So let’s talk a little bit more about some pastors’ determination to attribute the end of a pregnancy due to sin, rather than to biology.
The word “miscarriage” can be misleading and misinterpreted here. As the Mayo Clinic puts it, “Miscarriage is a somewhat loaded term — possibly suggesting that something was amiss in the carrying of the pregnancy.” Thus it is misunderstood that someone who was supposed to be “carrying” a pregnancy made a mistake of some kind and mis-carried — and thus a heartbreaking biological event gets cruelly twisted into a personal failure.
That gets coupled with our defensive tendency to moralize misfortune. Something bad happens to others and we don’t want to think about the possibility of that same bad thing happening to us, so we reassure ourselves by choosing to assign blame. They must have done something that caused this. If I don’t do that thing, then this won’t happen to me. After all, I know that I don’t deserve to have this happen to me, and the thought that it could happen to me regardless is unbearable. So rather than accept that heartbreaking misfortune is always a possibility near at hand, it’s easier for me to believe that others suffering such misfortune must have done something to deserve it.
Thus she miscarried because she made a mistake. Something dietary or exercise-related. Or she didn’t take those folic acid supplements like she should have known she was supposed to. She must have done something. It must be her fault.
That tendency only gets amplified when it gets mixed up with theodicy and with half-formed ideas about the sovereignty of a benevolent God. That’s why, I suspect, the awful stories we discussed here recently involving pastors blaming miscarriage on specific personal sins both involved Calvinist pastors. At a popular level, Calvinist/Reformed teaching tends to be understood (or misunderstood) as belief in a God who is intimately, specifically, minutely sovereign. Add to that an emphasis on depravity and utter human worthlessness, and a fierce notion of original sin as an intrinsic state, and you’ve got a recipe for the kind of thing that John Turner witnessed, with a minister praying publicly “that a congregant would recognize the sin that had caused her to have a miscarriage.” Or the awfulness from John Piper that Ben Corey discusses, “No, John Piper, God Doesn’t Kill Babies Because Their Dad Looked at Porn.”
But this isn’t exclusively a pop-Calvinist horror. This same tendency to blame miscarriage on specific personal sins can be found in white evangelical churches from non-Reformed traditions, in churches where a tulip is just a flower. And they do this despite a rather long discussion right there in the Gospel of John reminding us that “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” is always the wrong question to be asking.
Again, I think a lot of this is the just-world fallacy business discussed above. Others’ misfortune is deeply unsettling as a reminder that we are all vulnerable to the same woes, so we have an urgent emotional need to reassure ourselves of our own security and safety by blaming those others for whatever has happened to them. But I also think this cruel reflex specifically involving miscarriage is widespread among white evangelical churches because those communities do not know or understand much about the biology involved.
And I think that’s because those communities cannot allow themselves to know or understand much about it.
Here’s a bit more from that Mayo Clinic page on miscarriage: “About 10 to 20 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage. But the actual number is likely higher because many miscarriages occur so early in pregnancy that a [person] doesn’t realize [they’re] pregnant.”
Known pregnancies, or recognized pregnancies, are those far enough along to be recognized. These are pregnancies that have already survived past the tenuous early days and weeks. Get past that first early stage and there’s still a 10-to-20 percent chance of miscarriage.
But during that initial stage, the body is ruthlessly, unsentimentally efficient, with probably more than half of all pregnancies ending in what is sometimes called a “chemical pregnancy.” Krissi Danielsson has a good, gentle discussion of what that means:
The term chemical pregnancy sounds like a false positive pregnancy test as if you were not really pregnant at all. But the truth is that a chemical pregnancy was indeed a conception and is actually a very early miscarriage; the pregnancy just ended before there was any other evidence of the pregnancy except biochemical changes (ie., increases in hcg levels [detectable on pregnancy tests]).
… Usually, the term “chemical pregnancy” refers only to an early pregnancy loss and not the early stages of a viable pregnancy. In a chemical pregnancy, the hCG levels never rise very high and the [person] usually begins to have bleeding less than a week after having a positive pregnancy test. Doctors believe that chemical pregnancies never fully implant properly and they suspect that most involve chromosomal abnormalities.
… Thus, a chemical pregnancy would be a miscarriage before the fifth week of gestation — or within about week after your missed menstrual period.
This is simply what sometimes happens. It is what is — a matter of fact independent of political or theological interpretations that any of us might wish to decorate it with before or after.
Because most unrecognized pregnancies go unrecognized, we do not have a precise measurement of how many end in a “chemical pregnancy” miscarriage. But the best and most informed estimates are that this occurs in more than half of all conceptions. It may be as high as 70 percent.
That statistic has pastoral implications, because it’s not simply a statistic for the people and families involved. There’s human pain here that pastors should be addressing with something other than cruel condemnation, accusations of sin, and shameful ignorance.
But white evangelicalism has, over the past generation, rendered itself incapable of facing that. It has chosen to render itself unwilling and unable to face that. Because over that past generation — with staggering abruptness and a fiercely enforced dogmatism — white evangelicalism adopted as a central, defining doctrine the belief that human personhood begins at the moment of conception.
We’ve discussed that change here before — see “The ‘biblical view’ that’s younger than the Happy Meal.” As Jonathan Dudley showed in his book Broken Words, we can trace this change in the various editions of prominent evangelical author Norman L. Geisler’s ethics textbook. The current edition teaches that human personhood begins at the moment of fertilization and that therefore abortion is morally indistinguishable from murder and should be illegal.* Geisler’s first edition, published in 1971, said something very different. That edition — written before abortion arose as a partisan political issue — argued that abortion should be permissible, and that “The embryo is not fully human — it is an undeveloped person.”
The point here is to consider what this new doctrine of human personhood from the moment of conception means in light of the fact that more than half of all pregnancies do not survive the first five weeks, and the additional fact that 10-20 percent of all pregnancies fail thereafter.
This means that most “people” die long before they’re ever born. And abortion has nothing to do with that — this is just what happens naturally, all the time.
So evangelicals believe that most people die without ever being born. And for evangelical Christians, death means Heaven or Hell. Evangelicals don’t have the comforting elastic consolation offered by some notion of Limbo or Purgatory for unbaptized Pagan Babies. It’s simply Heaven or Hell. So where do these “people” go?
Again, this is most people — the majority of all the “people” who’ve ever lived. They were never born — never spoke, never inhaled, thought, chose, acted, heard, remembered. They never had a brain capable of entertaining a sinful thought or a body capable of committing a sinful deed. Consigning them all to Hell would seem monstrous (even for those who don’t believe that consigning anyone to Hell would be monstrous). But sending them all off to Heaven would also be unthinkably strange. Entertaining the thought of what that would mean sends us off in a host of wild, baselessly speculative directions.
My point here is not to pursue all the threads of that weird speculation, but only to highlight that one glaring alternative to all of them — the one obvious thought that can be derived from reason rather than wild guessing and that actually has a great deal of biblical and theological support. And that alternative, of course, is to say that human personhood does not begin at the moment of fertilization. To say that an embryo is not a fully human person, but an undeveloped potential person. That status and that potential bears great import. It is ethically and emotionally significant, but not in the same way or of equal status with that of a fully developed, fully human person — a newborn infant, a baby, a toddler, a teenager, or an adult.
Recognition of that can shape — and improve — our ability to respond pastorally to the heartbreak of miscarriage. But recognition of that is not permitted. And so our pastors become cruel.
Better to have cruel pastors than to abandon our cruel politics.
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* And that therefore criminalizing abortion is the pre-eminent and paramount political obligation of all Christians, and that voting for Republicans is mandatory because it is our Christian duty to pack the Supreme Court with anti-abortion justices, and that this duty is paramount and inescapable even if the Republican nominee in question is a lying demagogue, an ignorant buffoon, the son of a Klansman endorsed by the Klan, a corrupt kleptocrat, a promoter of anti-Semitic and racist conspiracy theories, and a philandering sexual predator with a fondness for torture and a contempt for the entire Bill of Rights.