The Abortion Debate – learning from 40 years of non-dialogue.

maybe there’s a better way than shouting sound bytes?

Today is the 40th anniversary of the landmark Roe v Wade abortion decision enacted by the supreme court.  Since that time, the rhetoric, misinformation, strategic “messaging”, and political posturing surrounding this issue has continued by both sides.  These 40 years reveal that Americans are good at talking within self-referential communities, but not good at talking to people whose view is different than their own. As a result, Roe v Wade became a catalytic force for the religious right to establish itself as a political force in America under the likes of Jim Dobson and Jerry Fallwell.

These men, rightly in my opinion, grieved the massive cultural shift that would allow “choice” as to whether viable life in the womb should have the right to live or die.  With such a sweeping cultural shift, the most vulnerable lives on the planet were denied any protection whatsoever regarding their right to life.  That this doesn’t grieve our collective national conscience should be cause for alarm, to say the least.

BOTH sides of this debate though, demonstrate a glaring unwillingness to engage in the kind of honest and thoughtful dialogue that could bring a measure of consensus and a way forward for us collectively.  I could point to many examples, but I’ll limit the conversation to two:

The right to life folks always see the vulnerability of the baby, but rarely that of the mother.  The reality that 70% of women seeking access to an abortion are under the poverty line is rarely discussed, and as a result questions about how this woman is supposed to raise the baby or care for it aren’t answered.  Will there be financial help for the new mother?  How about job training or education so she can better herself?  Access to day care or at least a group of people willing to care for the children of these women who are, themselves, also vulnerable and at risk?  These questions have been met with silence by the right, not all the time, but mostly, for 40 years.  It’s as if we want large government intruding into the lives of people to protect and care for life in the womb, but only ’til the baby’s born.  After that, it’s laissez faire, “you’re on your own”, and “welcome to a Darwinian world where it’s every one for themselves”.  The unwillingness of the right to adequately engage these questions makes any notion of consensus building or finding a ‘third way’ nearly impossible.

The left seems no better to me, because they too speak two messages.  On the one hand, I often hear my friends on the left say that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare”, declaring that any abortion is a tragedy.  And yet, the organizing strategies of these same groups are centered on stopping any movement away from “unrestricted abortion on demand”.  Counseling regarding choices ahead of time?  Nope.  Ultrasound, so that the woman can see a heart beating at four weeks?  Nope.  Awareness that there are options available to enable you to bring this life into the world and gain their own needed education for economic betterment?  Off the table.  In the name of choice, I’ve heard too many stories where  only one choice was offered to someone at the most vulnerable moment of their lives, which was termination of their pregnancy.  One choice, however, is no choice, and renders the rhetoric of abortion being ‘safe, legal, and rare’ nothing more than a sound byte to protect abortion rights advocates from important challenges to their position.   I know of several woman who, when faced with real choice, chose to carry the life in their womb to birth.  I can only wish that “choice” were actually offered more of the time.

I’ve learned from these kinds of debates how little tolerance most people have in our culture for nuanced conversation about ethical issues.  We want answers, we want them to be absolute and easy, and want them yesterday; now is already too late.  So we find a camp that’s offering a position and we join it.  Then we listen to all the rhetoric that reinforces our position, until we’re convinced that only a fool would think differently than we do on the matter.  Then we wonder how fully half of America, divided as we are, can believe the nonsense of the other side.

This propensity for reducing everything to easy answers is why I love Bonhoeffer’s view on ethics.  His thesis is that any rush to judgement, or refusal to deal with all the nuances of an ethical situation prayerfully, puts in in the camp of the Pharisees.  One blogger writes:

According to Bonhoeffer, “the Pharisee is not an adventitious historical phenomenon of a particular time. He is the man to whom only the knowledge of good and evil has come to be of importance in his entire life… For the Pharisee every moment of life becomes a situation of conflict in which he has to choose between good and evil” (26, 27, emphasis added). As such, life for the Pharisee is ultimately comprised of logical alternatives: right/wrong, lawful/unlawful, sin/virtue

Instead, what matters, is our prayerful and ongoing consideration of the ethical demands before us in each and every situation, bowing not to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil offered us in the garden, but to Christ, who alone is the embodiment of truth.

When we think this way, labels become harder to impose, and listening in order to understand becomes easier.  Yes, I’ll share what I believe the Bible teaches on many important ethical issues in the realm of relationships/sexuality in the coming weeks.  Yes, these views will be derived from the Bible, which is the sole source of authority in Christ.  Yes, they will be nuanced; more conservative than the left desires and more progressive than the right desire.  Yes, we all need, desperately, to listen to each other and continue to pray, so that our ongoing transformation into people of hope, light, and purity can continue.  Othewise, forty years from now, the church will still by shouting across a big dividing wall that Jesus desires be broken down.


About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.

  • Kyle Tyler

    Who knows what could happen when you take the time to get to know those on the other side of this conflict… you might just become friends. The prologue (the first 7 minutes) from an episode This American Life, gives a glimpse how this debate could be had when we stop shouting as Pharisees.

    Episode Link:

  • Janell

    Richard, thank you for this thoughtful post. I used to be hung up in the rhetoric and my own judgements. But God has been working on my heart over the past few years to see other perspectives, gray when I thought this issue was black and white. I still believe abortion is wrong. But I also believe that if we judge people, we have no room to love them. I have found a valuable resource in an organization called “feminists for life.” They point to the same things you did in this article, that as a society we have not given women support or help that is so desperately needed.

  • Lisa Knight

    Thank you for challenging us to dialogue with people on the other side of the issue. I have personal experience with the issue of pregnancy decisions. Three generations in my family who all chose different solutions. We are all fine and dealing with the fallout from the decisions. I must say that I am pro-choice and that I choose life. But I go out of my way to extend financial help to people who need it when they are pregnant. An excellent example of a group that helped my family is Special Delivery, which provides housing, counsel, help with social and legal issues, carseats, clothing, food, support groups, and more. Support groups include single parenting, adoption, mother-to-be, grandparents. I can tell you that the members of the grandparent group included the unemployed, professional people, politicians, and janitors. Special Delivery doesn’t get much press because of the need to hide single mothers from angry relatives and boyfriends, but believe me, there are a lot of
    conservative people in this area putting their time and money where their beliefs are. There must be more of this type of help or single parenting is next to impossible.

  • Denise

    “Joe found the young girl unconscious in her upstairs closet. By the time he got there, the structure was a raging inferno. No one else dared go inside. Scooping up the girl, he took his only exit, straight out the second story window and into the bushes below. The girl lived. For his part, Joe sustained three cuts and two sprained ankles—and an avalanche of questions. The media wanted to know how he planned to pay for the girl’s food, clothing, and health care now that he’d rescued her. The evangelical pastor asked if the time spent saving the girl from temporal flames might be better spent saving people from eternal ones. The social justice coordinator of the Catholic parish insisted that if Joe truly cared about saving lives, he’d care about all life and spend equal time rescuing poor workers from corrupt corporations. The local Congressman asked if he supported tax hikes aimed at reducing fire risk. Joe just kept looking at the girl.”

  • Eric Burgess

    Richard – why do we never talk about Norma Leah McCorvey changing her position on abortion? She was, afterall, the “Roe” and Roe vs. Wade.

    Religion aside, it’s it worth discussing that the very person who on the case, now openly denounces abortion?

  • Ian Drummond

    The really terrifying part of this dialogue is that there is a third position among liberals you don’t mention here — those who see abortion not as a necessary evil or tragedy, but as a *blessing*. For instance, the Rev Katherine Hancock Ragsdale (I am tempted to put her title “Rev” in quotation marks), who calls abortion providers “saints.” See, e.g.:

  • Joe

    “Counseling regarding choices ahead of time? Nope. Ultrasound, so that the woman can see a heart beating at four weeks? Nope. Awareness that there are options available to enable you to bring this life into the world and gain their own needed education for economic betterment? Off the table.”

    The pro-choice argument is not saying disallow any of these things, merely making them MANDATORY is a violation of rights. As you preach discussion, you frame the question as a woman is either denied knowledge or the knowledge is mandatory, with no middle ground. There are COUNTLESS resources explaining all of the options a woman has( ), and we live in a world of ever increasing access to this (ie smartphones). FORCING a woman to listen to her fetus’ heartbeat is not constitutionally sound; she can do this if she chooses to (making it more affordable is a discussion we can have, but then universal healthcare comes up; how come THIS is free but THIS isnt?). It is true that there are counselors on both sides who bias in their counseling, but reality is on the side of pro-choice in this instance. Telling a woman that she will probably go to hell if she aborts her child is not really comparable to telling a woman she probably can’t afford a child. All women inherently feel something towards the potential child they carry, to force them to feel worse about a difficult decision on purpose is a reprehensible scare tactic, not an appropriate piece of legislation. If a woman wishes to hear the opinion of The Church, or their church, or ANY priest or pastor, they can seek that counsel of their own free will, the same that they can seek the counsel of Planned Parenthood or any other similar pro-choice organization. Both are free. Only ONE has been limited in its access to the public by the opposing opinion’s lobbying for legislation.

    The problem with framing the debate this way, is that you are arguing to legislate your personal beliefs in violation of others rights, whereas Im arguing to NOT ALLOW YOU to legislate your personal beliefs in violation of others rights. You dont have much to stand on there. There isn’t really a discussion at all. Its her choice. And say it like you think shes smart enough to make the right one.

    Deuteronomy 30:19 “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live”

    “Choose life”. God gave us a choice. Stop trying to legislate your decision, were only trying to legislate the choice, the choice which was Gods Word.

  • Lamont

    Excellent post!