Easter 5, May 15, 2022
Donald M. Seekins
In our Gospel reading this morning, from John 13: 31-35, Jesus says: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Today, I am going to talk about abortion, a subject that has inspired very little love among Christians, or between Christians and non-Christians. As you probably know, this has been a very controversial topic in the United States for decades and reached a white heat of controversy following the leak a couple of weeks ago of a secret Supreme Court document indicating that a majority of justices, being “conservative,” would overturn Roe versus Wade. This 1973 ruling recognises a woman’s right to this procedure even in states where a majority of voters would wish to ban abortions completely, in some instances even without exceptions in the case of rape or incest or the poor health of the pregnant woman.
I know most of you here today are far removed from a controversy that is largely taking place in the United States, but it does teach us something about the mutual corruption of religion and politics, which one can also describe as an ill-fated cocktail of moralism and opportunism. The big fight over abortion in the States is largely, if not fundamentally, a religious issue. Or, a so-called “religious” issue. However, it is being fought out more bitterly on the political stage than any other issue, with the possible exception of racism, or “racism.”
Relying on scriptural authority to determine the permissibility of abortion leads to somewhat ambiguous results, slightly favouring advocates of pro-choice:
- Although the commandment “thou shalt not kill” is key for pro-life activists, there is actually plenty of “justified” killing in the Old Testament;
- Jewish tradition tends to evaluate the mother as a person, while the foetus is a non-person until he/she first draws the breath of life (see Exodus 21: 22-25); the health of the mother takes priority over the life of the foetus; and,
- In both the Old and New Testaments, there is little if any discussion of the rightness or wrongness of abortion.
We like to keep faith and politics in separate spheres, but in fact they impinge on each other so often that we might throw up our hands in despair over mankind’s determination to use religion to legitimize all sorts of abuses, including war and genocide. Most religions have an equivalent to the commandment “thou shalt not kill,” but religious authorities have frequently sanctioned killing on “spiritual” grounds. Why is it excusable, if not meritorious, to kill unbelievers and heretics but not the unborn? Only pacifists would argue that it is not justifiable for Ukrainian soldiers to kill Russian soldiers in combat, even though the invaders are not necessarily evil: just following orders, the defiance of which could have heavy penalties for themselves or their families. Why is this sort of killing acceptable, while abortion is not?
The abortion controversy is a textbook example of the mutual corruption of religion and politics. “Pro-life” people see their political struggle as defence of an absolute, God-ordained prohibition against taking “innocent” life: the unborn child. While “soft” pro-lifers might make exceptions in the cases of rape, incest, foetal abnormality or the health of the mother, the “hard” faction would tolerate no such exceptions. Neither group, I believe, would allow an abortion if the woman were poor and unable to afford raising the child.
In the American context, the majority of pro-life activists are supporters of “small government” and “liberty” (that is, liberty from government). There may be exceptions, but I doubt that any more than a small handful of these people would accept the following principle: the right to life is such an important God-given priority that the State has the duty to provide sufficient resources to all pregnant women to ensure safe births, and adequate support for the child’s upbringing and education, especially if the child is mentally or physically disabled. Such a commitment on the part of the State to eliminating abortion might result in something closely resembling the childcare policies of socialist states, but – if an absolute prohibition of harming the unborn is accepted – socialism would be a small price to pay to protect the unborn from being “terminated.”
While the Ten Commandments do include “thou shalt not kill,” they do not include “thou shalt not have a socialist economy.”
In fact, we could envision the State to be so empowered as to deprive religious organizations of much or even all of their tax-exempt status, in order to use the funds to support poor mothers and their children in order to push the incidence of abortions close to zero. Supposedly, God would be pleased. Or, taxes on wealthy people could be significantly raised, to fund maternal and child welfare. The fact that members of the pro-life movement in the U.S., including clergymen, would strenuously reject such policies reveals the deep contradiction embedded in their simultaneously absolutist and politically opportunistic agendas. Added to this is the fact that most U.S. pro-life activists also zealously oppose sex education in schools and the distribution of contraceptives, two major factors in the recent decline of abortions in the United States.
Although the Catholic Church has a long-standing ban against abortion, it seems that before Roe versus Wade the American Protestant churches and their members, including Evangelicals, had mixed opinions on the issue. However, in the 1970s, a number of conservative Christian leaders, most notably the Presbyterian Reverend Francis Schaeffer, began a movement for total abolition which has gradually prevailed among a solid majority of conservative Christians. I mention Reverend Schaeffer because I knew him for an extended time back in the mid-1960s, and was impressed at that time by his knowledge of religion and philosophy. In his sermons, he argued that religiously-sanctioned absolute values were necessary if humanity was not to spiral into nihilism, which he believed was so evident in the culture of the 20th century.
However, what he and other politically active Evangelicals after 1973 did was to turn an issue of great personal sensitivity into a Crusade. And like the bloody Crusades of medieval Europe, the participants in the movement have joined it from mixed motives. Many people do, indeed, believe that abortion is absolutely wrong; but many others are riding this pony because they want political power. Among these of course is former President Donald Trump.
Although it seems to me that pro-choice activists have – overall – more reasonable positions than their absolutist pro-life opponents, precisely because of the latter’s political conservatism (“who pays for all those babies?”), the movement to defend and even expand abortion rights has its own issues. The objective of universal “abortion on demand” (a woman’s unquestioned “right” to an abortion) seems to open up the possibility that permissible reasons for having the procedure could range from poverty and “special cases” (rape, incest, the mother’s health, the foetus’s health), which I think most reasonable people could not oppose, to a desire of a woman to keep her life child-free in order to enjoy an affluent lifestyle including, say, expensive sports cars or frequent trips to five-star resorts. Traditional values would condemn such women as shallow and selfish, but we no longer live in an age when women who avoid traditional roles are judged to be morally deficient. Indeed, a woman who chose to spend decades of her life as a medical missionary in Africa might under some circumstances choose abortion, thinking it impossible to raise a child under those circumstances. Or one who dedicated her life to scientific research.
Abortion is a sensitive issue anywhere, and I believe that most reasonable people would refrain from opting wholeheartedly for either a total prohibition of abortion or abortion on demand. In a society that is better than the one we live in now – motivated by Jesus’s ideal of Charity – the troubling ambiguities of the procedure would be recognized and the dignity of the people whose lives are directly affected by having or not having an abortion would be protected.
In Dr. Schaeffer’s worldview, the Christian faith is girded with absolute commandments and prohibitions and it is the duty of every Christian to obey them. Because abortion involves the killing of a foetus, it is absolutely wrong, regardless of the circumstances. However, I believe that he fails to see the importance of Christ’s words in John: “ . . . love one another, even as I have loved you.”
“God is love.” This is an extremely difficult concept for us to truly understand. But clearly a society in which Christian love was the foundation for relations between people would not place pregnant women in the desperate situation of wanting or needing an abortion and not obtaining it for any reason. In our own societies, the difficult choice an individual woman has to make to terminate a pregnancy should not be subject to sledge-hammer absolutism. In other words, the controversy over abortion has been drained completely of Charity – that element, as Jesus teaches us throughout the New Testament, which should govern the way Christians interact both with each other and with non-Christians.