The Rev. Katherine Ragsdale will soon become the first female president of Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Openly lesbian, the outgoing chief of a liberal think tank that monitored the Religious Right, and best known for her abortion rights advocacy through the Washington-based Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), Ragsdale maybe the perfect icon for untrammeled liberal Episcopalianism.
But a rather vigorous two-year-old abortion sermon by Ragsdale, assertive even by her standards, has overshadowed her recent appointment. “Abortion is a blessing and our work is not done!” she repeatedly exclaimed at a rally in defense of an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, in 2007. Those “blessing” situations, according to Ragsdale, are when a woman is pregnant due to “violence,” when the fetus has “anomalies,” when the woman hasn’t education or a “sustainable job,” and even when a woman has a “loving, supportive, respectful relationship” with “every option open to her” but knows the child will compromise “one’s education, life’s work, or ability to put to use God’s gifts.” So basically, abortion, including even partial-birth abortion as Ragsdale admits, is a “blessing” just about any time it is desired.
In her Birmingham peroration, Ragsdale chastised medical personnel who declined to abort, comparing them to pacifists who join the military or animal rights activists who conduct medical research. They are in the wrong profession! She concluded her sermon: “I want to thank all of you who protect this blessing [of abortion] — who do this work every day: the health care providers, doctors, nurses, technicians, receptionists, who put your lives on the line to care for others (you are heroes — in my eyes, you are saints); the escorts and the activists; the lobbyists and the clinic defenders; all of you. You’re engaged in holy work.”
Although two years old, Ragsdale’s Birmingham outburst, recorded on her blog and on the website of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) has made a splash in the blogosphere. Last month, she felt compelled to explain the “abortion is blessing” sermon on her own blog. She was rallying “defenders” of the Birmingham abortion clinic that had earlier been “shot up.” And her “speech worked well for that audience and that occasion,” she insisted. “It spoke to those who had put their comfort and safety on the line to care for others.”
Ragsdale also insisted she never meant to suggest that “decisions about abortion are never morally complex and difficult.” She was celebrating that “when modern science and moral theology and social supports allow her to embrace her sexuality and manage her generative power and responsibility — that is a blessing.” She compared her “abortion is a blessing” analogy to heart surgery: “messy, uncomfortable, scary,” but “blessing” all the same. She recognized abortion is more “complex” for persons who believe a fertilized egg is a fully human, which she described as a “fairly new idea in history.” But for persons who see the embryo or fetus as merely as a “potential” person, abortion is “less” or “differently complex.”
“We get to choose the lens, the story we tell,” Ragsdale concluded her explanation. “We can tell the story of our pain and the ways we’ve been broken. Or we can tell the story of God’s blessings and redemption seen in our lives. Both are present — real and true; but which is the focus — the point?”
Whatever Ragsdale’s point, Episcopal Divinity School is not deterred by her “abortion is blessing” controversy. The school’s trustees elected her unanimously in March and she will take office in July. “Katherine’s gifts, skills, and experience are an excellent match with the criteria established by the Search Committee, both in terms of the current challenges and opportunities at EDS, and the personal attributes we are looking for in a new leader,” the trustees chair announced.
On abortion, Ragsdale is a true believer. In 2004, she testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee against the Child Custody Protection Act, which would have prohibited transporting minors across state lines for abortion without parental consent. She boasted, as she has in past congressional testimony, of chauffeuring a 15-year-old girl to get an abortion and vowed to do so again, no matter the law, because the “vows” of her ordination supposedly require it.
However provocative Ragdale’s pronouncements often are, she is in demeanor calm and polished and seemingly disciplined. Perhaps she can exploit her uproar to help Episcopal Divinity School reverse its declining fortunes. With fewer than 100 students, the seminary last year sold off 7 of the 20 buildings on its bucolic Cambridge campus to Leslie University for over $33 million to “secure the financial future of the school,” according to its then president. The seminary’s location reeks of the Episcopal Church’s once ascendant role in America. It’s just a few blocks from Cambridge Common, Harvard University, the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow House (which also served George Washington as a war-time headquarters), and 250-year-old Christ Episcopal Church, which billeted soldiers during the Revolution, and from which Teddy Roosevelt was expelled as a Sunday school teacher while a Harvard student because he was not Episcopalian.
Today’s purportedly more inclusive Episcopal church insists it would never expel anyone. Ragsdale generously admits that pro-lifers are entitled to their views, unless of course they are medical personnel, in which case they evidently should resign or compromise with conscience. Would she allow a pro-life professor to serve at Episcopal Divinity School? Teddy Roosevelt, who belonged to the Dutch Reformed Church, once called contraception “race suicide.” His views on abortion presumably were equally adamant. Likely he would not fare any better among today’s Episcopalians in Cambridge than he did 130 years ago.