I’m Christian. I believe life begins at conception. I’m still pro-choice. I’ll tell you why in a minute.
I’ve been sitting on this one for a while now. I was waiting for a time when I was less busy, so I’d be more ready to deal with the potential fallout from poking the internet, or I was going to wait until I was ready to unleash my shiny new blog, hopefully in the new year. But as I write this, yesterday was the Ford/Kavanaugh testimonies, and I saw in my perusal of coverage a striking statistic: 48% of white evangelicals would still support Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court bench even if Dr. Ford’s allegations were proven true.
Let’s say that again: Roughly half of white evangelicals support putting a drunken rapist on the highest court in America if it gets them closer to overturning Roe v. Wade.
There is so much in that statistic that appalls me. The ends-justify-the-means cynicism, the opposite of Biblical hope. The total disregard for survivors of sexual assault in white evangelical churches (there’s no lack of evidence for this cultural trend), the opposite of Biblical care. The total willingness to put their own identity politics at the front, at the expense of literally everyone else’s, the opposite of the gospel call to be a church of all peoples, to reach across and learn to care for your opposite.
There is so much about the whole situation that twists my stomach in knots, but I don’t have a compelling story about sexual assault to share (thank God), though I’ve been groped and flashed like every woman I know. But I can be brave about my stance on abortion, because if ever there was an urgent moment to defend women, this feels like it.
I know a lot of abortion-opposers, and since I was one myself for several years, I can already hear the justification: But this is to stop a genocide! What can be more urgent and important and morally imperative than that?
I’m going to challenge the scriptural authority of that position. Because if you’re willing to sacrifice every other Christian value to defend the unborn, then I think you’ve made abortion an idol.
First, we can only say genocide if we’re talking about people. I’m not going to argue about when life begins, because it’s not the premise of my position, but I would like to point out that theologians across the ages have disagreed on this count. There are Biblical suggestions that personhood begins at conception or even before, certainly, like Jeremiah 1:5. There are also Biblical precedents for the stance that life begins at breath – Genesis 2:7 for example. For centuries, the church believed that life began at quickening, or the first time the woman carrying the fetus can feel it moving, around 18 weeks. Again, my argument doesn’t rest on a specific moment at which life begins, so I’m not going to argue about it, I’m just pointing out that loving and devout and faithful and thoughtful and reasonable and well-meant people have come to different conclusions about this, so any claim to have the Whole Truth about it seems flimsy, suspect, and dishonest to me.
Second, before I get to my actual arguments, I’d like to remind everyone that the Bible does not actually mention abortion. Not once. Not in the Old Testament, nor in the New. The closest it comes is Exodus 21: 22-25:
22 And if men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart, and yet no harm follow, he shall be surely fined, according as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23 But if any harm follow, then thou shalt give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
I’ve seen articles arguing this passage both ways regarding fetal personhood. Does the passage establish that fetuses are not full people, because the party is only fined for damage, or does it establish that fetuses are full people, because “if harm follow,” it is treated with the life-for-life standard? The debate hangs over whether “if any harm follow” refers only to the wife, or also to her unborn child – does “her fruit depart” mean a miscarriage, or a premature birth, which nonetheless results in a living child? Many translations will happily make this choice for you, which is why I went back to the King James. Again, fetal personhood is not part of my argument, so I’m not going to discuss it at length, just pointing out, again, that well-read and well-meant people disagree about the meaning of this passage.
But this passage is still not about abortion. Abortion is when a woman chooses not to carry a child to term in her own body. In the Exodus 21 scenario, it was someone else who accidentally caused the injury or death of the fetus. So it was not a woman choosing what happens in her body.
So the Bible doesn’t mention abortion at all. Which is significant, because other ancient texts do.
For example, the laws of Middle Assyria (14th century BC, roughly contemporary with the Pentateuch) you punish a woman with impalement and no burial for causing her own miscarriage. If she dies from the abortion, her body is still to be impaled and not buried, to make an example for all the other women. It’s notable that the same texts give the father permission to commit infanticide if the baby is defective in some way (disabled, disfigured, female, etc.), so the abortion law wasn’t about protecting life so much as it was about protecting a man’s right to make all the family planning decisions in his household.
So the next door neighbors of the ancient Israelites had very strong feelings about abortion, but when Moses went up on Mt. Sinai, the God of the Hebrews, who had a lot to say in general about separating His people from the detestable ways of their neighbors, chose to remain silent on abortion. He had reams to say about clothing and fibers and food, but nothing on abortion.
That’s worth saying one more time for emphasis: God had every chance to condemn abortion, and chose to remain silent.
The Roman empire into which Jesus was born practiced abortion regularly at all levels of society and had no laws against it. Jesus has nothing to say about it. Neither does Paul. Neither do any of the other gospel writers.
But they do have an extraordinary amount to say about women. Jesus, especially, is radically pro-woman. He both allows and defends Mary’s choice to sit at his feet, a position (the feet of the rabbi) reserved only for men at that time. He interrupts an urgent mission on behalf of an important man (Jairus) to heal not only the body but also the shame of a woman who has been untouchable for 12 years because of her reproductive health. He gives to women the honor of bearing first witness to his resurrection, when women’s testimony was not considered trustworthy enough to be valid in court. (#BelieveWomen !! #TrustWomen !!) So Jesus cares deeply about the equality and dignity of women. There’s so much more to be said about this, but I’ll leave just those three examples for now or I’ll never get to the crux of my actual argument.
Which is this: even when you consider a fetus a life, there is no getting around the fact that it’s not an independent life. It is a life dependent on the body of another. A fetus requires the willing or unwilling donation of that person’s uterus, blood supply, oxygenation, nutrition, and immune activity. If this natural life support is removed, the fetus cannot survive.
It so happens that modern medicine has created another scenario in which life and death decisions are made around the use of another person’s organs – living organ donation. This is when your cousin gives you a kidney, or your twin donates a lobe of liver. An organ (or part of an organ) is donated, and both parties (in the best scenario) live. Donating an organ requires some preliminary testing, six weeks to recover, and has a very low rate of complication for the donor. And it happens that this is a process that is available to both women and men. So let’s look at how we talk to men about the urgent imperative of giving their bodies to bring life to others.
Here is the list of questions offered by the American Transplant Foundation for consideration before making yourself available for organ donation:
Am I Intellectually Ready?
– Have you spoken with your primary care physician and researched information regarding living donation?
– Do you understand the risks involved in this major medical procedure?
Am I Emotionally Ready?
– Have you emotionally prepared yourself for living donation and do you fully understand the possibility that the procedure may not be successful or could even be harmful?
– Are you ready to live with less than your usual full system of organs?
– Are you prepared to find out that you may not be a match or be healthy enough to donate?
– Do you understand that the testing/evaluation process could potentially uncover health conditions that were unknown to you before you considered donation?
Am I Physically Ready?
– Are you in good physical shape so that you may be able to withstand a major surgery?
– Do you have a healthy organ to donate?
– Will your body be able to live with less than your full complement of organs?
Am I Financially Ready?
– Have you thought through all of your financial responsibilities? Financial responsibilities to think about while you are being tested, in the hospital for surgery, and away from work while you recover are: savings, work requirements, travel expenses, time off of work (paid time-off, vacation, sick days, short-term disability, etc.), follow-up care, lost wages, family, dependents, pets, future obligations, insurance, bills, monthly expenses, etc.
– Do you have insurance protection in the event that complications arise during or after your surgery?
Am I Spiritually Ready?
– Are you driven to donate by the right motives?
Good heavens, can you imagine if we spoke to pregnant women with such deference?
– Have you discussed with your physician the realities of pregnancy, childbirth, and post partem recovery?
– Do you understand the risks and potential complications, including death, inherent in this major medical event?
– Have you emotionally prepared yourself for the realities of pregnancy and childbirth, and do you fully understand the possibility that this process may be arduous and painful, and still not successful?
– Are you prepared to spend the better part of a year physically impaired and unable to perform certain tasks up to your previous standard?
– Are you prepared to find out, partway through this process, that you may be unable to carry the child to term, or it may be unable to sustain its own life upon birth?
– Are you prepared to potentially discover previously overlooked medical problems over the course of prenatal testing?
– Are you prepared for the risk that you may have enduring, life-long changes to your body as a result of going through this process?
– Are you prepared for the risk of death, especially since the US is ranked among the worst in the West for maternal morbidity?
– Have you thought through all of your financial responsibilities? How will carrying, delivering, and maybe rearing this child affect your spouse, your other children, your aging parents, or other dependents?
– Can you take the time from work for prenatal appointments, childbirth, and the optimum recommended post partum recovery time (minimum six weeks)?
– Are you financially prepared for the possibility of complications to the pregnancy and weeks, or months, off work for bed rest?
– Do you have insurance?
– Are you driven to carry this child to term by the right motives?
I mean, really, what are they playing at? Nobody talks to pregnant women that way, that’s not the standard of discourse when THERE ARE INNOCENT LIVES AT STAKE. None of those people waiting for transplants asked to be put in that position! None of them chose to be sick! Where is the mandatory registration as a living donor?! The regulated blood typing, the hand wringing over people who are selfish and irresponsible and fail to sign up when people are dying every year waiting for a transplant?! Where’s the moral outrage?! You’d think people were allowed to decide how much of their body they were willing to sacrifice for another person or something!! Like people were people and not donor organ incubators! With the right and ability to make wise choices for their lives, lives which had value outside of their bodies’ potential to bring life!!
You see where I’m going with this. In the words of possibly Gloria Steinem or possibly Florynce Kennedy, or possibly an anonymous Irish lady taxi driver from Boston, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”
When we take the issue of offering portions of your body in sacrifice out of the context of gender, it’s very easy to see how deferentially we treat the decision, and we never presume to infringe on the rights of another person to tell them what they must and must not volunteer to endure for another. We hope that they will make the generous decision, but we recognize that they have choice.
So for me the issue is not when life begins, but the right of body sovereignty for the woman involved. That’s why the position is called pro-choice, not pro-abortion.
I nearly died in childbirth the first time around (twice – first by seizure, then by hemolysis), which makes every subsequent pregnancy high-risk. I love my two children. I love them so much I would fight for them to my grave. And if I were pregnant with a third who was deemed “incompatible with life,” I would like to have the freedom to choose, if we as a family felt it was best, to end that life early, thus sparing my first two children the risk of being motherless for a sibling who wouldn’t live anyway.
Sound like a special circumstance? That’s because every abortion is a special circumstance. I’m sure it’s abused by some, and that’s a tragedy for the fetus, just like people dying on the transplant list is a tragedy (but not a crime, and not shameful). But abortion can also be a tender mercy, an act of dignity, for women in prohibitive circumstances. Women with cancer, or other serious health conditions. Women with dependent parents or siblings, other children with special needs who need a full-time caretaker. Women in desperate financial circumstances. And more.
It’s not a perfect analogy. I don’t expect it to be the last word on abortion, even in my own life, but I hope you can see how the pro-choice position comes from a heart of care for women, just as the pro-life position comes from a heart of care for the unborn. Both are vulnerable, and historically disposable (remember the nameless woman torn limb from limb, or Lot trying to trade his virgin daughters to a rape mob?).
God cares very deeply about the dignity of women. I can’t make you believe Dr. Ford (though I think you should, she was transparent where he was belligerent and evasive), but if the FBI investigation returns with evidence that Judge Kavanaugh engaged in sexual assault at any point in his life, and you tell America’s daughters (my daughters) that you care nothing for their safety or sovereignty, then I’m telling you I think you are sacrificing to a golden calf.
Call your Senators. Thanks for your time.