One issue of debate in Christian tradition has been over when life begins, when it is viable and what the status of a fetus should be.
The sciences (reason) can inform us on these topics. Certainly, something happens when an egg is fertilized. But for pregnancy to occur, the resulting embryo has to implant in the uterus.
Surprisingly, this does not occur frequently. Exactly how many embryos fail to implant is contested, but even conservative estimates say that 40% naturally fail to do so, and the rate may be as high at 60%.
The tradition has also talked about viability, namely the odds a fetus can survive outside the womb. What do we know today about viability?
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has found that the chances of survival at 22 weeks or earlier is only 5-6%. The youngest child on record to survive pre-term birth was born at 21 weeks.
These facts should give us pause. If we assume God governs through natural processes, then what do the facts of implantation and viability imply about God’s view on nascent human life? At the very least, it calls into question any easy claim that a fetus is viable and a person from conception.
Turning to experience, we learn that abortion rates have been declining over the past 30 years from a high of 1.4-2.6 million in 1990 to between 625,000 and 930,000 in 2020.
We also learn that the number of women who die from abortions has declined significantly from pre-Roe days, from over 200 deaths per year to between two and 12.
Experience tells us that legalized abortion and adequate health care for women saves lives.
We need to acknowledge, too, the voices of women about their experiences. After all, they are most affected by the decisions of the powerful.
While it is true that some women support severe restrictions on abortion, we need also to listen carefully to what those who have had abortions say, such as Choice Words: Writers on Abortion. Their stories complicate simplistic narratives that dominate pro-choice rhetoric.
We need to take seriously the concerns about being forced to carry to term pregnancies due to rape or incest or having to carry a fetus to term that cannot survive outside the womb.
We need to take seriously concerns about the hardship and expense of going to another state to get an abortion. We need to take seriously concerns about access to medications and reproductive health care in general.
The cumulative witness of Scripture, tradition, science (reason) and experience lead me to conclude that total abortion bans and absolute freedom with no restrictions are non-starters.
Absolute bans give fetal life more weight than biblical texts, tradition, reason and the experience of those most-affected warrant. Absolute freedom fails to give adequate weight to the potential of fetal life to develop into flourishing human beings.
We need to remember that with abortion, as with all morally charged debates, we are confronted with a situation in which goods conflict. To grossly oversimplify what is involved with abortion, we find that the good of preserving life conflicts with the good of freedom of choice.
All things being equal, most of us consider it a good thing to preserve life. All things being equal, most of us consider it a good thing to give people freedom of choice.
When someone seeks an abortion, however, allowing freedom of choice may mean taking life and preserving life may mean restricting free choice. And even within the consideration of preserving life, there is the further complication of time in which the mother’s life is in danger.
We would do well to learn to find a richer moral vocabulary. Instead of seeing things in binaries of good/bad or right/wrong, we need to think of actions that are fitting or appropriate.
Such, I contend, is how we should think of abortion. It is never a wholly good thing as a potential life is ended, yet it may be justifiable under the circumstances. The loss should be mourned, and the persons involved cared for, not condemned.
Of course, there are other biblical texts, traditions, scientific findings (reason) and experiences that could be considered — but a solid case can be made that legalized abortion within limits is compatible with the Christian tradition.
Editor’s note: This is the final article in a three-part series this week. Part one is available here. Part two is available here.
Professor of religion in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. He is the author of Wisdom Calls: The Moral Story of the Hebrew Bible (Nurturing Faith Books, 2017) and Faithful Innovation: The Rule of God and a Christian Practical Wisdom.