For over a decade, the United States of America was a dry nation. The Volstead Act was a nationwide constitutional ban on alcohol in all its forms, and while statistically, the consumption of alcohol did drop, it may be argued that wholistically the prohibition did more harm than good. Most certainly, the consumption of alcohol did not cease; it continued in ways that perpetuated crime, poverty, and pain. Prohibition is an example of pietistic intentions run amok.
The ambitious Texas abortion law known as the Texas Heartbeat Act, has me, like many Americans, reexamining the divisive issue of legalized abortion in our nation. The law reads in part, “a physician may not knowingly perform or induce an abortion on a pregnant woman if the physician detected a fetal heartbeat for the unborn child.” Further, the law incentivizes citizens to bring a civil action against those who would violate the provisions of this law awarding, according to the law, “statutory damages in an amount of not less than $10,000 for each abortion that the defendant performed or induced in violation of this chapter that the defendant aided or abetted.” The Biden administration is suing the state of Texas to halt the abortion law, although the Supreme Court has already ruled in a 5-4 decision not to prevent its legality. It remains to be seen if these challenges will result in a revisiting or even a reversal of the landmark ruling Roe v. Wade legalizing abortion in 1973.
Although I would describe myself as pro-life, I’m increasingly redefining what it means to be so amid such legislated vitriol as expressed in the Texas law—a law without any exemptions for rape or incest. The long and complicated story of how the unborn became a stock constituency of Republican evangelicalism is well documented, and I’ve long thought that the mantra of “Pro-life!” devolves into an act of ventriloquism, where acolytes speak and even vote in proxy for the unborn to guilt those who sincerely value life into voting for candidates and policies that in many respects serve to oppress many lives outside the womb.
To be clear, I’m not a scientist or a doctor, and my academic training isn’t in theology or philosophy, so it is far out of my lane to suggest that I can unequivocally give pronouncement as to when life begins. This isn’t the purpose of my lament. My concern centers on the many inequalities and injustices of our world; in fact, evangelicals often advance the argument that the only solution to these ills is the effective proclamation of the gospel of Jesus, which often serves as a silent endorsement of further oppression. Oppression and marginalization of entire communities and populations that could be remedied with effective legislation are denied support, while laws that result in furthering societal harms are endorsed with enthusiasm. For example, laws like the one in Texas, make the lives of women, specifically poor women more difficult, and the actual reduction of abortions is difficult to discern.
According to 2017 numbers, the abortion rate is at its lowest point since Roe, and 57% of that statistic occurred in 18 states and the District of Columbia—areas that did not enact any new restrictions on abortion. At the same time, in states that have passed prohibitive abortion laws like Texas, women in poverty are often at the mercy of non-existent or minimal social safety nets. The same legislators who vehemently defend life in the womb, do little or nothing to support its flourishing once the child is born, especially, it seems, if the child is female. This is part of the difficulty in reducing morality to prohibitions: the unintended consequences often end up hurting the very cause that it presupposes to support.
Pro-life policies shouldn’t be reserved exclusively for the womb. Imagine if legislation was passed to provide single mothers adequate food, housing, and health care for themselves and their children. Imagine if citizens were encouraged to bring civil lawsuits against those who mistreated the poor. Imagine if all children had access to nutritional food, health care, and housing via the law, instead of relinquishing those responsibilities to the whims of capitalistic motivations. Imagine if men were encouraged to exercise self-control, or if legislation was passed requiring men to get a vasectomy? Isn’t it interesting that when it comes to legislative regulation of reproductive health it deals exclusively with the woman’s body?
How different would our nation be, if as Christians we lobbied for legislation that supported what we are for instead of prohibitions of what we are against? Instead, the Republican brand of evangelicalism seeks to make exclusive interpretations of the Bible into “one size fits all” mandates that legislate morality but dismiss wisdom. In too many sectors political expediency has replaced Christian charity and the world is worse for it.
We would do well to follow the example of Jesus, who sat children on His lap and declared “let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Luke 18:16). In the context of this passage, the disciples of Jesus experiencing inconvenience and stress had asked Jesus to send the children away. But Jesus did not further marginalize the existence of children (as was the custom of the culture) and refused to vanquish their importance. Rather He validated them, granting them real agency and power in His Kingdom. Jesus did more than extend an invitation to enter the Kingdom, He granted to them ownership by making them heirs.
There is a temptation among those seeking to advance political ends via religious means to invite unrepresented and underrepresented constituencies into their midst, with no intention of giving them any actual power or agency to flourish. Life should be given the means to flourish from womb to tomb, which practically would result in supporting the needs of the poor and granting women the tools of economic sustainability and access to affordable and holistic healthcare. Any law or policy short of this reduces people to props for campaign slogans and limits life by the boundaries of the placenta.
To embrace life in all its existence while giving people the means to flourish is not a mutually exclusive proposition. To think otherwise, to vote otherwise, to legislate otherwise may lead to unintended harms that result in perpetuating the very behaviors we seek to prohibit.
Instead of merely creating a world that provides for the safety of unborn children, let’s preach the gospel and work to pass legislation that ensures that the world they are born into is safe for everyone.
This essay is from our Anastasis Series where we resurrect articles from the past that are either still relevant today or can be easily updated. This piece was first published on September 27, 2021, and has been lightly edited and updated.