Abortion is a hard subject, approachable from many different angles. I have found insight listening to biologists, legal minds, philosophers, journalists, and mothers, each offering important perspectives. What of a pastor? We have responsibility to offer moral guidance for wise personal choices; pastors should also give guidance for the church’s posture in the world.
Those areas of guidance overlap but are separable. Christian moral guidance includes recommendations like, “If you are slapped on one cheek, turn the other cheek.” Pastors would not expect or want this guidance to be mandated by law. Likewise, while all Christians agree that coveting breaks one of the Ten Commandments, only a few of us may take that fact and consider ways we might legislate against advertisers who regularly tempt us to covet. Most of us recognize “Thou shalt not covet” as a personal commitment not mandated in secular law. In the same vein, Christian crusaders from one hundred years ago once sang hymns entitled “Vote the Booze Away.” Sadly, they found their efforts for temperance were more effective before Prohibition than afterwards. Using the fist of the law to mandate love often fails. History may have echoed in our own time when a decades-long trend of decreasing abortions in America reversed in 2016. Some boasted that they had elected “the most pro-life president ever,” yet abortions began and now continue to increase.
Advising Christians on the Morality of Terminating a Healthy Pregnancy
First, let’s lay out what the Christian tradition, based on the Bible, has to say about abortion. Bible-believing churches have had a consistent voice from the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Cherish human life, including life in the womb.
Jesus shows us how to gladly take on the burdens of others’ lives. Our Lord expresses this in His parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). He was asked a question no less relevant in our time: “Who is my neighbor?” The man asking that question knew that he should “love his neighbor,” but he wondered if that tax collector, that foreigner, or that prostitute counted as a “neighbor.” Maybe “neighbor” only counted for people who looked like him? The question of “Who is my neighbor?” still applies to modern issues, including racism, immigration, and abortion. Is that unseen fetus a neighbor or a parasite?
Modern Americans are often tempted to answer directly. Yes, the person with different skin color, different attire, different culture, or different abilities is still your neighbor. Jesus was canny in how He answered. He told a parable about a man dying on the side of the road. Several clergy avoided the dying man. His neighbors avoided him. Finally, a Samaritan helped. Now, the Samaritans were despised by many Jews as immoral traitors. There may have been a few gasps or even boos in Jesus’ original audience, hearing that a Samaritan was more merciful than fellow Jews. A Samaritan was, after all, one they did not want to consider a “neighbor.” Jesus tells of the Samaritan taking the dying man up, binding his wounds, and paying his tab at an inn. Then Jesus wonderfully asks His audience, “Which of these proved to be a neighbor?” They had to answer, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus concluded, “You go, and do likewise.”
When Christians encourage mothers to rejoice in the gift of children, we know we are encouraging the showing of mercy. We expect there are burdens involved. While American legal tradition often speaks in terms of “rights,” Christians are to think in different terms, that of grace and mercy. We believe each person is enlarged by loving others. I am more the man I am meant to be when I love than when I pass by on the other side. We do not see an either/or mother/child situation in most cases where abortion is considered. We generally expect mothers to find the blessing of mothering to significantly outweigh the burdens (and we expect this for fathers who embrace their role as well).
What about Christians Who Aren’t Merciful?
A pro-choice person may say, “Pro-life Christians are inconsistent, then, when they do _____.” Their accusations are sometimes true. There are people whose rejection of abortion is inconsistent with their posture towards immigrants, for example. I’d only note that these inconsistencies cut both ways. “Pro-choice” people who want to use the law to mandate vaccinations, for example, are ready to violate bodily autonomy to save life. Is that also hypocritical? While there are inconsistencies on both sides, I’d rather have some inconsistent advocacy for life than purely consistent overlooking of all kinds of neighbors. I also know many Christians who think carefully about all these issues and seek to apply their principles consistently.
These principles go back to the most ancient Christians. One of the earliest Christian manuals, the Didache,set the pattern in the first century: “You shall not procure abortion, nor destroy a newborn child” (2:2). The church repeated this teaching down through the centuries. The Didache did not teach, “You shall outlaw abortion and child abandonment.” Indeed, Christians did not expect to have political power for the first centuries of the church’s history. They worked on society’s margins. When non-Christians legally abandoned and exposed their children, Christian families took those orphans in. If modern American Christians are more focused on using an imposing federal government to effect good by fiat, is this more a modern Christian problem or a modern American problem?
Can federal or state governments do real good in abortion legislation? And if so, how does Christian moral guidance apply to legal action? There are some specious arguments I will respond to first. A common view of abortion politics is that it is about men wanting power over women. This view is understandable since human biology places more physical burden on women in reproduction processes. Men can use this biological fact to gain competitive advantage over women in the workplace. Men have used gender roles to disadvantage women from. The Bible calls this out and condemns it from the very beginning (first in Gen. 3:16 through to Mt 19:3-12).
Yet it strikes me that Roe v. Wade also set up an environment in which men were encouraged to manipulate women through sexual politics. Abortion rights gave men the impression that they could impregnate women and leave all the choices and responsibility to the mother. The manipulative argument goes, “If you want this child, you take care of it.” Similarly, businesses can be motivated to support female workers’ abortions because that circumstance requires of the business much less complication and support than workers who choose life.
In the end, it is often unclear what motivations stand behind arguments that are made. We are better equipped simply to weigh each argument on its face.
Justice Requires Limiting Certain Choices
Another popular argument runs, “Bodily autonomy is absolute; you can’t force someone to give blood to a dying person, for example, so you can’t force a woman to carry a pregnancy.” While it is true that we do not force blood transfusions, there are other legal transgressions on bodily autonomy. When I became a parent, I lost significant amounts of my bodily autonomy. I am required by law to feed and care for my children for many years. Did I become a parent when the child was born or when the child was conceived? The bodily autonomy argument claims it doesn’t matter when a child is a child because the state doesn’t force giving blood. But the state does force new parents to feed newborns every few hours, a task much more onerous than giving blood. The question of what is inside the womb remains the primary question for whether parents may be held responsible by the state.
The state also legislates many chemicals which I may or may not put in my body at various quantities, especially if I am intending to operate machinery. My bodily autonomy is severely limited when I drive. My blood alcohol level must not transgress a certain point. I am required to wear a seat belt. In some states, my hands must be free when I drive. In some states, my dog may not be in the front seat. These laws recognize that what I do when driving could impact and destroy another life. When my responsibility for other lives rises, the law restricts my bodily autonomy. Consider how much of her bodily autonomy a soldier gives up in direct connection to the responsibility she has taken up for her fellow citizens.
The old saw is that my bodily autonomy ends at the tip of your nose. If I want to get drunk, I don’t also get to put you in increased danger of having an airbag slam into your nose. In the case of a woman wanting to terminate a healthy pregnancy, the victim’s nose (and entire body) had no choice which womb to be implanted into (if you’re wondering, the tip of the nose develops in weeks 7-8 of a pregnancy). The body inside the mother-turned-enemy cannot retreat. The pro-abortion argument is that the creature in the womb has zero bodily autonomy. In most cases, the mother of that being made a choice to engage in an activity which created that life. So why does the one who made the choices that led to pregnancy get bodily autonomy rights while the trapped creature, with no choice in the matter, has absolutely no bodily autonomy rights?
Following that question, I expect at least one pro-abortion proponent will want to bring up the instances in which the mother had no choice. What about rape? This is why very few people like talking about these topics. Rape is horrific. It is hard enough to talk about terminating a pregnancy by itself. Now add one traumatic situation on top of another. Before going on, let us stop, take a moment and pray, “Lord, have mercy. God of the widow and the orphan, preserve all those going through unplanned pregnancies, rape, and abuse. Rescue them! Give them strength, peace, and hope.”
While some women have carried the product of their rapes to term and felt blessed that something very good came out of something very evil, there are others who feel that kind of pregnancy as an oppressive burden. I think it would be better for society if pregnancy terminations after rape were not politicized. If I am counselling a pregnant rape victim, I will encourage embracing the unborn life. The unborn life has also been hurt by the way in which she was conceived. That child is someone whom the hurting mother can help at just the time she may feel powerless. That labor of love may come to feel empowering, for the work women do in pregnancy and labor is awesome work.
I think she is less likely to feel empowered if the state has mandated she carries that child no matter how she feels about it. The act of choosing nurture and love would be healing. Forced labor of carrying that child may feel just the opposite. Meanwhile, very few Americans believe abortion should be illegal in cases of rape or when the mother’s life is endangered. Why politicize those cases, then? I am certain there are those who will want to advocate for the unborn with no exceptions; there are also those for whom this subject touches personally on what statistically are more exceptional situations. We should listen respectfully to both. The political gamesmanship—on either side—should steer away from this ground out of respect, acknowledging these exceptions are politically popular and do not represent a large percentage of abortions performed.
There is also an ugly argument going around that assumes anyone who is pro-life does not know that D&Cs are prescribed in cases of ectopic pregnancies and some miscarriages to save the mother’s life. The assumption of ignorance is most often false. Miscarriage is a lot more common than many people recognize. That slanderous argument is offensive to more people than someone casually reposting it probably realizes.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of people on both sides right now saying many things about abortion that lack consideration. We aren’t changing hearts or minds by assuming only one side doesn’t know things. Having a D&C to clear the womb when miscarriage is occurring is not the same thing meant by most people when they talk about “abortion” as an intentional choice to terminate a healthy pregnancy. If there is poorly crafted legislation on any state books that outlaws removing a lifeless fetus, I am confident pro-life leaders will want to be a part of correcting that. I expect pro-choice leaders would also want to correct that legislation rather than risking lives to score political points. Wouldn’t it be good if opposing parties could come together where their goals coincide? Won’t it be even better if we don’t find any of these poorly crafted laws?
What Is in a Pregnant Womb?
Hopefully, answering a few hard exceptions will allow us to focus on the question central to the majority of cases. When a pregnancy is proceeding healthily, it is undebatable that a unique human life is developing. Embryology texts affirm human life begins at fertilization. The fertilized egg is “alive,” growing, developing in an orderly manner, cells reproducing, etc. The life is “human” because its DNA literally names it so.
Heart activity is detectable by ten weeks. Internal organs like kidneys begin to work (yes, processing the fetus’s own urine) by twelve weeks. By four months the body senses itself in space and makes intricate maneuvers. Should one of these capabilities define a “person”? We are tempted to say that brain activity, or thinking, may be the answer, but the human brain does not stop developing until we are over twenty years old. Brain development does not wait long to begin; we can see the cerebral cortex by week six. How much thinking makes us human? Am I less human before my first cup of coffee?
For many people, the preference is to be like the Levite in Jesus’ parable who crosses the road, avoiding the body on the other side. Not knowing the details makes it easier to ignore responsibility. We want to be able to say “clump of cells” without actually seeing the development of a child in the womb. Before birth, that child will be able to distinguish the various voices of family members outside the womb. Human relationships crossing the barrier of the womb start before birth. “Clump of cells” is an accurate description for so short a time that hardly anyone knows they are pregnant before that description has passed being appropriate.
As a Christian pastor, I could cite additional Scriptural evidence. Luke describes John the Baptist leaping in the womb at the voice of pregnant Mary (Luke 1:41-44). Having spent years reading Scripture, I am not surprised that the groups whom societies tend to marginalize are regularly uplifted and humanized in the Bible. Behind the social movements that worked for universal education and abolition of slavery and equal rights, you will find people motivated by the Bible. While we are motivated by the Bible to see the image of God in every human being, we are also happy to let legal questions be decided by scientific evidence.
Who Is Degraded?
In the Narrative of Frederick Douglass, the Christian believer and former slave shows how the institution of slavery not only degraded the slave but also the slaveowner. Becoming “the master” meant treating people in ways they would never consider treating people who looked like themselves. It meant closing your eyes to human dignity. Douglass’ point was that a free republic composed of diverse tribes has an interest in upholding the dignity of every human being. When the state allows one group of human beings to degrade another group, the degradation spreads like gangrene.
Whether a society acts like black lives do not matter and/or unborn lives do not matter, that callousness has an impact on all relationships. This state interest is the reverse image of what we discussed above about Christian morality. Where I see another’s human dignity and treat them with respect, we are both enlarged. Where I am turned in on myself against another human being, that inversion is as slow as a turtle coming out of its shell, affecting other human beings beyond just the unprotected class. Pro-abortion protesters holding signs that say, for example, “Abort Kavanagh” (one of the Supreme Court justices who voted to strike down Roe) illustrate Douglass’ point. How does the pro-abortion protester not recognize the sign calls for the execution of a life, showing what “abort” really means?
Equal and Opposite Reactions
While that is true, Christian preachers also recognize one effect of the law which does not bring about the result it calls for. In Romans 7:8, the Apostle Paul describes how commandments and laws can actually cause the very behavior they try to restrict. “Sin,” Paul described from personal experience, “seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness.” In other words, if I tell you, “Don’t turn the news on right now, you don’t want to see what’s happening,” you will be awfully tempted to turn on the news. Theologians call our natural rebelliousness “original sin.” The musical Hamilton applies this politically in a Cabinet Battle line: “Look, when Britain taxed our tea, we got frisky / Imagine what gon’ happen when you try to tax our whisky.”
The musical reference is to a years-running rebellion against George Washington’s government (see Whisky Rebellion). Laws only curb injustice when the punishment is sufficiently strong and unavoidable as to change behavior by fear or pride. When a law lacks teeth, and/or a law’s subjects do not believe the law is just, it may end up having the opposite effect of spurring on bad behavior (see Prohibition).
In the case of the unborn human being, the best result is for both the child’s mother and father to recognize her humanity and love her. States and voters must ask, “Are there laws we can pass which will aid in accomplishing this goal?” Some Christians will determine that in the case of human life, prohibition is just and necessary. Some may wish for more moderate restrictions on abortion, perhaps similar to what is seen in Europe, where abortion is regularly restricted in the same timeframe Mississippi attempted in the Dobbs case. A depoliticization of abortion could give churches more space for working family by family to foster love. Others think we won’t be able to depoliticize abortion at this point. Still others hold Libertarian perspectives that keeping the church out of legislation frees the church to preach a higher ethic on all sexual matters without nearly so much entrenched political pushback. Another perspective would hope for the government to answer much of the misleading propaganda on the subject with surgeon general style warnings. Some of those perspectives are wrong, but as a pastor, I am less qualified to see and say which is wrong.
Do Pro-Life Laws Establish Religion?
Polls note that Christians are more likely to be pro-life. Does that mean that pro-life laws are religious laws?
The case for recognizing a fetus as a human life is not exclusively Christian or religious. While the Bible also speaks of the unborn as loved and valued by God, widespread pro-life recognition bloomed when ultrasounds and embryology gave us more understanding of what happens in the womb during pregnancy. Christians were convinced by the science.
Recognition is different from evaluation. It is specifically Christian to value human lives who are seen as economically or socially burdensome. “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ,” Paul wrote (Gal. 6:2).
Also, the Christian practice of repentance for forgiveness aids open-minded confession of past sins, believing we can and are released from guilt. If you are a father who pressured a woman you once loved to end the life of your and her child, I expect this is a moral weight hard to bear. Wouldn’t such fathers-turned-enemy be motivated to deny the possibility of human life being hidden in the womb? For each of the nearly one million abortions per year, how many multiples of people were part of that chorus who told the mother, “You can’t raise a child right now”?
Christians, on the other hand, believe each life is planned by God. It is part of our fundamental view of the world that where life has been given, we are also given the ability to bless and be blessed by that life. That encourages us to be divergent voices saying, “You can do this.”
Again, I know Christians have not and do not follow through consistently on these beliefs. I confess I fail to follow through on beliefs I preach. When I preach, I preach also to myself. These beliefs, nevertheless, encourage self-reflection, repentance, and restitution.
Along these lines, I can understand why pro-life laws can be seen as Christian. I know some non-Christian pro-life voices who are likely motivated to answer more strongly than I am. For my part, I’d rather say what every Christian pastor should say. If you regret choices you’ve made in regard to unborn life, I don’t want you to live in guilt or shame for that or anything else. Your mistakes and missteps are forgiven in Christ Jesus. We believe Jesus took one of the ultimate moments of dehumanization—Roman crucifixion—and made it a life-affirming, forgiving event for all the world (John 3:16). All things can be turned to good in your life. I’d like to say so much more along these lines, so if you have any questions, please follow up with me.
The unborn being is a human child. Jesus’ church ought to consistently discourage abortion and look to the blessings of taking on one another’s burdens. Advocacy for the unborn should remind us to remove logs in our own eyes in regard to others whom we are tempted to overlook. At the same time, members of Christian churches may disagree on the place of a nation’s or state’s laws in restricting abortion. While we foster agreement that the being in the womb is a child loved by God, we may disagree on the best way to protect the large numbers of at-risk children. The disagreement will center on perspectives about the limitations of what states can accomplish and how great is the impact of codifying discrimination. Christians should not expect religious or secular perspectives that value commerce over human life to share our advocacy, but that does not mean the logic of our advocacy is inherently religious. We are motivated to advocate for life because we believe Jesus advocates for us, for our neighbors, for you, for all He created and has redeemed.
Michael Salemink A Biblical Response to Abortion
Diane E. Shroeder The Soul Wound of Abortion
Francis Beckwith Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Rights
Abby Johnson Unplanned
Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen Embryo: A Defense of Human Life