Starting July 13, people of faith will be coming to Birmingham because the two women’s health clinics that provide abortion services there are under attack. Clergy and laity will be there to show how we as believers feel about the hot-button issue of abortion. We will be in Birmingham to support the clinics, to support their staffs, and to support the women who make the difficult decision to terminate a pregnancy.
Here in the deep South, that may come as something of a surprise. After all, a group that cloaks the venom of their rhetoric in religious language will also be in Birmingham. They, and the large publicity machine that supports the anti-abortion movement, have spent decades trying to persuade people that the only acceptable position for people of faith is to oppose abortion.
I am hesitant to speak for traditions of which I am not a member, but as an evangelical Christian pastor and scholar, I can say with absolute certainty that it is possible to be a good and faithful Christian and to support legal access to abortion. The wide variety of official statements collected by the Religious Coalition of Reproductive Choice confirms this reality, and the statements made by other faith traditions indicate that the same is true for members of other religions as well.
How can this be? How is it possible that people can be part of religious traditions that value life and simultaneously support protecting the right of women to terminate their pregnancies? Speaking for my own tradition, the answers are varied.
Some Christians are satisfied with noting that the Bible offers at best a mixed perspective on the personhood of a fetus. Because of the ambiguity of the biblical writings, they are comfortable with leaving the decision up to the individual conscience of the woman who involved. This is the simplest approach to the matter: if the Bible does not say abortion is wrong, many Christians are not willing to say that it is.
Other Christians, however, take a more nuanced approach. These Christians recognize the complexity and interdependence of all life. They realize that we make thousands of decisions as individuals and as a society that privilege some lives or forms of life over others. The most obvious example is the decision by a nation to declare war, a regrettable but sometimes necessary action that will invariably cost innocent lives in an effort to protect other lives. Other decisions – about the environment, the economy, or even the educational system – are also ethical choices about innocent lives.
Recognizing the difficulty of those issues, many Christians are all the more cautious about making unilateral moral pronouncements on the issue of abortion, where the debate is over the loss of a potential life and where the decision to terminate the pregnancy can be based on a variety of medical or ethical factors. These Christians trust that the pregnant woman is in the best position to make decisions about her pregnancy. Often they have spent time in women’s health clinics and have walked alongside the women who are faced with this difficult decision. They understand that sometimes the decision to terminate a pregnancy is the most moral decision a woman can make, and that supporting her in that decision is the loving thing to do.
The staff at these clinics understands this very well. Contrary to the mischaracterizations in the literature published by anti-abortion groups, the women and men who put their lives on the line to keep abortion a safe option for women are providing a caring ministry of compassion and support to women who desperately need both. All of us who desire to protect and aid those women are their colleagues in that ministry, and so we will go to Birmingham to stand by their side.