'Roe v. Wade' and the Church, 45 years later

January 30th, 2018

Last week marked the 45th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision which established a constitutional right to abortion in the first three months of pregnancy. Given the passionate and partisan rhetoric around the issues of reproductive rights, it is easy to forget that Roe v. Wade was decided 7-2 and that public opinion has held steady for decades, with 7-in-10 Americans saying that the decision should not be overturned. However, legislators have continuously sought at the state and federal level to pass restrictions and regulations that affect women’s access to reproductive care that includes abortion. This week, the Senate will vote on a 20-week abortion ban that has already passed the House of Representatives.

Because of the complicated nature of abortion, polling can be read a variety of ways. While sixty-nine percent of people do not want to see Roe v. Wade overturned, nearly forty-percent say that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. The positions that religious groups take on abortion vary widely by denomination, with seventy-five percent of Jehovah’s Witnesses saying abortion should be illegal in all or most cases but seventy-nine percent of Episcopalians saying abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Pew Research notes that opinions from the pews are largely consistent with denominational positions, except in the case of Roman Catholics who are almost evenly split in their opinions.

Despite the variance in opinions on abortion by faithful Christians, the media narrative prominently associates Christianity with the anti-Roe v. Wade position, frustrating those of us who long for a more nuanced narrative about faith and abortion. In engaging in conversations with individuals, most people struggle with a faithful response to the issue, trying to balance their religious convictions about a God who is the source of all life, even newly conceived life, with the realities of friends or family members who have sought abortions due to a variety of personal circumstances. These realities reveal a complexity that is not addressed in simplistic polling mechanisms.

When the question is asked, “Should abortion be illegal in all or most cases?” there should be a follow-up: “Who gets to decide?” It is much easier to justify my own choice or the choice of a loved one while judging the choice of someone unknown. Before Roe v. Wade, panels of doctors were frequently the gatekeepers of deciding when an abortion was medically necessary, though they were often inconsistent from hospital to hospital, and those who were strongly anti-abortion thought the decisions too lenient. “Who deserves an abortion?” is a very tricky question, one that was fortunately rendered moot by Roe v. Wade.

The official positions of many Mainline denominations hold this tension between being anti-abortion and pro-choice. As Christians, we lift up the gift of new life and want to support it, seeing abortion as a tragedy. At the same time, we value the importance of the individual conscience and recognize difficult individual scenarios that might lead to abortion being the best option. This nuance is not easy to capture in a poll, nor does it get people out marching at the Capitol in the same way as insisting abortion is equivalent to murder. There is a difference between legislating morality and assisting individuals with making the reproductive choices that are in line with their ethics and values in a given situation.

As Christians, we need to have better conversations about abortion and reproductive rights, particularly as it becomes more and more difficult for certain women in certain locations to access reproductive services including abortion. The regulations and restrictions around abortion services are more likely to affect poor women of color, particularly in rural areas, making this a justice issue. This also requires talking about sex and sexual ethics, something else with which the church struggles.

Rather than letting the media narrative co-opt a nuanced and difficult topic for the sake of furthering the culture wars, Christian groups should come together and discuss how to make faithful choices about sex and reproduction in a culture that very rarely reflects the values that we hold. This is much harder work than labeling and demonizing whoever we perceive as being on the other side. Forty-five years after Roe v. Wade, the lines in the sand have been drawn and don’t appear to be moving much in either direction. The question for the church is whether we can reach across those lines for genuine fellowship and relationship with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Kira Schlesinger is the author of Pro-Choice and Christian: Reconciling Faith, Politics, and Justice. The book is available here

comments powered by Disqus