My father and mother met as teachers in a small country school in North Carrollton, Ms. He was the superintendent, and she was the new Latin and English teacher recently graduated from Blue Mountain College. Money was scarce in 1930 in the depths of the Great Depression. Dating often involved an inexpensive movie – 25 cents a ticket. There was a theater in nearby Greenwood, Ms. The featured film that weekend starred my mother’s favorite actress, Mary Pickford, in her first talking movie.
On day of the movie, my father called my mother to say he could not go. Instead he felt he must sit up that evening beside the coffin of a high school senior. No one else in town would go because of the circumstances. This young lady had become pregnant, and a botched abortion had taken her life. My mother immediately volunteered to sit with him, and their first date consisted of sitting together in front of a corpse.
Scriptural and Legal Arguments
This story of a teenager’s irresponsibility, poor health care, lack of family and community support, and shaming is an appropriate segue into a discussion about abortion, a topic that tugs at the moral fabric of America. In our hyperpolarized society, Americans are forced to choose between “pro-life” and “pro-choice.” At one end of the spectrum are pro-life partisans who define life as beginning at conception and abortion without exception as murder. At the other end of the spectrum are the pro-choice partisans who consider the fetus as part of a woman’s body with termination at any time an absolute individual right. Most Americans and many Christians are trapped in between.
First let’s deal with the scriptural argument. According to Stassen’s and Gushee’s Kingdom Ethics there is no teaching explicitly for or against abortion in either the Old or New Testaments. Hints from the Bible include Christ’s own conception (Luke 1:31) and God’s awareness of our existence in the womb (Psalm 139:13-16). The Didache, an early handbook of Christian teaching from around 100 A.D., did condemn killing a fetus or a newborn infant. All of us view miscarriage as a tragic event with the sense of loss increasing the closer the baby is to term. This view certainly could apply to abortion. Also the moral argument against abortion carries less weight if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or if the fetus is severely malformed. Pregnancy always involves risks, and few would condemn an abortion to save the life of the mother.
Legally the Supreme Court decision regarding Roe v. Wade made abortion on demand available throughout the United States. Jane Roe, by the way, was Norma McCorvey, a woman who subsequently converted to Catholicism and became active in the Operation Rescue movement. Justice Harry Blackmun, charged with writing the majority opinion for the 7-2 verdict, agonized over how to decriminalize abortion. He concluded that during the first trimester, governments could not prohibit abortions at all; during the second trimester, governments could require reasonable health regulations; and during the third trimester, abortions could be prohibited entirely so long as the laws contained exceptions for cases when they were necessary to save the life or health of the mother. This decision was further refined in 1992 by Planned Parenthood v. Casey that stated an abortion, if performed, needed to occur before fetal viability (i.e., when a fetus could survive outside the womb, around 23 weeks). With changes in the Supreme Court expect challenges reducing the availability of abortions but perhaps not reversing Roe v. Wade. Surgical abortions may be replaced with medical ones making abortion on demand still readily available to the public.
A Proposed Christian Response
What is the appropriate Christian response to this moral dilemma? From my perspective, I would like to see the problem approached more from a values standpoint, not a legal one. Our society at every turn emphasizes sex without responsibility. The long delay in marriage does not help. My age group married at ages 20-22; the average marriage age now is 27-29. Biology doesn’t help either. The Christian ethic of chastity before marriage is under assault. If sexual abstinence does not occur, then the church must teach responsibility for both young men and women. Abortion as birth control is ethically suspect. Better if we can urge alternatives to abortion such as adoption. The church needs to better support both unwed mothers and all women in general in a variety of ways that show love, respect, and mercy: affordable day care, ease of adoption, and accessible health care including future contraception. All women seeking abortions should be immediately informed of other choices with assistance readily available. Rape, incest, severe fetal deformity, and danger to the mother should remain justifiable reasons for abortion. The forgotten male also needs to also receive counseling.
No family should ever again have to experience what occurred in that depression-era Mississippi town. The Christian response should always be love and mercy, not condemnation and partisanship.