Letter to the Editor
May 17, 2022
We all have a right to be wrong. Laura Ellis’s article, “Why I am a Pro-Choice Christian and Believe You Should Be Too” — while carefully constructed — simply fails basic litmus tests for critical theological and biblical reflection. This letter will push back against some of the biases in Ellis’ opinion piece and will present a more rooted, realistic and traditionally Baptist response to the current abortion debate.
My basic thesis is that Christian Realism tempers reckless rhetoric regarding abortion and provides a necessary corrective to the biases of Ellis’ article. Christian Realism may be defined as the rejection of both idealism and nihilism in favor of a more biblically rooted, common-sense perspective on an individual’s participation in everyday relationships. It is a third way, if you will, that frees us from the two most promoted sides of divisive issues in contemporary Western society: fundamentalistic legalism and humanistic liberalism. Christian Realism helps one to balance the possibilities of progress with the limitations of human nature.
In a nutshell, Christian Realism invites us to deal with what is, not with what should be. Ellis’ article deals more with “shoulds” than actualities and unsurprisingly comes across as substantively pretentious. Let us carefully consider, therefore, how we may temper the ideologically humanistic propensities of pretentiousness as well as the more conservative bent toward legalism. In doing so, we may better converse with those who either agree or disagree with Ellis to cooperate more fully for a greater good.
I offer four responses to Ellis here that highlight the need for Baptists to embrace Christian Realism when it comes to abortion.
First, the thesis that the United States Constitution protects a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion is more of an assumption than it is a realistic fact. We can argue effectively that Roe v. Wade turned the concept of a woman’s right to choose an abortion into law. Yet, making a concept into the law of the land hardly turns such a law into a fundamental human right. Shall we Baptists consider human rights, therefore, from a more biblical perspective rather than a conceptual one? In fact, this is an opportunistic season for asking ourselves, “What is a basic human right, anyway?”
I commend here the work of Baptist ethicist T.B. Maston, who rightly notes three such basic rights that free us from both the liberal and conservative rhetoric of our day: the right of worship or conscience, the right of the individual from dominance and control by the community, and the right of the individual to keep the rights and responsibilities of both the individual and community in proper balance.
If we take into account Maston’s biblically based list of human rights, then we can rise above concepts and get into the realm of reality. For example, we can now conclude that a fetus is an autonomous individual, particularly following maternal-to-zygotic transition. In fact, if science was not so beholden to contemporary politics, concepts would be much less likely to be mistaken as basic human rights. It is therefore more realistic, scientific and biblical to say that a woman’s right becomes secondary to her responsibility to care for an autonomous being. The ability to terminate the autonomous fetus gives women more power than natural law allows, especially if we consider that all people (even those in the womb) are created in the image of God. Can we not conclude then that abortion is more realistically to be considered a symptom of matriarchy in Western culture than it is a fundamental human right?
But what about the mother in-and-of herself? What about her rights? Her rights must be balanced with responsibilities, especially if we accept Maston’s conclusions. Sexual intercourse between a male and female not only involves a free choice, but it also comes with inherent risks that must be assumed by the choosers, namely the risk of conceiving a child.
Ellis argues that not all people have access to contraception as if this situation justifies abortions. Let’s recall, however, that contraception may not work, even if one does have access to it. Consider that men who have had vasectomies (which are virtually 99.9% effective) must sign releases that they will not take legal action against their urologist should they conceive a child with a partner after the procedure. Access to contraception, or lack thereof, does not negate the inherent risks taken when a man and woman decide to have sex.
Second, the insinuation in Ellis’ article that mostly male lawmakers and clergy have no idea about what women go through in their menstrual cycles and pregnancies is not only unrealistic but also borders on ridiculous. Consider those men, like me, who have stood by and with their partners during excruciating difficult seasons of failed conceptions and miscarriages. It is, of course, physically and biologically impossible for a man to understand pregnancy fully, but this does not mean that men are incapable of making ethical, biblically informed decisions about the life of his child, at any stage of the child’s life. If a woman appoints herself as the sole expert on gender, then we see taking shape a form of matriarchy that is just as cold and calculating as “mansplaining.” We may do well at this point to remember the rebuke of Reinhold Niebuhr, that we become evil at precisely the point at which we pretend not to be.
Third, the article posits some rather unrealistic and biased misconceptions about the Religious Right. As one who lived through the days in which the Religious Right thrived, I can argue that the organization or movement no longer exists as it once did. In reality, most Christians today — at least the ones I have pastored for nearly 20 years — mainly consider themselves politically homeless. The strawman argument which suggests all American evangelical Christians wear red MAGA hats and decorate the crosses in sanctuaries with American flags is largely a political stereotype used for drumming up money and votes by leftist political action groups.
Before attacking people on the Right or Left, would we be wiser to reconsider the more realistic approach to politics we find in the example of Jesus? Jesus seemed more indifferent than anything else to the politics of the Roman Empire. Obedience to God was not conditional upon any political group in power and certainly did not require a revolution or Christ forming a new government. When we drone on about either the Religious Right or the Left, it illustrates more about our desire to shame a group for refusing to fall in lockstep with us more than it does with our loving or praying for an enemy. Isn’t it interesting how the oppressed generally take on the characteristics of the oppressor if one’s focus is more on the self than it is on our Lord?
Fourth, let’s consider more critical, realistic Christian responses to the white-hot abortion debate. Ellis shares a number of seemingly unrelatable quotes from clergy in her article that do little to enact desired change among readers. Take the Barnhart quote, for example. I know of no Christian who advocates for the unborn because it is a “convenient” practice. I can name numerous people whom I have pastored over the years who have given countless hours to counseling with pregnant women and confused fathers who are often quite scared and in dire need of encouragement.
Instead of sharing confusing quotes, shall we allow for a more robust biblically rooted analysis with regard to abortion? Time does not allow here for as rigorous a biblical treatment as is necessary, but a few examples will suffice. Paul the Apostle asked in 1 Corinthians 6:19, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?” One’s body therefore belongs to the Lord. This line of thinking basically dismantles the argument of “My body, my choice.” Maston bluntly offers: “Your body is not your own business. It’s God’s business.” What would Jesus have us to do with our bodies?
Consider also that sexual intercourse makes a man and woman “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:5). We consequently ask uncomfortable questions about why so many babies are conceived these days and then aborted. It is because humans are more apt to use sexuality in lustful ways than not (1 Corinthians 6:13)? Christian Realists agree then with Jesus that when significant death of the ego takes place and makes room for a more meaningful expression of sexuality, then male and female participants in a sexual union will find fulfillment by dying to self.
This point is where the rape argument can be considered. What if a woman was denied her choice to have sexual intercourse and a child was conceived? I would commend that one review the works of Kerry Baldwin on this matter. Baldwin argues that one victim (the mother who was raped) should not be allowed to do violence to a second victim (the autonomous fetus). More justice would be done if intense care was given over to bring the rapist to justice by forcing him at least to pay restitution or to be castrated. Perhaps both the government and churches have paid less attention to the injustice of rape rather than they have toward using both women and the unborn as pawns in their debates.
Let’s get real. Being told that we should either be pro-choice or pro-life is too limiting for biblically based Christians, especially Baptists. Baptists are not ones who traditionally respond well to being told that they should or should not do something due to violations of our autonomy.
The same regard we have for our own congregational autonomy should be applied to the autonomy of the unborn. More realism and less politicized rhetoric may result in short-term pain, but we can be assured of long-term gain.
James Hassell, Austin, Texas