Earlier this year, I preached on Jeremiah 1:5: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Anti-abortion protestors, including Christians, have long offered this verse as part of their “pro-life” arguments: they tweet it, use it as a proof text, and use it to sell mugs and T-shirts.
During my sermon, I told my congregation that nine years earlier, on a cold January morning, I walked into a Planned Parenthood clinic.
Before you read further, let’s pause: What story do you think I’m about to tell? What assumptions about me or my circumstances did you make? Do you see me as someone with less moral authority than when you started reading? Take a moment to think.
I’ll tell you why I was in that clinic, and no, it wasn’t to have an abortion.
Let’s pause again: How do you feel now? Did your blood pressure just drop? If so, why?
I was at Planned Parenthood because The Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) screwed up. I was scheduled to begin a ministry role in El Salvador on January 1, 2013, but they entered my start date in their system as February 1, leaving me newly ordained, about to move to a foreign country, in between jobs, and functionally without health insurance. God bless America. Lord knows we need it.
So I walked into Planned Parenthood to get the health care I needed. As a woman moving to a country where violence against women is common — and where many reproductive health services are inaccessible or illegal — I wanted to see a doctor and get the medications I needed before I left the United States. Just in case something happened.
And that should be the end of the story, but of course it isn’t. As a woman, the most intimate things, the most beautiful things, the most terrifying and traumatizing things that could happen to my body are either politicized or totally absent from public conversation — shared in whispers over wine, but not talked about in church.
The reason why has a lot to do with how some Christians understand Jeremiah 1:5.
According to many preachers, this verse declares plainly, once and for all, that life — and personhood — begin at conception. Therefore, any reproductive decision that ends a pregnancy is murder.
But claiming that Jeremiah 1:5 clearly condemns abortion overlooks quite a bit about the passage. For one thing, our Jewish siblings have interpreted this passage differently for centuries. The widely read medieval commentator known as Rashi focuses his commentary on Jeremiah’s prophetic mission and just how young Jeremiah is to be offering reprisals of Israel’s behavior; for Rashi, the phrase “before you were born I consecrated you” emphasizes Jeremiah’s inevitable call and destiny to be a prophet, not when fetal life or personhood begins. In fact, Jewish law holds that a prenate — a term Christian ethicist Rebecca Todd Peters uses to honor the liminal, potential life in a pregnant person’s body — is not considered separate from a pregnant individual’s body until birth, or at least until the head emerges from the parent’s body.
Claiming that Jeremiah 1:5 clearly condemns abortion also overlooks the fact that up until the 1970s, many Protestant Christians also supported reproductive rights, with one Southern Baptist wire service writing in 1973 that the decision in Roe v. Wade “advanced the cause of religious liberty, human equality and justice.” It’s unlikely these Christians read Jeremiah 1:5 as condemning their decision.
So when I see Jeremiah 1:5 written in bubble letters on protest signs, I see a Bible verse that has been stripped of its original meaning, mined for political talking points, and melted down into weapons to use against women and pregnant people, shaming them for decisions they’ve made or options they’ve considered. I see these verses as plowshares that have been beaten into swords.
This verse is fundamentally about a very young prophet being called to say some very controversial things in a very scary, uncertain, unstable time. Jeremiah was a prophet in the time before Israel’s exile to Babylon and through the destruction of Solomon’s temple in the sixth century B.C.E. As Walter Brueggemann writes in From Judgment to Hope, Jeremiah is primarily concerned with how the powerful leaders of Jerusalem have continually violated the Ten Commandments and disobeyed the Torah — behavior that has led to a “failed society.” Jeremiah’s main complaints about these elites focus on their idolatrous worship of other gods. However, like most prophets, Jeremiah also warns the elites that neglecting the vulnerable and marginalized will lead to destruction:
Like cages full of birds,
their houses are full of deceit;
they have become rich and powerful
and have grown fat and sleek.
Their evil deeds have no limit;
they do not seek justice.
They do not promote the case of the fatherless;
they do not defend the just cause of the poor.
Should I not punish them for this?”
declares the Lord.
“Should I not avenge myself
on such a nation as this? (5:27-29)
As is true with many prophets, Jeremiah feels inadequate to speak on God’s behalf and is at first reluctant to accept this divine call: “Ah, Lord God, Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy” (1:6). God replies by comforting Jeremiah, emphasizing once again that his age does not matter: “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you” (1:7). Once again, verse 5 refers not to fetal life or personhood; read in context, it simply emphasizes Jeremiah’s young age.
And that’s why it’s ironic that people use Jeremiah 1:5 to condemn those seeking reproductive healthcare: The verse is actually encouraging us to speak out against authority even when we don’t want to, because if we fail to speak, people are going to get hurt. This verse is for anyone who is terrified of what they are being called to do yet do it anyway because they believe in a God of liberation and love. This passage should also be a word of courage for all of us in these times of political uncertainty and collapse — times when it’s necessary for us, like Jeremiah, to speak out about evil and injustice, and to listen to the voices of young people warning their elders about our failure to confront climate change and face other future disasters. Misreading this passage as a theological statement about when life begins — instead of a poetic injunction to do what is right, even when the historical moment makes that hard — obscures real stories of women and others who face complicated or unwanted pregnancies and other reproductive decisions. It also robs the passage of its true meaning. What a loss — for everyone.
If any clergyperson or other moral figure has used this verse to make you feel like God loves you less for any reproductive decision you made, whether in a moment of empowerment or desperation, then I want you to know that they were wrong. For neither angels nor height nor depth nor clinic doors nor FDA-approved drugs nor anything else in all creation can separate you from the love of God. Nothing.
Also I would like that clergy person’s name and phone number. Please.
If anyone has judged you for your holy decision to have children before you or others thought you were ready, then know that neither God nor I am judging you. If anyone has judged you for the holy decision to not have children before you were ready to parent, know that neither God nor I am judging you either.
If you have ever felt like there was no place at church to talk about pregnancy, or miscarriage, or infertility, or the sacred work of parenting, I’m sorry. The church failed you. We have failed to carry the full stories of your lives for fear of the complexity and controversy that they might contain.
And if you ever need to walk into a health care setting and you’re afraid of who or what you might meet outside, know that God is with you. Know that God will be with you whatever decisions you make. That’s a promise.
I believe this because I know that the Jesus who let Mary learn at his feet, who first appeared on Easter morning to women, who met that Samaritan woman at the well, who so often made women and other outcasts the midwives of his movement, would not use this text — or any text — as a weapon against you. Jesus hated it when people used scripture to put people in chains instead of liberating them from bondage.
So let’s take back this verse, insisting that Scripture, for all its poetic complexity, deserves more than a plain-text reading. And let’s take back our stories. Let’s insist that women’s bodies, pregnant bodies, all bodies have stories to tell in moments like this. Because we believe that all people — and all our complicated stories — matter to God.