How We Talk About Life — and Death | Sojourners

How We Talk About Life — and Death

Planned Parenthood Videos Reveal Our Collective Brokenness
Living cells, mixed media artwork.
Living cells, mixed media artwork. Ruslan Kokarev /

It’s not often words escape us. But in the aftermath of the now viral recording(s) raising concerns over whether Planned Parenthood seeks profit from aborted fetal tissue — and the crassness with which its representative discusses how to accomplish it without “crushing” the tissue/organs — that’s where we were left: with no words. We confess to being at a complete loss of what to say in the face of humanity’s brokenness.

Beyond the ethical questions of how an organization receives payment for tissue or the debates around the potential benefits of the patients’ donations of fetal tissue, the videos are an in-your-face reminder of our culture’s blatant disrespect for life.

That disregard is not unique in our society, of course. Journalism: “If it bleeds, it leads.” Medicine: “There’s nothing more to be done. She’s a vegetable.” Justice system: “He’s gonna fry.” War: “Light ‘em up.” Uncomfortable questions about life and death and ethics are best papered over with emotionless cliché, obviously.

As a society and as individuals, when we fail to recognize the imago dei in others, we trend further away from our uniquely human capacity to empathize and closer to isolated, analytical, and almost robotic assessments of value.

In 2008, Sojourners magazine senior associate editor Rose Marie Berger wrote about the Fresh Kills Landfill, which served as a mass grave for hundreds of unidentified victims of 9/11, and the ethics around how we treat our dead. She wrote (emphasis ours):

“Sept.11 has been excessively sentimentalized on one hand, which prevents genuine grieving and authentic resurrection. On the other hand, there is the obscenity of the Fresh Kills landfill where the bodies are kept hidden—because to look at them truthfully may raise questions about America’s existential innocence.”

Those questions linger. How do you show respect for the vessel that once held human life when you don’t — or can’t — recognize it as such?

For all of its nearly 45-year history, Sojourners has been unapologetically pro-life. We advocate for a consistent ethic of life, a holistic respect for all life, because we know we are all created in the image of God.

So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. — Genesis 1:27, NRSV

That image of God extends far and wide; we don’t get to pick and choose who carries the badge. The imago dei is found in the man on death row; in our sisters and brothers marching every day to remind our broken criminal justice system that #BlackLivesMatter; in the father working to create a better life for his children amid constant fear of deportation; in the parents of four living below the poverty line who rely on access to free health services and contraception; in the child knit together by the creator in the womb.

While we constantly seek imperfect solutions to serve a broken world, it’s important to remember that so many of these issues are complicated. Our fragmented, polarized media, political parties, and lobbyists backed by big money on all sides would have you think otherwise. But even survey data will tell you there’s a whole lot more overlap on life issues than the pundits admit. According to Public Religion Research Institute and a recent Vox poll, 18 percent of Americans and 27 percent of millennials say they are both “pro-life” and “pro-choice.” Twenty-one percent and 22 percent, respectively, say they are neither. Most Americans want to work together holistically to reduce the number of abortions rather than work against each other fruitlessly.

This is not to give in to a notion that the morality is ambiguous, but the solutions — not easily encapsulated within a divisive label — are complex. Common sense and the common good exist somewhere in a space not yet found by the extreme left and right. A number of other pro-life Christian feminists have written to this effect:

“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.” —Rachel Held Evans

“I want equal pay and decent healthcare for low-income women that includes contraception and supportive partners and a wide availability of midwives and supportive birth environments and real material support for children who are differently abled in mind or body and at least a year of maternity leave and on and on and on. … The best way to save babies is to support women well.” —Sarah Bessey

It’s OK to be outraged by the Planned Parenthood videos, though beware: it wanes, and the cyclical nature of the outrage machine exhausts even the most dedicated. It’s OK to be slow to respond and take time to reflect after reading all the facts. It’s OK to want to point fingers, but, as Christian ethicist and Sojourners board member David Gushee notes: “You know who is really responsible …? We are. All of us.”

Gushee rightly points to the ambiguous sexual ethics of a society that values convenience over responsibility and restraint, but we would also add that we are all responsible for the waning import we place on human life. We are both Christians, but you don’t have to be a Christian to see inherent value housed within each being. We are both parents, but you don’t need to have a child to see the miracle that unfolds throughout the human lifespan from gestation through death. We’ve both sat hand-in-hand with women after making seemingly impossible decisions, but you don’t have to be best friends with someone who’s been through the experience to treat them with respect and dignity.

Yes, this is on us — all of us. It’s on us for how we talk about both life and each other. It’s on us for how we short change real discussion on human life and death. And it’s on us for giving into our basest nature to become like gods and thus gloss over the true image of God in each and every individual. A casual conversation over a glass of wine discussing how to protect fetal organs during an abortion* is jolting to the heart, soul, and mind. But it points to the deepest concern of how we have come to value life in our society. Lord have mercy. And God forgive us.

*Editor's Note: An earlier version incorrectly used the words "for sale."