I knew what abortion was before I knew where babies came from.
Growing up in the evangelical subculture of the 80s and 90s, I was well versed in the language of the pro-life cause, as familiar with Roe vs. Wade and the silhouette of a tiny fetus as I was with Disney princesses and contemporary Christian music. My young mind grasped the essence of the pro-life argument—that all of life is valuable, no matter how small or vulnerable—but mistakenly reduced the solution to abortion to a single step—vote for a pro-life president, and abortion will go away. A Republican president meant no more dead babies. It was as simple as that.
…Until it wasn’t.
The first president I voted for was George W. Bush. My dad dropped me off at the polling station and I marched into the Rhea County Courthouse to cast my vote for life. While President Bush endorsed the 2005 Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act, which I supported, he also championed a pre-emptive war in Iraq that costs hundreds of thousands of lives. His presidency did not make much of a dent in the abortion rate, and even though he appointed conservative judges, Roe vs. Wade remained intact. By the time W finished his second term, I had graduated from college, come to terms with the fact that the criminalization of abortion is highly unlikely no matter the party in power, expanded my definition of “pro-life” to include Iraqi children and prisoners of war, and experienced first-hand some of the major problems with America’s healthcare system, which along with poverty and education issues, contributes to the troubling abortion rate in the U.S. I remained pro-life idealistically, but for the first time, voted for a pro-choice president, hoping that the reforms I wanted to see in the healthcare, the economy, immigration, education, and for the socioeconomically disadvantaged would function pragmatically to reduce abortions. A couple of my conservative friends called me a baby killer. Several questioned my salvation.
As I advocated for the election (and re-election) of President Obama, I confess I grew somewhat embarrassed by the pro-life cause. I hated those cars that boasted a “Choose Life” sticker on one bumper and a “You’ll Have to Pry My Gun From My Cold, Dead Hands” on the other. The stubborn commitment to abstinence-only education among many evangelicals struck me as counterproductive to the cause, and those awful statements about how a raped woman has a “way of shutting that whole thing down” to prevent pregnancy were shameful and ignorant. Plus, sometimes it seemed like abortion was the only social justice issue my evangelical friends cared about, so they turned a blind eye to the ways in which Republican politics might hurt other disadvantaged groups, or turned my advocacy on behalf of other causes (like gender equality, trafficking, peace, healthcare reform, gun control, etc.) as an opportunity to make a statement about the horrors of abortion in comparison. It was all picket signs and prayer walks. But I wanted more conversations, and action, around poverty, adoption, and healthcare.
For a lot of pro-lifers, it seemed, abortion was all about the baby.
The woman, and the factors that might contribute to her decision to terminate her pregnancy, didn’t seem to matter much.
But how can we end abortion if we don’t examine why women seek out abortions in the first place? Making it illegal won’t stop it from happening, and yet so many of our efforts are directed toward that end. Aren’t we wasting our time and money by simply throwing it at politicians who wave the pro-life banner, but then do little, practically, to address the underlying issues related to abortion? And why on earth oppose access to birth control and reforms in the health care system when those will likely make the biggest difference in actually curbing abortions in this country?
(For an interesting look at the problem of categorizing the pill as an abortifacient, check out Libby Anne’s piece on the topic, where she notes that “if your goal is to save ‘unborn babies,’ and if you truly believe that a zygote – a fertilized egg – has the same value and worth as you or I – the only responsible thing to do is to put every sexually active woman on the pill,” because the pill actually reduces the number of zygotes naturally rejected by a woman’s body. Also, this month's Christianity Today includes a short article on how the morning-after pill does not inhibit implantation, but rather blocks fertilization.)
Furthermore, as I became more involved in the feminist conversation (some feminists are pro-life, of course, but many are pro-choice), I began to understand some of the arguments against the criminalization of abortion, like that banning abortion does not necessarily reduce the abortion rate, that enforcing a ban on all abortions would be impossible, and that women would likely seek out abortions through unsafe, illegal procedures anyway.
And when I was honest with myself, I had to admit that I don’t know exactly when life begins (at fertilization? at the first heartbeat? at the existence of brain waves?). Does the Bible, or Christian tradition, really make this abundantly clear? There is even disagreement among Christians about this, (and historically, even among evangelicals), so was it really my place to deny a woman who has been raped, for example, access to a morning-after pill?
And so I remained pro-life in my personal conviction, but I began to question my position that all abortions should be criminalized. I could be against abortion personally, but ambivalent about its legality, right? I could have my own convictions about this issue without making a scene. It was as simple as that.
….Until it wasn’t.
Under President Obama’s presidency, the overall abortion rate has indeed seen a decline, but he overturned some of Bush’s restrictions on late-term abortions, and there are these drones in the sky that don’t seem very pro-life to me. I squirmed on the couch when, during the 2012 Democratic National Convention, cheers erupted upon every mention of a woman’s “right to choose.” A lot of pro-choice folks like to say that “no one is pro-abortion,” but when celebratory concert series and festivals are organized around the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, I can’t help but question the degree to which we have desensitized ourselves to the reality that abortion means the termination of, at the very least, a potential life, something that should never be celebrated with balloons and rock concerts.
What frustrates me about the pro-choice movement is the lengths to which advocates go to de-humanize unborn children and sanitize the abortion procedure, reducing life to nothing more than a cluster of cells and the implications of pregnancy to little more than a choice. The word “fetus” is used instead of “child.” Efforts to encourage women to receive counseling prior to an abortion are stubbornly opposed. The argument is framed around the woman’s body exclusively, as if the fetus is inconsequential, and pro-life advocates are characterized as being “against” women’s rights. (Frankly, as a woman, and a feminist, I don’t like people invoking my “rights” to unilaterally support abortion.)
For a lot of pro-choicers, it seems, abortion is all about the woman.
The unborn child, and all the complicated, terrifying, and beautiful things its life represents, don’t seem to matter much.
So just as I grew irritated with the pro-life movement for its inconsistency and simplistic solutions, I grew irritated with the pro-choice movement for its callousness and disinterest in discussing the very real ethical concerns surrounding the termination of a pregnancy.
And then the Kermit Gosnell story blew up.
"This case is about a doctor who killed babies and endangered women,” the Grand Jury reported, “What we mean is that he regularly and illegally delivered live, viable babies in the third trimester of pregnancy - and then murdered these newborns by severing their spinal cords with scissors. The medical practice by which he carried out this business was a filthy fraud in which he overdosed his patients with dangerous drugs, spread venereal disease among them with infected instruments, perforated their wombs and bowels - and, on at least two occasions, caused their deaths… Bureaucratic inertia is not exactly news. We understand that. But we think this was something more. We think the reason no one acted is because the women in question were poor and of color, because the victims were infants without identities, and because the subject was the political football of abortion."
In response, pro-life made the (accurate) observation that it is a mere technicality that separates the legal termination of late-term pregnancies from the illegal termination of late-term pregnancies so gruesomely exposed by the photos from Gosnell’s clinic. Pro-choice advocates made the (accurate) observation that Gosnell is being prosecuted precisely because what he did was illegal and warned that, should abortion be criminalized, practices like his would likely flourish. I was pleased to see many pro-life advocates acknowledge that the story highlights the role poverty plays in abortion, admitting that the women in this case were marginalized and vulnerable, and that their needs ought to be talked about more often. I was pleased to see many pro-choice advocates acknowledging that the stark reminder of what happens to a fetus in a late term abortion was rightfully unsettling. (It should be noted that late tern abortions make up a very small percentage of abortions, as do cases of rape and incest…so both sides tend to appeal to rare cases in debates.) Kristen Howerton, among others, had the good sense push past all the pointless rhetoric about a supposed media conspiracy to ask why on earth the state of Pennsylvania didn’t shut this place down sooner.
Here was abortion—in all of its heartbreaking complexity, with all of its ties to life, death, poverty, exploitation, fear, loneliness, politics, and propaganda—sprawled out on the front pages of our newspapers, and no single side “won.” It was an indictment on our shared apathy, on our shared callousness, on our shared simplistic political solutions.
“…Because the women in question were poor and of color, because the victims were infants without identities, and because the subject was the political football of abortion."
Not surprisingly, I couldn’t think of anything worthwhile to say. I was, truly, speechless.
My conservative friends took the opportunity to chastise and pester me, convinced my delay in writing a post on the topic revealed my participation in some vast media conspiracy and my unwarranted preoccupation with “minor” issues like gender equality in the church. When I explained on Twitter that a post about abortion isn’t simple enough to fit into 600 words, a guy tweeted back, “Sure it is. I can fit it in three: It’s always wrong.”
When the life or health of the mother is at stake?
In the case of rape or incest?
When a woman’s body naturally disposes of a zygote?
Meanwhile, my more liberal friends begged me not to write anything at all. It’s too complicated, they said, too controversial, too complex.
When the life of the weaker is taken by the stronger?
When one out of five pregnancies in this country end in abortion?
When places like these fail to get shut down in part because we’ve turned abortion into such a political issue?
I think a lot of progressive Christians like myself, eager to distance ourselves from some of the rhetoric and policies of the Republican brand of the pro-life movement, shy away from talking about abortion, when our call to do justice and love mercy demand that we speak and act to address this issue, even though it may be more complicated than we originally thought.
In fact, I wonder if an appreciation of the nuances in the debate, and of abortion’s connection to traditionally “progressive” issues like poverty and healthcare, may actually make those of us who are “stuck in the middle” especially effective agents of change. Let’s face it: We are unlikely to find a single party that truly represents a “culture of life,” and abortion will probably never be made illegal, so we’ll have to go about it the old fashioned way, working through the diverse channels of the Kingdom to adopt and support responsible adoption, welcome single moms into our homes and churches, reach out to the lonely and disenfranchised, address the socioeconomic issues involved, and engage in some difficult conversations about the many factors that contribute to the abortion rate in this country, (especially birth control). It seems to me that Christians who are more conservative and Christians who are more liberal, Christians who are politically pro-life and Christians who are politically pro-choice, should be able to come together on this and advocate for life in a way that takes seriously the complexities involved and that honors both women and their unborn children.
In other words, instead of focusing all of our efforts on making “supply” illegal, perhaps we should work on decreasing demand. And instead of pretending like this is just an issue of women’s rights, perhaps we should acknowledge the very real and very troubling moral questions surrounding a voluntarily terminated pregnancy.
I am still unsure of exactly how to do this. I don’t even know where to start, really. The more I learn, the more complex this issue becomes. But the Gosnell case does in fact point to something simple: that we are failing to care for the most marginalized and helpless among us, be they unborn children or women whose desperation sent them to Gosnell’s clinic. And we won’t be able to promote a “culture of life” until we are willing to advocate on behalf of both.
Perhaps God has called those of us who feel “stuck in the middle” to do exactly that.
What do you think?
How has your thinking on abortion changed and evolved through the years? What was your response to the Gosnell story?
And what sort of PRACTICAL steps can Christians take to to both address the complexities of abortion and actually curb the abortion rate?
Note: I'm closing the comment thread, just because once you reach 600+ comments, it's a bit too much to manage. Most were civil and thoughtful, so thank you for engaging!