Commentary: When does life begin? Thoughts from a pro-choice pastor

The pro-life movement is clear about when the life of a fetus begins — but what seems to lurk beneath the surface is a notion that pregnant women are no longer fully human or fully free. Anti-abortion advocates insist that once a woman conceives, regardless of the circumstances, she must choose motherhood — over her physical and emotional wellbeing, over her vocation, even if it means living in poverty. Even if it kills her.

During this year’s legislative session, the Texas Legislature passed a law banning the most common and very safe abortion procedure used during the second trimester, known as “dilation and evacuation.” Only 11 percent of abortions occur after the first trimester — but since they are more likely to be situations where the mother’s life is threatened, this ban directly endangers women who may already be at risk. The law is under appeal.

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Being a white, educated, middle-class woman has shielded me as devastating anti-abortion laws have shut down women’s health clinics across the state – today, 95 percent of the state’s counties do not have an abortion provider. But this newest law may directly affect me; my husband and I are considering having a second child, but at nearly 40, I am at a risky “advanced maternal age.” Heaven forbid I encounter complications, some politicians might prefer I die than terminate a pregnancy.

For low-income women and women of color, the prognosis is even more grim. The Centers for Disease Control reports that black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women. Texas has the highest maternal mortality rate in the “developed” world, according to a report in the journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

These latest developments in Texas have reinforced the astonishing barriers American women face in determining their own reproductive freedom. Since the start of 2017, state legislatures across the country have already passed more than 50 abortion restrictions, including waiting periods and mandatory counseling designed to dissuade women from having an abortion. West Virginia and Mississippi have already banned the dilation and evacuation procedure, and similar bans are pending in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Kansas, and Alabama against heavy legal opposition.

As a former Southern Baptist, I know firsthand what it means to be devoutly pro-life, though experience has taught me that abortion is a much more complex issue than often portrayed. The basic limitation of the anti-abortion movement is that it attempts to confront the moral complexity of real life with a rigidly simple set of commandments. I can sympathize with this approach; it is a survival instinct. But it threatens our capacity to experience the abundant life that Jesus promised by holding women’s lives captive to the dictates of public officials.

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Parenthood inevitably involves sacrifices. But isn’t there a qualitative difference between sacrifices freely made and those legislated for us? Do we really expect women to sacrifice their lives to bear children? When does a mother’s right to life begin? When does her personhood start?

I am not trying to convince anyone to terminate a pregnancy. I am saying that women’s lives matter to God and to their families, and they ought to matter to politicians. As long as we only define life as the protection of a fetus, we have dangerously oversimplified the issue. Only when we can affirm that a mother’s life need not end for a child’s life to begin can we truly call ourselves “pro-life.”

Fulbright is founder and director of Labyrinth Progressive Student Ministry at the University of Texas.

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