The Bible and Culture

James Howell is known for his thoughtful theological commentary on sensitive moral issues, and abortion is no different. While I do not agree with every last syllable in what follows, there are some very helpful insights here, especially in regard to how America has handled abortion differently, and in some ways less helpfully and humanely, than other Western nations. See what you think. BW3



No moral dilemma in our generation has spilled over into the political arena the way abortion has. Since Roe vs. Wade in 1973, mortified Christians have hurled themselves into political activism, and every candidate is compelled to say something on the matter. One-issue voters most often pinpoint abortion as their one issue – by far; whether a candidate is pro-life or pro-choice is the litmus test for countless American voters.

How might we think theologically about abortion? No one really “supports” abortion or thinks they should increase. The shrill rhetoric is a contest waged over “rights.” But Christians do not dwell on the very category of “rights”; we believe in gifts and responsibilities. There is no “right to life”; life is a gift from God – which is good enough reason not to take life. There is no “right to choose,” or a “right to control my own body”; my body belongs to God, so I am responsible to use it in holy ways, pleasing to God. From a Christian perspective, the pro-life side enjoys virtually every theological advantage.

Lots of people with whom I’ve spoken have a strong opinion on the subject, but yet are weary of the debate. Could it be that the conversation isn’t really a conversation, but a lot of shouting, shrill, with an all or nothing insistence that seems irresolvable? “Compromise” seems to be a dirty word to Christians – but should it be? We shy away from compromising, as we should, but then we might be humbler and wiser to embrace compromise now and then, especially when we try to transfer our moral zeal into the political process. We have to deal with other people in a democracy, and even as people of faith, we understand the inherently compromised nature of life in a fallen world.

Mary Ann Glendon, former professor of law at Harvard, a staunch conservative who is now the U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, wrote Abortion and Divorce in Western Law, a brilliant comparison of American law with that of European nations. Among the civilized nations she studies, only the U.S. features abortion on demand. In France, abortions after week ten are only permitted if the mother’s life is in peril; in Sweden, abortions are available only through week twelve, and generous financial support is provided for women who see their pregnancy through. In other countries, abortion law is decided in the legislature, not the courts – which Glendon believes allows for citizen input and some give and take in political deliberation. Not surprisingly, in our all-or-nothing “rights” society, where we provide less support for unwed mothers, we have significantly more abortions than other Western nations.

Thinking that most Americans do not support either the absolute pro-life or the absolute pro-choice positions, she argues that “compromise legislation” is less evil than the alternatives. If there are never any abortions ever, then what about ectopic pregnancies which threaten the mother? or horrific genetic disorders like Tay-Sachs in which a child that survives lives miserably and only briefly? or the rape of a twelve year old? If absolutely all abortions are legal, then late term abortions, and a casual mentality of after-the-fact birth control become acceptable.

Could it be that even the Christians, who love moral certitude and shun wishy-washy caving in, might lead the way in promoting reasonable compromise on an issue like abortion? or perhaps other issues as well?


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