From Rights to Rites: A Eucharistic Reframing of the Abortion Debate

Article excerpt

In our cultural climate abortion remains a divisive issue, in which much of the rhetoric is toxic. My argument bypasses the usual but contested questions of rights, the beginnings of life, and even moral rectitude, and instead analyzes the Book of Common Prayer's eucharistic liturgy to inform and transform the way Christians approach the debate. Proceeding along ex convenientia lines, I develop a eucharistic account of the body as indefinable and ungraspable, and apply the epiclesis to show that the Eucharist cultivates dispositions oriented away from the practice of abortion. As eucharistic action is voluntary, rather than coerced, this approach also vitiates any potential violation of conscience, keeping it within the parameters set by the Episcopal Church's statements on abortion. Finally, the practice of Eucharist transforms the way opponents in the abortion debate view one another, by referring beyond the current state of affairs to a future of joyful unity and sharing.


Few ethical issues remain as polarizing, troubling, and fraught with peril as abortion. At all points along the "pro-life/pro-choice" spectrum, one finds deeply held personal beliefs and convictions, and only rarely will either side grant any legitimacy to the concerns of the other. In the discourse on abortion, far more heat is generated than light, with the result that the question has been derailed into a quagmire.1 Meanwhile, real people still face these real issues, and need help and pastoral guidance. In light of this impasse, I propose an entirely different approach to the question, one that takes seriously the admonishment that "in those cases where an abortion is being considered, members of this Church are urged to seek the dictates of their conscience in prayer, to seek the advice and counsel of members of the Christian community and where appropriate, the sacramental life of this Church."2 Rather than attempt to adjudicate the thorny and contested issues of the beginnings of life, which rights (whether to life or choice) are more important, or even the moral lightness or wrongness of abortion, I propose that the question be placed firmly within the liturgical and sacramental life of the church, specifically within the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, the celebration of which constitutes the life of the church.

This approach commends itself for several reasons. First, and pragmatically, the way the question has been framed in the past (rights, the beginning of life, moral rightness) has not led to consensus. Avoiding these questions can betray a lack of fortitude. However, if by shifting the discourse to other questions - ones more likely to be answered - then progress could be made, prudence dictates that this makes good sense. In such a case, discretion is the greater part of valor. Indeed, the typical questions surrounding abortion simply smack of casuistry and can quickly degenerate into Iegalisms, loopholes, and technicalities. Now, at the end of the day, everyone has an opinion as to whether or not abortion is morally right. However, in order to adduce that, explications of and choices between the various options on offer in moral theology must occur, and even then, any statement simply dies the death of a thousand qualifications. Life is too complex for a blanket statement. In part, this motivates the Episcopal Church's statements on abortion, which recognize the tragic character of abortion, seek to protect individual conscience, and avoid mandating a legislative solution to the problem.3 Hence, my proposal also has the pragmatic value of sidestepping intricate discussions of tutiorism, probabilism, probabiliorism, deontologism, and all the other isms Christian moral thought has managed to develop. By dealing with the liturgy and sacraments of the church, rather than abstract conceptions of right or wrong, this method not only honors the récognition that lex orandi ley: credendi, it is also more pastorally accessible to the non -specialist. …