In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization overturning Roe v. Wade, some people are wondering who’s up and who’s down in terms of getting or claiming power.
And while those kinds of people are usually the loudest, they don’t represent most people who are asking the question “What do we do to carry a pro-life vision into caring for women and children in crisis in our communities?”
For others, the question itself is the problem.
Critics will point out that many of the states most likely to restrict abortion (such as the plaintiff in this case, my home state of Mississippi) also have high rates of infant mortality, higher likelihood of women dying in childbirth, and higher rates of hunger and poverty. They will also emphasize that these states often have the thinnest social safety nets for people in poverty or without health insurance.
Like many others, churches are asking, “How do we care for these women and children?” But those with a cynical view of pro-life Christians see this as a deflection from the issue of government policies that would benefit poor and struggling women and their children—those most vulnerable to the abortion industry.
For some, the cynicism comes from seeing the abortion debate as only a strategy to motivate voters. But the typical pro-life Christian asking about the next steps of ministry is quite likely already working to serve such women and children—whether by giving financial assistance, helping to get children out of the foster care system, or repairing families torn apart by substance abuse.
Typical pro-life Christians are almost never the people “owning” their political or cultural opponents on social media. After all, they’re usually engaged in persuading others to see the value of vulnerable human life and to not give in to the “solutions” offered by the abortion industry or the pressure of a boyfriend or husband or parents who want the “problem” just to go away.
Pro-life believers involved in this work don’t demonize the women they seek to persuade; they serve them.
In any given community, I almost never have to look in different places to find the people who lead the day-by-day work of on-the-ground pro-life ministry and those who help orphaned or hungry children. The same goes for those who care for refugees and immigrants in need of clothing or shelter and who help women escape abusive situations.
Those calling attention to the vulnerable are almost always the very ones who are serving them and equipping others to do the same—and they usually transcend the expected tribal boundary markers to do so.
The cynics might say, “Yes, but that’s not nearly enough,” and that would be fair.
Some people who oppose social safety nets for the poor of various kinds will say, “If the churches were doing their job, we wouldn’t need the government or society to get involved.” In response, the cynics will point to the data—that even if every church were doing everything possible, we would not eradicate poverty—to suggest that such talk is about charity, not policy.
Even aside from such skepticism, the church wanting to care for the poor might look at the same charts and wonder, What can we really do to change any of this? This sense of despair can then lead to inaction and inward focus.
But neither despair nor cynicism is seeing the issue rightly.
Indeed, we need policy changes to better care for vulnerable women and children. Policies like this, radically different in approach, are coming from such divergent sources as democratic socialist Elizabeth Bruenig and Republican U.S. senator Mitt Romney. The merits of these and many other policy reforms will be debated along prudential lines, determining whether they can deliver on the help they promise.
The longer term, though, will require more than even the best solutions policy can bring. It will require convicted consciences that care for the vulnerable people in need—both born and unborn.
Church ministries that help women find alternatives to abortion, assist those women in caring for their children, combat poverty and homelessness, and reform an overburdened and often malfunctioning foster care system are—first and foremost—about serving individual lives.
The key pro-life insight is that a life’s worth is not about power, “viability,” or state of dependence. Each life is, as the saying goes, an entire world. But it is also important to understand the way such care shapes and forms our consciences to pay attention to those we might otherwise keep invisible.
Eboo Patel would not agree with me on the abortion issue, but he does understand how social reform movements work. In his new book, We Need to Build, Patel makes the case that civic institutions at the local level can lead to change at the national level.
He points out the example of Jane Addams’s Hull House, which cared for the poor and immigrants on the West Side of Chicago around the turn of the 20th century. Through Hull House, Patel argues, Addams not only cared for thousands of people, many of them children, but she also led the house to be a kind of “laboratory” that showed the rest of the world what was possible.
“For virtually every problem that they discovered in Chicago, they modeled a concrete solution,” Patel writes. Those who thought adolescents in such environments were doomed to delinquency and crime saw how Hull House changed young people’s lives.
Those who expected people to gather only in saloons saw a different model. Those who thought different ethnic groups or classes could not find common ground saw those tensions overcome at Hull House. Those who thought women didn’t have the intellect to lead saw a thriving example of Addams doing just that.
The fact that local presence can shape consciences by modeling a different reality should not surprise us as Christians. The late theologian (and Christianity Today’s first editor in chief) Carl F. H. Henry argued that the church is called not just to evangelical proclamation but also to evangelical demonstration. The church, he argued, is to “mirror in microcosm” what the future kingdom of God will be like.
“Never is the church more effective in doing so than when she provides a living example in her own ranks of what new life in Christ implies, and never is she more impotent than when she imposes new standards on the world that she herself neglects,” Henry wrote. “A social ethic is not some kind of bureaucratic imposition by the church upon the world, but a mirroring to the world of the joys and benefits of serving the living God.”
That’s what the church of the New Testament did in caring for widows—not just those of the majority culture but those of Greek heritage too (Acts 6:1–7). James, the brother of Jesus, sought justice for the vulnerable poor being harmed (James 5:1–6) and called for the church to embody a picture of the coming kingdom in which the poor are equal heirs by faith (2:1–14). This starts, James wrote, with a choice as seemingly trivial as who sits where in church.
There is real power in churches who not only call the government to do its job in protecting the most vulnerable among us from the womb outward—but who also embody what it means to love in both word and deed those others classify as “problem pregnancies” or “burdens on society.”
Of course, no church can do everything. And learning how to serve people effectively involves failing and persevering in the search for what works. But a church that lives out a pro-life vision consistently and self-sacrificially will be a catalyst—not only for saving and serving countless lives, but also for awakening and reshaping many consciences in the long term.
Russell Moore leads the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today.