In the abortion debate, we often focus on whose beliefs are right or wrong. We use this approach to persuade politicians to legislate and judges to rule based on their alignment with one side of this debate or other. This approach absorbs us in the battle in public political arenas to win our respective arguments. While this battle rages, women are jostled back and forth, regarding what their states allow them to do in matters most private to their lives.
According to evangelical minister and author of Costly Grace, the Rev. Robert Schenk, “This is not a question for politicians. When your end goal is a political one, you will, without exception, exploit the pain and the suffering and the agony of those who face the issue in their daily reality, in their real life.”
A former leader in the anti-abortion crusade for more than 20 years, Schenk told Fresh Air that he lives with regret about some of his former tactics. “I remember women … being very distraught, very frightened, some very angry. Over time, I became very callous to that.”
This political, ideological, and theological debate can foster callousness in any of us, regardless of which “side” of the debate we choose. We can become callous to the needs of others. We can grow numb to the beliefs of others.
As a Christian, I follow the admonition of Jesus, urging each of us focus on the issues in our own lives and not judge, dictate, or legislate other people’s lives. I support personal choice, guided by individual faith, moral conscience, and life circumstances. For me, being pro-choice is pro-life because focuses holistically on the entirety of individuals’ lives and not solely on pregnancy.
To help us go beyond the debate of pro-choice and pro-life, we must engage in conversation about our shared values. Critical values underlie the beliefs that guide our debates. As we explore our shared values, my hope is that we will become more able to find common ground. I believe both sides of the abortion debate share three values: honor and respect for the mystery of human life, compassion as a moral calling, and limited government interference in private matters.
Whether informed by our theological beliefs or ideological perspectives, we share a deep honor and respect for human life. While we have divergent views about when human life begins, under what circumstances a pregnancy can or should be ended, and who is most appropriate to make either of these determinations, our shared respect for human life is paramount.
The mystery of life—human, animal or otherwise—astounds us and confounds us. It is greater than we can wrap our minds around. We are not equipped to legislate the management of such a mystery. Answers to the question of when life begins have varied across the centuries. Current medical science tells us that human life begins at the point of viability—that is, when a fetus has the capacity to survive on its own outside the womb. Some religions in this era focus on viability; others tell us that human life begins at conception.
Since we do not know with absolute medical or theological certainty when life begins, a decision to begin or terminate a pregnancy should be made by each individual. This decision should be based on a high regard for the quality of life for the pregnant person and the lives of those most connected with that person. Absent this approach, pre-nates are bestowed a personhood on par with fully alive women who are currently working, studying, raising children, and in a multitude of ways contributing to society. Absent this approach, the lives and individual conscience of women are greatly devalued, delegitimized, and stigmatized.
Our second shared value involves compassion and care for others, rooted in sacred scriptures and moral codes. Guided by their faith and a moral calling to compassion, before the passage of Roe v Wade, the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion (CCS) worked to ensure that no more women died or were injured because of unsanitary, medically unsafe, botched abortion procedures. CCS was a nation-wide network of more than 2,500 Protestant, Jewish and Catholic religious leaders who provided all-options counseling, referral and travel assistance to medically sound, affordable abortion care for those who chose to terminate their pregnancies, and legislative advocacy for state and national legalization of abortion.
Then and now, compassion helps us honor the realities of women’s lives. Legal abortion care without undue legal burdens enables greater ability, especially for the most marginalized women, to move themselves and their children out of poverty, complete their education, get out of domestic violence situations, and make other critical choices to enhance the quality of life for themselves and their families.
Because of a growing lack of compassion in U.S. society, the intended benefits of Roe have been eroded in various ways. The federal Hyde Amendment disallows the use of any federal funds to be spent for abortion care services, regardless of medical necessity for termination of pregnancies, unfairly blocking abortion care for poor and women of color. State laws place undue burdens for delay on women—especially rural and poor women—and limit the availability of affordable, medically safe, legal abortion care. First Amendment rights have been used as a smoke-screen to allow protesters to bully women and their families as they seek to engage in private healthcare choices. Unregulated crisis pregnancy centers represent themselves as full-service reproductive care centers, although they are solely aimed at delaying abortions. Current religious exemptions allow religiously based employers to exclude contraception and abortion care services from employee health plans and religiously owned hospitals and clinics to deny reproductive care services regardless of medical necessity or the religious and moral beliefs of the individuals seeking medical care.
When policies are more focused on ideological perspective than compassion, there is an inevitable diminution of value of the life for fully alive persons and their own decision-making and moral agency. I believe that a society devoid of compassion ultimately is not a sustainable social system.
The third shared value across the abortion debate is support for limited government interference in private matters. Some advocates call for smaller government to enable more individual agency. Others call for government large enough to provide support for those in need and regulations to foster social equality. But both sides of this debate greatly value the importance of limited government interference in the private matters of people’s lives.
Although there is nothing explicit in the U.S. Constitution detailing what specific aspects of life are to be regarded as private, the U.S. Supreme Court has made major rulings that help fine-tune the distinction between private property and private conduct to be left alone by state and federal government. I define “privacy” as the realm where individuals engage in their own personal, moral, intellectual, and religious activity without interference of the government or society. All people are entitled to a sphere of privacy. The burden is on the government to demonstrate a compelling social good that justifies interfering in private lives.
All matters of reproductive healthcare—contraception, fertilization, surrogacy, and termination of pregnancy—should be regarded as private, on par with other areas of healthcare. The government has not sufficiently satisfied its burden of demonstrating a compelling social good to justify intrusion into the private lives of women.
History shows us the devastating unintended consequences that can occur on a broad scale when there is government intrusion into private lives. The “Noble Experiment” of the 1920s Prohibition Era (prohibiting the manufacture, distribution and sale of alcohol) was instituted after decades of campaigns by the Christian temperance movement, which regarded alcohol as a destructive force in families and marriages. While well-intentioned, the Prohibition Era resulted in loss of jobs (for those in the brewery business, the fourth largest industry), rise of criminal activity associated with bootlegging and mob organizations, and deaths of more than 10,000 people in one decade from contaminated, unlicensed, toxic alcohol.
History has shown that banning or tightly regulating abortion does not stop women from seeking abortions. It only causes them to find new ways to end a pregnancy, many of which are dangerous and can be deadly. Government interference in abortion care as private medical activity will likely contribute to deaths of thousands of women each year. And because close to 60 percent of women seeking abortion care have at least one child, their deaths would affect generations of children and families. There is no compelling public interest to remove or limit access to legal, medically safe, affordable abortion care.
My hope is that focus on the values I believe we share can provide a foundation for much-needed conversation about reproductive care. I pray we find a way forward together.