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Sorry, but abortion is not really complex

Answering the “progressive evangelicals” on Roe v. Wade

A young woman holds a model of an unborn child at a pro-life rally in Warsaw, Poland. Associated Press/Photo by Czarek Sokolowski

Sorry, but abortion is not really complex

American evangelicals are overwhelmingly pro-life. But there is a movement committed to more liberal theology and progressivist politics that still tries to claim some evangelical identity. While conservative evangelicals overwhelmingly want an end to Roe v. Wade, progressive evangelicals have, for years, found themselves on the defensive: declining to commend abortion outright while also giving the pro-choice position a proverbial seat at the table.

How do they think? For evangelicals who identify as left-of-center, the morality of abortion is a nonstarter, a hopelessly complex ethical conundrum in which the real tragedy is the way the issue greases the gears of conservative activism.

This was the straightforward argument of a piece published in September by the liberal Protestant organization Sojourners. Written by a female pastor, the essay sharply criticized the pro-life movement for trying to end abortion through legislation. “The anti-abortion movement wants to replace my wonder at life’s origins with draconian, misogynist laws,” wrote the author. “God is with us, there in the horrific decision to end a much-wanted pregnancy. God is holding the hand of an unhoused woman as she weeps in a Planned Parenthood office.”

The idea that feeling the “horrific” nature of abortion is compatible with acceptance of its current legal protections is common among progressive Christians. The late Rachel Held Evans, arguably one of the most influential progressive evangelical writers of the last decade, suggested that “instead of focusing all of our efforts on making ‘supply’ illegal, perhaps we should work on decreasing demand.” More significantly, in his influential book The Moral Vision of the New Testament, biblical scholar Richard Hays makes a compelling spiritual case against abortion, while simultaneously criticizing efforts to repeal it. “The world needs to be shown another way,” he writes, “not forced by law to abandon something it perceives as a ‘right.’”

There is some truth to this. Hays is right that the only lasting transformation of the American conscience will come from the inside out. Relying exclusively on political victory to deliver justice to the unborn is not only a formula for frustration, but a profound misunderstanding of what true justice is. But conceding that abortion is a “right” is moral insanity.

Yet, two serious problems haunt the progressive Christian case for “safe, legal, and rare.”

Progressive evangelicals admit that abortion is a “horrific” reality, but they decline to answer why.

First, fetal personhood is all but invisible within the moral logic of such arguments. Progressive evangelicals admit that abortion is a “horrific” reality, but they decline to answer why. Yet the cause of abortion’s horror is itself the most compelling argument to legally oppose the maximalism of Roe v. Wade: Because the unborn are clearly and undeniably human persons. After reading most progressive evangelical perspectives on abortion, one might be forgiven for thinking that no convincing scientific or philosophical arguments exist for fetal personhood, since such arguments are almost never acknowledged. Yet they do exist, in the form of books, essays, documentaries, and many, many other resources. Such a glaring absence of these materials in the rhetoric of many progressive evangelicals is disconcerting. More disconcerting is their avoidance of the issue.

It is a myth that abortion’s current legal apparatus simply allows for freedom of conscience on a terribly difficult, terribly personal question. By superimposing a right to abortion onto the Constitution, Roe did indeed take a position on fetal personhood—a position that is baldly false, hopelessly unscientific, and aggressively archaic. To allow Roe to lie undisturbed is to be complicit in its injustice.

Second, a refusal to contemplate the revocation of Roe severely undermines the progressive evangelical appeal to justice on other issues, such as immigration and police reform. If the mysteriousness of the soul’s quickening means we ought not try to protect unborn human persons via the law, do the dizzying dilemmas of migrant assimilation or use of deadly force likewise confine us to the status quo, no matter how many children need asylum or how many racial minorities are unjustly killed?

This is not to suggest that there are no gray areas. Progressive evangelicals are exactly right that there are complex social and economic factors at play in the story of American abortion rights. But behind this complexity lays a profoundly humane simplicity: The unborn are human persons, and human persons are entitled—by God, by natural law, and by the American Constitution—to life. Complexity is an opportunity for careful wisdom, not a fog that obscures reality.

Changed hearts matter. But changed laws matter, too. Behind every meaningful movement of public justice in American history has been not only the victory of transcendent truth in individuals, but the promulgation of righteous laws that protect the vulnerable and train the conscience. Roe v. Wade is a legal and moral stain on the American story, and every Christian eager to “let justice roll down like waters” ought to pray that, in the providence of God, it will be washed away soon.

Samuel D. James

Samuel D. James serves as associate acquisitions editor at Crossway Books. He is a regular contributor to First Things and The Gospel Coalition, and his writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and National Review. Samuel and his wife Emily live in Louisville, Ky., with their two children.

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