My Struggle with the so-called “Pro-Life Movement”
One of the more contentious issues in the Christian Church and in society at large is abortion. It also an issue I have grappled with as well, both as a follower of Jesus and as a person committed to affirming life in all it forms. When people ask me what my position on abortion is, I say I am “completely pro-life.” Some assume I mean that all-out for the anti-abortion movement (which would be wrong) and some are not sure what I am saying.
I have often been troubled by people who are highly committed to saving the unborn but who are not nearly as passionate as caring for the needs of those children after they are born. Their concern for life stops at pregnancy. While affirming the life of the unborn, all too often they also support capital punishment, reducing government support for the poor, affirming for gun rights, going to war and other anti-life stances. As one who has spent his adult life working to help low-income youth, oppose war, and advocate for justice for those denied it in our society, I always found the inconsistency to be off-putting. If one is “pro-life” that should apply to more than one issue.
While I was living in Boston in the late 1970’s, I was talking with a friend about these issues, and she told me about an article she had read by evangelical Christian ethicist named Ron Sider. Sider talked about being “completely pro-life.” Sider is best known for his classic book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, and is the founder of Evangelicals for Social Action, a social justice advocacy group. A few years later Sider came out with a book entitled Completely Pro-Life (published 1987) in which he articulated what the term means to him.
Sider takes on people from both the political Left and the Right. On the first page he writes: “Why do many liberal and radical activists champion nuclear disarmament to protect the sanctity of life and then defend the destruction of one and one-half million unborn American babies each year?… Why does Jesse Helms [a formerly conservative Senator from North Carolina] one of the most visible advocates of the pro-life(antiabortion) movement support government subsidies for tobacco?” The issues may have changed since he first wrote the book, but his point is clear. Neither side – Right or Left – is consistent.
Basing his argument on an in-depth study of a biblical understanding of life (both the Hebrew Testament and the Christian Testament), he seeks to “articulate a consistent pro-life stance on public policy issues that flows from a biblical definition of life” (p.13). After laying out his biblical and theological understanding, he discusses a wide range of issues from abortion to poverty to family life to nuclear weapons to peacemaking to health care and more. Since the book is over 30 years old, it is understandable that some of the prominent issues may have changed (for instance, today a pro-life issue must be addressing climate change). Even so, his call to being completely pro-life has remained consistent over time.
So that is why I have generally been opposed to our nation going to war and to spend such exorbitant amounts of money on the military. I have been an advocate for economic justice and racial justice. I have long opposed the spread of nuclear energy and nuclear armaments. I have supported the humane treatment of refugees and migrants coming to our borders. More recently I have supported efforts to address global warming and environmental issues. I advocate for the full rights of women and protection against sexual violence. And I oppose abortion.
Pro-Choice as Pro-Life
But I also support a women’s right to choose what happens to her body. Having watched my wife give birth to three daughters, I know how incredibly painful and difficult childbirth is. Before our modern age, many women died in childbirth, it was so life-threatening. I don’t think anyone can decide for a woman whether or not she should carry a child to term. That to me is also an issue of being pro-life.
There are many ways to prevent unwanted pregnancies. There is relatively easy access to birth control and information on “safe-sex” (including condoms and abstinence). And there are organizations like Expect Hope,* a ministry to young mothers who decide to keep their babies. And I support government assistance for women’s health and adequate food supplies for low-income children.
If anyone asks my guidance about whether or not to have an abortion, I try to make them aware of the ramifications of their decision both physically and psychologically. What is not discussed enough in the current debate are the psychological effects of abortion (e.g. trauma, guilt, etc.) and the psychological effects of giving birth (e.g. post-partum depression, stress, etc.). But in the end it is not my body on the line. And those states like Alabama that have passed laws that deny abortion under any circumstances, including saving the life of the mother and rape, are just plain cruel.
I know Dr. Sider disagrees with me on my linking of traditionally pro-life and pro-choice positions, But I am not alone. Many years ago then-Senator Hillary Clinton reached out to her pro-life critics and proposed that they work together on reducing unwanted pregnancies. Sadly she was soundly rejected by pro-lifers and has been a pariah in their minds ever since.
As it turns out being “completely pro-life” is not as simple as it seems. While abortion in my mind should never be a first choice, it’s not my choice make, and so sometimes it may be the best option among a number of bad choices. In similar terms while the use of violence should never be a first choice, I can’t say I would not turn to violence if I or my loved ones were threatened. Likewise, as much as I abhor are current criminal justice systems, sometimes people need to be locked up for their safety and the safety of others. I will admit, sometimes my “completely pro-life” stance is inconsistent.
Dr. Sider quotes Job 12.10 “In God’s hand is the life of every living thing” (p. 13). By extension as God’s hands and feet in this world, we too must treat every living thing as sacred. Being completely pro-life is a goal but we can’t let our desire for consistency turn into legalistic rigidity that ignores and denies the complex vicissitudes of life. The best we can do is to carry out the God-given call to honor and protect all life (human and otherwise) as courageously and consistently as we can. I thank Ron Sider for highlighting this challenge.
- Expect Hope is a Christian organization in the Bronx, NY founded by one of my former students, Emily Prins, one of my former students “hose vision is “to see mothers who choose life for their unborn children.” Emily and Expect Hope are an example of a completelhy pro-life approach to abortion.