Pastor Note #75: Abortion: Not Just a Legal Issue

Sunset over Cape Cod Sound; photo by GAC

What is the goal for the Pro-Life movement in America?  Is the goal that we should strive to make abortion illegal?  Or is the goal that we should strive to end abortion?  It’s very important that we should recognize that those two are not the same goal.  I will assert that those who believe that the problem of abortion in America can be solved simply by changing the laws are at risk of being rightly judged short-sighted, lazy, and self-righteous.

It seems best, I suppose, that I should start off by declaring myself on the matter of abortion.  I am persuaded that abortion at any point after conception is always the taking of a human life.  I believe that there is no moral justification to abort a pregnancy except in those instances when not doing so would pose an immanent threat to the mother’s life.  Obviously, if the mother of a non-viable unborn child dies, the unborn child will die as well.  In such a situation, the unborn child’s life is already lost.  The mother’s life should be saved.  I do not have enough medical knowledge to know how often such a circumstance arises, but I believe that it is probably very rare.

In all other cases, abortion is, in my view, not morally justifiable.  That view is, I realize, very radical compared to the average American.  I lay it out here, so that there will be no misunderstanding of my motives now as I proceed to put forward a critique of some worrisome aspects of the current pro-life movement, particularly, the insistence on framing the problem of abortion as primarily a legal issue.


Some Historical Context
As the years wore on after the 1974 Supreme Court ruling, Roe v. Wade, the pro-life movement very gradually began to broaden its conceptualization of the nature of the problem of abortion.  Over time the prospects for overturning Roe v. Wade dimmed, and as a result, elements in the movement began to direct more energy and resources from the legal front to the social front.  Pregnancy resources centers sprang up in many communities with the aim of providing concrete alternatives as well as tangible resources and social support for women contemplating abortion.

Yet for many pro-life activists, there always remained a sort of wistfulness and a vague sense that addressing abortion as a social problem was in some way second best, that someday they might be able to really solve the problem of abortion by making it illegal again.  The election of 2016 revived the aspirations of those who want to frame abortion as primarily a legal problem to be solved by court rulings and legislative action.  With one opening on an already divided U. S. Supreme Court at the time of the election and with the plausible expectation of at least one and maybe two more openings on the court during the term of the next president, the presidential election of 2016 redirected many in the pro-life movement back to framing the solution to the problem of abortion as primarily legal in nature.

A few months after the 2016 election, I was listening to a passionately pro-life speaker in a church in my community.  He was bubbling over with delight at the first Trump nomination to the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch.  The speaker expressed his optimism that “very soon” abortion would be rendered illegal in America again.

Canonsburg Lake, Canonsburg, PA; photo by GAC

Framing the Real Nature of the Problem
Now, I will leave aside for the moment the fact that the process, by which a law banning or even just limiting the practice of abortion might make its way to the U. S. Supreme Court, will be long and convoluted and almost certainly take years.  Instead, I’d like to step back and say that on the face of the matter I am very ambivalent about whether a Supreme Court ruling allowing abortion to be banned in America really represents a solution to the problem of abortion in America.

Here is my great worry.  I can see the celebrations of the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade.  I can see the flood of pro-life resources pouring into the political effort to push laws through state legislatures to achieve those bans in each state.  Then in states where that effort is successful, I can see pro-life activists declaring the problem of abortion to be solved.

But the problem of abortion will not be solved, because ultimately abortion is not simply a legal problem.  It is a social and cultural problem.  This realization about the nature of the problem of abortion was brought home for me by a conversation I overheard a little while ago.  The conversation was between two folks both of whom were opposed to the practice of abortion.  One had just commented how difficult and complex the solution to the problem of abortion is.  The other replied, “What’s difficult about it?  You outlaw abortion, and the problem is solved.”  This approach is, I believe, based on some troubling and flawed assumptions, and it is likely, I am certain, to produces some very disturbing consequences for the Christian witness of those who adopt it.


Flawed Assumptions #1
The problem of abortion in America is that abortion is a legal problem.”  That is a fundamentally flawed assumption about the problem of abortion in America.  I assert that the problem of abortion in America is at its root not that abortion is legal but rather that most Americans want it to be legal.  The Gallup organization has been tracking public opinion on abortion in some considerable detail for more than two decades. (seee  Their polling information is very interesting and quite telling.  Here are some of the trends they have uncovered.

When people were asked if they considered themselves to be “Pro-Choice” or “Pro-Life,” Americans appear to be more or less evenly split.  But if we delve deeper into the polling results, we begin to see that the meaning of “Pro-Life” for many people is very squishy.  For example, just under 80% of people indicate that they believe abortion should be legal in at least some circumstances.  That figure holds firm through the years.  Some slightly older data (2011) reports, for example, that 75% of respondents believe that abortion should be legal in cases of rape and incest.

So, from these statistics we can see that something like 25-30% of people who call themselves “Pro-Life” do not want abortion to be made absolutely illegal.  It also tells us that for a significant portion of the American population, the decision about the moral acceptability of abortion is based not on the moral status of the fetus but rather on the circumstances of the pregnant woman.  For many, an unborn child who was conceived as the result of rape or incest does not have a right to life.  In my opinion, that is not a truly “pro-life point of view.  Gallup did not ask the question, but I wonder how many “pro-life” people might believe that abortion should be legal in cases in which the mother is 12 years old or is developmentally disabled.  Here too the right to life of the unborn child is no longer the deciding factor.  Rather the circumstances of the mother has become the deciding factor.  That is the “pro-choice” moral framework not the “pro-life moral framework.

What these statistics show us is that most Americans do not base their views on the moral acceptability of abortion on a belief that an unborn child is a human being with all the rights to life that any human being should have.  Until there is a substantial majority of Americans who believe that abortion is wrong because it is the taking of a human life, there will be no ban on the practice of abortion in America.  The problem of abortion in America is not that it is legal; rather the problem is that most Americans want it to be legal.  It is, in other words, not a problem of law; rather it is a problem of culture and of worldview.

A Path in the Woods; photo by GAC


False Assumption #2
“If we make abortion illegal in America, the problem of abortion in America will be solved.”  Let’s imagine for a moment that somehow a majority of Americans had come to the conclusion that abortion should me made illegal in America and that laws outlawing abortion were established in all fifty states in America.  Should we assume that at that point the problem of abortion in America would be solved?  Let’s consider an analogy.  We can all agree, I think, that the problem of heroin abuse in America is not solved, even though it is the case that the sale and use of heroin is illegal throughout the United States.  Drug abuse is not simply a legal matter that can be solved by criminal courts.  It is a human problem that can be addressed only with broad-based psychological, social, medical, economic, and legal efforts.

How do we imagine criminalization working in the case of abortion?  What steps do we envision taking to enforce the legal ban on abortion?  We cannot be so naïve as to believe that the mere act of criminalizing abortion will bring an end to the practice of abortion.  So, we have to give thought to how this criminalization of abortion will be enacted in practice.

Abortion is the taking of a human life.  Will we treat it as a case of murder?  Who will be legally liable for the act – the mother, the doctor, ancillary medical personnel, the father (as an accessory)?  Will we incarcerate mothers?  That seems like a very quick way to lose public support for antiabortion laws.  But how could we not impose some sort of penalty on women who terminated the life of an unborn child contrary to the law?

How might we sanction doctors or other health care professionals who perform abortions?  Would we take away their license to practice medicine?  I would think so.  Would we imprison them?  How could we not?  Yet, again, how many doctors in prison will it take to begin turning public opinion away from antiabortion laws?

What sanctions will be imposed on parents for taking their teenage daughters across the border to Canada to get an abortion performed there?  Or wealthy families flying their daughters to Europe?  What will we do to non-profit social service organization that provide transportation for low-income women for trips to clinics in Canada?

Wheeling Creek, Wheeling, WV; photo by GAC

False Assumption #3
“Most women who seek abortions do so because they view the pregnancy as inconvenient.”  All right, I’ll admit that I’m not sure there are many opponents of abortion who would actually say that.  In fact, I don’t suppose there are many who actually believe that.  But any approach to ending abortion that relies entirely on criminalization is ultimately denying the intense crisis that an unplanned pregnancy can cause in a woman’s and a family’s life.  That crisis is not only emotional; it is also very frequently a vocational and economic crisis as well.  It is at this point that the Republican Party’s approach to abortion is most problematic, and especially in light of the fact that so many evangelical Christians have aligned themselves with the Republican Party in opposition to abortion.

For young women still in school or just entering the workforce and for women in poverty, a pregnancy can be vocationally and economically catastrophic.  Women in school, in low-wage jobs, or living on welfare with other children already face very limited options when confronted with an unplanned pregnancy.  Will they be able to pay for pre-natal care, delivery, and post-natal care for themselves and the child?  Will they be able to find and pay for childcare, so that they can return to school or work?  Will their low-wage job still be there for them when they come back?  If not, will they be able to find some other work and still care for their children?  If not, will there be public assistance available to help them care for their child?  Pregnancy can be a quick road into poverty or deeper into poverty.

Pro-life advocates who are serious about ending abortion will take these broader concerns of women seriously.  Pro-life advocates who are merely interested in making abortion illegal can ignore these concerns.  But in that case, they need to be honest and admit that they are not interested in ending abortion but only in washing their hands of the matter in Pilate-like fashion.  If we do not take seriously the challenges and pressures faced by women for whom pregnancies can represent an economic and personal catastrophe, we will be left to depend on increasingly draconian criminal penalties to frighten desperate women away from abortion.  That approach is doomed to fail in a free and democratic society.


So what are we to do?
I am not at all opposed to the effort to get legal limits in place that might restrain the harm done to most vulnerable human beings on the planet – those who are still in utero.  Restricting late-term abortions and “partial birth” abortions, for example, may be possible even in the current American milieu.  It is an interesting fact that in almost all western European countries – countries that are supposedly far more “liberal,” secular, and “enlightened” than the United States – the rules governing abortion are considerably more restrictive than in the United States.  (see  Looking to some of the western European laws governing the practice of abortion might give American opponents of abortion some models to pursue.

But I question the wisdom of efforts to pursue legal bans on abortion that are plainly politically impossible in the current American context.  It is unclear to me just what sorts of criminal penalties Americans would tolerate if the practice of abortion were to be outlawed’ and against whom Americans would be willing to impose those penalties.  As I pointed about above, more than 80% of Americans want abortion to be legal in at least some circumstances.  If we cannot change the perspective of a large portion of the American population on the morality of abortion, then our efforts to legally ban abortion are an effort to impose laws on an unwilling populous – laws whose foundations the majority of that population rejects.

A further indication as to how ambivalent Americans are about the abortion is this: in cases in which the abortion recipient reported her religious affiliation, one out of every eight abortions were sought by Evangelical women and almost one in every four abortions was sought by Roman Catholic women.  (  Opposition to abortion in principle does not always hold firm when someone is faced with the reality of a problematic pregnancy.

A dramatic but sadly not shocking example of this was played out in my own congressional district in southwestern Pennsylvania.  The former Republican congressman, Tim Murphy, was forced to resign his seat when it was discovered that Murphy had engaged in an extramarital affair.  It was, however, not the affair that forced his resignation so much as the revelation that the staunchly pro-life Murphy had urged his partner in the affair to have an abortion when he believed that he had impregnated her.  Principles can quickly erode in the face of hard choices.

I don’t share this story or the statistics about Evangelical and Roman Catholic abortions out of any cynical desire to demean the pro-life community.  I share them simply to point out that, despite principles deeply held or even despite laws to the contrary, desperate people do desperate things.

Robin in a nest; photo by GAC

Love and Compassion or Self-Righteousness
The simple act of criminalizing abortion will certainly not end the practice of abortion in America.  As an Evangelical opponent of abortion I am compelled by the love of Jesus Christ to care about the struggles of women who seek abortions.  To oppose abortion and at the same time to oppose generous funding for Medicaid is at best self-defeating and at worst rank hypocrisy.  To oppose abortion and at the same time to oppose broad funding for nutritional support programs for children and families is at best self-defeating and at worst rank hypocrisy.  To oppose abortion and at the same time to oppose family leave provisions for low-wage jobs and to oppose government support for daycare programs for low-income people is at best self-defeating and at worst rank hypocrisy.

It will be little surprise then that I have found these considerations to have changed my voting patterns in recent years.  I find the appeal to vote for very conservative candidates solely because of their pro-life position no longer persuasive.  I will no longer vote for candidates who want to ban abortion and simultaneously remove most or all government support for programming designed to make it easier for low and middle-income women to care for their children.

There is real spiritual danger for Christians in all this.  We can easily do ourselves spiritual harm.  We need to search our hearts concerning what is driving us in our reaction to abortion.  Do I want to do all that I can to save unborn children from abortion?  Or do I just want to make sure that everyone knows that I hold the “right” position on abortion?  In the first case, I’ll be driven by love and compassion for unborn children and pregnant women in a crisis.  In the second case, I’ll be driven by the pride and my need to put myself in the “right” light.  It strikes me that the choice before us is whether we will follow Jesus or the Pharisees.  Will we follow Jesus in loving and caring for our must vulnerable neighbors – unborn children and pregnant women in crisis?  Or will we follow the Pharisees in their need to appear righteous?

If we make criminalization of abortion your only goal in solving the problem of abortion, I believe we will have chosen the path of the Pharisees.  If we choose to do all that we can to make it easier for pregnant women to choose to bring their babies into the world, we will be choosing the path of love and compassion, the path of Jesus.

©2018 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.


6 thoughts on “Pastor Note #75: Abortion: Not Just a Legal Issue

  1. Powerful words! I really liked how you mention how some want to ban abortion but at the same time want to ban “all government support for programming designed to make it easier for low and middle-income women to care for their children.” I agree.


    1. That’s a good question, Dave. The Great Society was Lyndon Johnson’s anti-poverty program, initiated in 1964-65. So, one factor to consider is that the Great Society program pre-dated the legalization of abortion by about ten years. It would be interesting to look at American abortion statistics, if they exist, for that period. But, I’m not sure how reliable those stats would be, in light of the fact that abortion was illegal during the Great Society period.


  2. Great food for thought. Thank you.

    Typo at the end of flawed assumption one, “most Americans what it to be legal…”


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