Why I Believe the Pro-Life Movement Isn’t Actually About Life at All

Friends, this is a highly nuanced, super-charged issue. I thought seriously about not writing about it at all. I can’t stand conflict. I love people feeling loved and supported. But it is just too important an issue to stay silent about, especially as a woman in the USA right now. So here are my thoughts.

On January 24th everything changed with the decision to overturn Roe by the Supreme Court (SCOTUS).

If you are elated over the Roe decision and are somehow reading these words, I am going to ask you hold space for those of us who are not so elated.

For those of us who have had our bodily autonomy stripped away by childhood trauma, spiritual abuse, and now we are scared and vulnerable and have had some of our worst fears confirmed by the highest court in the land. Women’s lives matter less than their uteruses.

OK, before you throw your phone or tablet at me, hear me out.

I know by writing about arguably one of the most contentious, viscerally held positions in all of American politics… I’m inviting loads of strong emotions. Scary, strong emotions. I have really big feelings about all this. And I am fairly certain you do too… so let’s take some deep breaths.

I know the pro-life movement. I was in it. For years. I volunteered behind the scenes at national gatherings and attended all-night prayer events. Even 7-8 years ago I probably would have been at least mildly pleased on some levels with Roe being overturned.

But then I paused to listen to voices with broader perspectives. I looked into the face of real-life American women and heard their stories and fears. I researched and read Christian theological and historical positions that saw things differently than what was espoused in most of the evangelical circles I frequented.

Realization hit: I had been in an echo chamber for 20 years being fed what is arguably the best political marketing long-game in modern history.


Before we go any further, let’s clarify some terms.

When I say pro-life in the context of this article, I am largely speaking of the political, evangelical movement represented in the Religious Right that hot-wired the issue of abortion and turned it into a vehicle for harnessing unprecedented political power in the United States. I’m not referring to individually held beliefs. When I say evangelical, I am again speaking to the evangelical subculture and political base in the USA, not to any one person’s personal faith convictions.

My introduction to the Pro-Life Movement came when I was still a teenager in college in TX. For one of the sessions of a church retreat, the girls were separated from the guys (in what honestly gave me flashbacks of awkward preteen health classes involving bananas) to show us a “documentary” about abortion.

What followed was worse than any horror movie I had ever seen. It was about as much of a documentary as Florida swampland is prime real estate for development. This movie was a work of pure propaganda designed to horrify. Dismembered fetuses in jars, a woman with blood running down her legs, total grotesque manipulation of the viewer. And that was the whole point.

It was so graphic I spent lunch in the bathroom vomiting. This film wasn’t a scientific documentary, it was a crude, now fully debunked, violent piece of propaganda meant to traumatize women and youth into compliance. And it worked.

It shaped my views of abortion for years.

Until I came back from Africa and started studying my own culture through the lenses I used overseas to learn about other cultures. I found the politically charged narrative I had been fed didn’t (in my opinion) have an accurate historical origin story, a consistent ethic of life, or even a solid theological foundation to stand on.

I came to see the Pro-Life Movement in the United States wasn’t about the preservation of life as I once thought. It was about preserving political power.

Untangling the Origins of the Religious Right

If I were to believe what echoed around me, the pro-life movement was an evangelical uprising and outcry for the rights of the unborn following the heinous decision of Roe v Wade in 1973. The murder of innocents galvanized the Religious Right and became the entry point for the American evangelical church to mobilize and bring God’s Kingdom through the pursuit of political power.

Really stirring preaching points, and all-around general fallacy.

Historian and Evangelical scholar, Randall Balmer breaks this down in eye-opening ways. (His entire article is worth reading if you have time, as are his books.)

A brief timeline to orient us:

  • 1968: Christianity Today, the major magazine of the evangelical world, organized a conference with the Christian Medical Society to discuss abortion. Balmer quotes their statement: “Whether the performance of an induced abortion is sinful we are not agreed, but about the necessity of it and permissibility for it under certain circumstances we are in accord.”
  • 1971: Delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution calling for the legalization of abortion, which they reaffirmed in 1974 and 1976.
  • 1973: W. A. Criswell, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, issued a statement supporting the ruling. “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person, and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.” (Balmer, 2022)
  • 1978: Falwell did not preach his first anti-abortion sermon until February 26, 1978, over five years post-Roe.

Randall Balmer further states, “Having affirmed the importance of choice on the basis of personal privacy and liberty, I believe just as fervently that abortion itself is lamentable. Abortion is a fearsome choice with moral repercussions. But it is a choice properly made by the individual and her conscience, not by the state.” (Balmer, Randall. Thy Kingdom Come, p. 19. Basic Books.)

Balmer goes on to explain that the impetus of the Religious Right did not begin with abortion as widely believed, but with fighting the forced desegregation of their colleges. What got the Religious Right going as a political movement was the attempt on the part of the IRS to rescind the tax-exempt status of certain evangelical universities due to racial discrimination. (Balmer, Randall. Thy Kingdom Come, pp. 13-14. Basic Books.)

Balmer states, “…these selfless, courageous leaders of the Religious Right, inspired by the opponents of slavery in the nineteenth century, trudged dutifully into battle in order to defend those innocent unborn children, newly endangered by the Supreme Court’s misguided Roe decision. It’s a compelling story, no question about it. Except for one thing: It isn’t true” (Balmer, Randall. Thy Kingdom Come, p. 12. Basic Books).

The Religious Right was founded on defending racially-motivated discrimination. It rapidly recognized how powerful a single issue was for evangelical conservative Christians to unite around to mobilize political power from a base who had arguably been largely previously uninvolved as a voting block (Balmer, 15.)

On a strategic conference call, one of the Religious Right’s luminaries suggested abortion might be an issue for the church’s political power to coalesce around (Balmer, 16.) And that’s how the narrowly defined pro-life political movement came into being on a broader cultural scale.

It is one of the most brilliantly organized and tenaciously pursued marketing strategies of the last 100 years. And as we saw last Friday, it worked.

GREAT READS: Thy Kingdom Come, Randall Balmer. (Kindle Version)

Towards a Consistent Ethic of Life

The current pro-life movement exists within a much larger ecosystem of dominionism and Christian nationalism, whose express goals include dominating all aspects of society, taking back culture for God, and establishing what amounts to a theocracy.

Ready for the big irony? This is the very thing the founders came here fleeing. Theocracy. State religion.

I have many thoughts coming on this topic. I’m not talking as an outsider, but rather as someone who was once an insider.

More SCOTUS decisions came down this week in addition to overturning Roe, also moved us perilously closer to theocratic autocracy by paving the way for 1. teachers to force (by nature of their power differential) prayer in school settings (Kennedy), 2. mandating tax payer funding be made available to religious schools (Carson).

The current court is seemingly for the first time in US history giving preference to the exercise clause over the establishment clause in the 1st amendment. Also in the wake of recent tragic mass shootings, SCOTUS expands gun rights. (A gun has more rights than some women’s uteruses do at this very moment.)

I just don’t believe pro-life is an accurate moniker of this position. Anti-abortion or pro-birth would be far more accurate.

For a movement to truly be about life, it needs to have a consistent ethic honoring life. If I am for life, I am for life… but not just the life of the pre-born.

I am pro the life of the woman.
Pro the life of the woman with an ectopic pregnancy that will kill her without intervention.
I am pro the life of the born child,
For the life of the incest survivor,
For the life of the rape survivor.
For the lives and safety of born children in schools…
And of the teachers who serve them.

I am for the lives and well-being of immigrants and refugees,
For the lives of people whose names we may never know across oceans.
I am for the lives of families caught in generational cycles of poverty.
For the lives of the medically vulnerable in a pandemic.

(Please don’t tell me you are pro the life of the vulnerable if you fought wearing a mask in a global pandemic to keep your neighbor safe.)

I am for the lives of prisoners caught in a retributive, industrialized penal system.

I am for the LGBTQ+ community,
for transgender youth,
for BIPOC communities who endure repeated collective, generational trauma.

I am for the life of creation and the environment and its care.

And I am for YOUR right to practice what you believe no matter how vehemently I might disagree with you as long as the results of those beliefs do not bring harm or legislate religion on others outside of it.

I AM FOR LIFE. Full Stop.

And in order to be for a consistent ethic of life, I am for choice.

There are plenty of progressive and mainline expressions of Christianity that believe life begins at first breath, not conception or whatever the moving target of quickening or personhood is identified as. Parts of Judaism blast the overturning of Roe as a violation of their beliefs. And there are many Americans with the same rights who claim no religious affiliation who also feel this decision violates the free exercise of their deeply held values.

When life begins is a fundamentally religious argument and as such, legally is a moot point. A religious claim should not become a legislative framework in a pluralistic, democratic society.

Clinging to a Devolving Theological Framework

If Jesus wanted to bring God’s Kingdom through political power, if he wanted a Christian nation, he would have created one. He didn’t. When people sought to bestow political power on him, he disappeared. When his followers wanted to seize political power by force, he healed the ear they sliced off in the process and told them to stand down.

Christian nationalism, seeking to bring a certain interpretation of God’s Kingdom through political means, establishing empires, and winning the culture wars, is a bastardization of the genuine Christian faith. It is not the way of Jesus. It is the way of Caesar. And after 20+ years working in 20+ nations in Christian ministry circles, this is syncretism at its most sinister.

Church, we are missing the way of Jesus. (Incidentally, Jesus never mentioned abortion in the New Testament.)

Those of us who want to protect the rights of women don’t want to kill babies, any more than I hope you who celebrate the overturning of Roe want to kill women. But the tragic truth is Roe’s overturning will kill American women. The USA has the worst maternal mortality rate out of all of the 49 nations in the developed world. And the death rate of women from BIPOC communities is many times worse.

This is not a neutral issue. It is fraught with complexity. And because it is profoundly tangled with a growing tide of US Christian nationalism, there is a sinking feeling in my gut that this is just the beginning. Civil rights, contraception, individual privacy could all be on the chopping block next.

It feels like we are descending into a theocracy. And as a woman who has been in theocracies overseas that oppress women, this is terrifying. For everyone. Even for the ones who think they want it.

To my friends who hold profound beliefs against abortion, please know I would no more want laws that limit the exercise of your rights to make private choices between you, your doctor and/or your faith community in your own affairs.

More Thoughts

I am not a lawyer and this isn’t legal advice. But here are a few other things to consider.

  • Many of the moral arguments revolve around fetal personhood. Even if the fetus was considered to become a person at conception (bye IVF and IUDs), it still doesn’t change some basic tenants of US Law (as I understand it). If I have two kidneys and you need one to save your life, even if I am an exact match, you cannot compel me to give you one. You can’t use part of my body without my consent. In fact, you can’t even harvest a perfect match for a kidney after my death unless you have my previous consent as an organ donor before I died. No person can use the organs of someone else without their written permission. Unless you have a uterus in the USA. All bets are off then.
  • As a woman nearing the end of her childbearing years whose very life would be jeopardized by a pregnancy, this hits home for me personally. The only way at this point I would get pregnant would be by violence. And it would likely be a death sentence crushing my ability to breathe from the inside out. These decisions are painful and horrifically hard.
  • Making this about the forced birthing of babies to feed an adoption industry is kinda the literal definition of human trafficking. Wince. Adoption isn’t some rosy easy road. Adoption is often filled with trauma for the adoptees. It is not the pregnancy panacea some would want us to believe.
  • If this is really about the lives of the unborn, I think our American guys need to chip in. All’s fair, right? Mandatory, completely safe, totally-reversible vasectomies at age 13 until they meet the minimum standards of fiscal stability and moral responsibility and prove they are ready to be fathers. Any takers? What? No……….? Maybe that’s because this is actually more about controlling women and their bodily autonomy in the context of an evangelical purity narrative than protecting life. Maybe.

More to come friends. I’m not asking you to agree with any of this. Just to consider it. Tuck it away. As always, thank you for your time with these words.

You are loved. Michele

Church, Please Stop Weaponizing Forgiveness

Dear Church. We need to talk.

If I had ten dollars (metaphor adjusted for inflation) for every time I have named abuse or told parts of my story and the response was some iteration of, “Have you forgiven them yet?” or the slightly more nuanced version, “So. Are you walking through forgiveness?” I could retire on my own semi-deserted paradise island.

Forgiveness was never meant to become a weapon against the abused and broken. But in many instances that is exactly what it has turned into.

I’m going to float some thoughts here that might nudge a few toes. You don’t have to agree with me. But as a cPTSD trauma survivor, it would mean so much for you to give it a read.

This week has been a rollercoaster ride in perpetual free-fall. How much collective pain can 7-days hold?

Between the senseless violence of Uvalalde school children being gunned down in their classroom, the release of what I suspect is “just a tip of the iceberg” database of sexual abuse covered up by the SBC, and a viral video of a pastor confessing to an “affair” which was actually the ongoing rape of a minor… then seeing the congregation surround HIM, not the survivor…

Yeah. Church. We. Need. To. Talk.

We desperately need to rethink the way we approach forgiveness. Especially in instances of repeated, willful, intentional harm.

WHAT FORGIVENESS ISN’T

When I confronted unthinkable abuse that happened during the time I was away on emergency medical leave from the project I once led overseas and then made subsequent decisions to protect the welfare of the children and people in my care who were being harmed, I was the one that got penalized for firing those who perpetrated the harm. I was told I should have forgiven, given them grace, and allowed them to work out their issues and learn from their mistakes so everyone could better walk in forgiveness.

Excuse me, but HELL no.

That’s not forgiveness. It’s a cover-up.

It’s using forgiveness as a club and a cudgel to shame, silence and subject survivors to even more abuse on top of what they already have experienced.

And I refused to be a party to that. To break trust like that. I said no way… and it cost me everything.

Forgiveness is not a free pass, a panacea, or permission for continued access. Gaslighting is not a form of grace or goodness.

We must become more concerned about the rights and welfare of those who have been harmed than protecting their abusers and the systems that empower them.

That was a cataclysmic example. But there are far more subtle ways forgiveness gets unwittingly weaponized in faith-based circles.

At times when I have ventured to share some of my background from the abuse in my childhood or what I’ve experienced in 20 years of various ministry settings, I am met with curiosity about my need to forgive more so I can be more fully healed.

Maybe… standing inside and owning my story is evidence of my healing, rather than a lack of it.

Beloved, you can forgive and still deal with the pain of your wounds.

I’m not a therapist, but there are fundamental misunderstandings of how trauma operates and how one heals from it I periodically run into. And I get it. It’s only been in the last decade I’ve come into a greater understanding of these things myself. And I’m still learning.

Certain mindsets around forgiveness can be deeply hurtful, even when they aren’t intended to be, if they further blame the survivor for their ongoing trauma response by implying if you had actually forgiven, you’d be healed from this.

Forgiveness is not a magic pill. It doesn’t negate the effects of the trauma because trauma recovery involves far more than an act of will or a singular choice.

However, in almost every inner-healing prayer ministry session I’ve ever been a participant in, the premise that forgiveness is the first step toward healing has undergirded the methodology used.

[“Inner-healing” is a term used widely in Christian settings and is often sought as a more spiritual substitute for therapy with credentialed therapists. I’ve experienced inner-healing practices that range from simply being unhelpful to being outrightly abusive all on their own.]

I’ve come to realize forgiveness is often not a step at all. It’s not a box to be checked or an obstacle to be overcome, but rather a beautiful unfolding of our tight and tired hands when we are ready to let go.

TRAUMA & TOXIC FORGIVENESS DOCTRINE

Some of the disconnects I’ve encountered come from the fact that trauma is not primarily a spiritual experience. It’s a brain-body-emotional-relational-whole-self experience that touches every part of who you are.

KJ Ramsey writes in The Lord is My Courage (an amazing book out June 21 you can pre-order here), “Trauma is about the suspension of time and the separation of the self inside, wherein our bodies struggle to differentiate between past and present. Small reminders or rising states of stress can make us feel lost in space and time.”

Trauma steals our voice, distorts our time, and destroys our trust in ourselves and others.

Researchers have found that “trauma is stored in somatic memory and expressed as changes in the biological stress response.” In plain English, trauma is stored in and affects the body in a myriad of ways, especially the ways in which we respond to stress.

When forgiveness is forced or feels like a judgment, even subtly, it often becomes toxic. And that can do further violence to the places of our pain just longing to be met with understanding and support.

When I say toxic forgiveness, what am I talking about?

An understanding of forgiveness that results in silencing the story, dismissing the damage, and minimizing the pain suffered by survivors of abuse.

Not all talk about the importance of forgiveness is toxic or unhealthy. But saying we need to forgive in order for God to heal the trauma may reflect a transactional, performative understanding of forgiveness. We do this. God does that.

It also may assume a binary understanding of healing. You are or you aren’t.

And it can shift blame and shame to survivors even unintentionally. If you aren’t further along or you are still hurting, it’s your fault. You need to forgive more.

It also may underscore a punctiliar versus process view… forgiveness is an event we decide on rather than the result of a journey.

All of this can serve to impede rather than facilitate actual trauma recovery.

FORGIVENESS AND THE GOSPELS

One of the many verses I’ve seen get turned into battering rams is:

“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Mt 6:14-15

Seems simple enough right?

What we have to understand, even if you believe the Bible is meant to be engaged literally, every English translation we have available to us is a translation.

Usually translated by a team of people who are most often men. All with theological, cultural, and personal perspectives. Sometimes, leaning on other translations from even more people who are historically male.

If you’ve ever even tried to study a new language, think back to having to figure out which one of their 5 five words best fits the meaning of your one word.

There is no translation, without interpretation. Ever.

That being said. Let’s go back to as close to the original languages used in this passage as we can.

Our one English word for sin has many options in Koine Greek.

Hamartia is the most common word for sin used in the New Testament. It roughly is translated as, “missing the mark”.

This is not the word used in Mt 6:14-15.

Koine had a very common and frequently used word for evil and abusive behavior… Kakos. It means bad, worthless, corrupt, depraved, wicked, criminal, mischievous, harmful, destructive, and injurious.

Yet, that is not the word used in this verse either.

The word used is parapiptō, which can be best translated as to slip aside, to deviate from the right path, turn aside, wander, err, and fall away.

There is no clear indication this word is talking about prolonged, repeated, intentional violence and abuse. So let’s not assume that it is.

Unfortunately, Scripture has often been taken out of historical and linguistic contexts, assumed to be written for our culture today, and applied accordingly in montage form with the result of great harm.

Please don’t tell the grieving mama who has an empty bed and a hole in her heart, she just needs to forgive.

Please don’t turn forgiveness into a hoop to jump through for the one who is already exhausted by navigating trauma’s landscape.

Please don’t imply the one who is struggling with their abuse history is at fault for their ongoing pain.

Please don’t shut down the stories of the hurting by dismissing them as bitter and unforgiving.

Please be willing to step into the uncomfortable space of weeping with those who weep, if you are so invited, and learn to just be there.

Without fixing. Without figuring. Without finding fault with their wounds.

Please realize the ability to name abuse and find the courage to enfold its deep betrayals in language and whisper them out loud is itself an act of bravery.

Do I believe forgiveness can be part of the healing process? Yes.

But only when that forgiveness is the outcome and overflow of a living dynamic journey into greater wholeness, not a weaponized prerequisite for it.

Walking a Path Less Taken

I don’t know I’ve ever been more scared to hit publish.

This site has been filled and emptied and filled and emptied, breathing stories and holding space for their becoming. It has traced the routes I’ve flown across oceans and the losses carved into the core of my being.

When I started writing here over a decade ago I made a promise. I promised I would only write words I lived out, words inked in moments and choices before they ever got typed on a page. My silence has not been one of absence, but one of choosing to remain present to that promise.  

Seasons change and we change with them.  We grow.  We ebb and flow, and old words and worlds fall away.

Winter comes.  Sometimes our stories need silence to become what they truly are… stories distilled down to meaning lived out.  Stories with skin made real in the seasons that leave stretch marks on our souls. 

I don’t write here to give answers.   I write with the bold hope that sharing honestly the beauty and brutality of my journey might somehow become an invitation for you to discover deeper depths of your own.

Whatever that journey looks like.  Wherever these words find you.  However they encourage or challenge you.  Take the ones that give you life.  Leave the rest.

I’m not here to tell you what you should think or believe.  I’m not here to change you.  Or to debate a million debatable things. 

I’m here in the sacred hush between letters and lines to offer a space where your soul can breathe. 

I’m going to talk about faith.  About finding it in unexpected places.  Having it stretched and shredded and shattered.  Then reframed and renewed and reinvigorated. All in ways I’d never have imagined.

If you’ve been here before you already know Christ is central to my journey.  But please hear me—that doesn’t have to be true for you in order for you to be welcome here.

And when I say Christ, I don’t mean the neatly packaged, very white, GQ Jesus I saw in Sunday School books and films.  Or God with a doctrine ruler sternly checking to see if I said the right words and measured up to standards.  Rather, my story is about the One who has met me again and again in the middle of my deepest fear and pain.  The One who looks utterly different from the institutions that bear his name.

Annnnnnd…. aiiyyee, I do know a fair bit about those institutions.  I led in senior-level ministry roles for over 2 decades, on or between 4 continents.  There were beautiful moments and precious people.  But the brokenness of the system whose shards desperately wound the very ones it claims to serve almost cost me my life.  

Just shy of 10 years ago, I made a decision to protect the people I loved and served in Africa at my own peril. And. It. Cost. Me. Everything.

This is the story of my undoing, and embracing a narrow winding path forward.  This is the ongoing story of finding my voice, and the daily courage to use it. 

Of chasing hope into the labyrinth of my own pain and finding the bravery to begin again, to believe and trust that even the sharpest fragments of my story are worthy of belonging.  And every sliver of your story is worthy of belonging too.

Whatever you believe, however you identify, wherever you are as you read these words, you are welcome here.  If you’re heart-weary, soul-crushed, chewed up, and left wondering where home is, I have a pot of tea on the stove.

Spiritual abuse is real. Religious trauma is real. Gaslighting is real.

Especially when parts of the US church landscape more closely resemble cults than healthy spiritual communities. (Spoiler: I am no longer settling for “nice”. The stakes are just too great.)

You aren’t being over-dramatic or too sensitive. It is not your leader’s job to control, contain, or corral you. You deserve to be heard and believed, seen, and celebrated.

It is my deep desire this would be a place where that reality is explored… and embodied.

Leaving the institutional church of the building behind was one of the scariest, hardest decisions of my life. I hope by sharing more of my journey, it will remind you that you aren’t alone in yours.

Because, you, my friend are wildly loved. And you are welcome here.