Bringing Common Sense to the Abortion Debate

Bringing Common Sense to the Abortion Debate April 5, 2016

This guest post was written by James Jennings.


I’ve been involved with the abortion issue since the early 1980s and my views have changed over the years. They changed because I spoke respectfully with people and listened to what they had to say. In this process I’ve found that it’s not uncommon that we both moderated our views.

But too often, our nation and churches are unable to civilly address this difficult issue. Discussions about abortion are rarely approached with reason or love. When scripture calls us to “Come, let us reason together,” it isn’t referring to issues that everyone agrees on. God calls us all to be respectful, listen to other views, prayerfully consider opposing views, and use the rational brain that He has provided us with.

Whatever side of the debate you find yourself on, I suggest a few guidelines for productive discussion:

  • It’s useless to argue. If someone makes a categorical statement and it’s obvious they’re unwilling to consider another view, it’s best to leave the persuading up to God. Anyone who is resolute in their views and is unable to show humility needs your prayer (as a fall is likely to come soon).
  • Leave your emotions at the door. There’s a place for passion and there’s a place for reason. Most discussions about abortion are overflowing with the former and missing the latter. The Epistle of James is clear about how dangerous the tongue is — and that applies to the keyboard as well!
  • If your logical, honest, fact-based reasoning isn’t enough to convince others, then consider the possibility that you might be incorrect. Examine your views with a serious and objective eye. If others point out, or you find, errors in your rationale, then either your assumptions are wrong or you’ve failed to adequately think the issue through.

Below are my own views about abortion. I welcome clear, rational, consistent responses from anyone with a different perspective.

In the 1980s I regularly attended a prayer vigil at a local clinic where abortions were performed. Though I never joined in name calling or force-based activities, I believed that all abortions were morally wrong and should be criminalized. I had friends who were arrested during actions by Operation Rescue, but I disagreed with their approach. I prayed about this and tried to find a less angry means of influencing “the other side,” but I was frustrated that I couldn’t find anyone in our camp who could give me an argument that wasn’t full of holes.

Because of the growing incivility of many claiming to be “soldiers for Christ,” I chose to remove myself from the movement, believing instead that the best way to address abortion was through political change.

Unfortunately, most politicians who leverage this issue also promote policies that I am even more certain are immoral. As I watched many of my fellow evangelicals support politicians who promoted these troubling policies, I began to question my own judgement on the issue of abortion.

I still consider myself to be pro-life, but I now believe that neither side is entirely justified in their view, and that the best approach involves compromise. Because of this, I think that abortion should only be a political concern later in the pregnancy.

The anti-abortion side claims that all abortions are murder. This claim is intended to get a reaction and inflame emotions, but is it true? If it is, then society has a responsibility to intervene, but if it isn’t, then it’s a hateful and harmful claim.

In order for abortion to be murder it has to involve a fully human life. The primary question then involves the soul — when does ensoulment occur? Until there’s a soul, it is simply living tissue and arguments about valuing human life don’t directly apply.

Most anti-abortion proponents claim that “life begins at conception.” Though they usually don’t explain this statement, they seem to be saying that the soul enters the fertilized egg. I see a number of logical flaws with that assumption:

  • Scripture doesn’t state it — apart from a few verses that are only tangentially related, the Bible is seemingly silent on this issue.

    The verses often cited in Psalms and Isaiah talk about God knowing someone while they were in their mother’s womb or prior to it. If God knows you before you are conceived then it means He has foreknowledge of us, not that we are fully human at conception.

    People sometimes mention John leaping in Elizabeth’s womb, but it’s likely that she was well along in her pregnancy at that point (and it’s important to remember that Elizabeth’s and Mary’s pregnancies weren’t exactly typical).

    Exodus 21:22 is a questionable verse sometimes used by the pro-choice side. There is genuine disagreement about whether the verse is talking about the lethal loss of a child or not.

  • What has the traditional church view been on this issue? Since evangelicals and Catholics today treat abortion as an area of doctrinal agreement, you might assume that the Judeo-Christian tradition has always been of like mind.

the Jewish tradition is that life doesn’t begin until natural delivery and the Talmud teaches that a fetus isn’t fully human.

    The early Church Fathers rarely addressed the issue even though abortion was practiced in their time. Augustine did address the question of “ensoulment,” initially claiming that the soul didn’t enter until the child took its first breath. He based this on the Genesis account that God breathed “into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” He also noted that the Greek word for breath has the same root as spirit. He eventually moderated his view to believe that the soul entered at “quickening,” when the mother first felt movement.

    Still, there was no official view or condemnation of abortion for the first 16 centuries of the Christian church. It wasn’t until the 17th century that a new pope first stated that abortion was a sin and forbade it. The next pope threw out that claim. The following pope made opposition to abortion the norm and it’s been the view of the Roman Catholic Church since the 18th century. American evangelicals have adopted a similar view within the last generation.

    The Greek Orthodox Church says that it opposes abortion, but doesn’t have an official teaching on the issue. They quote St. Cyril of Alexandria as saying that ensoulment is “a mystery, known to God alone.”

To believe that life begins at conception makes little logical sense. I don’t claim that God’s ways always make sense from our perspective, but if those opposed to abortion believe that all fetuses and children go to heaven, then those of us who have breathed will be in an infinitesimal minority there.

It’s my understanding that nearly 90% of all fertilized eggs never survive to delivery. It appears that the natural order of things is that most pregnancies end without the mother even realizing she was pregnant. I don’t understand why things are this way, but many more fertilized eggs are aborted by nature than by human intervention.

Given the biblical ambiguity regarding ensoulment, the varied traditional interpretations, and the biological facts about conception, it seems clear to me that abortion is an issue for which there is no definitive answer, only strong opinion. When you combine this lack of certainty with the heated emotion of those who are convinced they’re doing “God’s work,” it’s difficult to engage in meaningful dialogue.

I have lost dear friends simply because I asked them to explain the reasoning that justified them calling people murderers. I honestly wanted to hear a well-constructed and thoughtful response. What I got instead was the realization that some friendships are not deep enough to ask honest questions.

On the other hand, I strongly disagree with those who believe that any form of abortion should be acceptable. Partial birth abortions (rare, and would be even more rare if earlier options were made available) and abortion after viability cross a moral line. The problem is that a small minority on the “pro-choice” side militantly demand the absolute right to abortion at virtually any time and under any circumstance, while the vast majority on the anti-abortion side are equally adamant in their opposition to any and all abortions.

If the anti-abortion side had chosen in the early 1970s to seek compromise rather than outright prohibition, I think few abortions today would take place after the fourth month. Even if abortion is outlawed (and I now oppose blanket prohibition) I’m old enough and know enough history to realize that prohibitions don’t work, they only force things into the shadows.

As someone who is pro-life, I believe that the best approach to reducing the number of abortions is not by making them all illegal, but by working with one another to reach practical solutions. I also realize that I have little right to legislate the matter. I’m not a woman, and I’m not going to impregnate anyone, so all I can do is express my hope and encourage rational, calm, and loving discussion. If we can start having real conversations about abortion, we might be able to make progress, but few people seem willing to give their anger and rage to God in order to find a better path forward.

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