This post was written in 2017 and was republished (with significant edits) in 2021.
A Former Evangelical on Abortion
I grew up in a conservative, Evangelical church tradition where “traditional gender roles” were the norm. While women could serve as pastors, most women in the congregation were subtly prodded toward more “appropriate” tasks like caregiving, coordinating pot lucks, and participating in women-centric, feelings based small groups and bible studies.
By the same token, women and girls were expected to uphold particular modesty standards in the vein of of Proverbs 31 woman and “keep our bodies pure.” For more on that, read my post on Modesty.
At a national youth convention I attended around age 15, teenagers were encouraged to commit ourselves to chastity in exchange for a purity ring we could replace with our wedding ring later down the road.
A huge, massive, overbearing emphasis was placed on abstinence in the context of religious life and personal spirituality, particularly for women, which resulted in teenage girls feeling shame at their inability to resist the temptation of sex and its related activities; repulsion toward sex and sexual desires; and/or extreme pride that they were able to resist (I fell in the latter category).
We were told that Jesus was the only man we needed.
We were told that if we resisted that first kiss, we could stop ourselves from “going too far.”
We were told to save sex for marriage.
But what we read between the lines was this: commit sexual “sin” and you will suffer great consequences at the hands of this, your religious community.
When I was 16, one of my church friends got pregnant.
Other youth group kids were having sex. We all knew it. But this visible sign of her impropriety did her in. She was told to step down from teaching the kindergarteners. She was commanded to publicly apologize to the congregation during a church service. Remember, she was a child herself.
And that’s when I realized that getting pregnant as a young, conservative, unmarried Evangelical Christian girl was a death sentence. It was the Scarlet Letter. The whole community would turn their back on you, avert their eyes, demand an apology.
(A LifeWay Research study indicates that this anecdote is consistent with national data)
Before then, I was staunchly pro-life. But based on my friend’s experience, I determined that keeping a baby wasn’t worth losing everything. My church demonstrated that this, indeed, was what would happen. I didn’t learn it anywhere else.
And that’s when my eyes opened and I stopped averting my eyes when those so-called “sinners” looked into my face for signs of grace.
My church growing up was explicitly pro-life. Influenced by the “Religious Right,” most adults I knew were practically single issue voters. They were Republicans because they were against abortion.
But if you look at the history of the Religious Right, the picture is murkier and far more sinister. As this article explains, abortion became the rallying cry for a new political movement. But it wasn’t the true motive for the movement:
In fact, it wasn’t until 1979—a full six years after Roe—that evangelical leaders, at the behest of conservative activist Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion not for moral reasons, but as a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term. Why? Because the anti-abortion crusade was more palatable than the religious right’s real motive: protecting segregated schools. So much for the new abolitionism.
In the early years of Roe v. Wade, some conservative ministers even applauded the legislation. But the narrative was highly effective, and continues to bludgeon any attempt at a less polarized view.
So, I grew up in the pro-life movement. But I don’t feel the same way anymore. I am still a Christian, though. I am actually working toward eventually being a priest.
It is possible to be an authentic religious person and have more complex views on abortion. Below, I share my perspective…
If you’re politically pro-choice, you must understand that when abortion is conceived of as genocide there is no other choice but to lobby against it.
Those who advocate for the pro-life agenda at the grassroots level are largely sincere (the same cannot be said for politicians). You must trust that before we can move forward.
“You knit me together in my mother’s womb” – this confirmation that God knows us before we are born – compels many well intentioned Christians toward a tunnel vision perspective on abortion.
If we are being handcrafted by God’s own hands in our mothers’ uterus, then we are valued and valuable before we open our eyes in the world.
At the risk of stirring the pot, I would argue that this perspective is serious enough to be considered, if only because it opens up questions about what constitutes human dignity in the first place.
What I mean is that progressives like myself are willing to argue that a fetus is not “life” in order to strengthen our claim that abortion should be legal.
But, while the fetus may not be independent or viable life, it represents a future life that is deeply dependent on human care. It is not viable, but there are many already-birthed humans who have been named “not viable” in an ableist and ageist society.
Especially when looked at alongside end-of-life care and disability theology, we should consider how our definitions of what constitutes a meaningful human are tied up with pernicious ideas about autonomy and productivity.
So, if a fetus is a human, it must be protected on the grounds of its mere humanity, regardless of its condition.
If you’re politically pro-life, you must understand that abortion, by its very nature of being linked to another life, cannot be wrapped up neatly into a single judgment call.
Those who advocate for the pro-choice agenda at the grassroots level are largely sincere (I’m never sure about politicians). You must trust that before we can move forward.
If God loves you so much that God handcrafted you together in your mother’s uterus, then that means God loves people of childbearing age, too. It means that the livelihood of the (potential) parent must not be ignored.
And, in so many cases, our livelihoods are already ignored. In a society in which abortion is illegal, pregnant people will (and already do) die. In the absence of abortion as a healthcare option, complicated pregnancies and stillbirths lead to immense bodily suffering for the childbearer.
To be frank, I am afraid to face the risks of pregnancy without the full gamut of life-saving measures. And I think I can say without too much controversy that it is not selfish to not want to die.
A part of me thinks that the reason “unborn lives” are so cherished above the lives of their bearers is because these unborn represent a clean slate. You can’t blame a fetus for anything. But you can always find a way to scapegoat the parents for their decisions.
But to make political choices from the position of this kind of bias is to ignore systematic oppression.
It is to ignore mutuality. That is, our inherent connectedness and our essential codependency. No one can get pregnant by themselves. And no one can raise a child by themselves, not really. The unstained unborn can never matter more than the born.
Even though Christians believed life occurred at birth until the mid-twentieth century, I don’t think that sufficiently refutes pro-lifers’ claims to life. Lots of things that we believed 60 years ago are no longer held to be true. But I am more than willing to sit in the complexity of life, which always involves impossible choices, including abortion.
In my view, abortion is symptomatic of systemic sin, not individual sin.
The religious community that stops proclaiming God’s love for you the second you get pregnant is sinning.
The society that looks the other way when you’re unable to afford a second or third kid is sinning.
The company that makes it clear that getting pregnant will get you fired is sinning.
The school system that won’t teach adequate sex education is sinning.
The protesters who try to prevent you from getting reduced cost contraception are sinning.
The parents who disown you are sinning.
The people who tell you your assault was your fault are sinning.
Until we decide to resolve, once and for all, the gross injustices that present abortion as the best or only option, I cannot abide an argument that claims outlawing abortion is a solution when it’s more like the surface leak from a burst pipe rotting away the drywall from the inside out.
Human Sacredness is Not Conditional
My faith tradition orients me toward the idea that life is sacred, and that defining the gradations of meaningful life isn’t my job. I believe that all are meant to be cared for, to be greeted and given a seat at the feast in God’s kingdom.
Questions of bioethics and human flourishing are inherently contingent on the fact that we are limited in our freedoms by the task of caring for one another. No choice, ever, affects only the individual. To say so is to deny that we are embedded in systems.
With that in mind, we must navigate new terrain in the abortion conversation. We must stop claiming autonomy as our highest value. Abortion matters precisely because of the fact of dependency. And such dependency is deeply tied to our shared mortality. No one gets to claim moral superiority here.
There are no perfect choices. But we must make choices in this life. And so, I advocate for life when I say that abortion should be legal.
I am still developing my thoughts on this issue and would love if you have anything to throw my way, particularly theology or bioethics resources.
- Should Christians Be Vegetarian?, StyleWise
- Slow Change is Good, StyleWise
- The Sacredness of Human Life, David Gushee
- Recovering from I Kissed Dating Goodbye, The Toast Roundtable
- Reader Submitted: The Pro-Life Movement Must Transcend Politics
Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.
Thursday 7th of October 2021
Thank you for writing this piece. I’m a left-leaning Evangelical and I’m searching for clarity on abortion. This was helpful and very well-written.
Thursday 7th of October 2021
Thank you for reading and commenting. It's something I'm still thinking through, too.
Tuesday 7th of September 2021
This is the most thoughtful piece on abortion I have read in a long time. I have very complicated feelings on the issue, and the arguments that are depicted in the media do not reflect my opinions at all. My opinions started to lean slightly more to the pro-life camp after getting pregnant for the first time. Before I even confirming I was pregnant, my body felt different and not completely my own. And the child who arrived nine months later is very different from me in many ways. After this, discussions of a fetus just being a "mass of cells," and "my body, my choice," feel very uncomfortable to me.
Did you see David French's latest piece on abortion? https://frenchpress.thedispatch.com/p/the-pro-life-movement-must-transcend In it, he asks whether the pro-life movement wants to reduce abortions or make them illegal. If the former, making abortions illegal is not the way to go about it. He also points out that in recent years the abortion rate has been lower than it was BEFORE Roe. Illegality and does not mean no abortions.
In other pieces he also points out many scary aspects of the Texas bill that have repercussions far, far beyond the abortion issue if it is allowed to stand. Most concerning is the idea that random citizens can sue other random citizens for something that is technically not against the law. So it seems like the law is theater that the Texas legislature is using to distract people from everything else going wrong in that state.
Friday 8th of October 2021
Thank you for sharing your story, and this article. He makes a very well-reasoned argument that firmly places the abortion conversation back in a nonpartisan (or less partisan, at least) setting, which is where it belongs. Questions of human sacredness are too important to be viciously debated like a sport.
Sunday 5th of September 2021
Thank you for your frank post. It really resonated with me. I was 16 in 1983 when the 8th ammendment was introduced (ensuring abortion was 'banned') in Ireland- and it was so contensious as a lot of catholic priests gave sermons instructing people how to vote which pretty much ensured it was going to get in. At the same time being 16 I was more and more aware of the hipocrasy of it all. In That summer would see a court tribunal on the 'kerry babies' - which was an infacide investigation..which is a story on itself again.... and this showed how men treated women who had a child out of wedlock - and the following year a schoolgirl Ann Lovitt died giving birth on her own at the local grotto ... so here we were in 80s 'protecting the unborn' and treating any woman who had a child outside of wedlock so horrendously, so much so they would do what they had to conceal it. Then on the otherhand women who chose to have children - was the state always ensuring they got the best financial, medical and personal supports? I always felt that the vote should be for women only, which I do realise is naive.
Since then the 8th Ammendment was always controversial. Forward to 2012 a woman, Sinita Halpanaver attended the hospital in Galway Ireland with extreme pain, at 17 weeks pregnant. Briefly the doctors were unable to give her a termination/abortion as they did not know if the legally could - She died of sepis some days later after being denied a termination, despite having requested one herself . It was such a heartbreaking story - and later in 2018 the 8th Amment was repealed, and I truly believe the Sinita Halapanver case so stuck in peoples minds - they could not vote purely on their own 'beliefs' and had to consider the risks.
I was very sad to hear of the texas law - these draconian laws seem so at odds with a caring society.
Sunday 5th of September 2021
I remember reading about Halappanavar's death and realizing for the first time that these types of situations happen in the US, too. In a country in which people are constantly wringing their hands over the declining birth rate, so many have failed to consider how terrifying and risky it is to be pregnant in the absence of compassionate health care and adequate health insurance. Not to mention the myriad difficulties of raising children, and the still horrific social consequences for those who choose to have children. We are systematically choosing death in so many ways, but somehow abortion is the only thing conservatives seem to care about.