Today, the pro-life group March for Life will make its annual trek to the Supreme Court to mark the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. The abortion debate filled headlines often in 2015, and it’s sure to be a big issue in the upcoming presidential election.
Ultimately, the core issue in the pro-life vs. pro-choice debate is, “Whose rights matter most?” Is it the rights of the mother or the rights of the infant in her womb?
I believe that the answer is, “Yes.”
In his letter to the early church, the apostle James writes that we must show no partiality and reiterates what Jesus said was the greatest commandment in relation to our fellow human beings—to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (James 2:1, 8). In writing these words, James was addressing a problem that he saw in the first century church. Partiality was being shown to affluent, successful, famous people because everyone was trying to climb the social ladder. While the privileged were receiving VIP treatment in the church, the poor were overlooked and sent to the periphery. This, according to James, was wrong.
In the Church, every person is supposed to get the VIP treatment, because every person, wealthy or poor, obscure or famous, strong or with special needs, mother or infant, is a carrier of the divine imprint. Every human bears the image of God. As Martin Luther King Jr. aptly said, “There are no gradations in the image of God … God made us to live together as brothers (and sisters) and to respect the dignity and worth of every (hu)man.”
This is where the pro-life vs. pro-choice discussion breaks down. This is not to say that comprehensive respect is never there (I know many pro-life advocates, for example, who show deep compassionate for mothers as well as children), but neither is broadly known to advocate for all parties. Furthermore, neither side is seen by the other as being truly and consistently pro-choice or pro-life. Although there are exceptions, in many instances the use of these terms can be more euphemistic than honest.
Both sides are right in advocating for someone who is in a weak and distressed position. Both sides are wrong when they give partial treatment toward one party, and dismissive treatment toward another.
If we don’t show deep concern for both mother and child, James seems to be saying, then our religion is lopsided. Until we become both/and on this issue, our religion is not true.
Infant-Advocates Get Worked Up
Infant advocates or pro-life people get worked up by command-breaking that then leads to injustice. When God’s commands are ignored, they say, injustice and human rights violations are bound to occur. James writes, “He who said ‘do not commit adultery’ also said ‘do not murder.’” Many infant advocates would say that if only people would stop committing adultery and murdering, the abortion problem would be solved.
Interestingly, two major Old Testament figures wrestled over this very question. Both wondered if life is worth living with a burdensome quality of life.
Job was a victim of terror who lost all of his assets, his business, his wife’s respect, and all ten of his children. Jeremiah was a prophet in exile, a bereaved widower, and hated by virtually everyone that God had called him to love and serve.
Both men of God made the same statement: “Cursed be the day that I was born.” Jeremiah took the thought further when he said, “Cursed be the day when my mother bore me…Cursed be the man who brought the news to my Father, because he did not kill me in the womb…why was I born to see toil and sorrow and spend my days in shame?” (Jeremiah 20:14-18).
Someone on the pro-choice side might say, “You see? Even one of God’s prophets said that he should have been aborted!” One might take Jeremiah’s words to mean that he was in favor of the quality of life argument.
But if Jeremiah or Job truly believed this, each would have followed through with the thought and taken his own life, no? If the merciful and just thing to do with a life wrought by endless suffering and sorrow is to end the life and thereby end the suffering, why did neither of these men do the merciful and just thing? I think it is because in cursing the day they were born, both of these men of God were venting their raw emotions—emotions that were real but that were not necessarily true.
Deep down, in spite of expressing a desire not to go on living, both Job and Jeremiah understood that the decisive issue is not the quality of life but the value of life.
Jeremiah did not take his life in his own hands, no doubt because God had declared to him years before, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you…” (Jeremiah 1:5). Similar thoughts are expressed elsewhere in Scripture. “You formed my inmost parts,” the Psalmist prays, “you knitted me together in my mother’s womb…Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them” (Psalm 139:13, 16). “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb,” it is said about John the Baptist (Luke 1:15). The Old Testament Hebrew word used in reference to a toddler (yeled) is the same Old Testament Hebrew word used in reference to a fetus.
Biblically, there is no debate on the issue. The testimony of Scripture is unequivocal that from the moment that sperm and egg unite, you have a new living soul and carrier of the divine imprint. Personhood begins at conception.
People who believe the Old and New Testament Scriptures are not the only ones who agree with this. The abortion provider I referenced above also said in the course of conversation that every abortion he has performed over the years has made him feel sick to his stomach. He went on to say that he believes human life begins at the moment of conception, and that to terminate a pregnancy is to end a human life.
As I understand it, this is the moral challenge for those on the side of “choice.” How is it possible to advocate in the name of justice for a woman’s right to elect abortion, when the weakest human being in the equation is left without a choice and without a defense? Justice and mercy, to be truly just and merciful, demand that the most vulnerable, powerless, defenseless and voiceless ones be entitled to and receive the strongest defense, advocacy, and protection.
As James writes, “There will be judgment without mercy to those who show no mercy” (James 2:13). This is a weighty thing.
Mother-Advocates Get Worked Up
Mother-advocates, on the other hand, get worked up by a different form of injustice. Whereas pro-life people accuse pro-choice people of active aggression toward infants in the womb, pro-choice people accuse pro-lifers of passive aggression toward mothers who are vulnerable.
Anyone can cast a vote. Anyone can share her or his views about the matter on Facebook. But do pro-life people really think they have done justly and loved mercy by merely giving it their best effort to get the law on their side?
Pro-life people, too, must grapple with the imperative to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Loving your neighbor calls for showing mercy. Otherwise you are fooling yourself. It is possible to be pro-infant, but not pro-life in the truest and most comprehensive sense of the term.
To show mercy is to lift a burden off of afflicted people and take that burden on our own shoulders. Mercy puts itself in the shoes of those who are ashamed, alone and scared. What if it was us or our loved ones who were faced with the realities of an unexpected pregnancy?
What if we were the pregnant, unmarried woman living below the poverty line? What if we were the college student who was a victim of date rape? What if we were the woman with a husband or a boyfriend demanding that we “take care of it, or else?” What if we were the teenage girl whose parents have made it clear that they will not support the birth or adoption route? What if it were your sister or your daughter?
A Way Forward
I believe that the only way forward is to adopt a Kingdom vision that transcends the civic vision on this issue. If we continue to hold the pro-life vs. pro-choice debate hostage by treating it as a political issue, we will get nowhere.
What might such a Kingdom vision look like?
During the Pax Romana, Social Darwinism was the rule of the day, in which the terms of justice were decided by the powerful, who made certain that the terms of justice privileged them. The weak had no choice but to be subject to those terms.
As in Hitler’s Germany, certain classes of humans were seen as a drain on society and therefore disposable. Widows, the infirm, people with special needs, the poor and unwanted children … all were vulnerable and none had the assurance that their human rights would be honored. Archaeologists discovered a letter written by a traveling Roman businessman to his pregnant wife. Unable to make it back home in time for the child’s birth, he wrote to her that if the child is a boy, she should keep it. If it is a girl, she should throw it out.
The people of Jesus said to the Roman Caesar something similar to what Mother Teresa once said at a National Prayer Breakfast to a sitting U.S. President: “Stop aborting your babies and give them to me.” The early Christians said to the Roman Caesar. “We will take care of your sick. We will feed your hungry. We will shelter your widows. We will adopt and raise your children with special needs. We will take care of your pregnant mothers.”
By the third century A.D., the fabric of Roman society was transformed—“infected by love,” as one historian has said. Even the Emperor Julian, known by history as “Julian the Apostate” because of his hatred of Christianity, conceded in a letter to his friend that the growth of the “Christian sect” had gotten out of control because the Christians took better care of Rome’s afflicted than Rome did.
I cannot find a way to improve on his words of a doctor from our church:
Wouldn’t it be great if communities existed where any mother, married or unmarried, would feel welcomed and loved and known that her needs and the needs of her child would be attended to? If the Church does what the Church is called to do, then there will be no poor or disregarded or demeaned in our midst. In short, I would rather build community and dialogue and live in a society where abortion, due to the love ready to be given to any child and any mother, is not merely illegal but unthinkable.
Scott Sauls is senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee and author of several books. He also blogs weekly at scottsauls.com, and can be found on social media at @scottsauls.