February/March 2023: Editor’s Introduction Il/legal Abortion: Lutheran Ethical Responses Post-Dobbs

[1] The essays in this issue are offerings concerning faithful ethical responses after the Dobbs ruling by the Supreme Court this summer. As such, they are different in tone and intention than the kinds of discussions that were on-going while Roe still held, such as those in The Journal of Lutheran Ethics published in November 2012, May 2010, and January 2005.  The essays published this month are not written about the morality of abortion per se, nor are they essays written to help those who are pregnant grapple with the ethical decision making involved in a pregnancy that is difficult, dangerous, or life threatening. Rather these are essays reflecting on personal experiences that have shaped the authors’ thinking about the legality of abortion.   Such essays must be part of the discussions now happening at the state and local level as well as at the federal level concerning the legality of abortion in a post Roe United States.

[2] The majority of judges, politicians, and activists present their arguments primarily in liberal terms of protecting individual rights. These arguments are grounded on axioms of the fundamental rights to life and to choice endowed to individuals. This is true on both the pro-life and pro-choice sides of the debate as it concerns legislation. In this issue, Mark Ellingsen’s essay begins with personal reflections of his upbringing and the views he was taught in his home, views that were shaped by both practical reason and the grief of a life lost to a botched illegal abortion.  Next, Ellingsen addresses the debate, himself, using scientific argument to make a case against the individual personhood of the embryo and fetus in its first months in the womb; he stresses legal respect for the rights of health, life, liberty, and moral authority of the mother.

[3] In the second piece, Mary Streufert spends the first half of her essay articulating the reasons and faith perspectives that undergird the ELCA’s social statement on Abortion.  This social statement was explained pastorally this spring in Bishop Eaton’s address to the ELCA in May, as people began to consider the possibility that Roe might soon be overturned.  Streufert’s helpful analysis is followed by a more personal reflection from the perspective of a person who has been pregnant. She stresses the importance of trusting those who are pregnant and honoring their moral authority.

[4] The importance of listening to pregnant people and honoring their moral authority forms the core of the “musings” of Amy Carr.  She speaks from her own personal experience of growing up in a Lutheran church that ordained women and in a nation that allowed female autonomy over reproductive matters. This affirmation that she, as a girl and woman, had a unique vocation honored by both church and state, allowed her to consider motherhood as one option rather than the only option.  This affirmation is now tenuous, and in some states, gone.

[5] The fourth essay, however, comes to the issue from a different angle than the others.  Celcy Powers-King begins with an understanding that pre-Dobbs and post-Dobbs, there has been in the United States a marked lack of respect for the autonomy of and resources for the life of many marginalized people. Neither motherhood nor reproductive choice have been honored for Black women especially. Reminding readers of the history of forced birth for enslaved women and alerting them to the on-going crisis of maternal death for women of color, Powers-King sees Dobbs not as ushering in a new era, but as part of a continuing history that devalues both the life and autonomy of many a person. Yet, Power-King’s essay is, of the four, the most hopeful.  Reflecting on her personal experiences, she explains her own journey as an ethicist thinking about abortion. She explains how she, through conversation with diverse women, came to think differently about abortion and motherhood as a young adult than she had previously. Moving from a place of righteous indignation against the legality of abortion to a place of listening and accepting the complexity of the issue, she has come to believe that pregnant people must be given both legal authority and material resources to make the decision as they think best. This means access to abortion and access to health care for pregnancy and birth that includes doulas.

[6] Powers-King’s admonition, at this point in the history of reproductive health care in the United States, is to churches, that they might become places for real discussion between people so that we might learn to see ourselves in the web of relationships that connect us as individuals in community.  In so seeing ourselves, we might make better communal choices to help each other flourish together.

[7] While Powers-King is heartbreakingly honest about US history and contemporary times, her hope in faithful dialogue is especially heartening. It has re-affirmed to me that we must ultimately base the discussion about the legality of abortion in a discussion about relationships. It has also re-affirmed to me that if we do start with relationships we can move forward to help each other flourish. The final piece in this issue, therefore, is my own contribution which focuses on the relational understanding of the self as a foundational ground for my own thinking about abortion.

[8] It is my hope as editor, that this issue, and the Journal as a whole is and will continue to be a place where constructive and creative dialogue happens leading to faithful action and service to neighbor.

Jennifer Hockenbery

Jennifer Hockenbery serves as Editor of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics .  She is Professor of Philosophy and Dean of Humanities at St Norbert College. She attends Grace Lutheran Church in Green Bay, WI.