“Abortion confronts the Christian with the most perplexing questions of all.”

This election season many Roman Catholic and Evangelical voters have found themselves attracted to Democratic candidate Barack Obama. At the same time, many of these religious voters feel conflicted because of Obama’s pro-choice stand on abortion. That Evangelicals could support a Democrat at all is surprising, of course, because Evangelicalism has, for the past 30 or so years, wed itself tightly to the Republican party. But, for some Evangelicals and Roman Catholics, it is simply too much to ask to forsake the pro-life commitment that the Replublican party has used to gain the loyalty of the “Religious Right” for so long.

In light of this controversy, religious supporters of Obama have given some interesting arguments for Obama. For example, my wife posted about this issue on her blog and received some nice responses. Some pro-life advocates have explicitly argued in favor of Obama, too. But one of the most interesting arguments has come from Obama’s running mate Joe Biden who has recently pointed out that Roman Catholic dogma on abortion has shifted throughout the centuries.

Catholic historian Frank Flinn has a nice article on the Church’s changing attitudes toward abortion. He explains that it wasn’t until 1869 that the pope declared abortion to be absolutely forbidden during all stages of pregancy. Before that, the fetus was not considered a person until the moment of “quickening” (i.e., the moment the mother first feels the baby move in her womb) which usually happens in the middle of the second trimester. Flinn even quotes Anselm as saying: “No human intellect accepts the view that an infant has the rational soul from the moment of conception”!

I suppose the argument here is that if even the supposedly infallible Roman Catholic Church has changed its mind over the centuries about when a fetus becomes a human person, then this is a question too hard for the American government and should be left up to individual people. It’s the same point Obama was making when he told Evangelical leader Rick Warren that this question was above his “pay grade”. One could reply (as did Biden’s own Bishop) that when the Church changes its teaching, the later teaching is always better than the earlier teaching. But this reply would seem to undermine the whole point of conservatism which teaches that “traditional” (i.e., older) teachings are always better. This was the point I was making in my earlier post about same sex marriage. Conservatives can’t argue that we should accept the “traditional” view of marriage, because on the traditional view wives are property of their husbands and the possibility of polygamy was assumed: men can own as many wives as they can afford. Here again the conservative argument from tradition doesn’t support Evangelical and Catholic positions.

Now, I knew this stuff about the Catholic Church’s evolving position, but when I read it again it got me wondering about Evangelicals. Has there been any shift in Evangelical understandings of abortion? A few minutes with Google reveals that there has been.

In 1968 Christianity Today sponsored a symposium on issues of birth control and abortion. And what happened? Evangelical leaders of the day got together and decided … to be pro-choice. Follow this link for the published summary of the symposium along with some responses. Below are some of the most interesting passages, along with my comments in italics:

  • “Abortion confronts the Christian with the most perplexing questions of all: Is induced abortion permissible and if so, under what conditions? If it is permissible in some instances is the act of intervention still sinful? Can abortion then be justified by the principle of tragic moral choice in which a lesser evil is chosen to avoid a greater one? As to whether or not the performance of an induced abortion is always sinful we are not agreed, but about the necessity and permissibility for it under certain circumstances we are in accord.” — i.e., abortion is always tragic, but sometimes it is the best choice in a bad situation. Note also the assumption that we should approach the question of abortion with humility — i.e., we should remember that the answer is above our pay grade.
  • “The Christian physician will advise induced abortion only to safeguard greater values sanctioned by Scripture. These values should include individual health, family welfare, and social responsibility.” –– i.e., it is permissible to have an abortion if you think you won’t be able to care for the child.
  • “The Christian maintains that in avoiding legalism on the one hand and license on the other, the prescriptions of legal codes should not be permitted to usurp the authority of the Christian conscience informed by Scripture.” — i.e., the choice of whether to have an abortion should be left to the individual, not mandated by the government.
  • “Physicians are called upon to maintain and restore the health of the whole [human being].” — i.e., abortion may be necessary for the mental (not just the physical) health of the mother.
  • “We live in a world pervaded by evil. Human relationships become distorted; unwanted children are born into the world; genetic defects are not uncommon and harmful social conditions abound. Therefore, it is the duty of Christians to be compassionate to individuals and to seek responsibility to mitigate the effects of evil when possible, in accordance with the above principles. When principles conflict, the preservation of fetal life or the integrity of the human body may have to be abandoned in order to maintain full and secure family life.” — i.e., there are many kinds of cases in which abortion may be necessary: cases of “distorted” relationships such as rape or incest, cases of “genetic defects”, cases of “harmful social conditions” such as poverty, cases in which the mother’s bodily “integrity” is threatened such as when her life or health is in jeapardy, and even in cases of “unwanted” pregnancy. Note that many of these cases are spelled out in more explicit detail elsewhere in the report.

So this is a fairly standard pro-choice document. It is also a clearly pro-life document — what? you can be pro-life and pro-choice at the same time? — but while affirming the value and sanctity of all human life from the moment of conception, the document’s drafters understand that in this fallen world hard choices must sometimes be made. And those choices can’t be made for us by government officials who don’t know the specifics of our case and try to create blanket rules that apply to everyone. Its a document I think Obama could agree with.

The document actually reminds me a lot of one of my favorite movies on the topic of abortion: Citizen Ruth (Payne, 1996). The movie satirizes both sides of the culture war, indicting both pro-life and pro-choice activists for their mutual failure to treat the women involved as actual human beings rather than pawns in a political battle. (There’s a key scene toward the end where the two sides are so involved in screaming at each other about what is in Ruth’s best interests that they don’t notice her walking away from the whole mess.) In 1968 Evangelicals were the compassionate people writer-director Alexander Payne would one day challenge us to be with his film. But by the time he actually made his film in 1996, Evangelicals were just the butt of his jokes.

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