I recall years ago on the Sunday before a national election a surprise awaited members of the congregation I served when they returned to their cars after worship. Under each of the windshield wipers someone had placed a leaflet that declared in large bold print, “IT IS A SIN TO VOTE FOR BILL CLINTON!” A picture of a fetus was also on the front of the leaflet. A local pro-life organization decided they had the liberty to come onto our church property during worship to promote their position without asking anyone’s permission. This is a common practice.
An estimated 125,000 abortions take place throughout the world every day, over 3,000 of them daily in the U.S. or about 22% of all pregnancies. I find those numbers troubling. What can be done to address this problem? Clearly many Christians are convinced they know exactly what must be done. The Vatican speaks not only for Roman Catholics but for many Protestants as well in saying that abortion must be made illegal and punished as a crime. The assumptions behind this strategy are (1) that making abortion legal leads to many more abortions and (2) that outlawing abortion and punishing providers and the women who seek their help will reduce the practice of abortion and save the unborn. But these assumptions have no basis in fact.
I am convinced that abortion is a sin. The claim, “It’s my body and I can do what I want to” is utterly unpersuasive to me. Since I affirm with scripture that “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Psalms 24:1), I can’t blithely accept a notion of freedom and self-determination that asserts a right to put an end to a developing human life for any reason whatsoever. I am, however, unconvinced by those who insist that full-fledged, soul-imbued human life starts at conception; I find that to be a strange view given that 80% of all embryos fail to become imbedded in the wall of the uterus where they can develop. Still I find it morally offensive to deliberately interrupt the trajectory of a growing fetus.
But at the same time, I believe that abortion should not be a factor for Christians when assessing politicians or political parties. A compelling reason for this is that there is no evidence that restrictive laws and policies have any impact on reducing abortions. None. Research reported on earlier this year showed “restrictive abortion laws are not associated with lower abortion rates.” Those who have done the most research on global abortion policy have found that restrictive and punitive laws simply do not serve their purpose: “Just as laws banning abortion do not stop women from having them, it is equally true that permissive laws do not cause them to do so.”
Comparative international studies reveal that “the abortion rate is 29 per 1,000 women of childbearing age in Africa and 32 per 1,000 in Latin America—regions in which abortion is illegal under most circumstances in the majority of countries. The rate is 12 per 1,000 in Western Europe, where abortion is generally permitted on broad grounds.” These findings should give pause to those who think the answer to abortion prevention is in passing strict anti-abortion legislation. The political commitment of some Christians has obscured the truth.
Hard-line anti-abortion activists are committed to a strategy to eliminate abortions that ignores facts in the real world. We need to ask, “Where do we find the lowest rates of abortion on the planet?” The anti-abortion activists would have us believe that it is where abortion is outlawed and practitioners of abortion are punished. In fact, that isn’t at all true. The nation where the smallest percent of pregnant women get abortions is the very liberal Netherlands. Rather than being a place where laws against abortion are strict and the penalties high, abortion is legal and easily available.
This is not at all what those who use abortion as a political wedge issue would have us believe. Continually they lay every legal abortion performed at the feet of politicians who don’t pay tribute to the pro-life orthodoxy, as though supporting legal abortion actually causes it to happen. Nevertheless, the fact remains that making abortion legal does not make it occur more often. To claim, as many on the religious right do on a regular basis, that pro-choice politicians are “baby-killers” or supporters of infanticide is viciously deceitful.
Given that instituting laws against abortion have not been demonstrated to reduce abortions, it makes little sense for Christians to remain fixated on this issue in the way they have done. The expenditure of energy and the outpouring of rhetoric against legal abortion will result in no positive gains for life, even if the efforts are successful. For this reason outlawing abortion should cease to be a focus for people of faith so far as politics and public policy are concerned. Those who are truly pro-life would do the world more good by turning attention to genuinely life saving, life-enhancing matters like food, shelter and health-care for the needy.
The one thing that has had some success in reducing abortions is the easy availability of contraceptives. True, this is not the case in every situation but it is in many. Abstinence-only programs have had no demonstrated positive effect, researchers have found. Those who seek both to outlaw abortion and reduce the availability of contraceptives are the ones who insure that the most abortions will take place and do so in the least safe conditions, endangering pregnant women. In other words, those who purport to be pro-life are inadvertently pro-death.
Unfortunately, the abortion issue has allowed many Christians – and conservatives as a whole – to claim to be working to defend the most vulnerable when in fact they are turning attention and national resources away from those who are most desperately in need. The good that actually could be done to protect life isn’t done because pro-life Christians lend their support to politicians who are most likely to block funding for programs for children and families of the weakest and most impoverished. The abortion issue ends up serving as a smokescreen behind which certain politicians work in the interests of those who are the most rich and powerful.
I hate abortion. But this is not the issue that should be mobilizing Christians when it comes time to vote. The belief that legislation will save unborn lives is misguided. Love, persuasion and an environment of support will accomplish much more. Imagining that legislation will stop abortion is just wishful thinking. Such legislation, were it to become law, would do more harm than good by pushing women to turn to unsafe illegal abortion. If Christians are going to be politically engaged, let it be for issues that truly matter for the well-being of those who are the most vulnerable and least advantaged.
Craig M. Watts is the minister of Royal Palm Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Coral Springs, Florida and Co-Moderator of Disciples Peace Fellowship. He authored the book Disciple of Peace: Alexander Campbell on Pacifism, Violence and the State (Doulos Christou Press: Indianapolis, 2005) and his essays have appeared in many journals such as Cross Currents, Encounter, the Otherside, DisciplesWorld and more. Craig blogs on the Disciples Peace Fellowship’s, “Shalom Vision.”