Let's Talk about Abortion - With Gentleness and Civility

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

I’ve noticed that nearly every time I post anything about the upcoming presidential election, the issue of abortion inevitably emerges in the subsequent comments.  I know how important this topic is to many of my readers, so I thought I’d take a moment to address it head on and give everyone the opportunity to share their thoughts.

As you know, I plan to vote for Barack Obama in November…not because I think he’s some kind of Messiah or that he embodies all of my values as a follower of Jesus Christ…but because I prefer his policies regarding the economy, healthcare, and foreign relations over those of John McCain’s.  I also consider myself to be pro-life. I believe that abortion is wrong, and that its pervasiveness represents a troubling deterioration in our culture’s view of the sacredness of human life.

While some may see these two positions as incompatible, I suspect that there are growing numbers of pro-lifers out there who have developed a more nuanced approach to this issue, one that acknowledges the inconsistencies within each political party and seeks to find the most practical and realistic way to dramatically reduce the number of abortions in this country.

[If you haven’t noticed, “nuance” is a really hip word this year. I’ve found that it is quite helpful in describing your position on something if a) it takes more than two sentences to explain, or b) you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.]

Before I continue, let me make it clear that I respect people on BOTH SIDES of this highly-emotional and important issue. In the past I’ve been critical of “one-issue” voters who routinely base their vote solely on a candidate’s position on abortion, but I’ve recently toned down my criticism as I continue to speak with earnest and compassionate friends who have every right to base their decision on what touches their hearts the most.

When thinking about abortion and this year’s presidential election, a few questions come to mind.  Hopefully these questions will help by providing a framework for comments that may follow the post.

1. Does life begin at conception?

Catholics and evangelicals generally believe that life begins at conception, based on references in Scripture and the traditional teachings of the Church. The science seems to support this position.  A zygote has a unique DNA structure that technically fulfills the criteria need to establish biological life—metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli, and reproduction. 

Still, not everyone agrees that a zygote or a fetus has a soul, and there is disagreement even among the most ardent pro-life supporters about the exact point at which an unborn child qualifies as a human being. (This can be complicated by the fact that some birth control pills prevent implantation of a fertilized egg. Does that count as an abortion?)

I’ve heard some theologians argue that the Bible best supports the view that life begins when blood begins to circulate, others that it best supports the view that life begins the moment we draw breath.

My personal conviction is that, since we don’t know for sure, it’s best to play it safe and assume that life begins at conception. (An interesting topic for another day might be how one’s philosophy regarding mind/body dualism factors into things.) Therefore, I believe that an unborn child is entitled to the same rights as a born child.

As a follower of the teachings of Jesus, I feel compelled to speak up for the defenseless. I consider an abortion to be an example of the strong preying on the weak, and I am committed to calling it out as a sin.

However, I do so knowing that not everyone in this country agrees with me. Not everyone believes that life begins at conception, and so not everyone will see an abortion as a human rights violation. So the question then becomes, do we pursue legislation that would force the rest of the country to adopt our religious position regarding life? If the majority of Americans support abortion rights (as public opinion polls show), is it forcing our beliefs upon others to seek to make abortion illegal? How should we handle pregnancies that result from rape or incest, or situations where the life of the mother is at stake? Who would decide?

I feel a little conflicted about this. On the one hand, I am aware that the government trumped public opinion to end segregation, which was the right thing to do.  On the other, I’m not convinced that making abortion illegal would actually end abortion unless accompanied by a sweeping change in the hearts and minds of the American public. 

2. Does Life Continue After Conception? Is it worth protecting?

This may sound like a silly question, but it’s one that pro-lifers rarely seem to ask themselves.

It is estimated that around 4,000 abortions take place each day in the U.S. But consider this:

Worldwide, 30,000 children die each day from preventable diseases. Around 16,000 die from hunger-related causes.

In the U.S., nearly 28,000 babies die each year before their first birthday. As a result of economic inequality and lack of healthcare, the U.S. ranks 29th worldwide in infant mortality. This is a higher infant mortality rate than Cuba.

Nearly 10-million children are uninsured in the U.S.

No one knows for sure, but it is estimated that nearly 200,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed as a result of the U.S.-led War in Iraq. Around 25,000 civilians have been killed as a result of the war in Afghanistan. These are men, women, and children.

The number of U.S. soldiers killed in the War on Terror has surpassed the number of people killed on September 11, 2001.

More than 200,000 people have been killed in the genocide in Darfur. Over 2.5-million have been displaced.

White evangelicals are the strongest supporters of the death penalty, with 74 percent approval, despite growing questions about the fairness of the system.

With these numbers in mind, I can say with confidence that I know very few people who are consistently pro-life. While evangelicals are on the front lines of fighting against abortion, they are noticeably absent from initiatives to intervene in Darfur, pursue universal healthcare, re-examine capital punishment, and end the war in Iraq.

The only difference between a child killed in an abortion and a child killed in a U.S. airstrike is that in the first case, the mother thought the child’s life was expendable, and in the second case, the U.S. military thought the child’s life was expendable…collateral damage. We discredit ourselves by waving the “pro-life” banner when we are nothing more than anti-abortion.

Based on the premise that life is scared from cradle to grave, neither political party can boast a consistent pro-life ethic.

3. What are Obama and McCain’s Abortion Records like?

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a fan of Obama’s abortion record. He supported the Freedom of Choice Act that would declare it a fundamental policy of the United States that a woman has a right to get an abortion. This law would make void any state law requiring that parents of a daughter under the age of 18 be notified when she seeks an abortion. I disagree with that position.

Now, as an aside, this rumor that Obama voted in support of infanticide is completely false. As an Illinois senator, Obama voted against a bill that contained language designed to protect infants who were “born alive.” The thing is, there was already an Illinois law in place that would protect infants. Even the Republican state senator who sponsored the bill said that “none of those who voted against [the bill] favored infanticide.”

McCain has a pretty consistent anti-abortion record.  He voted against partial-birth abortion, and in support of the Child Custody Protection Act. However, in the past he has made comments that indicate he is skeptical about the possibility of overturning the Supreme Court’s decision. In 2000 he said, “I would not support repeal of Roe vs. Wade, which would then force X number of women in America to (undergo) illegal and dangerous operations.” He later took the comment back after conservative backlash. McCain voted to confirm the nominations of Justices Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, all of whom support abortion rights.

4. How serious are Republicans about ending abortion?

The first time I voted for George Bush, (back when I was just 19, and a pretty hard-core conservative), I voted for him primarily because I thought that Republicans were serious about ending abortion. But over the past eight years, I have grown more and more suspicious about the Republican Party’s motives in courting the Religious Right on this issue.

Just last night, after the debate, John McCain’s chief strategist was asked by Wolf Blitzer on CNN about the details of a post-Roe v. Wade America.

“That’s too many hypotheticals,” he responded defensively.

It seems to me that if the Republican Party was serious about appointing judges to overturn Roe v. Wade and passing laws that would make abortion illegal, they would provide voters with some specifics about how this would work out practically. How would these laws be enforced? What sort of penalties would doctors and mothers face if they broke them? Which government agency would be responsible for oversight—the FBI? Would gynecologists be required to report pregnancies to the government?

The logistics are, in fact, pretty daunting.

I’m beginning to suspect that Republicans are taking advantage of pro-lifers in an effort to build a reliable base of one-issue voters, and that they have no intention of actually making abortion illegal.  

Randall Balmer writes in his book, Thy Kingdom Come, that “the leaders of the Religious Right have had more than a quarter of a century now to formulate their proposals, but they have failed so far to make public the specifics of their plan…Am I the only person in America who finds it curious that even though the Republican Religious Right coalition seized control of the House of Representatives in 1995, the presidency in 2001, and the Senate in 2003, these conservatives have made no serious attempt to outlaw abortion, their stated goal?” (p. 22-23)

How serious do you think the Republican Party is about outlawing abortion, and, (perhaps more importantly), do you think outlawing abortion would effectively end abortion?

5. Would overturning Roe v. Wade end abortion?

I got this information from a site called ProLifeProObama, which was passed along to me by Laurie, a friend of the blog. According to the site:

Overturning Roe Vs. Wade, a long time goal of the pro-life movement, would not end abortion in the United States, it would simply send the decision to the states.

If states with more than 45% "pro-life" sentiment chose to outlaw abortion, this would only impact 16 states accounting for 10% of abortions nationwide, or less than 100,000 abortions a year.

Women in these 16 states would still be able to travel to seek an abortion in another state, or seek an illegal abortion, making the impact likely less than a 10% reduction in abortions nation-wide.

States with the highest abortion rates in the country, like California and New York, would be unlikely to outlaw abortion in their states.

Nearly half of all abortions in the world are performed in countries that have made abortion illegal.

The lowest abortion rates in the world - less than 10 per 1,000 women of reproductive age - are in Europe, where abortion is legal and available

When all is said and done, I’m not convinced that directing our efforts to overturning Roe v. Wade is the most effective strategy for actually reducing the number of abortions in the U.S.  However, I understand that such a ruling would certainly be an ideological victory, and would make a strong statement regarding our country’s value for human life.

6. What is the best strategy for actually stopping abortions from happening?

I think the Pro Life, Pro Obama site does a good job of addressing this issue. It says, “Many pro-life advocacy efforts have focused on the legal status of abortion, rather than addressing prevention of unplanned pregnancy and the needs of pregnant women and families. This has intensified the division and partisanship around this issue, but has little effect at reducing the abortion rate itself.

Here are some interesting statistics:

The most frequent reasons given by women seeking an abortion are that a child would limit ability to meet current responsibilities and that they cannot afford a child at this point in their lives.

Unintended pregnancy has increased by 29% among poor women while decreasing 20% among higher-income women.

Women below the federal poverty level have abortion rates almost four times those of higher-income women.

A recent study by the Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good finds that social and economic supports such as benefits for pregnant women and mothers and economic assistance to low-income families have contributed significantly to reducing the number of abortions in the United States over the past twenty years.

Economic assistance to low income families is correlated with a 20% lower abortion rate. Across the entire United States, this translates into 200,000 fewer abortions

The abortion rate has declined most rapidly from 1990-1996 when there was an economic boom under President Clinton. While rates have continued to decrease, they have declined less rapidly in recent years when poverty rates have been climbing.

Is it too much of a stretch to argue that Obama’s economic and healthcare policies would set up a better environment for decreasing the number of abortions than John McCain’s?

As the site points out, “under the Obama health plan, no one would be denied health care coverage because of a pre-existing condition. He would change the bizarre practice of pregnancy being listed in many health coverage plans as a ‘pre-existing condition.’”

Furthermore, Obama supports paid maternity leave and expansion of programs like the Nurse-Family Partnership, which allows low-income mothers to get one-on-one support from trained nurses.  

Whose economic policies do you think would most positively affect abortion rates? I’m leaning toward Obama’s—primarily because of his healthcare plan. But I understand that in opting for what I think is the more pragmatic route, I concede the important ideological struggle. In voting for someone who I think will help reduce the number of abortions, I vote for someone who does not share my conviction about the sanctity of human life. Weird. Anyone else out there doing the same?

7. Are Christians willing to adopt?

Finally, I think ole’ Shane Claiborne said it best when he said this:

“It’s easy to have political views—that’s what politicians do. But it’s much harder to embody a political alternative—that’s what saints do. The greater challenge is right living, not merely right thinking….Those who would like to see abortion grow rarer and become nonexistent had also better be ready to take in some teen moms and adopt some unwanted babies… This is why we loved Mother Teresa so much. Mother Teresa embodied her politics. She didn’t just wear a T-shirt that said, ‘abortion is homicide.’ She loved moms and unborn so much, she could say with integrity, ‘If you don’t want to have the baby, you can give it to me.’ Which is why everyone called her Mother.” (p. 235 of “Jesus for President”)

If Christians are going to commit themselves to being pro-life, they must be willing to adopt, work for social and economic justice, and help teen mothers along. (I also think they need to be more open to comprehensive sex ed, but that’s another post!)


Whew! Long post! Feel free to comment on any of the seven questions. But before you react to one another’s comments, please recite the following to yourself:

“The person with whom I disagree is a fellow human being who is just trying to do the right thing like me. I will not call him/her names, (like baby- killer or socialist or religious nut), because that’s what little kids do when they are afraid or intimidated…and I’m not a little kid. Instead, I will show respect to everyone, and I will continue to read Rachel’s blog, and I will most definitely buy her book."


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