Mary’s Choice: What the Annunciation Story Tells Us About Moral Agency

In my twenty-five years of ministry I have often been challenged about my pro-choice theological position. It happens during the Advent season especially, when those who oppose my position exclaim in loud and sometimes threatening tones, “What would have happened if Mary had had an abortion!”        

I am always stunned by such a remark, of course. How did that person get from the Advent story of the Annunciation to abortion?           

The Annunciation story, and for that matter, the remarkable story of God becoming human, says nothing about abortion. But it does say something about choice, and perhaps that is why it is a lightning rod text for those who seek to deny women the right to choose a safe and legal abortion. 

The season of Advent is, for Christians worldwide, the time of preparation for the birth of Jesus. The Annunciation story is found in the Christian New Testament’s Gospel according to Luke. One of the two gospels to tell the birth narrative of Jesus, Luke’s Gospel includes the story of two women facing unplanned pregnancies. The story of the Annunciation begins with the angel Gabriel and a young girl whose name is Mary.  

Mary is seen in her room, reading Torah perhaps, or a book of prayers, when suddenly an angel of God appears before her. We like to imagine Mary this way because we see in her the ideal candidate for the role she is about to play.

The angel is in dazzling clothes, a sight to behold. “Greetings, favored one,” we hear Gabriel announce. Mary, not surprisingly, is perplexed by his words and wonders what might be happening.

“Don’t be afraid,” the angel continues. “You have found favor with God.” But what kind of favor is in store for Mary? The story goes on to tell us that the angel pronounces that Mary will conceive and bear a son, who will be named Jesus.

A pro-choice reading makes one thing very clear. Mary, the young woman who has just received a visit from an angel, is blessed by God with the ability to make a choice. Mary is a young woman charged by the holy with her own moral agency, a woman able to reflect on her life and on the world around her.

“How can this be?” Mary inquires. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the most High will overshadow you.” The conception has not yet occurred. The possibility for Mary to decline this offer hovers between the angel and Mary. After all these words, it is now time for Mary to respond.

The author Frederick Buechner imagines the scene of Mary encountering the angel this way:

She struck him as hardly old enough to have a child at all, let alone this child. But he had been entrusted with a message to give her, and he gave it. He told her what the child was to be named, who he was to be, and something about the mystery that was to come upon her. ‘You mustn’t be afraid, Mary,’ he said. As he said it, he only hoped she wouldn’t notice that beneath the great golden wings, he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of Creation hung on the answer of a girl.”

In Buechner’s book, Peculiar Treasures, there’s a picture of Gabriel above that brief description. He’s viewed from the rear. His hands are behind his back, and his fingers are crossed.

“Let it be done to me according to your word.”

The angel waited for Mary’s consent. And then we hear that Mary chooses to say yes to the angel’s invitation.

I am not suggesting that God took a chance on Mary. I don’t believe for a moment that God had any doubts that Mary would say yes. But I also hear in this well-loved scripture text the story of a God who understood that Mary could have a choice. It seems important to God that Mary agree to this pregnancy, that it not be forced upon her.

Time and time again we see how God gives God’s people choices in their decisions to follow in God’s way. The Annunciation story is but one of many pointing to a God who gives us the power to make moral choices and trusts that we will do so.

We pro-choice religious people value life. We also value the sacred dimension of decision making.  I believe now as I always have that a pro-choice theology is a pro-life theology. Our sexuality is a divine gift. We are partners with God in creation and we are blessed and challenged to make choices, to decide about when and how we will give birth to the next generation. For life to flourish, the scriptures remind us again and again, conditions need to be right.

I believe that a society is strong only when its women are able to have choices and make decisions about their reproductive health. That has been one of the guiding truths of my life. When women are denied the power to determine their own reproductive futures, they are denied the power to earn a decent living, denied the ability to seek higher education, denied the chance to live fully into the women that God has created them to be.

And when a society is determined to grant those choices to women, the society is better able to adapt to economic change, social change, and even political change. That is a lesson not only for Christians during Advent for but everyone, year-round.

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  • freetobe

    I was thinking just the opposite the other day. Being an ex-catholic andhaving plenty of lessons on Mary it seems Mary had NO choice that God already had her picked out and that was it. I mean it is God who decided this and who can argue with Him right? (I like your version better though.)

    Sadly when God created the human race and all other species none of us females (except the seahorse) got a choice whether we want pregnancy or not. We were basically stuck in that role like men are stuck not being able to have children.

    The problems came when men ran from their roles and left too many of us women holding the bag alone. it is one of the causes of all the problems in the world today. People mostly men refuse to grow up and except responsiblities and yet they blame it all on women that women are sluts or whores for wanting to protect their reproductive rights and save their own lives and the lives of any children they may already have.

    While many may think this is man-bashing it is not it is the truth and the truth hurts.


    I say this because i have lived it and seen it lived in many other womens lives as well.

    Because women have no voice in the mainstream media our side is rarely ever defended or told. Well it is high past time that changes and the bar is leveled and our truth be told once and for all.


  • lepidopteryx

    I see no place in that story where the angel asks Mary, “So, is it a del? Will you be God’s baby-momma?” He says she “WILL” and it happens.

  • lepidopteryx

    I see no place in that story where the angel asks Mary, “So, is it a del? Will you be God’s baby-momma?” He says she “WILL” and it happens.

  • jayn

    I’ve never quite understood the idea that people have to be forced to do the right thing–in my mind, that defeats the point. Being a good person–being virtuous–REQUIRES free will, because it isn’t enough to simply do the right thing, you must do the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing. A lot of people like to think of Adam and Eve as being perfect beings who fell from grace, but I don’t see it that way.  I see them as children, who didn’t know the difference between right and wrong. Until they ate the apple, they had two choices–to obey or not to obey. Any other considerations were beyond them.


    What meaning is there to making the ‘right’ choice if there is no possibility of making the wrong one?

  • waterjoe

    Free will – which is what Mary exercised – does not mean freedom to do anything a person desires.  Yes, Mary had a choice, but extrapolating from the fact that God gave Mary a choice in that particular instance does not mean that all persons are free to chose any action without consequences.  This is the fallacy of confusing “free will” with “moral agency.”  It elevates free will and the individual to the level of God, which is quite contrary to Christian theology.

    If you are going to argue for reproductive choice, stick to secular arguments.  Trying to find justification in the story of Christ leads to embarrassingly bad theology and flawed reasoning. 

  • colleen

    Yes, Mary had a choice, but extrapolating from the fact that God gave Mary a choice in that particular instance does not mean that all persons are free to chose any action without consequences.

    I don’t know what we would do without conservative Catholic Republicans explaining the mind of God to us. 

  • ack

    Your lack of reading comprehension is making your high school literature teacher cry. The author never stated that free will means that every choice is equally moral, or that any choice is without consequences.


  • waterjoe

    Rather than snidely dismissing the statement, please demonstrate how such a conclusion would be consistent with the text itself and the rest of the Christian story.


    BTW: “conservative Catholic Republican”  Only one of those descriptions would apply to me.  Don’t stereotype.

  • colleen

    Rather than snidely dismissing the statement, please demonstrate how such a conclusion would be consistent with the text itself and the rest of the Christian story.

    Why would I want to discuss discuss theology with a condescending guy who pretends to know the will of God? Particularly when his ‘faith’ reduces women to the status of disposable breeding livestock?


    I’m hardly stereotyping. You’ve been condescendingly scolding the women on this blog for quite some time now.

  • colleen

    Joe is trying to change the subject. After all, his ‘faith’ grants women no choice whatsoever.

  • crowepps

    There are dozens of different understandings of what free will means, some of which exclude consequences (since a decision made under threat of ‘consequences’ is not ‘free’ but instead extorted), and some do indeed elevate “the individual to the level of God” for the purpose of freely making one particular decision.

    There’s a lengthy article on all the different conclusions about free will at Wiki.  How about picking your preferred explanation out of the couple dozen so we’ll know which one you mean?

    Also, unless I misread the masthead, you haven’t been appointed an editor here, so while I’m sure everyone appreciates the contribution made by your series of little mini-seminars on Catholic theology — just a hint — it comes across as really arrogant to be giving people orders like “stick to secular arguments” as though you’re the only one allowed to discuss religion.

  • crowepps

    The morality of the choice doesn’t rest in whether or not the WOMAN makes the right choice — the morality of the choice rests in how effectively the priests, hospital administrators, obstetricians and husband cut off all the alternatives.  The point may be clarified by the most recent episode of Revelations of Horror: Catholicism in Ireland (Reproductive Torture of Women):

    [Dr] Alex Spain was the champion of symphysiotomy at the National Maternity Hospital. In 1944, he revived the technique because Caesarean sections might lead to “contraception, the mutilating operation of sterilisation, and marital difficulty.” At that time Caesarean sections were perfectly safe and symphysiotomy had fallen into disrepute. Spain admitted his decision went against the weight of the entire English-speaking obstetrical world’.

    It now appears that hundreds of Irish women, over at least a 20 year period, had to undergo this brutal, experimental operation. It has left many of them suffering permanent health problems. The operation, known as symphysiotomy, was carried out – as far as we can determine – in Dublin maternity hospitals between 1944 and 1964, and it could have gone on as late as 1975. Evidence is emerging which suggests it was also carried out in a number of Cork hospitals.

    The operation – and the details are not for the squeamish – involved sawing through the woman’s pelvis so that it opened like a hinge. International medical experts repeatedly criticised this practice. They stated that caesarean section should have been the preferred option for difficult pregnancies. Some Irish doctors persisted with symphysiotomy, because they apparently believed that women who underwent Caesarean section would use contraception to avoid pregnancy. The use of contraception, of course, conflicted with the prevailing Catholic ethos.

  • progo35

    I do think that Mary had a choice, ie, I think that if she had said “No,” God would have chosen someone else; though I agree with the Reverand’s notion that he knew what Mary’s answer would be. However, Waterjoe is clearly disputing the political bent of the article when he or she says “Free will – which is what Mary exercised – does not mean freedom to do anything a person desires.” He or she is simply pointing out that the choice extended to Mary in this instance-whether to accept a divine pregnancy or not-does not necessarily extend to the choice to continue a pregnancy once it has already commenced. That would be an entirely different choice with signficantly different ramifications. The choice not to become pregnant would mean that Jesus’ life never began inside Mary’s womb (And, presumably, began in someone else’s). Abortion would have ended Jesus’ life inside Mary’s womb. Same moral agency, two different outcomes: one in which God chooses another woman and one in which the unborn Jesus is killed. Hence, the outcomes of both choices are fundamentally different, and this difference is directly relevant to the theological tradition under discussion.

    This story does make a good case for the right to use contraception, which I and many other pro life individuals support, and I like feminist meditation on what Mary might have been thinking and feeling, but the fact that Mary’s pregnancy hadn’t begun at that point distinguishes her choice to accept the conception of a pregnancy from the choice to interrupt one that has already begun.

  • cmarie

    I’m starting to think the collapsed comments are a good idea after all.  If someone takes the time and trouble to censor a comment it’s bound to more than just predictible fluff.  They might as well be highlighted and are almost certainly more likely to be read.  My comment is just that a 15 year old can’t really be held responsible for much…. regardless of the centuary!