For more than three decades, Americans have been deeply polarized over the issue of abortion. While the debate on abortion involves secularists as well as people of every religious tradition, the issue has become particularly acute among Christians because of strong views on both sides. Generally, the debate has been cast in terms of “pro-life” views and “pro-choice” views, but it is clearly a much more complex issue for Christians.
The legality of abortion was confirmed in 1973 when the United States Supreme Court struck down a Texas statute that prohibited abortion procedures, no matter how medically urgent they might be. This decision, commonly referred to as Roe v. Wade [410 U.S. 113 (1973)], is the most important legal milestone in the debate. In its decision, the Court acknowledged that it cannot rule as to when life begins, since even those in medicine, theology, and philosophy have no consensus on this matter.
Christian pro-life advocates insist that all human life is sacred and that human life begins at the moment of conception. From the point of view of pro-life Christians, America’s aborted fetuses are unborn babies who are killed through the process. As Pope John Paul II put it, “The legalization of the termination of pregnancy is none other than the authorization given to an adult, with the approval of an established law, to take the lives of children yet unborn and thus incapable of defending themselves.” The most vocal opposition to abortion has come from the Roman Catholic Church and from evangelical Christians, including activist groups such as Operation Rescue. The presumption is that there should be no abortion at all, a general principle to which some liberal pro-life advocates might carve out a series of exceptions, such as in the case of rape, incest, known deformity, or grave danger to the life of the mother.
The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights (formerly, the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights) brings together Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Unitarian Universalists, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists who want to make clear that pro-life voices are not the only religious voices in the abortion debate. Describing their position as people of faith, the RCRR seeks to “support individuals in making their own moral decisions and stand with them as they struggle with the very real complexities of life.” The Coalition acknowledges that, “while people of all religions anguish over abortion, most feel this is a moral decision, one a woman must make for herself in keeping with her faith, beliefs, conscience, and her own personal situation.” Another voice in the debate is Catholics for Free Choice, an organization of Catholics who are both pro-choice and involved faithful Christians in the life of their parishes and communities. Catholics for Free Choice, founded in 1973, lobbies for women’s reproductive rights in Congress and legislatures. Results from a 2012 survey conducted on behalf of the organization showed that 60 percent of Catholic voters think abortion should be legal.
At the extreme, pro-life activists have included people who have engaged in a series of violent attacks on abortion clinics and doctors. In 2009, Dr. George Tiller, one of only a few doctors in the United States to perform abortions into the third trimester of pregnancy, was killed inside Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas where he was a member. Tiller had been shot before, in 1993, and his abortion clinic had been bombed in 1986. Another physician, Barnett Slepian, was killed in Buffalo in 1998, preceded by two other doctors in northern Florida and abortion clinic workers in Boston between 1993 and 1995. Despite these incidents, the vast majority of people and organizations within the pro-life movement do not condone the use of violence. Many are vocal, however, about the violence associated with abortion procedures, especially in the case of partial birth abortion.
In a decision that presumably involves a woman and a man, a doctor, and a fetus, the question of whose “voice” counts is highly charged. Pro-life activists often suspect the pro-choice movement of treating abortion lightly in the context of a so-called “sexual revolution” that takes sexual encounters all too lightly and where abortion is considered a method of birth control. According to this view, pro-choice advocates do not to grant any recognition or moral status to fetal life at all, effectively leaving the life of the fetus completely out of the process of ethical decision-making. The pro-choice side, however, often sees pro-life advocates as concerned only with the life of the unborn and callous about the lives and opportunities of those same children from the moment they are born. Pro-life advocates appear to give virtual sovereignty to the fetus, blind to the stark realities of poverty and human hardship, while ruling out abortion regardless of the circumstances of the pregnancy or the well-being of the mother.
Abortion is one of many difficult ethical decisions today involving human judgment on the line between life and death: expensive medical treatments, organ transplants, birth control, and “death with dignity” initiatives. Capital punishment, or the death penalty, is also a topic of great debate in the larger context of what Chicago’s Cardinal Bernardin had framed as “a consistent ethic of life.” A 2005 statement from the U.S.. Conference of Catholic Bishops frames the issue of capital punishment in a way similar to that of the abortion debate: “Ending the death penalty would be one important step away from a culture of death and toward building a culture of life.”
There have been some efforts to find “common ground” between pro-life and pro-choice advocates. In a 1996 Christian Century article titled “Pro-life, Pro-Choice: Can We Talk?,” Frederica Mathewes-Green documents the Common Ground Network which began in Missouri in the late 1980s when Andrew Pudzer, a pro-life lawyer, and B.J. Isaacson-Jones, the head of one of the largest abortion clinics in St. Louis began to have conversations. The two “enemies” met privately face to face for several months before appearing together to discuss the issues on a local television show. While they had diametrically opposed views on abortion, they found that there was indeed much “common ground” between them. For example, they agreed that both sides should seek more aid for women below the poverty line and for their children, both born and unborn.
Those involved in these dialogues say the discovery of some overlapping areas of common commitment is important. Mathewes-Green described one such discovery at a dialogue in Washington D.C. “In one small group, an aggressive pro-choice lawyer was talking passionately about the protection of abused children. She spoke about children’s helplessness before their adult attackers. ‘They’re so small and vulnerable, and they have no one to defend them.’ A pro-lifer in the group said softly, ‘You know, that’s the reason a lot of people give for being pro-life.’” At the same time, those who participate in these efforts are often criticized for talking with the “enemy.” Mathewes-Green wrote about one pro-life leader who characterized the discussions as “seeking common ground with proponents of murder.”
Through the process of face-to face dialogue, each side is challenged in its stereotypes about what the other actually believes. Efforts to find common ground continue, as evidenced in the October 2012 broadcast of “Pro-Life, Pro-Choice, Pro-Dialogue,” a Civil Conversation Project event at the University of Minnesota hosted by Krista Tippett and the American Public Media program On Being. Dr. David Gushee, a Christian ethicist, and Frances Kissling, former president of Catholics for Choice, demonstrated the kind of nuanced conversation not heard in this often deeply polarized public discussion.
Since the Supreme Court’s historic 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, the issue of a woman’s right to an abortion has fostered one of the most contentious moral and political debates in America. Opponents of abortion rights argue that life begins at conception – making abortion tantamount to homicide. Abortion rights advocates, in contrast, maintain that women have a right to decide what happens to their bodies – sometimes without any restrictions.
To explore the case for abortion rights, the Pew Forum turns to the Rev. Carlton W. Veazey, who for more than a decade has been president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. Based in Washington, D.C., the coalition advocates for reproductive choice and religious freedom on behalf of about 40 religious groups and organizations. Prior to joining the coalition, Veazey spent 33 years as a pastor at Zion Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.
A counterargument explaining the case against abortion rights is made by the Rev. J. Daniel Mindling, professor of moral theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary.
The Rev. Carlton W. Veazey, President, Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice
David Masci, Senior Research Fellow, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
Question & Answer
Can you explain how your Christian faith informs your views in support of abortion rights?
I grew up in a Christian home. My father was a Baptist minister for many years in Memphis, Tenn. One of the things that he instilled in me – I used to hear it so much – was free will, free will, free will. It was ingrained in me that you have the ability to make choices. You have the ability to decide what you want to do. You are responsible for your decisions, but God has given you that responsibility, that option to make decisions.
I had firsthand experience of seeing black women and poor women being disproportionately impacted by the fact that they had no choices about an unintended pregnancy, even if it would damage their health or cause great hardship in their family. And I remember some of them being maimed in back-alley abortions; some of them died. There was no legal choice before Roe v. Wade.
But in this day and time, we have a clearer understanding that men and women are moral agents and equipped to make decisions about even the most difficult and complex matters. We must ensure a woman can determine when and whether to have children according to her own conscience and religious beliefs and without governmental interference or coercion. We must also ensure that women have the resources to have a healthy, safe pregnancy, if that is their decision, and that women and families have the resources to raise a child with security.
The right to choose has changed and expanded over the years since Roe v. Wade. We now speak of reproductive justice – and that includes comprehensive sex education, family planning and contraception, adequate medical care, a safe environment, the ability to continue a pregnancy and the resources that make that choice possible. That is my moral framework.
You talk about free will, and as a Christian you believe in free will. But you also said that God gave us free will and gave us the opportunity to make right and wrong choices. Why do you believe that abortion can, at least in some instances, be the right choice?
Dan Maguire, a former Jesuit priest and professor of moral theology and ethics at Marquette University, says that to have a child can be a sacred choice, but to not have a child can also be a sacred choice.
And these choices revolve around circumstances and issues – like whether a person is old enough to care for a child or whether a woman already has more children than she can care for. Also, remember that medical circumstances are the reason many women have an abortion – for example, if they are having chemotherapy for cancer or have a life-threatening chronic illness – and most later-term abortions occur because of fetal abnormalities that will result in stillbirth or the death of the child. These are difficult decisions; they’re moral decisions, sometimes requiring a woman to decide if she will risk her life for a pregnancy.
Abortion is a very serious decision and each decision depends on circumstances. That’s why I tell people: I am not pro-abortion, I am pro-choice. And that’s an important distinction.
You’ve talked about the right of a woman to make a choice. Does the fetus have any rights?
First, let me say that the religious, pro-choice position is based on respect for human life, including potential life and existing life.
But I do not believe that life as we know it starts at conception. I am troubled by the implications of a fetus having legal rights because that could pit the fetus against the woman carrying the fetus; for example, if the woman needed a medical procedure, the law could require the fetus to be considered separately and equally.
From a religious perspective, it’s more important to consider the moral issues involved in making a decision about abortion. Also, it’s important to remember that religious traditions have very different ideas about the status of the fetus. Roman Catholic doctrine regards a fertilized egg as a human being. Judaism holds that life begins with the first breath.
What about at the very end of a woman’s pregnancy? Does a fetus acquire rights after the point of viability, when it can survive outside the womb? Or let me ask it another way: Assuming a woman is healthy and her fetus is healthy, should the woman be able to terminate her pregnancy until the end of her pregnancy?
There’s an assumption that a woman would end a viable pregnancy carelessly or without a reason. The facts don’t bear this out. Most abortions are performed in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Late abortions are virtually always performed for the most serious medical and health reasons, including saving the woman’s life.
But what if such a case came before you? If you were that woman’s pastor, what would you say?
I would talk to her in a helpful, positive, respectful way and help her discuss what was troubling her. I would suggest alternatives such as adoption.
Let me shift gears a little bit. Many Americans have said they favor a compromise, or reaching a middle-ground policy, on abortion. Do you sympathize with this desire and do you think that both sides should compromise to end this rancorous debate?
I have been to more middle-ground and common-ground meetings than I can remember and I’ve never been to one where we walked out with any decision.
That being said, I think that we all should agree that abortion should be rare. How do we do that? We do that by providing comprehensive sex education in schools and in religious congregations and by ensuring that there is accurate information about contraception and that contraception is available. Unfortunately, the U.S. Congress has not been willing to pass a bill to fund comprehensive sex education, but they are willing to put a lot of money into failed and harmful abstinence-only programs that often rely on scare tactics and inaccurate information.
Former Surgeon General David Satcher has shown that abstinence-only programs do not work and that we should provide young people with the information to protect themselves. Education that stresses abstinence and provides accurate information about contraception will reduce the abortion rate. That is the ground that I stand on. I would say that here is a way we can work together to reduce the need for abortions.
Abortion has become central to what many people call the “culture wars.” Some consider it to be the most contentious moral issue in America today. Why do many Catholics, evangelical Christians and other people of faith disagree with you?
I was raised to respect differing views so the rigid views against abortion are hard for me to understand. I will often tell someone on the other side, “I respect you. I may disagree with your theological perspective, but I respect your views. But I think it’s totally arrogant for you to tell me that I need to believe what you believe.” It’s not that I think we should not try to win each other over. But we have to respect people’s different religious beliefs.
But what about people who believe that life begins at conception and that terminating a pregnancy is murder? For them, it may not just be about respecting or tolerating each other’s viewpoints; they believe this is an issue of life or death. What do you say to people who make that kind of argument?
I would say that they have a right to their beliefs, as do I. I would try to explain that my views are grounded in my religion, as are theirs. I believe that we must ensure that women are treated with dignity and respect and that women are able to follow the dictates of their conscience – and that includes their reproductive decisions. Ultimately, it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that women have the ability to make decisions of conscience and have access to reproductive health services.
Some in the anti-abortion camp contend that the existence of legalized abortion is a sign of the self-centeredness and selfishness of our age. Is there any validity to this view?
Although abortion is a very difficult decision, it can be the most responsible decision a person can make when faced with an unintended pregnancy or a pregnancy that will have serious health consequences.
Depending on the circumstances, it might be selfish to bring a child into the world. You know, a lot of people say, “You must bring this child into the world.” They are 100 percent supportive while the child is in the womb. As soon as the child is born, they abort the child in other ways. They abort a child through lack of health care, lack of education, lack of housing, and through poverty, which can drive a child into drugs or the criminal justice system.
So is it selfish to bring children into the world and not care for them? I think the other side can be very selfish by neglecting the children we have already. For all practical purposes, children whom we are neglecting are being aborted.
This transcript has been edited for clarity, spelling and grammar.