Thinking About Abortion
By Thomas Lambrecht
“As of today, I am responsible for 18,617 abortions.”
Those were the words on a note handed to my friend, the Rev. Dr. Carolyn Moore, pastor of Mosaic Church in Evans, Georgia. It was from a young woman who was desperately seeking counsel. “For three years, she’d been working in an abortion clinic, rising in the ranks to the place of managing several clinics in Georgia for an owner in Tennessee,” wrote Moore. “The day she came to see me, she’d decided she was done and wanted help getting out.”
Carolyn’s congregation was able to help the young woman get in touch with a group that helped her begin a new life. “That job, by her account, nearly destroyed her soul,” observed Moore in a series of articles on her blog.
Abortion continues to divide our national life.
Ever since the Supreme Court Dobbs decision last June determined that the U.S. Constitution does not guarantee the right to abortion, the U.S. has seen a political frenzy aimed at either preserving abortion rights or capitalizing on the new ability to restrict abortions. Political conflicts based on sound bites and power posturing do not help us think as Christians about our approach to abortion.
Because the situation has changed, many more people are paying attention to the question of when or if abortion should be allowed. Polls show that most Americans are in favor of allowing abortion in some circumstances, but not all. At the same time, opinion is deeply divided. Undoubtedly, the same is true in the church.
These discussions are deeply emotional because they affect the lives of real people: women with unintended pregnancies, their partners, and unborn babies. Decisions around abortion are often agonizing and difficult. Conflicting values come into play. Women often feel powerless or without resources to contemplate either abortion or continuing the pregnancy.
“The world is also full of young women who have made life-changing mistakes and who found a short-term solution in a clinic,” observed Moore. “I’ve talked to dozens of those women over the years and have discovered a kind of pain that rests uniquely with someone who holds the shame of a secret.”
We can either turn abortion into a partisan political football, or we can engage in thinking more deeply and discussing abortion from a Christian perspective. Leaving aside the question of what laws should be passed, which gets mired in the political weeds of the moment, what would it mean to have a consistently pro-life ethic regarding abortion – valuing the life and wellbeing of both the mother and the unborn child? The United Methodist statement on abortion offers some important principles that help us get past slogans and address real issues from a nuanced Christian perspective. You can find this statement in our 2016 Book of Discipline, Par. 161K.
The thoughts below highlight the principles in our Social Principles statement. It is my hope that these reflections on them can help foster greater understanding and a thoughtful approach to this difficult ethical issue.
The Sacredness of Human Life
The United Methodist statement begins by enunciating an important principle. “The beginning of life and the ending of life are the God-given boundaries of human existence. … Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion. But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child.”
Human life itself is a gift of God, and the boundaries of human existence – the beginning and ending of life – are set by God, not determined arbitrarily by people. Because human life is a gift of God, it is sacred. That means it is set apart to serve the purposes of God, not to be used, begun, or ended at human whim. This gives us a deep respect for human life characteristic of the Christian worldview. This deep respect extends to the lives of unborn children, as it has since the beginning of the church 2,000 years ago. Scriptures that support this principle include Genesis 1-2, Jeremiah 1:4-5, Luke 2:39-45, and I Corinthians 6:19-20.
The most well-known passage is from the psalmist: “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Psalm 139:13-16).
As Moore puts it, “Clearly, there is a war on life in our world, and it is most certainly a spiritual war. We devalue health in favor of immediate gratification. We devalue lives based on appearance, IQ, gender, or even difference of opinion (do I think someone who doesn’t vote like me or believe like me is as valuable as I am?).
“We forget that the value of every life is one. Every life. Every human body. Every soul.
“This is God’s great design. All life is sacred, and a person who engages in life-creating behavior enters into a sacred process. We are not given license to pick and choose how life happens or which children come into the world. That was never our charge. The alternative, then, is to receive life as a gift in whatever way it happens.”
Crucially, the Social Principles statement recognizes the sacredness of the life and well-being of both mother and unborn child. One should not be set against the other. Both should be cared for. Too often, the pro-life position only focuses on assuring the life of the unborn child, while the pro-choice position only focuses on assuring the well-being of the mother. To be consistently pro-life means to provide for the life of the unborn child, as well as its well-being after birth. It means to provide for the life of the mother and her well-being, both during pregnancy and throughout the childhood of her baby.
Abortion as Birth Control
The statement continues, “We cannot affirm abortion as an acceptable means of birth control, and we unconditionally reject it as a means of gender selection or eugenics.” With nearly one million abortions per year in the United States, it is often regarded as a means of birth control, like the Pill or the use of an IUD. There is a fundamental difference, however, in that abortion ends an already existing life, while other means of birth control generally prevent the conception of a new life. This is why we do not regard abortion as a legitimate means of birth control, since to do so would be to lose our sense of the sacred gift of that unborn child’s life.
Moore reports, “Ironically, today’s Planned Parenthood considers itself an advocate for women’s health. It is ironic because, while it purports to allow women a choice in giving birth, it supports and even promotes a practice that targets and endangers girls. Every day, all over the world, people hit the delete button on a life when they hear these words: ‘It’s a girl.’ … ‘In India, China, and many other parts of the world today, girls are killed, aborted, and abandoned simply because they are girls. The United Nations estimates as many as 200 million girls are missing the world today because of this so-called gendercide.’” As the Social Principles statement maintains, there is absolutely no justification for taking unborn lives for these reasons.
Some regard abortion as a “backup plan” in case of birth-control failure. That takes us into the realm of taking a human life that is already conceived and growing inside the mother because the baby is unwanted, or the mother feels she cannot adequately provide for it (more on this second point later).
In the first century, it was common practice for the Romans to abandon unwanted babies in the forest or field, where they were eaten by predators or died of exposure. Christians lived out their pro-life ethic by rescuing such abandoned children and raising them as their own. Surely, the same logic applies here to abortion. Always with outstretched arms, our role ought to be to rescue children in difficult circumstances.
The Limits of Choice
The popular slogan right now on the pro-choice side is “My Body, My Choice.” Christians should affirm the freedom and responsibility that men and women have to make decisions about what they do with their bodies. That freedom and responsibility begins with the decision to engage in a sexual relationship. Even the most effective birth control is not 100 percent effective. Any time someone engages in a sexual relationship, they should be prepared for the possibility that a child will be created. Taking responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions is a primary marker of adulthood. Both the men and the women who participate in the conception of a child have a responsibility to that child and to each other.
Our current medical understanding of neonatal science unveils a whole new way to view the dependent – and yet independent – relationship between mother and child. For example, an unborn child has a different genetic makeup from its mother and is a distinct human life. It is not the same thing as having a kidney removed.
“The pro-life message has been, for the last 40-something years, that the fetus … is a life, and it is a human life worthy of all the rights the rest of us have,” young mother Ashley McGuire told The Atlantic magazine last year. “That’s been more of an abstract concept until the last decade or so.” But, she added, “when you’re seeing a baby sucking its thumb at 18 weeks, smiling, clapping,” it becomes “harder to square the idea that that 20-week-old, that unborn baby or fetus, is discardable.”
In other words, when young couples view a sonogram for the first time and see a heartbeat, it makes placard slogans seem so woefully inadequate.
It is a short step from saying, “I don’t want a child,” to “I don’t want this child.” Some abortions take place because the baby is of the “wrong” gender or because it might have the wrong genetic characteristics. It has been reported that up to 90 percent of unborn children that have genetic markers indicating possible Down Syndrome are currently being aborted in the U.S. Whatever the reason for the child being unwanted, our posture as Christians should surely be on the side of protecting all human life.
Dealing with Exceptions
Whenever discussion of abortion comes up, people refer to the exceptional cases: children conceived by rape or incest, or situations where a continued pregnancy threatens the life or health of the mother. These instances are vitally important and deserve our attention.
According to reports from the Guttmacher Institute, these kinds of heart-rending exceptions make up less than 10 percent of all abortions. The basic principles of the sacredness of human life apply in the vast majority of situations.
The Social Principles state, “We recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures by certified medical providers.” Protestants historically have given priority to the life of the mother, believing that she has relationships and responsibilities (perhaps to a husband or other children) that would mean her loss would have more far-reaching ramifications. When a pregnancy threatens the mother’s life or could severely impact her health, many would agree that abortion could be justified to preserve the mother’s life and health. Of course, these kinds of decisions should never be made lightly and require the wisdom of Solomon.
The Social Principles do not take a position on the exception of children conceived by rape or incest. There are conflicting values in play. In these situations, the woman is pregnant without her consent. One value is that women should not be forced to bear a child to which they did not consent. On the other hand, there is a legitimate question whether the unborn child’s life should be terminated because of the sinful act of violence by which it was conceived. In the end these exceptional cases become a matter of personal decision by women and their families. The decision may depend upon what kind of support system the woman has and would take cognizance of the emotional and psychological effects of the violent act and the ongoing pregnancy.
Moore reminds us that we should “understand how God uses suffering and redeems mistakes. Because he does. In God’s economy, nothing is wasted. One of our families in church gave birth to a child with significant health issues. He was in critical care for months in another state and has had multiple surgeries since. After they arrived home, we visited this little one in the hospital, where he stayed for more months. As I stood on one side of the bed looking at this child – tubes everywhere – his mother said, ‘I can’t believe God trusted us enough to allow us to care for this one.’ That’s the very spirit of Romans 8:28. ‘In all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’” God can use and redeem even situations where children are conceived by rape or incest.
The same is true when it comes to serious medical conditions in the unborn child. As mentioned above, abortion for the sake of eugenics is “unconditionally rejected” by the church. At the same time, the church recognizes an exception “in the case of severe fetal anomalies incompatible with life.” When the child has a fatal developmental or genetic defect, it is not a moral necessity to continue the pregnancy, but the child’s parents may decide to continue the pregnancy to see how God would use it for his glory.
The Church’s Ministry
Importantly, the Social Principles statement points out the need for the church to provide the support needed to women with crisis pregnancies. “We affirm and encourage the Church to assist the ministry of crisis pregnancy centers and pregnancy resource centers that compassionately help women find feasible alternatives to abortion.” The church can provide emotional, practical, and financial support to women who “feel that they have no choice due to financial, educational, relational, or other circumstances beyond their control.” “We particularly encourage the Church, the government, and social service agencies to support and facilitate the option of adoption.” We cannot just be issue advocates. We are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus in serving these women and their families.
The church’s ministry must be extended to all. “We commit our Church to continue to provide nurturing ministries to those who terminate a pregnancy, to those in the midst of a crisis pregnancy, and to those who give birth.” Regardless of a woman’s decision concerning abortion, the church can be a source of God’s love, support, healing, and (where needed) forgiveness.
In addition, the church can be involved in efforts to prevent unintended pregnancies. “The Church shall encourage ministries to reduce unintended pregnancies, such as comprehensive, age-appropriate sexuality education, advocacy in regard to contraception, and support of initiatives that enhance the quality of life for all women and girls around the globe.” These efforts can make a difference, both in individual lives as well as in cultivating a culture of life in our society.
In the area of advocacy, we can support the enforcement of laws that hold the child’s father responsible for financially supporting the child and its mother. Many pro-life advocates have also supported benefits that make it easier for families to have children, such as paid parental leave, health insurance coverage for all mothers and their children, and support for the expenses of child-rearing through the tax system. No woman should be in the position of choosing abortion simply because she feels she cannot afford to provide for her child. If we want to encourage women not to abort their children, we must remove some of the obstacles that stand in the way of that decision. Simply passing laws forbidding abortion will not be enough.
Compassionate care and provision for women with crisis pregnancies beyond the birth of their children is an essential aspect of being “pro-life.” There can be fair disagreement over specific proposals. But in an age when extended family support systems are not available for many women who are having children, society and the church must do more to ease the burden of child-rearing.
Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10). God is the God of life, promoting abundant life wherever he is present (see, for example, Revelation 22:1-4). A holistic pro-life ethic recognizes that God desires not just quantity of life, but quality of life, as well. As we apply that pro-life ethic, we seek to maximize both the number of lives that are born into this world and the ability for each of those precious children to grow into fruitful adults who live out the gifts and personalities God bequeathed to them. As Christians, we can do no less.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and is the vice president of Good News.