So I was going to write a simple post on an article I read last Sunday about how Pres. Obama should not swear on a Bible due to the separation of Church and State, and how, though I do think there should be a separation of sorts, this argument completely misses the point of the Bible in the inauguration. Yada yada yada…
And then I read this…and watched this…and I changed my mind. January 22nd, the day after Pres. Obama’s inauguration and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, was the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, a court decision that essentially legalized abortion in the United States. While limitations on when, how, and after what procedures abortions can be performed have been enacted nationally and on state levels, abortion continues to be a practice that is both legal and common (in 2009, the CDC reports that approximately 1 fetus was aborted for every 6 live births, and well over 50 million legal abortions have been performed since 1973) in the U.S.
The abortion debate is widely known to be inflammatory (sometimes literally) and divisive. And while I have hinted at my convictions on this matter elsewhere on this blog, I have generally been cautious (fearful?) about airing my own opinions either here or elsewhere. I know there are people in my congregation who have strong opinions on either “side” of the debate, and others who have strong opinions that the topic should be avoided. It is well known that some of the most vocal opponents of abortion can be found in evangelical and Roman Catholic Christian circles. On the other hand, I pastor in a denomination (the United Church of Christ) that calls women’s right to have an abortion one indicator of “reproductive justice.” So, in some ways, I exist in the middle of the debate.
So let me begin by affirming some of the points made by my more “pro-choice” brothers and sisters:
- Yes, the pro-life movement contains some hypocrites who call themselves “pro-life” and then blow up abortion clinics or assassinate doctors who perform abortions.
- Yes, there are many conservatives for whom it is true that “they will do anything for the unborn, but once you’re born, you’re on your own” (potentially offensive language in this link), who have fought tooth-and-nail to outlaw abortion but never cared to get into the messiness of poverty, shame, etc. that make abortion an attractive option.
- Yes, as a whole, the pro-life movement has treated the unborn as full humans while failing to fully appreciate the humanness of women who have unwanted pregnancies, the complexities of their situations, and the systemic challenges they face.
- Yes, if abortion were illegal, it would continue to happen in unsafe ways.
- Yes, it’s disgusting that men can and do run away from unwanted pregnancies, leaving the woman on her own to make it work.
- Yes, rather than “speaking the truth in love,” pro-lifers have had a tendency to speak words that lead to condemnation and shame, especially on the part of the women who have had abortions.
Living in the center of theological/political battlegrounds , I work very hard to put myself in the shoes of other Christians (and other people, in general) who hold different perspectives than I do. As I have imperfectly and stumblingly allowed myself into the ethical complexities and gray areas of our broken world, I have generally found my heart softening on many issues. I may still hold a different conviction and opinion (I’m no relativist), but I can see how some might interpret the Gospel and the will of God differently than me.
This has not been the case for me when it comes to abortion.
I see how acting in compassion and seeking justice for women in unenviable circumstances is a Gospel mandate. I deplore the ways pro-lifers have often been simplistic, hypocritical, and downright evil in their pursuit of their “cause.” I weep for the personal and systemic forces that have moved and will continue to move women to endanger themselves for the sake of an illegal abortion. And still, I fail to see how the right to have an abortion has anything to do with the Kingdom of God. Moreover–and here is why I address this topic this week–I fail to see how abortion can be anything more than a tragic-if-necessary evil, let alone something to be celebrated.
Unfortunately, like most “political” debates, the abortion debate regularly gets derailed as people talk past each other (fail to address what the other is actually saying), ask loaded or unproductive questions, operate on surface-level principles (“pro-life”/”pro-choice”), and disregard the possibility of any possibility outside “A (overturn Roe) or B (keep Roe).”
At the risk of falling into the same traps I just outlined, I would like to offer a few thoughts on why I oppose abortion and how I respond to those who count Roe v. Wade a victory worth celebrating.
- First of all, I believe that it is possible to be pro-women while at the same time being anti-abortion (and so do many women who oppose abortion). I do not aim to demonize women who have had or are considering having abortions. The forces at work in our culture are way bigger than a single person making an isolated decision. Given the burdens and challenges many women experience, I can see how many women do choose the route of abortion. If I were facing the same burdens and challenges, I can only guess at what I might do. But regardless, the basis of the following thoughts is not blame and condemnation, but grace and the possibility of a more just and loving society where men and women, adults and children, born and unborn have every opportunity to thrive.
- I frequently hear proponents of reproductive rights make the claim that the fetus is not a person with a right to life. In fact, one is almost required to hold to this position to support abortion. A fetus, then, is merely a piece of tissue. I’m not going to pull in any Scripture to argue that life begins at conception (such references very rarely pay attention to what the biblical writer is actually saying). But here’s the thing: we don’t treat fetuses as just a piece of tissue. When we are hoping/praying for children, we celebrate at the first signs of life blossoming in the womb. And even when we are not hoping/praying for children, we know full well that that first sign of pregnancy has deeply human implications. I’m afraid the whole debate about precisely when the “tissue” becomes a “person” (conception, 3 weeks, 2nd trimester, birth…?) misses the point (more in #7). We must proceed with great caution, however, whenever we feel the urge to put limits on who is and is not a member of the human community.
- To continue #1, it should be noted that multiple serious philosophers, in order to argue against the personhood of the fetus, have found it necessary to extend their support for abortion to “infanticide.” In other words, if we are saying fetuses are not human/persons because they are completely dependent on another human or because they are not self-conscious, that is equally true of newborn babies. Really, the biggest difference between a child in the womb and a child outside of it is that the fetus is invisible and voiceless to us. Not less human. And this is why pro-lifers see opposition to abortion as a dire matter of justice for the unborn: acting as a voice for the voiceless, making visible the invisible, and protecting the most vulnerable members of our human society.
- On the topic of justice, the problem is not just that people choose to have abortions, but who is chosen to be aborted. With all of our medical technology and genetic testing, we can be particularly careful about which “tissues” are worth keeping. We know that in cultures (like China), where boys are more desirable, female fetuses are disproportionately selected for abortion. Talk about a “war on women.” In our country, studies indicate that a wildly disproportionate number of parents who find out that their fetus has Down Syndrome are aborted. I find these to be disturbing facts.
- As true as it may be that some pro-lifers only a) care about human well-being pre-birth and/or b) are so caught-up in legal battles about abortion that they ignore the host of other factors related to abortion, these accusations are convenient and inaccurate generalizations of pro-lifers. Crisis Pregnancy Centers, which are often supported by pro-lifers, have proliferated since 1973, seeking to serve women with pre-natal care, counseling, and material needs once the baby has been born. Many Christians have put their faith into action by adopting unwanted children both domestically and internationally. And “social justice” has increasingly entered the evangelical/emergent vocabulary in the past decade. Thankfully, this accusation is less and less true and should not have such a prominent place in the debate.
- I would suggest that advocating for abortion is “the easy way out” for people who recognize the systemic pressures on pregnant women. Abortion is not the only solution to the problem of abandoned pregnant women. I would much rather see the energy that goes into reproductive rights advocacy go towards developing creative ways to hold fathers accountable in caring for the life they helped create, provide programs that reframe sexuality and procreation, make adoption a more financially viable option for willing and loving families who struggle to afford huge adoption costs, subsidize childcare costs for single mothers, to name a few alternatives. Abortion is not the only or best way of addressing the problem of unwanted pregnancies in ways that are compassionate toward women. It’s just the easiest.
- Abortion does not solve the problem or empower women. In fact, it lets men off the hook. ”Hey, you have the option to abort. If you don’t want to, that’s your problem.” Abortion leaves women in the powerless spot of choosing between an unwanted (potentially coerced) abortion and single motherhood. This is merely moving the problem of powerlessness, not solving it. At the moment a woman finds out she is pregnant, men are supposed to be responsible as committed partners and fathers, and yet Roe v. Wade gives men absolutely no legal responsibility to determine whether the child lives or dies. If women want responsible, committed men at this time, the law is undermining that desire, and giving men a convenient excuse to abandon women–as if men needed any more encouragement to be irresponsible. (This is a big part of what makes this ad so deplorable, in my opinion.)
- Roe v. Wade reinforces the disjointedness of our understandings of sexuality and procreation. It puts a big bracket in the beautiful process of procreation, disconnecting new life from loving relationship. It says, “Sex is for individual pleasure. Pregnancy is about the woman’s individual rights. Birth begins the mutuality of parenthood.” Contrast: “Sex is the physical pinnacle of relational intimacy, and in this expression of love, new life is created to be celebrated and cared for by its co-creators from beginning to end.” For Christians, the biblical story is that God’s love is the source of creation and Life. And so procreation is this process from love to life. Anytime we try to jump in, parse out, and disconnect that story, we are walking on shaky ground. I’m not naive enough to think that this narrative is always reality, but I will say that the incessant touting of “rights” and “individual freedom” and “ownership” as predominant values is an enemy of relationship, community, and love. It hinders our culture from thinking, dreaming, and imagining in relational terms of love, intimacy, partnership, and mutual loving sacrifice. Roe v. Wade, here, is not the primary culprit, but rather a legal rubberstamping of community-unfriendly values surrounding sex, relationships, and procreation.
- None of this is to say that Christians should put all their resources and resolve into getting Roe v. Wade overturned. Rather, I believe it is our first calling to live the Kingdom of God and to present our surrounding culture with an alternative. What does this mean in this case? Presenting a narrative of sexuality in our communities that connects sex to procreation and committed relationships. Simultaneously creating communities of grace, which shower women with unintended pregnancies and women who have had abortions with love and support. Opening up our families, homes, and spirits to women who are not sure whether or not they can support a child and to the beautiful opportunity of adoption. Seeking ways to hold men accountable to the procreation process. Offering society a fuller view of humanity and hope that makes abortion a less viable option. The questions we must ask ourselves: “Were Roe v. Wade completely overturned, would the Church be prepared for the consequences? Are we working to create a society where abortion just doesn’t make sense?” This, to me, is a more holistic ethic of Life than simple pro-life v. pro-choice debates.
Well, my simple post has become a weird mix of a long-but-not-long-enough and complicated-but-still-simplistic treatment of this controversial but vitally important issue. I have gone past my normal blog length, and yet there is still so much more to say. I hope you will take time to respond, to see through my eyes, to challenge me, and to point out more constructive ways of approaching this issue. Although I feel strongly about this issue, I promise respect and love to any who disagree with me here, and will hold your comments to the same standard.
(Note: when I share a link, I am only passing on that article for your reading and discernment, not as an endorsement)