The Problem with Abortion / Anti-Abortion
Reproductive Rights in Canada and the United States
Christian faith became real to me when I was a teenager. Church was not something that was forced on me by family. I could have not gone to church at all and that probably would have been just fine with most of my relatives. As it turned out, I had a conversion experience and faith became real to me. In fact, faith came to direct or impact most of my life. I was a pastor in an evangelical church for almost three decades.
Even now, I think back upon a memory of being in the Baptist church when I was a young teenager and seeing the word “abortion” on a poster in the foyer. Before I knew what abortion was, I realized that, to the people in the church, it was terrible or even evil. In between then and now I learned a lot more about Christian faith and theology, and the Bible and the history of the Christian church. I came to learn that abortion, as a major issue for the church in Canada and the United States, emerged pretty much in my own lifetime.
A few years after noticing the poster on the wall I heard the name, Dr. Henry Morgentaler. Dr. Morgentaler was a key figure in the struggle for access to abortion in Canada. If you were part of an evangelical church at the time, Dr. Morgentaler, if referred to at all, would be referred to with derision. I recall one occasion where a person in our congregation was talking to me and we got talking about the news. Dr. Morgentaler had been interviewed on a news programme the previous week. The person speaking with me had seen the interview that I had seen, and asked me a troubling question. It was not in jest.
“Did you notice how he looked?” they asked. “He really did look like the devil, or like some kind of demonic presence had come over him.”
I hadn’t noticed that at all.
In this person’s mind, Dr. Morgentaler was evil. Abortion was murder. For this person, no Christian anywhere, ever, could ever support a woman’s right to choose and still call themselves a Christian. Dr. Morgentaler must be under evil influence, in such ways of seeing the world. I assume that the person speaking with me did not know, nor did I at the time, that Henry Morgentaler had, earlier in his life, been imprisoned in a Ghetto in Lodz, Poland, and later in the Dachau Concentration Camp by the Nazis. I have had occasion to visit Dachau, and I can see how anyone who survived such a place might give their life to fight for the rights of people and against the dictates of the state over bodily autonomy.
Morgentaler became someone who fought for reproductive rights and for safe access to abortion. He himself clearly did not see what he was doing as in the service of evil. He demonstrated a willingness to pay a price for his convictions and was sentenced to prison during the struggle.
I won’t take the space in this newsletter to outline the history, but in learning about the rise of evangelicalism as a social and political power, I discovered (as many have) that abortion was not always a litmus test and wedge issue for the church. In fact, when Roe vs. Wade was decided, here is what a key figure and former leader of the Southern Baptists said,
“I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person, and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.”
(W.A. Criswell, Also former Pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas)
I recommend this more in depth look at how abortion became a central issue for evangelicals.
In my own experience, I remember a professor, Dr. Bruce Waltke (who I studied under in Vancouver), outline that the biblical view of life really had to do with viability and breath. You know how God “breathes” existence into being? From that an Old Testament view was that a life was truly a life once it had its own breath. This is not to advocate for late term abortions, but rather to point out that Christian thinking on the issue has not always been what it is now.
In fact, as the history shows, abortion was not really considered a major issue for evangelicals at the time of Roe vs. Wade, and a number of prominent leaders, Billy Graham among them, expressed either only mild disagreement or even mild support.
So what happened?
A good reading of the history shows that the conservative (soon to be “moral majority”) expression of the church was looking for an issue around which to coalesce political power and influence. From transcripts of conversations and high level meetings it seems that what mattered most to the movement was not actually abortion, but school segregation (issues of race) and tax exemption (issues of money). There are examples of attempts to build a voting block around these issues, but they proved somewhat ineffective in the ability to excite the energy of negative motivation among the majority of evangelicals. The issues failed to build a powerful voting block. What did work was the issue of abortion, and ever since, it has become a wedge issue for the evangelical church.
If you are not familiar with Christian scripture it may also surprise you to know that there are no verses that directly speak about abortion. When I was growing up I asked some leaders for such references and generally what I got was direction to look at the 139th Psalm.
Psalm 139 is a beautiful prayer about how we are known by God and how God is with us, even when we are “on the edge of the sea” (Note that the psalm assumes that the earth is flat. Most Christians are able to see that the psalm is not intended to be a scientific statement on things like that, but for some reason tend to use later verses in the psalm to build an argument about biology). The prayer says that darkness will not be dark to God, and that even if we feel utterly alone, God is still with us. The assurance of such presence moves towards the reflection of God knowing us even before we knew ourselves. The psalmist prays to God saying that “you knew me when I was being knit together in my mother’s womb, and you knew every one of the days of my life, before I ever lived them.”
The idea that this psalm offers a moral stance on whether women should have the right to access abortion is, to say the least, a bit of a stretch. In fact, using the psalm for such political purposes seems to me to be an abuse of scripture.
Here is why I say all of this today, if you grew up in an evangelical church you may think that you are supposed to cheer at news that it appears almost certain that Roe vs. Wade will be overturned by the Supreme Court in the United States.
Instead of cheering, however, you might be troubled by the leaked document outlining the apparent future. I am troubled by it, and I am troubled by it not in spite of my faith, but because of my faith. To me it represents another example of how a particular small group of power brokers have taken advantage of the the people in the churches over which they have influence. This has not been good for culture or for faith.
I know that the issue of abortion has been used to pit the church against anyone who has a different view and to maintain the allegiance of a voting block. It has been used in ways that are manipulative and disingenuous. This does not mean that everyone who is against the right to abortion has such duplicitous intent, but some of the power brokers certainly do. As long as allowing women the right to choose can be presented as a heinous, anti-Christian evil, then all kinds of other policies, some of them astoundingly anti-life, can be taken up and indirectly supported by people for whom abortion is a single issue voting matter. There are scores of Christians who voted one particular way simply because of this one issue. Such single issue thinking (on the right and on the left) can be akin to the person saying to me that day, “Didn’t he look like the devil to you?”
There are many other aspects of how the issue of abortion and the right to access it has been weaponized for political power. I have read various reports and studies that, in many cases, the rate of abortion goes down in the United States when Democratic administrations are in power. The explanations for such numbers point towards social programmes and spending on helping young moms and other initiatives that usually see more funding by Democrats and more cuts by Republicans.
I sometimes ask if people would rather see fewer abortions or simply see a law against access to abortion.
Finally, I consider that in almost every rigid expression of religion one of the first areas of control seems to be over women’s bodies. We can see this in Christian religion and in other religions. I ask myself how the overwhelmingly male leaders of such movements would respond if their bodies were controlled in such ways. I also hear a paternalistic, pedantic, bleak view of humanity in the demand for control over other people. Leaders in these circles seem to have a view that the average person cannot be trusted to make their own decisions, but that the leaders themselves have knowledge and moral superiority to be able to choose for themselves - and for others.
On this issue I am most certainly not telling you what you should think. In my mind, there are good reasons to land on either side of this issue from Christian conviction.
I just find it hard to trust people who told me that I HAD to think in one particular way. I hope that you can find freedom from such imposed views as well.