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