In the current political moment, abortion remains a divisive issue, highlighted by the varied and visceral responses to New York’s new abortion access law and President Trump’s comments about abortion in the State of the Union address. The tactics and visibility of the Christian Right seem to suggest Christians share an anti-choice position on abortion, but that’s not true. Even Southern Baptists in the 1970s chose a “middle ground” between abortion on demand and no access to abortion. Of course, that stance quickly changed with the beginnings of the controversy between fundamentalist and moderate Southern Baptists, and by 1980 the SBC passed resolutions opposing abortion “except to save the life of the mother.” Today many Christians support a woman’s right to access an entire range of reproductive health services, including abortion. Others oppose access to abortion entirely, while still others support access in limited circumstances.
Nonetheless, whether Christians support or oppose abortion access, Christians from all sides of the complicated debate should be able to come together to work on a common goal of reducing the need for abortion. That common goal could address both the concern on the Right that fewer abortions occur and the concern on the Left that women are able to make medical choices for themselves.
“Working together across differences, Christians could actually have an effective response to unintended pregnancy and abortion.”
While some Christians want to make all abortions illegal, we know this would not end abortions. When women do not have access to safe, legal abortions, they have backroom abortions that often end with women permanently injured or dead. Rather than clinging to a philosophical position that may sound pure, yet not result in ending abortions, all Christians could work together to take evidence-based actions that we know lessen the need for abortion.
Working together across differences, Christians could actually make a difference in responding to unintended pregnancy and abortion. A starting point would be to acknowledge and support four effective approaches already identified by research:
1. Legal abortion. While not statistically significant, abortion rates are actually slightly lower in countries that have legal abortion, and research suggests laws restricting abortion do not lower abortion rates. In countries that prohibit abortion or allow it only in rare circumstances, the abortion rate is 37 per 1,000 women. In countries that allow abortion on demand, the rate is 34 per 1,000.
Having an abortion where it is legal is also immensely safer for women. Nearly 23,000 women die each year from unsafe abortions. In the United States, the abortion rate is at its lowest since Roe v. Wade at 14.6 per 1,000 women.
2. Access to contraception. The drop in abortion rates in the U.S. is mostly a result of access to contraception, not legal restrictions on abortions enacted by various states. Fewer unintended pregnancies lead to fewer abortions, and access to contraceptives leads to fewer unintended pregnancies. If Christians are serious about wanting to decrease the number of abortions, then they should be vocal advocates for access to contraception. Research shows that even a small increase in use of contraception can decrease unintended pregnancies and abortions and that access to free birth control increases usage and lowers abortion rates among teenagers.
3. Accurate, comprehensive sex education. Of course, people only know about contraception and its proper use if they have access to accurate, fact-based sex education. Time and time again, researchers have shown that abstinence-only education is not effective in preventing unintended pregnancies, and in fact harms teens by stigmatizing groups, reinforcing gender norms and withholding accurate medical information. Interestingly, teen birth rates in very religious states are higher than in less religious states. Comprehensive sex education, however, does lead to fewer unintended pregnancies.
4. Empowerment of girls and women. Decisions about contraception, pregnancy and abortion occur within larger contexts of gendered social constraints. Empowering girls and women creates social and economic conditions that give them greater control over their own bodies and sexuality and greater economic security in which to access contraceptives and make decisions about bearing children. Empowered girls and women are less likely to face unintended pregnancies.
More than 40 percent of women who have abortions fall below the federal poverty level. Another 27 percent are between 100 -199 percent of the federal poverty level. One study found that more than half of women who obtained abortions had experienced a “potentially disruptive event” within the past year, such as unemployment, separation from a partner, falling behind on rent/mortgage and moving multiple times. If women had social and economic stability, fewer would face unintended pregnancies, and some might choose to continue an unplanned pregnancy.
Christians who want to lessen the abortion rate should, then, be concerned with alleviation of poverty. They should advocate for policies that empower girls and women, including education, universal healthcare, paid parental leave, affordable childcare and freedom from violence.
“If Christians are serious about wanting to decrease the number of abortions, then they should be vocal advocates for access to contraception.”
We know how to lessen the need for abortion. Clear, research-based evidence points the way. Christians should put aside ideologies and heated rhetoric that amplify divisions over abortion to focus on the effective ways we can work across theological differences toward a shared goal of reducing the need for abortion. As Christians, we hold a deep and abiding commitment to truth, and research shows us the truth in the evidence about what is actually effective in lowering abortion rates.
Focusing on making all abortions illegal and overturning Roe v. Wade is counterproductive if the goal is to actually lower the number of abortions. Bestowing “personhood” on a zygote and labeling abortion “murder” may be effective political strategies, but these are not effective practices in actually addressing unplanned pregnancies and the circumstances that lead to the need for abortion.
Christians may well disagree on the status of fetus or the privileging of the value of the personhood of a woman over the value of fetal life, but the evidence shows that certain practices provide the possibility for common ground in effecting real change in the need for abortion. Both Christians who believe life begins at conception and Christians who believe women have the right to make their own health decisions should be able to support those measures that can help achieve common goals.
The question for those who oppose abortion on demand is whether they would prefer a largely symbolic victory (abstinence-only education, no contraception and no access to abortion) that is theologically pure for them but ineffective in preventing abortions, or an actual decrease in the number of abortions through effective, evidence-based practices (legal access to abortion, broad access to contraception, accurate sex education and the empowerment of girls and women).
On this latter option, Christians across the theological spectrum can and should find common ground. Working together we can improve the lives of girls and women and lower the need for legal, medically safe abortion.