“Life” issues have once again become extremely politically divisive. Claiming to be either “for the women” or “for the babies,” turns empathy for only one life into single-issue voting on both sides of the political spectrum. Instead of reducing abortion access to a political football — and even into competing billboards on national highways — we all should seek to expand and deepen the conversation, especially Christians, who should not be beholden to right or left but rather to a consistent ethic of life for women and children.
It always astounds, and to be honest, angers me how the same legislators who focus only on abortion pay little or no attention to lives and needs of women and children: They are usually the first to cut programs and protections that benefit poor families, limit access to contraception, and oppose workplace policies that would support parents.
The brutal Alabama abortion ban put forward by the extreme right — which even Pat Robertson thinks goes “too far” — set off the latest flashpoint in this ongoing battle, and for good reason: Among many other extremes, it completely ignores the pain and suffering of women who become pregnant through rape or incest. By refusing exceptions for rape or incest, the Alabama law would mean children would be forced to give birth.
Christian writer and activist Shannon Dingle shared her experience in a powerful essay for USA Today:
I need you to know that any child’s pregnancy is the result of rape, because no child can consent to sex. I need you to know that any child’s pregnancy is traumatic, no matter the outcome, because little girls aren’t supposed to have full wombs. I need you to know that I didn’t know I had options, because I knew girls who got pregnant were called sluts and girls who had abortions were called murderers.
These state-level laws would endanger the lives of women, especially women of color, and some threaten to lock up doctors for the rest of their lives. All the data show that banning abortions doesn’t end them — rather, it puts the lives of many women in deep jeopardy.
Of course, it doesn’t help our polarization on abortion when some Democratic state legislators seek to relax restrictions even on late-term abortions or when the extreme left refuses to acknowledge the existence of “pro-life Democrats” and refuses to embrace the “safe, legal, and rare” approach to abortion that the party used to embrace.
How do we build cooperation on all sides to achieve the goal of reducing abortions — instead of criminalizing women and their doctors for often heartbreaking choices — in ways that would help us all find common ground? While you can’t resolve an issue as complex as abortion in a couple of paragraphs, the denial of a moral conversation comes at the detriment of all. The late writer and thinker Rachel Held Evans put this well years ago, in a way I still think of often:
I think a lot of progressive Christians like myself, eager to distance ourselves from some of the rhetoric and policies of the Republican brand of the pro-life movement, shy away from talking about abortion, when our call to do justice and love mercy demand that we speak and act to address this issue, even though it may be more complicated than we originally thought … It seems to me that Christians who are more conservative and Christians who are more liberal, Christians who are politically pro-life and Christians who are politically pro-choice, should be able to come together on this and advocate for life in a way that takes seriously the complexities involved and that honors both women and their unborn children.
Of course, she was right. The state-level attempted challenges to Roe v. Wade focus solely on the unborn child. To be truly pro-life, policymakers must expand their concern to the mother — supporting and empowering her to have access to the resources and services she needs to make the appropriate choices for herself — choices that in many cases could lead to a dramatic reduction in abortions. In practice, this would look like: affordable health care and child care, access to affordable and nutritious food, affordable housing, good paying jobs, access to quality education, and, when needed, critical social safety net programs.
For some on the pro-choice side, there is too often an unwillingness to acknowledge and allow space for those who have legitimate moral and ethical concerns about abortion. I’ve often heard some on the left tell me that committing to “reducing abortion” implies a moral taint. Yes, it does; abortion does raise moral issues, and plenty of Americans across the political spectrum agree.
Many in the faith community do regard abortion as a moral issue, in protection of both women and developing life, and part of a “consistent ethic of life” and “seamless garment” of concern for the many threats to human life and dignity. While many of us don’t support the criminalization of abortion, we are committed to reducing abortions by supporting women with affordable health care, access to contraceptives, access to affordable child care, nutrition, job, and employment opportunities, and social services — which all the data prove can dramatically reduce abortion. Focusing our conversation and policy around reduction of abortions is a good and worthy goal, and one that both sides could support.
As E.J. Dionne, a progressive and a Catholic, put it:
Whether or not you believe that the fetus is a human life from the moment of conception, a human being is the result at the end of nine months of pregnancy. So, it shouldn’t be hard for even the most pro-choice person to understand why those who oppose abortion see it as a matter of overwhelming moral importance.
At the same time, only women bear the physical burdens of pregnancy and our society, as currently constituted, demands far more of mothers than fathers. So, it should not be hard for even the most ardent pro-lifers to understand why women who advocate abortion rights see control over their own reproduction as inextricably linked to gender equality.
I share the right-to-life movement’s desire to reduce the number of abortions. But I also agree with the pro-choice movement that making abortion illegal or virtually impossible to obtain will only place women’s lives in jeopardy. … The bottom line: If you truly want to defend the right to life, support women and lift the poor.
We have to move beyond judgment and recrimination. Rather, we need a time of dialogue and understanding — for reconsideration of what it means to be deeply committed to “abundant life.” In seeking after that truth and striving after consistency in this issue, we will come face-to-face with the need for reconciliation between battling ideological forces.