By Rev. Cheryl Cornish
There are times in everyone’s life when an issue gets personal. I was a newly ordained pastor, serving a rural church. The phone call sounded urgent. She wanted to talk with me, and it needed to be as soon as possible.
When she arrived at my office, she impressed me immediately with the struggle in her eyes, and also her strength of character. Her six children were old enough that she’d been able to return to teaching, a career for which she felt great passion and had won several awards. She had been married for 15 years and was very active in her church.
Now she was pregnant for the seventh time. Her physicians had warned her that she had health complications that could make this pregnancy life-threatening. It would certainly mean staying in bed for most of the pregnancy and giving up her teaching career. Already stressed financially, she wondered if her marriage could endure another pregnancy, let alone her own body.
Her county hospital refused to perform abortions. She would have to travel over an hour each way for the operation, and would have to make the trip three times because of mandated protocols, designed to restrict “easy access” to this procedure. She and her husband struggled terribly, but ultimately made what they felt was the best decision for their family.
We drove in together and were greeted by more than 50 angry protesters in front of the hospital each of the three times we were required by law to go. They screamed at us, “Don’t kill your baby! Think again!” — as if she had not already given the decision a great deal of thought. We made our way through that crowd of judges, all ignorant of the fact that this woman’s life had been dedicated to the love and care of children, and that this decision represented a choice to stay alive so she could care for six of her own, a husband who loved her and children in her county who so benefited from her gifts and abilities.
In November, a vote will be held on whether to remove women’s privacy rights related to reproductive health care from the Tennessee Constitution — regardless of circumstances, resources or consequences of that pregnancy, and without exceptions for rape, incest or women’s health.
As a pastor, I am reminded every day that one of our greatest challenges as human beings is the incredible responsibility we carry to nurture life as best we can. We call abortion a “choice,” but to the women involved, it rarely feels that way. Abortion is never a preferred “choice.” Rather, it is a decision to not carry a pregnancy to term. Until birth control is 100 percent dependable, until we can guarantee that no woman will be a victim of rape or the horrors of incest, we need to listen before we make assumptions, judge or, to be sure, legislate.
As a member of the Tennessee Reproductive Justice Network, a loosely knit group of clergy and community leaders throughout the state and spanning the religious and denominational spectrum — organized by the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee — I believe in comprehensive reproductive health care access, including sex education, contraception and abortion services for all women.
Gallup polls show that for 35 years now, more than 70 percent of Americans want to maintain safe and legal abortion as a health care option. A minority of extremists seem to dominate legislatures, the media and our attention on this issue. Despite the best efforts of people across the country who believe reproductive health care decisions are personal and should be private, legislatures in Arkansas, Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia, half of the states that border Tennessee, passed bills restricting abortion access last year.
These bills place often arbitrary rules on safe reproductive health care providers, deeming their facilities unfit under the new rules, and severely limiting the time women and families have to make an already difficult decision.
The ballot initiative in November, identified as Amendment 1, will put Tennessee women and families at similar risk. There is no way to predict what will happen in someone else’s life, in someone else’s pregnancy. Yet if the ballot initiative passes, it will open the door for the government and others — for that angry crowd of judges — to interfere in our personal, thoughtful, private health care decisions.
Forty years after Roe v. Wade, we continue to reduce a complex decision with multilayered implications to a simple choice “for” or “against” life. It is never that simple. Let’s make sure that we maintain a climate where women and their families can make responsible decisions in a sensitive, informed manner.
Rev. Cheryl Cornish is senior pastor at First Congregational Church in Memphis.