Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

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.

April 1, 2009 - Posted by | abortion


  1. […] A Confession: Why I Am No Longer “Pro-Life” on Abortion Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Encountering TraditionUnraveling the Cliche of Single ParentingThe Devil Wants You Dead – 4 […]

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  2. The best and most intellectual discourse on the journey to such a decision that I have read. I wish many others would read this and understand the similar feelings of many who support the right to have an abortion.

    Comment by Ralph Reed | April 1, 2009

  3. hello!
    I would like to coment the 2 real life situations given in this text
    boath of them are not fairly presented

    first of all, there is no serious pro-life person that forses someone to give life for other person
    Catholic church, as constant voice for human dignity teaches that women chooses herself if her and the life of the baby are in danger
    so, there is no single “official”, serious and faith baised teaching that forces someone to die in stead someone else!

    the other example in which couple makes test if preborn child is ok is very simple-we have people judging other human beings if its “good enouhg” to be born
    milions of abrotion shows very nicely that difference between your kind of thinking and 95% of Down sindrom babys newer born is very small (do you think that people aborting them are really mean and evel?I belive that they also folow thein best intentions(as I belive, you do), and they think that they do good to parents “not to have shade over their life” having disabled children, and to the child itsels)
    a bit larged is devide to a fact that parents choose not to give birth to child that has for exmple…club feet http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-388114/Babies-aborted-perfect.html)

    and for better understanding of parents with the difficult pregnancy diaggnosis, please wisit http://www.benotafraid.net
    page where perents share their and the stories of their children

    (spetial interesting are stories of women which were strongly adviced (how far is this from “forced”?) to have “therapeutic” abortion, and their letter strugle with suicidal thoughts (which showes where is real threath to mothers life!)

    all the best!

    Comment by Ivan | April 1, 2009

  4. You won’t hear name-calling from me, Michael, just respect for your journey. As you know, I consider myself a seamless garment type. Yet, I voted for Obama (so your criticism of some pro-lifers would not apply to me) and I do not object to birth control (another one of your criticism that would not apply to me). I consider myself pro-life, with some exceptions in cases of extreme medical circumstances, such as the ones you cited. Instead of totally throwing out the seamless garment approach, I wonder why you can’t just add some further nuance to the position by noting some circumstances which would be exceptional. This is my approach.

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | April 1, 2009

  5. Jonathan, I respect you and people like you. The reason I cannot simply nuance the position (which I tried for years) is because I realize that I no longer consider LIFE to be the overriding principle, but personhood. Also, realizing that the law is a blunt instrument, I found myself unable to imagine a way to outlaw the kinds of abortions I find immoral, but allow the ones in tragic contexts. Would there be reviews of every case? I decided that it was better to work on the reasons women seek abortions, the underlying causes, rather than a legal-punitive approach.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 1, 2009

  6. why to bother with a “reasons women have abortion” if life is not “overriding principle” (any more)?
    than whats wrong with aborting for example 28 weeks unborn (unpersonhood?) baby after scans showed it had a cleft palate (yes, litle skin and tissue mising on the upper lip!)

    what is here that has to be “worked on the reasons (this) woman seeks abortions?

    if this kid can be aborted (and that act justifited by somenes idea that it is not “person” yet) how can we have anything to tell people that kill born babys/children/adault people based on their definition of personhood, viableity and developement of nervous systems?

    all the best!

    Comment by Ivan | April 1, 2009

  7. Interesting post, Michael, and I might be in Jonathan Marlowe’s camp (but I obviously don’t know the extent of his views).

    I would certainly not vote for a candidate who was anti-abortion no matter what other views he or she held. In my view, it’s utterly foolish to vote on a single issue.

    For me, the whole central theological issue here is expressed by Cornelius Plantinga: The heart of sin is…the persistent refusal to tolerate a sense of sin, to take responsibility for one’s sin, to live with the sorrowful knowledge of it and to pursue the painful way of repentance.

    I understand that there are times when an individual may end up killing (e.g. in direct and immediate defense of his family). That doesn’t make the killing right. But, of course, one can be forgiven by God for it.

    I understand that there are times when an individual may end up deciding that an abortion is the best course of action (e.g. a baby to be born without a brainstem). This is actually a grayer area for me than defensive killing and I’m honestly not sure whether it is right or wrong. However, the fact is, that most abortions are used as birth control and I still believe that this is wrong.

    Can I say that I think that, when we base our moral judgements on political movements and the political actions of people, we might risk fuzzy thinking. What I dislike most about the US is that thoughts about morality seem to come in ‘packages’. If you support gay marriage, for instance, everyone assumes you support abortion on demand. If you think abortion is wrong, people assume that you are also right-wing. I want to think for myself, according to what I believe is consistent with being a follower of Christ.

    Comment by PamBG | April 2, 2009

  8. Ivan,
    Because the life of potential persons is not the principle which trumps all others, it does not follow that it is of no consequence. Life is the most basic of all human rights. So, even for potential persons, such as pre-viable fetuses, it should take MUCH to override it. A cleft pallate or other physical imperfection is certainly not enough to justify an abortion morally. I hate the whole idea of “designer babies.” (And I find it telling that conservatives who are usually “pro-life” begin to have second thoughts when they consider that sexual orientation might really be genetic! Suddenly, such “conservative pro-lifers” are considering that if the “gay gene” could be discovered, they could abort any potential gay kids. Ugh!)

    The only genetic reasons which would justify abortion would be those in which the potential person had no future: either still birth or a life that was “ugly, brutal, and short.” My wife and I were asked, since we married late, if we wanted to test for Downs Syndrome during our pregnancies. We did not since we would have raised a Downs child anyway. I do NOT propose aborting special needs babies, Ivan.

    There may be women who abort for such selfish reasons, Ivan, but I find that is not true for the majority of cases. When facing an unplanned pregnancy, most women who are married (and the husband is not abusive, a drunk, etc.) will have the baby. If she is single, she may decide to have the baby and give it up for adoption or raise it if her support network is good. Most women who abort do so because they feel (wrongly or rightly) that they “have no other choice.” So, they need to be empowered to make other choices.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 2, 2009

  9. Pam, I actually do not believe in killing to protect my family. But I would be suspicious of any proposal to my self-defense or defense of my family ILLEGAL.

    I certainly agree that it is wrong to think that moral positions come in “packages”–unless there is actually a connection among several issues. For instance, people who know that I am (reluctantly) pro-choice on abortion think I am therefore in favor of fetal stem cell research. I’m not–not if it involves destruction of the embryos. But I mostly opposed to the process of In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) that creates these “extra” embryos in the first place. Why go to the trouble for artificially made babies (with extra created embryos doomed to destruction) when there are numerous kids in orphanages and foster care waiting to be adopted?

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 2, 2009

  10. This blog’s great!! Thanks :).

    Comment by matt | April 2, 2009

  11. Well thought out commentary, Michael. I reckon I’m somewhere in the vicinity of being in your camp. Started out pro-life blindly, have come to think of abortion as a more nuanced issue. I still am generally opposed to, for instance, the notion of “abortions of convenience,” where a family decides to abort a fetus because of gender or because it’s just not convenient to have a child, but at the same time, I recognize that making that call can be a difficult one. Therefore, I tend to favor leaving that difficult decision to families, not the gov’t.

    I am, however, consistently opposed to Government making the decision to kill innocents – whether through abortion or war. That is where I find my consistency to be most important and the “other side’s” inconsistency to be most glaring.

    Ralph Reed? Formerly in politics? From Georgia? Really?

    Comment by Dan Trabue | April 2, 2009

  12. I just can’t believe that in my 50s I am still arguing this issue. Men kill thousands of potential babies with the waseful release of sperm every hour in this country. Men never discuss this as pro choice or anti life or discuss it at all. If women tossed their eggs down the drain—OH! The outrage! Yet each carries the potential for personhood. SEXISM! Men discussing/deciding the whole issue disgusts me. Men don’t like condoms—doesn’t feel as good. TOO BAD DAD. Women continue to have to take all the responsibility, yet remain demonized for wanting the choice to make important decisions. INSANE

    Comment by Diane J Standiford | April 2, 2009

  13. Pam, I actually do not believe in killing to protect my family. But I would be suspicious of any proposal to my self-defense or defense of my family ILLEGAL.

    I have to confess that I’m not really up-to-date with all the ins and outs of American politics, so forgive me.

    Can you enlighten me as to why it’s apparently impossible to think that abortion-as-birth-control is sinful and still be in favour of women being able to obtain abortions in life-threatening situations? (I appreciate that there is a grey area of moral discernment inherent in trying to discern life-threatening situations.)

    The way I see it, there is theology on the one hand and politics on the other. I think it’s possible to be fairly clear-minded about the theology (still acknowledging that various specific situations will require discernment) as well as to realise that we don’t live in a theocracy.

    For example, the British Methodist Church uses it’s political lobbying experts to lobby Parliament to restrict abortions to earlier and earlier gestational periods. This is not because we think abortion-on-demand is a good thing. It’s because we recognise that it’s unlikely that abortion-on-demand will be forbidden, but possible that it will be restricted.

    By American standards, I’m pretty liberal theologically. But I honestly can’t understand how my American counterparts seem to fight for abortion on demand? How can that be right? Also, I can’t just unthinkingly get on board with the Roman Catholic position either as I believe that discouraging education about and use of birth control also can’t be right in the context of abortions being wrong. (I understand the RC theology of birth control and obviously disagree with it.)

    Comment by PamBG | April 2, 2009

  14. BDW,

    I’ll give you credit for being thoughtful.

    But to you, and especially Jonathan Marlowe, I charge that concern for innocent, “viable” unborns is very low–if appearing at all–on your list of societal priorities.

    My charge is based on your support of Obama, the most pro-abortion politician I’ve heard of, when McCain is clearly pro-life. Obama wouldn’t allow an Illinois bill identical to the federal Born Alive Infants Protection Act (which had provisions protecting Roe v. Wade) to see the light of day any more than could the unprotected infant born alive through the abortionist’s mistake.

    Comment by Chuck | April 2, 2009

  15. Oops. My apologies. I mistakenly addressed Michael as BDW, where I saw the link.

    Comment by Chuck | April 2, 2009

  16. Chuck, eight years of George W. Bush in the White House did not reduce the actual number of abortions in the United States. As a matter of fact, some studies show that the number of abortions was lower when Bill Clinton was president. A candidate’s views on abortion should be taken into consideration, but I attach more significance to what the actual results are (more abortions when a Republican is president than when a Democrat is president) than I do to a politician’s rhetoric. The economic policies of Bush and McCain produce social realities that make abortions more likely.

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | April 2, 2009

  17. I oversimplified the studies I alluded to in the previous comment. But it is certainly a hotly contested topic, with enough uncertainty that allows me to take other factors into consideration when voting, such as economic and other policies.

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | April 2, 2009

  18. Statistics can be enlightening, even in philosophical discussions:

    About 98% of abortions are elective – for personal, non-medical reasons, according to studies conducted by the Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI – not to be confused with AIG!) drawn from many sources.

    Of women having abortions, 60% have had one or more children, and 45% have had one or more abortions.

    AGI’s 2008 report shows abortions down during Bush’s first term (does not show second term):

    Clinton years: Avg. 21.5 per 1000 women / year
    Bush first term: Avg. 19.5 per 1000 women / year

    With 50 million abortions since Roe, abortion rights have unleashed a way of life with widespread social and, I would argue, moral effects. The (rationalized) tail wagged the dog.

    All that can be discerned without reference to any religion.

    Comment by K Gray | April 2, 2009

  19. I don’t think that he’s the same Ralph Reed, Dan.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 2, 2009

  20. So this is where the students of Glen Stassen end up. Can’t say anyone is even a bit surprised.

    Comment by Dennis | April 2, 2009

  21. Is this a dig at my position or my lack of a tenured post or a dig at Glen? For the record, most of Glen’s doctoral students are teaching in universities or seminaries. I still teach part-time.

    If you mean that my view on abortion is somehow related to being Glen’s student, you are mistaken. Glen still considers himself a seamless garment pro-lifer. But he has never tried to make his students into copies of himself. At SBTS where I was his student, all of us in the Christian Ethics program also had pro-choice Paul Simmons as our professor. We were all over the map on this and other issues. Paul tended to supervize dissertations on bio-ethics or sexual ethics (no matter whether they agreed with him or not) and Glen the dissertations on peace or social justice. They split the ecological ethics, pastoral ethics, and theological ethics dissertations. But we all had both professors.

    Even when I was firmly pro-life (and felt that Simmons treated life too casually because he was both pro-choice and a Just War Theorist), I defended his right to teach at SBTS against fundamentalist attempts to fire him. After all, NOTHING in the “Abstract of Principles” (the seminary’s confession of faith) even dealt with abortion and there was nothing in his academic contract demanding a particular view. I defended academic freedom. I also believe, even when I disagree with Simmons’ conclusions (as I still do in many areas) that he pays closer attention to the biblical text than do most bio-ethicists of whatever theological or political stripe.

    I do not know what Glen Stassen’s students at Fuller are like. But judge me on my own terms–not as a good or bad reflection of my beloved teacher. I do not know who you are, Dennis, but Glen Stassen is one of the finest Christians and finest theological ethicists I have ever known. If you live to be 100, I doubt you’ll have 1/10th of the positive effect for the Reign of God that Glen has. No one badmouths him on MY blog!

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 2, 2009

  22. Jonathan,

    Like I said, stopping abortion-on-demand is low on your list of societal priorities.

    I’m a passionate pro-lifer, so would never vote for Obama, even if I liked socialist, big government.

    Comment by Chuck | April 2, 2009

  23. Chuck, I am not Jonathan. But let me point out that “stopping abortion on demand” was low on Bush’s priorites, too. From 2001 to 2006, the Republicans controlled the White House, both Houses of Congress, and had a clear anti-abortion majority on the Supreme Court. Had they been serious about this as a priority, they could have passed a law against abortion and seen if the Supreme Court upheld it or not. Or, they could have passed an amendment to the Constitution and tried to get the states to ratify it.

    I will tell you the truth, Chuck. The Republican LEADERS have never really been interested in “stopping abortion on demand,” because they use it as an issue to raise money and get out votes with–just as they do fear of same-sex marriage and fear of gun control laws. They use conservative evangelicals and conservative Catholics for their own ends and give them nothing. (See Thomas Frank’s, What’s the Matter with Kansas?) So, you vote against abortion and get attempts at privatizing Social Security. You vote for prayer and Bible readings in schools and get more tax giveaways to the ultra-rich and fewer financial regulations so that the rich can gamble away your retirement fund. You vote to block same-sex marriage and you get loose pollution regs so your air and water can be poisoned with impunity. You vote on one conservative social issue after another and what the Republicans ACTUALLY give you is economic rape of your best interests.

    And, by the way, Big Government grew by leaps and bounds under Bush. The ONLY president to shrink government in my adult lifetime was Bill Clinton. Who also gave us balanced budgets and gave Bush a huge revenue surplus that he blew BEFORE 9/11.

    Reducing abortions does not seem high on Obama’s priorities or he would have pushed for the plan by Democrats for Life to cut the abortion rate drastically within the framework of Roe v. Wade. That bill has not yet even been scheduled a hearing and Obama has not pushed for it. And that is disappointing. But the GOP just USES your “passionate pro-life” stance for its own ends. The Republican Party leadership is full of fat cats that think their base is a bunch of religious idiots–and they like it that way because they believe they can keep playing you for suckers. Wake up!!

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 2, 2009

  24. Michael,
    I confess that your argument is compelling!

    Comment by Celucien Joseph | April 2, 2009

  25. […] Posted on April 2, 2009 by Celucien Joseph No No No It’s not my confession! Michael L. Westmoreland-White wrote a compelling argument against the  pro-life  view on  Abortion. He […]

    Pingback by A Confession: Why I Am No Longer “Pro-Life” on Abortion « Christ, My Righteousness | April 2, 2009

  26. Chuck’s point stands.

    That aside, from 2001 to 2006 abortion-limiting legislation was introduced in the House and at least one passed, but Senate Republicans lacked the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. Don’t forget Gonzales v. Carhart.

    Obama has repealed four pro-(innocent)-life policies and will probably push FOCA, so he probably appreciates formerly pro-life evangelical Democrats. Some other Democrats, however, are waking up.

    Comment by KGray | April 2, 2009

  27. Thanks, Lou, but I wouldn’t call this narrative an argument. I have stricter standards as to what constitutes an argument. I might one day give such an argument on this blog–and will get even more flack. 🙂

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 2, 2009

  28. 🙂

    Comment by Celucien Joseph | April 2, 2009

  29. I thought this was a pretty good discussion, aside from the ad hominems in #23.

    Comment by KGray | April 2, 2009

  30. Hi Michael,

    I would echo some of the early points–your reasonable hesitation about certain extreme cases certainly wouldn’t make you ‘pro-choice’ in my book. I essentially agree with you and yet still consider myself ‘pro-life’.
    But perhaps the labels aren’t helpful.

    I’m uncomfortable with the language of rights and with the language of ‘personhood’ (notoriously hard to define, though I’m glad you don’t think Down’s Syndrome babies aren’t ‘persons’). Why can’t we let our political views be influenced by the question: what kind of a community do we want?
    A community in which healthy fetuses are aborted seems to me like one in which practices of sexuality have been divorced from their (usual) consequences–so there’s a problem with that.
    A community in which difficult judgments are made concerning threats posed by developing life in the womb could (at least in principle) by just as welcoming as one in which (less controversially) surgeons attempt a separation of conjoined twins whose health is deteriorating (but in which, say, one or both of them might die). I could live in a community like that. But I value human life (not just personhood) far more than mere ‘choice’. Hence: pro-life.

    Another factor to consider here is theological anthropology. As a ‘physicalist’ with respect to human constitution, I HAVE to take pro-life essentialism (which posits a non-physical soul inhabiting the fetus at conception) with a grain of salt. Whatcha see is whatcha get, on my view. But that’s consistent with thinking that elective abortion should be illegal.


    Comment by Daniel | April 3, 2009

  31. “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.”

    Are there any “consistently pro-life” politicians? XD

    Personally, I do believe the state (or the church) doesn’t have any right to take decisions on women’s bodies, but it doesn’t mean I accept abortion (I think the only ethical stance for an abortion is when a woman´s life is under risk, which actually could be a pro-life stance; perhaps when pregnancy is the result of a rape, but I’m not sure about the later). What I am rally against is abortion based on selfishness or personal interest.

    Comment by mountainguy | April 3, 2009

  32. What is the primary motivator for abortion? Probably fear. Fear of life changes, scarcity, disapproval, loss of opportunity, loss of relationship, but probably most of all, fear of parenting. Fear which, in the moment, can overcome hope, love, and even faith.

    This is not a good state of affairs for a community.

    I really believe that people on both sides of the theological and political aisle recognize this and would like to alleviate fear and give people a better hope and plan. We differ in our approaches and beliefs, and in whether our hope is in God, man or institutions.

    But what we are doing has objectively, demonstrably not worked. We are busily training one another to reject what may be life’s premier privilege and responsibility. Parenthood is the one thing we haven’t been able to make easy. We are afraid, and we lack the love, hope and faith to overcome it. So our policies are based on fear that someone who had sex might have to parent. In other words, what Daniel said.

    I don’t have the answer. But – is your church expanding its nursery? Neither is mine.

    Comment by K Gray | April 3, 2009

  33. Daniel, I have argued in many places that the communitarian fear of rights is wrongheaded. Without a strong theory of human rights, communities become closed and authoritarian. But I share your discomfort with positing the rights of mothers against the rights of her children (and developing potential children). All moral languages, including those of rights and responsibilities, have their limits and it may be that the abortion controversy is better illuminated by other languages.

    That personhood is hard to define fully doesn’t make it a bad concept. I don’t think I have to know at what moment after conception that human life moves from potential to full personhood. It is enough to realize that a full nervous system (not just a brain stem) is the minimum physical requirement for such.

    There are bizarre consequences if we start with conception–whether with body/soul dualism or with body/soul unity. (I share your view, but dislike the WORD “physicalism.” I prefer psychosomatic unity.) Millions of fertilized ovae never attach to the uterine wall and are spontaneously aborted during the woman’s next menstrual period. If we say that these fertilized ovae are to be given the same human value as persons, then a woman’s body is a natural murderer. That cannot be right.

    You protest the separation of human sexuality from procreation. In most mammals, the link is indissoluble. But human sexuality is different, though sharing much with our fellow creatures. Human women are always “in season.” Sexual intercourse is, for us, far more than just a procreative act. The Catholic view that every sex act must be open to the possibility of procreation (which is behind their opposition to birth control and why they treat abortion as a problem in SEXUAL ethics rather than biomedical ethics) led to Aquinas’ view that masturbation and same sex intercourse were not only sinful but WORSE sins than heterosexual rape–because at least rape allowed for the possibility of conception! (Thus, rape was “natural” and masturbation or gay sex “unnatural.” Thomas apparently hadn’t spent much time observing farm animals!)

    I appreciate what both you and K Gray say about welcoming communities. But we live in a world that is overpopulated. Nature’s way of dealing with such is brutal: famine, disease, or war for scarce resources. So, while I reject elective abortion as a form of birth control, I am firmly in favor of birth control and family planning.

    Again, to me abortion is always a tragedy, never to be celebrated or lightly condoned. My wife and I had two miscarriages between the births of our wonderful daughters. I know the pain of loss. I know that my wife realizes, in a way I never will, in her BODY the violation, the VIOLENCE, that is a woman’s body rejecting rather than nourishing gestating life. I have heard from women who have had elective abortions, whether they later regretted it or not, that the act is like an invasion.

    I want to create the kind of communities that make such RARE. (It wouldn’t cease to be practiced even if completely illegal. There was a thriving underground abortion network in the states before Roe–as there is in Ireland and other places where abortion is illegal.) I just no longer believe that punitive laws help much in creating such communities.

    And I cannot any longer call myself “pro-life” on abortion because I know there are cases in which I would counsel that such an action is the lesser of evils. I don’t like that this is the case, but life–maybe especially at birth and death–is messy.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 3, 2009

  34. Mountainguy, I think abortion is also morally justifiable in cases of rape or incest. I admire those women who choose to carry to term anyway, but legally forcing a rape or incest to remain pregnant is horrifying to me. Again, there is a difference between moral obligation and moral heroism–beyond what others can require of you.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 3, 2009

  35. Michael, you make some very interesting points with respect to the distinction between moral obligation and moral heroism. One of my unresolved questions would be, how does this relate to the idea of “works of supererogation,” which most Protestants reject?

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | April 3, 2009

  36. Well, Jonathan, I don’t know. One of my theology profs., Molly Marshall, insisted that there WERE works of supererogation. I am willing to accept that, except in a soteriological sense. Moral heroism cannot mean any kind of works salvation.

    I am also willing to say that certain callings can give one duties or obligations others do not share: A parent’s extra duties, for instance. I think that, as a Christian, I have the extra requirement to give up my right of violent self-defense or defense of family.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 3, 2009

  37. Natural expulsion of fertilized eggs: that could be seen as an act of God or as natural selection (with which you have no problem – perhaps population control?), but absent the element of volition, how could it possibly be any form of murder? That argument seems discardable on its face.

    In truth I would broaden Daniel’s argument. Separating privilege/rights from responsibility/consequence — creating license — can lead to unintended consequences, maybe even current economic woes!

    Comment by K Gray | April 3, 2009

  38. Michael,

    I found your journey very interesting, and very tragic at some points. The two stories of difficult pregnancies seemed to shape your opinion more than anything else, and while I find those who offended you rather insensitive, I think in both cases they made an argument that was at least reasonable (that one should give be willing to sacrifice their own life for that of their child – especially as opposed to supporting a practice that has done far more harm to society than good).

    Still, I certainly can see your outrage at their insensitive comments. Even as a strong pro-lifer I find difficult cases such as these heartbreaking and tragic.

    But what I found most disturbing in your specific journey on abortion is that there seemed to be a lack of influence on you from either the Bible or Church History, both of which you appeal to constantly and consistently when making your pacificistic stands.

    Whenever I, or someone else, has put forth an experiential argument against pacificism (i.e., a tragic story where
    “extreme” pacificism seemed to do more harm than good), you have rejected it, disqualified it, or dismissed it, citing the Bible and Church History as trump cards. Yet on this topic, you bring your own experiential arguments to the table, with no reference to the aforementioned trump cards.

    So, my concern is not so much that I think you are being inconsistent in your views, as much as I believe you are being inconsistent in how you arrived at them, and how they play out in your mind. We all know that abortion was clearly condemned by the Early Church, and much of the Bible confirms the sacredness of all forms of innocent life, as well as the idea that life begins in the womb.

    Thus, I guess I simply don’t understand how the extreme and insensitive fringes of the pro-life movement somehow changed your opinion to support abortion rights, yet the extreme and insensitive fringes of the pacifistic movement have not caused you to discard them. As a Bible-believing Christian, it seems that the only foundation for any of our views should be the Word of God, not our experience.

    One final thought – While I have disagreed with your pacifistic views (and I appreciate your accurate description of my consistency as defending “innocent life”), I have at least respected you for holding forth the Bible and Early Church tradition as your sources of such views. But your position on abortion has always tempered that respect and caused me to consider that possibly your views aren’t strictly Biblical, but rather personal opinions held not for the glory of Jesus Christ, but rather as a part of a greater “liberal” agenda. I can’t help but think the same when I read of your reasoning for leaving the pro-life position.

    Nevertheless, thanks for letting us into the world of your mind once again.

    Comment by D.R. Randle | April 3, 2009

  39. Michael–thanks for the response.

    I only said I was ‘uncomfortable’ with rights talk. I agree with you that such language has its uses. With respect to abortion however, it seems you and I both agree alternative moral frames may be more helpful.

    I essentially agree with you on this whole issue (except perhaps on the rape issue… but I’d need to think more about it to be decisive).

    For some reason however, I still think of myself as ‘pro-life’. I guess when I hear ‘pro-choice’, I hear ‘pro-elective-abortion-of-healthy-babies’, and that’s a view you certainly seem to reject.
    If pro-life and pro-choice are endpoints on a spectrum, rather than two mutually exclusive positions, then you seem to me closer to the pro-life side. Or at least, far away from some pro-choicers I know of…

    The key legal question, as far as I can tell, is whether ALL abortion needs to be ‘safe and legal’ in order for anencephalic babies to be legally removed from the womb pre-birth (for example). I don’t know the U.S. legal system at all, but a ban on all or only most abortions with a few crucial exception clauses seems like it could do the trick to me.
    What say you?


    Comment by Daniel | April 3, 2009

  40. D.R.,
    Since this was a description of a personal journey, I told personal stories. Scripture and Church History also played a part, but the story was long enough as is. If ever I write a series defending my conclusions on abortion, Scripture and Church History will play their part, I assure you. But this wasn’t an argument for my perspective, merely an autobiographical piece.

    I do think you have misunderstood HOW I appeal to the early church on nonviolence–as evidence that the pacifistic interpretation was natural to early Christians. The early church was also against abortion, but here it is not interpreting Scripture or Jesus because they are silent on the topic. Rather, they seem to be importing Hellenistic views. (By itself, this doesn’t make the view wrong–that would be an example of the genetic fallacy.)

    By the way, the word is “pacifism,” not “pacificism.” 🙂

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 3, 2009

  41. Daniel, perhaps you are right, but I have become fed up with trying to fine-tune the laws and decided to work on reducing the reasons women seek abortions. If the demand dries up, won’t that be a good thing?

    Belgium, The Netherlands, and some other countries with liberal abortion laws have much lower abortion rates than do Ireland, Italy, and Portugal, where abortion is outlawed. The key is comprehensive sex education, easy access to birth control, ease of adoption.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 3, 2009

  42. Michael, thanks for sharing your journey. Life issues are far more complicated than most people on either side of the debate are willing to admit. I really appreciate the raw honesty here, and the acknowledgment that circumstances and experiences can change our views over a lifetime.

    Good luck with the hate mail. 🙂

    Comment by Texas in Africa | April 3, 2009

  43. TiA, thanks. I have actually tried to work with groups that sought to find common ground between “pro-choicers” and “pro-lifers” (to use their own preferred self-descriptions). After a week, I felt I was gaining the qualifications needed to negotiate peace between Israelis and Palestinians! 🙂

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 3, 2009

  44. Turnabout is fair play:

    It all came to a head when I met a few couples with truly tragic encounters with Jihadists. In the first instance, the Jihadist entered their home, decapitated their infant child, disemboweled their teenage son, and then was about to slice the throats of the wife and teenage daughter until the husband took out an uzzi and blew a hole through the Jihadist that you can drive a truck through.

    When I told this story to a woman who was prominent in Soujourners, she did not weep at the tragedy, but condemned the husband as a murderer. According to her, the husband should have let the Jihadist slit his wife and daughter’s throats in order to show love to the Jihadist for the few minutes of life they all might have. Having chosen otherwise, he was a “murderer.” I could not agree and shrank away in horror.

    Lesson: sometimes pacifism is just pacifist aggressive.

    Comment by Francis Beckwith | April 4, 2009

  45. Michael,

    Your statement is well said. I think you state what I would affirm myself. The question that will always afflict us is when does personhood begin? Those who would oppose contraception have, I think, created a false sense of when life/personhood begins.

    It is never an easy decision, but it should be taken with great thought and prayer — knowing that we all walk in the grace of God, even if we make mistakes.

    Comment by Bob Cornwall | April 4, 2009

  46. Personbood seems more malleable than life/death because it is grounded in philosophy rather than science. It seems like a more judgmental standard, in a way.

    Comment by K Gray | April 4, 2009

  47. Poorly phrased – judgmental meaning “requiring more delicate and difficult judgments.”

    Comment by K Gray | April 4, 2009

  48. Frank, I SAID that the criticisms JW theorists have of pacifists make me nervous about possible parallels with abortion. I think your story is fiction (I know the folks at Sojourners and they would simply weep at the tragedy, not condemn the husband)–also the miraculous presence of an uzzi is evidence of the same), but the point still stands. I have never advocated passivity in the face of evil.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 4, 2009

  49. K, the reason that personhood, however difficult and complex a concept, is more relevant than life can be illustrated this way: My thumb is human life, but if it became gangrenous, no one would hesitate to amputate it to save my life–because I am a person and my thumb is not. Now, this analogy is not perfect because my thumb has no potential to become a person, whereas, from conception onward, a gestating fetus does. But the distinction has real world importance.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 4, 2009

  50. Thanks, Bob. I don’t think there is any way to pinpoint the beginning of personhood, but I think that a viability outside the womb is a minimum condition.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 4, 2009

  51. Michael:

    Your response in #49 reveals that you really have not studied the issue with any level of sophistication. Your “thumb” is part of you and receives its purpose because of the part it plays in the perfection of the whole, you. An embryo is a whole being with its own intrinsic purpose whose perfection is actualized in the process of becoming what it already is. Thus, for example, if I were to purposely create an anencephalic child, for the purpose of harvesting its organs in order to help “the poor,” by intentionally preventing the development of its neural tube so that no higher brain function develops, I am in fact harming a person before consciousness even arises. But if “personhood” characteristics are what make a human being intrinsically valuable, then there is no way to account for purposely creating brainless children since they are “created” prior to becoming “persons.” Yet if it is indeed wrong, then what follows is that the intentional creation of brainless children (or embryos) for the purpose of harvesting their organs is a serious wrong, for such a judgment requires that their pre-brain selves are rights-bearers entitled to some protection by the wider community. But if we were to extract from this insight the principle that seems to ground this wrong – it is prima facie wrong to destroy the physical structure necessary for the realization of a human being’s present capacity for the exercisability of a function that is a perfection of its nature – then the pre-brain embryo is a subject of moral concern.

    As for the viability standard you suggest in #50, that’s particularly weak, since viability is merely a measure of dependency and not ontological status. Whether one is an independent being is a different question as to whether one is an independent being who is dependent on another independent being. For example, identical twins that share vital organs are two independent beings that are dependent on each other. And yet, neither is less a person for it.

    Moreover, it is odd that you would suggest that a being becomes permissible to kill when it is at its most weak and dependent. If anything, that should provoke our compassion and our love.

    Where is it written, and why should anyone believe, that the healthy young and conscious adult is the paradigm of personhood by which we ought to judge all other human states? Sounds like metaphysical fascism to me, I borrow a slur from the Sojourners lexicon.

    Comment by Francis Beckwith | April 4, 2009

  52. Francis, I oppose even in vitro fertilization. I would certainly oppose creating an anencephalic fetus for whatever purpose. I don’t think my view is devoid of all problems. I think this is inherently messy–and that your view is subject to weakness, too. There must be more to personhood than a genetic code.

    You seem to be writing in a tone designed to provoke me rather than persuade me, which is not how I remember you. I wrote a painful confession of a journey to date. I did not write an argument. I know full well that this is your area of specialty. You have written books and edited books on abortion more than anything else you have written. I have not found your view entirely persuasive, but if I were not attracted to the moral dimensions of the “absolutely no abortions” position, I would never have been a member of seamless garment organizations for much of my adult life.

    I have examined the subject–not as in depth as I have other moral areas, it’s true. But I never expected that I COULD write anything that would persuade you to my view. I just wrote about how I got here.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 5, 2009

  53. What Dr. Beckwith said. Part v. whole. Same with the popular “my skin cell” analogy.

    Without going futher into argument, IMO personhood just seems artificial, subjective, and a small shadow of the majesty and mystery of new, unique human life. And, to use more cliche, where angels fear to tread.

    This debate may die soon, when women routinely opt out of menstruation except when they want a child. Science will lead the way. To remain “prey” to natural menstruation will be considered backward and unnecessarily burdensome, and just gross. Our sympathies, desire for control, and wish to alleviate discomfort will prompt us to encourage our daughters in this. They won’t have to deal with the discomfort and personal bother, or worry about unintended pregnancy. (Here I always imagine a netherworld of unintended persons — or nonpersons, because they are unwanted; pesky tautologies!) Cycle suppression will eliminate a disincentive to early sexual activity and/or promiscuity, but that has not been considered a worthy concern.

    Comment by K Gray | April 5, 2009

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