A Sermon Delivered January 29, 2012, by the Reverend Dennis McCarty
At the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbus, Indiana
We gather, to seek truth, goodness, and insight. Here in this thoughtful place, we reflect together, give thanks together, make merry together, and also grieve together. Let this be a time of loving challenge, faithful doubt, and grateful critique. Let us bring the best that we are, right beside the empty places of the spirit–to give and receive, in thoughtful union, good things, new things, things that are beyond naming.
JOYS AND CONCERNS
If your bones feel weary, we gather in this place to be invigorated. When your heart sorrows, we gather to be consoled. If your mind yearns for thoughtful companionship, let us talk awhile and seek elusive truths. If you have questions, let us share them, for a question is a gift to be prized. If joy leaps within you, let us celebrate together. In mutuality will our high spirits be most magnified.
In all the universe is no completely severed or discarded thing, for all things are composed in the order of the Divine. Nor can any of us ever find a separate good, which is not a part of the good of all people in all places. Therefore–let us seek the time when we can all walk in that world of Divine unity, where all separate persons and things may be brought to that accord of spirit in which, alone, lies peace.
We are blessed by the beauty of the earth, by the glory of the skies, and by another week of journeying alongside one another, with those most dear to us. We regret our weaknesses, our missteps, and our misfortunes. We rejoice in our achievements and the good things which fall our way. As partners in religious community, we are co-creators of the world we live in, seeking meaning in our lives, working together to become living blessings upon the world. The offering will now be received.
SERMON: “A Father with Daughters Looks at Roe v. Wade”
This past week was the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision upholding a woman’s right to have an abortion. There have been demonstrations and counter demonstrations over the past week: a lot of heat, but not much light on the issue. Demonstrations do prove, however, that we are bitterly divided over abortion and likely to remain so.
Years ago, as a student for ministry, I did a chaplain residency at Lutheran General Hospital in Chicago. A year later, I did my parish internship in Kalamazoo, Michigan. In both places, I considered it a sacred trust to provide pastoral care to women going through abortions. As a hospital chaplain, I put my name on a special list of chaplains who did that work. As an intern, I was one of several area ministers who took turns with pastoral care on surgery days at the local Planned Parenthood clinic. Planned Parenthood here in Columbus doesn’t perform abortions. But if they did, I would want to be there as well, giving spiritual support to patients and staff alike. Again, I consider that a sacred trust.
This trust has brought a lot of poignant moments, enough to fill a dozen sermons. There was the woman who was told by her doctor in the plainest language, that if she carried her pregnancy to term, it would kill her. She already had three children. For their sake, she chose life. She chose to have the abortion–and live–for her children. That came at high emotional cost, though. As I sat with her, she wept, the tears streamed down her face, and she kept saying, over and over again–”I hope God can forgive me. I hope God can forgive me.” I assured her–God forgave her before she ever even got pregnant–there was nothing to forgive. But she wasn’t able to hear that. She was in an agony of guilt.
At Lutheran General Hospital, I did the death paperwork for a woman who had been told the same thing by her doctor, but who had made the opposite choice. She was diagnosed with a treatable form of cancer. Then, in bitter coincidence, she found herself pregnant a short time later. She chose to complete the pregnancy before starting chemotherapy. Given that nine-month delay, her medical team never caught up. Five years later, she died.
It was a wonderful family: her grieving husband, her twelve-year-old daughter– her five-year-old son. A delightful family: fine people. I can think of no more poignant illustration, of what a difficult issue abortion can be: how personal it can be. Sometimes I wish the doctrinaire in the abortion debate could just spend a few months walking in the shoes of that one family. Anyone who says women take this decision lightly–must know more than I do. I’ve talked to dozens of women having abortions. They didn’t take it lightly.
There is, of course, a reason it was a sacred trust for me to provide pastoral care for women having abortions. Getting there was a long journey. For many years after the Roe v. Wade decision, I quite looked down my nose at both sides in the abortion debate. The heated rhetoric, the exaggerated claims–I rather smugly considered myself above such arguments.
Before my elder daughter, Erin, was born in 1974, I would not have believed how a baby daughter can, as they say, wind her father’s heartstrings around her little finger. She accomplished that by the time she was two days old. I don’t think any child ever understands how much their parents love them, untill they have children of their own. It certainly worked that way for me.
We tried for nine years to have a second child–but that proved difficult. We went through miscarriage after miscarriage, so many we lost count. We had all but given up when, somehow, a surprise pregnancy did make it to term. My wife gave birth to our second daughter, Colleen, in 1983–to us, an unexpected blessing: a miracle baby. I don’t know quite how it works that having a second daughter only increases your love for both of them–but that’s what happened to me. Love is strange–it doesn’t follow the usual laws of mathematics.
But life has its ups and downs. A sequence of trials and events led to my wife and I divorcing in 1988. That was very tough on Erin and Colleen, both. I was still an electrician back then, working at a power plant near Delta, Utah, a hundred forty miles southwest of Salt Lake City. I was staying in a mobile home park down there. After the divorce, my older daughter, Erin, came to live with me.
Erin was in her mid-teens by then. Living in Delta turned out to be even harder on her than the divorce. The population in rural Utah is ninety per cent Mormon. The townspeople didn’t like the construction workers at the new power plant, to boot. We were what they called, “trailer trash.”
I did my best to be both father and mother to this teenage girl. But I look back and I have to say, I didn’t do a good job. Being newly divorced is tough. Sunk in my own loneliness and problems, I was not emotionally available to my daughter. I let her down in a lot of ways. I remember that as a time of mistakes. I truly wish I could do it over.
Meanwhile, a co-worker from the Delta area told me what Erin was going to be up against. He said, “In the high school, the good an proper kids won’t want anything to do with her because she’s not Mormon and she’s not from around here. The only ones who will hang out with her, will be the rough crowd. Then the good kids will condemn her because she’s hanging out with the rough crowd.” I saw some of the notes kids slipped into her locker at school, sometimes. They were brutal.
Erin’s grades in school plummeted, she missed school, she became deeply depressed. She tried to kill herself–once, then again. She went into counseling and the counselor prescribed an anti-depressant, prozac. That had no effect at all. I wasn’t a doctor. I couldn’t know the exact chemical processes of her depression. I did know enough to be worried sick.
Erin later told me, “It felt like no one in the world cared about me. When you feel like no one loves you, you’ll do anything to get something that looks like love, even if you know it’s really not.” We had lived in Delta about a year when Erin came to me and told me she was pregnant.
I can tell you that in Delta, Utah, in 1990–that made me feel like absolutely the world’s worst parent. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I did not believe Erin was capable of rearing a child in the condition she was in–and frankly, I wasn’t, either. What’s more, I didn’t believe Erin was emotionally capable of even carrying a pregnancy to term. I truly feared that her life was in danger.
I told her, “You know, Erin, you don’t have to go through with this.” A few days later, she told me she had called the Utah Women’s Clinic, up in Salt Lake City, and made an appointment for an abortion. My ex-wife and I had been unable to keep our marriage together but we did agree that, together, we needed to support our daughter.
The day before Erin’s appointment, I was talking with an old and trusted friend, the secretary at the Electrical Workers’ Local Union in Salt Lake City. I told her why I was in town and she said, “Dennis, when you take Erin to the clinic, don’t park on the street. Drive down the driveway and park behind the building. Go in the back way.”
I asked her why that was and she said, “Because that way, she won’t have to walk past the demonstrators.” Again, up until that summer, I had been above the abortion debate. I had chuckled at both sides. I didn’t even know there were anti-abortion demonstrations in Salt Lake City.
But as I thought about that, I became angry. Wasn’t my daughter already suffering enough? That night, for one of the very few times in my life, I got roaring drunk and wrote a song I titled, “The Crowd at the Door.” The refrain runs like this:
What gives you the right to pass judgment on others?
It’s not in the good book and it’s not Jesus’ law.
And if there’s a hell–well it’s chuck-full of people
All sure they were saved, who thought they could not fall.
At the Women’s Clinic, my ex-wife and I sat with Erin in the waiting room and later, in the recovery room. While waiting, we talked with couples who had driven for hundreds of miles, from Idaho and Wyoming and Montana. This was the only abortion clinic within a 50,000 square-mile area–and the state of Utah was trying to shut it down. It’s still open, to this day. But a string of lawsuits marks the repeated attempts to close it.
After the abortion, I found work in Salt Lake City and Erin and I moved back up there. Months went by. Erin remained deeply depressed. She found a part-time job at a bowling alley, which seemed to help. She found a boyfriend, too. In a moment of trust, she told him about the abortion. He told his mother. There was a huge argument and this woman called my daughter, “a baby killer.”
Erin was devastated. She left their house, went to a convenience store, and bought all the over-the-counter sleeping pills she could find. Then she went to another convenience store and did the same. And she took them all. When I got up and left for work in the morning, I didn’t even suspect that her life might be in danger.
It is my good fortune and Erin’s, that she has always been a good worker, who got along well with her employer. When she didn’t show up at work, her boss called her. The phone rang and rang until she finally did wake up enough to answer. He realized something was terribly wrong and called 9-1-1.
At work, I received one of those phone calls, every parent dreads. My daughter was in intensive care. When I arrived, there were great, black smears all over the walls of her hospital room. The doctors had pumped charcoal into her stomach, trying to absorb as much of the sedative as they could, and she had vomited the charcoal all over the walls. She was delirious and she didn’t recognize me.
All that saved her life, was the persistent jangling of a telephone. When I think back on those terrible days, I ache for my daughter, for all she went through. It’s hard to forgive myself for my own part in her troubles. And quite frankly, it’s very hard to forgive the lethal rhetoric that’s so easy to use–that can, literally, get people killed.
In newspapers this week, I’ve seen photos of professionally-printed placards with the words, “Abortion kills children.” People carrying those signs probably do believe they’re doing the right thing. But it was self-righteousness that nearly killed my child. Words are cheap. But cheap words can be deadly. I find it hard to be patient when someone laments the emotional trauma to young women who have abortions–when sometimes it’s that person’s own rhetoric which inflicts the trauma. I’ve watched that happen.
When I look at all Erin went through during those terrible years–much more than I can describe here, and with much less help than she needed or deserved–her recovery amazes me. That she went on to build a life for herself, that she fought her way back up from the depths of her despair in the way she slowly did–is a monument to the resiliency of the human spirit, not to mention her own courage. I am more proud of her than words will ever be able to express.
She’s in her thirties, now. She works in the pathology lab at a large hospital. She loves pathology and she’s good at it. She has made a career out of helping save other people’s lives. She gained that triumph on her own. But she has told me–and she would tell you–she could not have done it, had she not begun by making the choice she made, to call the Utah Women’s Clinic and at least give herself a fighting chance.
She still suffers from post-traumatic stress and she still has nightmares about those bad old days. But sometimes I think back about how much worse it could have turned out, had the cards fallen just a little differently. What if Erin’s boss had been a little less persistent? What if the state of Utah had actually managed to close the Women’s Clinic? What if there had been just a few more restrictions? Would Erin have gotten the abortion with just a few more roadblocks in the way? I doubt it. And when I think of how close we came to losing her as it was–my blood still runs cold.
I have been told that as a minister in Columbus, I haven’t said enough about abortion. And that’s probably true. I did write Erin’s story down and send it to the paper, with her permission and endorsement. But the paper refused to print it. And I have never spoken on abortion from the pulpit till now. Partly, I suspect, that’s because of bitter memory. Partly, it’s because I know that anything I say is likely to stir a fight. Partly, it’s just heartbreak–because I see legislators and clergy working ceaselessly on new restrictions and strategies to attack a woman’s right to choose, and I know they will never listen to me, and I know that just as certainly as I’m standing here–that someplace, every one of those restrictions is going to kill some troubled young woman, in some particular set of circumstances, just like my daughter. That thought does break my heart.
I’ve been told there are different kinds of abortion and different circumstances, and that different regulations pertain to different issues. Abortion is a troubling and diabolically complex issue. But you know, when all is said and done, it all comes down to the same issue. Take a women I’ve never met, whose name I don’t even know, in some town I’ve never visited. How arrogant would I have to be, to assume that I know better for her, spiritually and medically, than even she and her physician, put together–under any circumstances? I have delivered pastoral care to dozens of women undergoing abortions and I’ve never met one who didn’t take it seriously. It may happen. But I haven’t seen it.
Ours is a free faith. I don’t presume to stand here and tell anyone what they have to think. Abortion is a deeply troubling issue, no matter how you look at it. But I can stand here and beg for compassion. I can beg for restraint.
There’s a saying I heard many years ago: “When you have a full belly, it’s easy to tell someone else they have no right to be hungry.” It’s tempting to stand in the midst of our own good fortune–not faced with a problem pregnancy in ourself or in a loved one–or perhaps it did happen and we were allowed to deal with it as we thought best–it’s tempting to stand in such a place and pass judgment on the desperation of someone we’ve never even met.
Good fortune is a wonderful thing, there’s not enough of it in the world. But we should never let our own good fortune make us arrogant. Let us respect the misery and desolation that are just out of sight. When my daughter was in the worst of her depression, a teacher told me that in school, she was laughing and playing every time he saw her. You don’t know what goes on in the hidden recesses of a troubled heart.
It’s easy to think we’re above the abortion debate–until the tragedy touches you personally. I did. Since then, discussing this difficult topic, I’ve been told many stories of women who died or were permanently injured before abortion became safe and legal. I think back on the women I supported as an abortion chaplain, each with her own particular tragedy. In my mind’s eye, I gaze into the distorted face of a woman dead from liver cancer–a brave woman, I wish I could have gotten to know her and her family. Most of all, I clasp my own daughters close within my bosom.
We all need to believe what we believe. It’s good to stand up for principle, whatever that principle may be. But let us think, and believe, and act–with a hint of humility–and a shading of compassion, for decent people doing the best they can, with their own tragedies and their own challenges, to the best of their ability. It’s easy to judge an ugly duckling or a lost star. But only a whim of fate keeps us from being in that same condition ourselves. Amen. May it be so.
In the ballad, “Lost in the Stars,” lyricist Kurt Weill writes:
Before Lord God made the sea and the land,
He held all the stars in the palm of his hand,
And they ran through his fingers like grains of sand. And one star fell alone.”
Let us walk humbly, in compassion. Let us not judge the “little lost stars” of the universe. When we judge them, we judge ourselves.
May we go from this place greeting and reflecting.