Even before Brett Kavanaugh was officially nominated as the new Supreme Court justice nominee, the media buzzed with questions about what might happen to Roe v. Wade. Most legal experts and activists anticipate that the decision that legalized abortion nationwide will be overturned—and the legality of abortion will revert to a state-by-state decision—within a handful of years.
Abortion is an emotional issue, no matter what one believes. The word immediately puts us on the defensive. It’s easy to jump to go-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?
However, Anabaptists cannot ask the second question because they are afraid to ask the first question. For years, Anabaptist traditions have quietly avoided public conversation about abortion, sidestepping the pacifist stance that suggests a pro-life ethic and the low church polity and strong tradition of empowering impoverished neighbors that suggests a respect for pro-choice views.
There are a few small and vocal pro-life Anabaptist groups, but what speaks louder is the amount of silence on the subject. There is little data about Anabaptist views on abortion. The 2006 Road Signs for the Journey survey, a comprehensive survey of Mennonite Church USA, Church of the Brethren, and Brethren in Christ led by sociologist Conrad Kanagy, lists the percent of Mennonites who find behaviors like gambling, marijuana, adultery, homosexuality, and working as a police officer to be immoral—but says nothing on the question of abortion. (The previous 1972 and 1989 surveys did poll on abortion.)
In Kanagy’s 2016 of Conservative Mennonite Conference, 95% of respondents thought abortion was never morally justifiable. However, members of Mennonite Church USA tend to respond most similarly to mainline Protestant groups, and data from Protestants suggest Mennonites might support legalized of abortion—even if they believe it is immoral (different phrasings of the question can yield dramatically different survey results).
For Mennonite Church USA, the clearest articulation of views on abortion is the 15-year-old Statement on Abortion passed by the delegate body at the 2003 convention. It is a deeply ambivalent document, that includes sentences like “The fetus in its earliest stages… shares humanity with those who conceived it” and “There are times when deeply held values come in conflict with each other” and “We will act with compassion toward those who choose to have an abortion.”
It is an excellent working document. It is excellent because 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 experiencing menopause, or that a wealthy woman whose parents have the ability to become full-time caregivers is asking the same question as a single mother on disability with three children and no familial support.
Abortion is a moral dilemma. It is a hot button issue precisely because it is the collision of deeply held principles.
Historically, the Anabaptist approach to abortion was avoidant and inadequate. As the country faces a vicious and polarizing political debate that will likely reshape the law, it is time to create space for moral ambivalence, for insecurity, for lament, for trust, and for affirmation in our congregations.
As the church prepares for this debate, there is one part of the 2003 Statement on Abortion that can guide the church: “The faith community should be a place for discernment.”
Until now, Anabaptists have tried to use the faith community as a place of silence. It is time to take the task of discernment seriously: to have honest, ambivalent, inconclusive conversations in church, as a church.
This post first appeared in the Mennonite World Review.