The Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA recently elected Dr. Katherine Ragsdale to be their new president and dean. The Board of Trustees unanimously approved her, and she’ll begin her term this July. In my opinion, Dr. Ragsdale is absolutely awesome. I think I would consider going to EDS, just so that she could be one of my professors. According to a press release from EDS, she has served on the boards of The White House Project, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. She has published pieces about the work of the Religious Left in combating the Religious Right, and generally, she just seems amazing. But it doesn’t seem like many people agree with me.
Now that she is receiving national press coverage for being elected president, excerpts from one of her speeches is circulating widely on the internet. You can read the whole thing here
, but I’ve included the most widely-quoted part. In July 2007, Dr. Ragsdale spoke about keeping abortion safe and legal at the New Women All Women Health Clinic in Birmingham, Alabama. Near the end of her speech, she lists signs that show that the work of reproductive rights activists is not done. The last sign she identifies is that even reproductive rights supporters talk about abortion as a tragedy. She said:
“When a woman finds herself pregnant due to violence and chooses an abortion it is the violence that is the tragedy; the abortion is a blessing.
When a woman finds that the fetus she is carrying has anomalies incompatible with life, that it will not live and that she requires an abortion – often a late-term abortion – to protect her life, her health, or her fertility, it is the shattering of her hopes and dreams for that pregnancy that is the tragedy; the abortion is a blessing.
When a woman wants a child but can’t afford one because she hasn’t the education necessary for a sustainable job, or access to health care, or day care, or adequate food, it is the abysmal priorities of our nation, the lack of social supports, the absence of justice that are the tragedies; the abortion is a blessing.
And when a woman becomes pregnant within a loving, supportive, respectful relationship; has every option open to her; decides she does not wish to bear a child; and has access to a safe, affordable abortion – there is not a tragedy in sight – only blessing. The ability to enjoy God’s good gift of sexuality without compromising one’s education, life’s work, or ability to put to use God’s gifts and call is simply blessing.
These are the two things I want you, please, to remember – abortion is a blessing and our work is not done. Let me hear you say it: abortion is a blessing and our work is not done. Abortion is a blessing and our work is not done. Abortion is a blessing and our work is not done.
I want to thank all of you who protect this blessing – who do this work every day: the health care providers, doctors, nurses, technicians, receptionists, who put your lives on the line to care for others (you are heroes – in my eyes, you are saints); the escorts and the activists; the lobbyists and the clinic defenders; all of you. You’re engaged in holy work.”
Excerpts of that speech have been taken out of context and hugely misrepresented all over the internet by conservative groups and, somewhat surprisingly, even by not-so-conservative groups who can’t imagine calling abortion a blessing. The text of this speech is no longer available on Dr. Ragsdale’s blog, where she posts the text of many of her sermons and remarks. One blogger said her existence is a “sign that some among the human race are very quickly devolving into inhumane monsters.” Many call her evil, and after a few Google searches, I haven’t found any people that are currently coming out in support of her speech or are very outspoken about their excitement at her appointment. I’m sure there are plenty of people who are happy that she was elected, but those people don’t seem to be nearly as excited as her opponents are angry. They’re certainly not as good at blogging about it. And that has me angry. I’m sure it’s “politically correct” to not be vocal about one’s Katherine Ragsdale support right now, but if not now, when?
As I (and many others) have mentioned before, the current trend in abortion thought right now is that we should decrease them. Some people want to decrease the number of abortions, while others want to decrease the need for abortion. That particular debate is about much more than semantics, according to its main participants – more conservative groups want to decrease the number (opponents say they would restrict access and create more restrictive laws about abortion), and more progressive groups want to decrease the need (by reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies with better sex education and access to contraception). Many groups are trying to find a common ground right now, and these two ideas that add ‘reduction’ to the abortion agenda are very popular. President Obama and HHS nominee Kathleen Sebelius both agree that the fighting about abortion is getting us nowhere, so they want compromise.
More often than not, the desire to compromise comes from religious leaders. There are quite a few moderate evangelical ministers (Rev. Jim Wallis, for example) who are on the Common Ground team and say they want to work with pro-choice people to stop the fighting and reduce the number of abortions. But then there are Frances Kissling, Carlton Veazey, and Steven Jacobs who recently wrote an article called Grasping At Straws: The Problem with Common Ground on Abortion
and who say that, as people of faith, they think that the abortion-reduction people are not focused enough on preventing pregnancies and should be including comprehensive sex ed and contraception access in their agenda.
Although there are clearly two sides to this argument (and the Obama Administration seems to be trying to find its place somewhere in the middle), there is not one side that is actually advocating for abortion. Why not? Because it’s taboo to say that you’re for abortion. Many reproductive rights organizations explicitly argue that they are most definitely not ‘pro-abortion.’ Instead, these organizations (including most religiously-affiliated ones) say they support women and trust women (and their partners) to make the best decision about pregnancy, contraception, and abortion. The scenario in our current society is, in my opinion, exactly what Dr. Ragsdale described back in July 2007 – abortion is widely accepted to be a tragedy. And, I think, as long as abortion continues to be viewed as a grave, moral tragedy, women who decide to have an abortion will be stigmatized. Why bother making abortion a viable option if our society will just condemn those who choose that option? For abortion to actually be an option (and to begin becoming an actual right), we must support and not judge women who terminate pregnancies. Would we really be supporting those women if we’ve decided on a national agenda to reduce the need/number for/of abortions? It seems to me that the only reason to reduce something is because you think it is Not Good.
I’m not trying to argue that there is no moral component to abortion. I understand that it is a complicated issue with many sides. And I understand that there are many women who will never have an abortion for a variety of reasons. But I whole-heartedly believe we need to shift the conversation, so that abortion actually becomes a viable and accepted aspect of a woman’s reproductive healthcare and not a tragedy. We need to take our support one step further.
Right now, it seems that the religious voice about reproductive rights still implies the tragedy of abortion. Except for Dr. Katherine Ragsdale. And what does she get for it? Unbelievable criticism that ignores the rest of her work and life and no one to stick up for her. Except for me. Dr. Ragsdale, I’m glad you articulated that abortion can be a blessing and that it doesn’t always have to be tragic. Furthermore, I’m glad you’re a strong, faithful woman who will be president of a Divinity school and who will continue to work for women’s and human rights. The progressive religious community needs more people like you.