Overturning Roe: An End or a Beginning?

The human mind is generally far more eager to praise or dispraise than it is to describe and define.”

C.S. Lewis

I have never been one to seek unnecessary controversy, and thus far on my blog I have not waded into the waters of the ‘hot button’ issues here in the United States. I attempted to write a few posts on some of the racial concerns of the past few years, but I struggled trying to decide where to go with them. I ultimately concluded that I didn’t really have a lot to say on those issues. 

Abortion is another perennially ‘hot button’ issue in America, and one to which I have given thought to over the years. The recent Supreme Court ruling overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision has prompted me to take some time and put down my thoughts on this issue. I hope that this may help others in processing their thoughts in the coming weeks and months. Please feel free to share your thoughts or responses below in the comments, on Facebook, or on Twitter. 

I quoted C. S. Lewis at the top of this post as much as a reminder for myself as for anyone else. Challenges to our core beliefs have tendency to stress us in ways that other debates do not, and we often become defensive and lash out with anger, name calling, and thoughtless comments that are not at all helpful to the discussion. One of the benefits of writing is that it allows me to process my thoughts more deeply and to get at the core of what I am really thinking and feeling; sifting through the swirl of all the emotions bubbling up to the surface. Perusing social media in the days following the decision has made me wish many others would heed Lewis’s wisdom rather than spouting much of the nonsense that has been forthcoming. I think this is true of much of our political discussion over the last decade. 

I am of the opinion that ‘pro-life’ is more of a political label than a theological one and that a truly thought out Christian position on life is far more encompassing than simply being against abortion. While I would probably be described as ‘pro-life’, I don’t necessarily feel a deep connection to that movement. On issue of abortion itself, has always seemed almost self-evident to me that a fetus is a fully human life worthy of all the same protections as every other human being. The observation that pregnancy is a process that, when going to completion, produces a uniquely individual human being 100% of the time is a good starting point. Everyone reading this post went through this process, and if the process of pregnancy would have been stopped either naturally or artificially you would not exist to be able to read these words. No other process in nature will result in the creation of an unique individual human being, and any artificial methods (in vitro fertilization for example) are simply mimicking a part of the natural process and are not a truly alternative method. That the fetus is a unique individual is clear to me in that it has at totally unique genome (the complete set of DNA instructions), of which 50% of the chromosomes come from each parent. The process of mitosis which forms the egg cells and sperm cells ensures that each fetus receives a different set chromosomes each time, and a process called crossing over allows for chromosomes to swap sections during mitosis to increase further the genetic diversity and uniqueness of each fetus. 

I saw on twitter someone make a comparison between fetal cells and cancer cells because cancer cells, like fetal cells, are human cells that also have a unique genome that is different from the other cells in a persons body. This is true to a point. Cancer cells are caused by mutations in the DNA, and these mutations do technically give cancers a different genome from the rest of the bodies cells. However, these mutations may be a few thousand base pairs out of the approximately 3 billion that make up the human genome. Thus the while a fetus will have 50% of it’s DNA different from it’s mother, cancer cells are still recognizably similar to the ‘normal’ genome of the body. Cancer cells also function differently from healthy cells; growing uncontrollably (making tumors which can metastasize) which leads to cancer’s potentially deadly outcome. (Read here for more in depth look at differences) The cells of a fetus, in contrast, behave as healthy cells following the normal cell growth cycle. While there are other similarities between cancer cells and fetal cells such as needing an lot of blood vessel growth and needing to avoid being attacked by the immune system of the mother/patient; comparing the two doesn’t seem to be a strong comparison particularly when you add in the fact that no cancer tumor has ever produced a uniquely individual human. Quite the contrary, cancer always damages or kills. 

A combination of very unique DNA that is formed as part of process that will produce -if not interrupted- a unique individual person is compelling enough to me to believe that a fetus is a full human being worthy of the same basic protections as every other human being. But this raises the question of precisely when does this happen? When does this unique life begin? This is often viewed as a metaphysical question, one of unprovable religious or philosophical beliefs. People search for a moment we we can identify when the fetus would be given a soul or has attained some definition of personhood, a moment that could be viewed as the dividing line between when it is a a part of the mother’s body and when it has become a unique individual. Christians often quote Bible verses such as Jeremiah 1:5 Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” or Psalm 139:13 “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” as a basis for arguing that life begins at conception. I honestly find using verses such as these in this manner is counterproductive for two reasons. 

First, I do not think these verses are intended to convey exacting details of scientific facts. They are meant convey the fact that an omnipotent Creator knows and cares about the intimate details of the lives of his creatures, even when they are in the womb. What it does not do is provide precise evidence that life begins at conception as opposed to when the embryo is implanted in the uterus, when the heart begins beating, or any other arbitrary point during the pregnancy. Secondly, using these verses in this manner reinforces the mistaken notion that Christians opposing abortion are doing so for a solely ‘religious’ reason that is divorced from any basis in science or physical reality. Modern society sees faith as a set of random beliefs that exist only in one’s head; they do not expect it have to any connection with day to day reality or to be supportable with any set of objective facts. For this reason, grounding any discussion of when life begins in as much scientific facts as possible may help counter the popular conception that a fetus is nothing more than a collection of cells that are a part of the woman’s body until some arbitrary moment when it becomes human in some spiritual or metaphysical sense. (Here a couple of links that my be useful: Charlotte Lozier Institute and Princeton Pro-life)

The biological perspective on life’s beginnings will not always be accepted because for many, perhaps the majority of people today, the primary issue is not the life of the fetus but of the life, health, and autonomous choice of the mother. I remember in college coming across a copy of the memoirs of former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. He recounted his years in in Washington, discussing decisions pertaining to controversial issues such as abortion. He made the simple statement that the problem was not abortion, but one of unwanted pregnancy. A subtle distinction, but one that helped to refocus my perspective from just looking at the concerns of the child to look at the entire circumstances of the pregnancy.

criticism of the pro-life movement is that it is focused almost exclusively on limiting abortion and does little to address the poverty, childcare, and other concerns of pregnant mothers who are considering abortion. This may in part to the fact that the pro-life movement is a political movement that lines up almost exclusively with the Republican Party and is therefore subjected to the whims of competing political factions. I can remember as a kid being puzzled that the supposedly pro-life Republicans were adamantly opposing maternity leave legislation. It seemed to me a logical extension of being pro-life; if we want to support the decision to bring a child into the world shouldn’t we do what we can to reduce the pressure on the mother once that child arrives? The notion of building a ‘culture of life’ -confronting poverty, supporting mother’s after their children are born in multiple ways, etc.- should have been a priority for years, but certainly it must become one moving forward. This will likely mean disregarding political allegiances and tribal loyalties to maintain a consistent world view of honoring our Creator by respecting and protecting the life He created. 

The most powerful argument animating the pro-choice movement is just that: that a women exercises her ‘bodily autonomy’ by deciding whether or not to have an abortion. This argument would be sound if, indeed, it was her body and that a fetus was simply a tissue of her body no different than a lung, thigh bone, or cancer tumor. This is not the case, however, as I have already noted. The argument for bodily autonomy is not a scientific one, but a philosophical one, rooted in a Western belief that we are essentially disconnected individuals who have been ‘liberated’ from the bonds of having to do anything we don’t want to do or be restricted by anyone else’s choices. Nothing confronts this belief more directly than pregnancy, where a small life is connected unambiguously to the mother; not just emotionally or spiritually, but in the most obvious and unavoidable physical manner. Nothing impedes a person’s freedom more than having another person connected to you in the most deeply intimate way, 24 hours a day, every day, for 9 months. 

It is here where the theological position of Christianity truly confronts the secular philosophy behind the pro-choice movement. Christianity teaches submission; exemplified by Jesus dying for all humanity in submission to the Father’s will; not liberation to do as we please. It teaches that the truest love -divine love- is rooted in this submission; and that we are to emulate this love towards everyone around us. Husbands and father’s put aside their own interests to submit to the needs of their wives and children; wives submit to their husbands spiritual leadership; children submit to the wishes of their parents; all submit to God and the nature of his creation. 

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who being in very nature God,

did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage,

rather, he made himself nothing,

by taking the very nature of a servant,

being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,

he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death-

even death on a cross!” 

Philipians 2: 1-8

It is this sort of submission that is at the heart of Christianity and is in direct opposition to the pro-choice argument. However, I confess I struggle with the question of whether overturning Roe v Wade is simply forcing women to live according to a faith they do not hold; and if so, will this deepen the divisions in our country and increase hostility toward Christianity? Having a child in difficult circumstances is difficult for a women who does have a deep faith in God and is surrounding by a loving and supportive community. But if she doesn’t? What will those the lives of those children raised by mothers who didn’t want to have them be like? We they be raised in an environment where there is thankfulness for their lives? Or will they be raised in an environment steeped in the bitterness toward Christianity do to the increasing hostility and divisions of our culture? I don’t know, but I fear that those who have been laboring to overturn Roe v Wade haven’t given enough thought to this.  It is a political/legal victory, but is it truly a spiritual one


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2 thoughts on “Overturning Roe: An End or a Beginning?”

  1. From a legal perspective, a fetus has been determined to become a person when it developed and started moving around. Quickening is the term used. An action after that point which caused the death of what at that point was legally a baby and a person was treated as a murder. That was the rule which should have been used to determine what rights were and had been recognized by law and by courts. That rule means that an abortion prior to quickening was not illegal, but an abortion after quickening meaning becoming developed as a baby and a person would be illegal. That to me is a valid point yo make the destination and has been followed for centuries in law and in public opinion and discourse. This is my answer to your question of when a fetus becomes a baby and a person and has rights recognized by the ninth and fourteenth amendments. Abortions should be permitted up to that point but should be profited from that point forward.

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    1. Thanks for your response. The one thing I like about your solution is that it would be a consistent definition. Current laws seem nonsensically inconsistent. I hope that one benefit of having the abortion decisions taken from the federal level and thrown back to the states is that it may prompt people to have more discussions within their local communities and perhaps reduce levels of acrimony due to the decision being made by the federal courts rather than legislatures. Wishful thinking probably.

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