I have never enjoyed speaking publicly about the pro-life vs. pro-choice debate. As a courtesy, I once announced to our church through email that I would be speaking on this issue in a sermon. A variety of strong opinions about my sermon soon landed in my inbox. I received all of them before I gave the sermon. Even before we open our mouths on the subject, the heat gets turned up.
I don’t like stirring up a hornet’s nest. I want people and hornets, especially murder hornets, to like me. At the very least, I want them not to attack me. But my calling as a minister is to teach the Word of God in and out of season. Teaching God’s Word selectively, covering only subjects that procure the listeners’ favor, would make me a charlatan at worst and a coward at best.
Before I preached the sermon, I sought perspective from medical professionals, some of whom are “pro-life” and others of whom are “pro-choice.” If I’m going to weigh in on a controversial issue, I want first to hear from all perspectives.
Not an Either/Or Proposition
My conclusion was, and still is, that the core issue in the pro-life vs. pro-choice debate is whose rights matter most. Is it the rights of the mother or the rights of the infant in her womb? Scripture confirms that the answer is “yes” to both, and with a caveat. Neither mother nor infant has a right to do violence to the other. Both have a right to the life, nurture, and care due to all God’s image-bearers.
James said we must show no partiality and we must love our neighbors, especially the weak (James 2:1, 8-9). In his context, partiality favored those with power and social capital. The wealthy received VIP treatment from the church, but those who were poor, minorities, or outsiders were tossed to the curb. This, according to James, was a moral and social evil. The call of the church is not to mirror secular culture but to lovingly and prophetically counter it.
In Christ’s church, “the least of these” must also receive VIP treatment because they, too, are carriers of the divine imprint and heirs to the kingdom. As Martin Luther King Jr. aptly said, “There are no gradations in the image of God.” What’s more, Jesus had a special soft spot for vulnerable women and infants.
On such matters, pro-life and pro-choice advocates tend to talk past each other.
Pro-life advocates believe that pro-choice rhetoric is dishonest because it grants the power of choice only to the pregnant mother. The child has no decision-making power, no voice, and no ability to defend herself. The pro-choice doctrine that every female should have jurisdiction over her own body also breaks down, because half of infants in utero are female who don’t get to choose what happens to their bodies. Other pro-choice terminology such as “reproductive justice” actually denies justice to the weakest and most voiceless human in the equation — the child.
Conversely, pro-choice advocates believe that pro-life rhetoric is dishonest because it seems to advocate for unborn lives while being silent about other lives. According to a recent article in The New York Times, about 49% of women who seek abortion live below the poverty line. These women frequently act out of desperation. They have come to believe that poverty, lack of family support, and gang violence make the world more terrifying and unimaginable for raising a child than death itself.
There is the rub, it seems. Both sides rightly advocate for a vulnerable party. Both sides also can, and sometimes do, coldly dismiss or fail to address burdens carried by other vulnerable parties in the process. At least in rhetoric, neither seems to fully align with what James called “true religion,” which attends to widows and orphans in their affliction (James 1:27).
If we don’t show deep concern for both vulnerable woman and vulnerable children, James is saying, then our religion is lopsided. Until we become both/and on such things, our religion will come short of being true.
“Life” According to Scripture
According to Scripture, protecting and preserving life in the womb is imperative. “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you,” the Lord said to Jeremiah, “and before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you ….” (Jeremiah 1:5).
Similar words are used elsewhere in Scripture. “You formed my inmost parts,” the Psalmist prays, “you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. … Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me” (Psalm 139:13, 16). John the Baptist was said to have been filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15).
The testimony of Scripture is unequivocal. From the moment that sperm and egg unite, there is a living soul and carrier of the divine imprint. Full personhood begins at conception.
I once had a conversation with an abortion provider who conceded this fact, not because of Scripture but because of what his own intuition tells him. He said that performing abortions makes him feel sick to his stomach. When his grandson with Down Syndrome was born, he resolved that he would never abort a child with Down Syndrome again. He added that he believes life begins at conception and that abortion ends human life. By his own admission, this abortion provider’s practice is morally and tragically inconsistent with what he knows deep down to be true. It turns out that the law of God is, indeed, written on every human heart.
According to Scripture, protecting and preserving life in the womb is imperative. “Before I formed you in The womb, I knew you,” the Lord said to Jeremiah.
Everyone who supports the pro-choice position is stuck in moral inconsistency. How is it even possible to use terminology such as “reproductive justice” to describe an act that turns what should be the safest place on earth, a mother’s womb, into the most violent and deadly place?
Here is the unvarnished truth: Biblical reproductive justice demands that the most vulnerable, powerless, defenseless, and voiceless ones receive the strongest defense, advocacy, and protection. Secular reproductive justice, on the other hand, demands something more Darwinian and Nietzschean, namely, that stronger persons survive while weaker persons are terminated. How soon we forget that Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger was an avid supporter of eugenics. Specifically, her aim was to eliminate not only disabled lives but also black lives from the face of the earth.
Let that sink in. A basis for the original founding of today’s most ubiquitous abortion provider was that unborn lives, especially black ones, do not matter.
Biblical justice promotes mercy for all, but secular justice promotes mercilessness toward some. And for all mercilessness, there will be a reckoning. “There will be judgment without mercy to those who show no mercy” (James 2:13).
Toward a More Comprehensive Ethic of Life
Pro-life people, too, must grapple with how they fall short of the imperative to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Being pro-infant does not necessarily make us pro-life in the fullest sense of the term. Neighbor love calls for a more comprehensive mercy that applies “from womb to tomb,” and that targets not only infants but also the full spectrum of what Nicholas Wolterstorff calls “the quartet of the vulnerable.” The quartet includes (1) orphans and other vulnerable children, (2) widows and other vulnerable women, (3) immigrants and refugees, and (4) those who are materially poor (Zechariah 7:9-10).
To show mercy is to help carry and alleviate the burdens of all who are afflicted. Mercy puts itself in the shoes of all who feel ashamed, alone, left out, and scared. Neighbor love demands sound biblical ethics while also demanding sound biblical empathy.
A friend of mine who is a pro-life gynecologist, and because of conscience and Christian conviction will not perform abortions, told me about a young pregnant girl who came into his office after being gang raped. As a result of this traumatic incident, the girl became pregnant. She was only 10 years old. Ten.
It is in such traumatic, real-life spaces that Christians must recognize that posting pro-life messages on Facebook and voting for pro-life candidates only scratch the surface of what pro-life advocacy calls for. We must speak words that promote life, but our words must also be accompanied by requisite action. Citing James again, it is not enough to say to this 10-year-old girl and her parents, “You shall not murder. Now that we have that settled, go in peace, be warmed and filled. Take care of yourselves while we go about our own lives” (see James 2:16).
This is what the scribes and Pharisees were known for doing. They were legislative but not loving in their tone or way of life. They proudly spouted rules but lacked humble righteousness and its fruit of doing justly and loving mercy (Micah 6:8). They demanded that people keep God’s law — don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, and so on — but they would not lift a finger to help carry their vulnerable neighbor’s burden (Luke 11:46).
As a wise man once said, faith without works is dead.
A Way Forward: Becoming Comprehensively Pro-Life
I believe that the only way forward is to adopt a kingdom vision that supports but also transcends the civic vision on this issue. If we continue to treat the pro-life vs. pro-choice debate as mere politics, history proves it will backfire.
What might such a kingdom vision look like?
The Pax Romana can teach us something about this. The Pax Romana, or “Roman Peace,” was a term coined by the people in power during the first- and second-century Roman oppression. Social Darwinism was the rule of the day, in which the terms of justice were decided by the powerful, who made certain that the terms of justice privileged them. The weak had no choice but to be subject to those terms. One historian described the Pax Romana as a coerced compliance in which all opponents had been beaten down and had lost the ability to resist, and in which the weak and afflicted had no legal protection.
“I would rather build community … where abortion, due to the love ready to be given to any child and any mother, is not merely illegal, but unthinkable.”
As in Hitler’s Germany, certain classes of humans were seen as a drain on society and therefore disposable. Widows, the infirm, people with special needs, the poor, and unwanted children — all were vulnerable with no assurance that their human rights would be upheld or protected.
Archaeologists discovered a letter written by a traveling Roman businessman to his pregnant wife. Unable to make it back home in time for the child’s birth, he wrote to her that if the child was a boy, she should keep it. If it was a girl, she should throw it out.
In came the people of Jesus, compelled by a kingdom vision: “No one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own. … There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold … and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:32-35).
In ancient Rome, people of the Way said to the Roman Caesar something similar to what Mother Teresa once said at a National Prayer Breakfast to a sitting U.S. president: “Stop aborting your babies and give them to me.”
This is also what the early Christians said to the Roman Caesar. “We will take care of your sick. We will feed your hungry. We will shelter your widows. We will adopt and raise your children with disabilities and special needs. We will take care of your pregnant mothers.”
By the third century A.D., the fabric of Roman society was transformed — “infected by love,” as one historian has said. Even Emperor Julian, known by history as “Julian the Apostate” because of his hatred of Christianity, conceded in a letter to his friend that the growth of the “Christian sect” had gotten out of control because the Christians took better care of Rome’s afflicted than Rome did.
What could this look like for us? I will leave you with an excerpt from a doctor from our church community, because I cannot find a way to improve upon his words:
“The centerpiece of our life and faith is the One who so loved us that He died for us. … Where does that leave us? First, don’t murder. This is true for both sides of this issue. While exerting one’s autonomy and taking innocent life in abortion is clearly wrong and disallowed by Scripture, so is being vitriolic and hating others on the other side of an issue. Second, do unto others as you would want them to do unto you — assuming your positions were reversed. Imagine that you are the one making a decision on the other side. As we fight about life in utero, let’s not forget the person standing in front of us.
“Build relationship and community. There is enough hurt to go around. … I believe that abortion is wrong. I believe that God is the Giver of life. As a Christian, I want to support a politic that does give preference to biblical views on this matter, because I believe that they make for flourishing of humans. I also must believe that government, biblically speaking, must make room for dissent.
“Wouldn’t it be great if communities existed where any mother, married or unmarried, would feel welcomed and loved and know that her needs and the needs of her child would be attended to? If the Church does what the Church is called to do, then there will be no poor or disregarded or demeaned in our midst.
“In short, I would rather build community and dialogue and live in a society where abortion, due to the love ready to be given to any child and any mother, is not merely illegal, but unthinkable.”
Scott Sauls is senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and author of several books, including “Jesus Outside the Lines” and his latest, “A Gentle Answer.”