Here’s the headline from the Daily Beast:
A Christian Case for Abortion Rights?
Wendy Davis’ abortion revelations raise the question: Can abortion be the most compassionate choice? Some religious leaders say yes.
Wendy Davis is the Democratic candidate for Governor of Texas. She has just published a memoir, less than two months before the election, with the transparent purpose of trying to play on voters’ sympathies. In it, she claims to have had two abortions, one because of an ectopic pregnancy, one because of fatal birth defects to the baby. The odds of both of these highly unusual circumstances happening to the same women are very high, and Davis has a history of fudging her biography. None of it matters electorally, because she has as much chance of winning as I do of being the next Super Bowl MVP. Nonetheless, her “confession” has occasioned some supposedly deep thinking, Keli Goff’s column in the Daily Beast included.
When news broke that Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis had previously terminated two pregnancies for medical reasons, she received words of compassion from a surprising source. A spokesperson for Texas Right to Life called “the value of life precious” but nevertheless also stated, “Our heart goes out for the decision she had to make.” Part of what has struck a chord about Davis’ story is that it serves as a potent reminder that the factors that go into the decision of whether to have an abortion are rarely as black and white as public political debates pretend they are.
If Goff knew any real, live right-to-life people, she would know that there is nothing surprising about her source. Right-to-lifers by and large are people who understand sin and redemption, understand the need to treat sinners with kindness though not approval of their actions, and who have done more to help post-abortion women than NARAL or NOW would dare (since admitting that abortion is typically not a rainbows-and-unicorns experience undermines The Narrative). As for Davis’ abortions demonstrating that things “are rarely as black and white as public political debates pretend they are,” the fact that she claims to have had abortions under two very rare circumstances actually does nothing to change the fact that in 97% of abortions, it is black and white. Abortion is wrong. Period.
Davis makes it clear this was a pregnancy that was greeted with joy, and that the aftermath caused great sorrow. But she expressed no regrets mainly because of her concerns about how much her fetus suffered before termination. Her candid confession gets at the heart of the debate for many over the issue of abortion, particularly people of faith: Can abortion sometimes be the most compassionate choice? More pointedly, can supporting abortion rights be compatible with Christianity?
No. Next question.
Leave aside the claims that Davis makes about the condition of the deformed baby. Here’s the reason why Goff’s question gets such a curt answer: while relieving suffering is a Christian virtue, it is not the highest virtue. The fact that a person is suffering or may suffer in the future is never a reason to kill that person. For one thing, Christianity contends that suffering may have a redemptive purpose that cannot be dismissed given that the redemptive suffering of Christ is at the heart of our faith. Countless Christians through the centuries have counted it an honor to suffer as our Lord suffered, and in the process seen their own life or that of people around them transformed. For another, claiming that killing is a proper response to suffering makes the mistake of allowing suffering to define the entirety of life, which is the first step down the road of claiming that there is life that is unworthy of living. For a third, this is a classic “ends justify the means” argument–ending suffering is a noble end, so it makes righteous the use of killing to end it. Christianity unequivocally rejects such an perversion of moral reasoning, no matter how pervasive it is in American culture.
Since the Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion nationally, efforts to criminalize it have been led in large part by high-profile religious leaders, religious groups, and activists whose politics are defined in large part by their religious identity. In the 41 years since Roe, the Religious Right, (sometimes called the Christian Right), has become a major force in national politics, with each Republican president since Ronald Reagan owing his election to its key players, among them Pat Robertson, the late Jerry Falwell, and others. Their influence in politics and ubiquity in the media created the impression that being religious, particularly identifying as a Christian, means opposing abortion.
But interviews with various clergy members and religious scholars indicate that there is far from a consensus that “Christian” = “opposed to abortion.”
You can imagine where this goes from here. Goff offers the opinions of a variety of liberal Christians, none of whom bother to make a theological or ethical argument for supporting abortion rights. For example:
Rev. Jacqui Lewis, who holds a PhD in psychology and religion, wrote in an email, “I am a practicing Christian and I am pro-choice. Those are compatible.” She elaborated, “I am a Christian, a pastor, a counselor and I know from counseling that when women make this decision, it is a painful one, often a heart breaking one. But personally, I believe it is their right to decide, in conversation with their partner or spouse, their family, their spiritual leader and their God.”
All that demonstrates is that there are Christians who support abortion rights. No news there. As to why they do, that’s a mystery. Tom Davis, a former chaplain and associate professor of religion at Skidmore College, takes a crack at it:
In a phone interview Davis said there are texts for some religions that address abortion specifically, such as in ancient Babylonia, but this is not the case in Christianity: “There is no law against abortion in the Bible. There is no law about birth control in the Bible. So when you don’t have a specific guidance on something, you look at what is the most human thing to do in a situation, what is most helpful and sometimes abortion is indicated.”
Ignore the line about birth control, which is pure red herring. It is debatable whether the Bible does or does not specifically condemn abortion. What is indisputable is that the Christian Church, from its earliest days, condemned abortion (widely practiced in the Roman Empire at the time) in the strongest terms. (The author of the Didache writes, “You shall not murder…you shall not abort a child or commit infanticide” [2.2], while the author of the Epistle of Barnabaswrites, “You shall not abort a child nor, again, commit infanticide” [19.5]. Both are from the early second century.) Claiming that there is any ambiguity about historic Christian teaching because the New Testament doesn’t mention it is like claiming that Jesus was OK with homosexual behavior because He isn’t recorded as condemning it. As for Davis basing his ethical decisions on “what is the most human thing to do in a situation,” I suppose it is possible to conceive of a flabbier excuse for ethical thinking, but I can’t come up with anything just at the moment.
Not having an argument, Davis tries an example:
Asked for an example of abortion being a more humane choice he recalled a situation from his days as a counselor when a woman came to him crushed because her husband had been killed. Though they had planned her third pregnancy, she was now barely able to support the two children they had before his death. Blaming sexism for much of the organized opposition to abortion among religious leaders, he said, “There are many reasons why a woman needs an abortion. Sometimes rape, sometimes because she says ‘I can’t be responsible for this child and can’t bring a child into this world I can’t care for.’”
Yeah, religious leaders oppose abortion because they hate women. Personally, I’d be more likely to think that given the consequences of abortion–significantly increased rates of depression, substance abuse, mental illness, and suicide–recommending abortion would be much more a sign that one was a sexist than not. And Davis’ case is a perfect example of how these consequences comes about. A woman in a terrible situation like the one he describes who resorts to killing a child because of difficult circumstances is bound at some point to be burdened with crushing guilt for having deprived one of her children of the gift of life because he or she couldn’t do what was necessary to provide for it. Is it really better for the child to kill it than to give it up for adoption? Is that really the position Davis wants to claim is Christian?
Goff mentions two other individuals in her attempt to discover a “Christian case for abortion rights.” One is Jon O’Brien, head of Catholics for Choice, a political front group that is no more Catholic than People for the American Way. The other is Gloria Feldt, the former president of Planned Parenthood (!), who relates a story about a Catholic priest who rejected Christian morality and so became an Episcopal priest. Feldt, who I suspect knows as much about “faith” as she knows about particle physics, says women clergy will change minds:
Feldt, who now runs Take the Lead, a group devoted to increasing gender parity in leadership positions, predicted women’s leadership may ultimately play a defining role in where faith and reproductive rights intersect in the future. “If you think about the underlying misogyny in the history of most major religions, it’s not surprising we’ve been dealing with these issues [reproductive rights] in those terms,” she said. “I do believe that the ascent of more women in the clergy, at least in the mainstream religions at this point, is going to make a huge difference. They simply see the world through a different lens.”
There is some truth to what she is saying. Lots of women clergy, particularly in the mainline denominations, see the world through the lens of feminist politics rather than Christian theology and ethics, and so have bent their churches in directions that are more suggestive of apostasy than faith. But there are also women clergy in denominations like mine (the Evangelical Presbyterian Church) as well as Pentecostal and independent churches that don’t fit Feldt’s stereotyping and reject the model of the abortion-loving woman.
If that’s the best Goss could do to find “Christians” who would tell her that there is a “Christian case for abortion rights” even as they fail to offer one, I’d say it’s a certainty that the pro-abortion case will continue to be made by Molech-worshipers of a decidedly secular mind. The “Christian case for abortion rights” is a mirage, and always has been.