The Christian case for supporting abortion rights
Rev. Michael Coren says that the Bible simply doesn’t have anything pertinent to say about abortion, and the current extremism alienates people from the church
In the United States, abortion dominates conservative Christianity and, by extension, conservative politics. Whether they be Catholic or evangelical, while American churches may have interests in numerous other areas, the issue of women’s reproductive choice – or, to use some of their favoured terms, “murder”, holocaust”, “genocide” – is pre-eminent. It matters a great deal in other countries, but nowhere more than in a nation that boasts so regularly of the separation of church and state. Bonkers conspiracy theorist Marjorie Taylor Greene, for example, can believe that Jewish cabals used space lasers to start bush fires in California, and that school shootings were government hoaxes, but she’s “pro-life” to the core, and the Christian right loves her for it.
At least eleven people involved in providing abortion services have been murdered
But it’s not just the roaring fundamentalists. In a recent interview, Cardinal Gerhard Muller, former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and by no means a fool, said of the election of Joe Biden and the subject of abortion, “Now the U.S., with its conglomerated political, media and economic power, stands at the head of the most subtly brutal campaign to de-Christianize Western culture in the last 100 years.” That century included the regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and the slaughter of millions of innocent people.
Then there are the contradictions. Abortion rates have been shown to decline if contraceptives are made freely available, modern sex education provided in schools, poverty reduced, women empowered, public day-care guaranteed, healthcare socialized, and absentee fathers forced to pay child support. Conservative Christians generally oppose sex ed reforms and any government intervention into economic life, see socialized medicine as a threat, and Catholics oppose birth control.
Opponents of abortion also tend to resist any form of gun control, support the death penalty, and campaign for strict controls of immigration. Then there is the violence: at least eleven people involved in providing abortion services have been murdered, others badly wounded. While this kind of extremism isn’t common, the general theme seems to be that pro-lifers love people just before they’re born, just before they die; in between, not so much.
There is so much that can be said about all this, but something that’s often ignored is that it’s all pretty recent. In 1968, for example, a meeting held by the Christian Medical Society and the highly influential evangelical magazine Christianity Today, concluded that abortion had to be considered in the light of “individual health, family welfare, and social responsibility” and the organizers refused to describe abortion as sinful. Three years later the Southern Baptist Convention, perhaps the most important conservative denomination in North America, passed a resolution calling on “Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe foetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother”.
Biblical rhetoric constantly uses metaphor and poetry to make a point
More to the point, however, is that it’s just not biblical. In fact, abortion is hardly mentioned in scripture, which is somewhat important in that it’s become an almost exclusively Christian issue. This is usually the point at which opponents of abortion mention Genesis. Okay. “Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind.” So, murder is punished by murder. Which is a strict legal code for an ancient people living without police or a modern justice system. Moreover, this is about one adult killing another and has nothing at all to do with abortion. Just before this statement, by the way, is the command that, “you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life” – which complicates things just a little. Context, context, context.
Then there is Jeremiah, writing around 600BC and doing his usual, eponymous lamenting:
Cursed be the day, the day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed! Cursed be the man who brought the news to my father, saying, ‘A child is born to you, a son,’ making him very glad. Let that man be like the cities that the Lord overthrew without pity; let him hear a cry in the morning and an alarm at noon, because he did not kill me in the womb; so, my mother would have been my grave, and her womb forever great. Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?
Christians seem far more concerned with the things Jesus didn’t speak of, rather than the ones he does
Certainly doesn’t imply prohibition or condemnation. But what about when he says, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations”? This is a big one for the anti-abortion movement and has become a virtual slogan. Largely because it’s one of very few that they can find. Jeremiah’s underlying premise is that he was appointed to be “a prophet to the nations”. In other words, the womb reference is not a general description of one ordinary man, but a specific reference to someone set apart to do God’s work. God had pre-destined Jeremiah to be a prophet and had done so from the very beginning. It’s a reference to a special plan for one man rather than a general approach to biology and reproduction. It’s also biblical rhetoric, written in a language that constantly uses metaphor and poetry to make a point.
Then there’s Psalm 139:
For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.
It’s lyrical, but what it’s saying is that God makes everything and everyone – people, animals, and nature. It’s about God’s power, and the way we should regard the creator, not about anything at all specific or exclusive to the foetus. The Christian belief is that God knows all, knows us. Knows the woman who is desperate, poor, young, and alone, who can’t afford to have a child, was raped or abused, is terrified, has no healthcare, is crying out after much consideration to terminate her pregnancy. Knows the goodness in her heart, and the harshness of those who condemn her.
The other Biblical text used is the New Testament story of Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, when she meets with Mary, the mother of Jesus. Luke’s Gospel: “In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.”
The current extremism doesn’t change minds, and it certainly doesn’t help the Christian church
First, it merely describes movement in the womb; second, it’s a reference to people who are not ordinary, not usual, not as the rest of us. Other people in the bible aren’t described in these terms, precisely because the Gospel-writers want to make a point about uniqueness. Other than this, the subject is simply not mentioned in the New Testament. Jesus doesn’t speak of it, and abortion was hardly unknown in the first century. Mind you, it’s baffling how many Christians seem far more concerned with the things Jesus didn’t speak of, rather than the ones he does.
But just hold on one bible-thumping moment. Exodus certainly does mention abortion:
“When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
So, if a woman is hurt in a struggle and then has a miscarriage, the penalty is a mere fine. But if there is further harm, if she has serious injuries or even dies, then the culprit could be killed. In other words, the well-being or life of the woman, the mother, is of much greater significance than that of her unborn child.
Then there is Numbers, 5:
But if you have gone astray while under your husband’s authority, if you have defiled yourself and some man other than your husband has had intercourse with you — let the priest make the woman take the oath of the curse and say to the woman—’the Lord make you an execration and an oath among your people, when the Lord makes your uterus drop, your womb discharge; now may this water that brings the curse enter your bowels and make your womb discharge, your uterus drop!’ And the woman shall say, ‘Amen. Amen’.
Ouch! Archaic of course, but it’s conservative rather than progressive Christians who regularly quote the Hebrew Scriptures to make a point, so they can’t just walk away from this. A jealous husband takes his poor wife to the priest, and if her pregnancy is thought to be the result of an affair with another man, she is obliged to drink what many modern scholars regard as an abortion-inducing concoction.
In terms of the Bible, that is about it. We can dig away at some other scriptural references to try to justify various positions on this issue but they’re all somewhat tenuous and none of them make an ironclad argument. It’s not that the Bible demands abortion rights, more that it simply doesn’t have anything pertinent to say about the subject.
As a Christian, as a cleric, I want to discuss gender and disability and how they relate to abortion, want to consider the choices given to poor and minority women when pregnant, want to have an informed and intelligent exploration of what should be a seamless garment of concern, but that’s not what is happening. Use, don’t abuse, the Bible, and listen rather than shout. The current extremism doesn’t aid the needy, doesn’t change minds, and certainly doesn’t help the Christian church.
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