Much of my upcoming book Burning Religion: navigating the impossible space between religion and secular society is taken up with the spaces in between our polarized social theological, philosophical and political debates. It is concerned with what I view as a necessary discussion about the most difficult topics of our day. Enter today’s guest post from James Shewey. I know James. He is a friend, and former member of the church I pastor. His thoughts on a pro-life position are well thought out, and include his attempt to square pro-life with a feminist position. Abortion as a topic is back on the table: Planned Parenthood has been caught red-handed with an all too cavalier approach toward fetal “parts,” and now the nation is discussing something, which, I believe, should never have been taken off the table in the first place. Far too many people still have an interest in this issue – men and women alike, and for that reason, it should still be in the public dialogue. So, here’s James, you can also find him online at:
They say not to discuss religion or politics in polite company because it starts debate and division. Perhaps this is why Abortion is such contentious an issue – It often seems to intersect with both topics in the minds of many people, yet I question whether or not is should.
You see, often times Christians want to stretch scripture to speak to this issue. The intention is good – it is hard for Christians to imagine a God which creates mankind with such careful intention and an overflowing of a deep love to also be a God who would be supportive of abortion. It almost seems like an attack on God’s loving character and nature. But the fact remains, that scripture actually has nothing to say on this issue. Sure, there are scriptures like Psalm 139:13-16 which says,
“Certainly you made my mind and heart;
you wove me together in my mother’s womb.
I will give you thanks because your deeds are awesome and amazing.
You knew me thoroughly;
my bones were not hidden from you,
when I was made in secret
and sewed together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw me when I was inside the womb.”
And yet, Christian readers cannot escape the fact that this scripture was not intended to be about Abortion. Abortion was a foreign and unheard of practice at the time this scripture was penned. Therefore, forcefully making and fashioning scriptures like the above into arguments against abortion is eisegesis (reading meaning into the text), plain and simple. By reshaping the meanings of these scriptures, Christians put words into the Almighty’s mouth and reshape our idea of the Almighty into something which he is not. When we do this, we create for ourselves an idol and forsake the One True God.
And anyway, there are much better arguments against abortion than Scripture. Further, it is extremely difficult to appeal to an unrecognized authority (scripture) when dealing with an unbeliever and using these scriptural arguments to combat abortion exposes both a shallow understanding of the issue of abortion and a shallow understanding of God and scripture.
Now, before pro-choice readers feel too smug, I must admonish you for frequently being as unmindful as your philosophical opponents. I frequently see this unmindfulness manifested in such subtleties as grammar through the use of terms like “anti-choice”, “anti-abortion”, or “abortion rights”. While you may or may not realize it or have given it any thought, this language is offensive and hostile. I simply do not see this language of hostility used by pro-life advocates and I have never once seen a pro-life individual cast a pro-choice advocate as “anti-life”, “pro-death” or anything of this sort. Maybe it is just me, but more than anything else, when discussing this topic, it is these choices of words which always get under my skin because it makes me feel like I am not regarded with respect. It irks me that pro-choice advocates can’t even recognize the fact that I and my philosophical brethren are not anti-anything. It demonstrates a level of disgust and disrespect in language and vocabulary that pro-life advocates typically just don’t share.
The fact of the matter is that no pro-life advocate is anti-choice. Pro-life advocates do not seek to infringe on a woman’s right to choose what she does with her body. Let me repeat that – unequivocally, we do not wish to force a woman to do something to which she does not consent to with her body. Implying that we do is to put us into the same category as a rapist. In one respect, I do understand the sentiment and desire behind the use of the term “abortion rights”. While I do not agree that it is a “right” for a woman to cut off her fetus from the life-giving womb, I think users of this term are seeking to paint this as a Civil rights issue. I too see this as a civil rights issue, but in a much different way. Instead of seeking to advocate for a woman’s right to choose, I instead advocate for the most innocent and voiceless party among us to have a right to choose – the baby. And that is the difference. It is not some hatred towards women or some desire to dominate and control womankind and take away their choice which makes me choose this philosophical position, but instead a conviction that an unborn baby is a life and that when in conflict with a woman’s right to choice, the baby’s right to life supersedes the lesser right of a woman’s choice. I believe that inconveniencing one individual’s life does not justify the cessation of another individual’s life.
Holding this viewpoint does not make me a chauvinist and insisting such and tearing pro-life advocates down for it is as many often will is an exercise in attacking a straw man. Personally, I am a notorious feminist, with two daughters of my own and a dream that we will see equal pay for equal work and a 50/50 gender ratio in Science Technology Engineering and Math. It is only unfortunately and with regret that I would seek to prevent a woman from terminating her pregnancy and the life of her baby, and I think most pro-life advocates would say the same.
This guest post, as you might imagine has its’ genesis in the recent undercover sting by pro-life advocates of a doctor with Planned Parenthood, yet I’m going to (mostly) steer away from commentary of this particular sting operation. While I have mixed emotions on the value and mission of Planned Parenthood and think that maybe this particularly hapless doctor was operating somewhere between something which was highly questionable and poorly choosing her words, I think there is something more important here than poor journalism, greed or a great conspiracy.
I want to call people on both sides of this issue to a higher standard of thought, debate, and regard for one another. I recognize that pro-choice advocates see women who are constantly victimized and disadvantaged and their heart goes out to them, and this is admirable. They seek to give these women tools and advantages to overcome disadvantage – and an unplanned or inconvenient pregnancy is inarguably an overwhelmingly disadvantaging burden that men simply do not have to bear.
On that note, I am sure there are a number of readers who are this point sighing and rolling their eyes in annoyance that yet another man is weighing in on someone else’s body about an experience he will never share. In that regard, I must say that I am thankful to Phil for this opportunity – because it gives me the opportunity to point out something which has always bothered and annoyed me – the fact that you cannot have integrity in a feminist position that womankind should have equality with mankind and be dismissive of a man’s opinion. If you seek to have mankind treat womankind with the same regard and respect in this world as they would any other man, then you must return the favor on this issue (and all issues, really) by at least listening to what a man has to contribute to the conversation. Respect must be a mutual two way street.
While it may be only one man’s never-to-be-pregnant observation, I notice that pro-choice advocates often seek to paint the choice to abort a baby as a choice which only affects the mother. Yet, I think careful consideration quickly reveals this to be a weak assertion. Aside from the baby whom this (potentially) affects, this also affects the father. Presumably, a woman’s right to choose includes the right not to abort her baby. Yet, in so doing, the father is bound by law to pay child support for the next 18 years. Likewise, should a woman choose to abort her baby, this might be against the wishes of a father who might wish to raise his son or daughter while completely releasing the mother of any and all responsibilities beyond carrying the baby to term. So clearly, this issue is not just between a woman and her doctor. While some might insist that it is only the woman who matters here, that simply is not a very egalitarian position. Martin Luther King Jr. understood that you cannot gain protection of your civil rights by infringing on anothers’ which is why he was committed to non-violent protest. That is still true with this issue. To be clear, I am not saying that a Man’s desires or concerns should be give equal weight to a mother’s in terms of whether an abortion should or should not be legal, I am simply saying that we need to stop trivializing the issue by implying that it is a simple choice which only affects a mother and at least give some weight, consideration and input to men (particularly fathers) because they are not unaffected.
Often, Pro-choice advocates will even extend the principle that the choice to abort is between a mother and her doctor so far as to over-reach into the parental relationship. In many states a girl under the age of 18 can obtain an abortion without the consent or even notification of her legal guardians. As a father of two girls, this leaves me somewhere between furious and scared. As a parent, it is my legal and moral responsibility to guard the welfare of my daughters. For this reason, any surgical procedure – abortion or otherwise – should (and always does for all procedures except abortion) require the consent of both the patient and guardian. It is my job as a parent to evaluate if an abortion is the right choice for my child and I am angered that in many places this choice is taken from parents. Although statistically most mothers report that they do not regret their abortion(s), there are still many who do regret and are haunted by their abortion(s) and this has caused the formation of support/grief groups for mothers who have undergone the abortion procedure. While studies may show that most do not regret their choice to abort their baby, I have yet to see a study quantifying how many mothers regret their choice not to abort their baby. Mary (the mother of Jesus) had every right to have an abortion, yet I am pretty glad that wasn’t an option for her. As it is put in the story of Joseph, “what you intended for evil, God used for good.” Good things can often come from bad situations. The law has decided that children under the age of 18 are unable to fully understand the full ramifications and meanings of their actions. Because of this, it is (and should be) my duty as a parent to consider all of the above items (and many, many more) and make the ultimate choice for my underage child. Anecdotally, I can say that an abortion is something which has caused grief and heartache in some of the women I care most about in my life. I simply cannot fathom seeing one of my daughters have to go through the same thing.
Another reason I believe it should be my responsibility as a parent to consider this procedure is that to me, abortion is like playing Russian Roulette. You simply do not know if you are taking a life when you engage in that activity. Maybe someone dies, maybe not. There just is not any way to know for certain until it is too late. And this is something which I would never want on my daughter’s conscience.
Yes, I will admit it – I don’t know when life begins – I don’t actually know if abortion takes a life. You see, most pro-life advocates fail to understand or deal with the fact that life most likely does not begin at conception – when an egg is fertilized and becomes an embryo. Most don’t realize that birth control can cause such an embryo to fail to attach to the uterine wall. Most don’t realize that even without birth control this can happen naturally and frequently – especially for a woman who might have endometriosis or other fertility issues. If life begins at conception, and you believe in God, this essentially means God is allowing the abortion of babies all the time and it is a frequent occurrence.
It is for this reason that I instead think life begins at the implantation of a viable embryo in a woman’s uterus. I qualify this so heavily because many embryos are genetically malformed and doomed from conception from ever becoming life. Some embryos just aren’t capable of generating a baby due to mistakes and abnormalities in the genetic code and these doomed attempts at life never had the potential to be life in the first place. Likewise, this excludes ectopic pregnancies which also never had the chance at life and, instead, only had the potential to kill a would-be mother as a harmful tumor in her body. I seriously doubt that many pro-life advocates (and probably many pro-choice advocates) have considered this.
And this is a carefully chosen line. It is not arbitrary – but instead the most obvious and sensible line in the sand (or at least more obvious and sensible than a delineation between 24 weeks and 23 and 6/7ths weeks.) Because the fact of the matter is that after this point, you cannot say definitively that a baby is not a person; a baby is not a life. Pro-choice advocates simply do not know any more than I do, which is why I say it is like playing Russian Roulette. In this manner, as with most things that might cause the death of someone, it is far better and far safer to be too conservative.
But what is far and away the most frustrating and distressing thing about this issue is that Abortion is completely unnecessary. Pregnancy is 99.9 percent preventable through modern technology. We don’t even have a need for abortion and to even get to the point that an abortion is “needed” is a demonstration of ignorance or a massive lack of responsibility in the first place.
For this reason, I think Christians need to be more open to the idea of sex-ed. While it is technically correct that by simply not engaging in sex, it is also technically correct that communism is a great idea. Communism assumes that all people are going to contribute their best and share equally – that none will be selfish or sinful and will share any extra they have while only taking that which they need. Yet it is an idea which is incredibly naive. So too is the idea that people (especially teens) aren’t going to have sex and are easily capable of restraining themselves. Just like communism, this denies the inherent sin nature of mankind. Where Christians assume the worst of people in almost all other aspects, why do we persist in some weird and misplaced optimism and assume that people will somehow manage not to have sex? And what about married couples? Are they not entitled to have sex without fear of an inconvenient child which they may be totally unprepared for coming about to do anything from ruin their marriage to be a minor inconvenience? Would they not benefit from some solid sex-ed? The more we can educate, the more we can eliminate ignorance as an excuse.
Finally, It is unfair for pro-life advocates to oppose social supports like welfare and similar governmental services. How can we expect some single teenage mother not to see abortion as her only choice when we are unwilling to ensure that she is able to put a roof over her head and food in her new responsibility’s belly? How can we only care about the life of a baby when he or she is in his or her own? How dare that infant look for a handout! No one ever gave me anything! If I wanted something, when I was an infant, I had to work for it. Giving that infant welfare will just encourage it to be lazy, right?
If pro-life advocates want to be taken seriously, we should ensure that mothers (especially single mothers) are financially able to get a decent education, have subsidized child care that will allow them to work and pursue an education and should make sure WIC is the best funded program in the history of America (as well as similar programs). No one gets an abortion because they want to. They get one because they feel they have no choice and no options. So let’s make sure that women have options and choices.
In closing, I hope these thoughts have clearly illustrated that this issue is neither simply, nor binary – as both sides want to make it out to be. I think there is a great deal of common ground that we can find if we can realize that this is not black and white. I want to remind you that this is not us-versus-them. This is about a baby and a scared and overwhelmed mom. Hopefully these thoughts have made you think more and in the future I hope any discussions you might have are more considered and developed. But most of all, I hope you can better understand why someone might view this issue differently from you.