“Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble.” – 1 Peter 3:8
I am still processing last Friday’s decision by SCOTUS. Today, I was reminded of a reflection written by a Disciples of Christ minister and former professor of theology at Harvard. This was written on May 10th, after the initial leak of what has now come to pass. I am sharing this reflection in its entirety and it is well worth your time.
A Brief Theology of Abortion by Matthew Myer Boulton, Creative Director at SALT
The first thing to do when articulating a Christian theology of abortion rights is to acknowledge at the outset, with empathy and respect, that there are understandable theological reasons to be opposed to abortion. This kind of empathy and respect is always fitting, on any topic, but it is all the more so today, on this particular topic, living as we do in an age when empathetic respect across lines of division is in painfully short supply.
Accordingly, let’s begin with this: life is precious. The Bible includes passages that speak of life in the womb in poignant and intimate terms. It is understandable to believe that human life begins at conception, or in any case quite early in the course of a pregnancy. Down through the centuries, some great theological teachers have taught that abortion is morally unacceptable. To believe, on Christian theological grounds, that in certain circumstances abortion is wrong is a conviction worthy of respect.
And now a second step: life is precious. A pregnant person’s life is precious. Part of what makes human life precious is the dignity and freedom to safeguard one’s own health and bodily integrity, and to determine one’s own future. Jesus is silent on the subjects of abortion and reproductive practices generally, and the Bible includes passages that suggest that human life begins with a person’s first breath, and that point toward a moral distinction between the status of a pregnant person and the status of the developing fetus (for example, Exodus 21:22-23). It is understandable to believe that human life begins at birth, or at the point when survival outside the womb is possible, or in any case quite far along in the course of a pregnancy. Down through the centuries, some great theological teachers (St. Augustine and St. Aquinas among them) have taught that abortion is not homicide in the early stages of pregnancy because the fetus is not yet a person. To believe, on Christian theological grounds, that in certain circumstances human beings have the right to choose an abortion is a conviction worthy of respect.
And then a third step: life is precious. Part of what makes human life precious is freedom of conscience, the God-given right to discern one’s own answers to the deepest, most personal, most mysterious questions human beings encounter – particularly when they pertain to topics about which thoughtful, reasonable, faithful people disagree. In the intricate, mind-boggling symbiosis of pregnancy, when does one become two? When does human life, with all its rights and responsibilities, actually commence? How should other factors be weighed in the decision, including the pregnant person’s health, her age (particularly in cases of rape or incest, she may be as young as 11 or 12), her life circumstances, and her freedom to shape her own future? These questions are simply too complicated, too context-sensitive, to settle once and for all. Each of us must sort them out for ourselves as best we can – and when it comes to abortion, no-one should ever be coerced onto a path in conflict with their convictions, abrogating their God-given freedom of conscience. Life is too precious for that.
To frame abortion rights in this way is distinctly theological, but it is also distinctly American. The “freedom of religion” with which the United States Constitution’s Bill of Rights begins employs an older, more spacious definition of “religion” than the one common today. As it turns out, James Madison borrowed the idea from Thomas Jefferson’s influential “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.”
Slaveholder that he was, Jefferson was at best a compromised champion of liberty in his own life – but his account of religious freedom is nonetheless radical. It amounts to a declaration of what he called “freedom of mind,” prohibiting the State from interfering in each citizen’s work of forming her deepest values, her moral compass, her way of looking at the world. And strikingly, Jefferson built his case for religious pluralism on a theological appeal, arguing that “Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free” by eschewing divine “coercions,” so too the State should refrain from coercions in matters of religious conviction, which Jefferson broadly construed as “the field of opinion,” “modes of thinking,” “principles,” and “sentiments.”
In other words, if God doesn’t impose orthodoxy on us by force, then we dare not impose our opinions about orthodoxy on each other. On the contrary, force should be excluded altogether from the intimate arena of belief and disbelief, particularly when the questions before us are genuinely complex and mysterious. “Coerced belief” is a contradiction in terms – and that is precisely why Madison began the Bill of Rights with “freedom of religion”: the freedom of mind – which is to say, the freedom to make up one’s own mind on the most challenging, personal matters of our lives – is where genuine freedom begins.
Finally, with all of this in view, a fourth step: In 1967, six years before Roe v. Wade, an ambitious group of American clergy in New York City – mostly white, male, and Protestant – began a crusade focused on abortion. Fiercely committed, they organized local, regional, and then national networks, forming chapters in 38 states and recruiting some 3000 clergy to their cause. That cause? Helping women – including poor women and women of color – obtain access to safe, humane, affordable abortion procedures.
Calling themselves the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, these pastors and rabbis assisted hundreds of thousands of women over those six years – perhaps as many as half a million. They did so not in spite of their faith, but precisely because of it, summing up their mission in three words: “to offer compassion.”
More than fifty years later, though so much has changed and so much remains the same, “compassion” remains the right word, the right gesture, the right spirit, and the right way forward in this age of vitriol and division. Compassion for those with whom we disagree; compassion for those who make different decisions than the ones we would make; and in particular, compassion for anyone struggling with whether to continue or to end a pregnancy.
Compassion, not coercion. Humility, not imposition. The defining questions of abortion are as vexed and ambiguous, as personal and passionate as ever. And it’s precisely these ambiguous, personal qualities that can and should provoke us to clarity: each family, each person must be afforded the liberty, the God-given “freedom of mind,” and the practical, neighborly, and legal arrangements necessary to decide for themselves which path to take. Life is too precious to do otherwise.