Life, Abundantly, a sermon on the contraception debate, April 29, 2012

Romans 8:18-30
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

Early in the Methodist societies, Charles Wesley asked a member to leave because his theological views were extreme and were influencing other members in a negative way. The man appealed to Charles’ brother John, who said his views were wrong, but he could stay as long as he did not try to unduly impact others. The man never returned. Mr Wesley remembered that encounter in a sermon called “The Catholic Spirit”—catholic with a little “c,” meaning universal, not as in the Roman Catholic Church. Wesley said this: “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?” That attitude has been a hallmark of Methodist churches for nearly 300 years. Our members are not required to agree on every issue of politics or theology. Our General Conference, which meets every four years and is going on right now in Tampa, produces our Social Principles (our Social Creed we’ve used the last two Sundays is based on them). These Principles are not considered church doctrine, and folk are free to disagree. But one of our great Methodist traditions is that we are not silent on issues that surround us. We believe our faith speaks directly to the world. That “Catholic spirit” Wesley spoke of is especially vital as we explore today’s topic in our “Holy Conversations” series: The Contraception Debate.

For months now we’ve heard talk in the media of a “war on women” perpetuated from all sides of the political spectrum. State after state, including our own, has withdrawn funding or other types of support for organizations like Planned Parenthood.  Access to abortion is becoming more difficult—sometimes only when the life of the mother is in jeopardy or the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest. For nearly forty years, since the Supreme Court ruled abortion must be legal in every state, a culture war, Pro-Life vs. Pro-Choice, has raged in our country. Both sides have been caricatured to the point that their arguments for or against abortion are no longer understood fully. Pro-choice advocates are spoken of as anti-religious, secular, radical folk who see an unborn child as a random encounter of cells. Pro-life advocates are religious zealots who want to imprison women in their own bodies. No one ever considers the real possibility that thinking, loving, rational persons of faith see real, moral questions at play here. And that there could even be the possibility of coming together to achieve common goals.

Fundamental to understanding The Contraception Debate is one of those great existential questions of faith: “When does life begin?” Some say life begins at the moment of conception. They point to scriptures such as Jeremiah 1:1: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” or Psalm 139: “You knit me together in my mother’s womb,” as proof of God’s handiwork from the earliest, most fragile moment. Yet science cannot point to a specific moment where life begins. Roughly half of fertilized eggs do not become embryos, so they are naturally discarded—does that mean they were not human? If an egg does not continue in the growth cycle does it have a soul? Or is the question of life more about viability—when the baby is able to survive outside of the womb on its own? Does human life begin at the moment of birth itself?

The Roman Catholic Church, and many evangelical Christian groups, define the moment of conception as the beginning of human life. This teaching originates from St Augustine of the Fourth Century. At the point of conception a soul is created, made in the image of God. Therefore  abortion is an act of murder—the intentional taking of human life—and it is strictly forbidden and innocent life should be defended at all costs. A very small number of people have taken this belief to its most radical extreme, shaming women who pursue abortion or even to the point of bombing clinics and murdering doctors. The idea of life beginning at conception even forbids abortion in cases of rape, incest, or when the mother’s health is endangered by the pregnancy. This stance is not meant to belittle the mother in any way; but because her pregnancy is considered an equal human being as she is, yet without means of controlling its own fate, it is innocent and is given a higher moral value. 

Some Catholic theologians offer a so-called "seamless garment" theology, a reference to Jesus' crucifixion. When Jesus was crucified, the soldiers rolled dice for his clothing. But his outer garment, which was seamless, was not torn. In the same way, there is a consistent ethic of human life. It is the gift of a loving God, who alone is the just judge with ultimate authority. Life's integrity does not end with birth; it continues our entire life, from childhood to adulthood to eventual death. The "seamless garment" theology of life defines Catholic views of abortion, stem cell research, contraception, poverty, capital punishment, and end of life issues. The only authority over human life is God, who created all things. And we are made in God's image. We'll come back to this "gospel of life" next Sunday.

This same theology of life informs Catholic doctrine on contraception, which is also forbidden. Contraception of any kind, surgical, medicinal, on the part of a man or a woman, trespasses upon God’s will, whether a child is to be created or not. Human will must never trump God’s will. Recently two teachers in Catholic schools, one in Ohio and another in Indiana, were fired for pursuing medical avenues for becoming pregnant—one through in vitro fertilization and the other through artificial insemination. The school leaders said teachers must serve as moral exemplars. A lawsuit alleges one of the teachers was called a “grave, immoral sinner” by the leader of the school. The so-called “morning after pill,” which is available in vending machines on a few college campuses for $25, does not induce abortion, but stops ovulation. This adds a whole new level to the discussion!

Others within the “Pro-life” camp would allow for legal abortion in certain difficult situations: if the mother’s health were endangered, or in cases of rape or incest. With these limitations on the reach of abortion, proponents of this stance do not assign the pregnancy  the same rights as the mother. Her situation takes precedent, unlike the traditional Catholic stance, which, one could argue, is more morally consistent—life of pregnancy and mother are equal. In the State of Texas, a woman who wants an abortion is required to have a sonogram and then wait 24 hours for the procedure. You’ve heard in the news the struggles between Austin and Washington over public health funding. Recently Nebraska and Mississippi enacted laws strictly limiting access to abortion, and Arizona may soon cut off all public funding to such organizations as Planned Parenthood. Of course we've heard lots about the Susan B Komen Foundation's recently reversed controversial decision to limit funding for Planned Parenthood.

Yet there are persons of faith who see this debate from other perspectives. Many sincere persons of faith do not regard conception as the beginning of human existence, especially since it is such a random, near miraculous event. Some would argue that real human life doesn’t begin until the neurological system begins to function, when there is real communication between mother and child. Or even when the pregnancy is viable outside the womb. Or at birth itself. If we polled the congregation we’d probably be split equally with where human life begins. It’s that difficult to define. For those who do not believe life begins at conception, but at some later time, the possibility for abortion is more acceptable, especially earlier in the pregnancy. As a means of birth control most persons of faith would not support abortion, and our Social Principles rightly condemn it as a means of gender selection. But there are other factors to consider: one study found poor women are four times more likely to have unplanned pregnancies, five times more likely to have unintended births, and three times more likely to have an abortion than higher income women. Another study showed of the roughly one million abortions performed every year nearly half were because birth control was not used—and a recent study of women under 30 showed 2/3 of their pregnancies were unplanned.

Contraception also provides benefits to women and men that go beyond the question of when life begins. We know that contraception stops the spread of sexually transmitted disease, so many regard this as a public health issue. Medicines used for contraception offer other health benefits to women. We’ve seen good news recently about a lowering of teen births—9% in 2010, and nearly half over the last two decades. This would be due to a variety of factors, from abstinence education to access to birth control. There is no one answer, unlike what you’ll hear in political discussions on TV. Yet Texas still ranks fourth in terms of teen pregnancies, just behind Oklahoma—and I don’t like being behind Oklahoma in anything—so we have work to do.

In Romans 8 Paul writes about the whole creation waiting anxiously for its renewal. He uses birth metaphors to grab our attention: "The whole creation has been enduring birth pangs until this moment." In hope we yearn for a new reality when God will unite all that divides us. "Who hopes for what is seen?" What can we hope for? Listening ears, loving hearts, respectful spirits. Faith enough to see that while the world around us seems fractured and dysfunctional, with the Spirit's influence we are being brought closer to God's vision for the world.

Jesus said, “I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly.” –John 10:10. Advocates for birth control argue that by offering a variety of options abortions will be limited- as much as reduced by 50%. Persons of faith, pro-choice and pro-life, can find common ground in the truth that human life is a sacred gift of God, and we should do whatever we can to honor and protect it. Later, after worship, read in our study guide what our Social Principles have to say about contraception and abortion. Again, these are not considered church doctrine, so feel free to disagree with them. But they should help us continue a conversation in a “catholic spirit” way that John Wesley talked about. The talk of a "war on women" will not get us there. The more we understand what we believe, and why, the more we will be able to work together to ensure life abundant for all of us, made in God's image. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.