The old argument that defends abortion now has a new twist. This time, it’s wearing a clerical collar. It’s not enough these days to champion abortion by mere reason. Trying to convince women that ending a pregnancy is actually a shame-free “positive good” is starting to ring hollow as well.
So now the latest wave in promoting abortion comes from a most unlikely source. A social ethics professor of religious studies at Elon University makes her case for declaring that abortion can actually be considered Christian.
Rebecca Todd Peters writes in her new book, “Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice,” that we should trust women to decide what is best for them in matters of childbearing. She claims that if Christians “truly value women and healthy families,’ they must accept that not wanting a baby “is an imminently appropriate reason to end a pregnancy.” Letting the woman herself be the final arbiter is “reproductive justice.”
Peters is an ordained Presbyterian minister (PCUSA) who holds a MDiv and a PhD from Union Theological Seminary in New York. What’s unique here is not her argument, which has been around a long time, but her attempts to wring actual Christian virtue out of the traumatic act of ending life in the womb.
Perhaps progressives are getting desperate. You have to wonder if the public exposure of Planned Parenthood’s practice of disassembling baby parts in abortion clinics has taken such a toll that they must now distort church history and Judeo-Christian apologetics to bolster a weakened defense. Using Christianity to shred the last little pieces of a conscience rooted in faith is, shall we say, rather unprecedented.
Rebecca Todd Peters Hijacks Plenty of Words
Much of Peters’ argument rests on the theft of language. She commends women for the “moral courage” of choosing abortion when they aren’t prepared to parent. (Missing in the conversation is what justice might look like for the child in the womb).
It’s a matter of “justice” to make a woman’s choice preeminent, she says, attributing to the notion of choice what theologian David Bentley Hart calls “an almost mystical supremacy over all other concerns.” That well-known Christian staple called “sin” is not your sin and my sin—no, for Peters, sin is located in external power structures of oppression.
Men don’t fare too well in her book, either. They aren’t so much fathers, brothers, and load-bearers, but the faces of a misogynous patriarchy hell-bent on controlling women’s sexual lives. They serve as donkeys you can always pin the tail on, and thereby silence discussion.
This convolution of concepts began for the author when she was in seminary in New York and facing an unwanted pregnancy. That is a challenge for thousands of women who see a pregnancy test’s little pink line appear completely unexpectedly.
For Peters, this experience led to prayer and a moral quandary: “I knew I didn’t want to have a baby at that point in my life. I loved my husband, but things were bad between us. I was in seminary, and having a baby right then would seriously interrupt my studies and my future career. I believed that my work on issues of social justice was important; it was my calling…I knew that this was not the right time for me to become a mother.”
It’s an unspoken testimony to the effect of the supposedly neutral act of abortion on a woman’s life that the author has devoted her professional career to its defense.
Nowhere is the hijacking of language and concepts more sobering than in the author’s description of what Christians and orthodox Jews alike call the unborn child. For Peters, however, this is not the makings of a baby per se—it’s a prenate.
In this separate moral category, the author’s own invention, all bets are off: “Since the prenate is not a person, no rights are at stake.” This prenate becomes a child when he or she can exist and take a breath on his or her own.
His or her personhood is not a given. Rather, it’s “called into being” by the larger community, especially by the woman herself if she makes the choice to parent. Peters never addresses the elephant in the room: How does a woman’s sex privilege her to treat the life she carries in such a dissembling manner, as though she, by virtue of being a woman, can be the final arbiter of someone else’s worth?
Trust Women or Love Women?
Anyone well-versed in the Old or New Testament realizes this religious studies professor had to don hiking boots with metal cleats to run roughshod over a vast terrain of church history and scripture. Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Augustine—none of these early church fathers considered intentionally destroying life in the womb as anything other than grave sin. That’s not to mention Jesus, who claimed that to care for “the least of these” was to care, in fact, for him.
For both Christian and Jew, the defining reality and the one that makes abortion a tragic, nearly unthinkable option is the belief that each person, from conception to last breath, carries in his or her being the Imago Dei—the image of God. This is powerful truth. It eventually broke the back of slavery, in spite of centuries of willful ignorance from even religious slave owners. The glory of God embedded in a human being is the theological hill that pro-life advocates are willing to die on.
Perhaps no theologian in modern times has explained the concept of Imago Dei more succinctly than Pope John Paul II in his “Evangelium Vitae”: “Man is called to a fullness of life which far exceeds the dimensions of his earthly existence, because it consists in sharing the very life of God. The loftiness of this supernatural vocation reveals the greatness and the inestimable value of human life even in its temporal phase.”
Then, of course, Mother Teresa combined truth and compassion for women with unplanned pregnancies as only Mother Teresa could. She told us straight up, no-chaser, that the supremely Christian notion of love is “to be willing to give until it hurts. Jesus gave even his life to love us. So the mother who is thinking of abortion, should be helped to love—that is, to give until it hurts her plans, or her free time, to respect the life of her child. The father of that child, whoever he is, must also give until it hurts. By abortion, the mother does not learn to love, but kill even her own child to solve her problem.”
It has never been a Christian path of wisdom to cut something out of oneself (literally) because it disrupts plans, causes angst, or seems, in the moment, like an insurmountable problem. In the Christian pattern of death and resurrection, a problem is often the prelude to a new beginning. It’s seen as a potential blessing that can, initially, appear well-disguised.
Blessings Can Come in Secret, Even Scary Ways
The testimony to the sanctity of human life has been most concretely seen in a tiny beating heart that appears on an ultrasound screen, evidence of life as early as seven weeks, before a woman even feels pregnant. For all the world a living someone appears there—and if you return in about three months, she might just wave. The visual reality of the child-in-utero mutes esoteric discussions about “prenates” with naked truth the eye can see.
Christians have a commendable historical habit of dealing with physical reality as it actually is. For those possessed of Judeo-Christian conviction, the body has meaning and purpose. So Christians have tended to intervene in concrete ways—most notably in founding and funding more than 2,000 pregnancy care centers in the United States designed to come alongside pregnant women.
The newest pro-life effort, Love Life, reflects a younger generation repulsed at the thought of dismembering babies. This group connects a specific church with a specific pregnant woman in both having and raising the child she carries, or finding adoptive parents.
Christians see embodied compassion as that which leads a person into richer, unfolding life, in which children can only be construed as a blessing. Abortion is a threat to the humanity of the woman herself. Christians follow logic much like Mother Teresa’s because the cross and the resurrection are at the heart of their beliefs, and blessing that follows even difficult obedience is ancient Hebrew wisdom.
In that spirit, as a woman with surprise pregnancies herself and the stretch marks to show for it, let me attest to a reality all women know: pregnancy is a privilege, to be sure, but bringing a child into the world always disrupts. Always. Sometimes it costs plenty.
But then, how many women through the ages have confessed in hushed tones to a trusted friend or advisor that the pregnancy they “didn’t exactly want or plan to have” became a child they can’t now imagine being without, whose life fills them with gratitude?
The truth is that an actual Christian defense of unborn life will prevail long after this latest assault from the clergy within. Progressives have an uphill battle in their efforts to enlist Christianity, in the name of justice, as a means to baptize abortion.