A Theological Critique of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice
Why Christians and Christian Churches Should Reconsider the Issue of Abortion
Michael J. Gorman and Ann Loar Brooks
Wipf and Stock Publishers,Eugene, Oregon
If there is anything that religion should be concerned with, it is truth. While politicians, partisans, social activists, and marketers may be willing to surrender the truth to achieve the goal, religious leaders ought to instead surrender the goal to achieve the truth. This is especially so of Christians. Our Lord said, "I am the way, the truth and the life." He often began his instruction with, "I tell you the truth...." Truth-telling is at the heart of the Gospel. The Gospel is at the heart of Truth.
In Holy Abortion? the authors have delivered a great gift to the religious community: the truth about religion and abortion. This treatise uncovers the dubious alliance between (on the one hand) a nearly universally suspect moral position and the groups and individuals who promote it and (on the other) the communities and organizations of truth-seekers who have wrestled with it and have even agonized over it.
Holy Abortion? is a well-documented, reasoned exposé of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC). In publishing it, the National Pro-life Religious Council (NPRC) hopes, indeed prays, that it will spark a renewed and painfully honest conversation about the never-ending question of the role of religion and religious groups in shaping society’s disposition toward the most vulnerable members of the human family, the unborn, and the mothers and fathers who are inseparably linked to them.
It is our hope and prayer that this honest conversation will quickly lead to the withdrawal of religious entanglement with abortion advocacy. So-called reproductive-rights groups, abortion providers, and political organizations have their own motives, objectives, and methods for advancing the pro-choice agenda. The religious communities that hold membership or interest in RCRC do not at all share these motives, objectives, and methods.
Though NPRC endorses this book, it is the work of two individuals who have no formal affiliation with NPRC and have been given complete freedom to develop and express their own perspective. The members of the National Pro-life Religious Council urge the reader to approach this material with an open and a constructively critical mind.
Someone somewhere said, "A problem revealed is a problem half-solved." Dr. Michael Gorman and Ms. Ann Loar Brooks have accomplished the former. It is up to the rest of us to accomplish the latter.
Rev. Rob Schenck
National Pro-life Religious Council, Washington, DC
Introduction: Holy Abortion?
Stanley Hauerwas has said that the "moral discourse in most of our churches is but a pale reflection of what you find in Time magazine." He may have been a bit too generous; perhaps this discourse is more a reflection of Hollywood and its icons.
One might think it unfair to focus on or criticize — or even to use — a quote from Whoopi Goldberg that appears in one printed sermon, in one publication, as representative of the position espoused by the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC). But the sad fact is that her words epitomize RCRC’s point of view.
Because both RCRC and several mainline Protestant Christian denominations support the current legal status of abortion in the United States, a superficial reading of RCRC documents and certain mainline-Protestant church documents might suggest that they are in agreement. In fact, however, they diverge dramatically at several essential points. In sum, the RCRC position proclaims, "Abortion is holy because God is pro-choice," while the basic mainline position proclaims, "Abortion is tragic because God is the giver of life." This and other fundamental differences suggest, not that RCRC and the mainline churches have a natural and logical affiliation, but that they are inappropriately joined and ought to be separated. To borrow a Pauline image, they are unequally yoked (2 Cor. 6:14), and it is time for the relationship between the mainline churches — and indeed all Christian bodies — and RCRC to end.
This book seeks, among other things, to make the case for that permanent separation. It begins with an examination of RCRC itself and then highlights six themes that run throughout RCRC’s literature. These themes are then contrasted with several themes found in the official statements on abortion and sexuality of denominations that have (or, in some cases, used to have or considered having) official ties to RCRC. The contrast is so stark, it will be shown, that affiliation with RCRC is a denial of these churches’ official positions. Finally, the last major section of the book seeks to advance the conversation about abortion in the Christian churches by drawing on significant theological voices that RCRC ignores.
We should quickly add, however, that this project is not merely about one organization and a handful of affiliated denominations. It is about a significant problem facing our culture and our churches, and about a spirit that permeates more than one body. Therefore, what we have to say, we hope, will be of significance beyond the specific situation we address. We intend to make a contribution to a far wider audience than one interested solely in RCRC.
I. Introducing the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice
RCRC’s Mission Statement and Vision
The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), founded in 1973 by ten denominations and faith groups as the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights (RCAR), describes itself as "the interfaith movement for choice" and as the only national confederation of religious bodies that promotes pro-choice policies. Nearly 40 national organizations from Christian and Jewish denominations, movements, and faith-based groups, as well as Unitarian, humanist, and ethical associations, now make up its membership. These member bodies and many individuals support RCRC activities to preserve "reproductive choice," according to its stated mission:
The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice brings the moral power of religious communities to ensure reproductive choice through education and advocacy. The Coalition seeks to give clear voice to the reproductive issues of people of color, those living in poverty, and other underserved populations.
II. Examining Basic Themes in RCRC’s Literature
The primary theological and ethical themes we find in Prayerfully Pro-Choice and other RCRC literature are:
1. The existence of absolute, God-given sexual and reproductive freedom, including abortion rights;
The absolute freedom to choose without restraint is, according to RCRC, the fundamental, divinely granted human, and especially woman’s, right. Rev. Moody makes the RCRC point this way:
My understanding of free choice is that the right to choose is a God-given right with which persons are endowed. Without choice, life becomes a meaningless routine and humans become robots. Freedom of choice is what makes us human and responsible. And for women, the preeminent freedom is the choice to control her reproductive process. Any theological or moral arguments that subordinate a woman’s freedom to the imaginary screams of a fetus in early pregnancy [a clear reference to the film The Silent Scream] or the value of a unique and irreplaceable genetic code in an embryo will be less than human, no matter how much talk there is about "the preciousness of life." (Prayerfully Pro-Choice, p. 8)
2. The isolation of the woman or teen as sovereign moral agent;
Contrary to the idea that people of faith have a responsibility to their religious communities, and that they simultaneously benefit from the moral guidance of their tradition and community, RCRC envisions women and teens as untethered moral agents:
We are religious people who trust women to make wise decisions about whether and when to have children. We affirm women in having children they can welcome, and we affirm women who end pregnancies they feel must not continue.... We celebrate public policies that acknowledge the moral capacities of individuals....
3. The trivialization of the moral status of unborn human life;
The biblical portrait of person, therefore, is that of a complex, many-sided creature with godlike abilities and the moral responsibility to make choices. The fetus hardly meets those characteristics.... The abortion question focuses on the personhood of the woman, who in turn considers the potential personhood of the fetus in terms of the multiple dimensions of her own history and future. (Prayerfully Pro-Choice, p. 117)
4. The legitimacy of abortion as birth control;
RCRC makes the abortion-as-birth-control decision a religious experience: "Your pregnancy — any pregnancy — is a call to discover God’s intentions...," a call to which the woman may say "yes" or "no." A woman contemplating abortion should offer a prayer (which originated on an anniversary of Roe v. Wade) to the creator who grants "courage and intelligence to make decisions about our childbearing," for "we are required to attend with care to our health and well-being." As noted above, Rev. Howard Moody’s emphasis on absolute choice means his vision of a day when every woman, at any time, has access to "a medical facility to terminate her unwanted and unplanned pregnancy." This perspective is summarized more bluntly by Whoopi Goldberg and quoted in Prayerfully Pro-Choice: "The bottom line is that if someone does not want to have a child they [sic] should not be forced into it."
5. The holiness of abortion; and
"Holy Choices"As we noted above, in a "Litany of Challenge," worshipers leave to proclaim the gospel of abortion as a "holy" choice. In a "Ceremony for Closure after an Abortion," Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons has the minister affirm first the holiness of every night a child is born, and then also the abortion decision: "The choice that _____ and _____ have made is also a sacred choice; a choice for coherence and responsibility in life."
6. The sanction of a pro-choice God, attested in Scripture, who blesses all decisions.
"I talk about God because God and I are very close. God gives you choice. God gives you freedom of choice. That’s in the Bible. I have this deep belief that God understands whatever dilemma you’re in and will forgive it. You make a choice that He or She doesn’t think is right — that’s God’s prerogative." (Prayerfully Pro-Choice, p. 35)
This deity is all-forgiving, without qualification or repentance…
III. Considering the Statements of RCRC Member Bodies
[T]he key theological and ethical themes we have found in the mainline Protestant church documents we have examined that do not appear in RCRC’s own literature are:
IV. Advancing the Conversation
1. Freedom, Rights, and JusticeThe great reformed theologian Karl Barth put the matter even more bluntly:
The decisive point is whether freedom in the Christian sense is identical with the freedom of Hercules: choice between two ways in a crossroad. This is a heathen notion of freedom. Is it freedom to decide for the devil?... Light is light and not darkness. If it shines, darkness is done away with, not proposed for a choice. Being a slave of Christ means being free.
2. The Role of Community
Stanley Hauerwas, the distinguished United Methodist theological ethicist who is one of the leading voices in this conversation about the Church in a post-Christian culture, … admonishes the Church to listen to itself:
Listen to the [Church’s] baptismal vows; in them the whole Church promises to be parent. In this regard the Church reinvents the family.... The Church is a family into which children are brought and received. It is only within that context that it makes sense for the Church to say, "We are always ready to receive children." The People of God know no enemy when it comes to children.
3. The Status of the Fetus
Richard Hays, also commenting on the parable of the Good Samaritan, writes in the same vein that
the point is that we are called upon to become neighbors... [both] to the mother in a "crisis pregnancy" and to her unborn child.... To define the unborn child as a nonperson is to narrow the scope of moral concern, whereas Jesus calls upon us to widen it by showing mercy and actively intervening on behalf of the helpless. The Samaritan is a paradigm of the love that goes beyond ordinary obligation and thus creates a neighbor relation where none existed before.
4-5. Abortion as Birth Control and as Holy ActAs we have seen, RCRC supports abortion as a legitimate form of birth control and, indeed, as a holy act. But if the preceding discussion, including especially the theological statement cited in the last section, is correct, then the response to RCRC’s position must be the following: It is an historical and theological anomaly of the most serious kind for Christian people to consider the regular practice of abortion as something moral, just, or holy.
6. The Character of the God Attested in Scripture
Part of RCRC’s argument is the "silence" of the Bible on the subject of abortion. But RCRC neglects biblical themes other than freedom and choice in the construction of its deity.
For instance, John Rogerson agrees with RCRC that the Bible does not address abortion directly. Rather, Rogerson argues, what the Bible does is "to ask us whether at one and the same time we can assert our faith in a God who seeks the unworthy and the unwanted, and be indifferent to the fact that thousands of unwanted unborn children have their individuality terminated."
Our primary thesis has been that RCRC espouses a position that makes abortion the moral equivalent of holy war. That is, RCRC presents abortion as the sacred, divinely given and sanctioned right of sovereign, isolated moral agents to practice, even as birth control, without legal restraint of any kind, without concern about the moral status of the embryo or fetus, and without any moral guidelines other than their own, internalized, pro-choice morality/deity. In contrast, we have shown, the basic mainline Protestant position on abortion is akin to the just-war theory in permitting abortion only as a last resort, never as a means of birth control or for convenience, only with due respect for the sacredness of unborn human life as God’s gift, and only within a Christian community’s guidelines.
Because RCRC and its affiliated mainline denominations concur on the proposition that abortion should be legal, it would be easy to miss the radical difference between these two positions:
The RCRC position absolutizes, sanctifies, and even deifies choice, but it dehumanizes human life before birth, while the mainline position maintains the sacredness of human life even before birth and relativizes the value of choice by setting parameters for how choice is used.
The RCRC position proclaims, "Abortion is holy because God is pro-choice," while the mainline position proclaims, "Abortion is tragic because God is the giver of life."
These two positions, we have argued, cannot co-exist.