Anti-abortionists protesting the world's oldest anti-abortion organization.
Roman Catholics and Protestants disagree on many doctrinal matters. While these are often important, I am not considering either side’s view’s dogma here. What matters for this article is not whether these disagreements are justified, or who is on the correct side – but whether or not it is OK for these two groups to work together on something both sides can agree upon: the need to end human abortion.
While Catholics are more than willing to work side-by-side with Protestants to end abortion, the reverse is often not the case. It is this issue I wish to write about today, specifically in response to the kind of thinking represented by writers like Justin Edwards at Airo (who thinks partnering with the ecumenical anti-abortion powerhouse 40 Days for Life is sinful, deceitful, and a stumbling block), Jon Speed at Crown Rights (who says Catholicism’s moral loopholes are in conflict with the Word of God), or Toby Harmon at Abolish Human Abortion (who does not think Catholics are Christians “at all”*).
While I understand that these writer’s have a strong aversion to Catholic theology, their divisive reaction to partnering for the sake of saving the lives of the unborn is simply baffling to me. If abortion truly is murder, then what these people are saying is tantamount to arguing that only evangelical Christians should be allowed to stop murders from occurring! Even if Rome’s gospel were utterly false, how would that detract from the efficacy of its Pro-Life stance and actions throughout history?
I am no expert on these matters (I have to remain behind the scenes when it comes to abortion activism, because I am quite sure violence would ensue if I got too close to an abortion clinic or militant pro-abortionists), but it seems to me just obviously false that the conclusions reached by these folks are even coherent. Thus, for any who might be thinking along their lines, I offer a brief summary of the history and state of the Christian pro-life movement and some suggestions for moving forward.
History and State of the Christian Pro-Life Movement
A.D. 30 – 1973 (Catholics)
From first century sources on up to today, the Christian Church has forbid abortion (which was commonplace even in early pagan culture). Continuously and to this day both the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church teach that abortion is murder. Before Roe v. Wade, the pro-life (“right-to-life”) movement was almost entirely Catholic (in fact the only coordinated opposition to abortion came from Catholic organizations), and even after the Roe v. Wade the strongest anti-abortion voice was Catholic (e.g., the National Right to Life Committee). It has been fairly said that the Catholic Church created the right-to-life movement, and it was the Catholic Church that was targeted by the pro-abortion movement:
What paved the way for Roe was NARAL. Founded by Lawrence Lader in 1969, he knew he had to take down the greatest defender of the unborn, the Catholic Church. . . . the original members all agreed that anti-Catholicism was “probably the best strategy we had.” (source)
1973 – Today (Catholics and Some Protestants)
Sadly, it was not until decades after Roe v. Wade that some conservative Protestant and Evangelical groups became a force in opposition to abortion. Not only did they show up late in the game, they sometimes began on the opposing side (worse, others never left it).
According to Pew Forum, the Southern Baptist Convention today believes that abortion is allowable only in cases where there is a direct threat to the life of the woman. However, according to Randall Herbert Balmer in his book Thy Kingdom Come, the Southern Baptist Convention:
- originally officially advocated for loosening of abortion restrictions.
- called for “work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.”
- wrote in the Baptist Press, “Religious liberty, human equality and justice are advanced by the [Roe v. Wade] Supreme Court Decision.”
Even among more conservative Christians there has been a spotty history. Evangelical scholar Norman Geisler, for example, has argued on both philosophical and biblical grounds that abortion is murder – but this was not his original position. In his widely used 1971 textbook Ethics: Alternatives and Issues, Geisler:
- stated that, “the one clear thing which the Scriptures indicate about abortion is that it is not the same as murder. . . . [because] an unborn baby is not fully human . . . (Ex. 21:22)” (p. 218).
- argued that abortion is not murder because life itself has not started and because the embryo is only potentially (or, in some cases “sub-“) human (p. 219).
- considered babies born of incest to be an instance of the “flowering” of evil (p. 223).
- concluded that abortion was justifiable for several reasons (therapeutic, eugenic, incestual, etc.).
Despite its rocky start, a significant voice heard from other Christian conservative groups – and this is great news. One must ask, however, why it took them so long to get in the fight, and why the majority of the pro-life movement today remains Catholic. Further, while there are now many in the pro-life movement from non-catholic groups, there remain groups that either ride the fence, or are simply on the wrong side.
The National Association of Evangelicals, for example, opposes abortion on demand but does “not wish to exalt a one-size-fits-all approach to abortion reduction,” and considers abortion permissible in cases of fetal deformity, threat to the health of the mother, or when a pregnancy results from rape or incest. Worse, there are entire mainline Protestant denominations that remain open to abortio, such as the Episcopal Church, the Lutheran Church (ELCA), the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the United Church of Christ.
Temporal and Eternal Salvation
It seems to me that if any group has the upper hand in this intramural war over ecumenical abortion activism it is the Catholics – and yet it is they who continue to be willing to join hands with those outside their group in the fight. Maybe the Johnny-Come-Lately’s of Protestantism and Evangelicalism should re-think their strategy when it comes to this human effort. Dogma, even over salvific issues, should not obscure what is at stake here.
Abortion is an evil, vile act that must be stopped if at all possible. The struggle to save a physical life today and the one to save an soul for eternity will not always exactly overlap. We can all agree that the gospel is ultimately the answer to the evil of abortion in general. But that does not make it the only answer to a particular abortion that is about to take place.
Eternal salvation involves a spiritual battle that has many fronts. The abortion clinic sidewalk, on the other hand, may be the last chance these babies have today. It is their life to fight for first. The primary job of the sidewalk counselor, then, should be to act as the last line of defense – to convince a woman to seek alternatives to abortion and save her baby – not to proselytize her. God can do his converting work without letting babies die over confusing doctrinal disputes.
It must be admitted that there are fanatics and fundamentalists on both sides of this civil war. The question that must be asked is: Do we really need to take the doctrinal battle to the clinic sidewalk for these poor women to see? Angrily proselytizing or fighting each other while women go in to take part in the horror of abortion is both sick and stupid – and it only makes it easier to ignore Christians offering them an alternative choice. Christian disunity has consequences that both sides should fear (John 17), so let’s all get over ourselves.
In the end, if abortion really is murder, then it should be treated in the same way as murder. Evangelical Protestants would happily work with a Catholic (or Mormon, or Atheist) police officer to stop a murderer from killing children, so there should not be a problem working together with Catholics (or Mormons, or Atheists) if it means saving more of the unborn.
This post was written in honor of the birth of my baby girl (and the stealing of my heart) 18 months prior.