Why should Christian theology co-opt U.S. abortion debate?

Why should Christian theology co-opt U.S. abortion debate? June 30, 2021

abortion united states marist poll atheism christianity
Political cartoon about abortion choices. Note the coathanger motif on the The Chop Shop’s sign. (idiotblogid, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

The crux of so-called “pro-life” opposition to abortion is a moot assumption: that an embryo at virtually any stage of development is a human being due all rights of born people, and — this may be even more central to the ideology — that the unborn are “sacrosanct,” meaning deemed holy by an invisible, unverifiable deity that thus prohibits their violation in the womb on pain of losing your soul.

However, because deities are unavailable in the real world for fetal protection, earthly human beings who believe in gods and vouch for them act as self-anointed divine proxies, bringing all-too-human bias and error to the ostensibly “sacred” process.

Certainly, the vast majority of Americans believes that unborn fetuses are inherently valuable, to their parents, particularly, as well as to the nation as a whole and its future. And that life should inevitably be protected. But it’s not always a simple, straightforward moral judgment. For example, how can one be pro-life and not anti-war? Should aborting a miniscule two-hour-old zygote be a crime? A month-old zygote? A sperm cell? Or is “putting down” your pet to relieve its suffering wrong? When it comes to sustaining life, there are often densely layered ethics involved in deciding what is right and what is wrong, and how valuable things are when considered separately and in wholly different contexts.

Because abortion, like racism, is a special American moral and ethical conundrum that won’t go away, it bears revisiting.

The latest addition to the continuing debate was the reported release of a Marist poll in late January, underwritten by the Catholic organization Knights of Columbus. Note that Catholics are traditionally doctrinaire pro-lifers. Not that that implies anything untoward about the validity of study data or its interpretation from the widely respected Marist team, but it’s a point to ponder.

What this latest Marist poll indicates is somewhat unexpected — that despite Roe v. Wade, Planned Parenthood and passionate pro-choice proponents in the U.S. over decades, Americans may not be as pro-abortion as expected.

The study reported that “more than three-quarters of Americans support significant restrictions on abortion, including a majority of Americans who describe themselves as pro-choice,” according to a January 27 article in the conservative magazine National Review (NR). It implies that conservative and liberal tribes regarding the abortion conflict, while agreeing it is an important social reality that needs to be addressed, are not necessarily in consensus among themselves about how to address it.

abortion united states marist poll atheism christianity
2020 Gallup Poll chart on U.S. abortion attitudes over many decades. (Gwydion M Williams, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Release of the study comes as newly elected President Joe Biden, using executive orders to overturn many of his predecessor’s policies also created by executive fiat, signed an order January 21 reversing a previous executive order in the Reagan era later expanded by former President Donald Trump. That order prohibited U.S. aid funding to foreign groups that “provide or promote abortions around the globe,” the NR reported in another article late last month.

In searching online media sources about the release of this study, I curiously only found reports from conservative outlets, such as NR, Breitbart, The Federalist, Newsmax, The Daily Signal and LifeNews. Nothing substantive from mainstream media, including The New York Times, The Washington Post or the Los Angeles Times. No idea why. However, a vigorously pro-life op-ed in Newsweek referenced the study. And even on the Marist Poll site online, I couldn’t for some reason find the study that conservative media were referencing.

NR reported that Knights of Columbus had commissioned Marist to conduct public-opinion polling each January over a decade on U.S. preferences regarding abortion policy. The surveys are timed to coincide with the group’s annual March for Life event each January. The latest iteration found, NR reports:

“While Americans who call themselves pro-choice (53 percent) outnumber those who describe themselves as pro-life (43 percent), most Americans believe that abortion should be limited to the first three months of pregnancy, if it’s permitted at all. A slim majority of respondents said abortion either shouldn’t be permitted at all or should be legal only in cases where a mother’s life is in danger or when she has been the victim of rape or incest.”

It’s probably safe to say that most Americans who support abortion — while endorsing varying levels of restriction — agree that abortion should be safe, legal and rare. Particularly in the first trimester, the first three months. Second trimester abortions are generally viewed as more morally problematic because the fetus is larger and more recognizable as an infant human; a third-trimester abortion is probably well beyond what most Americans could countenance.

The vast majority of abortions are performed in the first trimester (12 weeks), and the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade ruled abortion legal and constitutional under certain restrictions tied to the likely ability of a fetus to survive outside the womb. Ironically, broad availability of birth control products since that landmark court ruling has sharply reduced abortion rates in the U.S.

So, what we’re mostly arguing about is first-trimester abortion. The sticking point is the idea that these only slightly developed proto-embryos still in the womb are the same as walking-around, born people, due all the same rights — while ignoring that they are inseparable parts of the mothers carrying them, not property of the state. Pro-life zealots always choose to refer to new embryos as “unborn children” or “pre-born infants,” as if there were no substantive or qualitative difference in or out. And they invariably add something about the “sanctity of life,” implying that ignoring this assumption is a sin on par with crimes against humanity.

Pro-choice proponents view a fetus as part of a sovereign mother’s body and that the state should have no say in what she does with it. They also don’t view early-stage fetuses in the same legal sense as born children of any age, which are viable and independent beings.

As long as fetuses are presented as sacred objects, the abortion debate will go nowhere, and the opposing tribes will continue to snipe at each other in a continuing stalemate.

The irony is that even if all abortions were outlawed, women would still have them, but only women rich enough to pay for them would enjoy relative safety in the process. The poor would be forced into proverbial “back alley” abortions or perform risky “coat hanger”-type abortions on themselves. Not a very sacred life that.

We need a more scientific, evidence-based national discussion about federal and state abortion policies, but while ethereal religion poisons the well of discourse on this very down-to-earth topic, the uneasy status quo will remain, with each side chipping away at the other in a see-saw battle for primacy in the so-called “culture wars.”

We need to come together on this. The birth of more unwanted children in the world cannot be a sacred goal. Or the broad suffering forced birthing ensures.

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