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Doctor: churches need to be doing more to support unplanned pregnancies

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Melanie Churchill was in her early 20s and going to a church in Sydney’s upper north shore when she found out she was pregnant with her boyfriend Toby, a fellow church member.

The couple had been dating for 9 months and were already thinking about getting married, so they got engaged a few weeks after they found out about the pregnancy.

We are probably unintentionally influencing young women to have abortions in the church because being found to be sexually active outside of marriage is considered to be something you just can’t admit to.

“We got up in front of our church and announced that we were engaged, and then said we had something else to share. I spoke, and explained what happened. I felt like I needed to apologise to my church—I felt like a hypocrite because I’d been a youth leader. So we wanted to make a public announcement. We didn’t want to make any excuses.”

For Melanie, despite her age and her marital status, abortion was never an option. But that’s not the case for many women who feel like they don’t have any other choice.

While the number of abortions in Australia each year is unknown (there is no comprehensive data collection on the issue), research from the UK suggests that one in three women under 40 have had an abortion. Dr Megan Best, an Australian Christian author and medical ethicist, says with those sort of numbers, we must assume that there a lot of women in churches around Australia who have undergone an abortion.

“If we want to reduce the number of abortions in Australia, Christians have to get better at supporting women with unplanned pregnancies in practical ways that will help them make different choices,” says Dr Best.

Dr Best is the author of a new book, ‘A Life Already Started—Finding a positive path in unplanned pregnancy’, which is being launched tomorrow at a conference run by Sydney’s Youthworks on how to raise more support for the unborn and respond in a loving way to women who find themselves in an unplanned pregnancy.

You can’t tell women they shouldn’t have abortions if you’re not prepared to help them when they’re in trouble.

“From the research I’ve done for this book,” says Dr Best, “I would say we are probably unintentionally influencing young women to have abortions in the church because being found to be sexually active outside of marriage is considered to be something you just can’t admit to.”

“We’re making it such a crime to be found to be sexually active that young women are thinking ‘I’d be better off having an abortion than being found out.’”

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Melanie says telling her church family about her pregnancy was difficult, but she felt really supported by her church. “We just had a bunch of really good friends at church; lovely, genuine Christian people who love the way Jesus loves. I apologised to them, and I didn’t feel like there was any judgment. But having been at the church a long time, I had this existing community of supportive, loving people, and I think that was really important. I think a strong community can cope much better with big announcements like that.”

Strong communities of Christians that are open and honest with each other is something Dr Best thinks is needed to make abortion more rare in the church.

“One of the problems is we have made sexual sin appear to be much worse than other types of sin, and that’s not a biblical reflection of sin; it’s not the way God thinks about it. I would like to see Christian communities where we are more honest with our failings rather than pretending that we’ve got it all together, and create—even within a Bible study group—a place where people can be honest and have deeper relationships.”

Now, Melanie and Toby have a 16 month old son, Nathan, and Melanie talks on the phone as she feeds him afternoon tea “covered in yoghurt and raspberries.” Melanie and Toby were serious about getting married before they found out they were having a baby. Getting married for them was something they were already going to do.

But for many women, says Dr Best, there is still the traditional notion that if you get pregnant you have to get married, a perspective Dr Best says just isn’t helpful in unplanned pregnancies and adds to the feeling that there aren’t many options if you end up pregnant.

“…When you look at what marriage involves according to the Bible, getting married because you’ve been sexually active with someone is really underselling marriage. It’s about so much more than just having sex. It’s one of the things I deal with in the book—if you’re on your own and you want to keep the baby, what do you do? What’s available? What are all the options in this situation.”

Megan has two daughters of her own, aged 21 and 22, who she says helped her a lot in getting the perspective of a young woman for her book.

“I think the conversations parents have with their daughters are really important. From my research, girls think that telling their parents that they’re pregnant is the hardest thing to do. So, if parents can let their children know that they’re willing to talk about these things, that’s a first step. I’ve had a conversation with my own daughters. I said that while I hope they don’t have to deal with an unplanned pregnancy, if they did, we would love their babies.”

“Of course, it’s very disappointing for parents to see the dreams they had for their child disappear because of this huge responsibility they’re confronted with at an early age. But we live in a broken world. And we’ll only be able to help our children in these difficult times if they feel ok to talk to us about it if they have these problems.”

Dr Best said that in a world that spouts ideas of ‘pro choice’, women aren’t being presented with many choices at all when it comes to unplanned pregnancy.

“I think we’ve gone from pro-choice to no-choice. Most women feel they have no choice apart from abortion. And abortion is seen as a quick fix, without much regard to the physical and emotional repercussions, how damaging the practice can be for women many of whom carry around the burden of abortion for the rest of their lives.”

But, says Dr Best, you can’t tell women they shouldn’t have abortions if you’re not prepared to help them when they’re in trouble.

Melanie says her experience of unplanned pregnancy taught her a lot about forgiveness and how to trust in God.

“I was realistic, I think, in how I thought people would respond to the news I was pregnant. You’re putting your sin out there in a really public way. I was hurt by people who weren’t loving me through this, but I realised if you’re asking people for forgiveness, you need to be willing to be forgiving too, and understand that some people will take a little longer to get use to the idea.”

“But don’t panic,” she says, in her advice to other women who might be in a similar situation. “God supports his people no matter what. Look for support, ask for help. There’s always someone who’ll give it to you.”

Dr Best’s new book ‘A Life Already Started’ gives practical tips from a Christian perspective on unplanned pregnancy, answering questions a woman who finds herself unintentionally pregnant might ask, and also providing ways churches, friends and family can practically love a woman who has an unplanned pregnancy. It’s available from Fervr. 

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