In My Words: Trusting women to make abortion decisions is a Christian norm

In this column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate, Professor of Religious Studies Rebecca Todd Peters writes about the moral decisions that women make about their families. 

This column was distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate and was published by the Raleigh News & Observer, the Durham Herald-SunWRAL and the Burlington Times-NewsViews expressed in this column are the author’s own and not necessarily those of Elon University.

By Rebecca Todd Peters

There is a dominant belief that Christianity and Christians are against abortion. In point of fact, many Christian communities recognize several circumstances in which abortion is accepted. The fact that abortion is acceptable in some cases means that the real social question is not whether women can have abortions, but which women and for what reasons?
Prenatal health, Rape, Incest, and health of the Mother – PRIM. Evidence indicates widespread consensus and acceptance among many Christian denominations that abortion for PRIM reasons is justifiable.
Of the 11 Christian statements included in a 2013 Pew Research Center study, only Roman Catholics state that they oppose abortion in all circumstances. All the other denominations, even the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), the Southern Baptist Convention, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), and the Missouri Synod Lutherans concede that abortion is justifiable when a woman’s life is in danger. The LDS, the NAE, and the Episcopalians also specifically mention that rape and incest are considered justifiable reasons to terminate a pregnancy.
Exceptions to the idea that “abortion is wrong” are regularly made for PRIM reasons. In fact, since 1972, some 77 percent of the U.S. public has consistently approved of abortion in cases of serious prenatal health issues, 78 percent approved of abortion in circumstances of rape and incest, and 87 percent when a woman’s health is endangered. On the face of it, public acceptance of PRIM reasons indicates a broad public consensus that abortion is sometimes necessary.
By focusing on the acceptability of PRIM abortions, Christians have shaped the dominant public discourse about abortion into a debate about justification. By requiring women to justify their reasons for ending a pregnancy, this framework divides women who have abortions into two categories – the tragic and the damned.
Women who have PRIM abortions are portrayed as tragic, not only deserving of access to abortion services but also equally deserving of public sympathy. Women who have abortions for other reasons are stigmatized as morally unfit and labeled as selfish, cruel, and irresponsible. In short, they are the damned.
Only 1 percent of abortions are a result of rape and less than 0.5 percent the result of incest. About 12 percent are sought to protect a woman’s health, and 13 percent for prenatal health issues. That means that what legal scholar Kate Watson calls “ordinary abortions” make up nearly three-quarters of abortions in the United States.
These ordinary abortions stand outside acceptability in the justification paradigm that conservative Christian voices have established for our public conversation about abortion. This justification framework supports a view of abortion that holds that when women get pregnant, we expect them to have babies.
It is time for Christians to challenge the inadequacy, intolerance and misogyny of this paradigm of abortion. As my deeply Christian mother taught me, “You shouldn’t have a baby because you are pregnant. You should have a baby because you want to be a mother, because you want to have a family.”
The moral wisdom of this Christian perspective recognizes that parenting is a profoundly moral act. To choose to have a child is to make a significant moral commitment to that child to raise it or to place it for adoption. Given the fact that only 1 percent of women place their children for adoption, the overwhelming majority of women who continue unplanned pregnancies are making the choice to mother that child.
Creating healthy families requires more than ensuring that babies are born. It recognizes that creating healthy families and raising children is a deeply spiritual and moral task requiring commitment, desire, and love on the part of the parent(s).
Limiting our cultural approval of women’s reproductive decisions about the size, shape, and timing of their families to a narrow list of PRIM reasons flies in the face of Jesus’ teaching that he came to bring abundant life. A Christian vision of abundant life requires that we recognize and support the development of healthy and robust families. It requires that we respect women and the moral decisions that they make about their families. A Christian approach to supporting healthy families recognizes that only individual women and their partners are able to determine their ability to parent a child.
There is nothing Christian about requiring women to “justify” their reasons for abortion. And there is certainly nothing Christian about forcing women to continue pregnancies against their will.
If we truly value women and healthy families, we must accept that “I do not want to have a baby” is an imminently appropriate reason to end a pregnancy. And we must trust that pregnant women are the only ones who are capable of making these decisions.