Progressive Christians Do Care About Abortion: A Response to Rachel Held Evans

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.


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 for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • Lauren

    Thank you for this! I too, was bothered by the title of RHE’s post, because I am a progressive Christian who has cared about the complexities of abortion for a long time. Thank you for putting words to my opinions so eloquently :)

  • Jeannie

    I’m learning so much from you and Amy Julia Becker and others who write on these issues. You force (no wait, invite) us out of our comfort zones to consider areas that aren’t as cut & dried as we might think. I find that challenging; thanks.

  • Dave Patchin

    You can frame a nuanced position on abortion acknowledging all the tension, preserving progressives bonafides and ignoring the reality that every abortion stops a beating human heart. If you are “in the middle” on on that there isn’t much biblical discussion to be had.

    • Ellen Painter Dollar

      Our legal system recognizes that every time one human being kills another human being (stops their beating heart), it is not always “murder.” I am arguing that making all abortion illegal, besides not being effective as a way of reducing the abortion rate, fails to recognize that there are circumstances that lead to abortions that, just as there are circumstances that lead one person to kill another, should affect how we respond. Our legal system accepts nuance/complexity/tension when it comes to whether or if we consider a killing to be an act of murder. The idea of recognizing extenuating circumstances before reaching a conclusion about a particular act is not revolutionary.

      • Dave Patchin

        If you are arguing that abortion should be illegal unless the life of the mother is physically threatened, welcome to the most radical prolife stance. If in that stance you don’t want all abortion to be treated as murder, welcome to the far right. If you prefer doctors who perform the abortion to be considered the felon and women who have abortions to be misdemeanor accomplices, you’ll find nearly every pro-life organization in American in your corner. Somehow I think that is not the “nuanced” progressive tension-filled position you may have been referring to.

      • Master Griffin

        So when that same legal system said that slaves are nothing but property, would you have said…. “that’s what the legal system says, so we must support it?”. When the same legal system said that women should be allowed to vote, would you have used their “decisions” to justify silencing yourself? What would you say if a German had used your thinking and said “The German High Court has ruled that Jews are not human so exterminating them is acceptable.”?

        You are simply trying to find excuses to justify your desire to support abortion. Just like those who did the same thing in defending slavery, oppression, and genocide.

  • Greg Piper

    All good points but it’s not like you are telling pro-lifers anything they didn’t already know about issues relevant to abortion like adoption, economics and IVF. I’d ask you to consider how you would respond to a person in the 1950s telling you they don’t take a “moralistic” view of segregation. These are both civil rights issues. If you define away an unborn child’s rights from the start, discussion won’t help much.

  • Jeff

    It does seem that a (the?) primary concern of progressives is distinguishing themselves from conservatives. I think that’s particularly unfortunate on issues like abortion, where the community of believers should be able to speak with moral clarity. But because of the perceived ickiness of identifying with a position that is shared by conservatives, even progressives who tend towards viewing abortion as morally wrong/problematic talk about “nuance”, and “complexity”, and the need for a conversation, instead of unambigously saying that abortion is morally wrong/problematic (or even at the least acknowledging that there are situations in which it is). And most troubling, they are completely silent in response to the absolutely terrible (and, I would say, abhorrent) arguments that many pro-choice advocates make in support of abortion rights, e.g. “the fetus is a parasite” and the like.

    • Ellen Painter Dollar

      Much of what you say here simply isn’t true. Many of us acknowledge the moral tragedy that abortion always is. Many of us speak out when egregious abuses of trust come to light. I have written about the emptiness of many pro-choice arguments around abortion. You seem to be making blanket judgments about what progressives do and don’t do without actually having read much of what we have and haven’t said.

  • Ellen Painter Dollar

    I am truly sorry that you have found that kind of stuff happening here on Patheos blogs. I really mean that. It drives me crazy when extreme arguments, from either side, make it nearly impossible to have civil and productive conversation. One reason I don’t participate in these kinds of conversation (don’t “shout down” these arguments) is because this is precisely the kind of discourse that keeps us from getting to any sort of common ground. I think people who spout extreme views WANT to be shouted down. They thrive on being shocking and argumentative, so I don’t want to feed that. My own writing that takes issue with some pro-choice arguments is broader. For example, in my book, I address the ways in which pro-choicers have basically removed themselves from dealing with significant ethical issues raised by repro tech because they are so scared that questioning ANY reproductive choices will lead to questioning the sacrosanct right to an abortion. I think this is a huge failure on the part of pro-choicers.

    Am I terrified of being called a conservative? I don’t know. For me, the label “conservative” isn’t so much scary as it is inaccurate. I do frequently label myself as conservative on issues of faith/doctrine, well aware that, for some people, there is a straight line between holding conservative religious views and holding conservative social/political views. I do not see that line as straight; I don’t see a line there at all, in fact.

  • Mike Sullivan

    A lot of empty words, devoid of spiritual clarity and honesty.

    How does a Christian reach a position on supporting abortion? By ignoring two Christian commandments, which is a bit paradoxial for a Christian one would have thought.

    Though shall not kill, so, one either just ignores this or plays God themselves. They decide that the one that is being killed is not human because of some random guess as to when they are a life, or the soul has embedded itself with the child. Therefore they hold another God (themselves) before God. There has to a bit good dose of mental gymnastics in there somewhere, but it does show the hypocrosy of modern Christians making it all up for themselves as they go.

    And then there is that old-fashioned inconvient concept of sacrificing ones own needs for one that is more vunerable than oneself. But hey, God wants us to be happy, so anything goes.

    Still, one could pray and seek guidance, otherwise they will find out in the end.

    • Ellen Painter Dollar

      You are making many assumptions here about why I hold the position I do that are simply not accurate. I have been extremely clear and honest in many venues about why I hold the position I do. I know you don’t agree. Many people don’t. But please don’t put words in my mouth that are not mine. It is disrespectful. And a perfect example of why so many people are simply unable to hold civil conversations on this difficult subject.

      • Mike Sullivan

        To support abortion one has to have an ego-centric view of Christianianty rather than a God centred one. I am not sure what assumptions are wrong as you haven’t rebutted my statements. You have said yourself though, that one of your reasons for supporting abortion is that you believe that one is not a human being at earlier stages of pregnancy and there is no soul that is harmed in the act. You were not able to define the stage of human development when it is wrong to take the life concerned other than a vague “earlier is better than later.

        You then go on to support reproductive choice of the type of person that is being born. Sort of playing ones hand against the natural creative force.

        And then there is the whole central Christian concept of treating others as we want to be treated ourselves, which is entirely incompatible with abortion.

        • Ellen Painter Dollar

          I have never said anything remotely like “one is not a human being at earlier stages of pregnancy and there is no soul that is harmed in the act.” That is so far from my reasons for being pro-choice, and so far from my own views on humanity, the soul, and even the types of arguments that are reasonable to make in terms of abortion, that I am now doubting that you have even read anything I have written on the subject. You are just flat out wrong. I never have said, written, or believed such a thing.

          I did not rebut your arguments one by one in this comment thread because the purpose of this post is not to reiterate what I have written extensively elsewhere. I included links to the most comprehensive things I have written on the subject, and if you read them, you will see why your assumptions, such as that I believe a fetus is “not human,” are wrong.

          And to be clear – I do not SUPPORT abortions based on “the type of person being born,” meaning that I don’t advocate FOR people to make such decisions nor do I think that such decisions are preferable or good. I support the legality of abortion, within some limits, such as before viability. I recognize that when abortion is legal, people will choose to abort for reasons that I find troubling, questionable or even abhorrent. I believe that the appropriate response to this in a civil, democratic society in which we must protect reproductive choice (because there are many dangerous roads that governments tend to take when they decide they have a right to govern people’s reproductive choices) is to be in loving and open conversation, to help create a culture in which genetic anomalies and differences will no longer be seen as tragic and untenable. Ideological purity on abortion is less important to me than telling stories and listening to stories and working hard in those conversations to reveal, TOGETHER in conversation, not by preaching, what it means to be human, to love, to accept, to celebrate each other no matter whether our bodies or genes or brains meet cultural standards of what is “normal” or “acceptable” or “good.”

          Mike, I am truly disappointed in how you have chosen to engage here, focusing every conversation on the narrow issue of abortion (even on occasion when I’m not even writing about abortion), twisting my words, putting words in my mouth, claiming that I believe things that I absolutely do not believe. When we first got to know each other, I thought you were smarter than that, capable of seeking common ground and conducting respectful conversation with someone with whom you disagree on some things. I see now that I was wrong to assume you were able to engage in such a way.

          I also find it fascinating that I wrote several posts over the last few months in which I made quite strong statements about being deeply troubled by reproductive choices around genetic disorders—the types of reproductive choices that I know also deeply trouble you—and you failed to respond. Other readers noticed that I was making very clear my allegiance with those whose genetic differences are too often seen as tragic and unacceptable, that I was using clear and strong language about how our culture fails to value such people at our peril. You didn’t. Interesting. I can only assume that your sole interest in reading what I write is latching on to every mention of abortion to call me out on what you have decided is anti-Christian (even though there are many many faithful Christians who are pro-choice as I am…except that you seem to define one’s Christian faith solely by their stance on abortion, not on, say, their, I don’t know, faith in Christ).

          You are welcome to continue commenting on my blog posts if you can do so respectfully, in a way that adds something to the conversation and does not make me the focus of your one-man crusade to make sure the world knows that I am pro-choice. If you continue to focus exclusively on my position on abortion, and particularly if you continue to make false statements about that position, I will delete your comments.

          • Mike Sullivan

            Several quotes of yours are:

            “- 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 sense that there is a difference between a weeks old embryo and a new born baby”.

            I would suggest that the question of when spirit is embedded in pregnancy would be a central, and fundamental, question to be addressed from a Christian understanding and critical in applying the principal of doing no harm.

            You have used the stage of development of a human life as a basis to support legal abortion, without addressing the crucial question of when spirit is embedded, and hence harmed, in the act of abortion.

            “When I say I’m pro-choice, I’m not saying abortion is not ethically/morally questionable.”

            Unpacking this double negative exposes your ethical conundrum. You are accepting that it is morally and ethical questionable and then support the legalisation of such an action. You then say that you don’t support abortion to select the type of child, but support reproductive choice, which by definition includes the choice of having this type of child or that type of child. So, which is, you support reproductive choice, or you don’t support reproductive choice?

            Then you say that you are deeply concerned about people’s reproductive choices around genetic disorders, yet this is simply the outcome of peoples reproductive choices that you say you support them making. If you support reproductive choice, then you are ethically bound to the outcomes of that support. And therein lies our difference. We both say we are concerned about the outcomes of disability selective abortion. You support that particular reproductive choice under the wider pro-choice position and I don’t. This is what happens when one takes on the pro-choice position, you view that taking the life of another is acceptable. Then the vulnerable are dispensable, the unborn, and more so the “defects” before they are born. Then suddenly your conscience is concerned that the very action you have endorsed has created something that you suddenly find concerning. That’s your opportunity for finding grace.

            As for faithful pro-choice Christians, Christians can disagree on that notion. It is just another label and one I don’t follow, because taking sacred life is not compatible with honouring the sacredness of life and creation.

          • Ellen Painter Dollar

            Neither of the quotes you cite here support your accusation that I consider a fetus to be “not human” nor that I don’t believe that fetuses have a spirit or soul. Saying I don’t think the question of spirit/soul is an answerable one means that I don’t KNOW. Christians have made the question of spirit/soul central to the abortion debate, and I think that is a dumb thing to make central. Because there’s no way to find consensus on that issue. There’s no way to “prove” when spirit/soul happens. So all that question does is make people more entrenched in their positions. It’s the WRONG question. I remain flummoxed (and frankly, hurt, because I thought better of you than this) that you seem determined to paint me as having positions that I simply do not have.

            You seem utterly unable to accept that we disagree without also accusing me of all sorts of unconscionable positions that I don’t hold. Which just supports the main point of this post and most of my other writing on abortion: As long as a subset of Christians is unwilling to acknowledge complexity and difficulty, unwilling to acknowledge that this issue is not black and white for everyone, we can get nowhere. Saying, “It is black and white and because you don’t see it that way, you are wrong” does not actually constitute a valid argument.

            And yes, I support reproductive choice. Which doesn’t mean I support every reproductive choice that people make. This is not rocket science, Mike. It’s not that hard to understand how someone can hold those two beliefs simultaneously.

            “You support that particular reproductive choice under the wider pro-choice position and I don’t.” Yes. The difference is that I’m not responding to that difference by claiming you believe things you don’t and asking how you can call yourself a Christian in good conscience.

          • Mike Sullivan

            The crux of the matter at the end of the day is that you blog and publish in the areas of disability and ethics from the perspective of supporting reproductive choice.

            Now, we are not going to agree on the compatablity of reproductive choice in the area of abortion in a spirtitual concept, so we should probally park that up.

            What I would say, and I have said it many times, is that disability selective abortion for Down syndrome is the single biggest harm that is being carried out against our community is simply a reflection of society adopting and implementing this concept of “reproductive choice”. So, in my view, there is an irresolvable tension in your position that is harmful to the community I advocate to protect.

            It is not just my view. This from the evidence presented to the current UK inquiry into abortion for disability for example:

            “So, if the law says that we can screen and look for disability in the unborn with a view to offering termination very quickly on the back of the screening results, then we’re basically saying that those people have less value; their life will not be as valuable; that their suffering may make their life not worth living. Those are all extremely dangerous attitudes for our laws to reflect.”

            Consider the situation in my own country. Every pregnant women is offered the “reproductive choice” to have an abortion when the unborn child is diagnosed with Down syndrome. Testing, diagnosisis and termination is all free courtesy of the tax payers. So, every single mother is told, you can choose not to have this type of baby, soley because of the genetic diagnosis.

            The situation in France. 87% of all pregancies with Down syndrome terminated free by the State, that’s all pregancies, not just the diagnosed ones.

            Consider your own country. Sequenom say that by the end of this year 120,000,000 people will be “insured” for Maternity21, the test used to find those with Down syndrome so that they can be aborted.

            So, what we have, is a culture of “reproductive choice” that is used to harm the most vulnerable (those with Down syndrome) of the vunerable (the unborn) that causes the widespread and systematic destruction of a minority group of the human race.

            So, when you discuss disability and ethics from a pro-choice position, it just falls over on itself. The harm to our community is the testimony of that, and something I will speak out against.

            Those who support reproductive choice, are in no position to shed any tears for the outcomes those choices have on the most vunerable amongst us. Please leave that to the few who will stand for their right to exist against the culture tide that is sweeping us away.

  • kirstizoe

    As a pro choice Christian (though admittedly I’m VERY moderate on the issue) I’m currently seeking a dual masters in both Women’s and Gender Studies and Social Work. Both your article and Rachel’s hit home for me because it is precisely what I feel called to do in this world. Particularly the discussion of the intersectionality of race, class, economic status, and sexual violence and how these issues impact women who seek abortions are rarely if ever discussed in the grander pro-life movement. While it is upsetting that the issue that brought about this discussion had to happen, I’m glad its seeing a little light.

    • Ellen Painter Dollar

      It is incredibly upsetting that the Gosnell case happened to spur this discussion. It has helped some people clarify important points, such as that being pro-choice does not automatically mean that one supports late term abortions, and that women seeking abortions are profoundly vulnerable, just as the fetuses they carry are. I wish you the best in pursuing your call around these difficult issues.