We used to walk to church together, Susan and I, she a junior at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, I a freshman. It was a couple of miles down to the Episcopal church, a couple of miles back—our conversations on these walks were how we got to know each other. I remember her saying, as we passed a house with a well-tended lawn and flowers: “They do abortions there.” She spoke to the contrast between the beautiful exterior and the grisly business inside.
It was legal then, and had been for a couple of years. I do not know how Susan had come to her pro-life convictions; she was ever fond of babies. After we married and had the two children God gave us, she got us into foster parenting. We had nine over a few years (only babies, and only one at a time!). We got out of it around the time her brain tumor was discovered.
She convinced me that abortion is wrong. I was a longtime reader of National Review, from which I had acquired misgivings about abortion. But in this respect as in many others I was a rather naive young man. What actually happened in abortion, and the deceptions that were used to speak of it, and the way it altered how our society welcomed children—these were things I had never thought about.
Susan was confirmed that year, and some months later, so was I. In due course, we were married in that Episcopal church in Santa Fe, our son was baptized there, they sponsored me for seminary, and today her ashes rest there. It was a traditional church, but it was not a place where moral controversies were spoken of. I supposed, then as now, that the clergy would generally find abortion problematic and the people would have varying views on the matter. It was not the Episcopal Church that made me pro-life, but the strange work of God’s Holy Spirit in Susan and in me.
When we went to New York City for seminary, we found ourselves in a very liberal environment. Removing “sexist” language from prayers and hymnody, finding feminine ways to speak of God, the welcoming of a gay subculture, political activism—these were the matters that consumed student and faculty energy. Susan and I felt the place lacked intellectual gravity. At our college, all classes had been discussions arising from serious engagements with the books, which were understood to be our true teachers. By contrast, seminary focused on church controversies turned up to maximum pitch.
I hunkered down to study, joined in the prayer life of the school, and tried to learn what I could. Only on one matter did Susan and I resist openly the liberal Zeitgeist. We announced that we wanted to start a chapter of NOEL, the National Organization of Episcopalians for Life. This caused widespread consternation—who were these people who wanted to form this dangerous group? Our chapter met periodically in various students’ apartments. There were, to our surprise, fifteen of us. (The total student body was about 150.)
We decided to sponsor a lecture. I wrote to Richard John Neuhaus, then-director of the Rockford Institute Center on Religion and Society, and he agreed to speak. Without asking the seminary for support, we put up flyers and reserved a hall. One of our chapter members hosted Neuhaus at the seminary dinner beforehand. Each of us had contributed five dollars, which we gave him as our thanks for coming. (He gave us subscriptions to his newsletter.)
The lecture hall was packed. Neuhaus was gracious but also provocatively clear. He recounted various horrors of the twentieth century. How many had died under Stalin? He went through Mao, Hitler, others. This was early 1985: Abortion had been legal in the U.S. for more than a decade, and the toll was then about 1.5 million per year. Through these figures he insinuated the horror of what he called the “abortion liberty.”
No one, Neuhaus said, should expect abortion to go away altogether. But he anticipated a post-Roe U.S. in which there would be, at the outside, 100,000 annual abortion deaths. That would still be too many, but it would be only a fraction of the current yearly toll. He left some of us encouraged for the long haul, others unsettled, and all of us sobered.
When I was ordained and became a priest in the Hudson Valley of New York, abortion was a hot local issue, focused on Planned Parenthood and their efforts to open an abortion clinic in Poughkeepsie. Many clergy were part of Planned Parenthood’s clergy advisory board, and some of my parishioners were employed by the organization. At my first diocesan convention, I introduced a moderately pro-life resolution. In the voice vote it was overwhelmingly shouted down, with an assisting bishop’s voice loud amongst the nays.
A few years later we had a new bishop. One of our diocesan committees put a pro-choice resolution on the docket for our annual convention. The diocese of New York was and is more politically liberal than the Episcopal Church as a whole. During the 1980s, the national church’s resolutions on abortion amounted to a defense of the legal right to abortion, accompanied by an assertion that members of the church should encourage other, “preferable” ways of dealing with unwanted pregnancy. From a pro-life perspective, this resolution was an improvement over the bare affirmation of the legal right, since it articulated reasons for abortion that were not morally acceptable, and it placed abortion in the context of community concern. My new bishop had helped develop that national resolution. With a few friends, I was prepared to offer a substitute to the pro-choice resolution. The substitute would say that the diocese of New York endorsed the position of the national church, and then quote that position in its entirety.
The day of the convention arrived. Late in the day, when the pro-choice resolution came up, the head of the committee on miscellaneous business said it had been withdrawn by its movers. I heard later that, in meetings before the convention, its movers had expressed strong opposition to being bound by the position of the national church. So they knew what was afoot, and rather than risk a vote, they pulled back. It was an encouraging moment.
Later that year, a small group of us, concerned about abortion and our diocese, consulted with the ethics professor at our seminary. He counseled us to become proactive in the diocese and to publish a newsletter on abortion as a church matter. He emphasized that politics, laws, judicial decisions, and so forth should be bracketed and the newsletter should attend to abortion morally and socially, with particular attention to ecclesiology. And turning to me, he said, “Victor, you should do it.”
It became Care and Community, a newsletter I edited and published two or three times a year for about a decade. Richard John Neuhaus was helpful in getting me started. I went down to his (new) First Things office in New York City (where in nervousness I spilt coffee on their table). He suggested the title, endorsed the approach, and cautioned me to be prepared to persist. The cause is noble and worthy, he said soberly, and it will be harmed if you start but don’t follow through.
We sent the newsletter to every congregation and every priest in the diocese of New York, to all Episcopal seminaries and bishops in the U.S., and to others who learned about it and asked for it. An indirect measure of our success was that no resolution on abortion was resubmitted to a diocesan convention in New York. People became aware that there was a reasonable, responsible pro-life view held by some Episcopalians, even in the diocese of New York. I heard people say, “Victor, I don’t agree with you, but I admire how you’re going about it.”
During those years I read widely on abortion, looking especially for ambivalent voices who might gain a hearing among people who were presumptively pro-choice but open to conversation. There was a book on abortion and “the politics of motherhood,” for instance. The author was in favor of legal abortion, but she acknowledged its harmful effects on mothering. We looked into what pro-life feminists were thinking, a topic on which a great deal had been written, and into what pro-life gays thought, a topic on which very little had. We observed how the politics of abortion encouraged extreme positions, including the sanctioning of partial-birth abortion, and we followed the efforts to persuade the Episcopal Church to oppose that practice in its General Convention. (Those efforts were modestly successful.) We examined and exposed the effects of abortion on minorities. We considered how technology changes our attitudes toward children, especially how amniocentesis makes conditional our welcoming of a new life. (I learned of someone who had lost a healthy child as a side effect of that test.) And we traced the differences between American and European laws. (The latter, being less individualistic, revealed a different understanding of persons in community.) The positions of Anglican churches elsewhere in the world were of great interest to us. When Rowan Williams became Archbishop of Canterbury, we wrote about his arguments against abortion.
But it was only a four-page newsletter, only a few times a year. Earlier in my priesthood I had been more visibly pro-life, writing a letter to the editor of the local paper, speaking openly, going on a march. The controversy that ensued was hard at times, polemically sharp, and I learned to retreat, to be cautious about stating my convictions. It was quite public that Susan and I had foster babies—that was our principal pro-life witness, and it was implicit. Similarly, my pro-life convictions were implicit in my preaching and teaching—there to be heard, but seldom explicitly articulated. Care and Community was always available at the back of the church, but a parishioner might never pick up a copy, might never even notice it. One day I experienced the painful ambiguity of implicit teaching. I was on a pastoral visit, and a man told me, almost in passing, that his daughter had become pregnant. “Of course we took care of it,” he said. I was his priest, and he did not know.
What should a pro-life clergyman do today? Certainly, he should take care about points of controversy; the church is not a precinct meeting of a political party. I was brash as a new priest, and wise to learn quieter ways to build up biblical patterns of vision and thought that were grounded in doctrine and left open the ethical implications.
Still, to separate doctrine and ethics is impossible. It will not do to say that since we agree on the doctrines of Trinity and Incarnation and acknowledge the necessity of salvation in Christ, therefore we need not agree on abortion. One may say, because it is true, that it is not clear what the best public policy on abortion would be, for the U.S. or any particular state. But one must say that abortion is wrong because it offends against the heart of Christian doctrine. This need not be the first thing we say, but we must not stop seeking ways to say it. For the truth is that God is ever fond of babies.
Victor Lee Austin is theologian-in-residence for the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas.