Choosing Life

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{A NOTE FROM KATHERINE:Though we rarely dip our toes in the public discourse, the recently revived conversation on abortion coupled with our current status as parents of a newborn baby makes it hard to stay silent. This post is the embodiment of weeks of conversations we’ve had on the topic, the overflow of my heart and Jay's heart, all expressed through Jay Wolf's brilliant writing skills (honestly, breastfeeding and sleepless nights are making it hard for me to string together a full sentence at the moment!) Our prayer is that these words would be grace-filled and life-giving to all who read. We love you, friends.}

In my early college years, my naturally strong female persona began to empathize with a woman’s right to make choices, choices about her body and about her future. I never found myself as a proponent of abortion, but like many who find themselves on the “pro-choice” side of this issue, I felt that a woman’s right to be able to choose should, at least in theory, be protected. After centuries of women being taken advantage of and repressed in a multitude of subtle and not-so-subtle ways, it only seemed fair to give us the reins of choice in something as intimate as child-bearing.

Suffice it to say, our theories often fade quickly when brought to the light of real-life experience. Our early adult years have been wrought with stories we never could have imagined, from an unexpected pregnancy with James in our early marriage, to my own near-death and re-birth of sorts following my stroke, to our most recent reminder of the miraculous in the birth and life of John. From all these moments, it seems clear…this life is grace, and this grace is life. And when we have eyes to see grace and hearts to acknowledge that this is all a gift, then we begin to see and acknowledge life in a new way too, and it changes everything.

Though my personal story has not intersected abortion, a third of the stories of women do—not to mention fathers, siblings, grandparents, and medical professionals—maybe yours has or it will. Yet I do speak from experience to those of you in the shadows of loss, despair, shame, and brokenness (which is all of us, I suppose), there is restoration, there is hope, there is freedom and there is healing. And the sweet words of James, the brother of Jesus, flood the dead places of our souls…“but he gives more grace.” (James 4:6) And new life won’t be far behind.

If it is life, not death, which motivates us to flourish, and if love and sacrifice are at the heart of our humanity, rather than choice, then we must desire life, pray for life, manifest life and choose life for every other human on this planet, and in so doing, we all might know grace more.

We're not apologists or even deeply analytical thinkers, but it seems this issue--one which involves 50 million lives a year worldwide, not to mention an untold ripple effect on millions of others involved--like so many issues that we confront as a society, is less about where to draw the line or the hypothetical situations or the government’s involvement as it is about how we define the terms--“life” in this case--and how we understand God in the midst of our pain.

Our society’s inconsistency in defining the very words and ideas that make it up reflects our own challenges as individuals to objectively define the world around us, yet in the context of this conversation about life and death the stakes are immeasurably higher than semantics or legalese, and some glaring duplicity exists in this societal narrative. For instance, if a celebrity announces a pregnancy, such news would never be lauded as “she’s got a bundle of tissue growing in her”, or even “she’s expecting a fetus”, categorically, the celebration of life in such a context would be announced with warm expectancy as “she’s going to have a baby, it’s a girl, and they’ve even got a name picked out, and you can see the full photo spread of the nursery, the soon-to-be-home for this not-even-born-yet little one”. We’re quick to allow such aspirational stories of humanity to be put in a different category than the millions of women experiencing something no less miraculous, no less stunning than the spark of new life inside their own bodies.

Further, if a space probe were to land on a distant planet and come across some infinitesimally small speck of organic matter or even just the right combination of life-sustaining elements, scientific journals would explode with the headlines “Possible signs of LIFE found on the surface of Mars!” And yet we often allow terms more befitting the periodic table of our junior high science classes to be bestowed on those yet unnamed, those yet to be born, rather than dignifying this quotidian wonder by categorizing it most obviously as life--and life we don’t have to go to space to find but rather life that finds us.

Not only do we selectively define life based on the situation, but legally, life is tied to the medical technology which allows a baby to survive outside of the womb, so currently, a baby is considered viable, and thus a life, at about 22 weeks. This line is already a rather blurred one, yet, if medical technology continues on its upward trajectory, it stands to reason that this much-depended upon definition will continue to be a moving target, perhaps moving all the way to a viability outside of the womb (thus a definition of life) that is not so far past the moment of conception itself. Should the fate of the very youngest souls on the planet be dependent on our fickle, subjective, and evolving definition of how, when, and what life is?

In a day and age when we understand more of the microscopic processes of conception and can chart the daily development of life in utero, the words of David in Psalm 139 ring even more true, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

We should call life, life, perhaps most simplistically at the moment when God does, at the moment when the two unlikely elements combine into something altogether greater than their sum, at the moment when we are known and loved by God, and it should lead us to awe, to praise, to worship.

The question remains, the much harder one, for this conversation and most any one that really matters…who do we believe God to be, not just in theory and not just in the light but in the darkness?

Few people can wholeheartedly support the procedure of abortion. We’ve had our share of medical procedures following the stroke, 11 total, all with varying degrees of stomach-turning details, yet abortion stands in a category all its own. Something in the heart won’t allow it to be counted as just another medical procedure, a removal of cells and tissues. Yet many people still support the organizations and the arguments that effectively permit such a procedure to end millions and millions of lives in ways that haunt our dreams. This is because they believe in the power of choice, one which promises a re-write to the not-so-happy endings and a reversal to the unexpected detours which an unplanned pregnancy so often creates.

An even deeper contention for keeping this door open revolves around the most horrific worst-case scenarios, such as severe disabilities in the child, rape and incest, or saving the life of the mother. Naturally, such scenarios nearly rival the dreadfulness of the abortion procedure itself. The personal and profound nature of such tragedies prevents simplistic answers or recommendations, but here is my experience. We often wonder if I had been conceived in a not-so-distant future where in utero medical screenings could have shown the AVM (the brain abnormality that caused my stroke) already prominent in my cerebellum, abutting my brain stem. What if such medical information had been presented to my parents with an opinion of the high likelihood of a rupture in my lifetime, one which would likely lead to death or some other worse forms of suffering? What if my parents had chosen to mercifully spare me and themselves such pain? What ripple effects from my life and the lives of my children would be lost in the history of the world as a result of such a seemingly-compassionate choice?

Similarly, what if we had known about my AVM during my pregnancy with James? It was later recounted to be the largest my neuro-surgeon had ever seen, with four aneurysms on top of it, and so close to my brainstem that any rupture would most assuredly affect my most basic functions of breathing, heartbeat, and bodily movement. Would a well-intentioned doctor have informed us that my very life was at stake in continuing the pregnancy? It’s quite likely they would have if we had known, and yet to think of our lives without James is to think of more loss than we can imagine.

We pray wisdom and an abundance of love and grace over all who are faced with such horrifying realities. Honestly, we're so grateful that neither we nor my parents were placed in the position of having to make such a decision. Yet we know, not just in theory, but in hard-won reality, that through our fears, tears, and pain, through the great seasons of suffering in our lives, we have seen God alchemize our despair into a golden hope. Even those who don’t know Him, we ask you, can your heart be vulnerable to even the slightest possibility that on the far side of your worst pain you might find some unexpected goodness? If there is a chance for goodness, then hold on to it.

In John 9, a blind man’s life-long struggles with disabilities are a picture of our own pain and the questions that come with it, “surely this man is being punished, surely his parents did something wrong for which he is having to suffering his whole life”. And yet Jesus gives the man physical healing but more importantly healing of his soul. His words of hope can heal us too, those disabled on the outside or the inside, the not-yet-born who will suffer through lives very different than their parents ever imagined, Jesus says, “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do.” (John 9:3, MSG)

In the mysterious economy of God, we’ve seen that He wastes nothing, not one joy, not one tear. His works are revealed through our great triumphs and perhaps more profoundly through our great losses.

In this specific conversation on abortion but in every conversation that matters, when we willingly give up ourselves, we can’t help but feel like we’ve lost something huge. In an age where personal fulfillment and independence trump sacrifice and the greater good, laying down our ability to choose may feel like the greatest loss of all.  And yet when we live lives born of grace, when we seek the goodness in the midst of the pain, we will find we have gained more than we could have ever lost. And we will find that in losing one choice, we have been given a far greater choice, one to choose life, every day, in every way, for every one. May it be so.