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An Upsetting Pro-Abortion Presentation at a Liberal Christian Festival

Chelsen Vicari serves as the Evangelical Program Director for the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

Wild Goose Festival, an annual open-air gathering of progressive Christians, is known for its bizarre antics. Drag shows, "Cosmic Mass," and reconciliation yoga. Having been once before, I thought I knew what to expect from Religious Left organizers. But truthfully I was not prepared for the brazen pro-abortion session facilitated by two Planned Parenthood workers.

Meeting July 12-15, the festival was composed of various hour-long sessions hosted under tents scattered throughout a campground in Hot Springs, North Carolina. On Saturday afternoon I attended the session provocatively titled, "Reproductive Justice is_______: Moving Beyond the Pro-Choice/Pro-Life Binary." I expected to hear the "consistent life" message of advocating for human dignity from "womb to tomb." It turned out to be an hour-long pro-abortion gathering.

I anticipated trouble as soon as two of the three speakers arrived wearing Planned Parenthood of Memphis t-shirts that read, "Trust Women." Panelists Mary Button and Rachel Ankney work as Planned Parenthood abortion doulas trained to offer women "support" during and after their abortions.

Ankney began the session by sharing that she is a non-cisgender individual (meaning she does not identify as a woman nor is transgender) who has also had an abortion. For her (their?) presentation, Ankney expressed frustration with abortion labeled as a woman's issue. "When we police the space as a women's only space we leave a lot of people out of the conversation," she said. "And I'm one of those people who sometimes gets left out."

Button identified herself as a pro-choice progressive Christian. She used her time to explain why she no longer uses the phrase "all abortion is a tragedy." Thanks to her employment at Planned Parenthood, she has learned "for a lot of people an abortion is a life-saving thing."

Interestingly, Button is the only panelists who identified herself as a Christian and noted that she is a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

"I used to also talk a lot about a consistent ethic of life," continued Button, "And it's a struggle to reconcile some of my previous beliefs and beliefs I still hold about the death penalty and also hold my pro-choice beliefs."

Ankney admitted that she believes "tragedy" is an appropriate word to use when describing a woman is forced to give birth or a child born into a disadvantaged household. "Sometimes carrying a pregnancy to term is a tragedy for the pregnant person, but I think sometimes it's a tragedy for the child who's born. And I think that it's worth saying that," she said.

The only other panelist, Emilie Bowman, serves as a project coordinator for Memphis Advocates for Radical Childcare (MARCH), which she described as a collective that partners with local labor unions and "reproductive justice" organizations to provide childcare during their respective meetings. To further describe her work, Bowman told the story of a woman who apologized to her during a workshop because her child was running around. "I smiled and said, 'That's fine.' There's always room for children," she recounted.

There's always room for children, except when Bowman was advocating for abortion, saying, "there are so many reasons why this person is making this choice for themselves." She encouraged us all not to judge a woman who has an abortion, but to keep "supporting and trusting them in that."

Ankney tried to re-frame abortion as nothing more than an inconsequential outcome of a pregnancy. "I think that often times we think of birth or abortion, we think of them as dualistic and diametrically opposed," said Ankney. "But doing abortion care work and doing abortion doula work, there are a spectrum of pregnancy outcomes." She then went on to equate abortion with miscarriages, adoption, surrogacy, and parenting by placing them all under the umbrella term "pregnancy outcome."

Hypothetical storytelling is a customary part of Wild Goose Festival presentations, and this one was no different. Button attempted to justify abortion by telling vague stories of disadvantaged women who required an abortion because either did not have enough money or were supposedly threatened with losing their job.

When asked by an audience member if the panelists supported abortion for reasons not founded in traumatic stories, Button replied, "It's weird to say, but my favorite abortions are the ones where women have made a decision and they're okay with the decision. And as Rachel said, 'birth control fails.'"

At least Button was honest when she hinted that Progressive Christians try to conceal their pro-choice leanings by insisting the "goal should be that no one ever needs an abortion." Button admitted, "That's just never going to happen."

During the Q&A session, an older white woman stood to proudly declare, "I'm an OBGYN and I'm an abortion provider" to which she received applause and a "We love you so much! Thank you!" cheer from Button. The woman went on to share that she is an elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and stated, "the Presbyterian Church for a very long time has been pro-choice and [abortion] is considered an absolutely correct moral choice."

When discussing abortion and "problem pregnancies" the PCUSA's position also states:

Human choices should not be made in a moral vacuum, but must be based on Scripture, faith and Christian ethics. For any choice, we are accountable to God; however, even when we err, God offers to forgive us.

At this point during the Q&A, I could not keep silent any longer. I scribbled down my question on a pink slip of paper, and I walked to the side of the tent to wait to ask my question at the microphone. My turn finally came. Holding my pink slip of paper, I looked down and read:

Honestly, this conversation is difficult to hear because I arrive at different conclusions. So my question is: How as advocates on behalf of the dignity of people with disabilities, girls and women, and people of color do you reconcile your advocacy work with abortion, which disproportionately affects these communities?

Bowman said she did not understand my question.

Button offered, "I hope that we are moving to a place of greater justice where abortions that happen out of financial need are less frequent or abortions that happen because of our racist, patriarchal society happens less often."

Ankney offered the most honest answer by sharing a personal story. While in training, Ankney was forced to admit to herself that one of her sticking points was to assist a pregnant woman who wanted an abortion because her unborn child (fetus, as she put it) was a girl. Here she could see an injustice, or as she put it, "my sticking point was people aborting girls." Though it took her a long time, Ankney concluded "the trauma that leads a woman to make the decision" outweighed the dignity of unborn little girls. She then pivoted to a hypothetical story of a woman who is forced to abort her unborn daughter because her husband does not approve.

Ankney wrapped up her answer to my question by declaring, "If we did want to fall on the life side, I think what we do is we say let's be a society where men don't do that to women please." To which the Wild Goose audience offered hearty applause.

I was so troubled by the overt pro-abortion message of this session that immediately following, I recorded my comments here:

Originally posted at IRD's blog.

Chelsen Vicari serves as the Evangelical Program Director for the Institute on Religion and Democracy. She earned her Masters of Arts in Government from Regent University and frequently contributes to conservative outlets. Follow her on twitter @ChelsenVicari.

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