I am a Christian. And I am pro-life.
These two labels don’t always or necessarily go together. They certainly don’t always go together in practice: I know both pro-choice Christians and pro-life secularists. And for many people, the labels don’t necessarily bond in theory since about the only tenet that seems to unite all Christians is belief in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In fact, I wonder sometimes if the tendency among some of us (myself included) to treat “pro-life” and “Christian” like the bride and groom at a shotgun wedding does a disservice to both beliefs.
For one ought to be thoughtfully, not automatically, Christian. And one ought to be thoughtfully pro-life, too.
While I believe that the principles of Christian belief inherently lead to a pro-life ethic, I also believe that the foundation for being pro-life is deeper than any one religious belief system, wider than any one political party, and more all-encompassing than anything I can always or easily wrap my mind around.
As a matter of fact, unlike my opposition to capital punishment, which is rooted in Christian mercy, my opposition to abortion—under any circumstances except those rare times when it is necessary to save the life of the mother—is rooted in social justice, not Christian belief. Although my Christian faith compels me to act in accordance to that sense of social justice, it is not the origin of my pro-life ethic.
For me, although I am no scientist, being pro-life begins with the simple scientific fact that life—by which I mean a biologically complete and unique entity (even an entity that might be programmed to twin)—begins at conception. This is true of all mammals—dogs, cats, horses, and Bengal tigers. I knew someone once who had a purebred dog that got accidentally pregnant by a neighborhood mutt. So as to protect the breeding record of the purebred, her owner had the dog’s pregnancy terminated. I don’t know anyone who would dispute that those were puppies that were aborted. Likewise, human abortion and embryo destruction end the lives of human children. If the lives of puppies and porcupines begin at conception, then the same is true for the human mammal.
The fact cited by many supporters of abortion rights and embryonic research and storage that 50% of fertilized eggs don’t implant anyway isn’t an argument against the personhood of the unborn any more than the fact that 100% of people who ever lived will die is an argument for, well, anything.
Of course, human beings are more than animals. But what we are and who we are begins at this point of mere biological origin. Those who believe that some sort of human “being” (ensoulment, animation, or what have you) takes place sometime after conception are the ones, I would argue, making a faith-based claim. I found my starting position on biology alone.
As a Christian, however, I believe there is more than biology to being human. Whatever it means to be human (and that is certainly a complex matter) as opposed to what it is to be human (for being and meaning are related but not the same), that meaning, certainly, is inextricably tied to our physicality. But I don’t hold to a dualistic view of human nature that separates the spiritual from the physical. In fact, it is telling that ancient definitions of human life that relied on ensoulment some weeks after conception were gendered, privileging the male fetus over the female fetus, whose soul was said to enter the body much later. While I suspect that ensoulment occurs at conception, others believe it takes place at birth, and many others say some place in between. No one really knows. Any attempt to base a definition of human life on spiritual terms alone is mere guesswork and hence quite dangerous.
At the same time, basing a definition or marking point of personhood on a purely physical basis (implantation, blood circulation, quickening, or visible formation) seems equally arbitrary. In fact, the historical record of oppression of others based on some mere physical aspect of persons or people groups (race, disability, skin color, gender) is so disturbing that I truly wonder why those less convinced than I about when human life begins don’t err on the side of caution by erring on the side of life.
But this same point of caution applies to me, too. Even though I believe strongly that those who do not support the protection of human life from its earliest stage are gravely wrong, the same love and grace I have for the unborn must be extended to those with whom I differ, too. Sure, such love and grace might take a variant form (they always do from person to person and situation to situation), but I believe that the same Christian principle that underlies my pro-life ethic—that of God, not me, as the Author of all life—requires that I treat with dignity and respect all of God’s children, including those I believe are wrong.
Karen Swallow Prior, Ph.D., is associate professor of English and Chair of the English and modern languages department at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. She and her husband, Roy, serve as deacons in their church and keepers of their 100-year-old homestead, where they live with their horses and dogs. She is a contributing writer for Christianity Today’s women’s blog, Her.meneutics.