NEW YORK — Saralee Howard remembers the woman who walked into the Shared Pregnancy Women’s Center in Lansing, Mich., last year and asked for an ultrasound even though she was leaning toward an abortion.
Howard sat with her during the ultrasound, and together they listened to the fetal heartbeat. When the woman identified herself as Christian, Howard talked about “God valuing this precious unborn child made in his image.” The woman, with little money and two children, said she thought God would understand her decision.
As the woman stood to leave, Howard slipped her a Bible bookmarked to a prayer that sings of God’s prenatal involvement in the swelling rhythms of sacred poetry:
“For it was you who formed my inward parts,” it read; “You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
The next day the woman canceled her abortion.
The Rev. Rebecca Voelkel, who coordinates religious programs for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, recalls a gay pride parade some years ago where she noticed a simple white poster bearing only the words “FEARFULLY AND WONDERFULLY MADE.”
She smiled at the public display of a phrase that had, privately, played a huge role in her own coming out.
Howard is ardently anti-abortion and feels active homosexuality is a sin, if no worse than many others. Voelkel, meanwhile, supports abortion rights and is an out lesbian. But the women were citing the same verses from Psalm 139.
For decades, Psalm 139 has been a byword of the anti-abortion movement, printed on posters in crisis pregnancy centers. More recently, it’s been tied to high-resolution ultrasounds, the movement’s most potent technological persuader.
At the same time, the famous Psalm has also “come out” as a source of strength for gay and lesbian Christians.
Together, the two uses illustrate how great verses — particularly the Psalms — attract diverse constituencies.
All the Psalms assume intimacy with God, in petition, complaint or praise: It is why the Psalms remain one of the Bible’s most indispensable and beloved books. Psalm 139 portrays that intimacy in precise yet lyrical detail.
It probably started as a kernel of a legal oath of innocence — an ancient Hebrew version of “As God is my witness” — and blossomed into a hymn to God’s nearness to believers, wherever they roam.
“You know me when I sit down and when I rise up ... I ascend to heaven, you are there,” it declares. “If I make my bed in Sheol (hell) you are there ... If I ... settle at the farthest limits of the sea, Even there your hand shall hold me fast.”
It would be wonderful affirmation enough if it ended right there. But instead, Psalm 139 extends God’s familiarity backwards in time — into the womb, with the stanza culminating: “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
The womb verses arrived in the anti-abortion discourse in the late 1970s, along with conservative Protestants. Sermons on Psalm 139 helped establish an anti-abortion biblical bridge between Scripture-minded evangelicals and Roman Catholics who are motivated by official church teaching.
When crisis pregnancy clinics arrived in commercial districts to compete with abortion clinics, the Psalm came too: often as calligraphy, on a poster over a photo of a fetus floating in a soft red light, and in counseling sessions.
Bob Foust, a longtime pregnancy center activist from Alabama, calls the verses “foundational to my life.” He recalls how the elegant weave of strands of DNA reminded him of the Psalm’s “knitting” language.
“It just made me go, ‘wow,’” he said.
The wow factor mushroomed in the 1990s, when high-tech prenatal ultrasounds struck some as Psalm-on-a-screen. Notes Marvin Olasky, author of “Abortion Rites: A Social History of Abortion in America,” it was inevitable that the sonogram would be regarded as “the hitherto invisible sinew of what God had done.”
“When you look at the screen that’s exactly what you see: ‘The forming of my inward parts,’” said Howard, from the Michigan crisis pregnancy center.
The Southern Baptist Convention even titled its funding program for ultrasounds in pregnancy centers the “Psalm 139 Project.”
Meanwhile, Psalm 139 was establishing itself in a very different context.
Initially, gay Christians looked to Bible verses privately, a kind of scriptural “sanctuary, a safe space,” Voelkel said. She recalled a 1992 retreat in Puget Sound where the Sunday sermon was based on Psalm 139.
“You discern my thought from afar,” she recites. “You know my lying down and my rising up.’” She paused. “There’s no explicit talk about sexuality, but it’s ‘You know every single piece of me in my totality.’ And then, ‘I am fearfully and wonderfully made’ — this ultimate blessing.
“When people have gone their whole lives thinking there was this fight between their very flesh and their identity as Christians ... Everyone was in tears.”