(photo taken by Michael Toy, San Francisco Women’s March, January 2020)
In Cincinnati, in the early 1980’s, Dr. J.C. Willke and his wife Barbara, a nurse (credentials properly established) were at the center of a growing pro-life movement in politics. I was there, too. I helped fill a convention center, hosting an Americans Against Abortion rally tour with Melody Green (widow of musician Keith Green). I helped build one of Cincinnati’s original Crisis Pregnancy Centers and was on the volunteer staff on opening day.
I was all in. At 23, I chose working a series of part-time jobs to cover my rent, so I could dedicate the bulk of my time and energy to volunteer positions. When Christian leaders told me there was no more important issue than preserving life, what person of faith could disagree? When they said we needed to be the voice for the voiceless, that babies were literally screaming in pain as they were being torn apart, my heart was broken for those defenseless children. Who would do that to their own child? These baby-killers were in turn portrayed as either deceived or heartless women. Either they were sacrificing their children on the altar of their own sexual pleasure or they were gullible victims, believing the lies of Planned Parenthood. The women just didn’t understand their babies were not clumps of tissue. They didn’t understand abortionists were using them to line their own pockets, making money on their damaged psyches and bodies. They needed our help to understand where they were being manipulated.
What I didn’t understand at the time was how I was being manipulated with straw man fallacies. A complicated issue was distilled into an “us vs. them” argument – where they are portrayed as moral failures who perpetrate outrageous, perilous lies, and we are the heroes who stand in the gap, saving both us and them from certain destruction.
Late on a summer night in 1984, I was staffing the desk at the CPC. The volunteer counselors had gone home a half hour before. Although I had completed the counselor training, I preferred receptionist duties. I was young, a shy purity-culture virgin, and I didn’t feel comfortable talking to people about their sexual choices. But ten minutes before closing, two African-American women and their children walked in. One woman was about my age; she wanted to take the free pregnancy test offered on our sign. I tried to persuade her to return the next day when our more experienced counselors would be available, but she was insistent.
I followed the script. While we waited to see if her test was positive (it was), I asked about her possible choices. She indicated she would probably obtain an abortion. I followed the script. I showed her the model of how her baby looked at its current age, talked about fetal development, particularly cognitive and pain receptor development. I described the resources we could offer, maternity and baby items, classes, community support, prayer. I prayed for her, asked her to call back the next day after she had time to consider what we had discussed. Then I went to my knees, praying for the life of that child.
She didn’t call back. I continued to pray. She was already a mother of two, after all. Now that she knew, now that she understood what abortion truly was, how could she not choose life for her child? By the third day, I called her. She informed me she had already had the abortion. I followed the script. I stumblingly offered her our post-abortion counseling options and quickly hung up.
I was devastated. I had failed. Another life had left this earth and I was partly responsible. If only I was a better counselor…. I can now admit that I was also angry. How could she have killed her child? In my mind, she moved from deceived to heartless. I didn’t understand how she could willingly choose death.
I didn’t understand.
And therein lies the problem with the straw man argument. When the choices are a clear-cut good vs. bad, we can’t understand when good people choose the bad option. We conclude they were either foolish or they were never really good.
By never delving into the other (we referred to it as “pro-death,” not pro-choice) side of the argument, I never understood why anyone would knowingly choose abortion. I knew that the numbers of illegal abortions had been falsely inflated (sound familiar, Covid-deniers?) and statistics manipulated to sway the court’s opinion. I knew that the church had been asleep when that catastrophic ruling occurred and our country would be judged for the infanticide we had allowed unless Christians could overturn the law and the damage.
What I didn’t know was what it was like to be a young, poor black woman in Cincinnati. What I didn’t know was what it was like to be in a relationship with a man who didn’t care about condoms or one who considered pregnancy to be a woman’s problem or one who left when things got unpleasant. What I didn’t know was how to look into yet another young child’s hungry face and feel the world collapse on my shoulders. What I didn’t know was how one moment’s mistake could upend your life. What I didn’t know was that moment of desperation when you would give anything to turn back time and be not pregnant.
What I didn’t know could fill this screen in a day-long scroll.
Do I still consider myself to be pro-life? Of course. But I now have a wider view. If I am truly for life, that concern cannot end at a person’s birth. Womb to tomb, Jesus cares for the whole of a life, the whole of a soul. Can I care for unborn children but not young children drinking lead-poisoned water in Michigan? Or children raped in detention centers on our border?
Who exactly has extrapolated Jesus’ teachings to craft the core beliefs evangelicals hold today? Fifteen years ago, I started noticing some untruths in the “truth” I held. My “us and them” theology had already begun to dissipate when I actually got to know some of “them” – Jesus-followers whose freedom and love surpassed my judgment. Deep thinkers whose lives reflected the Spirit’s presence. They had moved beyond simplistic, dismissive answers to find Jesus in the questions.
The research skills I had honed as a home school teacher were helpful in pursuing my own questions. And what I discovered was a lot more complicated than what I was taught in Right to Life seminars.
As a young Christian, I was taught a single perspective with a single conclusion. A stark concept, stripped of humanity. The truth was more nuanced. In 1973, Supreme Court justices wrestled with several issues in deciding Roe v. Wade: The question of when life begins was debated in both scientific and faith communities. The question of allowing one faith (Catholic) to determine public policy for everyone. The question of the role of government restrictions intersecting with privacy concerns. The undeniable cross section of race and economic issues. Then, and even more true today, abortion follows poverty. Wherever you find high poverty rates, you will find high abortion rates.
I was surprised to learn members of the clergy (including Southern Baptists) were actually consulted in these Supreme Court discussions, as expert testimony, because women often went to their ministers when in trouble with an unwanted pregnancy. I was further surprised to learn there was an entire underground network between clergy and safe abortion providers.
What was most surprising to me was the ten-year gap before most evangelicals were suddenly outraged. It was not simply, as I was taught, that the church was asleep at the wheel. Many Jewish and Protestant leaders (including Southern Baptists) actually affirmed the Supreme Court’s decision as compassionate toward women. Abortion was primarily considered a Catholic issue, stemming from the belief that life begins at conception, which few others shared.
So what exactly happened? The roots of today’s polarized political environment reminds me of Jesus’ parable about the wheat and the tares. (Matthew 13:24-30) For those unfamiliar with the story, tares were weeds that resembled wheat when young. In Jesus’ story, an enemy had planted tares among the good seed. The workers were told to let both continue to grow, so the good wheat was not uprooted with the bad tares. Jesus said when both were ripened, it would be easier to distinguish which was to be thrown out.
The wheat in the abortion debate was the sincere belief of many evangelical Christians who were concerned about the growing abortion rate, about how societal changes reflected a deteriorating value for human life. We were told speaking up for the unborn, being a voice for the voiceless, was akin to being an abolitionist during the 1860’s.
The hypocrisy in the use of that particular analogy now turns my stomach. The tares, the lies, what we were not told, was how this rallying of our activism and our votes was part of a calculated plan for political power. At its roots, a sincere concern for babies was used as cover to protect racial segregation.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 affirmed racial integration progress in public schools. But many private Christian schools and universities continued to ban admission for African American students and threatened expulsion to prohibit interracial dating. These schools, though not federally funded, still claimed a tax-exempt status for themselves and for the donations they received as “charitable” educational institutions. In 1971, the US District Court upheld Title VI of the Civil Rights Act regarding the IRS code which claimed these discriminatory schools were not “charitable” (uh, yeah) and could no longer claim tax-exempt status.
In 1976, after years of warnings to integrate or face the consequences, the IRS rescinded Bob Jones University’s tax exemption. Whether Bob Jones and Jerry Fallwell (whose Lynchburg Christian School was similarly threatened) actually believed their own argument that the Bible mandated racial segregation or they just wanted the government out of their business, they were savvy enough to know they needed to shift the narrative into something more palatable to rally behind. Government interference in “religious liberty” merged well with conservative activist Paul Weyrich’s writings regarding the potential political power in the coalition of a “moral majority.” Weyrich, a Catholic, had tried for years to engage evangelicals on a variety of issues, including abortion, to gain momentum for his socially-engineered (debatably Fascist) agenda. This time, it worked.
A reluctant Francis Schaeffer (capitulating to the urging of his teenage son Frank) was the key to changing the hearts and minds of evangelicals. A young father himself, Frank was horrified by the concept of abortion. Frank needed work to support his new family and he proposed making a video series based on his father’s books. The elder Schaeffer had used abortion as one example in his book but it was Frank’s passion and Frank’s need for a job that convinced his father to greenlight the videos.
The following interview is lengthy but of all I’ve read on this subject, this one is worth your prayerful, thoughtful consideration. There is no more authentic perspective than from someone who was inside at the beginning. Published in 2009, some of Frank’s words are eerily prescient for where we are today:
For me, perhaps the most profound of Frank’s reminiscence was this: “Once I moved to the States in 1980, something interesting happened: I realized that the country we were describing to our audiences didn’t exist — this big, threatening, secular juggernaut that was going to take over our lives and make everybody abandon their faith in Jesus, that essentially hated God, this existentialist teaching in the universities, this sort of threatening image of the secular culture, the other, those people outside.”
Like me, Frank discovered that behind the curtain were not wizards or monsters but ordinary people. We believed a lie. That lie is still being perpetuated today in pulpits and websites, in conspiracy theories and tales of complicated secret agendas. The truth is often much more simple and much more human – Greed (for money and/or power). Immorality. Pride. Anger. Apathy. Envy. Gluttony – the deadly seven.
Demonization of the other occurs on both sides. My friends who grew up in politically liberal households heard the dismissal of conservatives as backward-thinking misogynists. Perhaps evangelicals relished Schaeffer’s influence specifically because he was relevant and thoughtful.
Before our country can begin to heal, we must acknowledge there is no them. There is only us. We must get beyond the war mentality of right/left, good/bad. Dichotomies will not serve us. By refusing to look at all sides of an issue (beyond the typical straw-man arguments), we will remain divided and never find solutions.
You can be pro-life and vote for a Democrat, with integrity. Abortion viewed without humanity is a distorted view. Answers will never be found by concentrating wholly on the position of the woman or the baby without consideration of the other. The facts are that Crisis Pregnancy Centers offer material goods and counseling for mothers and that Planned Parenthood uses 99% of its resources in free health care in minority neighborhoods; only 1% is allocated to abortions. Many Christians staff Planned Parenthood centers, loving the poor in Jesus’ name. The reality is a far cry from the picture painted in my Right-to-Life seminars of dark, baby-killing mills churning money for heartless doctors.
The rhetoric behind the abortion debate is riddled with white supremacy, misogyny, economic and racial injustice as well as sincere concern for the unborn. Are there women who choose abortion lightly? Perhaps, but I’ve yet to meet one. Every woman I’ve spoken to or heard speak on the subject tells of a heart-rending choice. In my opinion, abortion is always a tragedy. But forcing my opinion into the circumstances of a difficult decision is a greater tragedy. Real women in these circumstances need compassion and respect, not indifference and not lectures.
How would you advise a mother of six, already convinced contraception and abortion are sins, who has been told she will die if she has another child? This isn’t a straw-man argument. This is an actual mother, who actually died, leaving her husband to parent six children. The hole left in their lives doesn’t belong on a picket sign.
On the issue of legislation, I defer to my friend, Bryan Berghoff, currently running for Congress in Michigan’s 2nd District. Bryan writes:
As someone who believes every life is sacred, I decided to examine more thoroughly how to protect unborn life. And as I looked at what was effective in nations around the world, I discovered something surprising: the nations with the lowest abortion rates in the world were the ones who took care of their citizens by providing affordable and accessible healthcare, making pre- and post-natal care available, having affordable childcare, investing in good education and having jobs that pay family-supporting wages. They also make birth control widely accessible. Even though abortion is legal in these countries, they regularly see a drop in the number of abortions that happen.
Conversely, the nations with the highest abortion rates in the world are the ones who spend more energy on outlawing abortion than creating conditions for human flourishing. That’s when I began to understand that you can’t outlaw abortion, you have to outlove it.
Abortion can be outloved. The fact is abortion rates in our country actually decreased under Democratic administrations and increased under Republican administrations, because funding for other programs were severed. If we want to outlove abortion, we have to work together to give poor women an actual choice. Unless we’re committed to supporting that mother and child beyond birth, unless we consider the systemic issues of racial and economic inequality, it is conservatives, not liberals, who are promoting abortion.
Just because we want something to be simple doesn’t mean it is. If you’ve been told your entire life that the church=Republican is good and the world=Democrat is bad… if three times a week and twice on Sundays, you have had one perspective, stamped with Divine approval, drilled into your mind… then when someone you respect counteracts what you have been taught, it can seem earth-shattering. For me, I went through a gamut of emotions, actually quite similar to stages in the grief process – disbelief, anger, guilt, despair…and eventually hope. My hope lies in my belief in the hearts of all those who once walked beside me in protests. People on both sides who love Jesus, whose compassion outweighs judgment, who yearn for truth, light and provision from God.
If this is your first encounter with an alternative Christian perspective on abortion, I do not expect you to accept my words at face value. I do invite you to ask God to lead you as you conduct your own research. There are so many resources available on this subject and I’m willing to engage in conversation regarding it. If we can set aside a goal of persuasion to focus on the exchange of ideas, I believe we can always find Jesus in the questions.