Making the pro-choice case

The Boston Phoenix spends some time with the Rev. Dr. Katherine Ragsdale who will soon be the Dean and President of Episcopal Divinity School. Recently Ragsdale has come under attack for her prominent pro-choice work.

[Adam Reilly of The Phoenix] recently visited Ragsdale in her … office on EDS’s neo-medieval campus. She’ll officially start on July 1, after leaving her post as president and executive director of Political Research Associates, the Somerville-based think tank that tracks right-wing extremism. (She’ll also step down as vicar of St. David’s Church in Pepperell.)

For an alleged satanic surrogate, Ragsdale is rather disarming in the flesh. Her manner is simultaneously affable and matter-of-fact, with none of the extreme unctuousness that often afflicts men and women of the cloth. Her most idiosyncratic physical trait, meanwhile, is a somewhat sleepy-looking face that, oddly, evokes the young Bill Buckley.

In Ragsdale’s telling, she was entirely unsurprised by the furor that followed her appointment as EDS dean. “I’ve been one of the leaders in the Episcopal Church, and in the ecumenical interfaith community, on the theological underpinnings of abortion rights,” she explains, “so I’ve been doing this stuff forever.” (Among other things, she chaired the board of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice for eight years, and currently sits on the board of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, a/k/a NARAL Pro-Choice America.)

Her EDS colleagues, however, may have found the hubbub a bit more jarring. “The church has been so focused on gay and lesbian issues that they were sort of prepared for that,” says Ragsdale. “What they didn’t realize, I think, is that the anti–women’s rights people are much more ferocious than the anti-gay people.” (Ragsdale believes the two are related, homophobia being one more manifestation of misogyny.)

While Ragsdale’s relatively low-key response may stem, in part, from her years in the pro-choice trenches, there are some additional factors worth noting. One is her understanding of what motivates her detractors. As Ragsdale sees it, her critics aren’t giving voice to spontaneous, genuine moral outrage. Instead, they’re being manipulated by shadowy outsiders eager to wreak havoc in the Episcopal Church.


No one makes the [pro-choice] case more forcefully than Katherine Ragsdale,.. When Ragsdale’s appointment was announced this past March, it triggered a torrent of fear and loathing among religious conservatives. …

Some of this venom almost certainly stemmed from the fact that Ragsdale is a lesbian. But the primary source of consternation was a 2007 speech Ragsdale gave in defense of abortion rights in Birmingham, Alabama, following a failed push by anti-abortion protesters to shut down a clinic.

In her Birmingham address, Ragsdale panned the unwillingness of some medical personnel to be involved with abortions, and lamented what she called the patronizing attitude abortion opponents take toward women. Next, she took vigorous issue with the notion that there’s anything regrettable about the act of abortion itself. The passages in question bear quoting in their entirety:

Let’s be very clear about this: when a woman finds herself pregnant due to violence and chooses an abortion, it is the violence that is the tragedy; the abortion is a blessing.

When a woman finds that the fetus she is carrying has anomalies incompatible with life, that it will not live and that she requires an abortion — often a late-term abortion — to protect her life, her health, or her fertility, it is the shattering of her hopes and dreams for that pregnancy that is the tragedy; the abortion is a blessing.

When a woman wants a child but can’t afford one because she hasn’t the education necessary for a sustainable job, or access to health care, or day care, or adequate food, it is the abysmal priorities of our nation, the lack of social supports, the absence of justice that are the tragedies; the abortion is a blessing. …

In addition to arguing that her critics’ rage is inorganic — that it’s the product, essentially, of right-wing ideological carpetbaggers — Ragsdale also dismisses their arguments as illogical. The idea that abortion kills a child, she contends, reflects parental hopes and dreams for the child-to-be, not the reality of what the zygote or fetus actually is. (It is, in her words, “proleptic,” a theological term for anticipated realities that come to be treated as extant in the here and now.)

When pro-choice forces signal their partial acceptance of the abortion-as-child-murder idea, says Ragsdale — which they do when they speak of the “tragedy” of abortion — they may be motivated by political concerns, or by a desire to be respectful and conciliatory. But in the process, they’re ceding precious intellectual ground to abortion opponents, and backing themselves into a tactical corner: how, after all, can you effectively defend something for which you’re simultaneously apologizing?

What’s more, they’re also increasing the likelihood that women who do choose to have abortions will spend their lives tormented by needless guilt. “I suppose it’s possible for an intelligent, faithful person to still believe that there’s no moral difference between a zygote and a baby,” Ragsdale allows. “But there’s no reason for most of us to believe that. And I don’t.”

Given Ragsdale’s skepticism about the motives and logic of her critics, it’s somewhat surprising that she doesn’t unequivocally reject the possibility of abortion opponents and proponents finding common ground. In fact, she doesn’t even reject the linkage of abortion with tragedy. But she has very particular ideas about how these intellectual maneuvers ought to be executed.

“If you want a baby,” says Ragsdale, “and you’ve decorated the nursery, and bought the toys, and named the baby — and then they discover the baby’s organs are growing outside the body, and not only will the baby not survive, but the woman will be torn up trying to deliver it — there’s a tragedy. But the tragedy isn’t the abortion — the tragedy is that you needed one.

“That’s the tragedy in most cases,” she continues. “That birth control failed, that they might want to have a baby but the economics are such that they can’t possibly afford it, that we don’t have healthcare, that women can’t choose to have the babies they want. There’s a tragedy.”

At this point in our conversation, Ragsdale offers an anecdote that’s meant to be illustrative. “My little brother had to have a stent put in his heart the other day. We thought there was no heart disease at all in our family, and all of a sudden, the doctor said, ‘You’re on your way to the ER now to have heart surgery.’ It’s bloody, it’s messy, it’s nasty. If you show pictures of it, it would gross you out, and I really would rather that he’d never had to have that. But is the heart surgery a blessing?” Here she laughs, loudly. “Damn straight.”

Read it all here.

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