A Confession: Why I Am No Longer “Pro-Life” on Abortion
Let me describe a long and painful journey to an uncomfortable and reluctant conclusion. (I reached this point in the ’90s, but I do not like to talk about it. This will be the most complete breaking of my silence to date.) I was once “consistently pro-life,” part of the “seamless garment” movement that rejected abortion, active euthanasia, the death penalty, and war and looked down on those who were “pro-life” on only some of those issues as inconsistent. But I eventually came to the reluctant conclusion that the issues were only superficially similar, that each had to be considered as morally separate questions, and that the “seamless garment” didn’t stretch far enough to cover everything. The cloth tore for me on the issue of abortion. (I later realized that I had not even come to these issues all at once. I opposed the death penalty since my teens, long before I was a conscientious objector to war. And I had always made the distinction between active euthanasia [killing the terminally ill] and passive euthanasia [allowing the terminally ill to die without “superhuman measures” that delay death]. ) This applies to others who take different stands than I do, too. Someone CAN be opposed to abortion and supportive of the death penalty (the opposite of my stance) without being inconsistent; their underlying moral principle is not life, but innocent life, whereas my underlying commitment is to personhood.
I may someday write a series arguing the biblical and moral case that abortion is sometimes the lesser of evils and while abortions are always moral tragedies, they are sometimes morally permissable in the midst of tragedy. This isn’t really that case. This is simply my testimony about how I got where I am, today.
It will surprise those younger than my generation that abortion was not always a hot topic in this nation, either politically or among churches. Well before Roe v. Wade (1973), a number of Christian denominations had passed resolutions in favor of more liberal abortion laws. It was a spirited debate among theologians (with folk like Karl Barth cited on both sides of the issue), but not with the fervor of later days. Evangelicals largely ignored the issue. The only denomination adamantly opposed was the Roman Catholic Church–and their stance was clearly tied up with their anti-birth control belief. So, I grew up in an atmosphere that considered elective abortions as reluctantly “better than unwanted babies thrown into garbage cans” (a news story when I was 10).
I was vaguely uncomfortable with this view, but it was not “front burner.” The “hot” moral issues were the end of the Vietnam War, Watergate, the women’s rights movement, and the environment. I became active in trying to prevent the reinstatement of capital punishment.
Then I became a Christian, joined the army, and became a pacifist and conscientious objector—a story I have told elsewhere. Almost immediately, I instinctively rejected abortion as a form of killing. As I went to seminary, I joined organizations that promoted the “seamless garment” ethic. I was disturbed that most pro-lifers were also pro-death penalty and pro-war, but I also thought that liberals were inconsistent: the liberal impulse is to protect those who are vulnerable, but they seemed unconcerned about the most vulnerable of all, the unborn. I was torn: I did not like the anti-woman rhetoric of most “pro-lifers” (much less the bombings and violence at abortion clinics in the ’80s and ’90s), but I also knew that many early feminists (e.g., Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul) had seen abortion as violence done TO women.
So, what changed me? The change came slowly in the late ’80s and ’90s. First, was the destruction of the “seamless garment” organization JustLife which evangelical pacifist Ron Sider had founded to help elect “consistently pro-life” politicians of whatever political party. To my dismay, I found that, when push came to shove, JustLife would actually endorse anti-abortion politicians no matter WHAT else they favored. In reality, one “life issue” trumped all others. So, JustLife fell apart and I left in search of more consistent “consistent pro-lifers.” I became part of Feminists for Life, but saw the same pattern developing. I was also noticing a disturbing trend: the states which had the most restrictions on abortions also had the fewest pre-natal resources for the poor and next to no aid in raising children or making adoption easier.
Then I began to notice that Protestant pro-lifers, even “seamless garment” types, were adopting the Catholic position on birth control. They began to refer to contraceptive pills as “abortifacients.” And the usual exceptions, for rape, incest, and to protect the life of the mother, were being eliminated from even “progressive” pro-life organizations.
It all came to a head when I met a few couples with truly tragic pregnancies. In the first instance, the developing fetus had an extreme case of Spina Bifida and was not even developing a spinal cord. Thus, the potential child was doomed. If the mother carried to term, the fetus would probably be stillborn. If not death would follow quickly. And carrying to term risked the life of the mother, especially if the pregnancy turned cancerous. So, the chose to terminate the pregnancy, reluctantly. When I told this story to a woman who was prominent in Feminists for Life, she did not weep at the tragedy, but condemned the couple as murderers. According to her, the woman should have risked her life to give birth to the doomed child and shown it love for the few minutes of life it might have. Having chosen otherwise, she was a “murderer.” I could not agree and shrank away in horror.
In a second instance, there was a false alarm. A couple had married late and so, when pregnant, monitored the pregnancy closely. A chemical test gave a “false positive” and told them that the developing fetus was anencephalic–developing no brain, but only a brain stem. Now, a secondary level sonagram showed that the baby-to-be was just fine and the couple delivered happily. But the “pro-lifers” condemned them for EVEN HAVING THE TESTS, for considering abortion in any case. Again, I could not agree.
So, I quit. I decided to re-think the issues altogether. I discovered that I considered fetal human life as “potential persons” from conception onward, but not actual persons until viable outside the womb, with fully developed nervous systems as the minimum requirement. Such potential should normally be encouraged, but my loyalty in conflict situations is to the actual personhood of the mother. With that in mind, I understood that I considered abortion to be the lesser of evils not only in extreme cases of fetal deformity, but in the cases of rape and incest as well as to save the life and health of the mother. I still oppose abortion as a form of “birth control after the fact.” I still think “reproductive choice” should be exercised PRIOR to conception.
I also think that too much pro-choice rhetoric treats the entire subject as a matter of civil liberties only–as if developing human life has no moral value at all. The “mass of cells” rhetoric is inexcusable. (So, by the way, are two sides shouting “Baby Killer!” or “Woman Hater!” across picket lines at each other and pretending this is moral discourse!)
But I have concluded that the pro-lifers do not have enough of a category for moral tragedy in which there are no good outcomes or choices–only “as good as possible.” They also leave out the category of moral heroism. A woman who is raped and chooses to bear the child (and either raise the child or give it up for adoption) is morally heroic, trying bravely to redeem a horrible crime. But those who would FORCE her to do this or say she is morally OBLIGATED are like Jesus’ characterization of the scribes: giving others’ heavy burdens they do not share. A woman who has a terminal pregnancy like the ones I described, who chooses to risk her life in order to show some love to a doomed baby is heroic. But saying she MUST do that is deny her own value as a human person and moral agent. Moral heroes go beyond what is morally obligatory. The pro-lifers do not seem to recognize this.
I believe the numbers of abortions are way too high. But I believe the way to lower these is not through restrictive laws, but through reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies and through making adoptions easier and giving pregnant women MORE choices. Also, in encouraging male sexual responsibility.
I may be wrong. And I came to this view reluctantly. I even wish I could go back. A seamless garment view is much simpler, much neater. But I have come to see it as too simple, not having room for the moral complexity of real life. I worry about that because just war types charge pacifists with the same lack of moral complexity, but I think there are differences in the two issues that are important. This is where my journey has taken me. I am not pro-life, but pro-personhood.
I have come to see the “consistent pro-life” position as not a “seamless garment,” but a patchwork cloth that is too small to try to cover all the issues (death penalty, euthanasia, war, abortion) adequately. The similarities are important, but the differences are, too.
Let the name calling begin.
P.S. Since I cannot take time to argue the biblical/theological case for a pro-choice view, I should give a plug for a good case made by others. Paul D. Simmons, Birth and Death: Bio-Ethical Decision-Making. Westminster, 1983.
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