Pastoral ministry often involves walking people through the margins of life’s beginning and end. These moments are awe-filled and holy. I’ve sat at the bedside of a woman who was hours away from her vital organs shutting down. I watched the clock tick the final seconds of her life and reflected on how strange time felt in that moment.
In other hospitals and homes, I have held the cold hand of an unconscious parent, surrounded by her children. We followed the rise and fall of her chest, often punctuated with long and prescient pauses, the body slowly releasing its need of oxygen.
In these moments, decisions must be made: When do we remove intubation? When is surgery no longer a good or helpful option? When do we let go? Sometimes these are difficult choices; other times they are planned far in advance.
As a pastor I don’t ask, in this holy space of in between, when death is drawing near, theological questions about personhood or ensoulment. Neither do medical definitions of what marks life’s margins — heartbeats, breath, or brain function — occupy my concern. These are the gray edges of life.
Anti-abortions laws, like the law most recently passed in Texas, attempt to turn the holy gray of life’s beginning into a searing black and white. But even the politicians behind these laws cannot escape the complication of defining the legal status of prenatal life. In some states, like Alabama, an embryo in a lab is not considered a person while an embryo implanted in a uterus at the same point in development is. Texas theoretically makes space for abortion when the pregnancy endangers the life of the mother. Other states make exceptions for abortion in the case of incest and rape.
Pastors and chaplains are on the front line of the fallout that comes from attempting to adjudicate the undefinable. Clergy friends, especially those who work in hospitals, have relayed stories to me, often in exhausted grief, of the liminal space they encounter at life’s beginning. A fetus developing without a brain. A woman with an onset of preeclampsia prior to the viability of her fetus.
I’ve been there, too. I once sat with an unhoused friend, a woman deeply troubled by untreated mental illness, in the office of Planned Parenthood. Her period was late. She’d had dreams that she was pregnant, and she needed to know. We waited in the lobby of the only nonprofit in my city that would see her for free. And I wondered: What would she do if she was pregnant, unhoused, and mentally ill?
Navigating this complex moral and spiritual terrain requires grace, discernment, and community; I know this from my own experience: A decade ago, I sat in the room with an ultrasound techician, my skin cold and slippery as a plastic wand glided over my rounding belly. I knew what the silence of the sonogram tech meant. I’d walked this terrain with other expectant parents. I grasped the skin of my leg, as if holding on to my body would keep me from falling apart as I waited.
A few minutes later my midwife entered the room. Flipping an X-ray scan into a square of light she pointed to the places where small bubbles appeared on the brain of the fetus in my womb. The fluid that bathed and protected the brain and spinal column was pinched off, creating a choroid plexus cyst.
“Most likely nothing to worry about,” she told me, releasing me back into the summer afternoon. And so, I waited to learn if I would fall into the favorable statistics or if I was growing a child with trisomy 18. If I carried a fetus with trisomy 18, this pregnancy would most likely end in stillbirth. If he survived birth, there was a good chance my child would not survive infancy. Every one of his systems would be impacted by this chromosomal difference. If he survived, his life would almost certainly be short and painful.
I knew that my health insurance and job provided the financial stability I needed to face the weeks of unknown ahead of me. My church would anchor me in community. My family would be a constant source of solace. But what if I had faced this prenatal uncertainty with none of this to hold me fast?
Like the majority of fetuses with choroid plexus cysts, the one I carried resolved the abnormality on its own and developed into a healthy baby. But those weeks of waiting, additional scans, and Googling worst-case scenarios changed me.
The anti-abortion movement wants to replace my wonder at life’s origins with draconian, misogynist laws. But I can sustain my wonder at the intricate detail of human life barely the size of a pinprick without demanding the law clarify life’s boundaries.
I cannot collapse this complex period of development into a system of classification that confuses the moral, physical, and psychological distinction between a zygote, an embryo, a fetus, and a baby. They are not the same. We can think about the distinction between viable and non-viable fetal life as dependency. Pregnancy involves a human being who bleeds and hungers, who suffers and can die.
The Bible, for all of anti-abortion’s Christian culture warriors, has little interest in pinpointing the start of personhood. It says nothing about when a body gains a soul or the ethics of abortion. But the Bible is clear about this: There is tremendous grief in the world — much of it caused by people who create structural and social hierarchies. For those whose bodies are unruly to coercive power, the result is profound harm.
And yet, God is with us, there in the horrific decision to end a much-wanted pregnancy. God is holding the hand of an unhoused woman as she weeps in a Planned Parenthood office. God is there when there are no options, when there is no way out, when there is no one left. God is there in the gray space, the boundaries of which cannot be fixed by law. God is there in the wonder and the terror of the in between.