Last week, a YouTube video surfaced showing Deborah Nucatola, the senior director of medical services at Planned Parenthood, discussing how she procures intact organs while performing abortions. “We’ve been very good at getting heart, lung, liver…so I’m not gonna crush that part,” she tells two actors posing as representatives of a biomedical research company. “I’m gonna basically crush below, I’m gonna crush above, and I’m gonna see if I can get it all intact.” While the video has sparked renewed outrage over abortion, it has arguably prompted even more silence—even among Christians. The silence has been so deafening that it prompted Ed Stetzer at Christianity Today to write an article headlined, “Where are the Mainline and Progressive Evangelical Voices Speaking Up after that Planned Parenthood Tragedy?” “If this moment does not bring you to outrage and to tears,” Stetzer writes, “there is something wrong,” before going on to lament that “we now find some Mainline Protestants and progressive evangelicals unable to speak prophetically to the Democratic Party—even as we watch the graphic discussion of how clinics can benefit at the expense of the dismemberment of unborn children.”
Protestant silence on abortion is not new. In the years leading up to the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, mainline Protestants and some evangelicals actively supported abortion rights. Pro-choice language was added to the United Methodist Book of Discipline in 1972 and in 1971, even Stetzer’s own Southern Baptist Convention (which has since become considerably more conservative) passed a resolution affirming the legalization of abortion. When one considers the fact that in 1970, over 60% of Americans self-identified as Protestants—and that mainline denominations and Southern Baptists accounted for a solid majority of Protestants at the time—it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that with regard to abortion in America today, we are lying in the bed that the Protestant church has made. While there are rare instances in which the risk a pregnancy poses to the life of the mother is so high that the choice is between saving one life or none at all and thus abortion is warranted, it is difficult to imagine a 21st-century America in which fetal-organ harvest is a growth industry without the mid-century Protestant push to decriminalize elective abortion.
Over the last forty years, however, evangelical Protestants have had a moral and political awakening on this issue. This is likely because the Scriptural case against it is so straightforward. In the Old Testament, God forbids murder, making it a capital offense since it destroys a person created in His image (Gen. 9:6). The lives of unborn children are not less valuable for not having been born. On the contrary, he Psalmist describes God as being meticulously involved with the creation of each person in the womb: “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well” (Psalm 139:13-14). The New Testament adds strands that speak to the modern “personhood debate” concerning the unborn. John the Baptist was “filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15), leaping for joy as an unborn child at the presence of the Messiah (Luke 1:44). Later in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul writes that God “set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace” (Gal. 1:15). It stands to reason that what the Lord has knit together, no human being should tear asunder. What the Lord can sanctify for his service and indwell by his Spirit, no person should set apart for destruction, reckon as waste, or sell for parts.
Furthermore, if unborn children are persons, silence with regard to their destruction is inexcusable. Proverbs instructs us to “rescue those who are being taken away to death, hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter. If you say, ‘Behold, we did not know this,’ does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it, and will he not repay man according to his work?” (Pro. 24:11-12) As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” The Scripture offers positive motivation as well as negative motivation, however. The Apostle Paul writes that the whole point of Christ’s redeeming us from sin and guilt was so that he might create a people “zealous for good works” (Tit. 2:14)—including the work of loving our unborn neighbor.
We must not make the mistake, however, of assuming that this process is automatic. Good works do not spring forth automatically—even from the hearts of redeemed people. The author of Hebrews encourages us to “consider how to stir up one another, to love and good works” (Heb. 10:24). Christians should not “neglect to meet together,” he says (v. 25), because Christians only become more holy as they spur one another on toward holiness. John Wesley made the same point when he wrote that “The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness.” The main reason abortion should be addressed in the church, then, is simple. As we do so, we mature into the image of Christ, becoming more capable of thinking about and acting on this difficult issue with his wisdom, courage, and grace. Here are five other reasons we should talk about abortion in church:
1. Abortion is a justice issue.
Other than natural death, abortion is the single greatest cause of death in U.S. history Since January 22, 1973, when the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, about 58 million unborn children—nearly 1.4 million per year—have been aborted. In an editorial at BreakPoint, Rolley Haggard recently illustrated the enormity of that number in striking fashion:
I opened a Word document. I typed periods across the top line, no spaces in between. I repeated the process until I got to the bottom of the page. When I was done there were 50 lines with 165 periods each, for a total of 8,250 periods filling the page.
Then I repeated the process, page after page, until I had 58,000,000 periods.
I wound up with 7,030 pages.
I then printed off all the pages. It took over 14 reams of paper (a ream is 500 sheets). The resulting stack was almost 30 inches high, about up to my waist.
While there are many other matters of justice that ought to command the attention of the American church—human trafficking, the plight of undocumented immigrants, and creation care, to name just a few—if nothing else, the sheer number of human beings created in God’s image who are being destroyed should make abortion a justice issue of the highest priority. Churches should respond to abortion as a matter of justice by calling for just laws, but it does not have to be a partisan issue. There are currently political solutions being offered on both the left and the right aimed at curbing the number of abortions. Frequently, the church’s role will be to speak prophetically to both sides, pushing for bipartisan support of just laws that benefit both mothers and their children.
2. Social issues cannot be separated from the gospel.
It is often objected that preaching on abortion or otherwise addressing the issue in a congregation is an unnecessary distraction from the “real work” of preaching the Gospel. However, this has been a standard objection to opposing injustice throughout U.S. history. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. lamented that so many had “remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.” “Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church,” he wrote, “the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent—and often even vocal—sanction of things as they are.” A century earlier, abolitionist pastor Joseph Parrish Thompson responded to critics who accused him of corrupting his pulpit with politics by declaring that the treatment of fugitive slaves “was a Biblical question and a question of morality long before it was dragged into the arena of politics, and it was legislated upon by the King of heaven and earth ages before the Congress of the United States had an existence.” He believed that this hot-button political issue directly affected his congregation since its rightness or wrongness had direct bearing upon whether they needed to repent of it in order to be saved. As Martin Luther said, “If you preach the gospel in all aspects with the exception of the issues which deal specifically with your time—you are not preaching the gospel at all.”
3. Someone in your church has had an abortion (or knows someone who has).
According to the Guttmacher Institute, one in five women who gets an abortion identifies as a “born-again, evangelical, charismatic, or fundamentalist Christian.” This adds up to roughly 200,000 Bible-believing Christians annually. This makes it statistically likely that there is at least one woman in your church who has had an abortion. According to Christian ministries who work with post-abortive Christian women, most of these women will never reveal their secret. Churches that speak the truth with love on this issue from the pulpit and in small groups provide opportunities for the Word of God to convict people of their sin and lead them to repentance so that they might find forgiveness. Congregations that create support groups for women (or men) wrestling with abortion-related guilt provide avenues for troubled souls to find peace with themselves, others, and God.
4. Silence in the church cedes a monopoly of influence to the culture.
Every day, thousands of ideas are competing with one another in our culture. Christians are constantly being presented alternative narratives concerning abortion from people they know and through mass media. To highlight one recent example, a 2014 romantic comedy called The Obvious Child spent 90 minutes attempting to convince viewers that abortion is, as one reviewer put it, “a legal entitlement that one can request with the same confidence that one could ask for tooth whitener at the grocery store.” By contrast, a recent survey of forty evangelical pastors—all of whom believe that life begins at conception—found that 18 had not preached against abortion in the last year, and that five had never done so. Significantly, the survey also found that “pastors who preach against abortion are about twice as likely to see congregants involved in pro-life activities as those who don’t.” Every church should consider setting aside at least one Sunday per year (“Sanctity of Life Sunday”, for example, on or near January 22, the anniversary of Roe v. Wade) to address the issue.
5. Younger people more likely than not agree with the church on this issue.
A Gallup poll found in 2010 that “support for making abortion broadly illegal (was) growing fastest among young adults.” This was “a sharp change from the late 1970s, when seniors were substantially more likely than younger age groups to want abortion to be illegal.” A 2012 study found that only 37% of Millennials considered abortion morally acceptable. “Given these realities,” writes Fordham University professor Charlie Camosy in USA Today, “we should no longer be asking, ‘Will the U.S. have a major shift in its abortion policy?'” but rather “What will the major shift in U.S. abortion policy look like?” (Speaking as a Millennial, my anecdotal experience confirms these findings. A friend of mine who disagrees with me on the existence of God and the morality of same-sex relationships, among many other things, helped found Secular Pro-Life, a national organization dedicated to “ending elective abortion.” Far from turning people off to the Gospel, the chances are good that Christians who speak with convictional kindness on this issue will find that many people—both inside and outside the church—already agree with them. While the church is fighting the prevailing headwinds of the culture on many other issues, Christians who speak truthfully, compassionately, and biblically about abortion could very well be surprised to find the wind at their backs.