My regular perusing of Facebook has revealed that our social media posts these days convey a pretty narrow range of ideas, updates, and occurrences: Halloween costumes (“Look how cute my kids are!”), children home with the flu (“Look how sick my kids are!”), and the election (“Look how much I can insult the candidates and those who support them!”). Now that the time has come for us to vote, the posts have taken on a slightly different tinge. The debates have died down as we realize we cannot change votes already cast, and so we turn to worded pats on the back for those who claim to have voted for the candidate we like best. One thing I have noticed in my circle of virtual friends is that those who are voting for the Republican candidate, Donald Trump, are frequently citing their pro-life stances as their motivation, and, likewise, the praise they are receiving for their vote tends to fixate on their choice of a candidate who endorses “life” and opposes “murder”.
The assumptions Christians make concerning abortion and where this compels them to stand along party lines is interesting to me for several reasons. For one, the stances of the two frontrunners in this election are often convoluted. Trump has been quoted as saying that a major problem in the United States today is late-term abortion, which he describes in graphic and sensationalist detail. However, doctors have responded to this allegation by saying they are unaware of medical professionals who are performing late-term abortions at the whim or convenience of the mother. In fact, the only late-term “abortions” being performed are to remove stillborn fetuses or to deliver viable babies via cesarean when carrying the baby to term would be hazardous to the mother (or to the baby), and in neither case are these abortions. Furthermore, Trump has claimed that Clinton is in favor of abortion for any reason and at any stage. The truth of the matter is that during Clinton’s term as senator, she voted for a ban on late-term abortions.
Another reason that the lining up of Christians on the Republican/Trump side gives me pause is the presumption that Christians have categorically and universally opposed abortion. It is accurate that in Early Christianity, the religion did in fact make infanticide and abortion illegal – but this was because in that context, Roman practices in antiquity favored male babies over females. Not only were daughters devalued but the mothers who gave birth to them were shamed, as were their families. As a result, parents would often abort after having a sufficient number of sons to avoid the risk of giving birth to daughters or would commit infanticide after delivering baby girls. The Christian prohibition of these acts was grounded on the problem of the devaluing of female lives and the lack of support in society for families – and mothers – who chose to raise their daughters. In the earliest days of Christianity, the church offered an alternative sort of society in which women were valued and interdependence of all people was encouraged. Unfortunately, this changed quite quickly. Women lost value in Christianity, and began to be seen as innately sinful and as sexual temptresses, and sex itself was viewed as the progenitor of sin. Therefore, procreation was a necessary evil, the main burden of the sinfulness of the act attached to the woman, and so the birthing of baby girls was also a necessary evil. As Christian attitudes towards women shifted, the Church’s opposition to abortion became untethered to its original context.
Throughout the centuries, the Christian Church had ambivalent and diverse responses to abortion, and it did not take this up as a hot-button issue until the rise of evangelicalism between the 1950s and 1980s. Prior to this, Christians opposed abortion performed for convenience but allowed it in cases of rape, incest, or health risks. Furthermore, they largely left the ethics of abortion to the discretion of medical professionals. It is noteworthy that the rates of abortion rose dramatically at the turn of the century, particularly in the 1920s, and yet this issue still did not become an issue of foremost concern to the Christian community. As the evangelical movement of the mid- to late-twentieth century built steam, its members grew concerned about the United States’ prominence on the international scene, given the increasingly globalized world and the tensions of the Cold War, and they were quick to identify any trends that appeared to disrupt the orderliness of American life. As the male-headed nuclear family became the paragon of American virtue, success, and order, anything that deviated from this standard was judged as dangerous and immoral – hence the growing anxiety about out-of-wedlock pregnancies, divorce, and abortion. However, abortions were being performed in large numbers, with no medical or health guidelines, codes, or restrictions, resulting in high mortality rates for patients. Roe v. Wade legalized a practice that was occurring with frequency in illegal, unregulated manners and decreased the number of women’s lives lost by providing accountability for the practice. Furthermore, the number of providers performing abortions has steadily decreased since Roe v. Wade, as have the number of legal abortions in the past three decades. Yet, in recent decades, Christians began recalling the Early Church’s censure of abortion but lost the context and rationale for this stance, and they partnered opposition to abortion as an appropriately Christian stance with notions of female value that revolve around childbearing and complementarian marriage with men. They often forsook the whole spirit of the earliest protest against abortion – which was that all lives should be valued and supported.
This is where many forms of opposition to abortion become most problematic and, to be honest, hurtful to me. As one who found myself in a situation in which some would choose abortion, I completely understand that choice. This world – and Christians in particular, of which I am one – do not make it easy to choose to give birth to our children. I find it hard to swallow the argument that one is pro-life when that stance also includes shaming unmarried pregnant women or mothers, opposing healthcare and welfare reforms and other forms of socialized or government provision that would provide much-needed support for a female head of household and her children, and who push for the births of these babies and then ignore the social and systemic conditions of oppression into which these children will live. Most abortions are performed for women of lower socioeconomic status. It is ignorant and arrogant to believe that this is due to any character flaws on their part or the absence of good parenting or other influences in their lives. As one of those statistics – a lower-income young woman who became pregnant outside of marriage – I can say with some authority that the correlations most likely point to the impossibility of raising children on a single, low income, as well as the shame and ignominy that good girls face from their friends, family, and faith communities, as reasons why many choose abortion. College degrees do not necessarily help, nor is work ethic, initiative, or ambition the issue, either. When the wage gap between white women and white men still hovers around 80 cents to every dollar and the wage gap between women of color and white men ranges between 54 cents and 67 cents to every dollar, the argument that education, a good work ethic, and initiative will grant a woman the ability to get a well-paying job and support the children she bears does not hold much water. We are simply not supporting mothers, and this is somewhat reminiscent to me of the old devaluing of females. Only now, we have created for pregnant women a catch-22 in which they are being shamed for abortions, shamed for bearing children, and left with no recourse to remedy this situation.
I also find it hard to swallow that any figure – political or layperson – could claim to be pro-life when they oppose life in so many forms. Does the pro-life argument only push for birthing babies? Which babies? Born where and to what kinds of families? At what age do we start shaming them and blaming them for the decline of our society? How can we, in one breath, argue for the “right to life” of a fetus and in another breath argue against the right to life of an immigrant whose life is endangered by violence, food insecurity, poverty, or bigotry? How can we ignore the right to life of our own citizens whose very appearance or whose emotional behavior in situations of duress are enough to discredit them as deserving of dignity, protection, and, yes, even life itself? It’s all a bit hard to swallow.