The Rev. Dr. Neil O’Farrell thinks Yin and Yang.
She sat in front of me, a woman I knew—a woman I knew to be a sex worker looking for tricks on the desultory streets around the church. She held a box of tissue, half of which she’d pulled out sheet by sheet, wadding it all into a sodden mess, dampened by tears that wouldn’t stop. The conversation engaged in spurts. A few moments of talk, followed by more moments of sobs. She was pregnant.
I knew her history, and it was long, though she was relatively young. Not yet 30, she was one of the most haggard persons I’d ever seen. I also knew that she had several children, none of whose fathers could be identified among the uncountable men she had made a few dollars off of. All of her children were in foster care, one of whom was so damaged (I don’t know of a more appropriate word because euphemisms don’t cut it) because of poor prenatal care and her use of alcohol and drugs, the Department of Child Protective Services struggled to find suitable foster parents.
This is the daily reality of gritty urban ministry. Grim. This is not a world that anyone can look at without a broken heart. In one city, Washington, DC, a recent study said that 71 percent of pregnancies were unintended.
I tend to a pro-life point of view, holistically defined. (This is an important distinction, and a product of Roman Catholic social policy in macro terms.) Hebrew scripture teaches that we should “choose life.” I would like pregnancies not to be terminated. I also want that there be excellent prenatal care, and that the social safety net for children such as hers, along with mothers and all fragile peoples, be made out of steel cords. I don’t believe in capital punishment, and I’m a pacifist. The government should feel a keen responsibility to protect and foster good life among those who need that safety net. All of this falls under that ancient command to “choose life.”
I also know that urban ministry does not allow one to be doctrinaire. So I end up doing a lot of abortion counseling, and I have a list of appropriate referral agencies.
One more point on my list of beliefs: I don’t think men have any right to determine a woman’s reproductive freedom. When pregnant women come to me, I pick my words very carefully. If at all possible, I am not the person who brings up the subject of pregnancy termination. I don’t have any agency to make this decision. Only a woman does. I don’t have much room for unsolicited advice or errant observations.
She wants to have the baby. That, too, was no surprise to me. I wondered if another pregnancy was her way of being able to stay away from the streets for several weeks. An obviously pregnant woman is not a marketable sex object.
Pregnancy is hard on women. It was easy for me to see the effects of her previous pregnancies on her. On an earlier occasion, I had begged parishioners for money for emergency dental care for her, because her body robbed her calcium to build the fetus’s bones. A pretty smile was no longer hers.
A dozen thoughts raced through my mind as I sat listening to her sobs while she took more tissue from the box. Primary were, who would take care of the child, and how healthy a baby would be when it came from her womb? These are not incidental questions; they are fundamental.
“I can’t have this baby,” she blurted out among the sobs. “I have five babies, and I can’t take care of any of them!” I asked her what changes she might undertake to be a mother to those children. “I can’t take care of my babies. I don’t know how. I can’t give them what they need.” All that said, punctuated by sobs.
Pause to think about that for a moment. Most of us take parenting skills largely for granted. The Good Men Project is full of stories on how to be a better parent or how to deal with a particular parenting challenge. I haven’t seen much about parents who don’t know the first thing about parenting. Yet, I see frequently people who never had the chance to have an example of Parenting 101. Their family is so intergenerationally dysfunctional, there are no role models of good parenting.
Then think about her other statement, “I can’t give them what they need.” In our society, what healthy children need must meet a certain threshold of resources. Love and good intentions are not enough. Supposedly we have a social safety net. We don’t. We’ve shortchanged it for years. Politics and the invisibility of the impoverished are the primary culprits. Children need what a lot of people can’t provide, even though they have parents.
She and I had finally come to the decision point of her conversation with me. I hadn’t brought it up. But she knew that being pregnant wasn’t good for her or her unborn child. So I asked her. “Are you ready to have another baby? Do you know if this baby will be born healthy?” Her crying intensified, and she shook her head, deep regret on her face.
You need someone more expert than I am, I told her. She was ready to have “the talk.” It would not be with me, not because of my pro-life inclinations, but because she needed to talk with someone who had professional credentials that I do not. What I could do is to tell her that God would be with her before and after, whatever happened. I called and made an appointment right there. I said that I would take her if she showed up at my office at an appointed time. That is when I saw her next. She was sad but much less fraught about her situation.
I despise the pro-choice/pro-life dichotomy. They are yin and yang of the same thing. People who identify as pro-choice are not against life. People who are pro-choice—most of them realize there are times when terminating a pregnancy are the best choice, no matter how imperfect a choice that is. We—most of us—live on a pro-life/pro-choice continuum. We’re sophisticated enough to know that there isn’t just one answer for all situations. I can have a pro-life leaning as a person and minister, but I can also drive a pregnant woman to an abortion clinic in good conscience.
I don’t live in an idealized, perfect world. Neither does anyone else I know. Certainly not the persons in the neighborhood around the church.
photo by Katie Tegtmeyer / flickr