Blogger/author Rachel Held Evans wrote an excellent post last week titled Why Progressive Christians Should Care About Abortion. She traced her own history, from embracing an evangelical pro-life stance to her gradual understanding of abortion’s complexities, and recognition that those who are “pro-life” do not always support policies that sustain non-fetal lives, such as those of Iraqi civilians or victims of gun violence. She noted that criminalizing abortion does not necessarily make it happen less often. She argued for a focus on decreasing demand for abortions, through healthcare and economic reforms for example, rather than cutting off supply. She articulated the core tension for Christians contemplating what to do about abortion: We are called to follow Christ’s lead in caring for the most vulnerable in our society. And when it comes to abortion, both unborn children and the women who carry them are profoundly vulnerable. She wonders if those of us “in the middle,” aware of the tensions inherent in conversations around abortion, have an opportunity to move beyond divisive rhetoric and effectively address the factors, such as poverty, that lead women to choose abortion.
After reading her post, I sent this tweet to Rachel:
I reached out to Rachel in part because I took issue with the post’s title (“Why Progressive Christians Should Care About Abortion”), with its implication that taking a nuanced view of abortion is something progressive Christians should do, rather than something many of us are already doing. I realize it’s just a title and I shouldn’t read too much into it, but still thought it important to acknowledge that Rachel’s post contributed to an ongoing conversation among Americans who dwell in the “middle” on abortion, which is a sizable group—a recent poll found that 43 percent of respondents identified themselves as both pro-choice and pro-life.
I also wanted to highlight the pitfalls of dwelling in that muddled middle. A vocal minority of Christians sees an acknowledgment of complexity as equivalent to heresy. I have been called “anti-Christian” and “murderer” and “the high priestess of Molech” because I don’t see abortion in simple black-and-white terms. For a certain subset of Christians, everything I write is suspect because I take a nuanced rather than a moralistic approach to reproductive ethics in general and abortion in particular. A few blog commenters delight in “outing” me as a pro-choice Christian (the subtext being that this fact should be a source of shame) any time I write anything related to reproduction, even if I am not explicitly discussing abortion. I lost a valued regular blogging gig with a major evangelical publication when the editors realized I am pro-choice—even though I had made clear I had no intention of shoving this fact in their readers’ faces. While I have developed a tough skin after years of such dynamics, it is exasperating to have my faith and character judged primarily by how I approach a single moral issue—a complex issue that isn’t directly addressed in the Bible. Anyone who is willing to hang out here in the middle, naming tensions and dealing in complexity, will become a target for those who believe that a strict pro-life stance is the only Christian response to abortion.
The main reason I reached out to Rachel, though, was to thank her for her important post, and express interest in being part of the conversation to come. I agree wholeheartedly with Rachel that:
…an appreciation of the nuances in the debate, and of abortion’s connection to traditionally “progressive” issues like poverty and healthcare [might] make those of us who are “stuck in the middle” especially effective agents of change.
In addition to those that Rachel named are more complexities and nuances that complicate abortion. For example, it’s not just a matter of recognizing that both women with unplanned pregnancies and the fetuses they carry are vulnerable and in need of care. We must also recognize that the relationship between a pregnant woman and the life she carries is absolutely unique. This unique relationship means that we cannot simply frame abortion as pitting the needs of two vulnerable lives against each other and deciding whose is paramount. We need to look at how vulnerabilities, risks, gifts, and needs in this unique relationship are intertwined to such an extent that our dichotomous views of rights and choice and life and consequences are inadequate.
We need to look more closely at how we frame adoption as one alternative to abortion, being honest about how adoption carries its own challenging complexities, nuances, heartbreak, and hope. We must consider the significant physical and psychological toll that carrying an unwanted pregnancy can take on some women, and that having an abortion can take on others. We must be ruthlessly honest about how our cultural legacies around race, poverty, rape, and disenfranchisement contribute to abortion decisions and policies. We must refuse to sit by silently when self-righteous Christians write off women who have unplanned pregnancies as unworthy of our care, as stupid or promiscuous or getting what they deserve or just not our problem. We need to remind our fellow Christians that abortion is far from the only reproductive issue raising serious ethical and theological questions, expanding our discourse to include technologies such as IVF, prenatal testing, and preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) that have vastly increased the number and types of available reproductive choices.
Rachel Held Evans has a large and rapt audience among people with evangelical sensibilities who are willing to question some of evangelicalism’s long-held assumptions. For many of her readers, a nuanced approach to abortion that acknowledges complexity and tension is indeed a new idea. I invite Rachel and her readers to explore the work that some progressive Christians have been doing in this area—all of the ways that we are dwelling in the difficult middle, considering and ultimately hoping to reconcile complex choices, needs, and situations. And then together, let’s continue the conversation, working toward more effective and grace-filled responses to the vulnerabilities that abortion lays so starkly bare.
For further reading: In 2011, fellow Patheos blogger Amy Julia Becker invited me and Karen Swallow Prior (professor of English literature at Liberty University, author of the fabulous memoir Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, and a friend/colleague of mine) to post a conversation on her blog about abortion. I wrote about why I am pro-choice, and Karen wrote about why she is pro-life. We then each responded to questions posed by blog readers (Karen’s Q&A is here, my two-part Q&A is here and here). Karen, Amy Julia, and I set out to prove that Christians with passionate and opposing views on abortion can treat each other with grace and respect. I think we proved the point quite well.