My Bottom Line on Abortion—and Why I’m Going to Stop Writing About It for a While

Several years ago, as I was just beginning to blog about reproductive ethics, I asked my editor whether I should proactively write about my pro-choice leanings on abortion, or just let the topic arise naturally. I decided on the latter course, in part because I feared that if I wrote explicitly about abortion, the divisive and incendiary nature of the issue would distract from everything else I was writing about in reproductive ethics. Our cultural preoccupation with abortion, and tendency to discuss it in simplistic terms, so often detracts from our ability to effectively discuss other issues, such as the implications of reproductive technologies.

But beginning last summer and fall, I started writing more explicitly about my views on abortion, in part because it seemed that it was time, in part because others asked me to, and in part because my pro-choice position on abortion often informs my writing in other areas of reproductive ethics.

Many of my online conversations about abortion have been gracious and eye-opening for both me and my conversation partners. And, as I feared, some conversations have been distracting and divisive.

I plan to write about reproductive ethics for a long time to come, and this focus will no doubt require me to take up the abortion question from time to time. But for the immediate future, I’m taking a break from writing explicitly about abortion on this blog. I have used gallons of virtual ink explaining here and elsewhere why I am pro-choice. I have tried my best to respond honestly to readers who have pushed me to explain my views. I am particularly grateful for readers who disagree with me, and have nevertheless treated me with kindness and respect.

Here’s my bottom line: I am pro-choice for reasons that are far more practical than they are scholarly, theoretical, or theological. I am certainly not “pro-abortion.” I think that both pro-choice and pro-life advocates can be shamefully inaccurate, divisive, and mean-spirited in how they speak to and of those on the other side. I think that the vital concerns around reproductive ethics facing us in the 21st century go far, far beyond the traditional arguments central to abortion debates (namely, the moral status of embryos and freedom of reproductive choice).

As I was finalizing this post, I read Sojourners’ editor Tim King’s discussion about being a progressive Christian on Rachel Held Evans’s blog. (That first question that Tim answers, by the way, is mine!) Tim said a couple of things about abortion that made sense to me. He wrote,

Most people don’t view a fetus as a clump of cells indistinguishable from any other clump of cells but many also don’t see that the state has the same interest in a fertilized egg as it would a three-year-old child…The interest of the state is not the same at the moment of conception as it is at the moment of birth. This is what leads me to believe that the primary role of the state is not to dictate decisions around these complex ethical considerations and its primary role lies with preventative and supportive policy.

That explanation is consistent with my position on abortion: I think it should be legal for many reasons, such as making abortion as safe as possible, given the fact that making abortion illegal doesn’t appear to lower its incidence. But I support initiatives that could lower the abortion rate by alleviating poverty, providing needed supports for parents (such as affordable child care), encouraging healthy sexual relationships, etc.

In explaining why he supports legal abortion but doesn’t support the death penalty (a position that Tim’s employer, Sojourners, calls “a consistent ethic of life”), Tim said:

The death penalty question is concerned with what actions we should allow the state to perform while abortion is a question of what actions of individuals we allow the state to restrict. The better comparison would be the death penalty and a state mandated abortion policy like in China. That, I would oppose.

I’m always grateful when I connect with other Christians who articulate what I feel and think better than I can, and Tim’s responses have further clarified some important aspects of the abortion debate for me.

One of my favorite lines of scripture is 1 Corinthians 13:12 — For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. The glass is indeed dark, and I have no doubt failed to see or understand much of God’s truth.

My views on abortion may be absolutely wrong.

But I trust that I am not wrong about God’s grace, which God offers freely in spite of all I have done and will do wrong in this lifetime. And I am certain as well that my position on abortion (or homosexuality or the death penalty or welfare or warfare) is not what determines whether I am or am not a Christian. I am a Christian because I follow Christ, whose life, death, and resurrection hold the key to abundant life.

*The inspiration for this post, and my decision to lay off the abortion discussion for a while, was the now-notorious Journal of Medical Ethics paper published last week titled “After-Birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?” Every time something about this paper landed in my inbox or Google Reader (about once an hour, it seemed), my blood pressure shot up. My angst—Should I write about it? What should I say? Are these authors for real or is this satire? Were the authors hoping to start a firestorm? If so, is it better to ignore them? Will we ever be able to talk about abortion without hyperbole?—was a clue that my anxiety over the abortion topic was getting a bit out of control, and that I need to take a break. I’m not providing a link to the article here, by the way, because it appears that the journal pulled its online abstract. But there are plenty of pundits who would be glad to enlighten you, so just Google “after-birth abortion” and start reading, if you are so inclined.

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://www.savingdowns.com Mike Sullivan

    Hi Ellen,

    If you are having a break I guess you won’t answer?

    Really just interested in how a Christian holds a pro- choice view without an understanding of when spirit is embedded into the unborn child? If spirit is embedded before birth, then abortion causes harm to the spirit and physical nature of an unborn child.

    I find it interesting that Christians are OK with killing unborn children. Is it that you don’t recognize them as physical or spiritual beings, or don’t you follow the principal though shall not kill?

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

      I’ll reply, but very briefly, because I have explained my position in detail elsewhere.

      - I don’t think the question of when spirit is embedded in a child is a question we can answer. So I think it’s a poor condition on which to make decisions about abortion.

      - I think there are many reasons that a Christian should find compelling for not *having* an abortion. When I say I’m pro-choice, I’m not saying abortion is not ethically/morally questionable. I’m not saying abortion is a good thing. I’m not saying it’s no big deal. I’m saying I don’t think the government should make it illegal. I’ve explained in detail elsewhere why I hold that position (most fully on Amy Julia Becker’s “Thin Places” blog last fall, when I had a really great conversation with a pro-life friend and colleague). The quotes in this post from another progressive Christian add some additional perspective on that particular issue–the role of the state in abortion–that I found helpful.

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

    Or you could respond to the case for infanticide since they were correct in their logic and their comparison to abortion. I can vouch for that, my daughter was born earlier than the legal limit for abortion, so logically it would have been ethical for me to kill her if I was pro-choice. Fortunately for her I choose life.

  • Molly

    I have been following your writing and blog since I read your pieces on Her.Menuetics. And though my views often differ from yours, I just wanted to say that I greatly appreciate the level of nuance you have brought into the conversation on abortion. This issue is so divisive and I fear people, with genuine and good intentions, lose sight of humanity of this issue. I wish people (from both sides) would rally around the goal of supporting and protecting families, women, and children so that fewer women feel like abortion is their only option. I look forward to reading more of your writing on reproductive ethics.

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

      Thank you so much for this comment and expression of support. I wholeheartedly agree with you about the need to rally around families, women, and children. And I am so grateful that you not only followed me here from Her.meneutics, but let me know of your continued reading, even if we don’t agree on everything. Readers like you make all the difference, and inspire me to keep writing on these very difficult issues!

  • http://myofferings.wordpress.com/2012/03/12/guest-post-seeing-me-for-who-i-really-am/ Tim

    Ellen, you have such a gift for clearly and thoughtfully discussing some of the most difficult issues we face. I too followed you over from her.mi, and am so glad I did.

    On this topic, I don’t come to the same conclusion you do yet I think we agree on the factors that go into reaching those differing conclusions, things such as: God values all life more highly than we could ever imagine; the Bible is not clear on when the body and spirit join; no one knows what an individual or couple contemplating whether to continue a pregnancy or abort it are really going through.

    There are more, but those get to the truth you noted from 1 Cor. 13. That chapter is a great guide, as it tells us that in all we do the chief attribute should be love, and to me that includes love for those who think differently from me on this and other issues. And when it comes to differing opinions among Christians, I try to let Paul’s comment in Philippians 3:15 be my guide: “All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.” Since I’m not as good a theologian as Paul (and likely neveer will be this side of heaven!), I add that I pray for God to make the right position clear to me if I am the one in error.

    When it comes to the fellowship of believers, I love your conclusion. We do not have that fellowship because we all have right doctrine and come to the same conclusions on life’s issues. We have fellowship because Jesus brought us into his family, and it is as a family that we are joined together. Just as in human families, siblings may not understand one another but they are still siblings and always will be.

    I’m glad to call you sister, Ellen.

    Tim

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

      Love your sibling metaphor. Many thanks.

  • Miriam

    Ellen,
    I think my favorite part of your book is when you discuss the liminal nature of embryos and that word from Japanese “mizuko” the “water child.” On some level I think I had always felt that way about embryos and fetuses, reading about those words was so powerful because it gave language to how I’d always felt about them. And on some level I think that the majority of Americans also feel this way, a newly fertilized human egg is not a person, but a nine month old fetus about to be born is. From what I’ve read, most people somewhere in their hearts know that there is a difference but don’t have the language to express it. People generally are more uncomfortable with abortion as a pregnancy progresses, which reflects this deep understanding of the liminal nature of embryos. The humanity/spirit of a person flows into them during a pregnancy, such a beautiful concept.

    I personally am pro-choice, and I do have to say that I think the pro-choice camp has been forced into “tunnel vision” as you call it by the “anti-choice” side of this argument. Sure, I’m biased, but from where I sit all I see are anti-choicers screaming about abortion “murdering unborn children” and working hard in the public arena to spread misinformation about abortion and birth control. If what I heard from them was more about lowering the need for abortion (by supporting measures to decrease poverty, increasing access to sex ed and birth control) I would believe them when they say that they believe that the unborn are children, but they don’t support those things…hence it looks like they only want to suppress and control women, often with a faith based mind set about how the world works.

    The latest anti-abortion access regulation out of Virginia is a great example! Women are going to be forced to undergo a medically unnecessary procedure that violates their bodies (the famous transvaginal ultra sound). What is the aim of this? To humiliate and punish women for seeking an abortion! Oh they say it’s to make sure that women really really truly understand what they are about to do, which really shows what this legislators really think of women who seek abortion- “stupid whores” what woman who seeks an abortion doesn’t understand what is going to happen and what it means? Everyone I know who has an abortion put much thought and serious consideration into it.

    Nope, sorry. Until the anti-choice camp starts to support real measures to decrease the need for abortion instead of attacking women, they have ZERO credibility with me.

    Anyway, I’m glad you feel good about taking a break from this issue, however I think that since you talk about fertilized eggs, and some people think that they are people, this issue is NOT going to go away for you.

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

    If you can’t answer when spirit is embedded in pregnancy, then as a Christian, how do you defend a pro choice position – or is the presence of spirit not a consideration for Christians in ending a life? Seems basic to me.

    • Miriam

      OK, so what if you don’t share the Christian faith and don’t believe in anything or anyone having a “spirit”? seems to me that we live in a pluralist society and I shouldn’t have to be ruled by laws that are based solely on someone else’s faith…Christian “shira” law is just as bad as Muslim “shira” law.

      As for what some Christians believe about when a fetus has a soul, why does it have to be like a light switch, one moment a human egg is just a cell and the next moment with the introduction of a sperm, suddenly it has a soul? Maybe it only has a soul after the point in development when it will only be one baby instead of two? Or after a heart beat? Or after viability? I don’t think science can answer that question, and if your personal faith can, that’s great. I’m happy for you. However, everyone has different faith, or none at all, and such a personal decision (about choosing to become a parent or not) should not be dictated by some whose faith says “X” answer about this question.

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

        Mike, generally Miriam is more rabidly pro-choice than I am (that is not meant derisively…Miriam would say the same thing about herself!). But what Miriam said here is essentially what I would say in answer to your question. So I’ll leave it at that: 1) We have no way of knowing when a developing human is ensouled. It’s the wrong question to ask. In many ways, it’s playing the exact same game the “after-birth abortion” paper writers were playing, trying to come up with some objective timing chart to determine the morality of abortion. 2) If we’re talking solely about whether abortion should be legal in a pluralistic, democratic society (and when I say I’m pro-choice, that’s precisely what I’m talking about), we cannot determine law based on what one faith’s beliefs might or might not say about a practice. There are many reasons that I believe a Christian shouldn’t have an abortion. But I still believe it should be legal.

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

          Thanks for the clarification, I was just looking to see whether your Christian world view considered taking a life, once a soul was emmedded, an accepable act from that world view. You hold a view that it’s not relevant – I just find that really interesting.

          And of course society determines law based on what is an ethical practice. That is the differance between barbarism and civilisation. Like the pro-infanticide advoactes rightly point out, if its ethical to abort, its ethical to kill a new born – specially if they are disabled and missed the screening test. That’s Christian?

          • Miriam

            Who exactly is “pro-infanticide advocates”?

            I don’t know anyone who is “pro-abortion” if you don’t want to have an abortion, DON’T HAVE ONE!! Pro-choice people fully support your right to NOT have an abortion if you don’t want one!* The term “anti-choice” to describe “pro-life” folks is much more accurate, they want to take away choice from others and impose their view on this issue, essentially controlling other people’s lives and bodies.

            *again, it’s difficult to take you seriously given that you’ll never have an unwanted pregnancy yourself.

          • http://myofferings.wordpress.com/2012/03/12/guest-post-seeing-me-for-who-i-really-am/ Tim

            And Miriam, you’ll never have testicular cancer but I wouldn’t consider that a disqualification from you weighing in on a policy discussion on the issue. ;-)

            That said, as you can see from my comment above, I agree that abortion is one of many vital and nuanced issues we face in our society. Irenic discussion such as Ellen champions here is helpful for all.

            Cheers and blessings,
            Tim

    • Miriam

      Oh, you know, I guess I didn’t really reply to what you were saying. Here is a better way to respond to your comment. Of course it’s “basic” for you, “Mike.” I have to call you out on your patriarchal privilege, it’s all too easy for a man to say that issues surrounding abortion are “basic” no one will ever ask you to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term and give birth uh?

      And that is the real heart of this issue, people like you saying that it’s basic. Ellen is so confusing for you because she has a complex view of abortion, one that doesn’t fit into your neat and tidy “black and white” abortion paradigm. All the pro-choice people I’ve ever talked to about abortion admit that they don’t have all the answers and that it is complex, subjective and personal. On the other hand when I discuss it with anti-choice people, they always present a very simplistic view of it, “good vs. evil” and when I question them further, giving examples of the true complexities of this issue, they squirm and never have a good answer.

      So much for nuanced thinking.

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

        You entirely missed the point, which was about Christian views on spirit, which is not adequately adressed in Ellen’s defence of abortion. It’s not a discussion about legality or anything else.

  • Heidi

    Mike, I think your real point has nothing to do with general Christian views on spirit. I think your aim here is to get Ellen to do…something. To say “oh, of course! You are so right! How could I have been so blind! Thanks, mike! God totally loves you better than me. Have a nice day!” Or maybe,”ah, busted. I am actually a jewish dianic wiccan who eats aborted fetuses for breakfast. But I really had you going there LOL!” Or maybe,”oh, no, what have I done? Oh woe is me! I must immediately repent by picketing the nearest womens health clinic!” No one is fooled by your repeated use of the word “interesting”.

  • Heidi

    As far as calling herself a christian, I suppose its because she believes in Christ. Did you not read the whole post?

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

    OK guys. I think this conversation is heading in a dicey direction. And is a great example of why I’m going to take a break from the topic for a while. Mike, I don’t doubt your sincerity but do feel that I’ve explained as best I can where I’m coming from. I know you don’t agree; I’m sorry that my position is so difficult for you to understand. The “if it’s ethical to abort, then it’s ethical to commit infanticide” argument doesn’t hold water for me. I don’t really go for slippery slope arguments. My willingness to support legal abortion in part stems from my sense that there IS a different between a weeks-old embryo and a newborn baby, as I explained in this post: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/ellenpainterdollar/2012/02/biblical-views-on-abortion-not-so-biblical-after-all/

    Thanks all. Going to write a post about puppies and unicorns and rainbows now…

    • http://myofferings.wordpress.com/2012/03/12/guest-post-seeing-me-for-who-i-really-am/ Tim

      Puppies, unicorns and rainbows? Throw in fudge brownies and I am so there, Ellen!

  • Heidi

    Sorry ellen.

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

      I get it. I do. I get frustrated too. Mike has been a frequent commenter and has largely disagreed politely but I too have sensed an underlying theme of, “Are you really SURE you can be a Christian and believe that evil thing you say you believe?” (Mike, maybe you don’t intend your comments to come across that way. But they do.)

      But I also want to try to maintain a line between arguing with someone’s viewpoint and making assumptions about their motivations. Not always easy to do. I really appreciate your coming to my defense. Just felt the comments were veering a bit close to that line.

  • Heidi

    This was the second time TODAY that I managed to see a man “tactfully” request a woman re-examine her spirituality in a manner designed not to enlighten but to shame. Sorry for the disruption.

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

    “And Miriam, you’ll never have testicular cancer but I wouldn’t consider that a disqualification from you weighing in on a policy discussion on the issue. ;-)” – Have to agree with Tim on that one. I made a similar point in yesterday’s post about why I don’t buy the argument that Catholics can’t say anything useful about repro ethics simply because the leadership is made up of unmarried men.

    • http://myofferings.wordpress.com/2012/03/12/guest-post-seeing-me-for-who-i-really-am/ Tim

      Ha! I knew I got that basic premise from somewhere. I must have been subconsciously tuning in on your points in yesterday’s post!

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

    I’m not interesting in changing anyone’s view, I was simply exploring views on spiritual development in relation to the Christian perspective on abortion. I didn’t really get an answer other than – oh that’s a bit diffucult, but its really about physical development so spirit doesn’t come into it. And yes, that’s interesting to me because most spiritual traditions would be considering that aspect. It doesn’t matter in the final analysis though.

  • Heidi

    we must have read two different posts. that’s not at all what she said. she said that we can’t know WHEN spirit comes into it. if that moves a woman to think she would err on the side of caution and go ahead with an unintended pregnancy, that doesn’t make her MORE Christian than someone who ends an unintended pregnancy.

  • Casey

    There is too much ambiguity in our scripture with respect to the unborn to justify using it to support the prohibition of abortion in our secular laws. As Ellen points out in her book, rarely does anyone respond to a three week miscarriage with the same grief that we would for a three day old newborn. Similarly, we do not legislate for or against many other actions that have more explicit and unambiguous support or prohibition in scripture.

    Thank you, Tim, for your attempts at levity, and Mike, for your attempts to understand. I pray they are sincere and continue.

    -Casey
    Christian, Male and Pro-Choice

    • http://myofferings.wordpress.com/2012/03/12/guest-post-seeing-me-for-who-i-really-am/ Tim

      Casey, I don’t know if it is rare or not but we grieved mightily at our miscarriage 23 years ago and continue to recall the day with sadness. Is it the same grief I’d experience if the child had died at 3 days old? I have no idea, and neither does anyone else.

      Blessings,
      Tim

      P.S. “Attempts” at levity? You mean I didn’t achieve levity? Rats! Oh well, I cracked myself up anyway. Then again, I always have been my own best audience.

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

    Sort of sounds like its OK to take another’s life based on ones own subjective judgement about the stage of physical development of another and not be concerned at all with the spiritual aspect of development.

    Off course I understand that there are Christians who don’t consider spiritual aspects in respect to abortion. Ellen herself states her position being based on physical development. Spirit isn’t a factor for some, for me it’s fundamental.

    Some people wouldn’t grieve the loss of another’s life, but murder is illegal. How does the degree of a parents grief determine the value of the life of another human being?

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

      Just to clarify, while I see physical viability one consideration when considering the timing of abortions, my pro-choice position is actually not “based on physical development.” It is based on legal and practical concerns that I have stated in full previously, here and elsewhere.

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

    Just re-read the blog. The last sentence sums it up “the key to abundant life” – there’s your diconomy. All life is precious. Taking life is not compatable with abundant life. The Christlike action is to choose life when life and death is placed before you.

  • Casey

    Mike, I just don’t think scripture is so clear on the subject of whether it is in fact a choice between life and death to justify codifying that understanding into law, regardless of my own belief.

    Tim, I am sorry for your loss. As for levity, you were not entirely unsuccessful. It just takes a lot of it to lighten this subject. Is it too early for ice cream? I’ve got moose tracks in the freezer.

    • http://myofferings.wordpress.com/2012/03/12/guest-post-seeing-me-for-who-i-really-am/ Tim

      Casey, it’s never too early for ice cream.

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

    I thought it was interesting to step aside from discussing abortion after the infanticide issue, or after-birth abortion as it being labelled for those promoting it. Yes, the authors were being serious – I have heard them interviewed and read their attempts to justify their position.

    It was interesting that they decided to have a go at those with Down syndrome in their paper, arguing that infanticide after birth should be permitted if they weren’t detected in-utero and the parents didn’t want a biologically diverse child. Of course, it is a simple extension of the pro-choice/reproductive rights argument. I don’t “choose” to have “this” child. It is no different than the story I heard yesterday at Buddy Walk, where families with members with Down syndrome get together and celebrate life. The story of the mother who just aborted a child at 28 weeks gestation for having Down syndrome – signed off by Doctors who said such people are “incompatable with life”. Babies at 28 weeks usually live after birth, so this is not different than infanticide. It is eugenics, based in a the 1920 concept of “life unworthy of life”.

    That’s the rub with being pro-choice, human life becomes dispensable and the doors are open – don’t like this type of child, get rid of it. It’s not human at 2 weeks, 28 weeks, 32 weeks, 2 days after birth – and their spirit doesn’t even come into it!

    I find it amazing how many Christians think a disability is an out for abortion and that they get to choose and play God as to whether another human being lives, because it is all about themselves.

    Must be Lent huh? Turn away from the self and all that binds us and face God, celebrating all things that come to us, perfect as they are: Unless you chose not too of course.

    Must go and read the book now!

  • Heidi

    “The last sentence sums it up “the key to abundant life” – there’s your diconomy. All life is precious. Taking life is not compatable with abundant life. The Christlike action is to choose life when life and death is placed before you.”

    why didn’t you just say that, then, instead of trying to be all coy and concerned about it?

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

      Is this what bloggers call Ad Hominem? “Trying to be all coy and concerned about it”. Doesn’t sound like a response to the issues under dicussion. What exactly do you think I am not concerned about?

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

        Heidi and Mike, I just don’t think further conversation will help anyone. Thanks for reading and commenting. I’m closing the books on this post (and the topic…at least for now).

  • M H

    As a woman who suffered a miscarriage, I think it is because of the virulence of the pro-abortion rhetoric that has denied women and men their grieving in the death of an unborn child, whether at 3 weeks or 30 weeks. It is devastating to have a child die inside you, to have someone tell you the child was not really developed, etc. I can’t imagine those who use IVF and PGD and choose to let their children die. I am the wife of a man with a serious dominant genetic disorder, so we are very much in the same shoes, so to speak, as Ms. Dollar and her family. I personally think Ms. Dollar is suffering from post-abortion (or chosen death of tiny humans at the embryo stage of development) trauma and denial. :( And I do not say that mean-spiritedly at all. Check out Rachel’s Vineyard or a similar program.


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