregnancies and Abortion. This noteworthy study brought twenty years of relative peace on a matter that has been a source of intense conflict in the PC(USA) for many years prior to the study. The study accomplished no mean feat in setting forth common ground that Presbyterian can gather around; common ground that eschews partisanship on either side of the cultural divide. We found insight and guidance in this document that was both eloquent and relevant to our work; therefore we do not see the need for a new study but rather commend the existing study to our church.[vii]

The 1992 report recognizes and includes many reasons for which abortions might be an option, including incest, and rape. However, it calls for abortions not to be used as birth control. Therefore, the policies of our denomination, call women to responsible care and decision making related to their bodies. The 1992 policies represented various theological positions on the issues related to reproductive health.  Eleven years post reunion the PC(USA) demonstrated the courage to reason together regarding one of the most divisive issues of our Church and Society. This represented an attempt to build unity in the body of Christ, while acknowledging that this issue of reproductive rights for women was divisive, but needed to be addressed. The deliberations and writing of this report was intended to provide a balanced view of the issues related to abortions without disrupting a woman’s right to choose.[viii] This effort by Presbyterians represents prophetic courage in a contentious time in the life of the denomination and larger society.

The 1992 policy states that “We affirm the ability and responsibility of women, guided by the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit, in the context of their communities of faith, to make good moral choices in regard to problem pregnancies.[ix]

Women Marching for Equal Rights.
Source: Library of Congress
It is unclear as to how this issue of abortion has been watered down to the language of pro-life and pro-choice. We have forgotten or never been made aware of the complexities of bringing children into the world. Or, we do not understand the impact that remains as scars for so many women in our society who are victims of rape, incest and a host of other violent acts upon their personhood. Our faith calls us to an awareness of the issues and the individual. We are all pro life, however there are variances in how we live and move and have our being.

Addressing  The Double Standard

A Presbyterian minister in a rural congregation shared with me that he was once challenged when he refused to continue the practice of making a woman stand before the congregation to repent when she became pregnant outside of marriage. He raised the question with the elders of the Church as to whether the man who impregnated her was to publicly repent as well. The response from the all male Session was “no” although they knew the father of the child. During a time in this country when it was an embarrassment to be pregnant without a spouse, the Pastor felt that to have the woman stand alone before the congregation admitting her sin as though it occurred without the assistance of a male (who remained blameless) was exploitation of this woman.

The issue of unwanted pregnancies remains the imperfection of a woman rather than a shared responsibility in our society. The woman at the well was blamed for hustling men in order to make a living. However, the societal laws and standards placed her in a position that she had to engage in usury of men to survive. While I was pastoring a New Church Development in the late 1990’s in Memphis, Tennessee, our church committed to evangelizing the poor to the PCUSA. Over the course of that evangelism, it was shocking to discover that thousands of men in Shelby County Tennessee were behind in paying child support. The challenge to this type of behavior leaves the responsibility to raise children solely on the woman. The failure to provide child support by such a large number of men raises significant questions regarding the collusion of government with the expectation that women are to bear the sole responsibility of raising children. This type of inaction on the part of our government sends a message to men that their irresponsibility in supporting their child/children is given a pass.

As a Church we cannot dismiss our societal standards that place the sole responsibilities of becoming pregnant; delivering a child; and bearing the financial responsibility of the child’s upbringing on a woman. Maybe, when our government leaders vote affirmatively to pay women the same amount of compensation as a man for doing the same job it may take away the need to consider the financial hardships that women must bear in many cases to become a single parent.[x] Or, when our leaders determine that stricter enforcement of childcare payments are paid in full and on time, women will have another view other than to abort a child.

It is important that we who are of faith recognize the broadness of circumstances that trap the poor, victimized, and abandoned in our society. We must be conscious of the extraordinary struggles that women encounter when laws remain unjust towards them.  It was appalling to see an all male group of religious leaders standing at a Congressional Hearing  in 2012 testifying that the Obama administration went too far with its mandate that all insurers except churches - including non-church religious affiliated organizations - must offer health insurance. The hearing was titled "Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State” and centered around reproductive health, however not one person testifying on behalf of a religious organization was female. Linda Valentine, then Executive Director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency wrote a letter decrying this insensitive omission in which she wrote:

The views represented by the invited witnesses… boasted some glaring gaps in mainstream religious life in the United States. Not only were the voices of women missing, but also absent was a voice from the breadth of the mainline Protestant community. Grounded in our conviction that God wants healing and wholeness for each of us, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is a supporter of universal access to comprehensive health care, including the full range of women’s reproductive health care. [xi]

Whether one agrees or disagrees with denominational policy on this issue, it must be asked “Why does this issue of conscience carry so much weight of authority in our nation when fifty one percent of the children in the United States are low income?[xii] Do we care that in the most developed country in the world  35% of households headed by single women are food insecure?[xiii] Or, does it matter that while we send children to public schools everyday, many do not graduate or possess no skills to work?” It seems reasonable that if we make deeper commitments to mothers and fathers about the future of their children, the issues surrounding abortion may be easier to solve. Most parents want to know that their child or children will have a future. It is difficult to convince a pregnant teenager or an out of work expectant parent that their child can become significant to the world when they have no reference in their own lives to give them hope.

It must be made clear that this is not an attempt to simplify the outcome or remedy to this struggle in the United States regarding women’s rights, but instead that this issue is interconnected to deeper struggles within the Church and Society.

Conclusion - Affirming Our Current Policy

I anticipate that there will be a number of critics and supporters responding to this PCUSA Office of Public Witness policy commentary. Family issues are known to be “hot button” topics for our office. Please be reminded that we advocate for the social justice polices approved by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). These policies emanate from congregations, and committee members who sit in pews. Policies are discussed and voted on by persons serving on committees who worship in congregations and not national offices. It is important that we read and review the 1992 policy, before rushing to judgment.

While Congressional leaders hold hearings related to fetal tissue and abortions, it is my prayer that child poverty, low graduation rates, gun violence, food security and a host of other issues related to children and their families would be addressed with the same fervor. More importantly, I pray that the Church of Jesus Christ would recognize that human life does not operate in a vacuum.

Our challenge is to create an environment on this earth that is conducive to human life being received as a blessing by all and not a curse. I pray that we can now focus on ways that all human beings can have life and have it more abundantly.


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[i]Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Forbes.
[ii] Fact Check: How Does Planned Parenthood Spend That Government Money? By Danielle Kurtzleben
[iii] The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) continues to debate the issue at General Assembly meetings. In recent years the 1992 report of the Special Committee on Problem Pregnancies and Abortion has provided the impetus for interpreting the position of the General Assembly on Abortions.

[v] John 4:4-26
[vi] Minutes of the 182nd General Assembly (1970), United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., p. 891
[vii] Minutes of the 220th General Assembly (2012). Presbyterian Church USAPage 68.
[viii] The 1992 policy was developed with a variety of persons who represented various views on the issue of abortion.
[ix] Minutes of the 220th General Assembly (2012). Presbyterian Church USA Pg. 1707.

[x] God’s Work in Women’s Hands: Pay Equity and Just Compensation. Presbyterian Church USA, 218th (2010) General Assembly.
[xi] Valentine, Linda. Letter to Chairman Issa, US House of Representatives. March 1,2012.
[xii] Southern Education Foundation. New Majority Research Bulletin.
[xiii] Feeding America Hunger and Poverty Fact Sheet.