Editor's Comments - Public or Private?

[1] I remember what a shock it was, when I was pregnant, to find that my body no longer possessed its familiar boundaries between public and private. After I said no thanks to BUN testing and amnio despite my advanced maternal age, the doctor who conducted the ultrasound for my second child clearly thought I was either misinformed or an idiot, asking me about every test I could have had but didn't. Questions about nursing (yes), epidurals (YES!!! As soon as possible!!!), and all sorts of things I would have considered quite personal suddenly became the opportunity for public discussion of medical decisions I made with my husband and my doctors. Even people I would normally consider exceedingly cautious about my personal space joined the fray.

Editor's Comment by Kaari Reierson

[2] Once I actually had children, the redrawing of this line became more understandable. In retrospect, I was beginning a time in my life when I was going to depend on others much more than any other time as an adult — their good graces, their exemplary behavior, their respectful conduct in front of my children. Not that I always got it, mind you (shouts out to the nasty elderly couple who screamed at my son for kicking the seat just once accidentally while he was trying to shift himself upwards in the seat as I was loading luggage — thanks sooo much for that wonderful example of civil, adult behavior), but I really needed it. When the lives of children are at stake, that we do not belong only to ourselves is spelled out in sharp relief.

[3] The uneasy relationship between public (that which is exposed to comment and intervention from the state or civil society) and private (that which remains open only to a limited or chosen group of people, usually relatives by blood or marriage) lies at the heart of the debate over abortion law for Christians. Those who argue for uninhibited abortion rights focus on women's autonomy. For that is what the right to terminate a pregnancy is, full autonomy, the right of a woman to make the best decision she can for herself and the life in her womb which belongs fully to her. In keeping with a distinctly American more, the pro-choice relies on a private understanding of autonomy — a woman's body is hers to do with as she wills, and it's no one else's business what she decides.

[4] For centuries, however, a woman's body has belonged to someone else — her husband, her father, her owner. Her sexual autonomy was severely restricted, as her entire personhood, including her sexuality, belonged to the male who represented her. What happened to her body was entirely private, but what happened to her body was determined by the male who controlled her.

[5] Now a woman in the United States has far more in the way of rights than she did in biblical times: the right of a voice in political processes, the right to choose a spouse, and the right to name forced sexual relations with any man, even with her husband, rape. But as women have become public citizens, the matter of abortion has become more complex. What do we as Christian members of a public do with this newfound autonomy when fetal life is involved? For those who are persuaded by the pro-life argument, the notion of private autonomy of a woman is challenged by the presence of life in her womb, and the rights of another must be heeded. For those who are persuaded by a pro-choice argument, the way in which we are treated up until pregnancy and beyond, as capable of making decisions about our bodies, whether wrongly or rightly, is the way we are to be treated when pregnant.

[6] The ELCA's social statement on abortion attempts to navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of public and private, pro-life and pro-choice, restriction and autonomy. With a clear preference for preserving life, the statement gives an argument on behalf of the church that encourages women with unintended pregnancies to continue their pregnancies. When it comes to the matter of public policy surrounding that decision, the statement has this to say:


The position of this church is that, in cases where the life of the mother is threatened, where pregnancy results from rape or incest, or where the embryo or fetus has lethal abnormalities incompatible with life, abortion prior to viability should not be prohibited by law or by lack of public funding of abortions for low income women. On the other hand, this church supports legislation that prohibits abortions that are performed after the fetus is determined to be viable, except when the mother's life is threatened or when lethal abnormalities indicate the prospective newborn will die very soon.

Beyond these situations, this church neither supports nor opposes laws prohibiting abortion.

[7] The statement steers into the middle between supporting and opposing abortion, counseling against abortion except in certain circumstances, but refusing to make a fully public act out of private autonomy. This has been troublesome to both pro-life and pro-choice parties--so much so that JLE was requested to publish articles about the “unresolved issues” in the statement regarding spousal/parental consent and public funding. That these two question are left open, one a matter of intervening in a private relationship and the other a matter of public funding, signifies that we are sensitive to this unresolved private/public conundrum.

[8] This month three reviewers read a book by a pro-life activist that seeks to demonstrate that the history of our Christian tradition has been pro-life through reference to various scriptural and historical texts. I will leave it to our esteemed reviewers to discuss the merits of the book, and to the author to respond. Though I will note that Jewish legal tradition regarding this matter is fairly complex and considers the life of the mother to be very important, and I am not clear whether that is reflected in the book or in the reviews. Michael Shahan, JLE's book review editor, introduces the authors to us.

[9] What one might notice about the three reviewers is the different questions they ask of the texts. Where Guill and Bailey are most interested in the texts themselves, Yarrison inquires about the context, noting that “Di Mauro has entirely neglected to engage the historical social context and reasoning.” This raises the question that plagues many churches on many social issues — to what degree does context matter when we are talking about a tradition which has survived two thousand years?

[10] If context matters, we have much to give us pause in deciding whether historical Christianity is pro-life — the historical misuse of women's bodies, the lack of women's voices out of history, the context which di Mauro describes, in which babies were left to die of exposure. When most of the writing we are discussing has been the product of men, do we have to add anything in to interpretation of that work to incorporate the voice of women? Does the reality of a historical thinker's private life affect the meaning of his support for the pro-life position?1 The contrapuntal question is whether and how we can take all these questions of context into account and still breathe life into a faith tradition that does not suffer from such endless qualification as to become meaningless.

[11] Fundamentally, I still believe that what matters most for our context as Christians in the United States, in which we have to formulate laws for a nation that does not share our beliefs, is working to understand how we as Christian citizens should put our faith and citizenship to work. The ELCA's social statement commits the church to a stance that preserves life. But we find we cannot easily transfer that stance on what some understand to be a private decision into a public rule. We have to take the extra step of asking ourselves generally: what kinds of public laws do our private religious tenets demand that we advocate? Until we understand that, on so many levels, the debate about abortion is about public and private, we will continue to be surprised that attempts to answer questions about public policy out of private faith fails to gain sufficient support.

The Rev. Kaari Reierson is the Senior Editor of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics and Associate Director for Studies in Church in Society of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.


1. Considering his well-known extramarital activities and indifferent treatment of his wife and children, I will have to admit to a sense of suspicion that Karl Barth is named as a supporter of the unborn. When the private life of someone fails to live up to his publicly stated beliefs, how are we to regard those beliefs?




© May 2010
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 10, Issue 5