by Pr. Em. Gene Brueggemann
It is important that we approach these questions with a modicum of modesty and a strong dose of goodwill, as brothers and sisters in Christ who disagree on some of the issues posed by abortion. As we join our fellow citizens in this heated discussion, we want to give a witness to our common faith that the Spirit will lead us into all truth, as long as we are centered on Christ and his gospel (“the truth which makes you free”). Only from that perspective can we read the Bible right and treat each other right.
Task number one is to dispense with labels. “Pro life” and “Pro choice” are false alternatives when presented as the only possible moral or political judgments regarding abortion. I speak as someone who believes that there is validity in both positions and that the ideology that has grown around them sometimes goes beyond what the Spirit would have us believe. The ideologies of conservatism and liberalism are spirits which must be tested for their compatibility with the gospel. Pope Francis has written that “when a Christian becomes a disciple of ideology, he has lost the faith; he is no longer a disciple of Jesus, he is a disciple of this [ideological] attitude.” Exhibit A is the language and temper of spokesmen for these positions, even within the church. Exhibit B might be the parallel with the temperance movement.
The danger is that when ideologies dominate, the Holy Spirit’s power and presence are compromised. America’s Lutherans should think of themselves as essentially evangelical in the original Reformation sense of that much-abused word, which means true to the gospel. We should see ourselves as evangelical Lutherans, not Lutheran Evangelicals.
A primary question in this controversy is, “When does life begin?” It is an ancient as well as a modern question. Theologians in the unscientific past framed the question in terms of when the image or likeness of God was imparted, i.e., the immortal soul. The creationists held that It happened at birth (citing Gen. 2:7 “God breathed into [Adam’s] nostrils the breath of life”), and the traducianists said that it happened at conception (quoting Gen. 5:3 “Adam . . . became the father of a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth”). It remained an open theological/scientific question for centuries.
We have to address the beginning of life both scientifically and theologically. The science of biology is crystal clear: physical life begins at the moment of conception. In-utero photography has proved that. People of faith respond with praise of the Creator at the awesome sight of developing life, just as we do at the sight of the equally awesome photography of the evolving universe from spacecraft. (It is a useful footnote to this discussion to point out the selective use of science by those who routinely disparage scientific evidence when it conflicts with the ideology of Creationism.)
Science answers the question, “When does biological life begin?” But it does not and cannot answer all the related theological and ethical questions. Philosophers and theologians have addressed these questions through the ages. There remains a holy mystery as to when the embryo/zygote evolves into a fully human being, a person in the image of God. The mystery is embedded in the twin realities of the physical and the spiritual. We respect the difference of opinion on this question but need not accept that there is only one possible answer. Living with a mystery is an important part of the Christian’s life of faith.
The Supreme Court recognized this uncertainty in their Roe v. Wade decision by dividing a pregnancy into three trimesters and providing legal counsel as how to regard the developing child in each period. To many people, viability outside the womb is when full legal protection of the child’s life should begin. To still others, it is at birth.
Church practice in times past provides an important dimension to this subject. For centuries the practice of the church in both its Catholic and Protestant forms did not regard abortion, miscarriage, and still birth as accidental death, much less murder. Conditional baptism, when practiced, was just that, a sacred ritual conditioned on not knowing when fully human life begins. Funeral services were not conducted and miscarriages were not included in the deaths column of church records. Pastoral care was provided as needed. At the same time, deliberate abortion was legally forbidden, indicating how seriously the churches and the general public took the well-being of the developing child. The physical/spiritual process which distinguishes a human from other animals was and is shrouded in enough mystery to discourage the absolutist positions which are held by contemporary Roman Catholic and Protestant Right spokespersons.
What has inspired the contemporary movement to lobby governments to make all abortion illegal? The explosive increase in abortions which accompanied the public acceptance of casual sex is a prime reason. And casual sex was the inevitable result of free and easy access to the Pill. (One of the characters in John Updike’s novel Couples calls this era a “post-pill paradise.”) There was a general unraveling of traditional morals and mores. Divorce and serial marriages became common. Plays, movies, and books became obscenely graphic, and teenagers were engaging in enough sex so that schools dispensed birth control. Centuries-old attitudes about homosexuality were toppled, and women were agitating for equality and demanding abortion as every woman’s right. The totalitarian policy in Communist China requiring mass abortions to enforce its two-child policy was a terrifying glimpse into the future.
The Pill was the greatest boon to birth control and casual sex. It was the growth of birth control before the Pill which first energized Catholic opinion and action in the twentieth century. The Catholic definition of natural law holds that sex is reserved for marriage and every coupling in marriage should have the intent of birthing a child. This tradition was being undermined by the growth of secularism and by the economic forces that favored small families. (Protestant churches also had qualms about birth control, but they weren’t rooted in confessional dogma.) The Roman Church’s claim to infallibility extends to its definition of natural law, enforced by its executive twin, canon law. The infallibility claim had been smudged somewhat by the church’s case against Galileo, but when a pope defines or enforces a natural law issue, the church’s theologians and members are obliged to comply.
Which brings us to the present debate. Pope Paul VI issued an encyclical that the disciples of John XXIII hoped would extend the wholesome changes of Vatican II. They were disappointed. Rather than provide an opening for limited use of contraceptives, he moved to reinforce the tradition that “God the Creator . . . has wisely ordered laws of nature and the incidence of fertility,” and no mere human should interfere with God’s law before or after conception. The law is absolute. The pope is infallible. As history would have it, this conservative reaction to Vatican II championed by Popes Paul VI and John Paul II was matched by the conservative rise to power of the Evangelical Right in American Protestantism.
Conservative Protestants have based their anti-abortion position with sketchy proof-texting from the Bible, which is their infallible authority. These verses are a paean of praise for the Creator who knows us and loves us even before we are in the womb to the end of life and beyond–but they are not commandments or science. They point to the holy God who is the source of all life, physical and spiritual, who has foreknowledge of his children before they were ever born. All Christians will agree with that. But that praiseworthy reverence for life is then used to dogmatically assert that a humanly-conceived fetus and zygote has the same value as a full-term child, that complete humanity begins there and not at a later stage or at birth. The Scriptures used to support this position are not clear and convincing; there is no textual sedes for that doctrina. It is, essentially, the Roman Catholic position with an overlay of Protestant biblicism. Dogmatism and legalism are uncomfortable with mystery and uncertainty.
The Pro-Life movement makes much of “the sanctity of life.” This is a sweeping and somewhat squishy term. It is used not just by Christians for the anti-abortion effort but also by advocates for the secular vegan movement who oppose the slaughter of animals. The most extreme form of this philosophy might be the practice of Hindu sectarians who avoid stepping on bugs and who wear a cloth over the face lest they inhale insects. The extravagant fecundity of life in God’s creation is a factor in any discussion of the sanctity of life. There are uncounted numbers of spontaneous abortions, especially in the very early stages of pregnancy, by God’s undoubted design. Are they accidental deaths which should be reported to the authorities?
We do not want to idolize life. It is a gift from God to be used in his service. Jesus prayed “Thy will be done” as he wrestled in Gethsemane with temptation to choose life rather than death. If Jesus had prized his life absolutely, he would have avoided the cross. Instead he said that “greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” and he proved it by going to the cross for us “that we might have life and have it more abundantly.” The abundant life Jesus promised is spiritual and eternal, already experienced in the physical and temporal.
There are a lot of predicates to the word sanctity in the Christian’s life, like the sanctity of marriage, of parenthood, of work and play, of nature and the environment. God is the Creator of a world in which there is “a time to live and a time to die” (Ecclesiastes 3:2). Christians can speak of the sanctity of death, too, as in St. Paul’s “desire to depart and to be with the Lord, which is far better” and Bach’s hauntingly beautiful rendition of “Come, Sweet Death.”
Christians who believe in the occasional necessity of abortion are dealing with the sanctity of life of both the mother and the child-to-be. The absolutists in the Pro-Life movement will not grant that there are problem pregnancies. But there are. The mother’s body may spontaneously abort the new life at any stage of its development. Or the pregnancy may seriously compromise the health of the mother. Or the developing child may have serious, even fatal, physical problems—and, not to be forgotten, there are the cases of rape and incest to consider, especially when the mother is legally still a child.
The absolutist approach to problem abortions is legalism pure and simple. The Fifth Commandment, or simply the phrase “the sanctity of life,” may be cited as authority. We all know the many exceptions to the law “Thou shalt not kill”: self -defense, national defense, capital punishment. For an evangelical Christian the highest law is the law of love, and the ultimate interpreter of that law is the Spirit-formed conscience. Canon law of any kind is not the final authority. A synodical resolution may or may not be conscience-binding. “For freedom Christ has set us free” is Saint Paul’s Galatian manifesto (Galatians 5:1). Free to do as we please? “By no means!” is the same apostle’s answer in Romans 6:2. We are free to serve on the basis of Jesus’ new commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you.” When Jesus gave his disciples the new commandment, he promised that the Holy Spirit would lead them/us into all truth.
It is a moment of truth (the “truth which makes you free”) when a Christian woman has to decide whether to carry the evolving life within her to full term or not. Her conscience, guided by the law/gospel word of God, frees her to make a decision in this morally ambivalent circumstance on the basis of what St. James calls the perfect law, the law of liberty (James 1:25). Luther once described action in the face of moral ambiguity as sinning boldly. If a woman’s (or couple’s) conscience leads to the decision to carry a problem pregnancy to term, we should surround her (or them) with loving support and prayer. The same holds true for a woman (or couple) whose conscience leads to a decision to have an abortion. This is the true-to-the gospel way which the Lutheran Reformation re-affirmed and which some Lutherans seem to have abandoned in a well-intentioned but mistaken zeal to fight profligate sexual practices by labeling every abortion a murder.
In terms of today’s simplistic politics, this evangelical counsel is a “pro-choice” decision. It is NOT an endorsement of the Pro-Choice political platform. It is decidedly pro-life in its inclusion of the life of the mother. It avoids the absolutism of both ideologies, while affirming the absolute primacy of the law of love in Christian decision-making and ethical behavior. Lest we be misunderstood: the last thing we want to do is convey the idea that freedom in Christ translates into license to do anything or everything the sinful flesh desires, such as a life of promiscuous sex and unrestricted abortion on demand.
The political question of how to legislate the abortion issue is not the focus of this article. The political passions in today’s America make reasoned conversation difficult. To be an evangelical Christian in this climate is a challenge. To insist on “both/and” in a debate posed as “either/or” is to be caught in partisan crossfire. Our witness may be more of the “still, small voice” than the wind and earthquake Elijah heard at Horeb, but it has the power of truth and God’s Spirit behind it. That is our hope and our prayer.