There was a time in the not-too-distant past when opposition to abortion united evangelical Christians across the political spectrum. Along with political conservatives, left-leaning advocates for the poor like Ron Sider spoke out against abortion.
In 1987, he published Completely Pro-Life as an explanation for why Christians should support a consistent life ethic. Sojourners magazine, the leading periodical of the evangelical Left, published several pieces against abortion in the 1980s.
But that moment is gone. This summer, when the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade ignited a political firestorm, the abortion debate became even more partisan than it already was, and some progressive evangelicals found it difficult to harmonize their social justice commitments and defense of women’s rights with antiabortion advocacy.
Though still claiming to be “consistently pro-life,” Sojourners reacted to the SCOTUS decision by publishing an editorial titled “Women’s Needs Are Holy. Overturning Roe Ignores That.” Another one of their editorials called for churches to help women find safe spaces for abortion.
If this is true of some Christian magazines and organizations, it’s probably even more true of Christians in the pews. Evangelical pastors who believe in the sanctity of unborn life know this better than anyone.
Those with urban congregations in blue states (or blue cities) have progressive-leaning attendees who now associate the pro-life label only with red-state Republicans, whom they sometimes view as Trump-supporting misogynists. Those church leaders may wonder if it’s even possible to talk about unborn life in a way that won’t drive their churches’ social justice–oriented progressives away.
Now more than ever, it’s important to remember two things: The church’s concern for the unborn long predates the Republican Party, and the pro-life movement is not an invention of American conservatism.
There is a way to defend the pro-life cause without falling into political partisanship. But doing so will require us to move our conversations about abortion out of the framework of American nationalism and into a broader, global Christian tradition that connects concern for the unborn with compassion for the marginalized.
With that in mind, here are five reasons why Christians who care about social justice should oppose abortion:
1. Concern for the unborn unites us with a 2,000-year Christian tradition of viewing human life as a unique creation of God.
Both abortion and infanticide were common in the ancient Roman world, but opposition to these practices distinguished ancient Christians from their pagan neighbors.
Some of the earliest extrabiblical Christian writings we possess—including the second-century works Didache and Epistle of Barnabas—condemn abortion. Though not all branches of the church have consistently opposed the practice, both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church view it as a grave sin.
The pro-life cause, then, unites evangelicals with historic Christian teaching and the largest branches of Christianity throughout the world. It also unites us with a biblical witness that emphasizes the conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit as the moment when God himself became united with humanity through the Incarnation.
The assertion that our lives belong ultimately to God—not to the state, not to the community, and not even to our parents—is a radically liberating Christian declaration that applies even to the preborn.
2. Concern for the unborn is a countercultural witness against a contemporary Western society that devalues children.
It was no accident that support for legalized abortion in both the United States and the larger Western world increased at the precise moment when concerns about overpopulation prompted many people in North America and Europe to view children and larger families as a social or ecological imposition.
A Christian witness against abortion is a countercultural protest against a society that too often treats children as an afterthought, a luxury, or even a burden.
The Christian responds to the early pro-choice slogan “every child a wanted child” with the affirmation that every child is already a wanted child in God’s sight. We believe the church has a moral duty to value those children and affirm the fact that they’re wanted. A baby is not merely a choice but instead a divine image-bearer—a creation of God with an eternal future.
3. Pro-life advocacy is a countercultural affirmation that women deserve better options than abortion.
“Do women want abortion?” asks the Orthodox writer Frederica Mathewes-Green. “Not like she wants a Porsche or an ice cream cone. Like an animal caught in a trap, trying to gnaw off its own leg, a woman who seeks an abortion is trying to escape a desperate situation by an act of violence and self-loss. Abortion is not a sign that women are free, but a sign that they are desperate.”
If Mathewes-Green is correct, the real pro-woman stance is not to advocate for greater abortion availability but rather to release the trap in which so many mothers (especially poor ones) are caught.
Seventy-five percent of women who get abortions are living either below the poverty line or just barely above it. The majority are already mothers of at least one child but find it difficult to contemplate welcoming another child into their home.
Instead of merely giving these women the opportunity to terminate their pregnancies, pro-life advocates insist they deserve something better. They find a way to empower these women so they can leave the trap they’re facing without metaphorically gnawing off their own legs.
4. Pro-life advocacy unites us with a global movement of people in lower-income, non-Western nations who are resisting the individualistic message of the secular West.
Abortion is illegal or heavily restricted in 50 of Africa’s 54 countries, and some African pro-life activists are sharply critical of Western efforts to make it legal.
Most “developing nations don’t want abortion,” argues Obianuju Ekeocha, the Nigerian biochemist who founded Culture of Life Africa. But Western international family planning agencies often ignore these countries’ traditional values. She views their actions as a form of “neo-colonialism” and “a distraction to the development project that should be happening in developing countries.”
Instead of providing food, water, and education, Western-funded family planning agencies assume that what Africa really needs is fewer people—and Ekeocha resents this.
Africans themselves value children as a “gift,” Ekeocha says, even when they are experiencing deep poverty. She believes the pro-life movement affirms this traditional African value.
5. Pro-life activism is a way to defend the value of those with severe disabilities, who are the most likely to be victims of abortion in an age of widespread prenatal screening tests.
In Iceland, there are now only one or two children with Down Syndrome born each year—not because the country has found a cure but because nearly every mother there whose unborn child tests positive for the condition opts to have an abortion.
What’s happening in an extreme version in Iceland is happening to a slightly lesser degree throughout the Western world.
While it is certainly true that a child with Down Syndrome requires an extraordinary amount of care, a Christian witness against abortion is in part a declaration that the world needs all the people God created—including those with Down Syndrome and even more severe disabilities.
It’s a declaration that people cannot be “scrapped like so many defective parts that fail to pass inspection at the end of a production line,” as Georgetown University philosophy professor Germain Grisez wrote in 1970.
These five reasons for opposing abortion might inspire some people to give the pro-life cause a second look, but if we want our witness to be genuinely persuasive to progressives, we need to make sure we’re not simply invoking a few progressive platitudes as window-dressing for a conservative movement. We need to make personal sacrifices to care for the marginalized people we insist are valuable.
If we declare that low-income women facing crisis pregnancies deserve better than abortion, we need to work hard to release them from the financial and relational traps they’re experiencing. If we insist that children with Down Syndrome are valuable, we need to make sure we’re offering support to parents who have undertaken the challenge to care for those kids.
If we say that children are valuable, we need to treat them as valuable in every sphere of our lives, whether they’re preborn or already born. And if we say that we’re pro-life because it connects us to the witness of the Bible, historic Christian teaching, and the global church, we need to make sure we’re open to that witness in every area of our lives.
As we witness to progressives in our midst, perhaps it’s especially important for us to genuinely care about women’s rights. What are we doing, for example, to promote better family leave policies in the workplace, or childcare options that empower women and promote their economic security?
Over time, we may well find that a lot of what passes for pro-life politics in this country is really not consistent with these larger values and will have to be jettisoned. And Christians who are concerned about the unborn may well disagree among themselves over exactly how to translate those values into law—which means that many pro-lifers may not necessarily support all antiabortion political initiatives that are labeled “pro-life.”
But the core pro-life message—that unborn human beings have great value in God’s sight and deserve our support—is one that all Christians need to affirm, regardless of our political ideology.
It’s a deeply countercultural message even for political conservatives—which is all the more reason that progressive evangelicals should embrace it in today’s partisan environment.
Daniel K. Williams is a professor of history at the University of West Georgia and the author of Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade.
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