We live in a soundbite culture, where slogans and labels have all-but replaced rational thought and argument. A prime example of this cultural trend are the labels “pro-life” and “pro-choice.” The division between these groups makes it such that they are merely two ships passing in the night. It’s no secret that the “overly religious right” and “all too loose left” appear to be primarily concerned with straw-manning their opponent’s points and giving catchy taglines about what constitutes “real” feminism in 280 characters. One rallies on behalf of the child, while the other rallies in defense of the mother—and neither seems to fully address the opposite sides’ concerns.
Before divulging my opinion, there’s a level of common ground that should be established. The first is the personhood of the infant. I do indeed believe a fetus is a human life, and that the government legislating which stages of development warrant a right life is a dangerous, slippery slope. Furthermore, I do not expect a monolithic response, nor do I wish to disregard strongly held moral convictions. Rather, my aim is to share my own inner dialogue on this debate and to raise unaddressed quandaries within an often emotionally charged conversation.
For me, it was a profound moment when I realized that the abortion debate in modern culture revolves less around morality than it does around the agency of a third-party. There are compelling arguments for the “pro-life” position that focus on morality, but even those arguments center around what is moral for third parties to do: is it moral for me to allow this? Is it moral for the government to allow this? Is it moral for the church to stand by and watch? I cannot deny that these questions are significant and important to ask, but simply put, the third party is not the actor with which we ought to be concerned.
No third party holds primary responsibility in situations of pregnancy. Rather, it concerns the mother and child. As previously established, the unborn child is a person and as such does possess a right to life. However, it is important to note that just as the child has a right to life, so to, the mother has a right to her life and her body as well. While the child has a right to life, does the fetus have a right to another’s body to obtain that life?
While no analogy is perfect, Judith Jarvis Thomson in her article, “A Defense of Abortion”, gives the now infamous analogy of being kidnapped and permanently hooked up to a machine in order to provide life-saving support to a terminally ill celebrity against your will. Thomson uses this analogy to illustrate that allowing your body to be used in order to help someone else is a good thing, but it is not an obligation. In other words, the celebrity does not have a right to use you in order to sustain themself. It may be a kind and good thing to offer up your body for another’s right to life, but it is not required of you unless you accept the responsibility. The question then becomes if the mother has the responsibility to grant the child its right to life through the use of her body for nine months. It is a clash of foundational rights: life and autonomy. It is this exact core of the conflict that often goes unaddressed: what is the mother’s actual responsibility?
We see the mother’s responsibility fluctuate again and again through common situations. The majority of people that espouse pro-life ideology even agree that in cases of rape or under the threat of death, abortion is permissible. Now to create an entire ideology off of the special case is an obvious fallacy, but such situations are incredibly telling of the nature of responsibility. Very few would impose the burden of a pregnancy that resulted from rape onto a mother. The rationale behind this decision is that the mother had no choice in what happened to her and therefore cannot be held responsible for the pregnancy.
Yet in the same breath pro-lifers turn around and argue that women must accept the responsibility in all other circumstances, despite not knowing the intimate details and not giving her a choice in the matter. They, in essence, remove the choice and responsibility of the woman by making the choice for her. Therefore, my contention is simple: if you wish for a woman to take responsibility for her child’s life, then give her the responsibility. The question of morality then comes down to the pregnant woman’s determination. Which is a far more legitimate distribution given her role as both the actor and the person who holds the greatest knowledge about the specifics of her pregnancy.
If people feel strongly about choosing life, then it is equally effective to meet the mother where she is at and offer support through her situation, even encouraging her (when appropriate) to keep the child. I believe that this is the true role of the church. Not to legislate morality from far away and suppress free will and responsibility, but rather to meet people in their current state.
Churches rake in massive sums from financial offerings every year. Yet how often do you see churches using that money to support families with no means to raise children? How often do you see churches believing women when it comes to cases of rape? How often do you see the church truly embracing women who have made a mistake? Now conversely, how often do you see churches load up buses to go to pro-life marches and to stand on a soapbox to condemn abortion? Disproportionate, isn’t it?
As it stands in the status quo, mainstream Evangelical Christianity isolates both women that have abortions as well as teenage or single mothers. The “pro-life” message seems only to be communicated from a political platform; that is what the church must change. How can the church practically better these people’s lives? The church must recognize its necessary role in destigmatizing single motherhood and fulfilling the biblical commandment of providing physical support to those around them that are in need. That is how we show love and embody what it means to be “pro-life”, not through removing responsibility and the suppression of choice.