Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Being Pro-Choice as a Christian: 8 Reasons

I was originally going to eschew discussing religion (or really anything very personal) on this page. My friend, Nat, however, encouraged me to take a few statements from a facebook discussion to share here. So, I should be upfront: I am a Christian. Yes, a go-to-Church, believe-in-the-Bible Christian. I'm also pro-choice and here are eight reasons why. I know some of them are oft-cited reasons by pro-choice Christians, but Nat assures me others are not.

(1) The belief that life begins at conception is a religious belief, and I am a firm believer that religious beliefs are for the religious believers to follow, not for society to impose on others. Science doesn't determine when life begins; at best, it tells us when a life is viable.  If it did indicate the point of "life", I believe that brain activity would be the standard. But even this is an unclear standard. The brain forms around week 3 of pregnancy (week 5 under scientific standards that apparently take into account 2 extra weeks before conception). The brainstem is fully formed around the end of the second week, and this controls the majority of our non-conscious brain activity. Our conscious brain, though, is the last to form. It is during the third trimester that the fetus learns to "think" and can recognize smells, etc.  So which of these constitutes "brain activity" for the purpose of determining life?  

And brain activity is, of course, not the only option for determining "life." It could be viability - which is much earlier than cerebral thought. It could be at conception. In Jewish law, life appears to begin with the first breath, or perhaps when the baby is more than halfway through the mother's body in the birthing process, and then it is not fully viable until after 30 days.  It appears Jewish teachings suggest abortion may at times be required to save the mother's life or health (including psychological health), or may be permitted if the child will be born with a birth defect.  The truth is, there is no clear Judeo-Christian, let alone all-religious, determination of when life begins.

We recognize that many questions about life and death are religious choices and religious beliefs, and in other aspects of society we honour that recognition.  We allow 7th Day Adventists to refuse life saving treatment - even for children - because their religious convictions require it. Yet, we wouldn't recognize that women have rights to determine the appropriateness of an abortion if they disagree with Catholic and evangelical Christian teachings on whether "life begins at conception"? That's an imposition of religious beliefs where society should not be imposing them.

I honestly don't see a great difference between forcing women to carry children to term in the US and forcing women to wear burkas in Afghanistan. Both stem from religious men telling women - who may or may not be religious - how God wants them to act, especially what God wants them to do with their own bodies, and then forcing them to comply with that dictate. They do not necessarily come from a woman's own belief system or her own choice. That, to me, is not what God calls us to do.

As a Christian, I believe that the Bible sets out rules for our relationship with God, but those rules are meant specifically for those who believe. While those rules may be good and right for any individual or society, they are *intended* for those who choose to believe in God and Jesus. Jesus never called on us to force non-believers to live by our rules; if anything, the Apostle Paul seems to expect the exact opposite. When Jesus told his followers to "teach[] [all nations] to obey everything I have commanded you" he did so only in the context of those nations becoming Christians first.  "[G]o and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Once people have accepted Christ's divinity and saving grace, they are to follow Christ. The inverse is not true. The Bible should be followed because of faith, not because of dictation, and anything else has the potential of turning a whole lot of people into Pharisees.

This does not mean that there is no standard of morality for society, but I take a Thomas Aquinas approach to this: not everything that is immoral should be illegal and not everything that is illegal is immoral. To do otherwise is to undermine the very foundation of free religious choice, justifying even the persecution of Christian converts in Islamic societies (because the religious ideology determines whether a crime is worthy of death). A pluralistic and secular society must decide morality not from religious ideology but from what is necessary for the preservation of society. Theft and murder clearly fall in that category; infidelity or religious conversion, for example, do not. Therefore, while I would consider infidelity immoral, the government has no place in enforcing this determination; while the Iranian government considers conversion to the Christian faith immoral, it should not be the state's place to enforce this. 

(2) Society regularly makes determinations as to who lives and who dies, often deferring determination to those closest or most knowledgeable about a situation, but sometimes even that isn't required.  In the case of abortion, society should defer to the mother, who is closest and most knowledgeable about the situation.

We (in the US and as a global society) don't provide universal health care, which often results in people needlessly dying; we have constructed intellectual property rules that allow for pharmaceutical companies to develop drugs without having to distribute them to those who need them, resulting in millions of children dying from preventable and curable diseases; we have the death penalty; we allow family members to remove brain-dead individuals from life support; we allow individuals to sign 'do not resuscitate' forms that dictate when we can and cannot try to save their lives; we allow contraception, which prevents a fertilized egg (and therefore a conceived egg) from implanting; we allow war; we allow people to kill in self-defense, and we allow the use of the death penalty, which is imposed on behalf of society by twelve random individuals selected solely because they have driver's licenses or have registered to vote. And again, we allow 7th Day Adventists to refuse medical treatment because their religious convictions require it. These are just some of the times when society says that a collective on behalf of society or single individuals within society get to determine who lives and who dies - or when or how they die.

God may be pro-life, but our society is not. We regularly assign responsibility for life and death decisions to individuals or segments of the population. Abortion is no different.  We put the choice regarding abortion - which has a myriad of implications for mothers and those who love them - into the hands of those with the best knowledge of the situation and who are most directly impacted by it. This story is a perfect example of the need to give the choice to those closest to the situation. Who gets to decide when the pain of a child is so much that the appropriate medical choice is to allow it to die? The parents. Not society, not a bureaucrat in Austin, but the individual closest to the actual case at hand who is affected in the most unique ways.

(3) As this case demonstrates, there are times in which abortion may be the kinder thing to do for the sake of the child.  This child will never have an opportunity to "believe" in Christ because that requires some level of cognizance. Yes, the child may have proven to be a miracle baby, but the person who should get to decide whether that possibility is worth the pain is the parent. We do this for all types of other medical choices: when should a child's chemotherapy be stopped; when should life-sustaining treatment be stopped; when should feeding tubes be removed. These are all times when we entrust the family to make the judgment about what is kindest, what is most caring, what is most appropriate.

(4) Women disproportionately bear the burden of pregnancy and child-rearing, emotionally, physically, and financially.  Development studies indicate that giving women power over their own reproductive choices is an important step to ensuring economic independence and growth, both of the individual and the society. Countries with comprehensive sex education have better life expectancies, better economic growth, less maternal mortality, and higher levels of education for individual woman and those in her family. Educated and empowered women have a disproportionately greater impact on their communities than their male counterparts. Ensuring women can be educated and empowered requires them to have control over their reproductive rights. Taking choices away from women and providing them to others is not just disrespectful to the autonomy of a woman, but it is harmful to women's health and to society as a whole.

(5) Outlawing abortion has never worked. There is evidence of abortions occurring in Biblical times. If you outlaw it, you simply make it unsafe and expensive. So instead of harming one life - if you believe it to be a life - you harm two. The best we can ever do is to make abortion safe and rare and you don't do that by outlawing it.

‎(6) I believe that if you want to fight against abortion, you should do so in a way that empowers women rather than shames them. The best way to make abortion rare is to take care of societal health in other ways, including universal health care and better options for higher education, ensuring that people know about sexual health and reproductive choices and that when a woman does get pregnant, it does not mean that she'll be unable to experience educational and financial independence. Abortion rates are much lower in countries with universal health care, lower costs for higher education, and better sex education. Empowered women actually means fewer abortions.

If we as a society are going to address the causes of abortions, we need to do so first from a proactive, non-criminalizing way. Provide universal health care, address higher education costs, address maternity leave, provide paternity leave so that women don't bear the only burden of childbirth. If you want to fight against abortion, fight for better poverty-reduction strategies, such as more equal education for children and greater loan assistance for those pursuing higher education. Fight for greater financial assistance for young and unwed mothers, fight for more affordable housing, fight for universal and affordable prenatal care (something, by the way, that Planned Parenthood provides in certain areas for women who would not otherwise get it), fight for greater pay equality between men and women, and fight for more comprehensive sex education for children and teens. This has proven more effective than outlawing abortion and it ensures greater protection for those voiceless and defenseless children once they are born than the current tactic of the GOP legislators around the US.

(7) As we have seen in this election cycle, it is not a particularly far leap to go from abortion rights to government interference in other choices about parenthoodThis future interference will inevitably focus first and foremost on persecuting mothers and women. First it was abortion, now it's contraception. A legislator in Wisconsin has presented a bill that would make single parenthood - which is disproportionately a problem for women - child abuse. So, now single women who do get pregnant and choose not to have an abortion are criminals who could lose their child. That's a *great* way to handle the situation. A woman who is abused and leaves her husband - a Biblical ground for divorce - is now also a criminal for taking care of her child.

When we treat women as nothing more than baby-producers and care givers, then these are the natural consequences: women are forced to give up their careers, they are forced to singularly bear the burden of the mistakes of two people (or non-mistakes, as in the case in the story), and they lose their own voice and are forced to adopt the choices made for them by others. Suddenly, maternity leave is not a choice, but a forced determination. Women aren't compensated for that time because it is expected of them and they aren't allowed to return to work because that's no longer their 'place'. Women start to be treated like cattle.

When we treat women like cattle, it leads to things like domestic abuse, rape, incest, FGM, etc. It all becomes slightly more acceptable. I realize it's easy to roll one's eyes at these very real possibilities and suggest this is just an exaggerated slippery slope argument. But those in the human rights world deal with the very real consequences of taking choices from women and empowering men or society to make those choices for women.  I see all of these things stemming from the same belief systems: a woman's principle role in life is not one she chooses but one that society forces upon her. 

(8)  I am not "pro-abortion."  In fact, I know no one who is. I am instead for making abortion safe, legal and rare. I have never had to face the question of whether I would have an abortion, but I believe that coming to this conclusion is a terribly painful process for most women who face this decision. I know a lot of women who as children dreamt about becoming mothers when they grew up; I know none who wanted to have an abortion when they grew up. By nature, pregnancy is what most (but not all!) women desire so when they are considering terminating a pregnancy, it is not an easy decision and it is usually done with consideration of the growing child inside them. I think there is no need for the state to make this decision even more difficult and painful for them.

I find hypocrisy, and even sometimes cruelty, in the anti-choice movement's treatment of abortion. I'm tired of members of the "pro-life" movement in the US claiming to care about children but also stating that we should stop providing international assistance to developing countries.  I'm tired of those same people justifying an unjustifiable war in Iraq.  In 2003, people operating on behalf of the American population started a war that cost thousands of American lives and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, including thousands of Iraqi children. These were children God also knit together in their mothers' wombs; children who were defenseless and voiceless and helpless. Where was the voice of our pro-life movement then? Where is it now for children in Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan who are killed in drone attacks or who are lumped together in the terrifyingly disrespectful term of "collateral damage" for our wars?  Where was the objection based on "every life is sacred" and "every child counts?" In this situation, we didn't even defer to those closest to the situation.  Someone in Washington makes a choice, not knowing whose lives will be terminated.

There are millions of defenseless, voiceless children who will die from poverty around the world because successive generations worth of US Presidents and Congresses have constructed trade and aid policies that actually harm those communities and are likely to ensure their continued impoverishment rather than sustainable growth. There are millions of children who die because our intellectual property laws protect big pharmaceutical companies at the expense of those children's access to medicines. Millions who will be left orphans for the same reason. Millions left without one or both parents - both in the US and outside of it - because of US health policies ranging from a failure to discuss and distribute contraception in AIDS affected countries to a failure to provide universal health care here at home. Children in the US and around the world die because they don't have access to food, medicine, or safe living conditions.  Our girls are sold into sex slavery, advertised regularly on sites like Backpage.com.

We abdicate our rights and responsibilities to fight for life in all these situations and the consequence is that children suffer. It is cruel to the mothers of those Afghan children, those Yemeni children, those Pakistani children, and those American children to treat the unborn as more sacred than the living. Let us give a voice to the voiceless amongst us; defend the defenseless on Earth.  When we have systematically, and as passionately, done that, then we should engage in the questions that we can only truly learn the answer to in Heaven, such as when life begins and what protections should be afforded to the pre-born.


  1. This is the craziest thing I've ever heard.

  2. I don't agree with several of your points, but appreciate you putting the information out there. My one criticism is that you say that you aren't pro-abortion and the point should be to make abortion "safe, legal, and *RARE*". But what measures are being taken to truly make this a rare occurance? I don't see many bills coming up deeming when an abortion would be appropriate...so what steps would you say should take place to make that true?