Growing up in the 80’s, we were taught that, in mixed company, a reasonable person never discussed religion or politics.
I didn’t listen.
I still don’t.
In high school, I loved to debate religion and politics, especially with teachers and fellow students who already disagreed with me. I was a devout Evangelical church kid with all the answers and one of my deepest commitments was to the pro-life cause.
One of my favorite t-shirts was from the Rock for Life campaign, which read in big bold block letters, “ABORTION IS MURDER.”
Gosh, I loved that shirt.
But I remember being in a big crowd of strangers one day while wearing that shirt and I was suddenly struck by the thought, “What would my shirt communicate to a young woman who had already had an abortion? Would she feel loved? Would she feel safe? Would someone considering an abortion want to come to me for help?”
This was the first time I changed my mind about abortion.
I stopped wearing the shirt. Even if I still believed its message was true, the shirt just didn’t make sense to me anymore.
Then, in 2000, I entered college.
Like most kids entering the world of academic thought, issues of ethics and morality became much more nuanced and complicated. I began to think more philosophically and less moralistically. I learned parts of history that made me question my fundamental beliefs about my country, my church, and myself. I asked more questions than I knew answers.
At some point, I got more interested in the social implications of my faith. My theology became more robust and holistic. My heart was softened toward the poor. I was sensitized to women and children in crisis. My eyes were opened to a world of struggle that I’d never known, didn’t understand, and felt helpless to address.
This is the second time I changed my mind about abortion.
I decided I felt uncomfortable judging a woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy when I had no idea what circumstances had led her to make that decision.
I wanted to be fair, I wanted to be generous. I wanted to leave space for outlying circumstances that, but by the grace of God, I could one day face myself.
But then I changed my mind again as my conception of “choice” and personal responsibility shifted.
Being raised in Evangelical culture, sex outside marriage had always been posited as an issue of personal morality and purity. Now, as a young adult pursuing long-term relationships, the rules of personal purity seemed much more nebulous because intimacy just seemed so natural. And, far beyond any questions of “should we be having sex,” I realized there was a lot I simply didn’t know or understand about how our bodies are made.
A friend (who had recently become Catholic) turned me on to some books about fertility and family planning. Unlike the fear-based abstinence training of my youth, these books taught that the natural cause and effect relationship between sex and procreation is a gift, not a liability. I also started to believe that sex, though it had other purposes and benefits, was fundamentally tied to fruitfulness and mutual commitment, not identity or personal enjoyment.
Suddenly the practicality of abstinence outside of a lifelong commitment was evident. As a woman, I realized that this was how I could exercise my fundamental right to choose. While sexual activity can be a source of empowerment, so can abstinence. I should not be having sex with anyone with whom I was not willing to also share a child since pregnancy is an eventual, natural consequence of a sexual relationship.
Sidebar: To some of my peers, the thought of abstaining completely because you aren’t ready for a baby might sound absurd because your beliefs about human sexuality are different than mine or because it’s impossible for you to imagine a life without sex.
But, lean in close and I’ll tell you a secret–
A sexless life will not kill you.
And if you just absolutely cannot bear a sexless life, a box of 10 condoms will set you back a whopping $7.99 and, even without insurance, most women can get birth control pills for less than $20 a month. (For women on Medicaid, it’s free.)
Do you want to exercise your right to choose? Choose one fewer latte a week, buy the pill instead, and you can have all the baby-free sex you want.
(It sounds snarky, but it’s true.)
My mind had been changed. All these “pro-choice” vs “pro-life” arguments seemed silly now once you first establish the fact that babies don’t get made by accident. There were a million ways to not get pregnant, including simply not having sex or being smart about how you did it.
And, before you say it, yes, I did ask myself–“But, what about rape? She didn’t have a choice!”
Well, that’s a great point and I’m going to get to that in a moment so please standby.* The story’s not over.
A few years later, my mind changed again.
This time it was about the issues of late-term abortion and “the life of the mother.”
Though abortions after 21 weeks’ gestation make up only about 1% of abortions, they seem to be used as a rally point for both those for and against all elective abortion. Both sides will tell you that late term abortions are horrifying procedures that no one would undergo unless it was absolutely necessary. But no one seems to agree about what constitutes a “necessity.” And that is where the medical term “abortion” gets manipulated and politicized, emotions get crazy, and it gets hard to see the truth.
So, a few years ago, I starting asking questions.
Who are these women who are having abortions after 20 weeks? Who are these babies? What kinds of scenarios lead them to these desperate measures?
This is what I found:
In some places in the US, an elective termination in later-term pregnancies (in a medical facility) requires approval by an ethics committee to determine whether it’s “medically indicated.” The criteria is pretty strict.
In some places, doctors are allowed to make termination decisions without hospital approval, especially if it is an emergency situation, especially before viability. (Think: the termination of ectopic pregnancies or cases of severe preeclampsia.)
A lot of this depends on the location, as state abortion laws differ across the country. And the viability of the child, in regards to the age of the pregnancy, is always a determining factor. With neonatal medicine improving and the goalpost of viability moving earlier in pregnancy, we are now talking nearer to 21 weeks than 24 or 25 weeks, which is what we would have used to determine viability twenty years ago. (Basically, science is now on the side of the 21 week fetus.)
I have found almost zero instances in my (admittedly imperfect) research when it would be medically-indicated, for the sake of saving the mother’s life, for an unborn child to be aborted (i.e. terminated) after viability, rather than delivered through emergency induction or c-section. Earlier in pregnancy, a D&C or D&E procedure may be considered more safe.
I have found many, many instances like these when second- or third-term unborn children are aborted because they either have a terminal illness that is deemed “incompatible with life” or because the parents have been advised that the child’s medical complications would be so severe that they are, basically, better off dead.
These are absolutely unimaginable scenarios, yet they happen all the time.
In a perfect world, these are decisions a patient makes with their doctor, under medical advisement. In some instances, a doctor or a hospital will advise a patient against termination. In those cases, the patient can seek services elsewhere either with a different doctor, at a different facility, or in a different state, just like they would with any other “therapeutive” (elective) medical procedure.
Planned Parenthood and abortion clinics differ from other medical practices in that they offer elective abortion services within the bounds of local and state laws, apart from questions of medical ethics and viability. Yes, I’m sure there are some clinics where the practitioners are more ethically-minded than others, but their entire industry is built on securing elective abortion, regardless of circumstances.
All elective procedures aside, it seems to me that the laws that exist to allow the termination of a pregnancy “to save the life of a mother” might (rightly) exist to protect doctors and patients in an urgent, emergency situation where their patient (the mother) is in crisis and hard decisions have to be made about where to turn their attention. (Imagine a doctor telling the husband, “She’s losing blood! We need to do something!” and the husband yelling, “Doctor, just please save my wife!”)
This late-term crisis scenario has always existed–because childbirth can be dangerous–but no one in their right mind would consider this scenario anything akin to an “elective abortion.” In these cases, it’s more an issue of legal protection than medical ethics or politics.
Yet, pro-abortion advocates continue to refer to emergency scenarios and medically-necessary terminations as just one more type of “abortion”–the clinical term for fetal demise–just to manipulate the political issue. And to manipulate the legislation.
And to manipulate you.
So, rather than going into the ethical dilemma, in particular, of when it might or might not be okay to terminate a late term pregnancy, let’s ask a different question for a second.
What makes some people decide to pursue a late-term abortion–which is difficult to secure and extremely expensive–and makes others, despite popular wisdom, carry their child to full-term and deliver a baby destined for difficulty or (sometimes immediate) death?
It might seem simplistic to call this out, but my experience tells me that religious faith has a lot to do with it.
Religious people believe in a Creator. They believe that life has purpose. They believe that the creator God ordains life and death. There is a moral imperative to let God be the one to determine the number of a child’s days.
And on a deeper level, people of faith have a philosophical and spiritual framework that provides comfort for their pain. And they bear the burden of infant loss, chronic illness, and special needs children differently because of it. Moreover, they have a community of faith to help bear the burden alongside them.
Now, there are certainly religious people who have terminated pregnancies, but there’s also a reason that most of the news stories we see about people electing to not terminate a difficult pregnancy are about people of faith. It’s a real thing. Radical faith makes you do seemingly “foolish” things.
But, wait. The “religious card” can be used the other way, right?
Aren’t religious people supposed to exercise mercy and kindness? If so, then why do so many religious people refuse to budge about abortion in circumstances like *rape? Or in situations where the mother is all alone? Or when she was pressured into a sexual relationship? Or when she already has children who she struggles to provide for?
These are reasonable questions, and ones that I’ve felt challenged by many times. After all, it seems very judicious to just say, as many of my peers do, “Well, I could certainly never do it, but I’m not willing to stop someone else from doing it.”
But this reasoning works if–and only if–you don’t believe that there is another life hanging in the balance.
Which is why I eventually changed my mind about the pro-life position.
I decided pro-lifers are not crazy. And I decided I might actually be one of them after all.
See, “to each his own” just doesn’t fly if you believe an unborn child is, in fact, a child–a child, regardless of their health; regardless of their future quality of life; regardless of the circumstances of their conception or their birth.
Yet, when it comes to an unborn child, we don’t often let ourselves simply acknowledge it as a “life.” That would make it too simple and we’d be forced to reckon with our responsibility to protect it.
Instead, we want to categorize the unborn as “potential life” which becomes a “real life” and then becomes a “viable life” with a certain “quality of life.”
We do this because it helps us negotiate our own complicated feelings and fears about the fragility of life. It puts something inherently un-tidy into tidy categories so we can feel better about it. In addition to unnecessarily complicating our positions about the unborn, it helps us dismiss the heartbreak of infertility, the pain of miscarriage, the trauma of stillbirth, and the burden of chronic illness by compartmentalizing them in “not quite living” things.
But the most staunch anti-abortion activists don’t do this with an unborn child. They believe that life is life. Life comes from God. And God does not discriminate or compartmentalize, so neither can we.
And this seems like a far more honorable position than the flippant “to each his own,” doesn’t it?
My experience also tells me that, far from being the woman-hating judgmental prigs that I’d been warned about associating with, many people who lean anti-abortion are actually pretty awesome. Many of them are healthcare providers. They are school teachers and social workers. Many of them actively serve the poor. Many of them volunteer in crisis pregnancy centers, at after-school programs for low-income kids, and donate many, many dollars to social service agencies that provide a safety net for vulnerable families.
And it turns out very few pro-lifers prescribe to a strict no-birth control policy. They aren’t anti-sex and they aren’t anti-sex education. (Many pro-lifers are supportive of comprehensive education about issues related to family planning and fertility.)
They are also super pro-adoption and many have adopted vulnerable children themselves, especially profoundly special-needs children.
I’ve seen my environmentalist friends speak with passion and disgust about using plastic garbage bags, about the evils of large game hunting in Africa, or starving polar bears in Alaska but, when faced with the possibility that abortion actually ends a human life, mum’s the word. It’s all “personal freedom” and “don’t tell me what to do with my body.”
But, if the numbers are true, even the conservative numbers, then we’re not talking about a couple thousands polar bears in Alaska, we’re talking about something like 900,000 abortions a year. (And close to 90% of them occur in the first 12 weeks, which means most of these pregnancies are not being terminated for the safety of the mother or the health of the child.)
That’s over 46,000,000 babies since 1970.
That’s 46 million children. Actual human children.
That’s a big deal. A really big deal. Which makes street protesters seem a little less crazy to me.
But where does that leave me?
It is time for me to pull out that “ABORTION IS MURDER” shirt and wear it to next week’s Planned Parenthood protest?
Because I believe that communication is just as much about the medium as the message and I’m not convinced the sidewalk protest is an effective medium.
So does this mean I vote for only pro-life candidates?
Because it turns out that most “pro-life” politics in the year 2020 does not reflect a consistently pro-life position, nor the people who hold it. Not comprehensively, at least.
A consistently pro-life position honors the sanctity of life, the modern science of fertility and fetal development (which increasingly supports a pro-life position), and considers helping mothers navigate the realities of poverty, single-parenthood, healthcare woes, and adoption trauma (for mother and child).
When was the last time you saw a politician run on that kind of pro-life position?
Even within anti-abortion circles, people disagree about how to handle things like pregnancy from rape or incest, availability of birth control (and emergency contraception), or fatal health diagnoses. And, even in pro-abortion circles, most people still take serious issue with second- and third-term abortions and some would rather outlaw abortion entirely except in extreme cases. (Seriously, look at the statistics. We are not nearly as divided on these extreme cases as you might think.)
Popular media likes to place us all in dualistic categories of “anti-” or “pro-” abortion. And our politicians manipulate our fear of the uncomfortable nuance of the issue by forcing us to choose a camp. But this strict dualism doesn’t always exist in real life. Most of us know we don’t fit neatly into either political camp, but we also feel like we don’t have many options. We must either “side with the babies” and vote for pro-life candidates or “side with the women” and vote for pro-choice candidates.
So, does this mean I consider it all a loss and ignore abortion politics entirely because it’s such a cesspool?
Because, deep down inside, I am still that 16 year-old evangelical, pro-life kid with the offensive t-shirt. It just took me twenty-some years to get back around to acknowledging it.
And elective abortions, while shrinking slightly in number, are still extremely prevalent. (Remember, 900,000 a year.) And we hear messages from celebrities and politicians all the time that any reasonable person would certainly believe abortion, for any reason, is somehow a basic human right and, ultimately, good for women.
And that’s a lie.
As a Christian, I believe that it’s necessary for us to obey the simplest of God’s commandments–including “Thou shalt not murder.” But I also have to obey the spirit of the Law of God, which demands I protect the vulnerable mother and child, as well.
Since neither political party, nor any one political candidate, corners the market on this consistent pro-life ethic, no one party or candidate has my loyalty these days. At least not in a comprehensive sense.
I allow myself the freedom to exercise discernment in who and what I support both as it relates to abortion, specifically, and women and children and families, in general.
Because a life worth saving doesn’t begin a birth.
But it doesn’t end there, either.
**Why does this matter? Is the abortion debate really worth engagement?
I know publishing this means opening myself up to all sorts of criticism and negative feedback. I have many friends and acquaintances that disagree with me on the issue, some very deeply. And I do not look forward to the backlash from strangers, much less from people I love and respect. (Ideological conflict gets more and more stressful for me as I get older.)
But I also think that any issue with this much political import is worth honest and deliberate engagement, both independently and collectively. And since the issue is being debated in our current election cycle, I thought it might be helpful for some folks to know that it’s okay to reconsider your position. It’s good and healthy to walk through the discernment process and even, sometimes, change your mind about an issue. Sometimes you’ll end up on the other side.
Sometimes, like me, you’ll find you are right back where you started.
For further reading, a few resources I’ve found helpful:
Abortion by R. C. Sproul- Not an easy read, but it’s short and a great primer for a reformed Christian perspective on the issue.
Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward For a New Generation by Charles Camosy- A pastor and friend recommended this to me last week when I said I was writing this post. I’m only about 1/3 through but I can already tell it’s pretty representative of where I stand.
Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler- A comprehensive guide to women’s reproductive health. This should be required reading for every young woman.
The Art of Natural Family Planning by Kippley- I am not Catholic and I don’t use NFP, but I found the Catholic paradigm of fruitfulness mind-blowing after the very shallow theology of the body and sex I was given in Evangelical purity culture.
The Talk: 7 Lessons to Introduce Your Child to Biblical Sexuality by Luke Gilkerson- This is how I taught my kids “where babies come from.” It does not address abortion, but it sets a strong foundation for the relationships between marriage, sex, and procreation.
Abortion statistics from the Guttmacher Institute.
Abortion statistics interpreted through a pro-life lens from the nonprofit Abort 73.
Democrats for Life– the pro-life wing of the Democratic Party. I’m not a Democrat, but these folks have been super helpful for understanding the issue from a liberal perspective. They also publish and share some great legislative information and suggestions.
Feminists for Life– a progressive voice in the pro-life camp. I’m not a feminist, but I’ve found this perspective helpful. (Historically speaking, feminists advocating for abortion is a fairly new phenomenon.)