For nearly five decades, overturning Roe v. Wade was the Holy Grail of the pro-life movement. The midterm elections, however, have dampened many pro-lifers’ hopes: abortion rose to the top of the list of voter-determining issues, but not in our favor. What went wrong? And where do we go from here?
This essay is intended as a warning against the deleterious side effects of pro-lifers’ political tactics so far. With medicine, it is reasonable to accept a small risk in pursuit of a greater benefit. But what if the drug exacerbates the very condition it is supposed to be treating, like a sleeping pill made of caffeine? That is closer to my argument here: that politics intrinsically tends to work against our ultimate goal. After diagnosing the tendency of politics to maximize discord, I offer a more hopeful prescription for re-ordering it toward the civic harmony and human flourishing that is its actual purpose.
The Voice of The Accuser
It is important, first of all, to keep in mind the traditional Christian vision of human sexuality that is often referred to as the Culture of Life. Its chief premise is that the deepest longing of the human heart is for nuptial intimacy with God, who is even more in love with us. Paradoxically, therefore, the highest expression of our sexuality is celibacy. As Gregory Coles points out in his poignant memoir No Longer Strangers, “Joyful celibacy is rooted in the conviction that our bodies exist to desire and be desired by the paragon of all lovers” (167). The other fully blessed sexual expression is within marriage: the complementary, faithful, fruitful union between man and woman that is an icon of the triune God, the community of Love from which all life springs.
If we humans were to accept these truths and follow our Creator’s instructions for joy, the demand for abortion would disappear. The reason we so rarely do is that we allow ourselves to be deceived by Satan, “The Accuser.” He has only two basic lies in his quiver, but we fall for them again and again. The first and great lie is that God is not loveable. He is a patriarchal bully whose will conflicts with our pleasures, our rights, and our freedom, so our happiness depends upon asserting our own will against his. This lie, the very one Eve fell for, is the root of all sin. And the second is like unto it: we are not lovable. That lie leads us to self-medicate in destructive ways, enslaving us to various idols and addictions as we vainly attempt to fill the “God-sized hole” in our hearts. It is especially potent because, as psychologist Gregory Popcak observes in Broken Gods, “When we feel attacked, even by ourselves, the brain clamps down as a way of freezing out the threat” (42). Far from inspiring constructive change, the thunder of accusation drowns out the gentle, healing voice of the Holy Spirit.
The fundamental problem with politics is that it is conducted entirely in the voice of The Accuser. Whereas Jesus repeatedly warns us in the strongest possible terms not to judge others, politics, especially American party politics, draws most of its power from judgmentalism. It attributes all blame to the other tribe and none to its own; it is constantly on the attack, isolating and amplifying the other tribe’s flaws; and it reduces people to caricatures of their opinions, seeing no goodness in them personally or in their motives. That technique is ubiquitous, regardless of where one falls on the political spectrum. And it is poisonous.
The harm done by politics becomes all the more evident the more clearly we understand the real aim of the Culture of Life. It is not to make abortion illegal: laws can be broken, as in El Salvador, or reversed, as in Ireland. It is not even to eliminate abortion: that could be accomplished by sterilizing everyone. Our telos is for people to accept that, in the words of Henri Nouwen, “Being the Beloved expresses the core truth of our existence”—and that our belovedness begins with our first breath of life, at conception. As I explain in The Mystery of Miscarriage, people who die in the womb or the fallopian tube are no less beloved image-bearers of God, because “the theophany of life-giving love, the earthly mirror of the Trinity, is conception itself.”
Persuasion, a cognate with “sweet,” literally means “making something sweet to someone.” Making sweet the truth of God’s passionate, extravagant delight in every single human being is not an optional part of our Christian vocation, something to be seen once we have forced through the laws we want. It is our Christian vocation. Souls become open to the sweetness of the Truth—who is not a “what” but a “who”—only when people feel themselves to be valued and understood, seen and known and loved. Using politics for this purpose is like doing surgery with a hammer.
The Danger of “Defending the Unborn”
I can hear the objections. “How can any just society countenance killing its own young? Defending the unborn, who cannot speak for themselves, is a fight that requires every weapon we have. This is no time for gentle persuasion! This is war!”
Pro-life friends, I agree completely about the gravity of the evil. I admire your holy stubbornness and tireless devotion, and I believe that your intentions are the very best. I just want you to see why strategies that antagonize and demonize pro-choicers are counterproductive, for both practical and psychological reasons.
First, practical considerations. When abortion primarily involved surgery, the focus on restricting the supply made sense: shutting down clinics and prosecuting doctors had a significant deterrent effect, even if not nearly as great as is commonly supposed. Now, however, “getting an abortion” usually means acquiring two pills—something easily done by anyone with a smartphone (including men). As long as the “right to choose” is seen as a proxy for sexual freedom and for human freedom altogether, there will be plenty of people who sincerely believe that they are helping women by supplying these pills and who will pursue that aim zealously. Nor is it helpful to try to frighten people by emphasizing the pain or danger of chemical abortions. If done early in a pregnancy, though certainly not pleasant, they are unlikely to be more painful or dangerous than childbirth, and it damages pro-lifers’ credibility to claim otherwise.
Trying to end abortion by shutting down clinics is like trying to end pornography viewing by shutting down adult movie theaters. While it may be a retarding force in the short run, its likely long-term effect will merely be to accelerate the transition from an obsolescent technology to one that is cheaper, more convenient, and impossible to suppress in the age of the Internet. Pro-lifers would be best served by assuming that ending a pregnancy will soon be as simple and as private as blowing out a candle.
Second, and more importantly, “defending the unborn” and similar expressions encourage an approach that ignores human psychology. If abortion is in fact a private choice made by a woman, from whom are you “defending the unborn?” From their mothers, whom that phrase casts as adversaries and potential murderers of their own children. It is hard to imagine a more perfect sally from The Accuser, a more perfect way to trigger the defenses that snap minds and hearts shut.
Furthermore, in “defending the unborn,” it is all too easy to take the disastrous step of prosecuting their mothers. Pro-lifers have been promising for decades that they would not do this—that they see expectant mothers as abortion’s “second victims,” and thus the targets of prosecution are the auxiliary agents who make abortion possible. But when the only agent is the woman, the temptation to punish her can easily become irresistible. If that happens, pro-lifers will be rightly accused of hypocrisy, broken promises, and piling suffering on suffering. The backlash will be swift and terrible—and justified.
It would be more realistic to acknowledge that abortion is neither irresponsible nor irrational, at least for someone who does not accept the true but profoundly counterintuitive proposition that personhood begins at the zygote stage. A substantial majority of the women who have abortions, about 60%, are mothers who are already caring for one or more children. Terminating a pregnancy is usually a mothering decision made by a woman who believes she does not have sufficient resources to bear and care for a new child.
This choice ultimately derives, as all incorrect moral choices do, from a failure to comprehend the tenderness of God’s love. And this incomprehension is partly the fault of Christians themselves. “Put not your trust in princes, nor in any child of man” (Psalm 146:3). Look at some of the princes that pro-life Christians have chosen as their champions: men who commit serial adultery, who brag about molesting women, and who secretly fund abortions for their mistresses, all while thumping their Bibles and proclaiming themselves to be 100% pro-life. Are such champions more likely to refute Satan’s lie that God is a patriarchal bully or to reinforce it?
Politics Rightly Ordered: Ending the Abortion War
This analysis does not offer a particularly optimistic outlook for political solutions to the abortion problem. Given the realities of life in a modern democracy, what should we do? Once we recognize that politics is often The Accuser’s weapon, is there any way to use it against him? Of course there is, because God permits evil only in order to bring about a greater good. In fact, this is his specialty. The key is to realize that what politics does better than anything else is bring people who disagree into personal contact with one another. And that personal contact creates the opening for grace.
Conversation takes work, but it is also—dare I say?—fun. And simple: you just observe how politics generally operates, then do the opposite! You attribute goodwill to those who hold different views, and you sincerely strive to understand the assumptions that lead to their moral conclusions. You ask questions (real ones, not “gotcha” ones) and listen to the answers. You acknowledge with forthrightness and sorrow your own failings and those of your tribe. Without ever calling attention to your doing so, you repeatedly forgive, remembering that forgiving is the distinctive characteristic of Christians and the necessary condition for receiving God’s forgiveness. Above all, you seek to treat your “enemies” as image-bearers of God who are fundamentally beautiful.
One insight I have gained from years of private and public conversations with my pro-choice feminist friend Michelle Oberman is that arguing about the moral status of—what do we call them?—“fetuses” or “pre-natal children” tends to short-circuit fruitful interaction. A faithful Jew, she believes that membership in the human family, or personhood, begins only at birth, a position consistent with Jewish law. Though I obviously disagree, recognizing this assumption has made it much easier for me to understand her worldview. Like many pro-choicers, she is motivated by a deep desire for justice and compassion for human suffering, especially of the poor and marginalized. What we realize when we lay down our weapons is that helping women, babies, and families to thrive really is a positive good that is in everyone’s best interest! Poverty is one of the leading factors contributing to abortion, and it can be ameliorated by good legislation.
If pro-lifers could similarly redirect their political emphasis toward pro-parenthood policies, the abortion war as we know it would end. Though policy disagreements would undoubtedly continue, discussions could be conducted with a sense of shared purpose, freed from the acrimony that characterizes our present political dysfunction. Such a strategic ceasefire would not compromise our principles: quite the reverse. We will never stop fighting for a robust and lasting victory for the Culture of Life, a world whose laws and behavior reflect the awareness that all human beings are infinitely beloved. But our efforts to help instantiate that vision will be far more effective if we recognize that in spiritual warfare, the most powerful weapon is supernatural peace.