Opinion | Er, Can I Ask a Few Questions About Abortion?

Millions of American Christians are likely to vote for President Trump on Tuesday because they believe it a religious obligation to support a president who will appoint “pro-life” judges.

But as I’ve observed before, there is an incipient rethinking underway in evangelical and Catholic circles about what it means to be “pro-life,” and let me try to add to that ferment. For the truth is that the litmus test approach to abortion on the part of many conservative Christians is anomalous, both religiously and historically.

Historically, evangelical Christians supported allowing abortions in some situations, such as rape or the well-being of the mother or family.

Christianity Today, the newspaper founded by Billy Graham, held a symposium in 1968 that endorsed a right to some abortions. The National Association of Evangelicals and the Southern Baptist Convention both backed a limited right to abortion in the early 1970s, and an article in The Baptist Press welcomed the ruling in Roe v. Wade for advancing “religious liberty, human equality and justice.” A 1970 poll found that about two-thirds of Southern Baptist pastors supported allowing abortion in cases such as rape, deformity or a risk to the mother’s physical or mental well-being.

So much has changed! Today the issue is infused with absolutism and is the paramount concern of many conservatives, and that’s one reason Amy Coney Barrett is now a justice on the Supreme Court. What mattered to “pro-life” Republicans — more than respect for norms or institutions — was getting justices confirmed who might overturn Roe v. Wade. And many support Trump, despite reservations about him, because their be-all issue is the unborn.

I’m pro-choice, but I’m no more likely to change their minds than they are to change mine. So let me simply pose questions in hopes of sparking a dialogue.

Why do so many see fervent opposition to any abortion as a religious dictate when the Bible never directly discusses abortion? Jesus talks a great deal about helping the poor and healing the sick, so I could understand a religiously driven passion for public health or for universal health coverage, but he never evinced an interest in the unborn.

The biblical passage most relevant to abortion is perhaps Exodus 21:22: “When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined.”

That suggests that the Bible treats a fetal life as less than a human life. Probably for that reason, translations used by evangelicals often refer to a premature birth rather than a miscarriage.

Amy-Jill Levine, a Vanderbilt University scholar and co-author of a new book, “The Bible With and Without Jesus,” tells me that the original Hebrew is ambiguous.

In any case, why the obsessive focus on abortion today when Christian thought for most of the last two millenniums was not deeply concerned with the topic? Abortion was legal in the United States up to the point of quickening (the fetal movements felt in the second trimester) until the 19th century, when states began to ban abortion.

Abortion opponents counter that what changed was science: We now understand that a fetus before quickening is not inert. “Thou shalt not kill” should apply, they say, to a zygote, and not solely for religious reasons. But science also shows that up to half of zygotes never implant and establish a pregnancy, and we don’t mourn those zygotes or establish national commissions to improve zygote survival.

Another question: If the aim is to reduce abortions, why not treat the issue as a matter of public health? One particularly effective way to reduce abortions is to reduce unintended pregnancies through free access to long-acting reliable contraceptives. Partly because Obamacare covers contraception, the number of abortions in the United States has plunged to its lowest level since Roe v. Wade, including in states that support a woman’s right to an abortion. If you’re troubled by abortions, shouldn’t you thank President Barack Obama for reducing them?

Then there are the tangled cases that cry out for the nuance that the “pro-life” community historically appreciated. When a pregnant woman has a fetus with Potter syndrome destined to die in pain soon after birth, is it really for outsiders to force the mom to continue with the pregnancy?

Senator Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat, recently became the first sitting senator to share his story of an abortion. In the 1980s, his then wife, Heidi, was pregnant with their second child when Heidi’s amniotic sac broke. The fetus could not survive, and doctors told them to await a miscarriage — but it didn’t happen, and Heidi’s health deteriorated. The hospital refused to perform an abortion, Peters told Elle magazine. In the end, another hospital agreed to perform an emergency abortion that saved Heidi’s uterus and possibly her life.

Life is complicated, and throughout history people of faith saw the issue of abortion through that prism — and it would be such a step forward if young evangelicals and Catholics recovered that nuance and led their cohort away from the abortion extremism of the last few decades.

So as Justice Barrett takes the court, I’m hoping that the rethinking among conservative Christians gains ground. Wouldn’t we all be better off if “pro-life” became not just a zealous slogan but a compassionate way of life?

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: letters@nytimes.com.

Source: Read Full Article