Notes from the Salon: Spirituality and Reproductive Experience

-By Kelly N., BADP Doula and Blogger

Last week, on Wednesday, August 29th, BADP held our Salon Series event, “Spirituality and Reproductive Experience,” featuring Dr. Sarah Whedon and Reverend Darcy Baxter. Darcy brought not only her background as a Unitarian Universalist minister but also her experiences as a volunteer with Exhale‘s after-abortion talkline, an abortion counselor, and a chaplain on the labor and delivery floor of a hospital. Sarah is a BADP-trained abortion doula (and co-manager of our blog) as well as a birth doula, and teaches in the Department of Theology and Religious History at Cherry Hill Seminary. Lots of wisdom and experience was brought to the event from both speakers, and overall the discussion proved to be interesting, unique, and pertinent in the face of today’s often religiously-charged dialogue around reproductive health issues.

Darcy and Sarah started the event by asking everyone in the audience to share a question they had regarding the topic at hand. Questions ranged from wanting to hear about queer/trans experiences of religion and birth to how to use spiritual practices you might not share as a comfort measure when working as a labor or abortion doula. Attendees then discussed their personal definitions of religion and spirituality with a partner. While a variety of definitions arose, religion was seen to be something more public and defined in tradition and texts, while spirituality is something more private and personal which is often difficult to describe.

Sarah offered a prayer before talking about her personal experience as a pagan and a reproductive person. She defined paganism as an umbrella term with a variety of beliefs and practices but the following general themes: pantheism, panenthesim, or animism; polytheism; reverence toward nature and the body; trust in personal experience as divine experience; magic; and pluralism. During her first pregnancy Sarah found herself without wisdom and guidance for the experience from her pagan tradition, despite the fact that paganism often emphasizes goddess spirituality and the sacred manifesting itself in cycles, nature, and the body. So, to fill what she saw as a need for the pagan community she founded a website called Pagan Families, a place for folks to talk about paganism in the childbearing year. In addition, she wrote an eBook called Birth on the Labyrinth Path which serves as a sort of map for the childbearing year based on the labyrinth archetype. Sarah discussed how walking a labyrinth consists of three stages: purgation, or the walk in; illumination, or reaching the center; and union/integration, or the walk out. These three stages can be transcribed onto the experiences of pregnancy resulting in a birth as well as abortion, miscarriage, and stillbirth and can serve as a model for letting go of expectations and understanding new roles and experiences.

Darcy began her segment of the night by telling a couple stories from her work as a chaplain that pointed to the similarities of birth and death and her understanding of the complexity and contradictions of reproductive realities. One theme that she has seen in her work with pregnant people is a fixation on the ideas of punishment and sin, deriving from Christian ideas of the pains of childbirth being the “curse of Eve” and the conflict of not being able to control our bodies. Darcy described abortion as something which taps into the roots of fundamental issues about here and now vs. the afterlife as well as a male anxiety about the inability to create life. However, something she has said in her work with people who are seeking an abortion or who have previously terminated a pregnancy is that abortion doesn’t have to be in conflict with, and can in fact be part of, a mothering experience. Going through the potentially hard choice to have an abortion is practice for the constantly difficult decisions which define parenting. She talked a lot about the complex realities faced by many people, from the internalized guilt and acceptance of suffering by people raised in a predominantly Christian society to those who have protested outside abortion clinics but then have an abortion themselves.

Sarah and Darcy concluded the event by discussing the need to rethink traditional ideas of theology and ritual in order to have something different to offer people who are seeking spiritual and/or religious guidance and community outside more restrictive traditions. Paganism, Unitarian Universalism, and the works of feminist theologians are some of the more progressive reinterpretations of religion they cited. One takeaway from the event was that overall the intention behind a spiritual offering is what’s important, and everyone has a different label for their spiritual beliefs, be it energy, goddess, Jesus Christ, etc. This Salon Series event was a refreshing and inspiring discussion, tying together reproductive experiences and spirituality in a non-judgmental, humble, and respectful way.

Thank you very much to both Rev. Darcy Baxter and Dr. Sarah Whedon, as well as those in attendance and the amazing BADP volunteers who helped to organize this awesome event!

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