As a faithfully pro-choice follower of Christ, I’m no longer stunned when people call me a baby killer, a murderer, or a fake Christian. I’ve come to live with family and friends shunning me and strangers telling me I’m going to burn in hell, and have even grown accustomed to taking safety precautions while leading a religious pro-choice organization for the past few years.
Abortion stigma is so deeply entrenched — particularly among evangelicals — that it’s often hard to see past the vitriol and inflammatory rhetoric. But during my last three years as the editor of Red Letter Christians and now the interim executive director, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how RLC engages the topic of abortion.
While many people wish we would take a more official stance for or against abortion, that is just not part of our ethos as a “big tent” organization. We seek to draw people in with the love of Christ, rather than shut them out with legalism. As such, the RLC movement and our own staff is comprised of pro-life and pro-choice supporters, as well as those who sincerely and equally subscribe to both principles and ideologies.
Last week, Shane Claiborne — one of RLC’s co-founders — published a piece about his pro-life position that set off a firestorm of comments from both avid supporters and opponents of abortion. While I’ve come to expect these kinds of reactions, what has been surprising for me is the way Shane has invited me to share my views with him and the way we’re learning how to practice deep listening with one another.
I have no illusions that we’ll ever be able to change each other’s minds on this subject, nor is that my hope or intention. But it’s been refreshing to engage with one another with deep respect and mutuality. With abundant grace, we are learning to move beyond the usual division and discord that surrounds abortion discussions and to give this conversation the care and compassion that it deserves.
To be clear, while I often publicly share my personal beliefs about abortion care, being part of the big tent of Red Letter Christians means that I do not speak for the organization or for our supporters on this issue — nor does Shane.
Neither of us seeks to impose our values and beliefs on anyone, nor do Shane or I remain silent about our politics and convictions.
Instead, we both point others to the Way of Jesus — a path of peacemaking that is marked by courageous conversations, holy listening, bridgebuilding, and radical reconciliation.
In my humble opinion, there is no better way to lean into this practice than by wrestling with abortion and the myriad questions about when life begins. Easy peasy, right?
So while Shane upholds fetal personhood and believes in life at conception, I contend there is no moral, scientific, ethical, or theological consensus to answer this question. It is a mystery at best, which is why I believe we must trust pregnant people and their conscience when it comes to reproductive decisions.
For me, the Hebrew scriptures indicate that life (or ensoulment) begins at first breath (Genesis 2:7) and that the Torah contains passages where abortion is arguably condoned (Numbers 5:11-31 and Exodus 21:22-25).
The New Testament also tells me that Jesus never spoke about or condemned abortion — a universal practice that has occurred from generation to generation, and one which Jesus must have surely encountered during his 33 years of earthly ministry.
But the Bible is only one source of inspiration and not the moral arbiter of what is right or good in a pluralistic society. All religions have varying views about reproductive rights and fetal personhood. To enshrine any one view into law not only prevents people from following their own conscience and religious beliefs, but also fundamentally denies them their civil rights and religious freedoms.
As presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg puts it, “If we can’t agree on where to draw the line, the next best thing we can do is agree on who should draw the line.” While some may think it’s acceptable for religious institutions or the government to draw that line, I argue that women and pregnant people have the God-given moral agency and capacity to draw that line for themselves.
From a legal perspective, this question has been asked and answered by the Supreme Court’s 1974 Roe v. Wade ruling which drew the line on abortion at fetal viability, or about 24-26 weeks of gestation when a fetus is able to survive outside the uterus. The Court recognized that deciding when life begins is a moral and ethical question that cannot be determined by the state, thereby establishing a viability standard to honor and balance both women’s bodily autonomy and the potential life of a fetus.
As Shane acknowledges, 1 in 4 people in the U.S. will have an abortion in their lifetime. While he affirms that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare,” I find this language troubling.
Abortion is health care and a human right that should be affordable and accessible to all who want or need to terminate a pregnancy, yet it is a common experience that is highly stigmatized and sensationalized.
Miscarriages are commonly called “spontaneous abortions” by the medical community. And those who decide to have induced or elective abortions, primarily do so because of a fatal fetal anomaly, to preserve their own life and well-being, or to terminate a pregnancy due to rape or incest. The majority of abortions also occur in the first trimester before fetal viability — with about 1% of abortions occurring later in pregnancy.
While we can absolutely lower the rate of unintended pregnancies and abortions with more access to contraception and comprehensive sex education, there is nothing “rare” about this experience for 25% of women in the U.S. who rely on this deeply personal and lifesaving medical procedure.
Criminalizing abortion and threatening people with the death penalty also isn’t the answer. Putting more restrictions on abortion will never stop people from exercising their religious and reproductive freedoms — but it will ultimately make abortion less safe.
As a formerly fundamentalist evangelical, a second-generation immigrant, a rape survivor, and a cisgender, able-bodied, heterosexual woman from the Midwest, there are a variety of reasons why I support abortion access. In the end, though, I recognize this is a complex conversation with no easy answers for many people.
We each contain multitudes — and we all come to the table with our own set of personal experiences, our own understanding of scripture, and our own values and beliefs that have been shaped by our communities and circumstances.
How then shall we live together?
For me, I find hope and a way forward in how RLC strives to practice dialogue across difference. Lord knows, we don’t always get it right. But we are doing our best among our staff and the wider movement for Jesus and justice to live faithfully into this call and to love each other with integrity.
One story comes to mind that illustrates this sacred practice so well. Last fall, I was tasked with picking up two white, male pastors from the airport to speak at our Red Letter Revival in Goldsboro, NC. As is common for me and my religious pro-choice vocation, I ended up talking about abortion for the hour long car ride with these two strangers.
One of the pastors identified as pro-choice, but also remarked it was probably the longest conversation he ever engaged in about abortion and the first one he ever had with his pastor friend and traveling companion. The other pastor asked questions and listened attentively, while also sharing why he upheld a more consistent ethic of life. It was an intense, yet holy ride full of radical curiosity and conviction.
Later, during one of the revival workshops, a question came up about abortion. Without hesitation, the pro-life pastor from our car ride who was also co-leading the workshop, shared with the audience how much he wrestles with abortion — but also stated how our drive together helped him realize it’s time for white men to stop talking and to start listening more. And with that, he walked over to me and passed the mic so I could answer the question for him instead.
This is what it looks like to practice big tent theology…to decenter whiteness…to share power…to draw the circle wide…to believe that the kin-dom of God is bigger than what divides us.
But this work is not for the faint of heart.
It requires risk and relationship. It requires a willingness to engage other voices and perspectives. Most of all, it requires a disciplined grace that prioritizes self-humility over self-righteousness and compassion over condemnation.
In this critical election year, abortion will undoubtedly continue to be politicized and exploited to serve a narrow religious and moral agenda at the expense of other pressing gospel issues.
But we must do better — and it starts with each and every one of us.
We can do better than treating women and pregnant people as if their worth is only in their womb.
We can do better than demonizing and dehumanizing one another when discussing abortion.
And evangelicals can do better than insisting that abortion and single-issue voting is the litmus test of Christian faith when it is Jesus who is the author, perfecter, and substance of our faith.
In this season of Lent, I invite all followers of Christ to engage in heart-to-heart conversations about abortion.
To foster empathy.
To live into tension.
To be quick to listen and slow to anger.
To be attentive to the Spirit moving through and among us.
And to meet at the cross — no matter what.