For almost a year now, I have had the privilege of serving as a part-time hospital chaplain. Part of this ministry is attending the dying, the dead, and the grieving. Just this week I was called in the middle of the night to come to and pray over the body of a man who had just died. His family gathered around and we committed the care of his soul to God and marked his body with the oil of healing as a sign of the coming resurrection. Through this ministry, I have prayed over all kinds of people of every age and stage, including… over the bodies of miscarried babies.
Something happens when you hold a 13 week old baby in your hands and commit its soul to God. To my knowledge no 13-week-old baby has ever survived early birth, though once at least 19-week-old baby survived. Apart from the mother’s womb, at least at this point in our medical advancement, to be born at 13 weeks, is to die. And yet, when I hold a 13 week-old baby in the palm of my hand, there is no doubt that what I hold is a very small human. The eyes are forming. The beginnings of the facial structure is there. There are tiny fingers and toes covered by skin that is so translucent you can almost see the forming bones. Thin but defined arms and legs fold around the body. At 13 weeks, it’s even clear whether the child is a boy or a girl. Some mothers cling to their little children in tears. They are protective over the bodies, begging that everyone be gentle to one so small. Others cannot abide seeing the face of their dead children and ask that the body be taken away. But still, even those parents ask me to go pray for their children. “Would you say a blessing for my baby?” they ask. And I do. I commit those who are less than 100 days old to the care of the Lord the same as I would those who have walked on the earth 100 years. When you look into the face of so tiny a person, it’s obvious that they bear the image of God as much as any of us do. As a Christian, I believe that Jesus died for all the people of the earth, regardless of their race, nationality, language, gender, or their age. I believe that the great acts of salvation were done as much for me as they were for those newly forming in their mother’s wombs and, for that matter, those who are members of generations to come. Though we often forget it, every human body is stamped by the holiness of God. Every human life is worth of dignity and protection.
I’m thinking about all of this, because, as you’ve probably heard, Friday, after nearly 50 years, the US Supreme Court reversed its controversial Roe vs. Wade and Casey vs. Planned Parenthood decisions that legalized elective abortion throughout the United States up to 24 weeks of pregnancy.
By elective abortion we mean surgical procedures that intentionally end a pregnancy. Sometimes when a woman has a miscarriage, like the women I just mentioned, doctors say that the pregnancy was aborted. In that case they simply mean ended. Miscarriages happen very often and are simply part of the fragility of human life. Though miscarriages cause enormous grief for many families, they are not anyone’s fault.
However, when we talk about the issue of elective abortion, we’re not talking about the many pregnancies that end tragically early due to natural causes. We’re talking about women who seek ways to end their pregnancies on purpose, whether through pills, surgeries, or chemical injections.
The reaction to the Supreme Court removing national protection for elective abortions up to 24 weeks has been intense. Many people are upset and rattled. There are pictures of characters from Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale plastered all over social media, and frankly, I think many people are frightened about what it means to take this right away from women. They worry that other rights might also be taken away and worry that some women will try dangerous methods or even take their own lives if they cannot obtain access to safe and legal abortions. How should we as Christians respond in this moment?
First of all, we need to understand what it means. The main thing the new decision does is turn the issue of abortion back over to the States. Some states, likely including Indiana, will restrict abortion more. Others may now push even harder for abortion rights, perhaps even past birth, as a number of states have attempted to do in recent years. This was not really a moral ruling, but a legal one. It is a decision to return a very complex moral issue back to the states. Of course the justices who supported it all believe that human live begins if not at conception then very early on. But the decision does not remove the right to abortion in America, it simply allows states to choose what they will and will not allow.
Because this decision returns the responsibility to the states, it’s actually an important moment for Christians and all American to think carefully about this issue and what we really want. Do we really want a woman whose boyfriend breaks up with her when she is 20 weeks pregnant to be able to go and have the almost viable child inside her chopped up into little pieces and sucked out by a vacuum? We don’t let mother’s kill their children when they get divorced. Late term abortions are violent and almost never necessary. Most Americans, regardless of their religion do not want late term abortions to be a birth control method.
At the same time, it’s important for Christians to think carefully about when there might need to be exceptions and extra support. Should a doctor be able to suggest an abortion to save the life of a mother? (Even the Right to Life platform, thinks so).How should we respond if a young teenager gets pregnant? Rather than have a big blanket law, this is a moment to consider what real justice and honoring of lives and bodies might look like. It’s also an important time for Christians to rise up to the challenge of carrying for women and children in our communities, not just in terms of emotional sentiments, but in terms of how we actually live our lives. Are we willing to take orphans into our homes? Will we come around young parents who need support? Honoring human life is never just an abstract ethical principle; it always requires concrete actions of love and mercy.
Finally, Christians need to be really thoughtful about navigating this moment in ways that reflect the character of Jesus. In our Gospel reading today, Jesus gets rejected at a Samaritan town because he is headed towards Jerusalem. In response, his disciples ask if they should call down fire from Heaven upon that town. But Jesus rebukes them for this attitude. And again in our reading to the Galatians, Paul admonishes us that our inward attitude really matters. Enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, and factions are considered just as spiritually harmful as sexual immortally, sorcery and drunkenness. Instead, in all circumstances, Christians are to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit, this is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Whatever we do or say over the next days, months and years, we shouldn’t treat this moment as some kind of great victory. It’s not a time to gloat. While we can be thankful for increased legal protection for the very young, we should be sober about how we go to this moment. Abortion is a controversial issue because a lot of women and children don’t have the support they need. Abuse of women and children is a prolific social problem. Although, through the generations, Christians have done a lot of good to care for women and children, we’ve also been a part of the problem. Christians have stigmatized mothers who have children outside of marriage in ways that have driven women towards abortion and even suicide. They have devalued the lives of those born out of wedlock. And most recently, white Christians in America voted a very scary individual into the office of President. Although, former President Trump stacked the Supreme Court with enough pro-life justices to overturn Roe vs. Wade, he also really messed up our country and even attempted to take it over. This is a battle badly won. Overall, Christians in the US have not made the case to our fellow citizens that every life is sacred. We have not consistently demonstrated love and non-violence, nor have we defended the dignity of every person. So, there is a hollowness in this long-awaited moment. What we need right now is humility and lives that truly honor and protect all people.
The Messages of God never come the way we expect. We all want a clear good side and bad side. We all want someone to condemn our enemies and those who disagree with us and to vindicate us. But the Scriptures tell us that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Righteousness is thorough, complex and beautiful. It only comes from God. It looks like the fruit of the Spirit. And it loves its enemies.
In the United States the lives of the pre-born babies have been held captive to godless ideologies. Individual autonomy, sexual promiscuity, agism and racism on the left and materialism, militarism, sexism and racism on the right control this debate. That’s right, there’s racism on both sides. Those who would truly pursue the righteousness of God cannot be content on one side or the other, at least not as the sides now line up. “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the son of Man has no where to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). If we want to follow Jesus, we just won’t fit with a political side. We are to be the salt of the earth. We should taste different. That’s why in the next few weeks, I encourage you to be quick to listen and slow to speak. Think carefully about the emotional displays around you. Be watchful for ways that our enemy the Devil wants to use this decision to increase chaos and division in our country. When you see memes and hear people say things like, we live in a country that protects guns more than women, consider the false choice you are being asked to make. We are the people of the crucified savior. Non-violence is not a pick and choose issue. Be a person of peace. Look for ways to care for your neighbors, both born and unborn, male and female.
And finally pray for the dignity of people everywhere.