When it comes to the abortion debate, the two sides are typically labeled as pro-life and pro-choice. Pro-life people believe that unborn babies should be protected. Pro-choice people believe that women should have the choice to end the pregnancy through abortion. While the exact issues in the debate change from time to time, the pro-life and pro-choice perspectives remain at the core of the debate.
While not all Christians agree on these issues, there has historically been a connection between Christians and the pro-life position. This is because Christians believe that all human beings are created in the image of God and that this includes unborn children. We believe that babies, even when they are still in their mother’s wombs, are worthy of protection. I believe that this is the right and biblical perspective on the issue. While I think Christians can disagree on how exactly to address the issue of abortion, I think all Christians should be pro-life.
But is there an inconsistency to the pro-life position? Many claim that there is an inconsistency by saying that many “pro-life” people don’t oppose the death penalty, war, or gun ownership. This leads us to an important question: If we are pro-life when it comes to unborn babies, do we then need to be pro-life on questions related to war, capital punishment, self-defense, and end-of-life issues?
A Question of Terms
Before giving a more substantive response to the question of consistency, I think it is worth noting that part of the question relates to the terms that are used in the abortion debate. We call ourselves pro-life or pro-choice. It is certainly true that many pro-life people are not pro-life in a comprehensive sense.
Many of us believe that the death penalty (which tragic) is permissible. Many of us believe that there is an appropriate time for war and for self-defense. In other words, we don’t believe that there is never an appropriate time to kill. In that sense, it could be said that we are not consistently pro-life.
But this critique quickly breaks down when we put the shoe on the other foot and examine the pro-choice position. We could ask a pro-choice person, “Do you think a man should be able to rape a woman?” The answer would certainly be no. In that case, the person is not pro-choice.
The person does not think that a man should have the bodily autonomy that would allow him to take his body and use it to rape a woman. Presumably, pro-choice people also don’t believe we should be able to choose to steal from grocery stores or choose to beat our children or choose to drive while under the influence of alcohol. The pro-choice position is far from consistent.
So, in order to have a productive discussion, I think we all need to recognize that the term pro-life typically means that a person opposes abortion and that the term pro-choice typically means that a person thinks abortion should be an available option. Very few of us are pro-life in every circumstance, and even less of us are pro-choice in every circumstance.
Is Killing Ever Permissible?
Despite the fact that some criticize the pro-life position as inconsistent simply as a cheap attack, a legitimate question remains. Do the principles that lead Christians to oppose abortion also lead us to oppose all killings in every circumstance? In order to sort this out, we need to examine what beliefs lead us to oppose abortion.
The Christian beliefs that would lead us to oppose abortion are basically three-fold. First of all, we believe that human beings are created in the image of God and are therefore profoundly valuable. Second of all, we believe that unborn children are human beings created in the image of God.
We see this in many passages, including Luke 1, where we see an unborn John the Baptist leaping in his mother’s womb upon the appearance of Mary who is carrying in her body the unborn Jesus. Third of all, we believe that God cares deeply for those who are vulnerable and therefore we are called to reflect this concern. Unborn babies are certainly vulnerable, and therefore we seek to protect and care for them.
Do these three beliefs, then, lead us to oppose all killing of human beings?
Let’s use the example of the death penalty. And let’s suppose, for the sake of this example, that the person on death row is guilty of murder. Is the person on death row someone who bears the image of God? Certainly. This should give us pause. It is no small thing to take the life of a person created in the image of God. For some, this would be enough to rule out the death penalty altogether.
But let’s ask a second question: Is the person on death row a vulnerable person who is in need of protection? In a sense, we would have to say yes. He is in danger of having the state take his life. But this vulnerability came not as the result of someone committing evil against him, but of him committing evil against someone else.
It could hardly be argued that a murderer on death row is a good parallel to an unborn child under threat of abortion. One is under threat of death because he committed a horrific crime. The other is under threat of death because, through no fault of his own, he is unwanted and he poses (most commonly) a threat to the convenience of his mother.
In other words, there is no inherent inconsistency if a person says that an innocent unborn baby should not be killed by his mother, but that a convicted murderer can be killed by the state.
To add to this, throughout the Old Testament we see the death penalty frequently employed by God’s people, often at the command of God. In fact, the original basis of the death penalty in Genesis 9:6 connects it to a high value of the image of God: “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.”
In other words, capital punishment is sanctioned not because human beings are being discarded, but because they are being valued. It stands not on a belief that human beings aren’t created in God’s image, but a belief that they are!
Should the value of human life lead us to abolish the death penalty? Seemingly, no. But it should make us very slow to employ it, and it should cause us grief whenever we do so. Should the value of human life lead us to be pacifists and oppose all war? Seemingly, no.
But it should make us hesitant about war and prepared to explore all other options beforehand. Should the value of human life lead us to support gun control? Not necessarily. But it should lead us to seek to be open to any solution or legislation that will better protect human beings created in the image of God.
How Do We Live More Consistently?
I don’t believe it is inconsistent to oppose abortion and yet still support the death penalty, serve in the military, or own a gun. I do believe, however, that it is always worthwhile for us to examine ourselves to see if we are being consistent with our beliefs. I personally don’t see questions about gun ownership, war, or the death penalty to be significant threats to being consistent with our opposition to abortion. The threat I see is our overall attitude toward children in our culture and our churches.
If we are going to oppose abortion, then we are saying that children are worth the inconvenience they bring. This means that we should be anxious to spend time with our children. This means that we should place value on stay-at-home moms instead of shaming them for not being part of the workforce. This means that we should be slow to complain about children in restaurants and airplanes and movie theaters. Children are inconvenient. But we believe that they are so valuable that they are worth the inconvenience.
If we oppose abortion, we should also be in favor of married couples having children, even having them in their twenties instead of waiting until they’ve been able to cross a bunch of things off their “bucket list.” We should support couples who choose to have many children instead of looking at them as if they were behaving oddly.
If we oppose abortion, then we should be joyful about any children in our Sunday worship services. And if a baby begins to cry in a worship service, we should offer help and support instead of offering dirty looks. Children are a gift to families, and they are a gift to churches.
If we oppose abortion, then we should prioritize the care, nurturing, and discipleship of our own children. They are gifts from God and the time we spend with them is of greater value than time that we spend on almost anything else.
In my opinion, it is often a smokescreen when critics of the pro-life movement claim that it is inconsistent. But we would all do well to take the critiques as an opportunity to live even more consistent with the belief that children are a gift from God and are worthy of protection and attention.