Thoughts on Abortion
I have never enjoyed publicizing my thoughts about the pro-life vs. pro-choice debate. It’s a heated issue. To take one side or another is to invite what often ends up being contentious, fruitless debate.
I don’t enjoy stirring up a hornet’s nest. But my calling as a minister is to teach the word of God, whether in season or out of season, whether convenient or inconvenient, whether culturally acceptable or culturally offensive. More than I want to be popular, I need to be faithful.
My thoughts on abortion have been helped by several healthcare professionals, most of whom are “pro-life” and some of whom are “pro-choice,” including an open discussion and debate with a handful of abortion providers. If I am going to speak publicly on this issue, it is only fair that I should first hear directly from all the perspectives and filter out all potential caricatures.
I have done my homework. And, after studying the Scriptures and listening to scores of different perspectives, here are a few thoughts I would like to share.
What is the Core Issue?
I believe that the core issue in the pro-life vs. pro-choice debate is whose care matters most. Is it care for the mother or care for the child in her womb? I believe that the answer is yes.
In his letter to the early church, the Apostle James writes that we must show no partiality and reiterates what Jesus said was the greatest commandment in relation to our fellow human beings—to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (James 2:1, 8).
Here, James was addressing a problem he saw in the first century church. Partiality was being shown toward affluent, successful, famous people because everyone was trying to climb the social ladder. While these received VIP treatment in the church, the poor, marginalized, and weak were overlooked and pushed to the periphery. This, according to James, was wrong. In the church, every person is supposed to receive VIP treatment because every person, wealthy or poor, obscure or famous, strong or disabled, mother or infant, is a carrier of the divine imprint.
Every human bears God’s image.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. aptly said, “There are no gradations in the image of God…God made us to live together as brothers (and sisters) and to respect the dignity and worth of every (hu)man.” He also said, quite rightly, that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
This is where the pro-life vs. pro-choice discussion breaks down. Neither side is known for honoring the dignity of every human in the equation. Furthermore, neither side is seen by the other as being truly and consistently pro-choice or pro-life. Although there are exceptions, in many instances the use of the terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice” can sound more euphemistic than honest.
Is “Pro-Choice” Honest Terminology?
For example, pro-life folks allege that pro-choice is dishonest terminology because only one person in the equation has a choice. The expectant mother has 100% decision making power and the child inside her has no power, no voice, and no ability to defend or advocate for her/himself. What’s more, any notion that every female should get to choose what she does with her own body breaks down, because half of pre-born children are female who are given no choice over what happens to their bodies.
Especially when abortion is used as a means of birth control (versus a much rarer, truly life-threatening situation such as ectopic pregnancy), “a woman’s right to choose” is also, in truth, a woman’s right to kill. This unspoken reality is hauntingly exposed by a pro-choice platform called “Opposing Personhood” (yes, I am quoting correctly here) aimed at “opposing all personhood bills and ballot initiatives” that affirm the personhood of pre-born children.
Is “Pro-Life” Honest Terminology?
On the other hand, pro-choice folks allege that pro-life is dishonest terminology. According to critics, the so-called pro-life position seems focused on only one kind of life. After an infant is born, pro-life people don’t seem to have much else to say. Pro-life messaging rarely acknowledges that more than 60% of women seeking elective abortion live alone and below the poverty line. In rarer cases, some have been raped or assaulted by a sick, older and stronger man in her family. Some are afraid because they lack adequate healthcare, they lack support from spouses, partners, or loved ones, or they are facing an at-risk pregnancy that threatens the viability of mother, child, or both. If pro-life people seem ambivalent about showing up for and helping solve these and other, complicated forms of crisis-pregnancy-related distress, their advocacy for unborn life loses credibility in the eyes of many.
Now, it is an indisputable fact that pro-life people, especially Christian ones, care more for their poor, distraught, and/or at-risk neighbors than the rest of the world combined. As secular journalist Nicholas Kristof has written in The New York Times, evangelical and Catholic believers are leading the world in mercy and justice efforts on virtually every front. This includes providing meaningful support to women facing a crisis pregnancy, as well as counseling for those who are facing shame, regret, and trauma after choosing to abort (one such organization, whose free counseling services are accessible in person and online, also led by a good friend of ours, is Avail).
But even where good work is being done, there can still be a perception that pro-life folks are passive about the very real distress that certain pregnant women face. Here is where they (we) must consider Jesus’ urging to “let our light shine before men that all may see (and thereby also gain access to and become beneficiaries of) our good works and glorify our father in heaven” (Matthew 5:13-16).
In Praise of “True Religion,” Which is Always Both / And
And so it goes. Both groups are right in advocating for fellow humans in a weak and distressed position. And both sides are challenged—whether in truth or perception—for advocating on behalf of mother or child versus advocating on behalf of mother and child. Wherever this is the case, there is a deficit of what James called “true religion,” which attends meaningfully to the needs of widows and orphans—to vulnerable women and children—in their affliction and distress (James 1:27).
If deep concern isn’t shown for both mother and child, James seems to be saying, then our religion is lopsided. Until we become both/and on this issue, our religion falls short of being true.
The “Quality of Life” vs. the “Value of Life”
Pro life folks are compelled by the words of James who wrote, “He who said ‘do not commit adultery’ also said ‘do not murder’” (James 2:11). If only people would abstain from unmarried sex and stop murdering, the thinking goes, then the abortion problem would be solved.
For some, this raises the question of whether terminating a pregnancy is murder. Can it be considered merciful in certain situations to terminate? Is there something to be said for sparing mother and/or child from public embarrassment, economic burden, disability, and other pains that can sometimes come with carrying a pregnancy to term?
Two major Old Testament figures wrestled over this very question. Both wondered if life is worth living if one’s quality of life is burdensome.
Job was a terror victim who lost all of his assets, his business, his wife’s respect, and ten children. Jeremiah was a prophet living in exile, a bereaved widower, and hated by virtually everyone that God had called him to love and serve.
Both men made the same statement: “Cursed be the day that I was born.”
Jeremiah took the thought further when he said, “Cursed be the day when my mother bore me…Cursed be the man who brought the news to my Father, because he did not kill me in the womb…why was I born to see toil and sorrow and spend my days in shame?” (Jeremiah 20:14-18).
Pro-choice advocates might say, “See? Even one of God’s prophets said that he should have been aborted!” That is to say, they might understand Jeremiah’s words as a quality of life argument. If inordinate suffering is probable, says the quality of life argument, then it is more merciful and just to terminate life rather than it is to sustain it.
But if Jeremiah or Job truly believed this, each would have followed through with the thought and taken his own life, yes? If the merciful and just thing to do with a life wrought by endless suffering and sorrow is to end the life and thereby end the suffering, why did neither of these men take matters into his own hands? I think it is because in cursing the day they were born, both of these men of God were venting their raw emotions—emotions that were real but that they also knew were not true.
Deep down, in spite of expressing a desire to not go on living, both Job and Jeremiah understood that the chief deciding factor is not the quality of life but rather the value of life. Because every human bears the image of God, s/he is of inestimable value.
Jeremiah did not take his life in his own hands, no doubt because God had declared to him years before, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you…” (Jeremiah 1:5).
Similar thoughts are expressed elsewhere in Scripture. “You formed my inmost parts,” the Psalmist prays, “you knitted me together in my mother’s womb…Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them” (Psalm 139:13, 16).
“He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb,” it is said about John the Baptist (Luke 1:15).
The Old Testament Hebrew word used in reference to a born infant or toddler (yeled) is the same Old Testament Hebrew word used in reference to a fetus.
When Does Personhood Begin?
The testimony of Scripture is unequivocal that from the moment that sperm and egg unite, you have a new living soul and carrier of the divine imprint. An embryo is never spoken of as a potential life, but is only and always spoken of as a life. Personhood begins at, and continues on from, the moment of conception.
Even the abortion provider I referenced above recognizes this. In the course of conversation, he said that every abortion he has performed over the years has made him feel sick to his stomach. When his grandson with Down Syndrome was born, he resolved that he would never abort a child with Down Syndrome again.
He went on to say that he believes human life begins at conception, and that terminating a pregnancy ends human life. These were his words, not mine. While many (myself included) are deeply opposed to the doctor’s willingness to perform abortions on demand in spite of his beliefs about life in the womb, at least he is honest enough to admit that as long as he provides abortions, he will be choosing to live in moral inconsistency.
Some Moral Dilemmas to Consider
Some other relevant things I learned recently:
> Approximately 2 million couples in America alone are on adoption waiting lists.
> The abortion industry is very profitable. People and organizations make a lot of money terminating pregnancies, thus incentivizing providers not to make abortion rare.
> 66% of abortions are performed on the 30% minority of Blacks and Hispanics. Notably, Margaret Sanger founded Planned Parenthood in part for the purpose of exterminating Black babies. Historically and today, there are significant racial implications concerning abortion.
> A disturblingly disproportionate percentage of children with Down Syndrome are aborted, even though people with Down are known to be among the happiest people groups in the world.
> 98% of abortions are purely elective due to an unwanted pregnancy in which the mother’s health or life is not at risk.
> 90% of women considering an abortion who see a sonogram choose to keep the child.
> At conception, the full set of DNA is present—23 genes from the mother, and 23 from the father. Scientifically, an embryo is human from the start.
As we can see, there are various and troubling moral dilemmas for those on the side of “choice.” The question is sometimes raised, how is it even possible, in the name of justice, to advocate for a woman’s right to choose abortion when the weakest human being in the equation is left without a choice and without a defense? Justice and mercy, to be truly just and merciful, demand that the most vulnerable, powerless, defenseless, and voiceless ones receive the strongest defense, advocacy, and protection.
As James writes, “There will be judgment without mercy to those who show no mercy” (James 2:13).
This is no small thing. There is much at stake.
The So-Called “1-2%” Must Not be Dismissed or Devalued
Whereas pro-life folks believe that pro-choice folks support violence against children in the womb, pro-choice folks believe that pro-life folks can be indifferent, even cold, toward mothers in distress. Even though, as highlighted above, 98% of abortions occur when the mother’s life or health is not at risk, the remaining 2% is significant, representing roughly 10,000 mothers and children in crisis. Where there is greater complexity due to a crisis situation, pro-life folks must do more than merely advocate for (or now, celebrate and move on from) anti-abortion legislation.
Anyone can cast a vote. Anyone can share their pro-life views on Facebook or Twitter. But do pro-life people think they have done justly and loved mercy by merely working to get the law on their side?
Pro-life folks, too, must grapple with the imperative to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Loving your neighbor calls for showing mercy, which requires showing up meaningfully and supportively for women and children in distress. Otherwise, we are fooling ourselves. We may be pro-infant in theory, but this does not mean we are pro-life in the truest and most comprehensive sense of the term.
To show mercy is to help bear the burdens that afflicted people carry. Mercy puts itself in the shoes of those who are ashamed, alone, and scared. What if it was us or our loved ones facing an unexpected or crisis pregnancy?
What if we were the unmarried woman living in poverty?
What if we were the college student who was a victim of date rape?
What if we were the woman with a husband or a boyfriend demanding, “Take care of it, or else…?”
What if we were the teenage girl whose parents have made it clear that they will not support the birth or adoption route, but will only support termination, “otherwise she is on her own?”
What if we were the mother who has been told that the child has zero chance of surviving outside the womb, or of surviving the pregnancy itself?
These are real situations.
A friend of mine who is a pro-life gynecologist, who has never and will never perform an abortion, relayed an in-real-life patient situation to me that was devastating. A young pregnant girl came in to his office distressed because a few thugs decided that they would force her into a private room and then, one after the other, take advantage of her ten year old body.
You read correctly. The girl was ten.
If you are pro-life, for a moment put yourself in the shoes of this girl or in the shoes of her parents. Is it enough to merely achieve pro-life legislation to protect the unborn child? Or must something be added to the legislation to ensure mercy and justice for all? What about the child who is carrying that baby in her underdeveloped uterus? Indeed, something that is comprehensive and “womb to tomb” is called for.
Referencing James again, it would not be enough to simply look at this ten-year old girl and her parents and say, “You shall not murder. Now that we have that settled, go in peace, be warmed and filled—Take care of yourselves while I go about my own life”—without offering to come alongside them to help bear their varied, complex, and gut-wrenching burdens (James 2:16)?
This is what the scribes and Pharisees were known for doing. They demanded that people keep God’s law…don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, and so on…but they would not lift a finger to help people carry the burden (Luke 11:46).
Said another way, faith without works is dead.
“There will be judgment without mercy to those who show no mercy.”
The Kingdom of God: Becoming Comprehensively Pro-Life
I believe that the only way forward is to adopt a Kingdom vision that includes but also goes far beyond the civic vision on this issue. If we continue to treat this as nothing more than a political issue, we will miss an important Kingdom opportunity.
What might such a Kingdom opportunity look like?
The Pax Romana can teach us something about this. Pax Romana or “Roman Peace” was a euphemistic (dishonest) term coined by the people in power during the first and second century Roman oppression. Social Darwinism was the rule of the day, in which the terms of justice were decided by the powerful, who made certain that the terms of “justice” privileged them. Those in a weaker position had no choice but to live according to those terms.
One historian described the Pax Romana as a coerced compliance in which all opponents had been beaten down and had lost the ability to resist, and in which the weak and afflicted had no legal protection.
As in Hitler’s Germany, certain classes of humans were seen as a drain on society and therefore disposable. Widows, the infirm, people with special needs, the poor, and unwanted children (especially girls)…all were vulnerable and none had the assurance that their human rights would be honored.
Archaeologists discovered a letter written by a traveling Roman businessman to his pregnant wife. Unable to make it back home in time for the child’s birth, he wrote to her that if the child is a boy, she should keep it. If it is a girl, she should throw it out.
In came the people of Jesus. Compelled by a Kingdom vision, “No one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own…There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold…and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:32-35).
In ancient Rome, people of the Way said to the Roman Caesar something similar to what Mother Teresa once said at a National Prayer Breakfast to a sitting U.S. President:
“Please stop aborting your babies and give them to me.”
This is also what the early Christians said to the Roman Caesar. “We will take care of your sick. We will feed your hungry. We will shelter your widows. We will adopt and raise your children with special needs and disabilities. We will take care of your pregnant mothers.”
By the third century A.D., the moral and social fabric of Rome was transformed. The Roman world was “infected by love,” as one historian has said. Even the Emperor Julian, famously known and feared for his murderous disdain for Christians, conceded in a letter that the growth of the “Christian sect” had gotten out of control because Christians took better care of Rome’s afflicted than Rome did.
What could this look like for us? I think I will leave you with an excerpt from a doctor, also a Christian, because I cannot find a way to improve on his words:
The centerpiece of our life and faith is the One who so loved us that He died for us…Where does that leave us? First, don’t murder. This is true for both sides of this issue. While exerting one’s autonomy and taking of innocent life in abortion is clearly wrong and disallowed by Scripture, so is being vitriolic and hating others on the other side of an issue. Second, do unto others as you would want for them to do unto you—assuming your positions were reversed. Imagine that you are the one making a decision on the other side. As we fight about life in utero, let’s not forget the person standing in front of us.
Build relationship and community. There is enough hurt to go around…I believe that abortion is wrong. I believe that God is the Giver of life. As a Christian, I want to support a politic that does give preference to Biblical views on this matter, because I believe that they make for flourishing of humans. I also must believe that government, Biblically speaking, must make room for dissent.
Wouldn’t it be great if communities existed where ANY mother, married or unmarried, would feel welcomed and loved and known that her needs and the needs of her child would be attended to? If the Church does what the Church is called to do, then there will be no poor or disregarded or demeaned in our midst.
In short, I would rather build community and dialogue and live in a society where abortion, due to the love ready to be given to any child and any mother, is not merely illegal…