Here's how it works these days—unfortunately: You tell me whether you're pro-choice or pro-life, and I'll immediately know whether to treat you as a friend or a foe, a saint or a sinner.
Of course, by leaping to such conclusions on the basis of a mere label, I'll be ignoring the deeper, more nuanced meanings of both pro-life and pro-choice. And those deeper meanings are crucial if we're ever to address the complex issues of female bodily autonomy and abortion at a level that rises above mere jingoism.
So where might we start such a discussion?
Maybe a good place would be right back at the creation story. And maybe it would be helpful to recognize from the outset that the terms pro-life and pro-choice aren't mutually exclusive. One term doesn't negate the other. Moreover, one term isn't owned exclusively by the righteous and the other by the unrighteous.
According to the Genesis 2 creation narrative, Eve hadn't even been created when God told Adam not to eat the fruit from a specific tree in the garden of Eden. (Genesis 2: 16, 17).
This first recorded divine prohibition tells us something crucial about both God and humanity. When creating the human species, God could have made us living, breathing, walking, talking, self-replicating, flesh-and-blood robots. We could have been preprogrammed to obey, incapable of doing wrong, with no need to ever make moral decisions. Since God was starting from scratch to create a whole new line of creatures in a new environment, the options were limitless.
But God chose to create humans with the power of choice. We have the freedom to equally say: "I love you, God" or "I hate you, God." "I will obey your prescriptions and proscriptions" or "I'll do my own thing, thank you very much."
With all due respect to robots, it wouldn't warm a human heart were such a machine to sidle up to us and go through a preprogrammed routine of saying, "I. Love. You." And I don't think it would warm God's heart, either. But the impact is altogether different when a being with the power of thought and choice makes such a declaration.
I believe such heart-warming reciprocity between the Creator and the created was a central factor in God's decision to give us the power of choice—even though such power showed itself almost immediately to be highly susceptible to misuse and abuse.
I would argue that from the very beginning, God has been pro-choice in the broadest and fullest and most dangerous sense of the term. From the very beginning, God has honored humanity's capacity to choose—even when our choices might take us in a wrong direction. It's a risk God seems willing to run because the benefits so outweigh the downsides—bad though the downsides have been shown to be.
Think about this: Every divine command, every divine regulation, every divine warning, every divine invitation is a tacit reminder that we have the power of choice. That we aren't robots. That we don't have to do what God asks or says. We can choose.
For many activities of life, God has said little or nothing about what we should do. So, we have to decide what is the better path. While such decisions may be influenced by Scripture, the voice of conscience, and the input of others, we must make the final decision. And we must recognize that choices have consequences—positive, negative, or a mix of both.
Mind-boggling though it may be, it seems clear to me that God places greater value on humanity's freedom to choose than on ensuring that we always make the right choice—otherwise, as already stated, we would have been created as robots.
Note this biblical example: Joshua, the successor to Moses, told the Israelites: "Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness." Yet Joshua went on to remind his listeners—as well as remind you and me—of God's unrelenting pro-choice stance: "But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve" (Joshua 24:14–15).
In Revelation 3:20, we read another apt description of God's pro-choice stance: "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me."
The invitation for a divine-human relationship—though coming from God—can be accepted or rejected because God endowed humanity with the power and the right to decide. What could be more pro-choice?
But God isn't just pro-choice. God is demonstrably pro-life as well. And when I use the term pro-life, I'm not talking narrowly about just conception, gestation, and birth. God is pro-life in the highest, deepest, broadest, most far-reaching ways possible. God is pro-life in an all-pervading manner.
Moreover, both God's pro-life stance and God's pro-choice stance have coexisted from the very beginning. And God's commitment to pro-choice is, in fact, a natural response to being so totally pro-life. Because the unchosen life—the life of a slave or robot—is not a fulfilling life. It's not the quality-of-life God would want for us.
Now let's go back once more to the creation story. Looking down at the one and only human in existence at that point—and I'm talking about Adam because Eve hadn't yet been created—God said: "It is not good for the man to be alone" (Genesis 2:18). That's a pro-life statement. That's a recognition of the compelling need for quality of life. A life of fulfillment and joy and sharing.
Living in perpetual loneliness wouldn't achieve God's vision for the ideal human experience. God's concern about Adam's loneliness suggests to me that God is concerned about human life and life quality in all its aspects.
And remember, Jesus said he had come that we humans might have life "and have it more abundantly" (John 10:10). Christ wants all of humanity to experience life in its fullness.
But here's the dilemma: God's deeply pro-choice stance and God's deeply pro-life stance, when viewed narrowly, can appear to be in conflict—though in reality they aren't. Allow me to illustrate in a somewhat circuitous way.
In the Genesis 2 description of creation, we read how Eve was formed from one of Adam's ribs. Thus, Adam declared that he and Eve were "one flesh." Through sexual intimacy, they symbolically became one flesh again. And when the genetic material from each partner united, a new being was formed by the merger of their respective flesh. This part of the creation story provides the backdrop to explain why lovers unite their lives, become one flesh, and live happily ever after.
At least, that was the plan. The ideal. But the grim reality is that not all couples—ancient or modern—have experienced marital bliss. And back in the time of Moses, some men were so hard-hearted that they would simply kick their wives out of the home rather than find workable compromises. That was a misuse of male freedom of choice, certainly. But that was life as it existed.
The pro-choice God didn't tell Moses to just force those men to live up to their marital obligations. In many cases, that might well have proved catastrophic. Instead, God told Moses to take steps to minimize the terrible destructiveness of what was happening—by requiring that the wife be given a bill of divorcement, a document that said to her ex and to the entire community that she was definitely divorced and thus entitled to certain legal rights and social provisions.
In short, the pro-choice, pro-life, divorce-hating God (Malachi 2:16 RSV), working through Moses, called for a plan B. God tried to at least minimize the pain and devastation and ongoing disruption women and their children were facing because of the prevailing hard-hearted practices.
Why did God allow divorce? Because, I would suggest, God is pro-choice. In such personal areas, you simply can't force compliance. You can't create love out of thin air. And the pro-life God wanted a woman to have the best life possible despite having to deal with her husband's misuse of the very freedom made possible by the pro-choice God. And the pro-life God and the pro-choice God we're talking about here is the same God.
Jesus later made it clear that the divorce concession allowed by Moses was never part of God's original plan (Matthew 19:8). But it is a classic example of altering approaches to meet changing circumstances and changing needs. When the ideal isn't available, humans may have to settle for less than the best. The best available option. The lesser of the evils.
Take war, for example. It's clear that in God's dream for humanity—in paradise—war will not exist (Isaiah 2:4). But in the meantime, war is likely to continue, meaning that innocent people will keep being killed, maimed, and bereft. They will continue to be victims of post-traumatic stress disorder. Nevertheless, bad though war is, King Solomon declared that there's "a time to kill and a time to heal . . . a time for war and a time for peace" (Ecclesiastes 3:3,8).
The Catholic Church, with its strong pro-life commitment, recognizes that in certain diabolical situations, war may be the least-evil choice in a field of horrific options. This teaching is called the "just war theory." And the position is not held despite a pro-life stance but because of a pro-life stance.
While abortion is not fully analogous to war, there are significant similarities, such as limited options, among which there is no ideal solution. Every option is bad in varying degrees.
Up to this point, we've focused primarily on biblical statements that offer insight into both God's pro-choice and pro-life stances. Now let's focus on some of the practical realities surrounding abortion.
Although abortion as such isn't discussed in either the Hebrew or the Christian scriptures, it's worth noting that in the laws of Moses, prenatal life appears to have been assigned a lower value than postnatal life (Exodus 21:22–25.)
Notice that I used the term prenatal life. But not every religion would agree that life is the correct term in this context. Certainly, for some faith traditions, life is believed to begin at the moment of conception. For others, life begins when there's fetal movement (quickening). For still others, it begins with the first breath. And other traditions may have still different explanations and beliefs.
So, whose religious perspective is going to be the foundation on which to frame laws about abortion? And is it the government's prerogative to force members of a long-established faith to reorder their behavior according to some other religion's belief system? Would that not be an "establishment of religion," which US jurisprudence seeks to avoid? Would that not create freedom-of-religion and separation-of-church-and-state issues?
These aren't purely academic questions. Arguing in part on the basis of the First Amendment's religion clauses, Rabbi Barry Silver, who's also an attorney, has filed suit against the state of Florida because of a recently passed anti-abortion law.
Pregnancy is a life-changing experience. But it can also be life-threatening. Seriously so. Sometimes the mother and the fetus cannot both survive. Would we want existing children to be robbed of their much-loved mother or a husband robbed of a loving wife because the law says the rights of an embryo or fetus trump the rights of all other affected parties?
In such cases, what option is the truly pro-life option? And who should make that decision? Doctors? Clergy? Legislators? Judges? Or should it be those most affected—with the pregnant woman (whose body and soul are the most intimately involved) casting the deciding vote?
And what about severe fetal abnormalities? When medical science knows with a high degree of certainty that, if allowed to take its natural course right through to birth, every minute of that child's postnatal life will be pain-racked. And that the child will never interact meaningfully with its surroundings—yet those who are a part of its surroundings will have to watch its sufferings day in and day out. And then it will ultimately die an agonizing death.
Those are the grim realities. So, again, who decides? And what option is truly the most pro-life?
I recently read of a Christian missionary doctor who works in a developing country where preteen girls are frequently given in marriage. Many produce offspring when they're still in their very early teens or even younger. To put it into my farm-boy vernacular, giving birth at such a young age often tears up young mothers' innards and may leave them facing a variety of lifelong difficulties—difficulties that can, in turn, have a negative impact on their perceived value as a wife.
I find it appalling that a Christian missionary sacrifices greatly to travel halfway around the world to work in a disadvantaged country to educate the populace about the dangers of youthful childbearing, while Christian legislators in our advantaged country are passing laws that force equally young girls—who may happen to be pregnant because they're victims of rape, incest, or ignorance—to deliver the baby. And it's all being done because those legislators are convinced that such laws are the pro-life response to the reality of youthful pregnancy.
Rape and incest (incest is actually another form of rape) are extreme evils, whether the victim is an adult or a child, a female or a male. Damage created by the trauma may continue to resurface for years, decades, or even a lifetime. And female victims have the added risk of pregnancy.
In an ideal world, every conception would bring unmitigated joy to the heart of the pregnant woman. But in the case of rape or incest, what may be the most horrendous experience to which the victim has ever been subjected may now be inextricably intertwined with the origin of a child. And the child, while carrying the mother's genetic heritage, likewise carries the genetic heritage of the most despised human the mother has ever met. And in some states, the law says that a rapist is entitled to parental rights, such as visitation!
Some women may choose to keep a child that comes into existence as the result of such violence. Others, recognizing their own mental, emotional, or spiritual limitations, look at other options.
Some women are horrified by the future traumas they know the child may face because of the circumstances of its conception and the danger that the rapist—the ultimate abuser of power—may at some point try to insinuate himself into the child's life.
Still other women face the daunting, cold reality that societal support structures are appallingly few and far between. So, they know they're on their own.
Some women will opt for abortion, painful though that decision may be. But the pain and the tears and the anguish don't mean that the woman doesn't sincerely view pregnancy termination as the most loving, most caring, most pro-life choice available in a field of bad options. And particularly so if she feels certain that the embryo/fetus will go to heaven—whether immediately or at the resurrection—completely bypassing the pain and suffering experienced by so many in this world.
And that mother may feel more than willing to stand before the judgment seat of God to explain why she sacrificed her would-be offspring rather than let that child go through what had high odds of being a living hell. Remember, you and I are not the ones who must give account to God concerning her decision: She is.
But rape and incest aren't the only reasons why a woman might opt for abortion rather than subject the potential child to life amidst unremitting social, emotional, mental, or financial strife.
A woman may be in an abusive relationship that she feels she simply can't escape. But she definitely doesn't want a child to have to face what she's facing. And she's not comfortable, for whatever reason, with having the child raised by some institution or another couple who may themselves turn out to be abusers. She reads the newspapers. She watches the news on TV. She knows the evils that lurk out there. She knows what a child may be subjected to.
There's an old saying that we shouldn't tear down a wall or a fence until we know who built it and why. It's advice worth considering. The 7-2 majority of US Supreme Court justices who decided Roe v. Wade in 1973 was made up of five Republican-nominated justices and two Democrat-nominated justices. One Democrat-nominated justice and one Republican-nominated justice voted against the decision.
Many Republicans/conservatives of that bygone era were such strong believers in small government that, to them, anti-abortion laws were, among other things, simply too much government intrusion into private life.
However, there was an even more compelling reason why Roe v. Wade was decided as it was: The justices were deeply moved by the plight of women who faced heart-wrenching and life-altering situations for which they had very few legal options. At that time, abortions were more plentiful than many now realize. But not legal. And definitely not safe.
Women were losing their lives or facing permanent injury because such procedures were being carried out in secret—ensuring the viability of the coat-hanger industry, we might say. I repeat: It wasn't as if abortions didn't exist before Roe v. Wade. They just took place in back alleys and hotel rooms and were often being attempted by people who had little clue what they were doing or how to cope with an emergency, should it arise.
Another worthwhile consideration is: What are the potential consequences now of removing a right that has existed nationwide for nearly half a century? Jesus urged us to count the cost—to analyze the probabilities of a successful outcome—before undertaking a venture (Luke 14:28-33). While we can never predict every eventuality, we can look at the milieu that existed before Roe v. Wade. Do we really want to return to that?
And we can look at another huge moral-social experiment in which we used the Constitution to take away a right that had long existed for most Americans—and I refer to Prohibition.
The poverty and squalor caused by alcohol, which were expected to greatly disappear with the passage of Prohibition, did not disappear. And the level of consumption, which was expected to be curbed, was not curbed.
But the most shocking result of Prohibition was the creation of whole new categories of criminality—from the illegal manufacture of alcoholic beverages to their illegal distribution to their illegal consumption. Crime became both big business and a widespread cottage industry. Prohibition put organized crime on the map and also spawned petty criminals in ways that had never before happened.
Prohibition was a colossal failure—although it had appeared promising when religious leaders and other advocates described the evils of alcohol and promised a national spiritual and social renewal if it were banned.
I can't predict all the societal changes that will emerge following the overturning of Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022. But if the legalized vigilantism we see being codified currently in some states is allowed to stand and even expand, whole new criminal classes will be created. Socially destructive law-enforcement practices will be executed by self-appointed, self-righteous vigilantes/bounty hunters, which will wreak havoc with the very fabric of our society.
Neighbors will spy on neighbors, then accuse them, then sue them—abetted by diabolical laws that dangle money as an incentive while providing the righteous-sounding cover of "pro-life concern." It will make the dystopian horrors described in Orwell's 1984 seem unimaginative and anemic.
And will anti-abortion laws be equally and fairly applied? Not likely.
Some of the most adamant pro-life luminaries have been outed as serial adulterers or keepers of a mistress. Such pro-life politicians have a collective track record of pushing their mistress to have an abortion when she falls pregnant (or has a scare that she might be pregnant).
In outlawing abortion, the impact will be greater on the poor than on the economically advantaged. The rule makers don't have to worry, because they aren't poor. They can merely board a plane and whisk their paramour to the nearest abortion provider, even if they have to go overseas.
One of the prime charges Jesus leveled against the spiritual leaders of his day was their hypocrisy—their double standards: "For they don't do what they tell you to do. They load you with impossible demands that they themselves don't even try to keep" (Matthew 23:3–4 The Living Bible).
I imagine some readers are shouting: "But the majority of abortions are little more than a last-ditch method of birth control!" And that's probably true. But the answer isn't the creation of more coercive laws but a decided increase in moral suasion, comprehensive education, ready access to birth control, and dramatically better support structures for both prenatal and postnatal care.
As religious people, we can strongly advocate for keeping sexual expression within the confines of marriage. But without sacrificing any principle, we can also say: "But if you disagree with us, and if you're going to engage in premarital or extramarital relations, then at the very least limit the risk of adversely affecting the life of others: Take measures to prevent disease and unwanted pregnancy. And take that responsibility very, very, very seriously."
"So," some will respond derisively, "what you're saying is: Be good. But if you can't be good, then at least be careful." Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying. And I'm saying it without apology. In the same way that I recommend abstinence from alcohol—but I advocate even more strongly not driving while under the influence. We need to deal with realities as they exist, not just dream of how much easier and nicer everything would be if we lived in a perfect world.
And I believe that's what God was saying in his permission for divorce back in the days of Moses: "I want you to have loving, rewarding marriages. But if you men stubbornly refuse to work toward that end, then at least take steps to minimize the damage."
If such an approach was good enough for God in a part of life as sacred as marriage, then I think we should at least give serious consideration to such an approach in some other complicated aspects of life today.
Let me be perfectly clear: I'm anti-abortion. Strongly. I wish abortions were rendered unnecessary because unwanted conception did not exist. And I wish rape and incest and fetal abnormality and abuse and poverty and a whole host of other highly adverse circumstances weren't a devastating part of life's picture. But they are.
We live in a messed-up world. But with Roe v. Wade overturned, we still live in a messed-up world—we simply face an altered set of hardships and inequities and injustices and burdens. And we'll still have abortions. I don't believe overturning Roe v. Wade moves us any closer to a divine model—or to a truly moral/ethical stance.
In my reading of Scripture, I find God embracing a pro-choice stance that is the inescapable outgrowth of a pro-life commitment. Or, stated another way, I find in Scripture a full-fledged pro-life commitment that, by its very nature, can be truly fulfilled only in the context of pro-choice freedom.
Bill Clinton isn't typically my go-to guy for ethical/moral insight. But I find his call for abortions to be "legal, safe, and rare" to be more in keeping with God's simultaneous pro-choice and pro-life stance than are the strident calls for all-out female coercion.
Much as I oppose abortion, and much as I will encourage everyone—aided by societal and spiritual support structures—to work to ensure that abortion is all but unnecessary, I have to agree with Bill Clinton on this one:
In the final analysis, abortion should be "legal, safe, and rare."
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the writer and do not reflect the viewpoints of any individuals or organizations with which the writer may be associated.
James Coffin, who retired from Seventh-day Adventist Church employment after more than 35 years as a youth pastor, senior pastor, and editor, has since 2011 been executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.
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