Motherhood and The Sanctity of Existence

By Dr. Tamara Mann Tweel

It is the night before Mother’s Day and I am surrounded by women who have lost children, who have endured complex miscarriages, and who have undergone dilation and curettage operations to stop a pregnancy. These women love one another, support one another, and all feel life itself is sacred. Many of them have survived to continue on their maternal journey to bring new life into this world. We all know that there is nothing simple about fertility, no woman gets through adulthood without a story of profound loss and serious moral reckoning. Yet, nowhere is this private truth reflected on a political stage.

On stage left, we see rhetoric like Michele Wolf’s zinger to Mike Pence at this year’s correspondents dinner, “He thinks abortion is murder, which, first of all, don’t knock it till you try it. And when you do try it, really knock it. You know, you’ve got to get that baby out of there.” On stage right, we see the dangerous resurgence of heartbeat laws, like the one signed last week by Governor Kim Reynolds of Iowa.

The heartbeat laws, which stop abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, reject thousand-year old religious traditions that define life through multiple markers, including the biblical connection to breath. Worse, they have been proven on an international stage to threaten the lives of pregnant women. In 2012, Savita Halappanavar, a 31 year old woman, died when a similar law in Ireland prevented her from having urgent treatment for a septic miscarriage.

It has grown ever more urgent to rethink the pro-life/pro-choice divide. When individuals who advocate on behalf of fetal life put actual life at risk, something has gone terribly wrong. When individuals who seek to protect the health of women and children cannot find nuanced and compassionate language to talk about what they would call “potential life,” something has calcified. Political battles have over-determined our moral terrain and ethical terminology.

This decades-long trend must be reversed.  And here’s how:

Six years ago, I wrote an article about my harrowing experience carrying, and later undergoing an operation to remove, a fetus that my doctors explained “was not compatible with life.” The article, which sought to reconcile my own religious understanding of when life begins with the norms of heartbeat laws in the state of Ohio, brought me into close conversations with women and men from across America’s religious and political traditions. I received letters from Mormons, Evangelicals, and Muslims. I testified before Republican and Democratic state senators, and held hands with devoted Christians who empathized with my situation while explaining what it feels like to truly believe that life begins at conception. I encountered decent Americans from all traditions who yearned for a better conversation around fertility and loss.

This experience broadened my moral imagination and gave me the personal friendships necessary to see that hovering above the political poles of pro-life and pro-choice rests a mutual ethical claim that life itself is sacred. It is this essential claim that animates so many of our political struggles today. Whether it is the debate over gun control, prison reform, the environment, or immigration, good actors across the political spectrum are dismayed by our collective inability to fully honor this most essential of moral virtues, the sanctity of life.

The miracle of life can become an area of agreement between our current political poles and varied ethical beliefs. To do so, we must begin by reframing the way we speak as individuals affiliated with the pro-choice and pro-life movements. Those who affiliate with pro-life can broaden their moral frame to understand that people who support a woman’s right to appropriate medical choice believe, with great support from many religious traditions, that life begins later in pregnancy and that it is ethically coherent to favor an existing life over a potential life. These neighbors are not murderers; they are thoughtful, conscientious actors undergoing a significant moral reckoning in which the categories of life and potential life are weighted differently.

We must remember that when the Pope came to America to address Congress in 2015 he found a way to advocate for the sanctity of life by focusing on the death penalty. He preached, “The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development. This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.”

Those who affiliate as pro-choice can extend their compassion to individuals whose religious tradition tells them that life begins at conception and discuss potential life with reverence and tenderness. They do not need to alter their desire to protect women to recognize that a potential life carries a promise if not rights.

By starting with shared language about the sanctity of existence we can create an ethical and political movement that sees our collective obligation to protect life while leaving room for truly different approaches for how best to do so.

We can support women in their efforts to live a good life for themselves and for their families and still respect that for many in this country an unborn fetus must be treated with differing degrees of moral care. We can support victims of crime who believe that justice requires some form of punishment while also acknowledging that we have created a system that treats the lives of the poor as if they are less worthy than those of the rich. We can all respect the teenagers across this country who have transformed their vulnerability into civic responsibility to protect the lives of all Americans who are threatened by easy access to machines designed to end life. We can understand that we all hold the values of life and liberty as sacred even while we struggle to put them in proper balance.

I am a woman, who, like so many women, has struggled to create life. In the instances where I lost potential life and in the two instances where I succeeded in creating lives, where I was gifted children to nourish and adore, I needed no explanation or religious tradition to tell me that life itself is miraculous and precious. I needed only the reality of their existence. Existence itself makes a moral claim on us all. It is not too much to ask that we value existence, the existence of the young girls who become women, of young boys who become men, and of teenagers who are thrust, for so many different reasons, into the responsibilities of adulthood.

We need to stop verbally, politically, and medically punishing each other. We need to end this era of flippancy and of warfare. We must remember that we are partners in a great ethical project, a project that transcends slogans, pros and cons, and centers on our respect for the lives among us and the lives still to come.

Dr. Tamara Mann Tweel is a scholar, writer and teacher. From 2012 – 2014 she served as a witness in the Heartbeat Bill hearings in the state of Ohio.

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