Abortion Should Be Safe And Legal — But It Stops A Beating Heart

The abortion issue lends itself to extremism.  The only logically consistent positions are at the extremes.

The Rev. Katherine Ragsdale

The Rev. Katherine Ragsdale

The pro-life extreme can be summed up in three words: “Abortion is murder.”  The pro-choice extreme is more complicated.  The mainstream pro-choice movement’s rallying cry of “keep abortion safe and legal” doesn’t come close to being extreme.  Something can be safe and legal and yet still be morally ambiguous.

Activist Florynce Kennedy came closer to a pithy expression of pro-choice extremism when she said “if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”  But the line has a chuckle-inducing quality that keeps it from being nearly as powerful as “abortion is murder.”  Besides, she’s not actually saying that abortion IS a sacrament — she’s making a hypothetical statement that may, I think, have some validity.

Here’s how I’ve always articulated what I think of as the extremist pro-choice position: “A woman’s right to an abortion trumps all other considerations.”  A pithier version: “Abortion rights are absolute.”

The overwhelming majority of Americans come down between the two extremes.  Personally, I think Bill Clinton had it just about right when he said abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.”  But that formulation is deliberately imprecise — it can’t serve as a clear roadmap to legislation.  Bill Clinton supported laws requiring parental consent and a 24-hour waiting period.  Other generally pro-choice people would draw the lines in  different places, but most would still draw lines.

Here are two clear roadmaps, each of them logical and internally consistent:

  1. Abortion is murder.
  2. A woman’s right to abortion trumps all other considerations.

Although there are people who advocate one direction or the other, for most of us those maps take us places where we do not want to go.  If abortion truly is murder, then yes, a woman should be forced to bear her rapist’s baby, even in the case of incest.  If abortion rights are absolute, then third-trimester abortions for gender-selection purposes cannot be ruled out.  I reject both of those positions, and I am grateful that I am not, myself, empowered to decide where the lines should be drawn.

These thoughts are all occasioned by reports that the Rev. Katherine Ragsdale, the newly named dean of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA, apparently has insisted from the pulpit that “abortion is a blessing, and our work is not done.”  She also stated that abortion providers and pro-choice activists are “engaged in holy work.”

Hat tip to a force of nature

Hat tip to a force of nature

I learned of this from reading the blog of the Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton, an Episcopal priest from a nearby township in New Jersey.  This post actually started its life as an extended comment on her blog.  I’ve jousted with Mother Kaeton in her comments in the past, and I realized this time that it made more sense to lay out my thoughts on my own site.

Before today I had never heard of the Rev. Katherine Ragsdale, and I have no opinion about whether she is a good choice for Dean of EDS. She doesn’t look like an extremist in the photo above from the EDS website, and I won’t pin that label on her.

But I’ll pin it on that particular sermon.  Her insistence that “abortion is a blessing” is, I think clearly, well outside the mainstream, even among supporters of abortion rights.  I think Dean Ragsdale does the pro-choice cause no benefit by making that proclamation, and I’m glad she has removed it from her website.

Dean Ragsdale was villified by a ham-handed conservative blog as “a lying baby-murdering witch” (I’ve inserted the essential hyphen), which was what set Mother Kaeton off on what she herself described as a rant.  The anonymous ham-handed blogger does the pro-life cause no benefit either.

This is not to imply moral equivalence.  The anonymous blogger’s headline is disgraceful, and arguably an incitement to violence against a single individual.  Dean Ragsdale’s sermon is merely wrong-headed, and contemptuously dismissive of the views of, I believe, the vast majority of Americans.

People are complicated.  I voted for McCain and I market this blog as the ruminations of a “red voter in a blue state.” But I’m not a social conservative, and I join Mother Kaeton in standing proudly to the left of President Obama on the issue of marriage equality for same-sex couples.

Issues also are complicated, and reasonable people can differ.  In the case of abortion, far too often the battle lines are drawn by unreasonable people.  Most of us prefer a middle way.

16 thoughts on “Abortion Should Be Safe And Legal — But It Stops A Beating Heart

  1. Thanks, Kirk, for your reasoned response. It is possible for us to agree to disagree and still be civil and kind and even like each other. And, you’re right – it’s complicated.

  2. What bothers me as a pro-life Catholic is that Elizabeth Kaeton rails against the verbal violence and dehumanisation in the headlings against Katherine Ragsdale, yet assuming that we are persons from conception (which I believe) it is the abortion, touted as a blessing, that is _actual_ physical violence and literally dehumanising for the unborn.

    Personally I think that all arguments should play the ball, not the man – it is KR’s sermon that I find evil, not KR herself. No one can judge the state of another’s soul, especially via the medium of the internet. However what she espouses makes me feel quite sick – the irrelevance of an embryo or fetus.

  3. Life is Life – when life begins is a controversial subject, if it is life and it is snuffed out by what ever menas – you have killed a living being. These procedures should only be used if necessary to save the life of the mother and no other reason. Keep it safe and legal only for the rare instance the mother will die if it is not done

  4. Elizabeth, on the theory that 1) the strength of society is based in part on the clash of ideas, and 2) we are all children of God, one of the reasons I blog is to practice the art of civil disagreement. Thank you for participating.

    Tess, I agree with the idea of playing the ball, not the man (or in this case woman). And that’s specifically what makes the “baby-murdering witch” headline so repugnant, and what differentiates it from the sentiment that abortion is a blessing — which I also reject.

    Mike, thank you for commenting. I think the boundaries you would draw are far too restrictive. I’m glad I don’t have to take responsibility for deciding where to draw the line.

  5. While some of my friends (okay, one) have argued in the past that I am not invested in the subject of abortion (male, bachelor, etc.), I still think I can contribute to the debate.

    Personally, I think the medical community, not lawyers, politicians, or church officials, should decide when life begins. It is a medical question after all, isn’t it? Of course, at some point during the Roe v Wade hearings, the question of “when does life begin” was removed from the debate and replaced with “a woman’s right to choose”. If you’re not going to like the answer, just change the question. Perhaps the original question should be revisited.

    This doesn’t mean that the entire medical community would agree unanimously. But I have a feeling a greater cohesion would be found there than in congress or a court.

  6. What I don’t understand is: If we are ALL children of God, if God knew us from all eternity and called us by name, how can anyone justify snuffing any of these precious beings, willed by God?
    How can a so called Reverend say such repulsive things? If a woman can so callously choose to stop a beating heart, does it mean that she is rectifing a mistake made by God? Does the “Reverend” know that if a baby is born alive as a result of a botched abortion it is left to die, unaided, a slow and agonizing death? If such things were done to animals we would all be repulsed. I think the “Reverend” should go back to “Bible 101″ and read what Jesus says about anyone touching any of His children. I hope she doesn’t mind a millstone around her neck.

  7. Vincenza, please do not fantasize here about placing millstones around the necks of individual people. Your botched abortion example underscores how quickly the debate moves to the extremes — certainly the number of such incidents must be some tiny, tiny fraction of one percent of all abortions. It’s a deeply disturbing idea, and I think even most pro-choice people would agree that at some point the viability of the new life should trump the right to an abortion. The difficulty lies in knowing where to draw a necessarily imprecise line. The only clear places to draw the line are at the extremes.

    Similarly, Chris, I don’t think abortion can be reduced to a question of science. “Where does life begin?” is not the only issue involved.

  8. Mr.Petersen, The idea of millstones around people’s necks is not mine–you give me too much credit–but the Lord’s. See Matthew 18:5-7 about not welcoming little ones as we would welcome Christ or giving scandal to them (and what worst scandal than killing them?).
    Also, do you think what I described about botched abortion extreme?
    OK,what than of the delightful practice of late term abortion? Once our President signs FOCA–and I say will and not might, since he promised Planned Parenthood that he would do it “first thing”–it will be OK again to stick scissors in a baby’s skull just minutes before it is born.On which side do you draw the imprecise line here? After all Mr. Obama will make it permissible and legal.
    Can you not see that once the door is open, it’s only a short step between aborting a “fetus” and infanticide? Between a woman’s right to choose and the insanity advocated by Ms. Ragsdale? Who will decide where to draw that line? Abortion stops a beating heart, Mr. Petersen, whether that heart is in a two week old fetus or a fully formed baby–it is the same baby, precious and irreplaceable.

  9. I’m well aware of the Biblical reference. It’s one thing for Jesus to preach a parable. It’s quite another for you to suggest that the parable should be applied to put to death a named individual.

    I am opposed to abortion after the fetus/child is viable. I recognize that the line is imprecise.

  10. Mr.Petersen, Last comment…I am NOT suggesting that anyone should be put to death– I think All life is precious, how can you think that I was suggesting that? You are sort of missing the point but that’s Ok…
    Thank you for the interesting exchange.

  11. Vincenza, you said:

    I think the “Reverend” should go back to “Bible 101″ and read what Jesus says about anyone touching any of His children. I hope she doesn’t mind a millstone around her neck.

    It’s not quite a death threat, but it certainly suggests that her words or her beliefs are worthy of death.

  12. OK, Mr. Peterson, let me try to explain what I meant–least you think I am on some kind of murderous quest.
    I was quoting Matthew 18:5-7 “Anyone who welcomes a little child in my name welcomes me. But anyone who is an obstacle to one of these little ones who have faith in me would be better drowned in the depths of the sea with a great millstone around his neck…” (The Jerusalem Bible).
    I was using Jesus’ metaphor to put across the idea that Jesus does not take the mistreatment of children lightly.
    At NO point did I mean to imply that Ms.Ragsdale is deserving of death or that she literally should have a millstone around her neck.What she needs is prayer and compassion (lots of them!).

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  14. Just a quick comment on this topic: abortion is NEVER "safe". Ask any rational doctor who performs surgical abortions/DNCs, and they will tell you that there is always risk involved. The uterus can be punctured/damaged/scarred, placental remains can fail to be properly removed from the uterus leading to blockage/hemorrhage (nearly bleeding to death a week following surgery, as happened to my wife following her miscarriage DNC, and this was done at Highland Park hospital in Chicago, not a back alley clinic), and hospitals and clinics are breeding grounds for countless diseases. In fact, the anesthesia alone from this procedure could kill you.

    Abortion is never safe, and one of the greatest fallacies of the argument is when it's promoted as a "safe" practice. Lawmakers should require the truth to be disclosed about this practice, but as it stands, there's money to be made even at the cost of women's lives.

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