It’s nearly impossible to have a civil and discerning conversation about abortion in today’s polarized political environment. If you write something on the subject, you can be virtually assured that you will be attacked by others, regardless of what you say. Many, including me, have avoided doing so. I’ve also hesitated because I’m a white man with many privileges; for too long women—including women of color—have had to endure the pronouncements and power of men telling them what to do about their pregnancies. But the recent leaked version of a potential Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade has compelled me to find my voice and attempt a response.
This conversation is difficult because of the way the discussion is publicly framed, locked into: “pro-life” vs. “pro-choice.” That’s a simplistic and misleading binary way to frame a serious, complex issue. It drives both sides to strident extremes, tending to silence those who can’t identify fully with either option, which is the majority of Americans. The phrases create distorted stereotypes. It suggests that someone who is “pro-choice” doesn’t value life and is only concerned about one’s personal prerogatives. Those who are “pro-life” seem morally superior and altruistic, even righteous. For most people, neither of those stereotypes are true. The dimensions of “choice” and “life” are intrinsically bound together in any decision about terminating a pregnancy prior to giving birth. So, the terms of the discussion must be reframed.
The politicizing of the Supreme Court with the shell game dominating the nomination process in the U.S. Senate has further poisoned the atmosphere around this issue. When Senator Mitch McConnell refused for over a year to take up a qualified nominee by President Obama and then rushed through the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, how is the public to believe that the highest court will decide cases according to merit rather than by precooked political positions favored by a narrow Senate majority? And even more, when nominees say one thing about precedents when questioned by Senators, and then rule as if afflicted with convenient amnesia about such assurances, public trust withers and acrimony escalates.
Beneath this contorted, soundbite driven, raging debate is, in my view, the real question: When does a fertilized egg in its development acquire, in the view of the state, the status of a full human being deserving constitutional rights and protections, like any other person? For some time, that question has gotten easily obscured. For instance, in the 2008 Presidential campaign, Rick Warren interviewed Barack Obama and John McCain, separately, about issues of faith and values. He asked each, “When does life begin?” Obama answered, in effect, “That’s above my pay grade.” McCain (whose campaign, it turned out, had been told about Obama’s answer given an hour or two earlier) answered immediately, “At conception.” Yet one’s answer depends completely on what one means by “life.”
Clearly, potential human life begins at conception. But does a fertilized egg (zygote) or an embryo have the status of an individual human being deserving constitutional protections and rights? That’s what most in the “pro-life” movement contend. But I don’t think that even makes biological sense. It’s known that about one-third to one-half of fertilized eggs fail to get implanted. Is this then the death of a human being? If so, shouldn’t the National Institute of Health be spending hundreds of millions of dollars to discover how more fertilized eggs can be implanted, and avert the ongoing deaths of millions of people?
The same holds true for pregnancies that are lost in the first few days or weeks after implantation. An estimated 10%-20% of all pregnancies are spontaneously aborted after this point, most in the first term. Is this equivalent to human death, like yours or mine? Naturally, the later in a pregnancy this occurs, the more complex those questions seem to become. But again, the question is this: when in the development of potential human life does the actual human life of an individual person emerge, deserving constitutional protection?
Ardent pro-life advocates answer that question like John McCain did: at the moment of conception. But I think that defies biological realities and is legally untenable. A developing, potential human life is not independent; it exists in complete biological interdependence with the mother. One potential human life, and another full human life that has constitutional rights and protections are always involved together.
If one does believe that full, individual human life begins at conception, then the case is closed. Ending a pregnancy at any point, for any reason, from conception on, is murder. A zygote, an embryo, and a fetus should have the same status in the eyes of the state as you or I. There are no exceptions, including for rape or incest. One terrible or criminal act is not rectified by another, namely murder. The rights of the mother are irrelevant. No one has a right to kill someone else. Strategies to reduce abortions are unpersuasive. The only morally right action is to ban all abortions.
In that light, the present rhetoric of abortion opponents extolling the merits of returning the power to restrict abortion to the states strikes me as completely disingenuous. It’s a convenient legal argument complaining about the power of nine justices as opposed to the “people.” But opponents of abortion are no less accepting of terminating pregnancies in New York as in Mississippi. They want abortion outlawed everywhere, and that will certainly be their next goal, requiring federal legislative and judicial actions.
Proposing that this question be decided by the states presents other dangers as well. At previous points in our history, fierce arguments have been advanced contending that what rights should be afforded to which people should be up to the states to decide, particularly as it related to slavery. And we saw how that turned out when states didn’t have a common agreement.
The considerations I’ve raised thus far are biological and legal ones. But what perspectives are brought to this discussion from Christian faith? The answer is not as clear as some would assume.
Conservative evangelicals in large numbers are fervent in their opposition to abortion. That has developed only in the last 3-4 decades, part of a separate story in American religious history. What fascinates me, however, is that there is no other issue which has galvanized evangelical opposition and action which has less biblical support. Let’s be honest. The Bible, for the most past, simply doesn’t address the issue of when human life, or individual personhood, begins. It does grant an intrinsic value to every human life, which is rooted in the image of God. But it doesn’t address whether that should extend to developing human life prior to birth.
One can point to a few references which refer to God’s foreknowledge of a person even before birth, such as in Psalm 139. But a declaration of God’s omniscience hardly settles the question. And if one wants to cherry-pick scriptures to support particular views—which generally is a poor approach to the Bible—there are passages in the Old Testament which assume that life inside the womb does not have the same value as a living person. For instance, in Exodus 21:22 the injury of a pregnant woman in battle, causing a miscarriage, is subject to a fine, but the death of that woman is punished by death. When Moses is ordered to do a census in Numbers 3:15, not only are pregnant women only counted as one, but children less than one-month old are not counted at all.
If one does try to discern when a potential person becomes fully alive as a human being in stories of scripture, it seems to be when breath is imparted, as when God breathed into Adam the breath of life, and “the man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7). That would suggest that life begins at breath. None of these examples may be conclusive, but they illustrate how from a biblical view, there really isn’t a convincing basis for arguing that a full human life is present beginning at conception. That’s also why the preponderance of Jewish ethical teaching, rooted in the interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures, does not embrace such a view.
Of course, a coherent position opposing abortion can be developed through moral theology applied in particular ways, which the Catholic church has done. Many other Christian traditions, however, have reached strikingly different conclusions. The plain fact is that Christianity has held a diversity of views in trying to answer the challenging question of when potential human life, developing in utero, should be considered as equivalent to human life outside of the womb. One simple answer has been, at birth, rather than at conception.
The question of the “viability” of the fetus outside of the womb adds a further complexity. Generally, that’s considered as about 24 weeks, although technological advances in prenatal care make that a moving target. Roe v. Wade tried to provide a framework for dealing with this reality by saying that abortion couldn’t be restricted prior to that assumed point of viability, thereby affording the mother the constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy during that period. But even then, the Supreme Court refrained from making a determination that would answer the question of whether or when constitutionally protected human life begins prior to birth.
Roe v. Wade did allow for states to enact restrictions on abortion after the point of viability, provided that a clear exception exists to protect the life of the mother. In all, 44 states out of 50 have some restrictions. That still doesn’t determine the definition of human life, but it reflects the prudential judgement that the further a fetus is in its course of development, the more cautious and restrained one should be about the possibility of ending the pregnancy. Public opinion reflects this. 68% of the public believe that abortion should be permitted in the first trimester. 80% of the public believes it should be restricted in the last trimester, and abortions in that period are relatively rare, accounting for a small fraction of the whole. The present legal controversy, including the case reaching the Supreme Court, is driven by states enacting abortion restrictions that are far earlier than the legal prohibition determined by Roe v. Wade, and some are without exceptions.
Christians who are not unequivocal opponents of abortion, which includes me, tend to make arguments affirming overall support for life and human welfare. We should be devoted to the flourishing of life outside the womb, which is presently subject to so many systemic injustices, and not just life prior to birth. Further, when proper support is given to women’s health care, and when a strong social safety net protects the most marginalized and poor in society, the rates of abortion are reduced. Generally, that has happened under Democratic administrations. A proactive strategy of abortion reduction, therefore, can emerge from initiatives addressing economic inequality and protecting the rights and opportunities of women in society. Such a strategy should also stress the responsibilities of fathers.
All that is true and should be a far more prominent part of the discussion around abortion. However, that still does not answer the question at the heart of the matter—the definition of a full human life requiring constitutional protection.
Christians who resist the call of some to regard a zygote, or an embryo, or a fetus as equivalent to human person, however, should embrace the value of what does happen when potential human life has its fragile but miraculous beginning. This is not just a “product of conception” like some inanimate object easily discarded. It’s part of the web of life, carrying the reproductive possibility of a person. It beckons for the respect which we should give to all life. Those with desired and often longed-for pregnancies know the joyous gift of nurturing and cherishing that potential human life. But this life is embedded in another life, to whom God has given gifts, aspirations, and responsibilities of love being lived out in real, actualized daily living.
When that embedded potential life is not desired or wanted by the mother, for any number of reasons, and makes consequential claims on that mother’s life and livelihood, the simple question becomes, who should decide what to do? Given that our society has no legal, moral, political, or religious consensus about whether or when human life is fully present prior to birth, requiring constitutional privileges and protections, the mother is certainly the one who must be fully empowered, legally and morally, to make that decision. She would do so with the support of those in loving relationships with her, including the father, and with the available counsel of pastors, therapists, medical professionals, and others. The weighty and complex decisions about the nature of the embedded life she carries, and the responsibilities in life which she bears, must be made by her in that community of support. It makes no sense for justices in the Supreme Court, or politicians in gerrymandered state legislatures, to make that decision for her.
Christian faith continually calls us to see the world through the eyes and experiences of those who are pushed to society’s margins, who are vulnerable, and who are deprived of rights and dignity by systems that exercise power and domination over them. In the present political debate over abortion, that means placing women with pregnancies they didn’t intend nor desire at the center of our concern. We must hear their stories and accompany their journeys with grace and wisdom. We should understand the debilitating economic realities which cause nearly half of all abortions to occur among low-income women who struggle to make difficult judgements about what love, and the livelihood a family, require. If Roe v. Wade is overturned, leading to a crazy patchwork of legal restrictions and options in different states, the hardship on women struggling earnestly with difficult decisions about unwanted pregnancies will escalate enormously, especially for poor women and women of color. That anguish should be understood and honored by everyone, regardless of their philosophical views about the definition of human life.
We are living in a time when our society’s intense political polarization is becoming geographically defined. Increasingly, communities and even regions are becoming more culturally and politically homogeneous, with conformity to attitudes and behaviors that get reinforced by their own television and social media networks. Should the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade, this trend will be flagrantly intensified. This becomes a deep threat to the faithful witness of the church. Congregations will face increased pressure to be subsumed by one bubble or the other. That threatens to destroy the ability of the church to be a transforming witness and presence within culture, instead of being blindly conformed to culture.
I’m neither a physician nor a lawyer and am more than willing to hear corrections to what I’ve shared. I understand those who hold opposite views from me. At one time, I shared their perspectives. But I no longer believe that a “consistent ethic of life” is consistent. Terminating the development of an embryo is not the same as sending a felon to the electric chair, killing an enemy in war, or building nuclear weapons.
Therefore, I am convinced the present, intense abortion debate, inflamed by a leaked draft Supreme Court ruling, should focus attention on the underlying, key question: when does a full human life, deserving legal protection, begin? In my view, there is no convincing biological, legal, or biblical justification for saying that takes place at conception. Society, as well as the Christian community, have diverse views, with no consensus about the definitive answer to that question. The task of the church is to provide a community of discernment and support where the ethical, theological, and practical answers to this question can be earnestly explored by those whose lives are most deeply affected, and who cannot avoid the choice of making a decision—the potential mothers.