Pro-life or pro-shame?

June 29th, 2017

Late last month, a story broke in the national news media about a young woman in western Maryland who was banned by her small Christian school from walking at her graduation. Her indiscretion? Having sex, getting pregnant, and then deciding to keep the child. The school insists that their decision is based on Maddi Runkles’ violation of the school code and her immoral behavior in engaging in intimate sexual activity.

Ms. Runkles discovered that she was pregnant in January and informed the school in February. The initial response from the school was that she would need to finish the school year at home, resign as student council president, and not walk at graduation. After her family appealed, the punishment was reduced, though a letter from the school insists that they are “hold[ing] her accountable for her morality that began this situation.

As this story gathered steam, several antiabortion groups tried to pressure the school to reconsider, to no avail. While I understand the desire for the school to enforce their rules, in this instance one would think a particularly Christian school would also be interested in extending grace. After all, shouldn’t the moral formation that takes place at a Christian school prioritize those who make difficult decisions in line with their values? In this case, the “easy” thing for Ms. Runkles and her family to do would have been to seek out an abortion, erasing the consequences of Ms. Runkles’ “immoral” behavior. Instead, with the support of her family, she chose to live out her values and beliefs in keeping the baby and being open and vulnerable about her mistakes.

I support women making decisions about their pregnancies in line with their belief systems and in conversation with their families, doctors, and religious leaders, which includes supporting women who choose to carry a pregnancy to term. Many factors affect a woman’s decision, but one of those should not be facing shame from her religious community. This school had an opportunity to embody what a Christian pro-life position could look like by lifting up Ms. Runkles in a difficult time and offering her support. Instead, they chose to punish her.

Those in favor of abortion rights often work off of a caricature of the pro-life movement — namely, that they are anti-woman, anti-sex, and only care about the preciousness of human life while in utero. They are rightly critical of politicians who focus on limiting access to abortion only to do little for the most vulnerable once they are born. As I’ve written before, wherever we fall on the political spectrum with regard to abortion rights, our calling as Christians is to be broadly pro-life. For me, as someone who supports a woman’s right to choose, that means helping create and support the conditions that encourage more women to forego abortion.

If Christian institutions like churches and schools take their pro-life vocation seriously, they would offer women in situations like Ms. Runkles support, not shame. They would give her a platform to talk about making a difficult choice that was in line with her values and how her faith informed those choices. Where is there room for concepts like repentance, forgiveness, and grace? Certainly, we all make mistakes and all fall short.

In another era, Ms. Runkles would be sent away to live with a relative or to a home for unwed mothers until the child was born and then put up for adoption. Or perhaps the school would prefer she wear a scarlet letter as she walked at her graduation. I believe the church and her institutions can do better, that they can be communities of grace that celebrate the gift of new life no matter the surrounding circumstances. In this case, it is the church’s institutions that are in need of repentance and forgiveness, not Ms. Runkles.

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