Why can’t we have complex things?

A reflection originally written following the leaking of information suggesting the pending overturn of the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe vs. Wade.

For the past 25 years of my professional life, I have been a professional social worker, grief counselor, professor and priest. Most of my work, along with my clinical and academic expertise, has focused on reproductive health and mental health. I’ve heard stories that are beautiful and gut-wrenching, I have held confidences shared behind closed doors and companioned people through some of the most difficult and complex situations and decisions of their lives. I’m someone who reads, thinks, ponders and holds nuanced ethical positions on a host of issues because I understand the complexity of life through the experiences of others.

These recent days have been trying times for my soul.

I am taking time to write this post today because I believe that the Supreme Court overturning Roe vs. Wade is bad news for the mental health of women and parenting people everywhere. I also believe that the overturning of Roe Vs. Wade is bad news for educated, trained, ethically practicing professionals who provide health, mental health and spiritual care everywhere. And, no matter what your political affiliation or ideological beliefs are, you should care about that, too.

As things stand right now, all of the complicated decisions that I’ve accompanied people through are personal choices that are legally supported, made with ample consultation with the medical, mental health and spiritual advisors in their lives. The people who have shared their stories with me each have different individual, familial, cultural and religious beliefs and experiences that they are able to talk about and ultimately, inform the next steps of their journey. Not everyone makes the same choice. Not everyone has access to the same options. But up to this point, I have had the autonomy to inform, explore, and accompany people through whatever they determine is the best course of action without civil or legal penalty. And they have had the autonomy to seek the best course of action for their lives, also without civil or legal mandate.

In all of the work that I do, I have to guarantee the well-being of my clients. As a social worker, I have ethical guidelines which I agree to follow which include competence, integrity, the dignity and worth of all persons as realized through client self-determination, and the centrality of human relationships. Because I also engage pregnant people in my research, I must guarantee the safety of human subjects, and there is an addendum that I provide to the Institutional Review Board at my institution for every study, no matter how benign, to assure them that I am acting in ways that do not jeopardize the well-being of a pregnant person or fetus. As a priest in The Episcopal Church, I adhere to the promises of my baptism and those I made at my ordination, and I live in obedience to spiritual authority. The vows of my religious life also include honoring the dignity and worth of all persons, and caring for those I love and serve as a priest: the young, the old, the rich and the poor. I take all of these vows seriously, and that allows me to be an informed, compassionate, confidence-holding companion to many people and their many life situations. I read and I study, so that I am offering resources and support grounded in sound theology, science, and ethical practice. My professional and vocational training…a doctorate and three Master’s degrees…helps me to be a trusted and educated voice of wisdom and grace-filled companionship so that, when all is said and done, each person, in each person’s own situation, can feel informed, loved and supported in having navigated difficult decisions in the best ways that they can.

I have never, in all my various settings of practice, encountered a person of any age, race, socioeconomic or spiritual background who took issues of life and death lightly. This includes decisions around the beginning and end of life.

Now, we stand on a precipice where instead of professionals like me who are trained and ethically grounded accompanying people through the complexity and offering cognitive, emotional, spiritual and ethical guidance in some of the most challenging moments of their lives, the court of public opinion will determine the options, if any, available to them. Many of the people that I counsel, for the record, will choose a course of action that even some of my most conservative friends would wholeheartedly embrace. But you see, here is the heart of the matter: it is still about choice. Making informed choices honors our human agency; it allows us to consult and consider what we believe, and why. It allows us the freedom to weigh moral, ethical and practical consequences of our options. Responsibility comes with freedom, and when we enact our rights and freedoms with an understanding of that responsibility, it makes us not only agents of our own lives but wiser about what is important to us. That wisdom ultimately leads us to respect others and their decisions, even if they differ from our own.

So, I am forced to confront in these days where my spirit is ill at ease: can we still honor the capacity of people to make complex choices? Have we come to a place where we are willing to sacrifice human agency for moral absolutes?

What is unfolding in the United States right now isn’t about elective terminations of pregnancy; it goes far beyond labels value signalling one’s stance on the politicized concept of abortion. The dismantling of constitutional freedom is an affront to complex thought and critical thinking. It leads to partisan box-ticking on election day and moral absolutism that underscores shame, blame and stigma of “the other” which I hear playing out in how people describe who they picture when they hear about someone considering abortion. I can assure you: that pool is far more wide and diverse than many people realize. Ultimately, a lack of choice and freedom erodes mental health and human agency of all of these individuals, not only those who ultimately may decide to terminate a pregnancy. At the same time, it undermines the role of vocational and professional education that prepares health, mental health and spiritual care providers to honor and accompany people through the complexities of human life.

Why can’t we have complex things?

We are a society that is thriving on distrust and division. We are weary from comparing what we don’t have with what others seem to have, and we are grasping for a sense of moral certainty. But this push to dismantle rights and freedoms doesn’t bring us closer to the moral high ground that we’re seeking. It discounts the complexity of experiences, identities and belief systems that make up a nation as diverse as the United States.

I’m writing this today as food for thought, another perspective to consider in these days where debates rage on and people are feeling hurt, divided, angry or vindicated. My intent is to invite all of us to pause and consider the bigger picture beyond whether we are “for” or “against” a decision. How are lives being impacted: of pregnant people and professionals, as well as humans-in-development? It’s a complex question, and I am not looking for seemingly easy answers. I’m actually hoping we can learn to embrace complex things and in doing so, learn to listen more deeply to and companion each other through the difficult situations of life.

Gracious God, we thank you for the love that sustains us through the difficult choices we have made. We bless your name for granting us courage, peace, and strength. Give us grace in the days ahead to recognize your boundless mercy. Strengthen our faith and support us with your love that your goodness and mercy may follow us all the days of our lives, through Christ, our Good Shepherd. Amen.

–“Following a Difficult Decision” from Enriching our Worship 5
(Church Publishing, Inc. 2009)

About harasprice

Professor of Social Work and Priest in The Episcopal Church, parent, teacher, learner, writer, advocate, and grateful traveller along this journey through life
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