Abortion Rights (?) by Esther Nelson

Slowly, yet systematically, women, men, and everybody else along the gender continuum, are losing access to a timely, legal, and safe abortion. This is not breaking news. Pushback in the United States against abortion “rights” has been happening in various state legislatures for decades.  These days we find ourselves more and more constricted as laws across the country reflect a tightening of accessibility to what some people refer to as a “scourge” in the land.

My first-ever blog post on FAR (March 2014) wrestled with the subject of abortion.  In that essay (one that’s still relevant), I suggest we broaden our thinking about a subject that has polarized Americans. Is abortion (a) right?  Is it wrong? The two sides have become entrenched.


A link to my post on abortion eight years ago: here

In the U.S., not surprisingly, abortion access (or lack of it) has been framed and packaged with the limited language of rights.  “Pro-choice” people will say, “I’m an autonomous being.  It’s my right to decide what happens to my body.”  However, I don’t know any “pro-choice” people who would agree they have a right to use their body as a suicide bomb, killing and endangering the lives of others in the process.

“Pro-life” people reply, “Once the egg is fertilized, another person is in the mix. To willfully abort is tantamount to murder, therefore, not your right.”  Yet, many “pro-life” people assert their right to kill a perceived enemy directly or by way of collateral damage, declaring war to be an honorable endeavor.  We even build monuments to “heroes” who kill (and die) in battle.

Columnist Liza Field, Special Correspondent to “The Roanoke Times,” recently wrote a piece titled, “The World Isn’t Won, but One” (1/29/2022). She refers to Franciscan monk, Richard Rohr (b. 1943), someone who pictures human life as a pilgrimage, trekking forward on a journey of peacemaking for those “willing to forgo dualism….”

Rohr finds a dualistic mindset “…especially annoying among religious folk who can’t abide ambiguity or doubt.” Rohr writes, “The dualistic mind is always violent…..sometimes the people I want to be around the least are religious people.  They seem to have PhDs in certitude….” I would add that non-religious people also display that same zealous certitude.

Both sides of the current “abortion debate”—“My body, my choice” (autonomy) and “Abortion stops a beating heart” (murder)—attempt to argue their way to an ideological victory.  Is there a way through this dualistic mindset?

Field writes, “Jesus himself [as well as other historical figures such as the Buddha and Socrates]…appeared to advocate for a brave, merciful, big-minded kindness [not the] current, warlike, religio-political dualism” that’s been plaguing us for some time.

The biblical story titled, “The Woman Caught in Adultery” (John 8:3-11) is instructive.

And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst,

They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.

Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?

This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.

(Jesus avoids ideological debate.)

So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.

And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.

And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.

When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?

She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.

In this story, Jesus displays “a brave, merciful, big-minded kindness.”  All behavior emerges from a context.  Perhaps this woman prostituted herself in order to feed and shelter her family. Jesus treated her with dignity, silenced her accusers, and saved her from certain death. Jesus told her to “sin no more,” a superfluous reminder. (Sin defined as “an offense against moral or religious law.”)  Would she have risked her life by breaking the law if she didn’t have good reasons?   

Laws are human constructs (therefore fluid) born out of specific contexts, experiences, and eras. Might we inch through the impasse surrounding abortion by following Jesus’ example?  There are a plethora of reasons people seek an abortion. No housing. Little food. Rape. Incest. Plans for further education.  Sickness. Having five children already. No desire for children. A bed-ridden relative to care for. (This list is not exhaustive.)

Sometimes I hear, “I’ve nothing against abortion IF there’s a good reason for it.”  Who decides what a good reason is?  Since Jesus didn’t ask “the woman caught in adultery” about the reasons for her behavior, I think he thought it was none of his business.  But, more to the point, if the structures of her society had been just, would she even have been “caught in adultery?”  Only she walked in her own sandals.  Only she could make decisions from her particular context. Whose experience is deemed valid enough to weave into laws and policies?  

I think today’s evangelical Christians—those who look to Jesus as an example while supporting violent right-wing, authoritarian, dualistic thinking—would do well to extend Jesus’ “big-minded kindness” to those needing abortions. Nobody is eager to experience the procedure. Making abortion illegal won’t eradicate it. Wouldn’t it be better to expend our energy working towards a society where everyone can access life-giving resources (love, clean food and water, shelter, clothing, education, medical care, safety), making abortion less necessary?

Is it possible to imagine a society oozing “big-minded kindness,” not judgment?

BIO Esther Nelson is a registered nurse who worked for several years in Obstetrics and Psychiatry, but not simultaneously. She returned to school (Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia) when her children were in college and liked it well enough to stay on as an adjunct professor. For twenty-two years, she taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, Women in the Abrahamic Faiths, and Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of An Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry. She recently retired from teaching.

Author: Esther Nelson

Esther Nelson teaches courses in Religious Studies (Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Religions of the World, and Women in Islam) at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia. She has published two books. VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM was written in close collaboration with Nasr Abu Zaid, an Egyptian, Islamic Studies scholar who fled Egypt (1995) when he was labeled an apostate by the Cairo court of appeals. She co-authored WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY with Kristin Swenson, a former colleague. When not teaching, Esther travels to various places throughout the world.

5 thoughts on “Abortion Rights (?) by Esther Nelson”

  1. Esther – you hit the core issue here : a dualistic mind is violent.

    I am not sure its possible to bridge that black and white split – as you say certitude….

    And BTW as we all know there is no “baby” until 3 months –

    The fact that abortion is even an issue is frightening to me – we are going backwards.

    I see no way to work with those who despise you for who you are/your politics – I had neighbors like this – i tried for 16 whole years and failed.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Sara, for reading and commenting. This whole dualism thing is not helpful to those who struggle in an imperfect world. Yet, in patriarchy, there are those who set themselves up (with support from their sycophants) as those who KNOW. We all need to question and question some more. Those who traffic in certitude arrogantly assume their understanding of the world translates to Truth. And so it goes…..

      Liked by 3 people

  2. This is a wonderful, insightful post, Esther (I’m sorry I took so long to respond – it just kind of slipped away from me and then I thought about it again this morning). You are so right that every human situation is complicated and reducing it to dualisms makes it impossible to come to a place of seeing the whole reality. I love your suggestion of always starting from kindness, making that our commonality. So many problems would be solved if everyone could shift their perspective to a broader one that sees people as fragile and deserving of care and all of us as problem solvers to ensure the well being of all.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thanks, Carolyn. Absolutely right regarding a broad perspective that enables people to be seen as “fragile and deserving of care…” and then problem solving our differences together. A dualistic mindset is deadly.

    Liked by 1 person

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