“What is the truth, and where did it go?”
~ Bob Dylan, “Murder Most Foul”
That the the leak in the Supreme Court regarding Roe v. Wade happened the same week that Mothers Day was being celebrated is just the latest example of the ironies and contradictions surrounding this whole issue. Here are a few others:
~ Pro-Lifers tend to be far less concerned about the environment and global warming
~ Pro-Choicers tend to identify as vegan/vegetarian who favor more stringent animal protections
~ Pro-Lifers tend to favor capital punishment
~ Pro-Choicers tend to favor more restrictive gun laws
Here's one more: I believe that life begins at conception, and that Roe v. Wade should not be overturned.
In a nutshell, I am convinced that we should do all we can to protect both the life of the baby in utero as well the mother’s life, and that if a mother’s life is in danger, it should be preserved at all costs, even at the cost of the child. But simply overturning Roe v. Wade may very well do more damage to the cause of saving lives, both in utero and out. And for reasons I’ll state below, I fear that overturning this “super precedent” may, in the end, lead to more liberal policies regarding abortions, which may result in more, not fewer, abortions.
I am Pro-Life in the sense that I believe that God, as Creator, is "pro living things" and that, for this reason and because we are created in his image, we are called to favor life over death in all areas of concern, with very few exceptions. Such a view necessarily affects my position on capital punishment, euthanasia, animal rights, the environment, and war. Senator Mark Hatfield, former Republican senator from Oregon, was a proponent of what he termed the "Radical Life" position (not to be confused with "radical life extension"), where the preference of life over death at every stage of development becomes the operative concern. Obviously, there is also the crucial concern of quality of life, but such a concern is not adjudicated through the means of ending such a life or, for that matter, artificially extending it (again, there are individual exceptions to this).
But I also resist the "Pro-Life" label because the term itself is divisive, as it leads with the implication that those on the other side are self-consciously “Pro-Death.” Perhaps some are, but I’ve never met such a person. Equally problematic, though, is the term “Pro-Choice,” and for much the same reasons -- as if those who oppose abortion rights necessarily oppose all women’s rights. Again, this is not true. I believe that abortion involves more than just one person’s choice; that someone else is involved whose life should be measured before it is ended, and that because this life cannot speak for itself, we who can are obliged to do so. I also believe that a father should have an opinion in the matter -- at least one would hope so, given his indispensable role in the equation. But let me back up.
Trying to get my mind around the issue of abortion rights, uniquely brought to life (so to speak) in the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, is hard enough, but to put those thoughts in some kind of succinct way seems almost futile, like peeling back an onion: once you’ve begun, you wonder why you’re doing it in the first place. The issue of abortion runs the risk of being drowned out by so many charged words and cliches, so many qualifications and entrenched assumptions – so many layers – that you’re likely to lose your audience before you’ve even really begun. Then there’s the “no uterus, no opinion” idea that tells me that I, as a man, have no right to speak of such things. But to go down that rabbit hole would silence all manner of discourse and claims, including the 1973 majority opinion in Roe v. Wade.
What you believe about the life inside a pregnant woman’s uterus will have a lot (for some, everything) to say about where you end up in Roe v. Wade. If you believe that what lies in a woman’s uterus during pregnancy is a person, then you’ll likely (though not always) side with those who oppose abortion as a form of birth control. If, on the other hand, you believe that what lies in a woman’s uterus during pregnancy is just a clump of cells, then you’ll likely (though not always) side with those who support some form of “unrestricted reproductive freedom.” The issue comes down to the notion of "personhood," at least from a political perspective, beyond which lie 50 shades of gray.
There is also the crucial issue of the biological uniqueness of the female body, which, among other things, was created to gestate and nurture the life of an unborn child. Because this function is intrinsic to a woman's biology, the issue of abortion is uniquely related to women and their bodies, though not exclusively so. Men, too, by dint of their biology, must be involved, either directly through the sexual act or indirectly through artificial insemination. Either way, though, the intimate connection between an unborn child and its mother is a fundamental element in this complicated equation and, from my perspective at least, makes it all the more tragic. Not only have women been separated from their own biologies by one of the the central tenets of the women's liberation movement, which confused similarity with equality, but now they have been separated from their own progeny by the central aim of the Pro-Choice movement, which pits a mother against her own child in the name of freedom.
Roe v. Wade was, technically considered, a judicial decision involving a political issue relating to a Texas law, and it centered around one essential Constitutional question, namely whether “the Constitution of the United States protects a pregnant woman's liberty to choose to have an abortion without excessive government restriction.” It says close to nothing about the moral consequences of such a decision, nor the theological implications of that decision, nor the social impact of the decision. It makes no final determination, in fact, regarding abortion as such, because the decision is concerned only with its own interpretation of the Constitution. The actual text of the majority decision says as much:
A. The appellee and certain amici argue that the fetus is a 'person' within the language and meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment. In support of this, they outline at length and in detail the well-known facts of fetal development. If this suggestion of personhood is established, the appellant's case, of course, collapses, for the fetus' right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the Amendment (bold mine).
All this, together with our observation, supra, that throughout the major portion of the 19th century prevailing legal abortion practices were far freer than they are today, persuades us that the word 'person,' as used in the Fourteenth Amendment, does not include the unborn (bold mine).
We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man's knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer (bold mine).
By the Supreme Court’s own admission, then, Roe v. Wade neither forecloses any future discussion about this issue nor does it presume to settle the matter once and for all. And I’m fairly sure the original framers of the Constitution were not thinking of the unborn when they were referring to “Persons” – indeed, they didn’t think that blacks were fully people. To that end, then, the majority decision may have interpreted the Constitution correctly, but this fact has no bearings on my view of abortion per se.
And this is precisely the point where I separate the issue of abortion from the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade. There is more than a Constitutional issue at play here, as there is for any Christian who understands that their primary citizenship, and thus their primary allegiance, lies with the Kingdom of God and not with the United States of America. Which isn’t to say that Christians shouldn’t care about the Constitution. On the contrary, we should care a lot about supporting the rule of law (Romans 12 comes to mind here), but we should also not hold any secular law to be absolutely binding, as there are matters of conscience that supersede Constitutional mandates. I can think of few off the top of my head, including the right of women to have an equal vote and the full inclusion of all people in all matters and manners of society, regardless of skin color.
I can imagine the same dynamic was in play for black slaves and abolitionists, who didn’t care that the Constitution essentially stated that blacks were only 3/5 a person. They were interested, as I am (and as any thoughtful Christian should be) in the deeper truth of things, which isn’t fully contained by the Constitution and never will be.
If we look to the biblical witness for guidance regarding abortion, things come up a little differently, and it's for this reason that I have a difficult time seeing how a thoughtful Christian can support abortion rights without contradicting the biblical witness in much the same way that I have a difficult time seeing how a thoughtful Christian can support capital punishment without contradicting the biblical witness. To begin with, both issues – abortion and capital punishment – are directly related to the life and death of Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew begins immediately with Jesus’ genealogy, while Luke's Gospel brings it up in the context of Jesus' baptism, but both genealogies point to the same essential idea, made explicit in Paul’s famous Mars Hill sermon in Acts 17, that a person’s life begins not with the person himself but with the line of descendants before him. This is how Paul puts it:
The God who made the world and everything that is in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made by hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; and He made from one person every nation of humankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might feel around for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being (existence), as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His descendants.’
Paul didn’t pull this idea out of thin air. It is a controlling theme in the Jewish scriptures where we read, for instance, in Psalm 139 how the writer is awestruck in his praise of God, saying, “Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.” We read in Jeremiah about his call to be a prophet, where the Lord says, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.”
These and other passages in the Old Testament are meant to suggest, not just metaphorically but literally, how God has appointed each of our lives before we were formed in our mothers’ wombs (which might imply before conception, thus lending support to the Roman Catholic prohibition of contraception) and has consecrated our lives with a purpose, which is a truth that remains a great mystery and can be made possible only by a God who stands outside of time. We are, of course, “free” to forsake his purposes and even end the very lives of those he has formed, but it cannot be denied that the truth of God’s purposes for the unborn lies at the heart of this debate, theologically considered.
The first chapter of Luke’s Gospel is essentially an extended meditation on the importance of life in utero and, indeed, even pre utero. We are told that the baby that Elizabeth will carry, “even before his birth, will be filled with the Holy Spirit.” This appears to be an exceptional case, as evidenced by the qualifier “even” (ἔτι in the Greek), but it’s the exception that seems to prove the larger rule (as the previous Old Testament passages seemed to indicate) about God’s involvement in a person’s life before they are born. Luke says that “immediately” after she became pregnant, Mary went to see Elizabeth, and Elizabeth refers to the (most likely embryonic) baby in Mary’s uterus as “My Lord,” pointing to the unborn baby’s status as a creation of God. And, of course, there are already indications of Jesus being worshipped, not only by Elizabeth, but by the unborn John inside her.
Which brings me to another set of considerations that cannot be overlooked as they relate to a Christian’s response to abortion. When we speak of abortion, we cannot blindly accept the terms of the debate as they have been established by popular culture, laden as they are with presuppositions. To do so would be to concede defeat before we’ve even arrived at the podium. Phrases like “reproductive freedom,” as well as the monikers “Pro Life” and “Pro Choice,” are freighted with contested histories and intransigent assumptions. The idea, for example, that a woman's choice is the only important consideration when it comes to abortion is to spin the argument before it's been made, as if the right of one person's choice is more fundamental than another person's life.
The language of “rights,” in fact, is preoccupied with legal and civic assumptions, which form the basis for morality in liberal societies (as de Tocqueville reminded us) but do not exhaust the totality of life. Indeed, the entire debate in Roe v. Wade centers around privacy issues, which in turn center around issues of one’s rights in a political society. But Christians don’t find the basis for morality in the language of “rights” at all. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not inalienable rights in Scripture. They are gifts given to us by God, and human beings do not find their individual or collective worth in some intrinsic sacredness, which the Political Right likes to propagate, but only in our having been created imago Dei. The notion on the Political Left of “my body, my choice” is also completely antithetical to a Christian perspective, which is why we have suicide hotlines, precisely because we do not believe that people can do whatever they want with their bodies. Increasingly, of course, this basic idea, fundamental to all liberal societies, is being challenged at its core. Privacy and the right to “choice” are usurping even the “right” to one’s biology, not to mention one’s life. But Christians are to be preoccupied, instead, by caring for “the least of these,” for the orphan and the widow, for the disenfranchised, for the unborn.
Christians are to be animated by an other-worldly view of life, one that finds its origin, meaning, and true end in the Triune God and in the witness of Scripture and the teachings of the Church. Such a claim, of course, is supposed to look foolish to the world, but then, so is a faith in a God we cannot prove.
I also agree with those who argue that abortion is no longer, nor has it really ever been, solely an issue that falls neatly into the categories of “moral theology” or “sexual ethics.” It is, at the end of the day, also an issue of public health and of politics, and it affects people outside the penumbra of religious considerations, which is where our earthly citizenship takes hold, and why I do not believe that Roe v. Wade should be overturned. We should continue as the church to change people’s minds and hearts about abortion, but we cannot do this by simply overturning a largely accepted law. As I’ve said earlier, this runs the risk of accelerating public opinion in favor of abortion.
In the end, the official definition of abortion (from the Oxford dictionary) essentially says it all:
1. to end a pregnancy early in order to prevent a baby from developing and being born alive.
2. to end or cause something to end before it has been completed, especially because it is likely to fail.
The very term "abortion" acknowledges the fundamental truth that something is being ended prematurely. From a purely philosophical position, the intrinsic value of a child in untero is its entelechy, or the trajectory it is on, which is bound up in its very being. In other words, if we allowed the living being inside his or her mother (or should I say "host"?) to take its natural course, the odds are overwhelming that s/he would be born a healthy child. But even if the child is not healthy does not detract in any way from the fact of its being created in the imago Dei. I recommend Flannery O'Connor's Preface in A Memoir of Mary Ann, or her last novel, The Violent Bear It Away as extended meditations on the value and worth of deformed or disabled children. There is the very real chance that my own son, who has autism, would have been aborted had he had other parents.
In any case, after the birth of a child, it is up to the mother and father and grandparents and church and larger community to help raise that child to have a meaningful, productive, and vital life. From a Christian perspective, then, this makes the issue of abortion a very eschatological concern, which involves the whole dynamic of the "now-but-not-yet," central to much classical Christian theology, and embodied in something as simple as an acorn. Or fetus.
But to get back to the literal definition of abortion, perhaps one of the deeper truths at play here is how an abortion is as much a reflection of our fear of failing the child as it is that the child, by even showing up in the first place, has somehow failed us.