“How could anyone vote for a Democrat?”
My aunt, a fellow evangelical and a schoolteacher, recalled a conversation she had with her preschool pupils.
“After all,” she informed them, “they support murdering babies.”
Given the intense evangelical response to the bioethical quandary of abortion, you’d think the Bible unambiguously affirms a person’s full moral status from conception, that such sentiments are well rooted in historic Christianity, or that the Christian approach to politics requires the pro-life position.
You’d be wrong.
Evangelicals do have reason to find abortion morally disturbing. There are no clear-cut answers to when personhood begins. The destruction of any biological life also has symbolic costs, and there’s always the fear that decisions to abort will be made flippantly. But many, perhaps most, other Americans share these concerns — including those who vote for Democrats.
There are verses in the Bible that speak with reverence of pre-viable human life. Among those usually cited by evangelicals are the following: Psalms 139:13, “You knit me together in my mother’s womb”; Jeremiah 1:5, “Before you were in the womb, I knew you, before you were born I set you apart”; and Ephesians 1:4 “God chose us in Him before the creation of the world.”
These verses are certainly relevant, but they hardly provide clear-cut answers. Psalms tells us that God was intimately involved in nurturing the developing psalmist, but it does not tell us when in the process of development the psalmist acquired a full moral status. Jeremiah speaks of God’s foreknowledge and plan for Jeremiah’s life; it does not imply, by “before you were in the womb,” that Jeremiah’s life began before conception. Ephesians touches on similar themes, this time speaking of God’s foreknowledge “before the creation of the world.” Does this necessitate the conclusion that life begins before any humans existed at all? Perhaps, but other plausible interpretations exist. Among them is that these texts are not telling us when fetal personhood begins at all, instead conveying other theological messages.
Even if we do read these verses as affirming, for example, Jeremiah’s personhood from conception, that does not necessarily mean that every embryo is a “person” from conception. While Jeremiah went on to become a fully developed human, 75 percent of embryos do not. If these embryos were persons, what was God’s plan for their lives?
Other verses prove even less helpful to the pro-life cause. In Exodus 21:22-23, we read, “When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life …” Here, apparently, a miscarriage does not require “life for life,” while the injury to the mother, a fully developed human, does. Granted, a few manuscripts substitute “premature birth” for “miscarriage,” obviating this conclusion.
At best, the Bible leaves evangelicals with ambiguity. At worst, for pro-lifers, it implies that life does not, in fact, begin at conception. Thus, as staunch opponents to abortion such as Pope John Paul II have confessed, “The texts of Sacred Scripture never address the question of deliberate abortion and so do not directly and specifically condemn it.”
And historic Christianity does not settle the matter either. The Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas thought that the earliest life began at 40 days after conception. Most other Church fathers have taken similar positions, believing that life begins when the body takes on the human form in the womb.
If neither the Bible nor historic Christianity mandate evangelicals’ radical pro-life-ism, from whence does it derive? Perhaps it began with moral outrage after Roe v. Wade. But Randall Balmer, professor of American religious history at Columbia University, notes that most Christian leaders were silent after the ruling. True, some came out, like those at Christianity Today, arguing that this was not the right thing for America. But many others came out in the opposite direction. The Southern Baptist Convention supported the decision, and the Baptist Press noted that “religious liberty, human equality and justice are advanced by the Supreme Court abortion decision.” Balmer writes that it wasn’t until later in the 1970s, when Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority began and a few powerful men decided to remake the evangelical subculture in their image, that anti-abortionism became firmly identified with evangelical Christianity. And it has remained identified with it ever since.
But we evangelicals prefer not to talk about these things. We prefer to assume that our current perceptions of the fetus were handed to us by God on a silver platter. We prefer to keep our us vs. them dualisms, to think the Others just don’t get it, and to hasten the day when we’ll have enough power to conquer them. We prefer to think that half of our fellow Americans — the Democrats — support murdering babies.
Of course, this bad faith in the Other characterizes both sides of the abortion debate. And both sides suffer as a result.
Jonathan Dudley is a first-year student at the Divinity School and does research in molecular oncology at the School of Medicine.