May 31, 2023

Rev. David Wisener, Redeemer Free Methodist Church

I’m concerned pro-life Christians aren’t being ethically comprehensive. We need to reflect a coherent ethic that does justice to the value of all human life. We need to both recognize how wide- ranging the issues are surrounding the protection of life and be more precise with how we define the stances we choose to take.

A prime example for more precision is The Book of Discipline’s statement regarding abortion: “The intentional abortion of a person’s life, from conception on, must be judged to be a violation of God’s command, ‘You shall not commit murder,’ except when extreme circumstances require the termination of a pregnancy to save the life of the pregnant woman.”

The statement implicitly assumes all instances of terminating a human embryo occur within a woman’s body, but that is not the case. What of embryos that are created as part of invitro fertilization? In this process, several are created and frozen until a couple decides what they want to do with them: one or more are selected to be implanted to carry to term, but what about the others? The only options available are for the couple to either donate them to other couples; donate them for scientific use; dispose of them; or keep them frozen.

Yet, if we are going to use the same ethical logic from The Book of Discipline stated above, unless a couple donates their remaining embryos to other couples, they are complicit in murder – donating to science entails using the embryos for research in ways that would destroy them; disposing of them directly destroys them; and keeping them frozen indefinitely effectively destroys them (it’s uncertain how long frozen embryos remain viable). While the Book of Discipline does address “Reproductive Technology” (such as invitro fertilization), it does so more ambiguously than abortion.

To be consistent, we must ask if we are prepared to label anyone who destroys a human embryo a murderer. Or should we perhaps question more closely our rationale in labeling the destruction of an embryo as murder to begin with?

When looking at the last 60 years of the Christian debate regarding abortion ethics, the latter question becomes more appropriate than the former – it wasn’t until the late 1970s that evangelical consensus began to centralize around the belief that a human embryo was to be considered ethically equivalent to fully formed human life. In fact, as demonstrated in this exchange between then- Christianity Today Editor Mark Galli and author Jonathan Dudley, such traditional Christian voices as the Southern Baptist Convention supported abortion in 1971 “under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother,” and traditional apologist and ethicist Norman Geisler stated “The embryo is not fully human – it is an undeveloped person.”

There are several factors that contributed to the crystallization of evangelical belief regarding the beginning of human life, but it’s outside the purview of this post to parse out those different influences and their motivations. What must be discussed, though, is the scriptural warrant of that decision which we carry with us to this day.

What should remain unquestioned is that human life at all stages is sacred. There are several references in scripture that note God calls us ahead of our formation in the womb (Jeremiah 1:5; Psalm 139:16; Galatians 1:15 to list just a few). That strongly suggests God has intention ahead of even conception for every realized human life.

However, that does not necessitate that God has intention for every human embryo – only God in His wisdom knows which embryos will come to term and which newborns will live. To be sure, we as fallible humans should not put ourselves in a position where we play God – precisely because we don’t know what God’s plans are in their fullness, we should not presume to clearly know when or if to terminate any pregnancy.

So scripture should lead us to accept that all human life is sacred, and that God has plans for people even before they are formed. What is not clear is whether an embryo should have the same ethical weight as a human life capable of survival outside of the womb. Though the interpretation of the passage is much-debated, there is good reason to believe that Exodus 21:22-25 suggests it should not (see here and here for arguments both for and against).

Regardless, the ultimate point is that there is not an “open-and-shut” case to be made from scripture regarding the ethical equivalency (or not) between an embryo and a more-fully-developed human life. What we can determine is that there is sacredness to all life, but drawing definitive lines about all the ethical considerations is not clear-cut. We should not, at the least, be equating all abortion with murder – scripture doesn’t lead us there. We should perhaps consider amending our doctrinal statements accordingly.

But what of other life-related issues? If all human life is sacred, and if we truly identify ourselves as pro-life, should we not be advocating for the protection and flourishing of life in every single situation in which it is threatened?

When the U.S. is compared to peer countries around the world, what should we think and do about the lack of access to health care for numerous folks, including affordable prenatal care that results in quite high maternal mortality rates? If we’re insistent on making women carry all pregnancies to term, should we not likewise be as insistent ensuring all women are able to survive those pregnancies?

What about capital punishment? It’s proven that innocent people are sometimes mistakenly convicted and executed. But even if they weren’t, what justification are we using to play the role of God in determining when anyone’s life should end? Will we be comfortable before the Judgment Throne telling the Father, “It wasn’t worth my tax money to support indefinite incarceration in order to maximize the opportunity for several of your beloved sons and daughters to come to repentance”?

What about war? Can we ignore the near-unanimous Early Church consensus regarding forms of pacifism? If Jesus states in the Gospel of John that His Kingdom is not of this world and, as a result, His followers would not fight to protect even Him, then how do we justify our involvement in the wars of the kingdoms of this world?

Similarly, what about guns? How do we justify supporting free access to weapons meant for war without substantive background checks and limitations? When statistics demonstrably prove nations that have these restrictions have dramatically far fewer gun-related deaths? Is fear compromising our rationality to suggest we need access to weapons of war to defend ourselves in civil life?

To be pro-life is to take into consideration all these issues and variables. It is to call ourselves to repentance in the ways we’ve been hypocrites. It’s to realize when and how we are being inconsistent with our morals and ethics. It’s to submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ to be in control and not seek to do His job for Him, but to also seek to be His instruments for the advancement of His Kingdom in the ways He wants. Let us be about His business in consistently advocating for abundant life for all people in every way possible.