A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Having a Deeper Conversation on Abortion

My friend, Michael Gorman invites Christians into a deeper and more theologically anchored conversation on abortion. I have said for many years that the pro-choice/pro-life arguments are not intellectually rigorous nor are they theologically compelling. If we want to think seriously as Christians about abortion (and other issues) we cannot simply parrot the arguments given to us by the wider culture. Christians have a rich theological vocabulary at our disposal. We do not have to accept the moral framework given to us by the modern and incoherent left/right, liberal(progressive)/conservative continuum. I commend his comments that follow for your consideration. I post this with his permission.
It is probably dangerous as well as difficult to address a complex and controversial matter such as abortion on FB. (But fools rush in….) So I do so with some hesitation, even though I have written about the subject many times. (See especially my book *Abortion and the Early Church*.) The purpose of this (long) post is not to critique or endorse a particular statute or Supreme Court decision, much less a particular legal argument (such as that of Justice Alito). Rather, the point of this post is to encourage fellow Christians (and other interested people of good will with an open mind) who identify as pro-choice, or pro-life, or both to think a bit more deeply, and a bit differently, about the matter. I think point #3 is perhaps the most important, specifically the word “neighbor.” If you care to respond, please do so in a civil manner. (I cannot promise I will respond to all comments.)

1. *Won’t abortion always be with us?* While it is true that there always has been and always will be abortion, that reality should not be determinative for our response to it. “You always have the poor with you,” said Jesus (John 12:8), but that saying does not permit us to condone poverty or ignore the poor. Rather, we should work to address the root causes of poverty, to care for the poor in our midst, and so on. So too with abortion.

2. *Don’t women have the right to do what they want with their own body?* The popular claim about bodily autonomy, expressed in phrases like “my body, my choice,” is fundamentally an unchristian position. For Christians, our bodies are not our own, as Saint Paul says specifically in relation to matters of human sexuality (1 Cor 6:12-20). The modern/postmodern idol of complete freedom and choice is part of the mentality of this world/age/culture that Paul challenges us to challenge (Rom 12:1-2) because it is not freedom, but slavery.

3. *When and why should an embryo or fetus be treated like an actual human being?* The question of when a developing human life truly becomes a human being or a person deserving of protection is not a new issue; answers have ranged from conception to two-years-old. Perhaps the greatest contribution of the early church to the subject of abortion and infanticide was to declare that newborn and unborn children are our *neighbors*. They are to be loved just as the poor, the outcast, widows, orphans, and pregnant women are to be loved as neighbors. This perspective and practice was completely at odds with most of the pagan Roman culture, in which abortion, exposure of newborns who were deemed unwanted or “deformed” or perhaps the wrong gender (i.e., female), and infanticide were all practiced and legitimized by a variety of arguments. At the heart of these Roman practices was a belief that should sound familiar: the unborn and newborn were not persons or neighbors but appendages or possessions that could be abandoned or destroyed, basically at will, by those with more power.

4. *But if the Old Testament seems to imply that life begins at birth, and the New Testament does not mention abortion, why did the early Christians oppose it?* The early Christian opposition to abortion and infanticide was in line with Jewish perspectives of the day. The Old Testament speaks only of *accidental* abortion (miscarriage) when two men fight (Exodus 21:22–25). There is no approval of non-therapeutic abortion in ancient Jewish literature. Among Jewish authorities there was debate about when the unborn received a soul and about the legal status of the unborn but, apart from saving the mother’s life, Jews did not follow their pagan neighbors in advocating for or practicing abortion.

The earliest Christians who left evidence (as early as the late first or early second century) were no doubt motivated to maintain and expand this basic Jewish attitude to unborn and newborn children by the birth narratives preserved in the Gospels. Since Mary’s pregnancy was both unintended and took place while she was not married, outside of Jewish culture Jesus would have been a candidate for abortion. Luke tells us that Jesus was active in the womb of Mary, while Matthew narrates the attempt to kill the newborn Jesus. It was—and still should be—difficult to believe in an incarnate God who is remembered for his activity in utero, and who escaped both abortion and infanticide, and still adopt the reigning culture’s attitudes toward, and practices of, such things.

5. *Does being anti-abortion make one pro-life?* Not necessarily. The inspired genius of the early church was to be consistently pro-life, rejecting violence of every sort. (See, for example, *The Early Church on Killing: A Comprehensive Sourcebook on War, Abortion, and Capital Punishment*, edited by Ron Sider.) Today, such a womb-to-tomb ethic of life and peace (shalom) is known as the “seamless garment” ethic or the “consistent life” ethic. People who call themselves pro-life cannot be just anti-abortion. They (we) must work for the well-being of pregnant women, new mothers, children in poverty, and more—that is, for all humanity and indeed for all creation.

6. *So what would all this mean legally?* Although I am not espousing a particular legal position, it does seem to me that it is inconsistent to say that the unborn child is our neighbor and at the same time to support laws that offer no protection of that neighbor. It is in some ways (not all) similar to the situation involving slaves, whether ancient or more modern. If slaves are not persons but property, there is no reason to question the legality of slavery. However, in retrospect we now know (at least most of us know) that view of slaves was and is horribly wrong. I suspect that, one day, even though abortions will never end, just as slavery will never end, most of humanity will look back at periods in which abortion was touted as an inalienable right and recognize the error of that perspective—just as most people realize the error of slavery. At the same time, as 1 Peter implies, the transformation must begin with “the household of God.”

7. *So what should Christians do to be truly pro-life and not just anti-abortion?* A truly pro-life position will provide concrete short-term and long-term support for those who choose life—even more than is currently done. Such support will involve great changes in the way the church functions and in the way Christians back governmental and nonprofit programs. A truly pro-life position will not be advocating for unfettered gun rights while decrying unfettered abortion rights—or vice versa. A truly pro-life position will also be one in which those who make misguided decisions out of desperation will be treated with compassion and true Christian care. And in both the church and the wider society, a truly pro-life position will expect men to take moral and financial responsibility for their actions. 

We live in a culture that idolizes irresponsible notions of freedom. We live in a culture of violence, an “interlocking directorate of death” from abortion to guns to the death penalty to war, as Daniel Berrigan said. We obviously do not live in a culture that is even remotely pro-life in the broad sense of this term. Although there are some Christians and churches trying to embody a holistic pro-life vision, the Christian community as a whole, at least from my vantage point, is not doing much better than the culture we inhabit.  We are divided and inconsistent.

The conversion that is necessary to protect human life in the womb also requires a commitment to protect human life on this side of the womb. To paraphrase 1 John, how can we say we love the unborn whom we have not seen, if we do not love the already born whom we have seen? At the same time, how can we worship the God who came to us in the womb of Mary without treating the unborn child as our neighbor?

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