Abortion has made the news again with the approval of a new combination drug RU-486, also known as Mifegymiso. According to Health Canada, RU-486 provides a safe, effective and accessible alternative to surgical abortion.
The Salvation Army, along with many other Christian denominations, is unambiguous in its moral evaluation of elective abortion. Its international position statement on abortion claims that unborn human life is personal life; it bears the image of God and deserves to be protected and cared for.
At this point, it’s tempting to wade into the pro-choice versus pro-life debate. But I find this debate often doesn’t address the complicated reasons behind the decision to undergo abortion.
Moreover, it tends to portray women either as liberated heroes of reproductive rights or wicked witches out to destroy anything that gets in their way. Both are metaphors of power. It is rare that this debate turns us toward women who consider abortion from a place of vulnerability. Some are pressured by their sexual partner, whether a boyfriend or a spouse. Others are financially insecure or unable to care for a child on their own. Still others fear they will be shamed and shunned by their family or social community. In many cases, the motivating factors behind abortion are multiple, interconnected and complex.
Although we recognize abortion as something wrong, the business of the church isn’t ultimately about sniffing out moral evil
None of this means that abortion is morally good or even morally neutral. The intention behind abortion is not merely to end a pregnancy but to end a life. Even when abortion is morally permissible—for instance, when conception is the result of rape—it doesn’t tie things up neatly. It is a tragic act.
That said, the approval of RU-486 does reflect something of our larger society. Mifegymiso promises greater patient privacy. The prescription can, in part, be taken at home. And no one but the physician, pharmacist and patient need be involved. The drive to offer greater privacy for those undergoing elective abortion reflects a society that values autonomous decision-making, free from the evaluation of others. But this also lets the rest of us off the hook. By enabling private abortion, we are no longer required to assist in decisions of profound vulnerability.
What witness does the church bring to such a society?
Although we recognize abortion as something wrong, the business of the church isn’t ultimately about sniffing out moral evil. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas argues that the practice of recognizing something wrong helps train us “to see and to practise its opposite.” What is the opposite of abortion? In a word, hospitality. The Scriptures call the church to be hospitable to those who are vulnerable, not the least of whom are women and children.
Followers of Christ are the kinds of people who are always ready to celebrate and welcome new life, regardless of its condition or how it was conceived. We are the family of God. Among us no child is illegitimate. But that’s the easy work. How do we show hospitality to women who are considering abortion, or who have undergone it? The practice of hospitality speaks to the underlying conviction that we are not created to live in isolation from each other. We are created for community. A community depends on mutual engagement in deep, meaningful relationships. Christians, in particular, are called to welcome vulnerable persons into relationships and say, “You are not alone.”
Living in relationships with others requires that we understand the difference between, on the one hand, making a moral judgment about an activity like abortion and, on the other hand, shaming or marginalizing those who consider or undergo abortion. Pastors must be ready to provide sensitive, intelligent and respectful spiritual counsel to those who ask. Ours is a message of good news that offers grace and hope.
A healthy church community must be spiritually prepared to provide a sustained welcome to those who seek to follow God in their struggles. Consider those adolescents and teenagers among us who navigate a sex-saturated culture with their emerging Christian faith. Also think of those women who are more mature, and who may be in unstable marriages or partnerships. Do our churches provide safe environments for education and discussion about sexuality for women of a variety of ages and situations?
It’s too simple to say that if the church were more welcoming, fewer elective abortions would happen. But if we are to witness to Canadian society that there is a different path, we must be able to say with all integrity that the church is a community that practises hospitality.
Dr. Aimee Patterson is a Christian ethics consultant at The Salvation Army Ethics Centre in Winnipeg.