Inherit the Wind

Why Abortion Still Matters--and Why I Am Pro-Choice

Yesterday the Oklahoma Legislature passed another anti-abortion bill. This one attempts to end abortions by allowing felony charges to be brought against doctors who perform them and revocation of their licenses.

For more than forty years, America has wrestled with this issue. For more than thirty of those years I have been a Catholic priest committed to my church’s teachings in the abstract, while engaging a pastoral response for specific circumstances. I was satisfied with my position, comfortable in my conviction. Certain that no one wantonly desires an abortion, I was pro-life (in all its stages)
and pro-choice. But I have grown increasingly troubled with that balance as unforeseen consequences of the anti-abortion movement have taken hold.

Oklahoma State Senator Nathan Dahm, who authored the bill, attempted to present himself as a defender of rights and stated, “Those rights begin at conception.” That is a philosophical position that cannot be proved and one that is patently contrary to U.S. law as determined in Roe v Wade.

As I look backward, I observe that in typical American fashion we, as a society, have skirted honest debate regarding abortion—at least anything meaningful. There have been no discussions to explain to Senator Dahm why his position is philosophically (and religiously) untenable. For most of us our minds are made up and there is nothing to discuss. We prefer to sequester our thoughts and marshal our forces as if we are at war with one another.

During the 1990s, it was difficult to drive more than ten miles without seeing a bumper sticker righteously screaming “Abortion is Murder” (Forgive the mixed metaphor). The sticker was simple, if not simplistic, for if ever a slogan skewed the truth, that was the one. On one end of the reality spectrum it played into popular imagination. One could visualize the termination of a living fetus suddenly rendered dead by another’s hands. But it clouded vision on the other end of the spectrum—the birth of a child into poverty, disease and destitution with no societal attention or concern for its plight. That, too, is murder, though it is not so easy to envision. And it carries with it even greater social ills.

The myopically obsessive focus on abortion, including actions by the U.S. Catholic bishops, turned millions of people into one-issue voters, enabling many an otherwise incompetent person to be propelled to public office. For two generations one needed only state his or her opposition to abortion and election was all but assured. I guess as a priest I can’t help but call to mind the biblical adage “Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity” (Proverbs 22:8). As a result of these elections we are now reaping a whirlwind of calamity.

In many state legislatures, and even within Congress, Americans have elected representatives with no concept of a common good; legislators with no compassion for the poor or empathy for the infirm; no concern for the displaced or mercy for the alien. These are issues of great import in both the Old and New Testaments. “You shall not oppress an alien; you well know how it feels to be an alien; since you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). When the arrogant and self-righteous challenged Jesus about his association with sinners he responded, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.” Then he concluded with the stinging indictment, “Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (Matthew 9:12 &13).

This is the same Bible that right-wing elected officials claim is so dear to them and upon which most of them take their oaths. These legislators do not call out the best in us for there seems little that is Godly or biblical in them. They are driven by something else and in the process turn each of us into
someone else. We are increasingly becoming a self-centered and self-serving people, unconcerned about the burdens we place on others, whether pregnant women, immigrants or the poor. America has become a country misled not by the left, but by the right. Not by those who defend personal freedoms, but by those who take them away. But there may be hope.

After forty-plus years the truth about abortion might just be emerging into focus. The facts speak something very different from what we hear in state legislatures and the halls of congress. Abortion in the United States has actually been on the decline since 1997. In 2012 there were 486,837 less abortions than in 1997. At least part of that downturn can be attributed to easier access to contraceptives. Why, then, would anti-abortion legislators want to restrict that, too? There are a number of answers.

The first is that this is really about sex. In the 1960 film “Inherit the Wind,” modestly based on the 1925 Scopes trial, the prosecuting attorney is asked about the Biblical evaluation of sex. His response? “It is considered original sin.” That is a level of ignorance that can only be found in right wing circles, and it seems as though they have not come very far in ninety years.

There is also a second conclusion. Opposition to abortion, whether genuine or merely perceived, has been but an instrument for many to obtain power. And history has repeatedly demonstrated how difficult it is to relinquish that. From one state to the next, elected officials are not content merely to force women to bring their pregnancies to term. They also want to restrict access to contraceptives, forcing women to get pregnant in the first place. And knowing full well that the wealthy will always be able either to obtain abortions or avoid the need, these elected officials target minorities and the poor and they have quite successfully managed to malign and denigrate them—the very people God chose as his own; the people Jesus frequently chose to spend time with. There is a pattern here. The same legislatures that assiduously pass burdensome anti-abortion laws also seek to exclude millions from medical coverage and food subsidies. As has been noted by others, the anti-abortion movement is not pro-life. It is, at best, pro-birth.

Should we choose honesty in this discussion, the anti-abortion laws have another intent that is beyond the birth of a baby. It is to keep women poor and disenfranchised, to strip them of their freedom and opportunities for advancement in education, employment, status—essentially all aspects of life. The extreme anti-abortion laws being advocated in various states are misogynistic and ultimately a modern form of slavery. Women become property to be owned and controlled with the result that these laws contribute to the income inequality that is so central in our current election cycle.

Finally, the third conclusion is the most insidious of all. The conservative legislatures that were created by the anti-abortion movement have cannibalistically turned on the very people they are forcing into existence by stripping them of their right to vote. Lest anyone think this is a non-sequitur, it cannot be mere coincidence that the states enacting voter restriction laws are the same ones that elected their officials with the singular qualification that they opposed abortion.

Forty-three years after Roe v Wade I still believe that no one actually
wants an abortion. But I believe it is sometimes necessary and I am convinced that every woman should have the right to choose—informed by her beliefs, unencumbered by either church or state. As a priest I think, sadly, that the Catholic bishops were wrong to focus so narrowly on abortion and to encourage the election of officials whose social policies are so far removed from Gospel values.

Today I am no longer concerned about balance. I now nuance my position on a life continuum. I am pro-choice precisely because I am pro-life.
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The Theology of Rape

This is not just a provocative title. Sadly, it is very real, and was voiced by Indiana’s Richard Mourdock, Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate. During a debate this past Tuesday, he stated: “Even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.” No matter the spin, no matter Mourdock’s protestations to the contrary, it still comes across as God’s plan. Is that offensive? Yes. Worse still, it makes God into a monster. It is theological rape.

This is hardly surprising. Mourdock is another member of the ideologically extreme religious right that has taken over the Republican Party. Their position on abortion simply is not tenable. It is built on no scientific, philosophical or even theological foundation. Like all fanatics, when they speak they guarantee absurd and offensive statements.

Let us grant the premise that God is the author of life. Let us grant also that human life begins at conception. This is the teaching of the Catholic Church and some other Christian Churches. Some non-Christians, among them Mormons, believe the same. But what does it mean? God does not author life by the act of conceiving. God’s involvement in the process is to directly create the individual human person, or soul. However, there is no sustainable argument to suggest that happens at conception. In fact, just the opposite is true.

As I previously have reasoned in a
series of blogs, we cannot state with clarity that the individual person is created before day fourteen. In the case of rape, then, use of an emergency contraceptive measure, such as the morning after pill, would not constitute abortion. However, to process these ideas, requires more than faith. It also requires thought.

Unfortunately, the new Republican leadership operates from a combination of laziness and ignorance—a willingness to embrace simplistic concepts about life coupled with an inability to nuance thought. Indeed, there is not much thought present to begin with. That is one reason why Romney and Ryan, McConnell, McCaind and Cornyn continue to support Mourdock.

Paul Ryan gave a good demonstration of laziness when he said: “The method of conception doesn’t change the definition of life.” Ryan does not even pretend a willingness to think through the issue.

Romney has an even greater problem. As a Mormon he believes that every person pre-existed prior to conception. Therefore, Romney chooses to remain ignorant about the biological development of the embryo. Why let scientific knowledge interfere with one’s pre-conceived beliefs?

In the movie “Inherit the Wind,” the character of Henry Drummond comments on the human power to think. While questioning the religiously bigoted prosecuting attorney he asks the following: “Mr. Brady, why do you deny the one faculty of man that raises him above the other creatures of the earth, the power of his brain to reason?”

There is more than a touch of irony here, because “Inherit the Wind” is a fictionalized account of the 1925 Scopes trial about the teaching of evolution. Much like the uneducated, religious fanatics of 1925, Mourdock, Romney, Ryan and their ilk seem quite content to shield themselves from a complex world. They prefer hiding in a closet with likeminded simpletons. The real world, however, requires use of God’s gifts. It requires us to think.
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Burn a Koran--Let's think again

Although the website for the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida lists ten reasons for burning the Koran, it basically comes down to one: the Koran is not the Bible and so it is not consistent with Christian teaching. Well...

In 1960, Stanley Kubrick directed a superb film entitled "Inherit the Wind". It is based on a 1955 play of the same name that fictionalizes the famous "Scopes Monkey Trial" of 1925. The trial involved a high school teacher accused of teaching Darwin's theory of evolution in his science class contrary to Tennessee law.

The most dramatic scene in the film occurs when defense attorney, Henry Drummond, calls the prosecutor, Matthew Harrison Brady, to the stand. In one exchange, Drummond says the following: "The Bible is a book. It's a good book, but it is not the only book." Far from being a gratuitous comment (Drummond was not commenting on the mere existence of other literary volumes), his declaration attempts to identify that the Bible is not the only source of truth in our lives. This idea should be self-evident. After all, no new writings have been added to the Bible in almost 2000 years, yet new discoveries continue to impact human life on a regular basis. Nonetheless, it is still difficult for fundamentalist Christians to grasp this fundamental concept. It is far easier to reside in a simplistic world of easy answers to complex questions, especially if one can attribute those answers to God's revealed word. The fact that those who claim to interpret the Bible literally are, themselves, given to an interpretive process need not disturb the simple-minded.

The basic truth for such people is that any religion other than Christianity is false. In spite of the fact that Jesus was, himself, a Jew, even modern day Jews are expected to convert to Christianity or be damned. Recently, at a wedding reception for a Catholic who married a Buddhist, I sat next to a Missouri Synod Lutheran who blatantly told me that anyone who was not a Christian was going to hell. From this perspective, not only are other religions false, but it becomes an easy leap to claim that they are the work of the devil, as Dove World Outreach has claimed of Islam. Never mind that there is wonderful truth in Islam that is quite in keeping with the principles of Christianity or that there are millions of Muslims who coexist peacefully with non-Muslims.

One obvious problem is viewing Islam only as an Arab religion and identifying it only with the Middle East Even worse, is suggesting that Islam is coterminous with terrorism. As others have pointed out, the largest Islamic country in the world is Indonesia, half-way around the world from the Middle East, and in that country Muslims have coexisted with Christians, Buddhists and Hindus for generations. It is true that Islam does not acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God, reducing him, as Christians would call it, to the stature of merely a prophet. Yet Islam traces its roots back to Abraham and the Koran teaches much of the same morality found in the Bible.

I suspect that Dove World Outreach and similar groups are not really afraid that Islam engenders and supports terrorism or even that it is the work of the devil. The real fear is that Islam challenges their Christian faith, a faith that is as superficial as it is bigoted. Having long ago surrendered their intellects to a literal interpretation of the Bible, they no longer have a reason to think and so have no response to people of other faiths. This uneducated and myopic vision of Christianity prevents them even from engaging in discussion and dialogue. Such fear of ideas eerily recalls the Nazis burning any books that did not adhere to the "German spirit" and the ideology of the Third Reich. Perhaps it is not so surprising that Dove Outreach should use the same strategy. And just as in the book-burning campaign of the Nazis, the press will dutifully be on hand to broadcast the Koran burning as if it were real news.

What concerns me most about Dove World Outreach and similar groups is not their fundamentalism, their ignorance nor even their bigotry. What concerns me most is that campaigns such as "Burn a Koran" take place in the United States, a country that was founded on religious freedom. These actions allow fear and ignorance to triumph over tolerance. Left unchallenged, they destroy the basic ideals of the American Constitution.
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