Roe v Wade: taking off the 'culture war' spectacles

(Photo: Unsplash/Claire Anderson)

"Which is lawful on the Sabbath," Jesus once asked: "To do good or to do evil? To save life or to destroy it?"

The answer, as disciples of Jesus know, is always to do good – to save life, whether that is on the Sabbath or any other day of the week for that matter.

And for that reason, I rejoice when the life of even one unborn child is saved when there might have been the prospect of a "termination" – that cold, clinical term for the slaughter of a child developing in the womb.

Abortion is vile, wicked and evil. Every human being, whether unborn or born, has the right to live and to reach their full potential. Men, women and children are made in the image of God. Each one is precious.

Even if you are secular person, take a look at the picture of a child at 12 weeks in the womb on the reputable medical WebMD website here. It is impossible not to see that as a child. No wonder early feminists were against abortion. Susan B Anthony called it "child murder", and Alice Paul referred to it as "the ultimate exploitation of women". And yet in England, Scotland and Wales, abortion is generally allowable up until 24 weeks. It is heart-breaking.

So, for all these reasons and more I, like the vast majority of Christians worldwide in all the main denominations, am excited and thrilled at the leaked draft of the Roe v Wade judgment from the US Supreme Court. Dare we hope that thousands – millions of lives – will be saved? We do!

And yet I feel uneasy. I really do. Here's why.

Firstly, there is the potential impact on the Supreme Court and the functioning of US democracy. This is partly a matter of the leak itself. Whoever did it has damaged the reputation of the court. Whether the leaker's motives were to bounce conservative justices into sticking by the draft, or to stir liberal activists and others to fight it, the net result is the same: the Supreme Court has been tarred.

This is the first leak of this kind in its history. As Charles Camosy, Roman Catholic author of Beyond the Abortion Wars says: "The leaker seems to believe the stakes are so high as to be willing to destroy the court's ability to function."

The Supreme Court had already become politicised enough in general discourse in the US even before this leak, so far as I can see from this side of the pond. And that fact, together with other systemic issues in US politics (the gerrymandering of voting districts; the questioning of the legitimacy of elections; and the general polarisation of politics) makes democracy in that great country look even more fragile than it currently seems. That's not good.

The second reason I feel uneasy is the way the issue is increasingly lacking nuance and thoughtfulness on the conservative side. By this I mean that there is a decreasing amount of room for acknowledging that not everything is black and white, and that sometimes with this issue - as with many others - there are some shades of grey that need to be acknowledged.

For example, most Christians would grant that there are some exceptional circumstances where abortion may be something that has to be considered. Many believers might well include situations where a pregnancy has resulted from rape or incest. It might well be, for example, that the trauma from having to carry through a pregnancy in such circumstances would cause suicidal thoughts in a woman, or at the very least compound their initial trauma very many times over.

But already in the US, at least eleven states – including Alabama, Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas and Texas – have passed laws which ban abortion without any such exceptions. This makes me more than a little uneasy, to put it mildly. As retired pro-life Republican state senator Jim Hendren of Arkansas said recently: "The fact is, it's a different ethical dilemma when you're talking about a 10-year-old girl who is a rape victim being responsible for the actions of a criminal, versus someone who is responsible for their own actions."

And he is quite right, it seems to me. The Church of England, in one of its finer moments, manages to combine "principled opposition to abortion" with "a recognition that there can be strictly limited conditions under which it may be morally preferable to any available alternative". This must surely be right. Would any of us want to insist to a Ukrainian mother raped by a Russian soldier in the bombed-out ruins of her home with her children watching that she must go through with the pregnancy? I don't think I could. And I think most people in the US would agree: an Associated Press/NORC poll last June found 84% of Americans support exceptions in terms of abortion restrictions in cases of rape and incest.

The third and final reason I am uneasy is that it is possible to win an argument and yet lose the battle for people's hearts and minds. It seems likely that Roe v Wade will be overturned if this leak is followed through. That is great news. It is arguably not only good news ethically (many children's lives will be saved) but also politically (abortion rules will be set by elected state legislators rather than unelected national judges).

But are women who are "pro-choice" hearing clearly any words of love from US evangelicals and other pro-life supporters? Or has any semblance of that got drowned out by all the political campaigning on this issue? I merely ask the question – for all I know, the answer is 'yes'. But I wonder.

And what about the ordinary woman in the street who has had an abortion? Most such women in the US are on low incomes, are unmarried, are proportionately more likely to be from an ethnic minority, and are people who actually identify as Christians (see here for more on this). Are these women hearing voices of compassion, love, kindness and understanding from those with a principled opposition to abortion – or just shouting and condemnation?

May our tears of sorrow over abortion and our tears of joy over the saving of one unborn baby's life also be accompanied by tears of compassion for the women who – often through no fault of their own – face unplanned pregnancies.

After all, there is more to doing the "good" that Jesus tells us to do than winning an argument or even a legal battle. Much more.

David Baker is Contributing Editor to Christian Today and Senior Editor of Evangelicals Now in print and online. He writes here in a purely personal capacity.