There Is No Christian Argument Against Overturning Roe v Wade

The reversal of Roe is not less of a mandate for Christians merely because of Donald Trump

The news that Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy will retire next month has immediately conjured up images of a pro-life judge’s taking his place and becoming the crucial fifth piece to strike down Roe v. Wade, the Court’s 1973 affirmation of a universal right to abortion. For pro-life activists and observers, this is a historic opportunity to challenge the bloodiest injustice in America for the past 50 years. While overturning Roe would not itself criminalize abortion, it would blow away the barrier against state-based laws and almost certainly result in at least 20 states outlawing abortion in most circumstances. All it takes is five justices to intervene on behalf of the lives of millions of unborn Americans. It is very close.

It is close because Donald Trump won an astonishing election the same year that Justice Antonin Scalia astonishingly died, denying the Democratic Party an opportunity to solidify Roe via President Hillary Clinton. It is close because then-candidate Trump said onstage during a presidential debate that he would seek to overturn Roe if given the opportunity to appoint justices. It is because of the relationship between the judiciary and the executive, a relationship crafted by the men on our dollars and coins, that this opportunity has come. And it is also because of Donald Trump.

This is a hard saying. Who can bear it?

In our current age, we are given to making value judgments by association. Because Donald Trump is a man of vice whose administration has pursued some cruel policies (and whose rhetoric tends to exult in such cruelty), some evangelicals will struggle with feeling joy at this vacant Court seat. “I’m personally pro-life,” they might say, “but I just don’t trust Trump, and I don’t like it that people who voted for him seem happy about this.” Thus, they might try to reason themselves into the belief that Roe ought not be overturned, that a pro-life justice ought not be appointed, all because Donald Trump ought not be president and evangelicals ought not be feeling victorious right now.

The frustration is understandable, but the logic is not. Evangelicals don’t have to set aside their convictions about race, immigrants, women, or the Religious Right in order to perceive a moral mandate when it comes to abortion. There is no Christian case against overturning Roe. None.

Once upon what seems now like a lifetime ago, pro-life evangelicals were united in horror and imprecatory prayer at the undercover videos of Planned Parenthood released by the Center for Medical Progress. Those videos have been legally prosecuted and forgotten, but they have not been unmade. There are many of us who vividly remember where we were when we watched a physician “harvest” the tiny anatomy of an aborted boy (yes, “it’s a boy”), or when we listened to Planned Parenthood reps talk about the money and humor in the trafficking of babies. While these videos were being released, there was no question amongst most evangelicals whether abortion was a cause worth engaging at the highest possible level. There was no Donald Trump and no morally compromised Religious Right to complicate things.

Three years later, the producers of those videos are fighting litigation, and many of us who watched and cried and prayed are fighting ourselves. The illusion of virtue in our tribe was dismantled by 2016, by #MeToo, by the children of refugees in prison-like holding cells. It has been terrible. But evangelicals cannot allow the hypocrisy of their elders to blind them to the innocence of their infants. It is not remotely unreasonable or incoherent to stand as far away as possible from the rot of God and country Republicanism while charging alongside it against Roe v. Wade. In fact, it is the only option we have.

In a now-deleted tweet, a prominent progressive evangelical writer said though she was “convictionally pro-life” (those slippery adverbs!), she could not support the overturning of Roe v Wade due to all the “effects” it would have. After deleting the tweet, she said that Twitter was obviously not the right place to talk about abortion. Nothing more than a 2 minute perusal of her Twitter account reveals dozens of impassioned threads about everything from gun control to immigration to policing. This sort of double dealing has become rampant among younger, socially conscious evangelicals in the aftermath of Trump’s election. While abortion is a “complex conversation” that requires nuance instead of activism, the issues that the Republican Party morally fails on are apparently no-brainers.

I don’t think this attitude necessarily comes from apathy about unborn babies or rank partisanship. I think it mostly comes from fear—fear of becoming the wrong kind of person in the wrong kind of tribe. Again, the fear is understandable, but the rationalization seen above is not. To act as if morally upright Christians cannot support President Trump’s appointment of a justice who would tip the scales against Roe is to prioritize political consistency and tribal identity over human life itself. It is the literal opposite of a Christ-honoring public theology.

Martin Luther King famously said that laws could not make white people love black people, but they could keep white people from lynching black people. In other words, a law that doesn’t address the deepest problems but still preserves life is a worthy law. Evangelicals who say that overturning Roe would not destroy back alley abortions need to ponder the truth in King’s statement. The possibility that a law will be broken and that people will suffer is not an argument against a moral law. It’s an argument against us sinful people.  The overturning of Roe would allow states to codify the sanctity of unborn life, and laws do teach. We may not be able to change hearts, but we can shape them as they grow…but only if they’re allowed to beat.

Roe v. Wade is a legal catastrophe. It is Constitutional soothsaying. It’s a decision based on discredited scientific claims and cartoon philosophy. Worst of all, it has been the death sentence of over 60 million Americans. Worrying about whether its reversal will register as a win for a president who is unworthy of it is not a competing interest to its destruction. This should not, must not, and cannot be a “white Republican Christian” issue. It’s everyone’s issue. There is no Christian case for keeping Roe. None.

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On Charlie Gard (a reply to Matt Loftus)

Matt:

You’re always worth reading, and your perspective on the difference between allowing the “arc of life” to complete vs causing death is helpful. I absolutely agree with you that we ought never torture dying people. I also agree that in cases where death is clearly imminent, the moral dimensions of allowing it in vs taking extraordinary measures to keep it out are more complex than Tweets allow. Charlie Gard’s suffering is horrible, and, as Christians, we believe that the last enemy to be defeated is death. It does not have the last word, and we must not behave as if it does.

But I think you and Alastair Roberts are missing something…or perhaps simply not taking it seriously enough. Both you and Alastair readily agree that something is amiss when the state usurps the role of parents as it certainly seems to have done in the Gard case. But you both seem to think this is a minor concession that doesn’t really affect the moral dimension of the life and death situation here. What I’m hearing from you and Alastair amounts to something like, “Well, of course the courts are wrong in telling Charlie’s parents what they can and cannot do for their child with their money. But Charlie’s parents are probably wrong to want experimental treatment, and actually, that’s a bigger deal than what the European courts are doing.”

I believe this attitude is profoundly wrong, and I’ll offer two reasons:

–You write, “Honoring human dignity means helping someone along on the trajectory of their life, not trying to straighten it out for as long as we can.” This is a defensible statement, but in this instance, it has a serious ambiguity: Who is the “we” in this sentence? Is it a reference to parents? Doctors? Fellow taxpayers? Churches? The common welfare?

This ambiguity matters precisely because different people have different immediate moral obligations to cases like Charlie Gard’s. Charlie’s parents indisputably feel a moral obligation to do everything within their power to save their son. By what authority do we as observers, or (more pertinently) governments and courts, stand over such instinct and pass a judgment on it? Charlie Gard does not belong to you or me the same way he belongs to his mother and father. He does not belong to Europe or the United Kingdom the same way he belongs to Mom and Dad. What is the moral obligation of the community in this case if it isn’t to serve Charlie’s parents as they try to save their child?

You might respond, “Experimental treatments are objectively torture, and even if the parents want them, allowing them would be an injustice on Charlie.” That’s a coherent moral argument. The problem, as I’m sure you agree, is that it’s an extreme one. Very few people would agree that all experimental treatments are inherently wrong to administer.

So then, the question becomes how can we discern if this experimental treatment is good for Charlie Gard or not? The answer is that “WE” cannot determine that. Charlie’s parents can. Doctors who would administer such a test can make a judgment and follow their conscience. But as we go further and further from the inner circle–Charlie’s parents at the middle, the doctors nearby–we also go into different moral terrain. Establishing this kind of triage of relational, moral authority is not some sort of Western model of “autonomy” that separates familial units from their communities. By wise design, God ordained that parents would be physically and emotionally present with their children in a way that no other person or institution could ever be. To honor the wishes of Charlie’s parents in this case IS in fact a positive moral obligation, one that the court systems of Europe have failed to their shame.

-You write, “Honoring human dignity means allowing each person to follow their trajectory as closely as possible, using medical technology to keep people from falling off the arc prematurely.” I think this is mostly correct, but with one big caveat: We don’t actually know a person’s “trajectory” until they’ve died. Downward spirals stop. Cancer goes mysteriously into remission. Physical healing that goes beyond the explanatory bounds of biology happens, and it happens often enough to make me wonder whether speaking of a person’s life “trajectory” is actually all that useful in the moments we would most need to know it.

You’ve made in the past a compelling Christian case for state-sponsored healthcare for all. For that reason, your argument here surprises me. The point of single payer healthcare, if I understand yours and others’ arguments correctly, is giving everyone access to improve their life trajectory regardless of their income. I’m not sure you can have this cake and eat it too. If Americans have a positive moral obligation to not withhold insurance to those whose life-trajectories are pointing downward, it seems self-evidently true that we ought not withhold medical treatment to the same–and, by extension, we ought not withhold the very capacity to choose treatments. If Charlie has a God-given right to insurance even if his body is failing, why does he not have a right to the treatment such insurance can purchase?

Your call to nuance amidst outrage is perceptive and helpful. But in the case of Charlie Gard, I think the outrage is justified. Letting the admittedly real complexities of medical ethics obscure the very serious action of the state in this case–and the obvious precedents such action establishes–is a mistake that pro-life, pro-dignity people cannot afford to make.

On Moral Equivalency and Xbox

A friend of mine got a (predictably) hostile reaction on Facebook when he recently posted this status:

If you are a young man wishing he had a young woman with whom to spend Valentine’s Day, the single biggest thing you can do to improve your prospects is to stop playing video games. I am not suggesting video games are inherently wrong, I’m just stating a fact. To the *vast* majority of women, they scream “feckless man-child.” They are the single biggest turnoff.

Now, the post, taken literally, is probably untrue. Anyone, man or woman, who claims to know what the “vast majority of women” feel on a topic should be treated with suspicion. Further, most men who are stuck in unwanted singleness are probably not stuck in it primarily because of their video games. Even if my friend is correct that many women find gaming unattractive, it doesn’t take 40 years of life experience to know that few things are unattractive enough to keep a man in perpetual bachelorhood if he has a job and at least passable hygiene. Hobbies can be annoying, but people live with annoying hobbies in their significant others all the time.

So I’ll chalk my friend’s advice up to a moment of hyperbole. But does he have a point? The reason this question matters to me is that last year, I wrote a piece for First Things called “America’s Lost Boys.” The blog was a reflection on data from sociologist Erik Hurst, who told an interviewer that single men without a college degree were spending an enormous amount of time and capital on video games. In my article, I wondered whether this phenomenon could be related to the socioeconomic struggles of American males, many of whom seem to be behind their female peers in terms of education, career, and relational connections. While I explicitly refused to wholesale condemn gaming, I did draw a contrast between young men who live emotionally connected lives with others, and those who seem trapped in their own fantasy worlds.

While most of the response to the piece was positive, I did note that the critical reactions were virtually identical. They went something like this: “This is an unfair caricature of gaming; I am a married man with two kids and I regularly play video games. You don’t know what you’re talking about. Any hobby can be addictive if a person has no self-control.”

I completely agree. As a husband and father who owns an Xbox One, I would only be condemning myself if I argued that video gaming is categorically immature or beneath “real” manhood. But as I saw with my friend’s Facebook status, and with the response to my own article, it sure seems to me that most people who respond thusly are assuming a moral equivalency between video games and, say, reading, that I don’t think holds up. What I mean to say is this: It can simultaneously be true that there is nothing wrong or harmful about playing video games, and that video gaming as a hobby is intellectually inferior and psychologically more risky than other kinds of hobbies. In order for gaming to be “OK” to do, it doesn’t need to be more or less the same as reading novels, or playing chess, or hiking–because it’s not. There are unique aspects to gaming that do make it a more insular, less personally enriching activity. That would be bad news for gamers if Christianity categorically condemned any and all activities that were more insular and less enriching than others. But it doesn’t. And that’s OK.

It seems to me that this kind of argument always exposes a human tendency to mix pleasure with pride. It’s not enough to enjoy our activities and be thankful that we get to experience them. We want others to assume that our activity is just as good as theirs. When we hear someone argue to the contrary, we reach for moral equivalency, out of pride. If you’re trying to lose weight, it may be a good idea to have an apple with your lunch instead of some Cheetos. Otherwise, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a few Cheetos. But a Cheeto isn’t an apple, and trying to say that it is the same is far, far worse than eating it.

So yes, my friend is guilty of exaggeration. But, if you’re a single guy who would love to marry a good woman, but seem to spend far more hours per week answering the Call of Duty than trying to know and be known, maybe consider shaking your lifestyle up. You may be surprised at how much fun you can have without batteries.