A ViewPoint by Ruth Everhart
The abortion debate continues to rage, with lines drawn by trigger words such as “choice” or “life.” This shorthand makes it easy for opposing camps to face off. As an author, I know the power of words arranged in stark black and white, but as a follower of Jesus, I know the power of grayscale and the color of the places humans live, where mercy and compassion should tinge everything.
I’ve written about sexual violence and the church’s reaction to it. Christians tend to frame issues around sexuality according to neat polarities: male/female, innocent/guilty, pure/impure. In doing so, they beat words into weapons. When my second book, a memoir titled Ruined, was published by an evangelical house, I ran headlong into the dichotomy around abortion.
My memoir begins with a traumatic experience of being raped at gunpoint when I was a twenty-year-old senior at Calvin College. The book then traces how that trauma shaped my life for a decade. It caused me to question everything about my faith and existence, which moved me along a journey that led to recovery but in a nonlinear fashion. By any objective measure, it’s a good book. Christianity Today awarded it the 2017 Book of the Year for CT Women. But there was a problem. A chapter was missing.
During the editing process, the publisher deemed one chapter as too difficult for readers to manage. I felt surprised. I’d already described a rape at gunpoint. What scene could be more difficult?
The chapter the publisher removed was placed late in the manuscript; it helped readers understand why I had found it necessary to leave the denomination of my childhood. It described how, as I did my best to follow Jesus out of trauma, I was led into ministry and how my gender complicated my decisions. And how, when I walked into a church service on a “Right to Life Sunday,” I was being led away from something.
The sermon that Sunday was a harangue against the evils of abortion. Even in the case of rape. Especially in the case of rape! According to the preacher, pregnancy resulting from rape was proof that God ordained each and every pregnancy. I had spent the five years since the assault coming to terms with the issue of will — God’s sovereign will and human free will. I finally understood that it was the rapist’s sinful will, not the divine will, that had penetrated and punished me.
The preacher’s lack of compassion shocked me. Trapped in my seat, sobbing, I traveled back in time to the assault. What if I had gotten pregnant from that rape? And what if I’d been forced to carry such a pregnancy to term? My body shook uncontrollably.
One useful lesson rape taught me was humility. The world looks different when you understand that people can break. The preacher had no humility. His hail of words felt like weapons; they were hurled with authority, despite the fact that he had zero skin in the game. All he had was an idea between his ears, and little willingness to examine the motivation behind that idea.
But I understood. I had been studying this all my life. In his worldview, to be a woman is to be acted upon: by the rapist, by the supposed will of God, by the decrees of the church, by legislation. Such disregard of a woman’s agency functions like hatred, feels like hatred. This preacher would rip from me the very Imago Dei.
Removing the chapter from my memoir felt ironic, another way that power was stripped from me. I protested. How could I powerfully convey that God had used what I had heard at the church service to turn me toward a new future? On the level of technique, how could I steer around a now-gaping plot hole?
The publisher was adamant. Any whiff of tolerance for abortion—even in the case of rape; even though I hadn’t actually had an abortion—would destroy the book’s chance for success. The predictions were dire. Bloggers would denounce my work unread. Readers would boycott it. The book would never find its audience. Which is to say, my work and words would be wasted.
I refused to believe that evangelical readers live in a black-and-white world. They can’t, because it’s not. But I did believe my publisher knew how to sell books to those readers, even if they underestimated them. So, I agreed. (I later rewrote the chapter as a stand-alone piece, which was published by Sojourners, and won an Honorable Mention from the Associated Church Press. You can read it at my website, www.rutheverhart.com.)
My memoir came out in 2016. Since then, the issue of abortion has become even more polarizing. Alabama’s recent law not only denies access to abortion in cases of rape and incest but penalizes abortion providers with up to 99 years in jail. Imagine if rapists could receive such a penalty! Instead, someone assisting a rape victim could. This legislation not only lacks compassion; it punishes compassion. It is not intended to make life better in Alabama. It is intended to punish women who seek abortions, women seen as guilty.
False polarities reign, polarities strengthened by religious language like innocent and guilty. Every potential baby is innocent, yes. But does it follow that every potential mother who seeks an abortion must be guilty?
Women are image-bearers of God, granted free will. At some point, an unborn child also becomes an image-bearer. But a crucial expanse of gray time passes between the black-and-white poles of conception and birth. Legislation that ignores this complexity treats women as wombs that incubate life rather than as people bearing God’s image.
Like you, I dislike abortion. But these regulations will increase, rather than reduce, suffering. Women seeking abortions are my sisters, your sisters. They have the right to make a choice, even a choice that may (or may not) fill them with regret.
I call on people of faith to speak out. Don’t let the fear of being branded a heretic siphon away your compassion. It is perfectly consistent for a Christian to champion women as image-bearers of God.
Don’t let the fear of being branded a heretic siphon away your compassion. It is perfectly consistent for a Christian to champion women as image-bearers of God. - @rutheverhart Click To Tweet ... disregard of a woman’s agency functions like hatred, feels like hatred. - @rutheverhart Click To Tweet
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I am a Christian and a feminist and do not “dislike” abortion and the majority of people (women and trans men) who get abortions do not regret their choice. Using that kind of language perpetuates the narrative that their are “good” and “bad” reasons to get an abortion and that people who get abortions should feel guilt and shame.
Carey, thanks for the comment. I should have said that I dislike abortion, and not included “Like you” because that does assume a common mindset.
Thank you for this piece. I am so sorry about what happened to you–but grateful for myself and for my students that you are willing to write and reflect in such a careful, thorough way.
I’ll use this piece and the piece by and about Leetha’s perspective to help students understand different perspectives better. I’m looking forward to reading your new book.
Thanks for letting me know my words spoke to you. Don’t hesitate to be in touch if I can help you with reaching students, sounds like such important work. Blessings on it!
I cried at your description of being in that church on “Right to Life Sunday.”
Will buy RUINED and will also read the missing chapter in Sojourners. The book’s publication history interests me, partly because my pro-choice book on abortion faced similar publication issues in 1994. Abortion–My Choice, God’s Grace: Christian Women Tell Their Stories. I wonder whether your book would have received the award from CT if it had had that chapter.
Hi Anne — Your book sounds interesting — and still timely, unfortunately, in the sense that this is treated as an unspeakable topic by so many Christians. Thanks for speaking out.