Too Many Questions
So who leaked the draft? The fact that you already know what I’m talking about points to its significance – the significance of the draft as well as the fact that it was leaked. The draft, of course, is of the Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe vs. Wade. So who leaked it? No one knows, and according to some experts, we may never know. We can’t even be sure which side leaked it. Reasons for and against have been suggested for both sides.
It occurs to me that the cloud of uncertainty that hangs over the leak reflects the uncertainty and ambiguity that hangs over the issue of abortion itself. For many of us, there are just too many questions to be certain. Apparently most Americans aren’t certain. According to a poll I heard about a couple of days ago, only 20% of people in this country take an extreme position on abortion, with 10% on each end of the spectrum. The 10% on the left believe that there should be no limits on abortion whatsoever. The 10% on the right believes that there are no conditions in which abortion should be allowed, even in cases of rape and incest. That leaves 80% who don’t take an extreme position, who acknowledge at least some degree of uncertainty or ambiguity.
Part of my own uncertainty has to do with how little the Bible talks about abortion. It never directly addresses or prohibits it – unlike Israel's neighbors the Assyrians, for example, whose law code stated that if a woman is found trying to abort her fetus, she should be impaled and left unburied. This doesn’t mean ancient Israel allowed abortion. I’m sure there were laws or taboos that didn’t make it into the Bible. But given the fact that there were biblical prohibitions against cutting off the sides of one’s hair and trimming the corners of one’s beard, laws against tattoos or against a man purposely “spilling his seed,” it seems odd that there are no written rules against something as significant as abortion. Assuming it comes under the command “You shall not kill” may be a legitimate attempt to apply a general rule to a specific situation, but such an application is hardly cut and dry – especially when one considers Numbers 5:11-31 and the “ordeal of bitter water,” which was administered to a husband’s wife who was suspected of committing adultery, resulting in a miscarriage or spontaneous abortion if she was guilty. Is this a God-sanctioned abortion?
I tend to sympathize with the author I read a few years ago who said his views on abortion were more conservative than the Bible’s! For example, I have a hard time imagining Jesus condoning one of his followers ending the life of an unborn at whatever stage (though I'm not suggesting there would never be any exceptions). He said our righteousness is to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. His radical call to love often went beyond the law. But can we base the law of the land, especially in a pluralistic society, on “what would Jesus do?”
Whatever is happening in a mother’s womb is ultimately a mystery, which makes any attempt to legislate it problematic. Yes, it’s a mystery to be in awe of – which is what most of us feel when it’s our own child and we’re grateful for the news. But there are too many unknowns to call the aborting of an embryo or fetus “murder,” for example, or to know with certainty at what point the government should have a say in what happens. Nor are such decisions just religious decisions, as some claim. Most people agree that both the mother and the unborn have the “right” to prenatal care, for example. If abortion wasn’t such a hot button issue, I suspect most people would also agree with the psalmist that each human life is “fearfully and wonderfully made.”
Could it be that our conflictive postures are keeping us from being curious?
So here are some of my questions. None of them are intended to be cynical or sarcastic. Some of them I have tentative answers for based on intuition more than logic, facts or specific biblical passages. Being tentative makes me cautious about imposing my views on others. Maybe some of you can relate. So here they are.
Obviously an embryo is a “being” of some sort, but is it a human being? Is it a human being simply because it’s not another kind of being, or is there something positive about it that defines it as qualitatively human? How do we define what it means to be human?
When does a human being become a human person? How do we define person?
Is abortion murder, or is there a point in the gestation process when it becomes murder? If that language is too strong, is it enough to simply call abortion “terminating a pregnancy?” Isn’t abortion inherently violent? At what point does the unborn suffer during an abortion? Should the violence of the act or the suffering of the unborn influence how we think about abortion?
I can sympathize with people who say they are against abortion because their own mother resisted the pressure to have an abortion. Having been given the opportunity to exist is a pretty strong argument. But how far does one take this reasoning? If that same mother had been using contraception or even natural family planning during that period in her life, wouldn’t it mean that same person wouldn’t have have been born? How is preventing a life different from ending a life?
Where does God fit into all this? Does God decide who is or isn’t to be born? If “I” was aborted, could God assign that same “I” or unique self-awareness/consciousness to another human being conceived at another time? To what extent is one’s consciousness tied to one’s unique personality and circumstances? Could this same “I” be conceived and born with a different personality and environment? Is this the last chance at a life for the aborted “I”? (This line of questioning may be far-fetched, but it demonstrates how little we actually know about life within or before the womb.)
Do the unborn, at whatever stage, automatically go to heaven if they're aborted? If that were the case, why are many Christians so adamant about making abortion illegal, given the possibility that this may be the only sure way for that unborn being to have eternal life?
Who should make the call about whether an unborn should come to term? The mother? The father? The mother and father together? The courts? Congress? State legislatures? One’s religious community? Should more weight be given to the mother since the unborn lives in her body and she'll be the one most impacted if the child comes to term? What should determine the state’s interest in this decision?
If the decision were to always be assigned to the mother, should we say that it is her right to make the decision or her responsibility to make it? Does it matter which word we use?
Is it conscionable for the state to force a woman to bring a child to term without sharing responsibility for that child’s future? For example, if a woman feels desperate enough to have an abortion, can or should the government force her to bring the child to term without addressing the circumstances that might be making her feel desperate enough to want one? Wouldn’t any position that is truly Christian say, “We want you to be able to have this child, and we will do all that we can to make that possible, both during and after your pregnancy?"
Why is it that evangelicals took so long to take up this issue, and that many evangelical leaders agreed with Roe vs. Wade (including the Southern Baptist Conference)? Why is it that it wasn’t until 1979 — a full six years after Roe — that evangelical leaders, at the urging of conservative activist Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion as a rallying-cry to deny fellow-evangelical President Jimmy Carter a second term –- apparently to protect segregated schools?
Why is it that evangelicals eventually took up the Roman Catholic position on abortion, but disregarded Catholic social teaching about caring for children from the womb to the tomb? How many Christians are willing to make the personal sacrifices that will make human life truly viable at every stage of life (e.g. financial contributions to nonprofits, higher taxes, volunteering, mentorship, adoption), and how many think making abortion illegal ends their responsibility?
Why is it that Democratic platforms used to state that abortions should be both as safe and as few as possible? Why was this platform dropped? Why has it become virtually impossible for a Democratic pro-life candidate to win office at a federal level, a party that claims to be for the helpless and disadvantaged?
Is imposing laws prohibiting abortion an effective way to change people’s hearts, or can it be counterproductive (e.g. Romans 7)? Isn’t a change of heart necessary for a long-term decrease in the number of abortions? (Laws can be changed by whatever party happens to be in power.)
Have Christians on both sides of the political spectrum allowed themselves to be seduced by an overreliance on political power? How does this align with the message of the cross? Are we substituting political partisanship and strategies for a communal search for wisdom regarding a very complex issue?
Is this reliance on political power a sign that the church has lost its spiritual power to influence the public square?
Each of the many issues and questions surrounding abortion, from my perspective, are incredibly complex. And when we combine them, the complexity multiplies, defying any kind of linear thinking or simple solutions. There is no escaping the fact that we are dealing with a mystery – biblically, scientifically, politically and relationally. I can think of no perfect or ideal solution. Roe vs. Wade certainly wasn’t. But I can’t help but wonder what might have happened if evangelicals had continued to accept it as a less than ideal legal compromise, and devoted their efforts to what they are supposed to do best – use persuasion rather than coercion; being a city on a hill and the salt of the earth; appealing to people’s goodwill and finding common ground for ongoing dialogue rather than engaging in endless culture wars.
Is it possible that we will end up winning the battle but losing the war?