Note: This article includes a graphic description of miscarriage.
Last week, a friend who is a compassionate pro-lifer asked me about the opinion pieces on abortion we’ve carried at BNG before and after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade. “They’re all about the rights of the mother to choose. Why do none of them acknowledge that the fetus is a person too?”
Fair question. And in response, I’m going to wade into the abortion debate for the first time in my writing career. Like many of you, I’ve avoided writing and speaking on this topic because I didn’t know what to say. I was internally conflicted and thought I had nothing helpful to add to the divided dialogue.
And I’m a 60-year-old white male. Who raised two boys, no girls.
Thirty-two years ago, two things collided in my life that caused me to consider these issues deeply for the first time. I had taken an ethics class in seminary. I had read about the issues. But I had no firsthand experience.
We were living in Atlanta, where I was working for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Home Mission Board; our news office also served as the Atlanta bureau of Baptist Press. In that capacity, a colleague and I were assigned to cover a new anti-abortion movement called Operation Rescue. This was one of the first organized large-scale movements in which anti-abortion protesters purposely got arrested for blocking access to clinics.
I attended several of their rallies, held in churches as I recall. The charismatic leader, Randall Terry, whipped up the crowds by talking about abortion as murder. His pitch was simple: “If you believe abortion is murder, act like it’s murder.” It was a compelling revival meeting where you’d be hard-pressed not to walk the aisle and rededicate your life.
In July and August 1988, 1,200 Operation Rescue activists were arrested during the Democratic National Convention held in Atlanta. That set a national movement on fire, reportedly leading to 12,000 arrests at 200 blockades the next year.
The premise behind Operation Rescue, borrowed from the Catholic Church and conservative evangelical theology, is that life begins at conception. Which is easy to say but hard to prove.
About a year later, my wife, Alison, got pregnant, and we were so excited. We were young and naive and foolishly announced the good news before the end of the first trimester — not understanding how often things can go wrong in the early weeks of a pregnancy. Alison’s aunt sent us a knitted pair of baby booties — our child’s first present.
What happened next came suddenly and unexpectedly. Sudden discomfort. Something’s not right. Bleeding. And then bloody chunks of tissue all over the bathroom floor. We wept. We were confused. Why had this happened?
“What was this? It clearly wasn’t a body. It was clumps of cells, I suppose.”
The thing that haunted me the most — for years — was the sight of those bloody clumps of unformed tissue I cleaned up from the bathroom tile. What was this? It clearly wasn’t a body. It was clumps of cells, I suppose. The building blocks of potential life. What had we lost? Had we lost a real child? Should we have had a funeral? Should we have given those clumps of tissue a name?
When the same thing happened again about a year later, our confusion intensified. Would we ever be able to have children? And the question nagged again: What was this we had lost?
With the hindsight now of years to reflect on this question, here’s where I’ve finally come down: What we lost was the building blocks to a future life, not a child. To be clear, my answer would be different if this had been a spontaneous late-term miscarriage. There is a significant difference between an eight or 12-week miscarriage and a 30-week miscarriage.
“What we lost was the building blocks to a future life, not a child.”
Here is where the all-or-nothing doctrine of the anti-abortion movement has led us astray. Never before in human history has there been a widely held belief that personhood begins at conception. No historic religious tradition has held this belief. Until the Catholic Church and conservative evangelicals made it an essential doctrine of faith.
Despite the advances of medical science, we still don’t know when “life” begins. Clearly there is a point of viability outside the womb that must be respected, and that point has been ever-expanding with advances in prenatal care. But it still does not extend into the first half of a pregnancy. The youngest premature baby to survive was delivered at 21 weeks — and then spent 275 days in the hospital.
Where the anti-abortion movement has gone off the rails is by presuming to know something God has not told us. We do not know when “life” begins because life is a gift from God that we don’t control. Neither medicine nor theology can agree on this point, and yet it is the single most important question in determining what is “murder” and what is “choice.”
“Where the anti-abortion movement has gone off the rails is by presuming to know something God has not told us.”
To answer my friend’s question: Yes, I wish more abortion-rights advocates would explain that they have no interest in “murdering” babies as accused. I’ve never met anyone who believes abortion — especially late-term abortion — is a grand idea. This is a serious flaw in the communications strategy of the pro-choice movement that has emphasized the rights of the mother to the same degree the pro-life movement has emphasized the rights of the fetus.
An example of this false dichotomy may be seen in the resolution adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention in 2021 that called for an end to abortion “without exception or compromise.” That resolution was put forward by a group of men who also believe women who get abortions should be prosecuted for murder.
A majority of Americans does not share this view — at all. Just as a majority of Americans does not believe in unrestricted abortion on demand at all times. Real people who are not running for political office understand nuance is required in any discussion of abortion. Yet politicians and the U.S. Supreme Court have been captured by the same all-or-nothing thinking that permeates the all-male leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention and the all-male priests and bishops of the Catholic Church.
Compromise is a lost art in our broken political system, but “compromise” is not even the right word to apply to the abortion debate. Better words would be “humility” or “nuance.” For every accusation of a capricious abortion of convenience, there’s another case of deeply traumatic circumstances that women and men and doctors agonize over but that nonetheless require medical attention soon to be outlawed in half of the U.S.
“Both the far right and the far left need to stop playing God and admit we humans are not the creators and arbiters of life we think we are.”
Both the far right and the far left need to stop playing God and admit we humans are not the creators and arbiters of life we think we are.
In every birth there remains a mystery that is beyond our parsing. We need to respect life, yes; but we also need to admit we don’t really know when true life begins. Talking about and legislating about abortion requires more than hard-and-fast rules. It requires compassion and conversation neither side has been willing to engage. And look where that’s gotten us now.
Mark Wingfield serves as executive director and publisher of Baptist News Global. He is the author of Why Churches Need to Talk About Sexuality.
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