Why I Am Pro-Choice by Ellen Painter Dollar

I became interested in reproductive ethics for very personal reasons: Nine years ago, my husband and I underwent preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD, which is in vitro fertilization with genetic screening) to try to conceive a child who would not inherit my disabling bone disorder. In an e-mail discussion at the time with a theologian friend, we explored theological perspectives on whether fertilized eggs have the moral status of human beings. Some theologians use scientific criteria to inform those views. For example, some argue that during the time after fertilization when it is possible for embryos to split and form twins, an embryo cannot be classified as a human being because it is potentially several people, rather than a single, unique person.

After several e-mails in which my friend and I tossed bits of scientific minutiae about embryonic development back and forth, he suggested that science provided an insufficient framework for examining the moral status of embryos. Approached from a scientific perspective, the question of whether a fertilized egg is a human being can be answered in different ways depending on the information we have and how we interpret it. The more important question, my friend argued, is whether we approach embryos reverently, as gifts whose worth is determined by the nature of the God who gives them, or empirically, as bits of flesh whose worth is determined by our scientific understanding of their particular traits at particular times.

I firmly believe that Christians, as believers in a loving God who creates every human being in God’s image, should approach human embryos reverently. Why, then, do I support abortion rights?

First, a note on language: While I support abortion rights, I am not “pro-abortion.” I do not think abortion is a good thing, nor do I think abortion is a morally neutral act. But fundamentally, I am a practical person. The primary reason I support abortion rights is that, for all of human history, women have gotten pregnant unintentionally, and have sought ways to end them, often at the expense of their safety or their lives. When abortion is not legal, it becomes unsafe, but women seek it out anyway. And I care about those women as people made in God’s image too. As Hillary Clinton once said, I want to live in a society where abortion is “safe, legal, and rare.” What if, instead of striving to make abortion illegal, we Christians worked toward making it rare?

My focus on abortion reduction rather than criminalization stems, again, from my practical nature. Making it illegal won’t end abortion, it will just drive abortion underground, where women will suffer. Nothing much good grows in the dark.

Yet I opened this piece by saying I believe human embryos should be treated with reverence. Doesn’t that reverence require us to condemn abortion under all circumstances? No, it doesn’t. To explain why, I’ll use the example of Christian attitudes toward divorce.

We live in a culture inclined to treat embryos as products that women and men can choose to accept or not accept based on consumer-oriented values: Is it convenient? Is it what I want? Will it make me happy? This attitude can be apparent in decisions about abortion, as well as decisions about using reproductive technology to conceive, screen, and select embryos with or without certain traits (such as in gender selection). Likewise, our culture is inclined to treat marriage as something we choose to start or end based on our wants and desires, rather than what God asks of us and what is required for us to be fully human (which necessarily includes self-sacrifice, dependence, limitation, and pain). Christians approach (or at least, should approach) marriage with a reverence that the wider culture often lacks, as a lifelong commitment that will sometimes be convenient and make us happy, and will sometimes be inconvenient and bring us pain. But despite our belief in the holiness of marriage, few Christians protest our country’s laws governing no-fault divorce. Indeed, despite Biblical passages indicating that divorce is questionable in the Judeo-Christian tradition, most churches do not protest divorce, don’t think twice about accepting members who have been divorced, and offer their sanctuaries and clergy for blessing new marriages after divorce.

When it comes to divorce, most Christians recognize that we can support a model of marriage that differs from our cultural model without arguing that divorce should be illegal. Likewise, we can hold up a model of human sexuality and family that differs from our cultural model without making abortion illegal. We can talk about sexuality as a gift from God, and critique cultural messages saying that the ability to have casual sex with multiple partners is somehow empowering to women. We can provide support, both emotional and material, to women who have unintentional pregnancies. We can fund, vote for, and work for efforts to lift families out of poverty, so that no woman decides to have an abortion because she can’t afford to care for a baby.

Our job as Christians is not to change the legal structure of our secular democracy to fit with our religious belief that human life is given by God and therefore to be treated with reverence. Our job, rather, is to simply treat human life—human lives—with reverence. Abortion is a moral tragedy, as is a woman feeling she has no other choice but to seek out an unsafe, illegal abortion. Legalized abortion reduces the incidence of the latter; let’s work on reducing, rather than criminalizing, the former.

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer, editor and mother of three living in West Hartford, CT. Her forthcoming book on the ethics of reproductive and genetic technology, titled No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction, will be published by Westminster John Knox Press  in January 2012. She blogs about reproductive ethics at Choices That Matter, and about faith, family, and disability at Five Dollars and Some Common Sense.

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About Amy Julia Becker

Amy Julia Becker writes and speaks about family, faith, disability, and culture. A graduate of Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary, she is the author of Penelope Ayers: A Memoir, A Good and Perfect Gift (Bethany House), and Why I Am Both Spiritual and Religious (Patheos Press).


  1. This is one of the best written pieces on the subject I’ve ever read. I can’t say I agree with the author’s conclusion, but I sincerely appreciate the calm, civilized tone and her elegant writing on this sensitive subject.

  2. Thank you Elizabeth. Your compliment means a great deal to me, because my purpose in participating in this dialogue is NOT to convince people to agree with me, but to model (along with Karen) that it’s possible to talk about this sensitive topic respectfully.

  3. Nate Hagerty says:

    Agreed with Elizabeth re: your tone. I deeply appreciate your thoughtfulness and gentleness!

    Perhaps as an obvious aside, I’ve reached a different conclusion, based on what I read to be a broader spiritual climate which can affect a land/culture in which this practice is made legal.

    I’m curious if you have considered this aspect of the issue in coming to your conclusion? The Scriptures speak fairly clearly about how God views societies which legally allow for this. A quick Google search, for example, brings this (not-comprehensive) listing of admonitions:


    Obviously, there may be theological disputes re: how we are to read these sort of Scriptures, but I believe they speak to a clear moral — and, yay, spiritual –culpability for cultures in which abortion is legally permissible. Doesn’t this trump individual issues of concern and care for struggling mothers (very real, compassionate and valid concerns!), when the issue at hand does seem to be whether or not we as a *society* would codify this practice into law?

  4. Great post! Thank you for writing on AJ’s blog. As a pro-choice Christian myself, I often feel that I’m the only one. It’s nice to hear a thoughtful, well articulated argument. I particularly agree with your comment that you’re pro-choice, not pro-abortion.

  5. My greatest concern about abortions being “legal”, particularly as it relates to a woman’s “right”, is that it has removed responsibility and privilege of both creating and ending life from men. I strongly believe that this is something that society has to wrestle with as it looks at all the surrounding consequences of this issue.

    We’ve all heard about how unfair it is for a man to not get to decide whether or not a woman has an abortion, but my concern is more specifically with the men that wished the woman would have an abortion. And when the woman chose not to do so, these men feel they are no longer responsible for the child, as this was not my “choice” to have a baby. Of course our laws still require that a man financially support the mother and child, but there is now an overabundance of absent fathers that statistically directly relates to Roe vs. Wade.

    I have personal examples of single mother friends and family as well as foster children in my home, and in the schools where I was a teacher and principal – where fathers did not believe they had a responsibility to a child because the mother “chose” to have that child.

    I remember once talking about this issue with my grandma. She said in her day as a young woman if a woman got pregnant the MAN took care of that child. It was unheard of and rare that a man would not take on the father role and responsibility of the woman and baby. I strongly believe our society is suffering greatly over a woman’s “right” to choose. This is a much larger issue than one woman making a personal decision.

  6. The Church in America failed to keep one sin from becoming widespread, and you think we should use that as a good example of how to treat another sin? I also think governments have much more right/responsibility to protect lives than to protect relationships. Divorce is awful, but it isn’t the same as killing children.

    I understand that illegal abortions may be more risky to the mother’s health than legal ones, but don’t you think the consequences of an illegal abortion might serve to deter women from choosing to have one? I know there are many women who would go ahead with it despite the risks, but at least they are choosing to put themselves at risk of their own free will. Babies get no say. If I have to choose between protecting the health/life of someone who is absolutely helpless and someone who is making a conscious decision to risk it, I choose to protect the helpless one – the child.

  7. I so appreciate the tone of this article.

    For the most part, I am a not a big fan of legislating morality, but I just can’t bring myself to see abortion as one of those areas. While I certainly can see the same consumer mindset at work in both abortion and divorce, there is a big difference between ending a life and ending a relationship, no matter how sacred we consider that relationship. I can’t help but feel that as individuals and societies, we should approach any decision that ends human life with great fear and trembling–and that includes abortion, capital punishment, and war.

    I would be very interested in seeing statistics about what percentage of women have abortions when it is illegal vs. when it is legal. I’m sure there aren’t hard and fast numbers (for obvious reasons) but does anyone know of a study that might provide a basic idea?

    Prevention and helping mothers and children is definitely a HUGE deal, something that the church needs to commit to if we truly want to see abortions decrease. Since the conversations here have been so respectful, I’m hoping I won’t get slaughtered for suggesting that providing free and accessible birth control and pre/post-natal healthcare could go a long way? As could treating struggling mothers and their children with love and respect, instead of shame and condemnation.

  8. Jenny: Regarding your question in the second paragraph, this is something I’ve been looking into. I’ve read a number of reliable sources (that is, sources that don’t have an obvious bias for or against legal abortion) that say available statistics indicate that there is NOT a significant correlation between abortion legality and abortion incidence. That is, abortion rates are generally not higher in places where abortion is legal. And in places where abortion is illegal, abortion rates can still be quite high. It appears that, in general, women who want abortions will get them whether or not they are legal. To me, that means that if we’re serious about having fewer abortions, our focus should be on things that do affect abortion rates—poverty, contraception, etc.–rather than on making it illegal. And I am all for the provision of free and accessible birth control and pre- and postnatal health care, as you mentioned.

  9. Despite my being for abortion rights, I actually like the pro-life slogan, “It’s a child, not a choice.” I think there are many, many detrimental effects of our cultural tendency to perceive children as choices, to perceive wanted/chosen children differently than we perceive unwanted/unchosen children, and to link our care for a child (as individuals and as a society) to the choices his/her parents made. For example, as prenatal and preimplantation genetic screening become more prevalent and available, I have a real fear that one day, our culture will say that we have no responsibility to support families with disabled children through special education, early intervention, etc. because their parents could have “chosen” not to have those children by either selecting embryos without a specific disability for implantation, or terminating a pregnancy in which the fetus is found to have an abnormality.

    All that to say, I share your concern with a father’s role in reproductive decisions and the idea that if a woman chooses to have a baby, rather than terminate, somehow that absolves the father of his responsibility.

  10. “…don’t you think the consequences of an illegal abortion might serve to deter women from choosing to have one?” No, I don’t. See my response to Jenny above. It doesn’t appear that making abortion illegal significantly affects abortion rates.

  11. This is where I wonder where society concerns and law go hand in hand as laws are put in place for the betterment of society. There needs to be something in place to protect these women and children in choosing life.

    It’s interesting you mentioned children/babies with disabilities. I study/teach in this area and this is already happening. This is an old article, but it shows your concerns are already happening – http://abcnews.go.com/Health/w_ParentingResource/down-syndrome-births-drop-us-women-abort/story?id=8960803

    I appreciate your healthy discourse for us to address these issues! Otherwise, change can never take place. So, thank you!

  12. Ellen,

    It would seem that your argument for pro-choice is one of the “lesser of two evils”. If abortion is made illegal then women will seek back-alley abortions and risk their lives (which is indeed a tragedy and I do not want these women to suffer such harm). But you must also consider the lives of aborted babies as well. If one truly believes that abortion ends the life of a human being, then it is unethical to support abortion as the baby is innocent. In such a case the one committing the abortion is guilty. It is not the job of the government to protect a criminal in perpetrating a crime. The government, to the contrary, exists in part to protect the innocent.

    Once again, the bottom line comes down to whether you believe abortion is taking a human life or not. If you truly believe abortion involves taking an innocent human life then pro-choice would seem an untenable position on your “lesser of two evils” argument.

  13. Wow, that really surprises me re. abortion rates! Then working on good preventative measures is that much more crucial–as it should be anyway.

  14. I’ll try to address this in the “Q&A” posts we’ll be doing next week. I’m not sure my response will satisfy you completely but I’ll at least make an effort to explain my position. Thanks for your feedback and the respectful tone of your dissent.

  15. I’ve done much more research and writing on this aspect of abortion (prenatal diagnosis, preimplantation genetic diagnosis, and how they intersect with our culture’s treatment of people with disabilities) than on traditional “pro-life” and “pro-choice” debates. I’ll say more about this in the Q&A posts we do early next week. Thanks for raising the issue. It’s an important one.

  16. I’ll try my best to respond to this in the Q&A next week. Thanks for the response!

  17. “Abortion is a moral tragedy, as is a woman feeling she has no other choice but to seek out an unsafe, illegal abortion. ” This simply is not true. She does have a choice. Adoption is always an answer- every child is wanted. Perhaps not by the birth mother, but there are thousands of couples seeking babies and children to adopt. My daughter, who will never be able to have children, being one of them.
    What if we took your line of reasoning and applied it to homicide? Or rape? Should we jettison laws against homicide or rape because our job as Christians is not to change the legal structure of our secular democracy to fit with our religious beliefs? It’s a very slippery slope you propose here and as a mother of ten, the youngest of whom has a diagnosis that is now being targeted by new testing for the purpose of elimination, I am greatly disturbed by this line of thinking.

  18. Note that I said, “..a woman FEELING she has no other choice.” Of course there always is a choice, and promoting adoption is yet another way that Christians can work to reduce abortions. But going through nine months of pregnancy and childbirth and then offering a child for adoption is no small undertaking, and there are many reasons a woman might not consider that a viable choice. Can we work to make that a more viable choice for women? Of course we can, and we should.

    As for rape and homicide: Even non-Christians, even atheists, recognize murder and rape as crimes and morally corrupt. Not everyone recognizes a group of cells in a fertilized egg as a God-given human life. That’s a significant difference between religious believers and secular thinking. And even some believers in a loving God think about the moral status of embryos differently (for example, Jewish thinking, in general, gives greater moral weight to an implanted embryo than one in a petri dish).

    I’ll address “slippery slopes” in my Q&A. Here’s the thing about a slippery slope: We can always choose to put up roadblocks on the slope. We can always choose to impose limits. Saying that allowing one thing could lead to us allowing another thing that is even more troubling is an insufficient moral argument. We can impose limits on what is and is not allowed. We can, and we should.

  19. We could go back and forth all day about these issues, but the fact is- what your words and the words of others who are pro-choice but anti-abortion produce- is the death of babies. Pure and simple. I just blogged about this and posted twenty-seven pictures of my beautiful designer gened baby in between the words of an article in the New York Post about this very issue.
    Words posted alongside the face of a little girl who not be here today if I joined the 92% of mothers who “chose” to end their child’s life.
    We can go back and forth on what Christians should or should not do, on slippery slopes, on women’s hard choices, and on words, but at the end of the day babies, are killed because of choice.

  20. Hi Chuck, the considerations you cite sound compelling (your missing premise is presumably something like this: it is wrong support laws that protect the killing of innocent human beings). You might, however, be interested to read my challenge to Karen Swallow Prior in the previous post, where I identify a common fallacy in these kinds of pro-life arguments.

  21. While I appreciate your thoughtfully written post, I have a huge problem with your theory that abortion should be legal to protect the mothers who simply do not feel like having children.

    We live in a messed up society where most teenagers are sexually active and where most adults are sexually irresponsible. Yes, this results in unwanted pregnancies. Yes, some of these women are so desperate they would go underground to get rid of their babies. How does this make killing children all right?

    Debate embryos and cell clusters all you want. How about second and third trimester abortions where the baby is 100% alive and aware and can feel pain? How about late term abortions where the aborted babies are left to die on an operation table – or worse, a trash can? How about women who have multiple abortions simply because they don’t feel like having a child – and are then proud of it?

    How can we support something which is WRONG? By your theory of lesser evil, a profoundly abused child should legally be able to kill their abusive parent.

    This said, I completely agree that working to make all abortion legal is (tragically) pretty unrealistic. We need to support pregnant women and give them hope, a safe place to live while pregnant, and families to adopt their children. We need to advocate for responsible sexual activity. Most of all, we must NOT support that which is wrong, for what message does that send?

  22. If I was to be born to someone who did not wish to have me I would by far prefer to be aborted.

  23. Hi Nina: For the record, I think late term and partial-birth abortions should be illegal. I also object to the characterization of women who seek abortions as people who just don’t “feel like” having children. That’s a pretty broad brush with which to paint many individual women in many different situations with many different motivations for abortion. I have interviewed women who have, after difficult soul-searching, chosen to terminate pregnancies with babies diagnosed with severe/fatal abnormalities. They would be hurt and angry by the idea that they just didn’t “feel like” having a baby.

    You’re the second reader who has said I’m proposing a “lesser of two evils” theory. And I’m actually not; that is, I’m not saying, “Abortion is bad, and unsafe/illegal abortions are bad, but legal abortion is less bad so let’s accept that as the lesser of two evils.” I’m saying something much more practical than that, which is that abortion happens whether it is legal or not, and that making it illegal doesn’t appear to make it happen less. It does, however, make it more dangerous. And, as you say, it’s also unrealistic to think it’s going to be made illegal. And finally, and once again, I’m not “supporting” abortion. So when you ask, “How can we support something which is wrong?” my answer is: I’m not supporting it. Just arguing that making it illegal isn’t, in my opinion, the way to make it happen less often.

  24. Thank you, Ellen. I look forward to your Q&A posts!

  25. Thanks so much for such a thoughtful and sensitive post. I do wonder though, couldn’t this line of reasoning be applied to other things such as prostitution, or indentured servitude, or…?

    That is, couldn’t one simply substitute terms and leave your argument the same: “While I support legalizing prostitution, I am not “pro-prostitution.” I do not think prostitution is a good thing, nor do I think prostitution is a morally neutral act. But fundamentally, I am a practical person. The primary reason I support legalizing prostitution is that, for all of human history, men and women have engaged in sex for money. When prostitution is not legal, it becomes unsafe, but it is sought out anyway. And I care about those women as people made in God’s image too. I want to live in a society where prostitution is “safe, legal, and rare.” What if, instead of striving to make prostitution illegal, we Christians worked toward making it rare?”

    I hope this doesn’t sound snarky, I mean it very sincerely, and I’m trying to make sure I understand. I assume you wouldn’t accept a pragmatic argument for legalizing prostitution, and I am struggling to understand why such an argument “works” for abortion but not in other areas.

    Thanks again for this thoughtful post.

  26. Nate Hagerty says:

    Looking forward to your reply!

  27. This is such a great question, and I’ve spent the last 24 hours thinking about it and doing some research.

    Thank you for saying that this question is offered honestly, and not as snark. I trust that assertion. I offer the following response honestly, and do not intend it to be flippant.

    “What if, instead of striving to make prostitution illegal, we Christians worked toward making it rare?” Well, OK. What if we did? I am no expert on prostitution, but I’m wondering if maybe the two issues are quite parallel, and if the proper focus for Christians who actually want to influence culture (rather than just preaching to it) is addressing the factors that lead women into prostitution, rather than criminalizing it. Just as the more useful and practical focus when it comes to abortion is addressing the factors that lead women to have abortions, rather than criminalizing them.

    With both prostitution and abortion, we’re failing to see the whole picture when we insist that these issues revolve solely around personal choice and sexual morality—that they are solely about women choosing to do the right thing (or not). Certainly, there is some choice involved. And certainly, most prostitutes could have chosen not to become prostitutes (although that is not the case for young girls and women who are forced into the trade). Likewise, women who have had abortions could have chosen to give birth and either raise the baby or offer it for adoption. And I suppose for some women, the choice to become a prostitute or have an abortion really does stem from a personal moral vacuum—a complete failure to see the moral ramifications of either selling one’s body for sex or ending an unwanted pregnancy. But more often the motivations behind prostitution and abortion are more complex, and are rooted not only in an individual woman’s sexual morality, but also in social, economic, and political forces that make women feel that they don’t have other choices.

    After all, no young girl says, “I want to turn tricks when I grow up!” Just as no young girl says, “I want to have sex as much as I want without consequence, and plan to abort any babies that might result.” So what lands women in these situations? What makes them choose prostitution and abortion? A number of things: A culture that romanticizes and cheapens sex, and holds double standards for male and female sexual behavior. A lack of jobs that pay a living wage to women without higher education. A lack of affordable housing, health care, day care, and family-friendly workplace policies, all of which would allow a single mother to make a living wage while raising a child, even an unexpected one. An education system that fails to prepare our poorest citizens for jobs that could support them and their families.

    I’ve argued that we shouldn’t criminalize abortion, but rather address some of these underlying concerns that lead women to choose abortion, in the hope of lowering the number of abortions. Do I think we should legalize prostitution for the same reason? Well, yes, actually. I do.

    Here’s what I discovered in doing some reading last night on legalizing prostitution. Prostitution is legal in some places, and those places are not moral wastelands where people are having sex on every street corner. However, neither does legalizing prostitution appear to lower its occurrence. Many groups that advocate on behalf of prostitutes say that legalization is not the answer, because it just empowers the people who exploit prostitutes, namely pimps and johns.

    Sweden, however, has tried something else—something that appears to actually lower the incidence of prostitution. They criminalize those who exploit prostitutes (again, the pimps and the johns) but do not criminalize the prostitutes themselves. That is, they make buying sex illegal, but selling it legal. What this law does, besides effectively limiting prostitution, is recognize that prostitutes are participating in an inherently exploitative system. Criminalizing the prostitutes themselves simply makes them victims twice over. It seems to me that this sort of legislation, combined with efforts to provide viable economic opportunities and support services for women so they can support themselves and their families with legitimate work, makes a lot more sense than standing by as prostitutes go in and out of jail.

    This has some obvious parallels to abortion. How about instead of criminalizing women who have abortions (who, again, are largely choosing abortion not because they are missing a moral compass but because they feel they don’t have a better choice), we 1) criminalize those who exploit them (this would include men who engage in rape and incest, as well as “deadbeat dads” who fail to support the children they help conceive), and 2) support structures and programs that would make it possible for a woman with an unplanned pregnancy to build a life for herself and her child, or carry a pregnancy to term in order to offer the baby for adoption, while maintaining her own health, continuing to work, and supporting her existing children—things like work with a living wage and benefits, affordable housing, affordable health care, subsidized day care and preschool, flexible workplace policies with adequate parental leave, etc.

    If Christians supported these sorts of efforts to empower and support (rather than criminalize) women, along with 1) promoting a healthy view of human sexuality that questions the prevailing notion that being able to have sex with whoever you want whenever you want somehow leads to freedom and empowerment, 2) acknowledging that some people (even Christians!) will have sex outside of marriage and therefore supporting the availability of effective contraception (which we already know lowers abortion rates), and 3) providing material supports (counseling, financial help, free health care, etc) to encourage women to carry unplanned pregnancies to term and consider adoption—if we did all of that, then I think we’d have a much stronger claim to having saved lives than we do by making abortion illegal.

    Finally, I realize that you were not necessarily looking for a detailed discussion of legalizing prostitution, but rather asking if we couldn’t apply my reasoning to a multitude of other morally suspect behaviors. I think this is where my point about living in a secular democracy is relevant. Christians hold beliefs about the sanctity—the God-givenness—of human life that others don’t, and in a country in which church and state are separate, we cannot impose that belief on those who don’t share it. And part of what makes abortion so tricky is that the mother-child bond is a unique one, so we have two interdependent human lives involved, unlike with other criminal issues in which one person is clearly being harmed at the hands of another (slavery, murder, assault, etc.) In our democracy, all except the most extreme liberatarians believe that slavery, murder, and assault should be illegal. Whereas a majority of Americans believe that abortion should be legal, within limits (e.g., first trimester only, etc.)

    Like Amy Julia, I want to avoid focusing on abortion on Thanksgiving, so I’m going to take a break from checking back here for a few days. AJ will publish my answers to some other questions next week. In the meantime, I’m off to make pie and wish you a Happy Thanksgiving.

  28. I am so grateful for your extensive response, and hope you will indulge me a little further. Your response really brings forth the how both sides in the abortion debate are generally seeking to protect the vulnerable.

    I agree that it makes no sense to criminalize prostitutes, but does anyone really propose criminalizing women who seek abortions? My sense is that pro-life proposals–precisely because pro-lifers understand that women seeking abortions are victims too–are for restricting the procedure by regulating it on the medical end, not by throwing women in jail who seek abortions. You mentioned in another comment that you do think that late-term and partial-birth abortions should be illegal, so you do agree with the notion of criminalizing abortion in certain cases; and just as you wouldn’t want women who seek these procedures being imprisoned, but that the procedures be “criminalized” in other ways (hospital regulations, malpractice, etc), pro-life folks just want to extend that same logic. And yes, of course we should continue to hold rapists and hold deadbeat dads accountable. And of course we should work to reduce the social and systemic factors that lead to abortion. In fact, I would argue that no one does this with greater passion and effectiveness than pro-life pregnancy centers.

    If Sweden has laws directed toward those who benefit financially from prostitution (pimps and johns) to prevent exploitation, isn’t it reasonable to pass laws here that are directed toward those who benefit financially from abortion to prevent exploitation? And isn’t this what pro-life legislative proposals actually aim for?

  29. I am grateful for your thoughtful questions and responses too. Thank you!

    One outcome of this conversation for me is that I see more clearly where my views (and the views of many pro-choice people, especially pro-choice Christians) overlap with pro-life views in, as you say, our mutual desire to care for the vulnerable. Reaching new understandings of the “other side” was a big part of why the three of us decided to do these posts. I have read sociological research indicating that pro-life and pro-choice people often simply CANNOT converse with each other, because the issue has become so politicized and so marred by use of worn-out arguments that demonize the other side. I’m so glad that has not been the case here.

    Now to respond to what you’ve said: Most often, when I am hearing someone who is passionately pro-life, I am hearing a belief that all abortions, except in the most narrow circumstances (when the mother is endangered, and for some pro-lifers, in the case of rape or incest), should be illegal. I am not hearing that they want to “restrict” the procedure but to essentially end it. And in my mind, that proposal is 1) unlikely, 2) ineffective (because legality of abortions does not appear to affect abortion rates that much), and 3) unjust, because it forces a woman with an unplanned pregnancy to either choose an illegal and unsafe abortion, or live with the very significant consequences (emotional, physical, financial, etc.) of carrying the baby to term, whether she then chooses to keep it or offer it for adoption. And whatever I think of the sexual behavior that leads to some unplanned pregnancies (certainly not all, as a fair number of women who have abortions are married), or the poor judgment that leads people to have sex when they don’t want the natural outcome of sex, or how unjust it is that some women have abortions while others pine for a baby to adopt, I think a secular democracy, in which a majority of people do not believe that an early-term abortion is the same as murder, needs to make abortion a safe and legal choice.

    I don’t see pro-life legislative proposals as primarily about punishing those who exploit women or benefit financially from abortion. First, I honestly find the idea that clinicians are motivated to perform abortions for financial gains laughable. I have two friends who are nurses at Planned Parenthood, and trust me, they are not getting rich (nor do they primarily see their work as providing abortions, but as being present to women in terrible circumstances in some of the most difficult moments of their lives). Second, I don’t see the provision of safe, legal, limited abortion services as exploitative in and of itself. To me, it is more exploitative to fail to give a woman a choice about whether or not to grow a human being inside her body. Again, I feel that women have a right to that choice, given the lifelong physical, emotional, and financial ramifications of childbearing, despite my being just as disgusted or flummoxed as pro-lifers are by the incredibly bad judgment–is it OK to call it stupidity?–that lands SOME women in the position of being pregnant when they don’t want to be. Other women’s situations are much more understandable, but we cannot legitimately allow abortions only for women whose situations evoke our sympathy, only for women with good judgment. Even the rape/incest/mother’s life is endangered restrictions raise too many sticky questions for me. How do we prove that the baby was conceived via rape or incest? We all know that cases of rape are not always clear-cut. Rapists don’t just confess, but argue that it was consensual, etc. etc. So does it become a criminal matter? In which case, by the time the courts render a decision, the baby in question will be learning to walk and talk. And as AJ asked Karen, who gets to decide what constitutes a mother’s life/health being in enough danger to justify an abortion? Does she have to be in imminent danger of dying? Or does compromising her long-term health (and therefore her ability to care for existing children) count?

    If pro-life protestors are truly about “restricting” the procedure, then sign me up. So am I. I think it is reasonable for abortion to be available early in pregnancies, for medical abortion alternatives (morning after pills and such) to be readily available to women so they can address unwanted pregnancies very early on, and for couples to have the ultimate authority to decide what to do after receiving a troubling prenatal diagnosis (ideally, after also receiving good-quality information and counsel). While I’ve listened sympathetically to women who found that all the waiting-period and forced education stuff just added to their agony over ending a wanted pregnancy with a severely disabled baby, I also think waiting periods and that sort of thing are reasonable given the moral weight of abortion decisions. As I said before, I think late-term, partial-birth, and abortions for the purpose of gender selection should be illegal. So I support restrictions on abortion. But I do not support making it illegal, and thus criminalizing either women who seek abortions or the providers who offer them, usually for reasons that have to do with their desire to provide good care to their women patients, not to get rich or exploit anyone.

    You’re portraying pro-life interests in a way that is much more nuanced and frankly, much more appealing, than the way I have perceived the pro-life cause. I’d love to believe that the way you portray it (which meshes with the way Karen wrote about it…I honestly agree with most of what Karen has written on this blog, just not with her conclusion that abortion should be illegal) is the way it really is. I’m trying to be open to hearing the more reasonable, nuanced voices that these blog posts have made space for. But I’m also hurting for women who, while not criminalized for having an abortion, are still punished for their choice every time they endure a gauntlet of clinic protestors. In my ears are the echoes of hateful people who have accused me of murder and encouraged others to exclude me from the family of Christ. I’m grateful to you, Karen, and the other commenters here for showing me a different side of the pro-life movement, and hope that this conversation has done some good for all of us.

  30. I am so thankful for this conversation. I feel similarly: your pro-choice stance is far more “nuanced and appealing” than I usually encounter. I have been enriched by this exchange, brief as it has been. God bless you!

  31. I loved this and shared it. Thank you. I do no agree with all the hype surrounding this issue. It needs to be considered with calm and respectful quietness. Not judgement and finger pointing. I do believe abortion should be legal but I like you also believe it is a very sad thing when it is chosen. I am pro woman. I am NOT pro abortion. We who believe in the rights of women need to speak up. Thank you again.

  32. TheodoreSeeber says:

    I argue that divorce should be illegal (and contraception as well). Does that mean my opposition to abortion is just integrity?

  33. Ellen, I love that you’ve expressed your opinion reverently and respectfully. While I disagree with your conclusion, I understand your reasoning. I’m proud to call you a sister alumna. Peace be with you. — Kelly McHugh Lucia ’92

  34. I grew up in a Pro-life family and have always felt afraid to consider the argument for Pro-Choice. I have to say that the distinction you made between Pro-abortion and Pro-choice was very helpful to me. I totally get it now! I Thank you for a very fair-minded, well-written piece! Lord bless you!