“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.


Finding Common Ground on Abortion: An Interview with Charles Camosy
Why “What Would Jesus Do?” Isn’t Exactly the Right Question
Remembering One of My “Cloud of Witnesses”
Natural Family Planning Isn’t the Only Ethical Option for Christians: Why I Chose an IUD
About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • http://eatwithjoy.org Rachel Stone

    I’m currently reading a great book about one of my very favorite writers of old–Harriet Beecher Stowe. (She was a writer passionate for justice who was married to a scholar of the Hebrew Bible–how can I *not* love her!?) In her time and place HBS was really radical for rejecting the idea that the Bible supports slavery! (Which, on its ‘surface meaning,’ it can appear to do.) I think Slacktivist’s post illustrates a common problem: that the views we defend fiercely as ‘biblical’ are much more conditioned by other things than we’d like to admit.

  • http://www.savingdowns.com Mike Sullivan

    “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.”

    My daughter was born at 32 weeks and she is definetly human, not a bunch of cells. This is why I don’t follow modern Christian teachings, I have my own expereince of what life is and it doesn’t involve subjective statements that devalue human life.

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      HI Mike: I know your daughter is human, of course. The ability for a fetus to live apart from its mother is a huge milestone, which is why I do not support late-term abortions. I also don’t think any embryo or fetus is merely a “bunch of cells,” as the quote from my book stated explicitly. Thanks for continuing to come back and comment; I realize my positions must drive you batty. I appreciate your continuing to read.

      • http://www.savingdowns.com Mike Sullivan

        It doesn’t drive me batter any more than the two bio-ethicist clowns in Australia advocating infanticide (did you see that, it just extends the pro-choice argument and they want to start with Down syndrome – no surprises there).

        I would be interested though in when you believe an embryo is worthy of protection – if 32 weeks is too late, what is the cut off, from a Christian perspective? When has the entity/soul/holy spirit imbedded itself with the biological human being. Your argument seems to be based on a biological perspective. What is your Christian perspective on when the spirit exists with the unborn child and the harm to that spirit when the unborn child is killed.

        As to the title of your blog, I am fairly certain that Jesus gave his sermon on the Mount before you were born. He spoke of not killing or doing no harm. Jesus understood that a human being is more than biology, it is a reflection of God through the holy spirit – the very essence of being human, even before birth. Just another viewpoint.

        • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

          Well, my viewpoint is and isn’t based on biology. I think trying to define embryos and when life begins and all that from a purely scientific/biological standpoint is 1) nearly impossible (because there’s still so much we don’t know about the process, and 2) insufficient because we aren’t mere flesh. So it’s not like I advocate some chart where you can pinpoint some firm state where an embryo’s status changes. Rather, I think that the biological connection between mother and child is such a fundamental quality of human life that we disregard it at our peril. That makes me suspect of both technologies that deem such a connection unimportant (such as artificial wombs), and of so-called “personhood” initiatives that define embryos in a way that overlooks their connection to their mother. I know that theologians throughout the centuries have debated when an embryo/fetus becomes “ensouled” and that’s, frankly, not something I’ve spent much time pondering because I have no idea how one determines that.

          And of course Biblical values existed long before I was born. I see the Bible as presenting an overarching vision of who God is, who we are, and who God desires us to be. But not as a legalistic document that we can parse to come up with detailed instructions on what is and is not ethical, what should and should not be legal. Two Christians who both embrace the Biblical imperatives of love of neighbor, nonviolence, the value of every human being as made in God’s image, etc. can come to vastly different conclusions of how Biblical values should inform our opinion on things like capital punishment, taxes, government entitlement programs, abortion, etc. I see the Bible as a narrative, not an instruction manual.

          • http://www.savingdowns.com Mike Sullivan

            I think pondering on when a human being becomes ensouled would be a good thing, preferably based on experience rather than intellect. It can be achieved by any mother who makes a determined conscious effort to connect with her unborn child through meditation. It might just turn your view around, not that it matters – we all have free will after all.

  • Nate

    You seem to criticize the idea of looking at this issue in terms of absolutes. But as Christians, shouldn’t we be trying to figure out this issue from God’s perspective? Are God’s proscriptions not absolute? If the Bible says not to commit murder (i.e., don’t take innocent human life), I would think that would settle the issue. If there were exceptions, they would be laid out.

    We acquire human DNA at the moment of conception, and even a bunch of cells, if taking in nutrients and growing, consists of life. With human DNA, that makes it human life.

    Even if you want to argue that this does not fit your particular definition of life, you seem to recognize that at least at some point during the pregnancy, it does become human life and is worthy of protection. You even say that viability is a milestone taken into account in determining “life.” Since unborn humans don’t all develop at the same rate, and the concept of “viability” changes with technology and the strength of the particular “fetus,” there’s not really a clear line you can draw (unless you want to draw it at birth, but you don’t seem to go that far).

    It seems to me that, at the very least, it would be better to err on the side of caution and assume life begins at conception, rather than risk violating God’s law.

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      Hi Nate. A couple of things:

      - This post was not so much defending abortion rights as criticizing the basis on which pro-life arguments so often rest—the insistence that such a stance is “Biblical,” when in fact, as with so many moral issues, the Bible is not crystal clear on how we are to view embryonic life.

      - I actually DON’T think the Bible is absolute about much. The Bible is a collection of narratives, not a clear list of do’s and don’ts. So while God’s proscriptions may be absolute, God doesn’t usually hand us those proscriptions in absolutely clear, non-negotiable form. God speaks to us through Scripture, through prayer, through other (flawed) people. None of those means of communication are terribly useful for absolute clarity.

      - Yes, God makes clear that we shall not commit murder. But we, as citizens of the world and of our nation, even as Christian citizens, choose to make and support and carry out laws that see all kinds of nuances and exceptions and circumstantial justifications for murder. As I wrote on my previous blog at one point: “Let’s say a man hits a pedestrian in his car and kills her. Our reaction to this tragedy, including whether we call it ‘murder’ or not, and whether and how the man is punished, will take into account intent, context, and circumstance. Maybe the driver was a devoted family man working two jobs who dozed off at the wheel coming home from an overnight shift. Maybe he was a soldier patrolling a neighborhood in Afghanistan who ran his vehicle into a suicide bomber intent on taking her own and many other lives. Maybe he was an alcoholic with previous DUI arrests who ignored the bartender’s suggestion to call a cab and got into his car with a blood alcohol level twice the legal limit. Maybe he was an angry ex-husband who stalked his former wife and ran her down in cold blood as she walked to her bus stop one morning. In all four cases, a person died after a man struck her in his vehicle. All four cases are tragic. But we do not classify all four as ‘murder of an innocent.’ Just because the result is the same doesn’t mean each of the men in these scenarios did the same thing.”

      - I’m not arguing for a particular, easily identifiable “line” at which an embryo becomes a baby. I think trying to pin things down that specifically is a dangerous exercise, not to mention a slippery one, as you mention, because technology will change the point of viability and such. However, intuitively, I don’t see a 10-week old embryo as exactly the same as a squalling newborn. And I think intuition counts for something. We can’t rely solely on our emotions and intuition to make moral decisions. But neither can we rely solely on logic and argument. Particularly when we’re talking about the intimate, heart-involved decisions around our offspring.