I have little sense of the prevailing views of BCC readers regarding either the morality of abortion or the desirability of government action to make abortions illegal, more difficult to obtain, and so forth. I can, however, imagine the picture that at least some readers must possess regarding the typical BCC writer’s views on these subjects. Being wildly liberal in all ways, as is widely known — are you even allowed to read BCC if you haven’t donated to a Ralph Nader presidential campaign at some point in your life — we are imagined to believe something like the following. Abortion is to be understood solely as an issue of women’s control over their own bodies. An embryo or a fetus are not alive and so deserve no consideration. Because abortion is really morally neutral, the government should not have any role in deciding who can have an abortion and under what circumstances.
I certainly would not presume to speak for other BCC authors; it is obviously possible that one or more of them would accept the rough package of stereotypically “pro-choice” ideas sketched in the previous paragraph. Yet it seems to me that the position in question, as well as the stereotypical “pro-life” position imagined in opposition, are superficial and unhelpful.
American political rhetoric has frequently defined abortion debates around the question of when a fetus becomes “alive,” i.e., when it attains the status of a “human being.” The quotes in the previous sentence highlight what I see as the central problem with this framing of the discussion. What does “alive” mean, and what does “human being” mean? These definitions do not involve some kind of neutral scientific issue. Instead, choosing a definition implies, and perhaps presupposes, a moral stance regarding abortion and other such issues. To argue that abortion is wrong because it involves killing a living human being is to make an assertion that will really be persuasive primarily to those who already believe that abortion is wrong. Similarly, claiming that abortion is okay because a fetus isn’t alive and therefore cannot really be killed is a circular argument that essentially entails accepting a pro-choice worldview as the precondition for assent. When we find such logical cycles, we may feel confident that we are adrift on a sea of unmitigated ideology. I dislike such seas, much preferring the more circumscribed and mappable lakes of scriptural interpretation, theology, and ethics.
In fact, much exegetical effort from multiple political perspectives notwithstanding, our canonical texts say very little about whether a fetus is alive, a human being, and so forth. Such concepts are really a secular imposition; they are simply not the way our textual tradition approaches such concerns. Instead, they are a product of the sentimentalized and ideologized contemporary American debate on the theme.
However, the scriptures do speak to the question of abortion, resolving the ethical issues in a powerful way by an appeal to a fundamentally different set of values than those usually invoked in our tired cycles of debate. Consider what I find to be the best version of the most relevant tradition from the teachings of Jesus, in Mark 10:13-16 (as opposed to parallel, but probably edited and in some ways softened, accounts in Matthew 19:13-15 and Luke 18:15-17).
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
The literary and social context of this narrative is essential to the understanding of it that, in my view, resolves issues surrounding abortion. First, the literary context. Virtually the entire body of chapter 10 of Mark is a collection of narratives in which Jesus subverts social hierarchies and rejects established power structures. In the first narrative segment of the chapter, verses 1-12, Jesus addresses divorce, rejecting the at the time traditional patriarchal right of the husband to divorce his wife and expel her from the household. After the account of the children quoted above, we find the famous story in which Jesus tells the rich man to give all his possessions to the poor and join the itinerant ministry to earn salvation — an account that aligns blessedness with poverty and social marginality rather than with wealth and privilege, a sure challenge to existing structures of power. The last major relevant narrative in the chapter is the story of John and James asking to sit at Jesus’ right and left hands in the coming glory. Note especially the saying with which Jesus closes the discussion:
You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. (Mark 10: 42-45)
It is unclear to me how the text’s overarching themes of reversal of hierarchy and subversion of contemporary mortal concepts of power could be made more explicit.
How can we bring this understanding of the text’s overall direction back to bear on the narrative of Jesus and the children? Here a bit of social context helps a great deal. John Dominic Crossan provides a useful account of the ideas at hand. (As with all other historical and exegetical claims, there are complexities and counter-interpretations available here; however, my reading on this passage suggests that Crossan’s account is not particularly unusual, even if it is especially vivid.) After quoting from an ancient Egyptian letter in which a husband, in the context of some tender words for his wife, casually instructs her to kill the baby with which she is pregnant if that baby turns out to be a girl, Crossan elaborates that:
[The letter] shows us with stark clarity what an infant meant in the Mediterranean. It was quite literally a nobody unless its father accepted it as a member of the family rather than exposing it in the gutter or rubbish dump to die of abandonment or to be taken up by another and reared as a slave… Notice those framing words [in Mark’s account of Jesus and the children]: touch, took in his arms, blessed, laid hands on. Those are the official bodily actions of a father designating a newly born infant for life rather than death, for accepting it into his family rather than casting it out with the garbage. (Crossan, 1994, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, pgs. 63-64. See also Crossan, 1991, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, pgs. 267-69.)
Crossan’s reading places the account of Jesus and the children squarely in the literary vein of the rest of the chapter. It is a text about rejecting contemporary allocations of power, disavowing privilege — in this case, the patriarch’s privilege to arbitrarily exclude children from the family — and placing oneself on an equal footing with the traditionally marginalized.
Here, with this egalitarian theology from Jesus in hand, we are prepared to return to the question of abortion. When an adult chooses to abort a fetus, can there be any question that an act of power has taken place? The fetus has no autonomy, no control or influence over any adult decision. By contrast, adults and particularly pregnant women have effectively unlimited power over the fetus. I do not mean by these statements that women should have such power because the fetus is part of their body; these claims are intended as descriptive rather than normative. If the woman chooses to eat well, that provides the fetus with an ample supply of nutrients. If not, then not. If the woman chooses to subject the fetus to drugs or medication, the fetus will be subjected; no choice or influence are available. Finally, if the woman decides to abort the fetus, then the fetus will be aborted. The power relations are clear and nearly as one-sided as can be imagined.
When such power relations exist, what does Jesus demand of the powerful individual? Self-sacrifice and self-subordination. Rather than exercise the power to abort the fetus, Jesus challenges us to abjure that power. He asks us to make ourselves the servant of the weaker party, to reverse the natural and socially-constructed power relations that give us control and the fetus pure subordination. Abortion is unethical, in this Markan light, not because it is murder; the question need not arise. We conclude instead that abortion is a wrong decision because it is a failure of egalitarianism. It is an act of privileging the relatively powerful adult over the absolutely powerless fetus. It is a failure to follow his model of accepting the powerless and marginalized child into our family.
Let us turn now to the related but separate question of whether we ought to favor state action to make abortion illegal, difficult to obtain, or something similar. I think the same criteria apply; in interactions between the relatively powerful and the relatively marginal, Jesus would have the powerful surrender their control and influence to the outcast. But in this interaction between the state and a pregnant woman who, for whatever reason, has chosen to seek an abortion, who has the power and who is the subordinate?
Even in a democracy, an individual woman clearly has less power than the government. Indeed, any individual always has less power than the government. The deciding factor here, in applying the ethics Jesus taught us, is to determine whether the exercise of government power over women’s decisions about abortion reinforces established hierarchies and tends to perpetuate the subordination of a traditionally subordinated group. Does this act reinforce and reinscribe the sins and power of earlier generations?
I think it does. Women, in our society and many others, have long been subordinated to men in large part through collective social control of their sexuality. The patterns are numerous and well known. They persist with us even up to the present. When two teenagers conceive a child, which of the two of them generally receives the majority of the social punishment, including shame, lost economic potential, and loss of peer-group support? America, along with many other countries, long had an ethic in which it was considered shameful for a woman to have lost her virginity before marriage, but the same rules have not always applied for men — and almost never to the same extent. If abortions are made illegal, will this not constitute yet another instance of society subordinating women by stigmatizing and controlling their reproduction?
What, then, is the better Christian alternative to mortal forms of power as a solution to the moral evil of abortion? It is, in the words of Joseph Smith’s 1839 prayer and revelation, the model of the priesthood: to try to influence people considering abortion by “persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness, and pure knowledge…” (Doctrine and Covenants 121: 41-42). This is influence without hierarchy. It does not rely on coercion or control. The Christian model opens my heart to the light and knowledge of the person I seek to serve, just as I hope he or she will accept whatever light God has granted me.
In summary, I feel that the gospel of Jesus calls us to reduce and eventually eliminate abortion not by the exercise of state control over other people’s bodies but by the influence of our love and the Holy Spirit on their hearts. Such a vision is perhaps utopian. I accept the criticism; it is at least a fully Christian utopia.