How are we, as Christians, to engage the culture on the topic of abortion, especially if the pro-choice side already acknowledges the scientific fact that the embryo is human, yet they still don’t care? Why is the pro-choice side apparently the default position in today’s society? I’ve never understood that. One could make a persuasive case against abortion without ever having to quote scripture.
This is a timely and difficult question. Two things I would consider in response: 1. The moral status of human embryos, and 2. how we Christians ought engage culture on the topic of abortion. You are correct in saying that many who advocate for abortion (at any stage in pregnancy) fully acknowledge that the embryo is human. However, they would only acknowledge the embryo as “human” in the species or genetic sense of the term (i.e. a member of the species homo sapien as opposed to other animal species) and not in moral sense of the term. In other words, they make a distinction between an embryo being factually human and having inherent moral status as a human embryo that is worthy of protection and human rights. Most Christians believe that embryos have moral status because they are human, however, liberal ethicists (like Peter Singer) would accuse this view of being guilty of ‘speciesism’ i.e. elevating the human species above other non-human species. Of course, it all depends on your view of what it means to be human because most ethicists who claim this of Christians do so because they believe that humans are simply a different kind of animal. I would want to argue that Genesis makes clear that that is precisely what human beings are not and yet that doesn’t compromise the worth or care of other created things. Some more extreme liberal ethicists (Singer, Harris, Savulescu) would argue that even at birth human babies do not necessarily have moral status - a scary thought! However, most secular ethicists today subscribe to a view known as ‘gradualism’ i.e. that embryos don’t inherently have moral status and only gradually gain this throughtout pregnancy when they develop qualities like sentience.
Why is pro-abortion the default position in many Western cultures? I would suggest that one reason is because of the dominant ethic of freedom and autonomy (self-governance) that has permeated our culture. It is imperative for many people that they ought to have control and governance over their lives and decisions and ought not to be restricted by anyone else in doing what they want with their bodies. This means pregnant women, rightly or wrongly, hold ultimate authority with what happens to their bodies and whether they keep or abort any baby growing in their womb - whether it has moral status or not. It’s a powerful argument and this is why the debate often gets pitted as “Pro-life” vs. “Pro-choice”. I don’t like these terms or this dichotomy as a way of framing the debate because it suggest that those who believe that abortion for convenience is wrong (which I do) are against the liberty of women (which I am not). This is why we need to avoid falling into the trap of making abortion a choice between the life of the baby and the human right of the mother. Christianity says “Both lives matter!” The real issue is determining whether what is in her womb has moral status and worth because it is a human being. Christians aren’t against human rights on this issue, instead we are for establishing what is a “human being” so that we can fight for its rights whether it is an adult mother or a early embryo!
A few final things to consider in terms of how we respond: As much as the abortion debate is a political issue, let’s remember that for many women it is a deeply personal and terrifying issue that they do not consider lightly, no matter what decision they make. Secondly, I think if we are going to oppose abortion publicly we need to be demonstrating as a church that we are prepared to offer a better story. In this sense, the church does just have a social ethic on abortion, it is a social ethic on abortion. We need to show that the church is a place that will support young women, love and care for unwanted children and value those with disabilities and physical abnormalities in order to demonstrate a better story for culture and that such humans have a right to come into existance. If the church becomes recognisable as this kind of community in our culture, perhaps women who find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy or a pregnancy that has foetal abnormalities may not feel that abortion is their only option because in the community called ‘Christian’ they have become aware of a plausible better way.