Watson: Who do we want to be?

Jul 30, 2018 by

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Even before President Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court, the media buzzed about what might happen to Roe v. Wade. Many legal experts and activists anticipate the 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide will be overturned and the legality of abortion revert to a state-by-state decision within a few years.

Hillary Watson


Abortion is an emotional issue that immediately puts us on the defensive. It’s easy to jump straight to arguments about why the other side is wrong.

There are two questions Anabaptists need to ask: Who are we in the abortion debate? Who do we want to be in the abortion debate?

It is hard to answer the second question because we are afraid to ask the first. For years Anabaptists have avoided public conversation about abortion, sidestepping both the pacifist stance that suggests a pro-life ethic and the tradition of empowering impoverished neighbors that suggests respect for pro-choice views.

While there are Anabaptists active in pro-life ministry and advocacy, we have little recent data about Anabaptist views on abortion. A 2006 survey of Mennonite Church USA, the Church of the Brethren and Brethren in Christ, led by sociologist Conrad Kanagy, lists the percentages of members who find gambling, marijuana, adultery, homosexuality and working as a police officer immoral, but not abortion.

One group for whom we do have recent data is the Conservative Mennonite Conference. In a 2016 study by Kanagy, 95 percent of CMC respondents thought abortion was never morally justifiable. Members of MC USA, though, tend to respond most similarly to mainline Protestants, which would suggest that many MC USA members might support the legality of abortion even if they believe it is immoral. (Different ways of phrasing the question can yield dramatically different results).

For MC USA, the clearest articulation of views on abortion is a statement delegates passed at the 2003 convention in Atlanta. It says that abortion “runs counter to biblical principles,” that “the fetus in its earliest stages . . . shares humanity with those who conceived it” and that “we will act with compassion toward those who choose to have an abortion.” It speaks with clarity but also with ambivalence, acknowledging that “there are times when deeply held values come in conflict with each other.”

One of the document’s strengths is that it makes everyone, on all sides, uncomfortable. It expresses honest ambivalence about a deeply personal, deeply contextual moral dilemma. It does not pretend that all abortions are the same — that a teenager raped by a relative is asking the same questions as a married woman approaching meno­pause, or that a financially secure woman whose parents have the ability to become full-time caregivers has the same concerns as a single mother with three children and no familial support.

Abortion is a hot-button issue precisely because it is a collision of deeply held principles. As the United States faces a polarizing debate that may reshape the law, it is time to create space in Anabaptist congregations for our diverse views — whether morally ambivalent or morally certain — and for lament, trust and affirmation. As the 2003 statement says, “The faith community should be a place for discernment.” Instead, we have made it a place of silence. It is time for honest, though probably inconclusive, conversations — in church, as a church.

Hillary Watson pastors at Shalom Community Church in Ann Arbor, Mich. She blogs at gatheringthestones.com.

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