What will it take to actually end abortion?
The abortion debate is a messy one; unlike other social issues, there is dispute over who the victim is. Abortion is a polarizing issue and once we reach polarization, there’s not much progress that can be made. It’s too easy to get lost in the weeds of polemics, bad arguments, irrational outbursts, knee-jerk reactions, self-righteous piety, and so on. There is no easy way to talk about this issue, so regardless of how I present this, someone is going to bite back.
Let me preface what I’m about to say, by stating emphatically that I am staunchly pro-life, and I base that view on medical science, bioethics, and the Non-Aggression Principle (which affirm my theological view). However, I’ve been disenchanted (and even cynical at times) by some tactics taken up by the pro-life movement. My reasons for this disenchantment will become clearer as we go along, but it bears saying at the outset that I neither support nor defend the legality of abortion.
This is a topic that I used to be very vocal about, but I’ve left untouched for several years because each side seems, at least, more interested in winning the debate, than either saving lives or empowering women. In fact, I think this has been observed by most people who explain their stance on abortion by beginning with the phrase, “I’m pro-life, but …”
The abortion issue has been flung back into the mainstream narrative again; and it’s reinvigorating the hard emotions that surround it. But the question I want to pose to pro-lifers is this: If the endgame of the pro-life movement is to outlaw abortion again, what is the goal in doing so? Is it simply to end the non-criminal status of abortion, or to end the practice of abortion?
Stating this question, in this way, is prompted by Jeff Durbin, pastor of Apologia Church in Tempe, AZ, who recently began a campaign to “End Abortion Now.” So, if you’re answer to my question is, “it’s both,” then I’m going to challenge you to consider that you are only thinking of the end game, while ignoring the long game strategy required to get there.
This particular presentation is going to be focused on the pro-life movement. If you’re interested in my critique of the Christian feminist view of abortion, I offer a direct rebuttal to Rachel Held Evans’ argument.
I have never had an abortion; however, I did decide to give up a career and raise my children in relative poverty, and in what I later discovered to be a bad marriage, and I’ve seen that circumstances like mine are something the pro-life movement, as a whole, takes for granted.
Please understand that my primary motivation here has to do with protecting the lives of BOTH mom and baby; not just up to birth, but beyond, and while this is a criticism of what’s going on the pro-life movement, it is not meant to be a diatribe of condemnation. I do see a path forward for the pro-life movement, but it’s going to require a paradigm shift.
My disenchantment derives from the obstinacy on both sides; an unwillingness to find common ground. What I have to say to both pro-lifers here, and to pro-choice Christian feminists, comes with both empathy and agreement on certain arguments, but great caution and rebuke on others.
This presentation will be in two parts; the first will deal with the self-sabotage of the pro-life movement, while the second will deal with the strategies and developments that need to occur in order for it to be successful.
It won’t all be easy to hear, but if your motivation is the same as mine, then I invite you to join me, as we Dare to Think about what it will actually take to end abortion.
Part 1: How the pro-life movement is unwittingly aborting our pro-life era.
Laura S. Hussey, assistant professor in the Political Science department at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, conducted a study on pro-life activism and describes four streams of the pro-life movement in brief. The first three are highly visible;
- Public Education Stream (Education): This stream deals with moving public opinion on abortion
- The Political Stream (Legislative): This stream deals with electing pro-life candidates and promoting pro-life legislation reform.
- The Direct-Action Stream (Economic): This stream deals with affecting the supply of abortion
But the less visible stream is the
- Individual Outreach Stream (Social justice and welfare): This stream deals with providing practical and tangible alternatives to abortion that are immediately needed for women with unwanted pregnancies.
One major problem with these streams is that they act mutually independent from each other. In fact, factions within the streams act mutually independent from each other as well; often attacking one another’s methods, philosophies, strategies, not to mention the people themselves. So, while this may look like a comprehensive approach it certainly isn’t, and the End Abortion Now campaign provides a stark example of why this is true.
Durbin’s campaign utilizes the first three streams in his “battle plan.” First, educating advocates with a Christian worldview, which will be used in direct-action sidewalk canvassing, and finally pressuring politicians to pass strong legislation reform. He believes that his strategy will be what finally wins the abortion debate, and while I want to applaud and not discourage his work with helping individual mothers, his tactics concerning the legality are overzealous and premature.
Like the unborn baby who needs time in her mother’s womb before she can successfully be brought into the world, so too, certain developments need to take place before we can birth a new pro-life era in our legal history.
Don’t misconstrue this as incrementalism; rather, an acknowledgement that it’s a multi-faceted problem that requires a multi-faceted solution.
Stream 1: The Education Stream – Is a Christian Worldview Necessary for Winning the Pro-life Argument?
As a Christian, I will say that having a “Christian worldview” is absolutely essential for Christians living in a fallen world. But what do we mean by “Christian worldview?”
Christian worldview is a framework of ideas through which we interpret and interact with the world, but our worldview is informed by our doctrines, philosophies, and even life experiences. So, while Christians may universally share certain themes in our worldview, we do not necessarily share a universally consistent worldview, because our disagreements on doctrines, philosophies, and our different life experiences lead to nuanced distinctions; and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – this is just one way we build empathy and understanding about people.
Aside from the fact that Christians don’t all agree on what entails a Christian worldview, we should agree that it isn’t actually necessary to hold a Christian worldview in order to ascend to the pro-life ethic, that abortion is murder.
Romans 2:15 is a verse used and consistently agreed upon (even by Durbin) for emphasizing that universal moral standards are written on the heart of each individual human being. According to the Reformation Study Bible note on the verse, “The universal presence of moral standards [exists] across human societies, and the common sense of obligation to such standards indicate humanity’s universal moral constitution and sense of accountability to God, a legacy of our creation in the image of God.”
In other words, humanity universally agrees that abortion is murder, even if there are those who would excuse it, or even ignore it. The caveat being that this universal moral constitution is insufficient for salvation, but certainly it’s sufficient for recognizing the pro-life ethic.
We see this evidenced in three ways:
First, according to Gallup, 69% of Americans either oppose abortion out-right, or only find it acceptable under certain circumstances.
Moreover, pollsters don’t ask if abortion is morally right vs morally wrong; instead they ask if abortion is morally acceptable. Acceptable means, able to be tolerated or allowed. Tolerating something does not mean that it is viewed as morally right, only that it’s not worth interfering with because it conflicts with a greater moral wrong.
If 50% of Americans believe that abortion should be legal only under certain circumstances, then that suggests that there is a certain moral unacceptedness to abortion that still remains the majority opinion in this country. In other words, the majority opinion is not that abortion is morally right, but rather that it’s been accepted as a necessary evil.
The second indication that we don’t need to focus on a Christian worldview (in order to prevent abortion) is the presence of non-Christian pro-life groups such as these:
- Secular Pro-life
- Pro-life Humanists
- Godless Pro-lifers
- Feminists for Life
- Pro-life Muslims
- Pro-life Pagans
- Buddhist pro-lifers
- Democrats for life of America
- Pro-life Liberals
- Libertarians for Life
None of these groups hold to a particularly “Christian Worldview” and yet hold to the pro-life ethic, which shows that a Christian worldview is neither a precursor nor a requirement for advocating for life.
Finally, it is important to note that a combined 54% of women seeking abortion are self-professed Christians themselves. In 2014, 24% were Catholic, 17% were mainline Protestant, and 13% were evangelical Protestant.
Preaching a Christian worldview is great, but it hasn’t even persuaded Christian women who account for over half of the women aborting their unwanted babies. Rather than accusing them of a false faith, we should be asking why they feel the need to abort.
The church could potentially wipe out half the death toll simply by practicing what we preach with women within the church. What does it say to unbelieving women who see Christians preaching on the street corner about help and support, while failing to notice that our Christian sisters are walking into Planned Parenthood right behind them?
The first problem pro-lifers face, is to see this as a distinctly spiritual issue, while ignoring, and even disenfranchising, the allies we have outside the faith and political persuasions.
Jeff Durbin, don’t misconstrue what I’m saying here; a Christian’s primary mission is the spread of the Gospel. But is this always something we say or is it something we sometimes do? Wouldn’t joining forces with these other pro-life groups also offer an opportunity to not only share the Gospel, but save more women and their babies as well?
Tim Keller writes about how our different Christian worldviews relate to our work:
The evangelical tradition tends … to deal with the troubles and the stresses of work. Mainline churches tend to put more emphasis on social justice … so whenever [they do] faith-and-work stuff, it was usually critiquing the market, not “how’s your heart?” The Lutheran stream emphasizes that all work is God’s work. Worldview doesn’t matter. You make a good pair of shoes, then you’re doing God’s work, because work is God’s way of caring for creation. The Calvinist stream (is) more like …. it’s not just you are caring for creation through work, but you are shaping it. And therefore, your beliefs have an impact.
Keller sees all four of these worldviews creating a comprehensive approach but that dividing them has the potential for creating unbalances and idiosyncrasies. It’s quite possible that the abortion debate for Christians across the board presents a perfect case study for proving Keller’s caution against division correct. And it’s not that we need a universally consistent worldview; it’s that the distinctions in our worldviews together create a comprehensive approach.
The spread of the Gospel is what we do as we go about our daily life. It’s in how we do our work, the quality of our work, our attitude about our work, our attitude towards those our work serves, and even our attitude towards those who don’t appreciate our work. And that’s all without uttering one word of scripture. This is what prompts conversations on the Gospel; not the other way around. Matt 7:16 affirms that we are not known by what we believe, but by the fruit our faith produces. There’s a difference between preaching the Gospel and living it.
Which means that the doing of the work to end abortion, plays a much larger role in sharing the Gospel than the act of vocalizing it. As Christians, we should be careful not to conflate the Great Commission with political activism. There is value to be had in working with those who disagree with us on religion, but agree with us on the pro-life ethic.
Stream 2: The Political Stream – Yes Durbin, Pro-Life Advocates Need a Paradigm Shift, but not in the way you suppose.
The most prominent of pro-life activist streams is the political stream; it’s here that the pro-life strategy turns into an elaborate game of cat and mouse.
There are two major problems with pro-life political activism: personhood and criminalization
First, When Roe v Wade was decided, the SCOTUS ruling stated that if it could ever be proven that personhood begins at conception, that it would completely undermine the pro-choice argument because it would force the government to recognize the basic human rights of the unborn.
While medical science confirms that life begins at conception, the issue for Roe is personhood. Philosophers have been debating for centuries (millennia even?) about what makes you a person, and there appears to be no end in sight, as there are currently several competing theories that may or may not include fetuses. And even if we were to contribute a uniquely Christian theory, all that is, is a competing theory; trying to get everyone to agree on which theory to use is problematic and we really don’t want it determined by the whims of the democratic majority. Why?
Pro-lifers think they have a “gotcha” by introducing personhood laws; legislation that defines personhood as beginning at conception.
This sounds great, but here’s the problem: Governments assuming the power to define personhood, means also assuming the power to redefine personhood. Personhood laws are a backdoor to eugenics – eugenics is the idea that some human beings are not persons and therefore not deserving of moral consideration. You may get a Republican majority to define personhood as beginning at conception, but when the pendulum swings again, and the Democrats regain power, they’ll take the same legislation, amend it, and redefine personhood – perhaps even redefining it for born humans as well. America has attempted to define personhood before; it didn’t turn out so well.
Second is the problem of re-criminalization itself; are abortionists murderers, or are the mothers as well?
In an interview from March 2016, with the Oklahoma chapter Right to Life, Vice President, Tony Lauinger, Durbin was visibly disgusted with Lauinger who had fought against an Oklahoma state bill that would have called abortion first degree murder. Lauinger defended his actions by stating that labeling abortion first degree murder carries with it penalties that didn’t even exist prior to Roe v. Wade.
Lauinger continued explaining that most women seeking abortion are pressured into it by family, friends, and the baby’s fathers. Homicide is the leading cause of death for pregnant women in America, and Lauinger states those murdering pregnant women are the people demanding they get abortions. This did not appear to dissuade Durbin from his disgust that a prominent member of Right to Life would object to charging a woman with murder for aborting her child.
Just to be clear (and this is where I get cynical): Durbin appears to believe that the secret to ending abortion is by charging a woman with murder, who, under coercion from those closest to her, chooses to abort, unless she stands her ground and risks the #1 cause of death for herself, murder, inevitably resulting in two deaths, not just one. So, please explain to me how you think this is justice?
Care Net affirms that “the key factor in whether or not mothers choose to carry and parent will be the quality of the support systems available to them.”
Scott Klusendorf of the Pro-life Training Institute, insists that the goal of the pro-life movement is not to charge mothers who abort with murder, and points out that this was not the practice prior to Roe. Now, Klusendorf also tries to liken abortion prohibition with drug prohibition, and if a war on abortion is going to look anything like the war on drugs, then we have a whole new problem, but I’ll address that later.
The second problem pro-lifers face is that it has failed to understand the unintended consequences of current legislative efforts to solve the abortion problem.
Durbin asks the question whether Christians are committed to doing what it takes to end abortion. We already know the desired endgame, but, again, what exactly is the goal here: Is it simply to end the non-criminal status of abortion, or to end the practice of abortion?
So Durbin – The paradigm shift that needs to occur is away from the notion that legislation will cause women to stop seeking abortion.
Stream 3: The Direct-Action Stream – Desiring to affect the economy without understanding economics.
This is the stream people are more likely to come in contact with; their aim is to reduce the supply of available options through protests, under cover interactions with Planned Parenthood, confronting abortionists, and even sidewalk canvassing and counseling.
The hope is that by reducing the available options, that it will cause women to seek alternatives instead, but this comes with a grievous misunderstanding of economics – in fact, it’s the same error that advocates of gun control, drug prohibition, and criminalized prostitution make; only attempting to affect supply (without understanding supply’s relationship to demand) inevitably pushes a product or service to the black market.
“The founder of Birthright writes: The crux of the abortion problem is the unwanted child; and yet it is our society which has created the conditions that make a child unwanted. So these conditions can be changed! We do not have to accept them. We speak so lightly of unwanted children and the problems surrounding them. And rather than correct our socio-economic failures and shortcomings, we seek means of eliminating the children before they come into our midst.”
While the context of this statement seems to have more to do with abortion being what our society uses to eliminate the unwanted child, it can be argued that those in the pro-life movement (those who advocate the categorization of abortion as 1st degree murder) also seek to “eliminate the unwanted child before they come into our midst,” by advocating for such strong legislation without understanding the economic ramifications.
Pro-choice proponents are right to point out that banning abortion would move abortion from the open market to the black market. (Really, they accidentally point this out, if they were consistent at all, they wouldn’t push for government intervention in other areas of the market either).
I think an entire post, or perhaps book, could be dedicated to the economics of abortion, but the primary point I want to get across here, is that attempting to reduce supply is not going to sufficiently affect the demand for it, and both Direct-Action activists and political activists need to understand this.
Government intervention tries to impede the supply of products and services that we’ve deemed immoral, but only moves them to a part of the market that cannot be regularly seen, but is regularly felt. Drug addicts and prostitutes seeking help are often siphoned into the judicial system that has criminalized their behavior. There is a negative stigma associated with drug abuse and prostitution making it much more difficult for these people to get help when they want it; and often become pawns of the state in the process. Is the goal of the pro-life movement to create this negative stigma for women with unwanted pregnancies as well? Are we really ending the practice of abortion if we’re trying to pass legislation that will, at least at this point in history, simply move abortion from the open market to the black market?
And if changing the law means pushing today’s 1 million abortions to the black market, it will be harder to find the abortion clinics, harder to identify women in need, harder to get women willing to speak up for help because the stigma will have changed significantly; God forbid they (and their unborn, unwanted children become pawns of the state as well).
So, the third problem pro-lifers face is that they focus only on reducing supply without understanding how to reduce demand.
Henry Hazlitt points out that bad economists see only what is immediate, short term, and how particular actions will affect one group, but that good economists look beyond, long term, and how those same actions will affect everyone. In these terms, activists on both sides of the abortion debate could be reduced to bad economists.
In this study on the economics of abortion, the author states, “In contrast [to supply-aimed restrictions of abortion services], demand-aimed restrictions … were the single most important observable factor in explaining recent declines in the number of abortions.”[x]
I believe the freed market would best produce the necessary environment needed to influence and reduce both supply and demand for abortion in the manner the prolife movement wants to see, but it’s important to point out that attempts to artificially reduce demand, via legislation, still have a greater effect than artificially reducing supply.
Durbin – What would happen to Gallup polling numbers if abortion wasn’t viewed as a necessary evil, but as an expensive and unethical alternative to less expensive, more ethical options?
Stream 4: Individual Outreach – The Paradoxical (and often Neglected) stream the Pro-life Movement cannot afford to ignore
There’s a significant deviation from the pro-life ethic to the pro-choice ethic; the pro-choice ethic introduces the problem of poverty as it relates to the problem of abortion. The pro-life movement, by and large, has attempted to marginalize the problem of poverty and it is likely due to the fact that acknowledging the problem not only gives credence to the pro-choice argument, but it also undermines Republican fiscal policy.
Durbin exemplifies this by frequently dismissing pro-choicers’ concern for poverty in his YouTube videos. Granted, these pro-choicers don’t even make this argument well, but the bigger problem is how Durbin’s dismissiveness of the poverty factor is indicative of pro-life sentiment on the whole; “Oh, so you think poor people should die then?” “Have you suffered? Should your parents have killed you?”
I remember very similar arguments in Randy Alcorn’s book, Pro-life Answers to Pro-choice Arguments, and while I can appreciate the ability to reveal the absurdity of fallacious reasoning through Socratic questions, this tactic only drives a deeper wedge between the two sides, causing pro-lifers to completely ignore poverty as a relevant issue, while simultaneously shutting pro-choicers off to listening to reason.
Crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) have caught on to the problem of poverty, but they have gone largely unnoticed and/or seriously downplayed, even treated as merely incidental, by the more prominent components of the pro-life movement.
“There are logical reasons why pro-life activists who are concerned about poverty might concentrate their activism in pregnancy centers instead of politics. Social welfare advocacy by pro-life activists might endanger pro-life organizations’ access to the Republican Party. Since Democrats “own” the issue of poverty, raising its salience risks dividing pro-life voters. Meanwhile, political pro-life organizations’ alliance with a fiscally conservative Republican Party risks deterring Democrats’ and social welfare liberals’ involvement in [the pro-life] movement. Pregnancy centers plausibly offer a more cognitively consistent form of pro-life activism to these groups.”
According to Hussey’s study, CPCs may be the most thriving part of the movement and a model for future strategy, and are a direct response to decreased government entitlement reforms from the 1990’s. Freed market advocates should rejoice over this, because it’s evidence that private organizations can and do respond to the needs of the poor when government steps out of the way.
While some CPCs do take advantage of some public-funded programs, evidence shows that their services far surpass the help advertised by Planned Parenthood,[x] and as such are worthier investments even for pro-choice women who genuinely want the problem of abortion solved. Hussey found that CPC workers and volunteers were not motivated by politics but rather by a focus on women first, before the baby.
“Focusing on the woman’s baby, Care Net says, is a misplaced goal . . .We should not allow our desire to prevent abortion to lead us to assume that God somehow thinks more highly of the client’s baby than He does of her.”[x]
In order of highest percentage provided, these are services Hussey found CPCs either provide for directly, or refer out to varying degrees:
- Baby care items
- Children’s clothing
- Maternity clothing
- Baby equipment
- Gift cards
- Transportation assistance
- Prenatal care
- Professional counseling
- Job search assistance
- Labor and delivery care
- Housing during pregnancy
- Babysitting or child care
- Family primary care
- Housing for any age of child
- Tuition assistance
- Legal aid
Accusations by Planned Parenthood and prochoice politicians that CPCs lie about who they are and the services they provide, is unfounded Hussey reported. Stating that if anything, incidents like this are at best rare and isolated, and not a reflection of the vast majority of CPCs.
The tendency of the pro-life movement on the whole seems to treat CPCs as incidental; only necessary if they win the worldview fight on the sidewalk or in Congress. As much as we’d like to think that preaching the Gospel on the sidewalk is what causes women to re-think their decision to abort, it’s not likely; it’s the very real, tangible, practical, concrete help being offered. Can God use that in drawing an unbeliever or backslider to faith? Sure. Absolutely! But evidence points to the fact that women are taking the alternative help because it is the support system they need that is lacking in their life.
The fourth problem pro-lifers face is that it’s not acknowledging that poverty has a legitimate and direct impact on the decision to abort.
As a mother, the best advice I’ve ever received was to take care of myself first, because if I’m not taking care of myself, then how can I be there for my children? Yet, many in the pro-life movement take the opposite approach; the circumstances of the mother are downplayed – reducing her to an incubator – rather than recognizing her for what she is – the most important piece of the puzzle.
It’s not simply that she has the practical means to financially cover her present circumstances; but that she feels empowered in her own value to becoming a strong, independent woman capable of turning her situation around without the need to resort to murder. Murder is a sign of weakness – and why I believe many pro-choicers feel that abortion is a necessary evil; progressive politics don’t actually empower women to strength and independence; but to weakness, helplessness, and dependency on the state (ironically anti-feminist characteristics).
The sad reality however, is that the culturally traditional Christian view of women also makes them feel weak and helpless; dependent upon a husband for survival. And in case you think this is an unfair statement, let me remind you that over half the women seeking abortion, are Christians. This historically, and uncritically accepted view of women adds burden that confounds the problem because, aside from poverty, the other reasons women seek abortions are due to unstable relationships. This duality inevitably makes her feel desperate and alone.
The fifth problem pro-lifers face is to fail to understand why the empowerment of women is so necessary to protecting the lives of the unborn.
Moreover, if the pro-life movement took up the flag of “woman first,” they can take a battle axe to the foundation of the pro-choice argument; specifically, the idea that on-demand abortion empowers women to take control of their reproductive health. They could summarily defeat the pro-choice first line of defense, by actually raising the status of women (and motherhood) through real empowerment.
This empowerment is not about feminism, nor is it about idealized gender roles; this is about treating women as image bearers of God. By empowering women in real and tangible ways, it forces the pro-abortion advocates (notice I didn’t say pro-choice) to fight for abortion on the more controversial grounds of eugenics, population control, designer babies, and even after-birth abortion; a battle the’re sure to lose.
Ending Abortion Means Tackling the Neglected and Ignored
Let’s review the problems facing the pro-life movement:
First, is seeing abortion as a distinctly spiritual issue, while ignoring, and even disenfranchising, the allies we have outside the faith and political persuasions.
Second, is not understanding the unintended consequences of current legislative efforts to solve the abortion problem.
Third, is focusing only on reducing supply without understanding how to reduce demand, which will only hide the problem and make it more difficult to solve.
Fourth, is not acknowledging that poverty has a legitimate and direct impact on the decision to abort.
And finally, the fifth problem is in not understanding why the empowerment of women is so necessary to protecting the life of the fetus, and how pro-abortion advocates have distorted female empowerment in order to promote a culture of murder.
In Part 2, we will discuss how to strategically correct these failures, and embrace the developmental stages needed to occur before we can give birth to a new pro-life era.