by Molly Rachamim

My first pregnancy scare occurred the week of my eighteenth birthday, three months after my baptism. My boyfriend (who was a few years older) was gentle, Christian, and not trying to take my virginity. We had been reading something about the early Christian subintroductae—the "virgins" of I Corinthians 7:36-37—who slept with their male partners without intercourse; we were full of confidence in the power of faith to work miracles. Within a few weeks our bodies worked the more accustomed miracle.

I would have gone then to the university clinic for pills, but students under eighteen could not get them; a friend, also underage, had just tried. By the time of my birthday I was terrified that my period would be late, and because of my anxiety it was. It was 1970; abortion had been legal in New York for just two months. My mother said she would take me there if need be.

The second scare occurred six months later, because I had promised my parents I would not make love with the man again and could not keep my promise. By then I had a supply of pills in my dresser drawer, but being sworn to chastity I did not take them. This time I did not tell my mother—unless she read my half-formed plan to spend Christmas with my roommate from New York for what it was—and when my period came I abandoned promises and miracles, took the pills, and lied to my parents about the state of the relationship until my lover and I married the next year.

Why should I say such things, nearly thirty-five years later and to strangers?

The confessional mode is uncomfortable, for writer and readers; it drags wretched secrets into the public realm, where no one really wants to see them. But if abortion has to be defended in the public realm, it is partly in these terms —who whispered what to whom in what confusion, who yielded to whose touch in what delight, who was more afraid to go out and buy condoms than risk begetting a child, or to swallow pills than break a promise to her parents— because that is how unwanted pregnancy happens, through confusion and bad management and accident. That it did not happen to me was due to the relative efficacy of the withdrawal method and to sheer luck. Some people recommend willpower and abstinence with great certainty; perhaps they have been luckier than I, and never encountered confusion.

But intelligent young people receive religion with great confusion, as my own story shows; they take it seriously, and trust it implicitly as a bulwark against their own bodies' hungers, and when their bodies learn to join anyway —in quiet, happy disregard of all vows—they feel betrayed. The young votaries of movements like "True Love Waits," who vow to save themselves for marriage, may have a little more good sense than my lover and I did, but some of them too will discover that the skin makes its own laws, as imperious as those of the Bible; they will even discover that those laws are not bad laws for being different ones, and then they will be troubled. "And then"—says Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas, in another connection—"they will be amazed, and rule over all": they will learn to take charge. Some, even at that point, will take charge of their instincts, and go back to abstinence; some will take charge of children; some will be lucky, as we were, and only have to take charge of birth control; and some will take charge of pregnancies that dismay them, through abortion.

The most dismaying thing about a pregnancy one does not intend, aside from its very occurrence—the thing that can undermine a serious young person's religion—is that it unsettles all one's notions about God's will. There is something uncanny and untrustworthy about a universe in which the conception of a new person can come about by accident. One is not, after all, a soul acting deliberately to do the best thing at the best time; one is a bundle of badly controlled instincts, the man a sperm factory, the woman a baby motel. Unwanted pregnancy is the body's practical joke, life's horse-laugh on men and women so incautious as to call a brief truce in the war between the sexes; God is nowhere discernible in it, unless you imagine God as a capricious warden who may ignore your lapses one month and punish them fiercely the next. For a young woman accustomed to using her mind—even hoping (preposterous presumption!) to serve God with it—unwanted pregnancy, or the fear of it, is a theological moment. She has to decide whether God even wants her mind, or only her uterus; if, on balance, she thinks God does want her mind, she has to get used to using her head (a humbler, slyer skill than using her mind) before she uses her body. She is shaken by all this sudden, frantic physical and intellectual fumbling; she wonders whether spiritual life is actually livable.

There is, of course, a strain in Christian thought that will always say the uterus counts for more than the mind: the strain that does not distinguish between intellect and intellectual pride, and that locates God's will—for men and for women—precisely in opposition to one's own. In this view the practical joke of pregnancy is a chance at salvation, because it is a crucifixion. Like any other disruption of one's life, like a flood or a slowly dying parent or a child rendered quadriplegic in an accident, pregnancy demands that one set aside one's own interests and live for the Other. Selfishness is the great accusation against women who abort. To refuse the instantaneous, exigent demand of the fetus for its life is, in this view, a kind of damnation—and not only because the fetus dies, but because the woman has put herself first, restored the pattern of her life rather than rising to the interruption. There is something ringing and prophetic about the doctrine—one cannot write it without seeing its heroism, its radical pity—but there is something pitiless in it too: what compassionate person dares volunteer another, an Other, for crucifixion? The woman's demand too is exigent: to be able to gauge her own strength, to agree to live so intimately and utterly for the Other only when the effort will not destroy her. One needs enough self left to be stronger than the child.

At eighteen I did not have that strength. I came to Christianity not with this strenuous sacrificial view — and certainly not in search of security or "values"— but as a young writer whose life had already been disrupted by religious awe. I had been raised without religion, and thus found the elements of religion everywhere; my lifelong need has been to understand how those elements cohere. I was raised with art, much of it Christian art, and in my teens I suppose I mistook the accidents for the substance: I thought I could become a better artist by becoming a Christian. It seems ludicrous, now, that I imagined the religion of Dante and Michelangelo and Donne and Milton and Bach and Gerard Manley Hopkins to be in any sense the custodian of their work; it did not even consider itself the custodian of the Latin Mass or the Book of Common Prayer. But from the outside I thought the art was contiguous with the doctrines. I think I felt as some people feel today about the pervasiveness of sexual imagery in popular entertainment: in a culture saturated with religious imagery I was required to abstain, painfully and rigorously, from religion. No wonder that when I could no longer hold out against religion I yielded to sex too: the act of yielding was so unfamiliar and so welcome. But I was not prepared to care for or even to comprehend a child.

I was young, I was violent-tempered, I was afraid of babies and did not like young children; I had not even liked being a child. I did not want to be a mother. I thought I would kill a child through rage and ineptitude. I was grateful not to need an abortion, but I would have chosen it just as gratefully in preference to the prolonged, ambivalent cruelty I would have inflicted on any child I raised. Better to inflict the cruelty early and quickly and summarily on an undeveloped fetus than on a fully perceiving person who would suffer it ever after. If one cannot live for the Other—through whatever failures of character, which I would readily have acknowledged—one must not pretend to try. People who agonize over the fate of the unborn think that we have no pity. We do. We do.

The Episcopal Church, to which I had gravitated, was liberal on the question of abortion; I did not have to contend with the notion that it was full-scale murder. (Fewer people did, before Roe v. Wade; I am told that even most evangelicals were quietly liberal, basing their theology of ensoulment on Genesis 2:7—"And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul"—and considering abortion a morally problematic but private choice.) But I was too new to the church to consider asking for help there, and I did not have much sense that the priests (all men at that time) were at ease with young women's sexual problems. My mother—ironically enough, since our relationship was very bitter at that point-was my only friend.

Having come this close to abortion—and having crossed other boundaries that good women are not supposed to cross—I think there is a qualitative difference to the way one thinks after breaking a prohibition, which those who obey it tend not to understand. Those who have not committed a forbidden act perceive only that it is forbidden; those who have find out that one has to live after it. Life is different on the other side: one disobeys, and the prohibition was only a prohibition, the lightning does not strike, and one is left in the entirely practical position of being responsible for oneself. Adam and Eve knew that position—"knew" it in the biblical sense, a knowledge integral and incommunicable—and everyone who comes after them learns it again, if not through sex then by some other means (and there are many means more violent and less excusable than sex). Either decision, to obey or to disobey, gives rise to more decisions, which still demand to be made with care and honor. The obedient naturally see the transgressor's shift in thinking as mere shamelessness, but the transgressor may perceive a certain shamelessness even in obedience: the good can gloat in their goodness. In the world after Eden—which is to say, the world we all live in, post-lapsarian, post-mythical—even innocence is not paradise retained; even the act of saying "Don't eat the apple!" can be corrupt. One can say it complacently; one can say it threateningly or contemptuously, to frightened strangers; one can say it with guns and clinic blockades and harsh laws, in an orgy of rectitude that leaves no time for the close self-scrutiny one recommends to others. There is a more genuine righteousness that does not depend on fierce public shows of rectitude, but that righteousness is not easily shocked, is infinitely gentle in speaking with the vulnerable, and knows the meaning of pardon.

I have sometimes thought there is a moral or psychological gap in Christian thought, not only in the volatile fundamentalist churches but in the staid and civilized mainstream ones: a fixation on the process of temptation and fall, on preventing transgression, as if Eden or heaven were within human reach if only we could refrain from doing wrong. There is a naiveté about it (as well as a heresy), which is shown in the deep mistrust of the self I spoke of earlier, and in a craving for moral safety. If the self is always on the point of straying, then anything that tears down and weakens the self must be approved: we must not only submit to God's practical jokes but laugh at ourselves in full pratfall, give thanks for the humiliation and the wound. The self hamstrung, houghed, short-circuited, is the self God wants of us—not simply a broken and contrite heart, but real incompetence—because competence would entail trust in our own powers.

I say all this not out of mere animus against Christianity—though it would be foolish to pretend that I have none—but because I have seen other possible ways of thinking. As a convert to Judaism I have been struck by the generosity with which Jewish thought—the very origin of Thou Shalt Nots—handles the self and its faults. On the whole, the state of the community rather than the state of the soul is Judaism's concern; the self is not the center of one's spiritual attention but the necessary equipment for maintaining the relation with God and pursuing justice. Resignation, not selfishness, is the prototypical Jewish sin. One who is not resigned to injustice must strengthen the self, precisely not because the self is all-important but because it is the hope of the Other. There are such currents of thought in Christianity, but they are confused and muddied by the stronger force of the imperative to mistrust the self. I have wondered whether the driving force behind Christian antisemitism almost from the outset was the envy of a population that had been taught to cripple itself for a population that had not.

Rabbinic law does not decide hypothetical cases. It applies the laws of the Torah (often a good deal softened by the Talmud) to individual circumstances, which are never the same twice. It has never categorically forbidden either birth control or abortion; it has consistently ruled that the life of the mother takes precedence over the life of the fetus in cases where the mother's life is at risk. In that sense it has not considered the fetus a coequal human life. The rabbinic responsa have been reluctant to accept certain reasons for abortion as legitimate: poverty and social disgrace, surely the most common reasons, have not been declared acceptable in the responsa. (David M. Feldman's Marital Relations, Birth Control, and Abortion in Jewish Law [New York: Schocken, 1974] explains in detail the evolution of rabbinic thinking on this point.) But in the more sympathetic rulings the woman's emotional stability—which may well be jeopardized by poverty or disgrace—has been an acceptable reason. Indeed in one nineteenth-century ruling on the use of emergency contraception after rape, the woman's will in the matter is the single decisive factor: Rabbi Yehudah Perilman of Minsk wrote that a woman "differs from 'mother earth' in that she need not nurture seed implanted within her against her will; indeed she may 'uproot' seed illegally sown" (Feldman 287). There are many kinds of unlawfulness besides rape; one wonders whether the rabbis, always a bit apprehensive of governments, would consider the state's overruling of a woman's will a form of unlawfulness.

The rabbis' attention to circumstances is worth emulating: religion need not generalize its moral categories to the point where they become cruel, or sneer at "situation ethics" as a kind of collusion with evil. The anti-abortion movement uses big thunderous words like life and sanctity—abstractions that can be understood by people just barely capable of abstraction—yet what a pregnant woman faces are particulars: a child she longs to raise or dreads to raise, and the conditions she has to raise it in. A baby is not, as the other side is fond of saying, a "choice"; it's also not "life," undifferentiated and self-maintaining. It cannot be sensibly spoken of in abstractions at all. A philosophy student once told me he fully agreed at the pragmatic level that the woman must be the one to decide, but that he wished abortion were firmly justifiable at the ideal level. But a baby is pragmatic: it is not the stuff of Platonic forms or unchanging principles. Someone has to wake up and feed it, someone has to change its diapers, someone has to give absorbed and unconditional attention to its least activity and syllable and symptom. No philosophy yet, apart from some feminist philosophy, has faced pragmatism at so dire a level—though Emmanuel Levinas tried, with his assertion that mothers embodied most fully his principle of living for the Other (and he, as far as I know, made no statement on whether they had the option to refuse). If the pregnant woman's position can be described in abstract terms at all, it is with words like moral agency, which require some sophistication and quietness of mind to understand, and which do not begin to touch the actual nature of each woman's choice. For real understanding, narrative is required; in a sense ethics is always a subset of narrative. If not for situations, ethics would never be needed; if not for situations, ethics might be easily applied.

In one sense it is always our business, as ethical people of any persuasion, to play God: "the heavens are the heavens of the Lord, but the earth he has given to the children of men" (Ps. 115:16). But that process is never simple, never comfortable, and never easily understood. Above all it is a process in which compassion and severity are in continual tension, and compassion to one person may mean harm to another. We live after the Fall: knowing good and evil, but able to separate them only temporarily and with great care. In Jewish tradition, where the Eden story is simply a parable of lost innocence, this ambiguity is a condition of life, difficult but not inevitably disastrous; our job is to repair the world with all the energy, ingenuity and mercy at our command. In Christian tradition, where the Fall has theological standing—where it is seen in hindsight as a human disaster of such magnitude as to require the Redemption, the discarnate God's taking flesh in a woman's womb—it should be, if anything, clearer that the effects of the Fall cannot be sidestepped. No one is immune to confusion and bad management and accident; religion itself is no vaccination against sin. And even pregnancy, which in an unambiguous world might never seem ill-timed or unwelcome, is not always and intrinsically good. Nor is abortion, however disquieting, always and intrinsically evil.

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Source: CrossCurrents, Fall 2004, Vol. 54,  No 3.