“Biblical” Views on Abortion Are Younger Than I Am

I have made no secret of the fact that I am a pro-choice Christian. I’ve paid a price for holding that position and being willing to talk about it. I lost a valued writing job. I’ve been called awful, hateful names by other Christians. I have also received grace and hospitality from Christians who are passionately pro-life, as when my colleague Karen Swallow Prior and I did a series of posts about our abortion positions over on Amy Julia Becker’s blog, and the commenters were almost universally respectful and accepting, even if they didn’t agree.

A cornerstone of my pro-choice position is my view of the human embryo. While I see any abortion as a tragedy, I do not equate abortion with murder. While I perceive the human embryo as a nascent human life that should be treated with respect, I do not see it as equivalent to a baby that exists separately from its mother.

In my new book, No Easy Choice, I explain this further:

Politically charged pro-life/pro-choice debates have made it difficult to contemplate embryonic life because these debates insist on absolutes. Either embryos are the same as babies, or they are merely bunches of cells subject to their parents’ choices. I think most people, when pressed, would say that neither is quite true. Embryos occupy an in-between place. They are liminal; they serve as a doorway or threshold between one state of being (individual sperm and eggs that only have the potential for life until they join with the other) and another (the definitive, transforming presence of a newborn child). The threshold is essential for connecting those two states of being; it cannot be lightly discarded any more than a house can be built without doors. But it’s also more a passage to something vital than a destination in itself.

Praise be, many of my writing colleagues in the blogosphere, including some who are definitively pro-life, have honored and accepted my position on abortion even if they don’t agree with it. So within the past few days, I received emails and Facebook messages from a whole slew of people pointing me to a blog post by Fred Clark, who blogs on Patheos as the “slactivist.” He wrote last week about how the evangelical insistence that life begins at conception and therefore all abortion is murder, which many evangelicals see both as Biblical and as an absolute requirement for calling oneself “evangelical,” is actually only about 30 years old. More than 30 years ago, some prominent evangelicals believed that a human fetus was not absolutely the same as a baby, and that therefore abortion under some circumstances was acceptable. Read Clark’s full blog post here.

So what’s the big deal? Things change. Christian positions on social and political issues change. Why is this change important?

Because the abortion debate is marked—no, marred—by insistence from both the pro-life and pro-choice sides that we embrace absolutes. When pro-lifers insist absolutely not only that life begins at conception, but that such a view has been clearly stated in the Bible since it was written thousands of years ago, they leave no room for nuance or conversation with pro-choice folk like me, who think abortion should be legal but also see it as both tragic and in need of limits. Likewise, pro-choice folk who insist that all reproductive choices must be honored in the name of individual and specifically women’s rights also contribute to the divisive, dysfunctional, and ineffective nature of modern abortion debates.

One of the people who sent me the Clark post asked, “In other words, is your position very similar to what most evangelicals held 30ish years ago?”

Yes, I guess it is.

Thirty or so years ago, none other than that stalwart evangelical publication, Christianity Today published editorials from prominent evangelicals arguing that abortion should be allowed under some circumstances because embryos and fetuses, while they should be treated with reverence, are not fully human in the way a baby is fully human. As Clark notes, such articles today would not be published at all, and if they slipped through the cracks, they would get authors and editors fired. My own experience bears that out.

It’s a shame that one’s position on abortion has become the litmus test (or rather, one of two litmus tests, along with one’s views on homosexuality) as to who is and is not an evangelical (and for some people, who is and is not a Christian), and to which voices evangelicals are and are not willing to listen.

P.S. The comments to Clark’s post are quite good. Please come visit me reasonable blog commenters! Anyway, I thought this comment was interesting:

The verses I’ve seen [to support the idea that the Bible says life begins at conception]…are these:

Jeremiah 1:5  “Before I formed thee in the womb I knew thee”

From Psalm 139:14  “I am fearfully and wonderfully made”

Isaiah 49:15 “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb?”

Also, regarding the use of Psalms in arguments, would someone please explain why people are using the Bible’s internal hymnal for “proof”?  That’s like using a modern hymnal to prove that the place where we shall gather is at the river, or that softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me.


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