Regarding ‘Friendly Fire’ Among Evangelicals over Abortion
The year was 1991. The Soviet Union had collapsed, and, to my astonishment, I found myself at an evangelistic meeting inside the Kremlin’s big auditorium, where the Congress of People’s Deputies would meet. I was in Moscow as part of a team fielded by the Leighton Ford Ministries, assembled to teach ministers from across the USSR — from the Baltic States to Siberia. We were covering some material they might have missed before the Iron Curtain fell. (Mine was apologetics.)
The social situation was pretty wild. For one thing, the nation’s boundaries were up for grabs. The best they could manage was the Commonwealth of Independent States. They weren’t sure whether Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Belarus, or Latvia would be in or out of the new order. But there were also complexities within our conference, tensions based upon the varying degrees of cooperation with the state by pastors in the preceding decade. For instance, some had gone along with the law forbidding baptisms under 18; these were the ones who could assemble in big numbers in Moscow. Others headed for the forests, baptizing young teens in secret. The former group found the scruples of the latter to be pointlessly fastidious, since working with the “emperor” allowed for public Christian witness. The latter counted the former as sellouts. And now they were all in one room, supposedly on the same sheet of music for church advance in a new day. Awkward.
Thirty years later, this has come to mind as I’ve watched expressions of disappointment and even disdain among long-time opponents of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Some (the “incrementalists”) insist that the best response is to chip away at the abortion culture and industry with limited but significant gains as we win hearts and minds — and legistlatures and courts—to our side. In contrast, the “abolitionists” are impatient with those finding satisfation in a series of cumulative advances when the stakes are so high — the preservation of innocent human life.
In recent days, the pot’s been stirred by abortion-limiting developments in several state legislatures, by release of the Alito draft, and, in my own Southern Baptist Convention, passage of a sweeping abolitionist resolution at the 2021 meeting and subsequent pushback from the denomination’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. And it’s not just a matter of logic and prudence. Feelings are raw, dignities affronted. Nobody likes to be called a compromising wimp (or AINO, Abolitionist in Name Only), or, on the other hand, a fantasizing zealot.
No, I’m not going to say, “Let’s just split the difference and have a group hug.” I’m for the abolition of abortion from the moment of conception (just as I probably would have been with the Russian Christians who shunned Soviet strictures). But I think that a bit more “come let us reason together” could help us enjoy a moment of fellow-feeling. So let me pitch in a bit of my thinking.
Logic and Epistemology
If the embryo is, indeed, a human (not bovine, marsupial, reptilian, etc.) being (and not just a pulmonary, orthopedic, or mitochondrial aspect of one), then it warrants protection and nurture. Roe drew arbitrary lines (e.g., specious ‘viability,’ ever shifting with technological advances), dumb and baneful boundaries, fences that were extended by the likes of Virginia’s Governor Ralph Northam (D) and Joseph Fletcher (of “situational ethics” fame), who countenanced post-birth infanticide. So, I argue that the burden of proof falls upon those who say that the fertilized egg is not humanly precious.
Unfortunately, there seem to be lapses in logic within the pro-life tribe. Some incrementalists say that the abolitionists must condemn the Hyde Amendment (denying government funds for abortion) since it’s an incrementalist achievement. By their lights, this would constitute a contradiction. But surely the abolitionist position entails support for Hyde, as far as it went.
Of course, a great many women doubt that the freshly fertilized egg is sufficiently human to warrant protection. They’ve been told that by most every Tom, Dick, and Harry (and Harriet) in the legacy media and on the university faculty. If the ancient and honorable definition of “knowledge” is properly “justified, true, belief,” many women can hardly be said to know abortion is wrong since the bogus justifications of the “pro-choice” forces have knocked them off that belief if they ever had it. The Father of Lies/Old Deluder has done his work, and our society is morally addled. They have no idea of or concern for what Psalm 139 says, and they’ve become besotted with the conceits of the “pro-choice” activists, their fellow travelers and their dupes. They’ve reached an age of accountability, but not a season of rationality.
It’s been said, “Don’t attribute to malice what can be explained in terms of ignorance.” In “Mere Christianity,” C. S. Lewis applies this apologetically to long-ago witch burnings:
But surely the reason we do not [today]execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did—if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural power from him in return and were using those powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or bring bad weather, surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did. There is no difference of moral principle here: the difference is about matter of fact.
So fair is fair. If we plead ignorance, we should grant our opponents some consideration on that account as well.
To some, it’s as simple as declaring abortion at any level “murder,” and then applying the lex talionis (“life for life,” . . .) straight away. Actually, few if any prescribe execution for women who employ the morning after pill. In doing so, do we thus demean the blastula? Do we go wobbly in the face of our own logic? More likely, we go wobbly in the face of the fact that we haven’t given it much thought.
When we do give it thought, most say a lesser punishment is warranted. Though I support capital punishment, I’m glad that we’ve backed off from executing people for sodomy, gravesite desecration, cattle rustling, and accidentally killing someone while attempting suicide (all of which have been capital crimes in one jurisdiction or another). Today, estimations of culpability vary widely, with, for example, first, second, and third-degree murder; voluntary and involuntary manslaughter; and class one, two, and three misdemeanors. We look for mitigating and extenuating circumstances, and fashion qualifiers such as “aggravated,” “diminished capacity,” “hate crime,” and “with prejudice” to up or lower the ante. You don’t treat the hunter who shoots the stranger he thinks is a deer the same as the wife who, having found an exciting lover, doctors her boring husband’s meals with poison.
It’s my impression that the abolitionists have left themselves open to criticism by ignoring these complexities, either by leaving the impression that the “criminalizing” they call for entails hit-man type sentencing. But the incrementalists err more egregiously by giving all women who seek abortions a pass, lumping them together as “victims.” It’s hard to believe this is deeply convictional, since surely they see a morally relevant difference between the woman seized and raped in a parking garage and a promiscuous law school student who makes the cold-blooded choice to kill off the child threatening her career dreams. Make no mistake, I’ve argued that abortion should be prohibited for rape victims since the child inside didn’t do the raping. (In defending this view from the platform of the 1989 SBC meeting, I likened the plight of these women to the plight of men drafted to go in harm’s way to defend lives back home.)
Whatever the level of culpability, we’ve employed a host of variants to such basic categories of punishment as incarceration, fines, community service, and loss of civic privileges. And what doesn’t fly in criminal court may be launched successfully in civil court (cf., O. J. Simpson). And the jurisdiction options are manifold. Again, complexity. (And, incidentally, even a simple $100 fine for each abortion would send the pro-abortion crowd into a frenzy, for it would signal disapproval, utterly unacceptable in their eyes.)
Marketing and Statecraft
The pro-abortion crew is masterful in marketing, with their kitbag of notions—from ubiquitous coat hangers to Atwood’s Handmaids to “reproductive health.” This is not to say that we pro-lifers, abolitionists included, are indifferent to public relations. We go with “pro-life,” not “pro-gestation.” We post images of babies at 12 weeks, not zygotes. The question is whether the images and expressions are misleading, and ours are not.
Politics is the art of the possible. As William F. Buckley put it back in 1967, “I’d be for the most right, viable candidate who could win.” Yes, there are reasons to swing for the fences as an abolitionist, whatever the national consensus or lack of it may be. Homicide at any stage of life is abhorrent, and even if you can’t elicit immediate, comprehensive criminalization from the electorate and the courts, it’s hard to triangulate effectively if you set your boundaries too short. But they should also show respect for those who have been playing “small ball,” focusing on walks, steals, sac flies, bunts, etc.
In his magisterial, thirteenth-century work “Summa Theologica” (at Question 96, Articles 2 and 3, in “Treatise on Law”), Thomas Aquinas considers the question of whether all vices should be outlawed and all virtues compelled by the state. His answer to both is a resounding no, though he does argue that “murder, theft, and such like” should be forbidden since they are among “the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained.” Well, yes, but, regarding abortion, it leaves some questions on the table. Is the use of the morning-after pill automatically murder (the willful taking of innocent life known to be human), and has human society been maintained despite the rash of abortions? Well, certainly the U.S. has not descended into utter anarchy, but, on the other hand, one could argue that the emergence of “two Americas” (so deeply divided that there’s been talk of divvying up the states for two new nations) stems in large measure from the Roe decision. Without it, abortion may well have not emerged as a non-negotiable “blood sacrament” for the Democrats.
Aquinas continues in an incrementalist vein, when he says that
[L]aw should take account of many things, as to persons, as to matters, and as to times. Because the community of the state is composed of many persons; and its good is procured by many actions; nor is it established to endure for only a short time, but to last for all time by the citizens succeeding one another” [here, referencing Augustine’s City of God] . . . The purpose of human law is to lead men to virtue, not suddenly, but gradually. Wherefore it does not lay upon the multitude of imperfect men the burdens of those who are already virtuous, viz. that they should abstain from all evil. Otherwise these imperfect ones, being unable to bear such precepts, would break out into yet greater evils: thus it is written (Proverbs 30:33): “He that violently bloweth his nose, bringeth out blood”; and (Matthew 9:17) that if “new wine,” i.e. precepts of a perfect life, “is put into old bottles,” i.e. into imperfect men, “the bottles break, and the wine runneth out,” i.e. the precepts are despised, and those men, from contempt, break into evils worse still.
No, Aquinas is not talking about abortion, which would have been morally unthinkable to him, a position reflected recently by San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, who barred Nancy Pelosi from the Eucharist. And no, the gradualism Thomas prescribes makes no sense unless the goal, abolition, is clear; otherwise, how would you know whether your increments were progressions or regressions? And no, incrementalism doesn’t justify deployment of sophistical nonsense, i.e., victim status for all abortion recipients. Surely those who say this are doing public relations rather than advancing prophetic truth, afraid that plain speaking would generate backlash, an anxiety that has hamstrung biblically-frank preaching through the centuries. A scholarly survey of this dispute notes the role that public relations has played in the pro-life movement’s strategizing, informed by the backlash that George H. W. Bush and Donald Trump faced when suggesting punishment for the women involved.
The Moscow Moment
Back to 1991 Moscow. Though there were some quiet grumblings and snipings among the Russians at the conference, tied to the get-along/no-way division over previous church-state practices, we came together the last day for some gratifying, yet cringe-worthy behavior. First, we observed the Lord’s Supper together, all drinking from the same big metal cup, without a minister to wipe it off as we passed it down the rows. (This Billy Baptist was much more comfortable with small, individual glasses for the grape juice, not wine.) And then, for the first time in my life, I was exposed to men exchanging the “holy kiss” (cf. 2 Cor 13:12) . . . on the lips. And I got one too. Yikes! (But I didn’t push back.) But third, there was a nice exchange of gifts, including a handsome collection of Russian pins mounted on a small banner hanging in my study.
Analogously, I think we need to engage in some “unsanitary” and awkward communion, and to exchange some gifts of fellow feeling — this for the glory of God and the advance of the whole counsel of God, including the dignity of human life from its very beginning.
Mark Coppenger (BA Ouachita; Ph.D. Vanderbilt; MDiv SWBTS) has been a philosophy professor at Wheaton, a pastor in Arkansas and Illinois, a denominational staffer in Indiana and Tennessee, and an infantry officer. He retired as Professor of Christian Philosophy and Ethics at SBTS in 2019. His 2022 publications are “If Christianity Is So Good, Why Are Christians So Bad?” (Christian Focus) and “Apologetical Aesthetics” (Wipf and Stock).