Tuesday, August 12, 2014

On Being Both Pro-Choice and Pro-Life

I was editor of the weekly magazine for the Christian Reformed Church, The Banner, for ten years. Every January, on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in the United States, I was pretty much required to write a Pro-life editorial meant to rally our readers against abortion.

I hated having to write that editorial. Why? Well, just for starters, I am a man, not a woman. So, as I set pen to paper, I was always deeply aware that from the perspective of many women, whatever I wrote against choice would be deeply coloured by centuries of phallocentric obsession, male domination, and even oppression of women. Given that history, I doubted that any woman who was truly struggling with whether or not to have an abortion would or could believe that I empathized with them.

But that was just the beginning of my problems. You see, before I became editor of The Banner, I informed the council of a church I served that I could no longer publicly support the official pro-life position of my denomination. The church board dealt with that—to them very surprising—admission by asking me if I would publicly support the pro-choice side instead. When I said, “no,” they suggested I carry on—though they were not happy.

But writing editorials—opinion pieces—makes that sort of equivocation much more difficult. So what was I supposed to publish on the Roe vs. Wade anniversaries?

Don’t get me wrong, by the way. It wasn’t as if I thought abortion was great, back then. Let’s be honest. No one thinks abortions are, well, “just great.”

Abortion will often be a difficult choice because on an emotional level people intuitively believe—or at least hope—that the womb can be a safe place for that spark of life that it carries for nine months. Whether we believe that that spark of life in the womb is human from the point of conception on, or whether we think of it as something that is just potentially human, few of us would choose to treat it as if the fetus did not matter and was totally disposable. We don’t even think of our appendixes or molar teeth in that way.

Why? Well, interfering with the natural course of a pregnancy has the potential—as with all medical procedures—of going medically wrong. And—let’s face it—there can be very tough psychological issues for women who have had abortions, too. It may be trauma surrounding how they became pregnant. It may be the isolating shame that women who want to keep their abortion secret often suffer. Or it might be guilt—even if it is inappropriate guilt—for having chosen to have an abortion. Whether that guilt is appropriate or not, people often feel it. Or choosing abortion might result in anger and bitterness at a world that makes such painful choices necessary.

So, abortion is difficult. Almost always. But it gets worse. Abortion is also difficult because of the incredibly harsh and ugly condemnation that many people in our society heap upon those who choose to have an abortion, or who support the pro-choice option. From protestors at the door of clinics, to the thoughtless comments of friends and family, to finger waving from thousands of Fundamentalist and Evangelical pulpits, to the intense political conflict that surrounds the issue—nothing about abortion escapes the usually harsh condemnation of those who are against it. Abortion is difficult.

So, as the editor of an evangelical magazine that was officially pro-life I was very, very wary of writing about the abortion issue. I was not, after all, pro-life in the hardened sense that most of my colleagues were. I didn’t have strong convictions about when life truly begins. I can’t accept the notion that a fertilized egg is a human being—even if, somewhere along the line, it passes a threshold that does make it human. I didn’t know what it was like to be pregnant, alone, perhaps poverty stricken or abused or raped. And I certainly wasn’t convinced that the Bible condemned abortion. To me, that was mostly reading a current political position back into the pages of scripture.

My solution, as an editor, on every Rove v. Wade anniversary, was mostly to obfuscate. My condemnation of abortion tended to be lukewarm. I usually skirted the whole issue—not always consciously—by urging my fellow Evangelicals to focus not on making abortion illegal, which was a losing strategy; but to focus instead on creating the conditions where women could always welcome babies. I argued for more and better health care, a social safety net for single moms, better sex education, easier access to birth control—even for teens, and so on. I wrote that since making all abortions illegal was impossible—Evangelicals had lost that war—perhaps they should work to restrict third-trimester abortions. Many readers were unhappy with my advice, feeling that I was less than fully committed to the pro-life camp. In hindsight, I recognize that those critics of mine were right about my ambivalence. I didn’t see it as a black and white issue. I wasn’t narrowly pro-life.

But now I’m liberated, correct? As a United Church pastor I belong to a pro-choice denomination. No more need to obfuscate, right?

Well not exactly. That is, from my perspective, it is unwise to be 100% pro-choice or 100% pro-life, especially when we let the extremists in both camps define what it means to be pro-choice or pro-life. I’d rather say that I am pro-choice and pro-life—both and, not either or.

I’m pro-choice. That is, I recognize that women ought to be masters of their own bodies, even when that requires making difficult, often spirit-numbing choices where neither option seems totally good. Women making their own decisions will, as a rule, make wiser decisions about their bodies than a mostly male political establishment in Ottawa. I’d go further, and say that when women decide to have an abortion, especially after struggling with the moral dimensions of such a decision, and even when such women continue to struggle with guilt—as some undoubtedly do—they can nevertheless count on the understanding of the divine—and hopefully, their friends within the church community. In that regard, the words of the Apostle John ought to be a great comfort to them. "By this we shall know that we are of the truth, and reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” Whatever we think of who God is, or what God does with his or her spare time, the message of scripture is that God loves us. Always. Even when we are forced to make tough moral decisions that not everyone can agree with.

But I’m pro-life, too. Consistently pro-life, that is. I’m for getting rid of nuclear weapons whose use would surely lead to tens of thousands—if not millions or more—deaths. I’m pro-life—I’m for reducing the risk of gun violence by having laws that control who can carry guns. It makes no sense to let such weapons decide domestic disputes or fall into the hands of mentally unbalanced—or just plain nasty—people. I’m pro-life. I want to see action on climate change so that our children and grandchildren’s lives are not defined by our climate disasters. I’m pro-life—I want to lower the incidence of abortion by providing more and better sex education, and by creating a world where even the poorest single woman can confidently believe that she will have the support she needs to raise a child, if that is her choice. I’m pro-life—I want to see our forests grow, our lakes and rivers run clean, and wildlife thrive. I’m pro-life. Consistently, I hope. Unlike Rev. Mike Huckaby, that perennial Republican candidate for presidency in the United States, I don’t want to send any of the 57,000 thousand child refuges who have come to the US since last October sent home to die as pawns in drug-war violence—a drug war whose roots, by the way, lie in American consumption of those drugs. I’d like to ask Huckaby the Apostle John’s question: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” A good question, by the way, for Canadians too, as we consider our national refugee policies, our treatment of First Nations people, our treatment of the poor, and our own social safety net.

So, actually, I’m both pro-life and pro-choice. And when people tell me I have to be one or the other, and hate the other side, I keep coming back to this passage in 1 John. “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” 

I’m not an editor anymore. I’m freer than I ever to express the pro-choice side of my convictions. Sometimes, looking back, I wonder whether I was courageous enough about my pro-choice convictions back then. But life is a process. My convictions back then were ambiguous even to me. Meanwhile, we change our minds, we struggle with how to live our convictions out. That’s just life.

But as a pastor, I want to say that we can do better for women who have made their choices. The church can be a safe place, a sanctuary where the message is that even if our hearts are unsure, or even if our hearts actually condemn us—God will nevertheless embrace us. Always.


  1. Well said John. My sentiments exactly. As I was growing up within the CRC, I understood the pro-life stance that was given as the natural response to the abortion debate. It was a stance that as I grew older, I had my doubts about. My 19 yr old daughter now understands my pro-life/pro-choice position and hopefully is compassionate enough to provide support to those in a very difficult circumstance. She likes to have fun with the pro-lifers who picket at our local hospital. While waiting at stoplight, she will yet out to them saying "But what if the baby is gay?". Thanks John for putting into words what I too believe. May God provide comfort and strength and wise judgement to those women in difficult circumstances.

  2. Your daughter sounds like a force!


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