In the autumn of 1978 the Washington Association of Churches and the Washington State Catholic Conference jointly published a six page pamphlet they called, “Abortion: An Ecumenical Study Document.” Their work offers a fascinating snapshot of Christian thinking at the time and raises some equally fascinating questions about what, exactly, has happened in the last thirty-five years.
The pamphlet does not contain a position statement. Quite the opposite, in fact. From the beginning, the authors explain that such an agreement is impossible:
Clearly there is no Christian position on abortion, for here real values conflict with each other, and Christian persons who seek honestly to be open to God’s call still find themselves disagreeing profoundly.
At the time, five years had passed since the Roe v. Wade decision, and the Church, broadly, was wrestling with ethical and spiritual complexities the decision brought to the surface. The WAC, which existed “to express and strengthen the unity Christians have in Jesus Christ” had asked member denominations to create a study group because strong feelings on the question of abortion were threatening that mission. In the absence of an agreement, the study group articulated a set of shared values and then assembled statements on abortion from member denominations.
Some of the contents would come as little surprise to anyone aware of today’s struggles over abortion ethics and rights. For example, the Catholic Church pronounced that even when pregnancy threatens a mother’s life, abortion “increases the overall tragedy.” Catholicism has wavered over the centuries about when a fetus becomes a person with a soul, but the hierarchy has been consistent in its opposition to abortion after ensoulment, which is now proclaimed to happen at conception. Furthermore, the Catholic hierarchy has long sought to enforce its ethical judgments via civic and criminal codes, and 1978 was no exception: “A legal context in which abortion is presented as a legitimate way of resolving tragic situations creates an atmosphere that reduces respect for the value of life. Ultimately, such an atmosphere dehumanizes the lives of all who live in it.”
What might be surprising is how little the other denominations represented in the 1978 study group agreed with them. Consider the following statements:
- Because Christ calls us to affirm the freedom of persons and the sanctity of life, we recognize that abortion should be a matter of personal decision.
—American Baptist Churches
- The ALC recognizes the freedom and responsibility of individuals to make their own choices in light of the best information available to them and their understanding of God’s will for their lives, whether those choices be in regard to family planning or any other life situations.
—American Lutheran Church
- The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) believes that the mother has an overwhelming stake in her own pregnancy, and to be forced to give birth to a child against her will is a peculiarly personal violation of her freedom . . . . The fetus is seen as a potential person, but not fully a person in the same developed sense in which the mother is a person with an ability to think, to feel, to make decisions, and choices concerning her own life. . . . That prior right however, carries with it a tremendous responsibility, for human life, even potential human life is valued.
—Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
- Abortion should be accepted as an option only where all other possible alternatives will lead to greater destruction of human life and spirit. . . . We support persons who, after prayer and counseling, believe abortion is the least destructive alternative available to them, that they may make their decision openly, honestly, without the suffering imposed by an uncompromising community.
—Church of the Brethren
- Christians have a responsibility to limit the size of their families and to practice responsible birth control. . . . .where there is substantial reason to believe that the child would be deformed in mind or body, or where the pregnancy has resulted from rape or incest . . . termination of pregnancy is permissible.
- The status of the fetus is the key issue. That status is affected by consideration of the fact that it is the organic beginning of human life. Further, its status is defined by its stage of development, its state of well-being, and its prospects for a meaningful life after its birth.
—Lutheran Church in America
- Human life develops on a continuum from conception to birth. At some point it may be regarded as more “personal” and higher in “quality.” At some undesignated time, the value of this life may actually outweigh competing factors; e.g., the vocational and social objectives of the family, etc.
—United Church of Christ
- Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion. But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother, for whom devastating damage may result from an unacceptable pregnancy. In continuity with past Christian teaching, we recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion.
—United Methodist Church
- The artificial or induced termination of pregnancy is a matter of the careful ethical decision of the patient, her physician, and her pastor or other counselor and therefore should not be restricted by law . . .
—United Presbyterian Church
The picture of Christianity revealed in the 1978 study document is very different. Mind you, across the board we do see an ancient religious tradition that treats life as sacred and human life as the pinnacle of creation. Outside of Christianity, these are not points of universal agreement. A secularist might treat the loss of early embryonic life with pragmatic acceptance—more than half of fertilized eggs self-abort; human reproduction is a funnel designed so that lots of false starts produce a few healthy adult offspring . Secular ethics and law concern themselves with the wellbeing of persons who can think and feel, who can actually desire life, liberty and happiness. A secularist might work to reduce abortions primarily because they are emotionally, financially or otherwise costly to conscious persons. By contrast, the Protestant voices represented here give pregnancy some of the same sacred weight it is given by their Catholic brethren, and so they find the termination of pregnancy, even in early stages, to be morally complex. Even so, they balance the value of embryonic life against other values they hold sacred:
- Humility: “Philosophical uncertainties lasting over the centuries now appear in the form of disagreements among Christians who yet revere God’s call to life. . . . Our vision and understanding are limited, and Christ calls us to see our differences as a call to larger vision.”
- Freedom: “Very near the center of the Christian life is Christ’s call to freedom, both in the inward form of our lives and our outward social structures.”
- Justice: “Medical intervention should be made available to all who desire and qualify for it, not just to those who can afford preferential treatment.”
- Balance: “Instead of a single guide, we have recognized several guides, each of which speaks with the others and balances the others where they become one-sided. These are scripture, church tradition, reason, [and] personal experience.”
- Compassion: “The tragedies of rape, incest, child abuse, the “unwanted” child, as well as the special difficulties of the poor in dealing with abortion all stand as signs that we have not realized Christ’s call for community. “
- Responsibility: “We confess that we are part of a society that contributes to abortion by denying parents the support and assistance they need.” “The Gospel call to reverence for life challenges us to do all we can to change those situations that make abortion necessary for some people.”
The Protestant denominations involved in the ecumenical study group were mainline traditions that today are considered theologically liberal. Most continue to affirm quietly that abortion decisions are best trusted to a woman and her understanding of God, with spiritual council and community support. It may be more surprising to many people that at the time many biblical literalists similarly saw abortion as a matter of individual decision. Jonathan Dudley, CNN commentator and author of Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics, lays it out:
In 1968, Christianity Today published a special issue on contraception and abortion, encapsulating the consensus among evangelical thinkers at the time. In the leading article, professor Bruce Waltke, of the famously conservative Dallas Theological Seminary, explained the Bible plainly teaches that life begins at birth:
“God does not regard the fetus as a soul, no matter how far gestation has progressed. The Law plainly exacts: 'If a man kills any human life he will be put to death' (Lev. 24:17). But according to Exodus 21:22–24, the destruction of the fetus is not a capital offense… Clearly, then, in contrast to the mother, the fetus is not reckoned as a soul.”
The magazine Christian Life agreed, insisting, “The Bible definitely pinpoints a difference in the value of a fetus and an adult.” And the Southern Baptist Convention passed a 1971 resolution affirming abortion should be legal not only to protect the life of the mother, but to protect her emotional health as well.
The WAC members sought to discern God’s will through a combination of scripture, tradition, reason and experience, but evangelical Christians claim to speak from the authority of the Bible alone, a Reformation principle known as “sola scriptura.” Consequently, one striking feature of their shift on abortion is that biblical authority now must be invoked to support an anti-abortion stance. Rick Warren, whose book, The Purpose Driven Life, cherry-picks from over ten Bible translations to best underscore his points, said in 2008, “The reason I believe life begins at conception is ‘cause the Bible says it.”
Ironically, as theology blogger Fred Clark has pointed out, sometime between 1968 and 2008, biblical literalists became so sure God opposed abortion that they actually changed the language of the Bible to fit their new position on God’s unchanging will. The passage cited by Bruce Waltke was the sticking point because it is the only passage in the Bible that explicitly addresses the legal status of a fetus. In 1977, the New American Standard translation of Exodus 21:22-25 read as follows:
And if men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she has a miscarriage, yet there is not further injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him; and he shall pay as the judges decide. But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
By 1995, an updated version of the translation had changed the meaning.
If men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she gives birth prematurely, yet there is no injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him, and he shall pay as the judges decide. But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
The original treats the death of a fetus differently than the death of a person. By changing “so that she has a miscarriage” to “so that she gives birth prematurely” this little barrier to anti-abortion unity was removed. The change, however, is at odds with centuries of church tradition, Jewish interpretations of the same passage, and the clear intent of earlier near Eastern legal codes in which the passage appears to have had its roots.
What has happened? Why are those who so clearly asserted 30 or 40 years ago that the biblical God was pro-choice now even more confident that he wants us to protect fertilized eggs from the time of conception?
As the pattern of history reveals, God changes his mind when we change ours. In this case, God changed his mind for the reasons he typically does: he responded to shifts in human power structures and culture that in their turn were triggered by changes in technology. Much has been written recently about the systematic way in which Republican strategists courted once-diverse Evangelicals, how Falwell and his colleagues worked to bring Evangelical views on conception and abortion into line with those of Catholics in order to form a voting block (here, here, here, here). In short, they effected a theological and cultural shift for political reasons. But those same strategists could not have done what they did without help from the current of history. They were swimming downstream thanks to two waves of technology change and the way those new technologies triggered hard-wired aspects of human psychology.
The first wave was the advent of modern contraception. For the first time since our species emerged, women had relatively reliable control over their fertility. Futurist Sara Robinson describes the cataclysmic effect of the Pill on old cultural agreements:
Far from being a mere 500-year event, we may have to go back to the invention of the wheel or the discovery of fire to find something that’s so completely disruptive to the way humans have lived for the entire duration of our remembered history.
Until the condom, the diaphragm, the Pill, the IUD, and all the subsequent variants of hormonal fertility control came along, anatomy really was destiny — and all of the world’s societies were organized around that central fact. . . . Our biology reduced us to a kind of chattel, subject to strictures that owed more to property law than the more rights-based laws that applied to men. . . . . Men, in return, thrived. The ego candy they feasted on by virtue of automatically outranking half the world’s population was only the start of it. They got full economic and social control over our bodies, our labor, our affections, and our futures. They got to make the rules, name the gods we would worship, and dictate the terms we would live under. In most cultures, they had the right to sex on demand within the marriage, and also to break their marriage vows with impunity — a luxury that would get women banished or killed. As long as pregnancy remained the defining fact of our lives, they got to run the whole show. The world was their party, and they had a fabulous time.
Even when the world isn’t their party, humans tend to have a love-hate relationship with change. Family systems therapists talk about patients receiving indirect “change back” messages from husbands or wives or parents who genuinely want them to get well but who also have habituated to the status quo. In the case of modern contraceptives, women had a lot to gain. Men had a lot to lose. The sexual property ethic that Robinson mentions has ugly implications that I laid out in a recent article, “The Bible Says Yes to Legitimate Rape and Rabe Babies.” But dependency also has its privileges, and some retrogressive religious institutions have been able to tap both male and female yearnings for a mythical past in which all was right with the world because women knew their place under men who knew their place under God. The Tea Party, which was largely a rekindling of the old Moral Majority, tapped the same yearnings for a fantasy past, the same anxiety about an uncertain future, and the same anger about privilege lost. Outrage over abortion, now narrated as outrage over the murder of helpless little unborn babies, was a natural fit.
God changes his mind when we change ours.Aid for the “unborn baby” framing came from another technology sector that has become a silent game-changer in the reproductive rights conversation: fetal imaging. Eager prospective parents now watch video screens as ultrasound technicians check the development of internal organs and closure of the neural tube. Little arms and legs appear on the screen, maybe a penis. Maybe even a face. At baby showers the same parents are given colorful books of exquisite photography that trace fetal development and the passage through the birth canal. In 1978, pregnancy was largely a black box. It is no longer.
One hallmark of human information processing is that vision is our dominant sense. When it comes to the status of a fetus, a visual array that looks in the slightest like an infant may have the power to trigger an instinctive person-reaction. In particular, we appear to have a specialized module in our brains that reacts to anything remotely like a human face. The instinct is so hard-wired that human infants preferentially attend to two black dots with a slash underneath. For a rabbit, whether something smells like a baby might be key to activating maternal instincts. A mole might be uninterested unless something feels like a baby mole. But for us, curving white lines comingled with static on a dark screen are sufficient.
When an image or object activates the brain systems that are designed to store and analyze information about other people, we ourselves fill in the gaps. Children lend their voices to spun polyester bears and molded plastic dolls. Facebookers send around captioned pictures of big-eyed cats. None of this requires that the bear or doll or cat actually have any of the attributes of philosophical personhood that would generate the words: consciousness, sentience, the ability to feel pleasure and pain, preferences or intentions, the ability to form attachments, or to value existence. But in the presence of certain kinds of visual input we react as-if they did. We almost can’t help ourselves. Better said, it takes a conscious effort to over-ride impulse and instinct and ask ourselves to differentiate what we see from what we know. The kind of deep, thoughtful wrestling that went into that old 1978 study document requires another level of exertion altogether.
Culture warriors who think they speak for God—the new God, the one who hates abortion in any form at any point in gestation for any reason—are hoping that young American Christians won’t go to the trouble. That is why , even as they keep the focus visual, they carefully avoid images of early abortions, in which the actual tissue removed may look downright boring. They avoid indicating size, since at six weeks, the gestational sac is about the size of a dime. They also avoid images of fetal anomalies, which could remind viewers that occasionally a fetus has no viable path to becoming a person and might even raise questions about whether God guides pregnancy more than any other natural process.
To date this strategy has worked, but technology may be changing the conversation once again. As the evangelical consensus against abortion has grown, the procedure itself has become a shrinking target. With both pregnancy and fetal anomalies diagnosed earlier, more than 60 percent of abortions now are done before the ninth week and 90 percent before the twelfth. A contraceptive revolution is causing a steep drop in abortion rates through better prevention. It is also ramping up the economic justice aspect of the abortion fight, because women who can afford the up-front cost of long acting contraceptives rarely need abortions. As these factors converge, it may become hard to sustain the current level of horror about an “abortion holocaust.” On top of this, women who have terminated pregnancies are using social media to tell their stories and connect with each other, undermining the community advantage once held by churches. The culture warriors may soon find that a new technology nexus has once again changed the cultural dynamic.
What God will think at that point, only heaven knows.