A slightly different version of this post originally appeared in June 2010.
Jonalyn Grace Fincher offers a long and nuanced (though unquestionably pro-life) Christian perspective on abortion and body sovereignty in this post entitled “Listening to Both Sides.” She links to and quotes from the post I wrote one week after Heloise’s birth: Pregnant women, personhood, and paternal reflections. She had some nice things to say about my piece, but took issue with the central thrust of my argument, which revolved around women’s right not to be forced to endure pain.
I wrote: Giving birth, whether by ceserean section or vaginally, hurts. The recovery hurts. That point is being driven home to me daily as I watch my wife recover. She considers the pain well worth it, well worth it because this baby was longed for and wanted. But we both shudder, more than ever now, at the thought of compelling a woman to go through this process against her will.
Jonalyn responds by noting that the real pain isn’t just in pregnancy and childbirth.
During pregnancy I slept long and well. I easily coordinated elaborate outfits with accessories and make-up. I worked out or spend hours reading and writing without leaking milk. Then I had a baby.
It’s not merely the pregnancy that women must count as a cost, it’s the life after the birth.
I believe more women would refuse an abortion if they could serve nine months and be done with it. It’s not the pain of the nine months; it is the idea of a life to be responsible for, to be guilty about, to wonder as to the painful, happy, fruitful or fruitless future of your offspring.
That’s right, I think. It’s certainly not an argument against the legal right to choose an abortion. My point was not that abortion should be legal solely so that women can avoid the discomfort of continuing a pregnancy, nor that it should be legal only so that a woman can avoid the pain of birthing. Indeed, I support abortion rights for precisely the reasons Jonalyn mentions: “the idea of a life to be responsible for, to be guilty about”, and so forth. Whatever moral arguments can be brought to bear on the issue, I believe the state has a clear interest in not compelling women to take up those particular burdens against their will. And while a birth parent can surrender a newborn for adoption, it is simply an unconscionable overask to insist that every pregnant woman unready for motherhood choose adoption.
Jonalyn’s views on sex are deeply traditional; like so much conservative Christian writing on sexuality these days, they resonate with the vocabulary of John Paul II’s odious “theology of the body”, with the insistence that sex be focused on sacrifice and radical openness to new life. Jonalyn writes:
My concern is that pro-choice advocates remain intent upon driving a wedge between procreation and sex. I don’t think this is appropriately human, nor that God created our bodies and souls to permanently cleave sex away from procreation.
For many religious traditionalists (a group of which Jonalyn appears to be a member, albeit a winsome and reflective one) sex that isn’t procreative, or sex with the use of contraception, is a rejection of self-evident natural law, a rejection of both the design and the Designer. I come from an alternative Christian tradition, one that honors what Marvin Ellison calls “erotic justice”, something I wrote about at length in this post. I wrote:
Our sexual desires are indeed powerful. They can easily be misdirected or warped. But they can, by God’s common grace, be used as an instrument for justice. More than that, our bodies can be used to worship the aspects of the divine we find in each other. In the old Anglican marriage ceremony, a husband and wife would pledge their lives to each other, saying with my body I thee worship. We are called to worship only that which is of God; blessedly, God is found in each of us. When we have sex that is grounded in justice, grounded in enthusiastic and mutual desire, we are engaged in an act of worship. Not every act of sex in marriage is an act of worship, as most married folks can attest. And sex outside of heterosexual marriage, can be deeply worshipful.
The purpose of lovemaking is not to make babies. Pregnancy is simply an ancillary and occasional consequence of one particular kind of sex. Folks who say that procreation and sex can never be separated are like those who say that the primary function of the tongue is to prevent us from choking on our food. It is true that one function of the tongue is to protect large chunks of dinner from being lodged in our throats. But our tongues are there to taste, and we taste both to discern what is rancid and to delight in what is pleasurable. Our tongues are also necessary for speech. And sexually, tongues can bring delight to others. The tongue has many uses, many purposes, all important, all wonderful. We cannot discern a single purpose behind the Designer’s design. It is hubris — poltiicised and pleasure-hating hubris — to suggest that we can.
I know how we made Heloise. I’m fairly certain I remember the specific night she was conceived. After years together as lovers, after still more years of all kinds of sex with all kinds of other people, my wife and I were ready and open to the possibility of conceiving a child. What we had worked assiduously to prevent was now something that we ardently sought. This wasn’t a contradiction, or a sign of hypocrisy. We were at a new season in our lives, emotionally and spiritually and financially equipped to be parents. Was the sex we had when we were trying to conceive different than the sex we had had when we weren’t? Of course it was. But we weren’t magically transformed into better people because after so many years of being sexually active humans, we were finally having intercourse to procreate.
Pleasure still mattered. The opportunity to worship the divine in each other still mattered. The fact that I wasn’t wearing a condom (always, for umpteen reasons, my favorite form of contraception) didn’t mean that I loved my wife anymore than the times I’d been inside her with one on. Sex made the daughter whom I love with all my heart. But as wonderful as she is, as wonderful as all the little darling babes of the world are, they are not the only reason, should not be the only reason, need not have anything to do with the reason why we bring our hands and mouths and genitals together with those of others.
As a husband, a father,a teacher, and a Christian, I know this as I know few other things.