Let me be clear up-front: I do not support a right to abortion on demand. In fact, if I were made ruler of the universe, I would make abortions enormously difficult to get. Because I’m a mean and cruel woman. No, not really – I’m actually very kind and empathetic. But I am in agreement with Mother Theresa: “it is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live”. I don’t think abortion is an answer to what is really a societal failure. I don’t only oppose abortion from a pro-life perspective. I think abortion is bad for women, worse for relations between men and women and displays a level of animosity towards women as they are – people whose bodies can start new life – which is evil and vile. If we have a society where the normal functioning of a woman’s body regularly ruins women’s lives, we’re doing it wrong. And abortion doesn’t do anything to fix that – it simply enables it. Nearly 60% of abortions are influenced by pressure from fathers, husbands, boyfriends or others with power in a woman’s life. That’s not empowering. Nor has ready access to abortion resulted in a world where people who shouldn’t have children don’t as abortion proponents used to argue. Far from it. And yet . . . the issue of abortion has nothing to do with how I vote.
Yes Democrats not only support abortion rights, but celebrate them the way most of us celebrate Grandpa’s 90th birthday. But despite using the abortion issue to garner votes for the last 30 or 40 years, Republicans haven’t and won’t do anything to stop abortion either. Sure, they’ll fiddle around the edges and I’d much rather live in a country where doctors don’t deliver a baby up to its neck before suctioning its brains, crushing its head and completing delivery. But show me one child who is alive today because we banned “intact dilation and extraction”. It’s a symbolic victory at best. The reality is that for all their rhetoric, the Republicans have shown no more willingness to do something about Roe v Wade than their Democratic opponents. If anything, I can at least give the Democrats credit for being honest about their support of abortion as birth control. But voting for someone simply because they claim to be pro-life does nothing what-so-ever to advance pro-life policies. It’s just giving my vote to the person who has set their dog-whistle to the right pitch.
Another reason abortion isn’t a factor in my voting is that abortion is only marginally a legal issue. 1.2 million women have abortions each year. By some estimates, one in three women will have an abortion in her lifetime. Including a good number of women who are Christian, pro-lifers. That’s a social problem. You don’t fix social problems with laws. Social problems get fixed with people. Frankly, I think that it shows a real poverty of imagination and morality that the primary response of many people to the problem of abortion is to attempt to restrict access to it. It’s a bit like drug use – it’s driven by demand, not by availability. Yes, in an ideal world, abortion would be illegal in most cases as a reflection of our cultural values, but clearly we’re a long way off from that world. And we’re not going to create that world through our political processes.
You see, I think that just like the rest of our cultural wars, our conflict over abortion displays our faithlessness. Rather than doing the hard work which Jesus has laid out for us, we want to do things which satisfy our own needs and desires – be self-righteous, demonize those who disagree with us, advocate, politic and then take a few minutes to vote. And we call that “standing up for life.” What a joke. That’s not standing up for life. Standing up for life means making hard choices and doing hard things. It means caring for a woman – daughter, sister, friend or stranger – who is pregnant and unable to care for herself. It means providing housing to that woman. It means inviting her into your circle. It means giving her a family to be loved by on holidays and Mondays and the day she gives birth. It means using your network to help her gain access to the things she needs – work, health care, childcare. It means letting her know that she is precious and welcomed. It means doing it even when it exposes you and yours to scandal and the reality of fallen humanity. If you’re not willing to do that, you’re not pro-life. No matter how you vote.
And it’s not just about mothers. Every abortion represents the failure of a father as well. Sometimes the father is capricious and feels no responsibility to the woman he impregnated (ask a group of college guys what they would do if they got a woman pregnant. You will be shocked at how many respond, “I’d tell her to get an abortion.”). But often that father has the same needs that the mother has. He needs a home he can bring his child into. He needs a job and health care and education. He needs encouragement and tending to just as much as a mother. So often, even when we’re willing to help a single mom, we ignore the father. That sends a powerful message. He needs to know that he is not disposable, but essential. That his child needs him to be more than a wallet. He needs to be told that he can learn and grow into the father that deep in his heart he wishes he could be. He needs people who believe in him rather than condemn him. And no politician can or will do those things. Because what we allow to pass for “pro-life” is no such thing at all.
Part of being wise is recognizing when what you’ve been doing isn’t working. Viewing the issue of abortion as a political fight to be won hasn’t worked. It’s never going to work, frankly. Want to reduce the number of abortions? Take care of vulnerable women and children. Let other people see you taking care of them. Pro-choice supporters will sometimes argue that if we care about stopping abortion, we’d support government policies which support women and children. There is some truth to that. Some sort of government safety net can be the difference between life and death for a young woman whose family is too broken or poor to support her when she gets into trouble. But there’s another quote from Mother Theresa regarding abortion which I whole-heartedly agree with:
We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.
Government programs may be able to keep a woman who has no one else to support her from starving, being homeless or giving birth on a street corner. And those are no small things, to be sure. But they cannot meet the deepest needs of a woman who is alone and pregnant. Only we can do that.
So what does it look like when we remove pro-life from the political and make it personal? Last week my friend Carol passed on a wonderful sermon given by Reverend Terry Hamilton which I believe frames the issue as it ought to be seen for Christians:
As a Christian and a woman, I find abortion a most difficult subject to address. Even so, I believe that it is essential that the church face the issue of abortion in a distinctly Christian manner. Because of that, I am hereby addressing not society in general, but those of us who call ourselves Christians. I also want to be clear that I am not addressing abortion as a legal issue. I believe the issue, for the church, must be framed not around the banners of ‘pro-choice’ or ‘pro-life,’ but around God’s call to care for the least among us whom Jesus calls his sisters and brothers. . .
The issue as it is generally framed by both pro-choice and pro-life groups is unbiblical because it assumes that the woman is ultimately responsible both for herself and for any child she might carry. Why is it that women have abortions? Women I know, and those I know about, have had abortions for two basic reasons: the fear that they cannot handle the financial and physical demands of the child, and the fear that having the child will destroy relationships that are important to them.
An example of the first fear, the inability to handle the child financially or physically, is the divorced mother of two children, the younger of whom has Down’s syndrome. This woman recently discovered that she was pregnant. She believed abortion was wrong. However, the father of the child would not commit himself to help raise this child, and she was afraid she could not handle raising another child on her own.
An example of the second fear, the fear of destroying relationships, is the woman who became pregnant and was told by her husband that he would leave her if she did not have an abortion. She did not want to lose her husband, so she had the abortion. Later, her husband left her anyway.
In both of these cases, and in others I have known, the woman has had an abortion not because she was exercising her free choice but because she felt she had no choice. In each case the responsibility for caring for the child, had she had the child, would have rested squarely and solely on the woman. . .
The Christian response to abortion must reframe the issue to focus on responsibility rather than rights. The pro-choice/pro-life debate presently pits the right of the mother to choose against the right of the fetus to live. The Christian response, on the other hand, centers on the responsibility of the whole Christian community to care for ‘the least of these.’
According to the Presbyterian Church’s Book of Order, when a person is baptized, the congregation answers this question: ‘Do you, the members of this congregation, in the name of the whole Church of Christ, undertake the responsibility for the continued Christian nurture of this person, promising to be an example of the new life in Christ and to pray for him or her in this new life?’ We make this promise because we know that no adult belongs to himself or herself, and that no child belongs to his or her parents, but that every person is a child of God. Because of that, every young one is our child, the church’s child to care for. This is not an option. It is a responsibility.
Let me tell you two stories about what it is like when the church takes this responsibility seriously. The first is a story that Will Willimon, the Dean of Duke University Chapel, tells about a black church. In this church, when a teen-ager has a baby that she cannot care for, the church baptizes the baby and gives him/her to an older couple in the church that has the time and wisdom to raise the child. That way, says the pastor, the couple can raise the teen-age mother along with the baby. ‘That,’ the pastor says, ‘is how we do it.’
The second story involves something that happened to Deborah Campbell. A member of her church, a divorced woman, became pregnant, and the father dropped out of the picture. The woman decided to keep the child. But as the pregnancy progressed and began to show, she became upset because she felt she could not go to church anymore. After all, here she was, a Sunday School teacher, unmarried and pregnant. So she called Deborah. Deborah told her to come to church and sit in the pew with the Campbell family, and, no matter how the church reacted, the family would support her. Well, the church rallied around when the woman’s doctor told her at her six-month checkup that she owed him the remaining balance of fifteen hundred dollars by the next month; otherwise, he would not deliver the baby. The church held a baby shower and raised the money. When the time came for her to deliver, Deborah was her labor coach. W hen the woman’s mother refused to come and help after the baby was born, the church brought food and helped clean her house while she recovered from the birth. Now the woman’s little girl is the child of the parish.
This is what the church looks like when it takes seriously its call to care for ‘the least of these.’ These two churches differ in certain ways: one is Methodist, the other Roman Catholic; one has a carefully planned strategy for supporting women and babies, the other simply reacted spontaneously to a particular woman and her baby. But in each case the church acted with creativity and compassion to live out the Gospel.
We cannot simply throw the issue of abortion in the faces of women and say, ‘You decide and you bear the consequences of your decision.’ As the church, our response to the abortion issue must be to shoulder the responsibility to care for women and children. We cannot do otherwise and still be the church. If we close our doors in the faces of women and children, then we close our doors in the face of Christ.
Now, the reality is that there is a lot of work to be done. Millions of women need our support. At some point we do need to reduce the number of women facing a pregnancy they are ill-equipped to handle. Again, many pro-choice people will point to increased access to contraception as the answer. And I don’t have any problem with that. But it hasn’t stopped the problem and isn’t going to. The reality is that the best thing you can do to stop our abortion epidemic starts in our own homes and with the sort of work I’ve been discussing here. People – even people from good families – have been getting pregnant under less than ideal circumstances since time immemorial. But a hugely disproportionate number of women facing unplanned, unwanted pregnancies have experienced trauma. They are more likely to have grown up without fathers. The same is true of the men who impregnate them. This is our work to. And when we step in to help men and women facing unexpected parenthood, we are greatly reducing the chances that they will face the same problem again or that their children will repeat the cycle.
God’s work isn’t politics. It won’t be achieved through political means. If you really want to support the pro-life cause – help burgeoning family in need. But you don’t need to worry about the opinions of the politicians you vote for. As much as we’ve often deluded ourselves into thinking otherwise, a politician’s opinion on abortion is really quite irrelevant to the cause of saving unborn children.