When news broke that Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis had previously terminated two pregnancies for medical reasons, she received words of compassion from a surprising source. A spokesperson for Texas Right to Life called “the value of life precious” but nevertheless also stated, “Our heart goes out for the decision she had to make.” Part of what has struck a chord about Davis’ story is that it serves as a potent reminder that the factors that go into the decision of whether to have an abortion are rarely as black and white as public political debates pretend they are.
Her story highlights the moral, ethical, and spiritual uncertainty that many Americans feel on the issue of abortion, particularly when confronted with the harrowing details of real women’s stories. In Davis’ case, one pregnancy was a danger to her own health, thus necessitating termination. But in another her fetus, if she survived birth, would have emerged deaf, blind, with a deformed brain, and in a permanent vegetative state.
Davis makes it clear this was a pregnancy that was greeted with joy, and that the aftermath caused great sorrow. But she expressed no regrets mainly because of her concerns about how much her fetus suffered before termination. Her candid confession gets at the heart of the debate for many over the issue of abortion, particularly people of faith: Can abortion sometimes be the most compassionate choice? More pointedly, can supporting abortion rights be compatible with Christianity?
Since the Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion nationally, efforts to criminalize it have been led in large part by high-profile religious leaders, religious groups, and activists whose politics are defined in large part by their religious identity. In the 41 years since Roe, the Religious Right, (sometimes called the Christian Right), has become a major force in national politics, with each Republican president since Ronald Reagan owing his election to its key players, among them Pat Robertson, the late Jerry Falwell, and others. Their influence in politics and ubiquity in the media created the impression that being religious, particularly identifying as a Christian, means opposing abortion.
But interviews with various clergy members and religious scholars indicate that there is far from a consensus that “Christian” = “opposed to abortion.” Rev. Jacqui Lewis, who holds a PhD in psychology and religion, wrote in an email, “I am a practicing Christian and I am pro-choice. Those are compatible.” She elaborated, “I am a Christian, a pastor, a counselor and I know from counseling that when women make this decision, it is a painful one, often a heart breaking one. But personally, I believe it is their right to decide, in conversation with their partner or spouse, their family, their spiritual leader and their God.”
Penny Nance, President of Concerned Women for America, one of the most influential conservative women’s groups in the nation, disagreed strongly. Concerned Women for America describes its mission as “to protect and promote Biblical values among all citizens,” and Nance considers a core part of that work advocating the end of legalized abortion. In an email, Nance wrote: “People who truly believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God and have actually read it cannot honestly conclude that abortion is not a sin that damages a woman’s soul and stains her conscience.” Despite being a survivor of an assault and attempted rape, Nance has remained steadfast in her belief that abortion is the taking of a life and therefore not compatible with being a devout Christian, even though she did stress she believes in forgiveness and redemption. “It is not enough to make abortion illegal,” she wrote. “We strive to make it unthinkable.”
This interpretation of the Bible is shared by Dr. Corne J. Bekker, who cited a number of scriptures that he believes make the position of the church on abortion clear. Bekker, chairman of Biblical Studies and Christian Ministry at Regent University, which was founded by Pat Robertson, pointed most notably to the commandment against murder. He also cited a passage in Exodus 21:22 that reads, “When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life.” He concluded, “It is my opinion that Christians should be united in their opposition of all forms of abortion, with the one exception of an urgent medical condition where both the mother and the unborn baby would die unless a termination of the pregnancy would occur.”
Yet there are four primary complications for many Christians when it comes to defining their positions on abortion. The first is the unresolved debate within Christianity regarding the extent to which our modern-day actions should be governed by Old Testament law. In addition to the passage from Exodus cited above, there are all sorts of directives about sacrificing bulls and turtledoves that are no longer held to ironclad interpretation and practice by 21st-century Christians and clergy.
The next complication is the lack of scientific and religious clarity over how to define when life begins. The third issue for debate among devout Christians regarding abortion rights, and one of the most important, is determining whether something that one may believe morally to be wrong or even a sin should be legislated. But perhaps the greatest complication of all is this: What if an action you would normally interpret as constituting a sin results in an outcome that appears more compassionate for all involved, such as in Wendy Davis’ case?
Tom Davis (no relation to Wendy) is very clear in his perspective on this. Davis is a former chaplain and associate professor of religion at Skidmore College. During his time there, Davis counseled students seeking abortions. In some instances he would refer women in need to doctors he knew who performed them before the procedure became legal. In 1967 Davis joined the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, a network of 1,400 members of the clergy who helped women access safe abortions nationwide in the days before Roe v. Wade.
Davis would play a key role in opening the nation’s first legal abortion clinic in New York when the procedure became legal there more than a year before Roe. In a phone interview Davis said there are texts for some religions that address abortion specifically, such as in ancient Babylonia, but this is not the case in Christianity: “There is no law against abortion in the Bible. There is no law about birth control in the Bible. So when you don’t have a specific guidance on something, you look at what is the most human thing to do in a situation, what is most helpful and sometimes abortion is indicated.”
Asked for an example of abortion being a more humane choice he recalled a situation from his days as a counselor when a woman came to him crushed because her husband had been killed. Though they had planned her third pregnancy, she was now barely able to support the two children they had before his death. Blaming sexism for much of the organized opposition to abortion among religious leaders, he said, “There are many reasons why a woman needs an abortion. Sometimes rape, sometimes because she says ‘I can’t be responsible for this child and can’t bring a child into this world I can’t care for.’” He also said from a compassionate standpoint as a Christian if one knows women could face injury and death while trying to obtain illegal abortions, then standing in the way is willfully contributing to tragedy.
Jon O’Brien, a devout Catholic and president of Catholics for Choice, explained that Catholicism values the expertise of the faith’s great scholars, and that among them, Saint Augustine and Saint Aquinas did not consider a fetus in the earliest stages of pregnancy to be a person. The Catholic faith is rooted in emphasizing the importance of following one’s conscience, he said, and for some women that will mean choosing to terminate a pregnancy because that is what is best as they see it. Priests who try to bully those who are pro-choice out of taking communion are behaving in a “disgraceful” manner and are using the sacrament as a “political football,” he said. He also accused the Catholic hierarchy of being “stuck in the pelvic zone.” He concluded, “We do respect them, but it doesn’t mean they are always right. And on issues of sexuality they are profoundly wrong.”
Gloria Feldt, the former president of Planned Parenthood, recalled that one of the co-founders of the Planned Parenthood of Arizona chapter was a former Catholic priest who became an Episcopal priest because he saw the impact that a lack of access to birth control and abortion had on the lives of women, particularly poor women in the community. Feldt, who now runs Take the Lead, a group devoted to increasing gender parity in leadership positions, predicted women’s leadership may ultimately play a defining role in where faith and reproductive rights intersect in the future. “If you think about the underlying misogyny in the history of most major religions, it’s not surprising we’ve been dealing with these issues [reproductive rights] in those terms,” she said. “I do believe that the ascent of more women in the clergy, at least in the mainstream religions at this point, is going to make a huge difference. They simply see the world through a different lens.”