Up front, let me say this clearly as I can: this is not a pro-abortion essay. Every pregnancy should result in the birth of a healthy baby to committed parents who joyfully respond to God’s call to raise a child.
But that doesn’t always happen.
Many evangelical Christians, most with the noblest of intentions, have for decades argued that the linchpin of a just and equitable society is the elimination of the practice of abortion. Supporters call themselves “pro-life” – a winsome term with obvious rhetorical power – and in exemplary evangelical fashion, they bolster their arguments with plenty of Scripture that emphatically teaches the inherent value of all life.
But somewhere along the way, “pro-life” became a political rallying cry – codespeak if you will, used almost exclusively to marshal support for the Republican party, and has arguably become the ultimate wedge issue for evangelical Christians in America. Mere mention of the word now incites heated reactions from my evangelical brother and sisters, who seem to have jettisoned empathy and prayer in favor of political indignation.
I am not pro-life. No, not because I delight in the termination of a pregnancy or because I believe freedom of individual choice trumps all other arguments. I’m not pro-life because I believe the movement has put ideology and political gain ahead of prayerful, earnest resistance against all the manifestations of evil in our world.
Pro-life is too narrowly focused
First, pro-life Christians have a bad habit of using abortion as a ’litmus test’ political issue to divide people into two diametrically-opposed groups: those who value life and those who don’t. Sometimes abortion is used to determine whether or not somebody is even a Christian at all. I certainly don’t begrudge anyone for voting their conscience, but I do have a problem with gross oversimplification, whether that means evaluating someone’s character based on a single decision or collapsing a complex policy discussion into a single binary issue.
Yes, abortion is an important issue – I’ll even grant that it’s a “life and death” issue. But it’s not the only issue Christians should be concerned about. We live in a profoundly unjust world that faces an overwhelming number of serious “life and death” issues:
- 13.1 million children in the United States live in food-insecure homes
- 15 children die every hour from the measles worldwide, an illness preventable with a safe and widely-available vaccine
- scores of children die from gun violence every year
- millions of people are slowing being poisoned in their own homes by municipal water systems
- under-performing schools and astronomical student loan debt threaten to cripple families for generations to come
- millions of Americans live in poverty while working for corporations that have a zero (or negative) effective tax rate
- modern-day slavery continues to exploit men, women, and children by the thousands
- hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians have died in ongoing civil war, while those who flee to safety are met with fear and more hostility
- the number of drug overdose deaths continues to rise every year, including heroin overdose deaths, which have grown exponentially in the past 10 years
- systemic racism is undeniably real – even according to conservative journalists
But my pro-life evangelical brothers and sisters usually demote these issues to second-tier status, assuming they don’t deserve the same outrage as abortion does. In fact, those of us who dare to speak out on these other issues often get shouted down with derisive terms like “liberal”, “socialist”, “feminist”, “disrespectful”, “disloyal”, even “un-Christian”.
We have a duty as citizens – but more importantly as Christians – to think critically about all the issues in our world, and to appoint leaders who will enact policies that get us closer to a just, peaceful, and equitable society. Yes, abortion is an important issue. But it’s not the only important issue.
Pro-life is too simplistic
Secondly, the goals espoused by the pro-life movement do not address the root problems that cause unplanned pregnancies in the first place. Although many evangelicals assume that a legal ban on abortion will “fix” the problem, overturning a narrow class of state and federal laws will do little to promote a more just world.
First of all, making abortion illegal cannot realistically prevent abortions from happening. Women have been terminating pregnancies for centuries, long before the advent of modern medicine. Similarly, there will always be a black market for back alley abortions: those with financial means will always be able to find trained medical professionals to administer the procedure, while poorer women will use whatever home remedies they have available. Some studies even suggest that the legal status of abortion may actually have little effect on how many abortions actually occur.
So there’s a deeper problem here, one that can’t be solved by legislation alone. Other legal maneuvers don’t offer much promise either – for instance, we learned during the last election cycle there’s little public appetite for holding women criminally responsible for seeking an abortion.
In any case, such a strident focus on a legal solution is unusual for evangelicals who have long loved the phrase, “You can’t legislate morality,” especially when used to support a range of other conservative political ideas (after all, every social ill is just a sin problem, right?). While there’s certainly merit in the theology behind this principle, it should be applied to all social problems equally, with the understanding that the number of abortions – and more importantly, the reasons women seek abortions in the first place – cannot be ameliorated by legislation alone.
Instead, a truly comprehensive pro-life strategy should begin by acknowledging abortion always takes place in the context of inequality. Abortion is, at least in part, a protest – a woman’s rebellion against a man’s (sometimes violent) sexual escapades or a staunch refusal to get trapped in poverty by raising a child in an economic climate already stacked against her. Sometimes abortion is a capitulation to a man’s coercive attempt to sidestep his responsibility to his unborn child. Whatever the reason, abortion has to be first understood as a response, a defiant (or defensive) reaction to social factors that existed long before the pregnancy began. Abortion is often a last resort for someone with few viable alternatives, but banning abortion would do very little to empower women, confront our nation’s rape culture, or correct our society’s deep-seated economic inequalities. We need deep social change – and yes, deep heart-change, too.
Pro-life takes the easy way out
This leads me to my main objection against the pro-life movement: most of the tactics of evangelical Christians focus too narrowly on political solutions while overlooking the messy, Christ-like work of caring for women who face unplanned pregnancies (not to deny, however, that choosing a Jesus-centered lifestyle is a decidedly political act in and of itself).
The abortion debate is too far removed from the struggles of raising children without family support or the opportunity to earn a living wage. Pro-life politicians and pastors rarely (if ever!) face the same struggles as a 22 year old sophomore living off student loans or a 17 year old inner-city drug addict who gets raped by the neighborhood bully.
Sure, it’s easy to write angry letters and run for political office. But a Christian response to abortion should mean standing in solidarity with those who feel like abortion is their only option. Relational, self-sacrificial, in-the-trenches, arms-wide-open love must precede our political maneuvering, marches, and boycotts.
Historically, Christians have done their best work “from below”, in the trenches alongside those who most urgently need to experience the life-transforming love of Jesus firsthand. So here are some ideas (none of them are new) about what we can do instead of waging ideological wars against one another:
- Adopt a child. Adoption is frequently cited as an alternative to abortion, but too few Christians seem willing to put their money where their mouths are. There are 100,000 children in foster care who need a loving home, and many of them age out of the system every year. Until the adoption pipeline is empty and every parentless child has a home, we simply cannot, in good conscience, promote adoption as a one-size-fits-all alternative to abortion.
- Invest in robust family planning, fostering and adoption services, especially in poor communities. No, throwing money at some nonprofit doesn’t count. Do this on a local, personal level. Carve out a major chunk of your church budget to do this work. Spend more on this than your pastor’s salary.
- Provide low-cost child care for underprivileged mothers. Literally, open a daycare center at your church and build a reputation as a warm, loving congregation that openly welcomes poor working mothers. Think about it – if a young couple is confident in your willingness to care for their baby while they work their minimum wage jobs, they just might rethink an abortion.
- Mentor, mentor, mentor. Become a Big Brother or Big Sister, or team up with other local agencies to get involved in the life of young person who may one day be faced with tough life-and-death choices. But if you do this, remember you’re not there to “fix” anyone. You’re there to provide support, and to learn from someone who faces a different set of life circumstances than you do.
- Get real about sex ed. As a matter of public policy, abstinence-only sex education strategies do not work. They don’t prevent STIs or pregnancies, and more importantly, they leave scores of young people with deep emotional and spiritual scars after they go too far with their high school sweethearts. Don’t just preach “sex is bad” – instead, equip young hearts with tools they need to make responsible decisions.
Do you dream of a world where every pregnancy results in the birth of a healthy baby to a loving family? My evangelical brothers and sisters, we can continue arguing about legislation and ideology, or we can embrace a posture that is genuinely life-affirming and life-giving. If pro-life is the way of Jesus, then let’s approach this issue like Jesus would.
[Note: Part 2, where I bring Scripture into the conversation, can be found by clicking here.]