Abortion and the Stories Clergy Tell

By Dennis S. Ross, Religion Dispatches

In one of the greatest overstatements of 2010, Lord Nicholas Windsor of England argued recently that abortion is a bigger threat to Europe than al-Qaeda. The reality is that when a woman believes she needs an abortion, not being able to get one poses a significant threat to her health and safety. And any member of the clergy can tell the tale.

Clergy tell stories. It’s a tradition as old as the Bible. And it’s a common practice when someone dies.

I just finished leading a burial service for a man I didn’t know and a family I’d likely never see again. The son of the deceased, a grandfather himself, scanned the nearby graves and pointed to an inscription for a 23-year-old woman who died in 1931. “My aunt passed before I was born. She had an illegal abortion,” he said as if our unfamiliarity gave him permission to unearth a family secret.

“What a shame,” was all I could muster, having heard the start of a story I did not expect to hear.

“It should never happen,” was the curt response. He quickly thanked me for the service, got into the rental with family and drove back to the airport. And I was left with questions.

Who told him about the botched abortion? How was it explained? What did he think at first? Was the abortion self-induced or performed by a quack? Did she die of a hemorrhage or infection? What did the rabbi say at the funeral? What would I have done were I the officiant standing at an open grave with a bereft family?

I think of these questions because I’m a rabbi at a synagogue. I also work for Planned Parenthood as a religious advocate for access to sex education, contraception, and abortion. When people ask about the connection between the two, I tell a story, perhaps how I learned about a man whose aunt died of a botched abortion and how I hope that never happens to any woman again.

Clergy hear stories, including ones about pregnancy, happy stories and ones that are not: A woman finally became pregnant after many tries and many years, only to have the baby arrive prematurely and die after a few days. A pregnancy seemed to proceed normally until a sonogram revealed a catastrophic developmental anomaly that ended in tragedy. And everything went perfectly in another case until the final moments of birthing when a hemorrhage threatened the woman’s life until the doctor took heroic measures to save her. These stories teach clergy not to take any pregnancy for granted, that nothing is guaranteed when it comes to pregnancy.

Going back years before the US Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, rabbis had heard enough sorrowful stories that my denominational professional organization, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, endorsed access to birth control in 1929 and cooperation with Planned Parenthood in 1947. As the decades passed, we, and clergy from other religious groups, demanded access to reproductive health care, including abortion. We weren’t dismissive of the woman’s pregnancy. Rather, we affirmed that the moral high ground is in a woman’s decision whether or not to become pregnant and whether or not to carry her pregnancy to term; we put her judgment first. And we maintained that access to safe reproductive services is a matter of a woman’s health and safety. Counseling women in need changed us; telling their stories changed people’s lives.

I retell that cemetery story from time to time, as I did during a meeting with a legislative staffer who asked me and the other clergy in the room to explain what brought us to advocate for abortion rights. After I told the story of the man and the aunt he never met, the staffer, in his 60s, stared back at me and said, “I was a little boy in Bronx when my friend’s mother died. A few years later, I learned that she died of an illegal abortion. I don’t want that to have to happen to anyone, ever again, either.”

He understood. And then I remembered another story, an old legend told of a rabbi in Europe: When a problem in the community confronted the rabbi, he went to a hidden place in the woods to light a fire and pray. The rabbi would finish the prayers and return home to find that the community had made peace. The story continues by pointing out that the rabbi of the legend is long gone and the place in the woods and the words of the prayer are long forgotten. All that’s left is a story. And when there is a problem in the community, the story’s retelling should itself be enough to restore the peace. So like many clergy, I tell the stories of these women with the hope of making peace for them.

For the aunt is buried in that lost place and the forgotten words are the funeral prayers spoken at her graveside. As for the fire, it burns when telling a story of an aunt, a friend’s mother, a daughter, a wife, or any woman who suffered because she couldn’t get competent medical care; stories that move people to come forward to advocate for protection for the woman and continuing to live in health and peace.

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