A short time before the Victorian parliament passed what was then (perhaps still?) Australia’s most progressive abortion laws in 2008, The Age newspaper published the following letter of mine:
“In a matter of weeks, we stand to become a very muddled society indeed. Under current legislation, a miscarried foetus of 20 weeks gestation or later must be registered as a birth, may be named, and must receive a funeral. What that says, at the very minimum, is that this was a person. Beyond that, it more than implies that the person was a part of a family and indeed of the community, that they have died, and that their passing is an occasion of grief.
“So with what kind of intellectual gymnastics will we now hold side-by-side one set of legislation founded on the baby’s personhood, with another declaring them expendable? What will we say of the legally aborted 22-week foetus? Will we register their birth? Will we name, bury, mourn and remember them?
“You can’t have it both ways … Either they are a person or they are not. If you must pass this dehumanising legislation, then at least have the pluck to amend the birth and death legislation as well. Then those of us with choice will know where we stand.”
My letter was lauded by fellow Christian believers. Do I still stand by it? Fourteen years on that’s a “yes” and a “no”. My horror at the daily medical practice of pregnancy termination is unaltered; indeed it may even have strengthened.
So what has changed?
Make no mistake, I hate abortion as much as ever. And I dream of and long for a world where no unborn child is deprived of life by human intervention, ever. Unlike most progressives, I’m in no doubt of the personhood of each child, and if pushed on the question of whether abortion constitutes “murder”, I think I’d still answer in the affirmative. Though I’m perhaps less certain as to what lines I’d draw in the sand beyond that.
So what has changed?
In short, I’ve done a lot of what evangelical Christians like me have done poorly if at all; I’ve listened sincerely and reflectively to other voices, other stories and analyses. Yet I haven’t listened any less to the word of God in Scripture. I’d like to think I’ve listened more, in fact.
In this season of foment out of an anticipated radical change that the repeal of Roe v. Wade would be, I’d like to reflect here on where I’ve come to. I pray my reflections may challenge, trouble and encourage others.
It may come as a surprise to many Christians that “pro-life” has not been touted as a core Christian belief since forever. Certainly not among Protestants at any rate. It’s actually quite recent, a late-20th-century innovation.
Railing against women and their doctors … won’t reduce the rate of abortion.
And one of the sad ironies is that those with the most to say about how evil abortion is, tend to be the ones who do the least to lower the abortion rate, to see fewer unborn children’s lives ended.
Railing against women and their doctors and demanding the recriminalisation of abortion may feel very righteous. But it won’t reduce the rate of abortion. And that reality should distress evangelical Christians far more than it seems to. We seem to feel our gospel-driven task is done and the Lord glorified whenever we’ve somehow impeded the medical provision of pregnancy termination.
If we Christians really want to see fewer abortions taking place on our watch, the thing to campaign for would be much more funding for sex education and ready access to contraception, especially among the most disadvantaged sectors of our community. Christians typically find that very thought repugnant. It seems like a sell-out to the free and easy sex movement. The godless hippies have won; let’s just pass the dope. But the reality is “thems is the choices” in this fallen imperfect world.
Ganders pronouncing on what’s good for geese have never been either constructive or honourable.
To ignore these realities and continue campaigning for criminal penalties, seeking to use the laws of the land to compel desperate women to carry unwanted pregnancies to full-term, is not only another rush to the barricades of Christendom’s decaying corpse. Far worse, it numbers us among the complicit in the very abortion rate we claim to bemoan.
Frightened women and girls will procure abortions somehow, safe or otherwise. Ganders pronouncing on what’s good for geese have never been either constructive or honourable. And so I hesitate to hypothesise on a condition far from me or my world. But I’ll give it a tentative go just once. If I were a destitute woman carrying an unwanted child, forcibly cut off from family or other supports, I reckon I might just decide that prison without the kid has more going for it than life on the streets with the child.
Christians, beware the persistent seduction of Pharisaism.
I’m heartened whenever I read or hear of Christian leaders and church communities acting on their “pro-life” pronouncements by financially supporting or even practically providing care and support for vulnerable women facing birth. All strength to their arms. And yet it isn’t enough if we really are appalled by the abortion rate. Far better to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Lobby your politicians to that end. As always, prevention beats cure.
Christians, beware the persistent seduction of Pharisaism. In the end, if we do stick with the anti-abortion Christian status quo, picketing abortion clinics on the way to seeing them closed by law, it may just serve the interests of our own souls to quietly drop the “pro-life” tag.