Last week we witnessed an event that I never thought I would see in my lifetime: the overturning of Roe v Wade. This 1973 Supreme Court decision held that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, the right to privacy, protects a woman’s freedom to terminate a pregnancy. Half a century later, the Supreme Court overturned that decision, stating:
Abortion presents a profound moral question. The Constitution does not prohibit the citizens of each State from regulating or prohibiting abortion. Roe and Casey arrogated that authority. We now overrule those decisions and return that authority to the people and their elected representatives. (pp. 78-79)
Unsurprisingly, this decision has dramatically increased the polarisation of opinion in the US and across the world. There is a great deal of emotion shaping and clouding the rhetoric on both sides. Neither vitriol nor triumphalism are warranted on such a topic, in which lives and livelihoods are at stake.
What actually happened?
On 24 June 2022 a piece of case law, decided nearly fifty years ago, by seven unelected male members of the judiciary, was ruled unconstitutional. This has not made abortion illegal across the US. Rather, it has made it a matter for the elected representatives of the people to decide, state by state.
Many people have argued that the decision removed women’s constitutional right to an abortion. This is not the case. There has never been a constitutional right to abortion, only one to privacy, which was temporarily held to cover abortion.
What happens next?
It is likely that many states will rush to enact laws outlining the circumstances in which a woman can terminate a pregnancy. It is uncontroversial (for the vast majority of people) that abortion should be permitted in order to save the life of the mother. Prior to this point, however, opinion is divided on when abortion should be allowed and for what reason.
Between ‘to save the life of the mother’ and the other end of the spectrum (‘for any reason’), the most common options suggested for circumstances in which abortions should be legal are in cases of rape or incest; or to prevent suffering of a child diagnosed in utero with a serious disease, disability or abnormality (the nature of what constitutes a ‘serious’ condition in these categories is contested). In terms of timings, options vary from ‘before the fetus can feel pain’, through ‘before viability’ to ‘at any time’.
The vociferous and polarised nature of the ‘debate’ around Roe v Wade (and abortion generally) in traditional and social media tends to give the impression that most people either want abortion completely banned for all circumstances at all stages or want it legal for any reason at any time. Recent polling, however, contradicts this.
One poll, from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, found that while 57 per cent of Americans thought that ‘abortion should be legal in all or most cases’, when asked the same question with regards to timing, only 34 per cent agreed that ‘abortion should be legal in all or most cases during the second trimester’. Just 19 per cent said this should be true in the third trimester.
Similarly, a poll in January of this year found that only 39 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement that ‘when it reconsiders Roe vs Wade, … [the Supreme Court] should rule [to allow] abortion to be legal without restriction at any time’ (p. 16). Even among those who described themselves a ‘pro-choice’, this number only rose to a relatively modest 59 per cent. Forty-four per cent of respondents (35 per cent of pro-choice respondents) said the Supreme Court should rule to ‘Allow certain restrictions on abortions as determined by each state.’
In fact, in an earlier question in the same poll, fully 84 per cent of pro-choice respondents stated that abortions should be limited either at ‘The point at which a fetus can feel pain’ or ‘The point at which a fetus can live outside the womb’. Just five per cent of pro-choice respondents stated that ‘Abortion should always be legal’.
There is a similarly nuanced picture among Christians and people of other faiths in the two polls. The AP-NORC poll found that 68 per cent of ‘born again or evangelical Christians’ thought that a woman should be able to access legal abortion if she is pregnant as a result of rape or incest, and 28 per cent if she ‘Does not want to be pregnant for any reason’. In the other poll, 24 per cent of practising Catholics said that the Supreme Court should ‘Allow abortion to be legal without restriction at any time’ and only 33 per cent that the Court should ‘Make abortion illegal’.
Perhaps most hopefully, the January poll found that 81 per cent of respondents (and 76 per cent of pro-choice respondents) believe that ‘It is possible to have laws which protect both the health and well-being of a woman and the life of the unborn’. This kind of ‘both/and’ position is one which all of God’s people ought to strive for.
Perhaps even more importantly, we need to be better at telling the world that this is what we are striving for. It is all too easy for our opponents to paint a caricature of us that suggests we are anti-women, and don’t care about their suffering or their struggles. There may always be some who stand outside abortion clinics harassing and abusing women, whilst claiming to speak in Jesus’ name. This is neither Christ-like nor likely to be effective, and CMF opposes any such activities. However, I have seen many believers on social media challenging those who call ourselves pro-life to consider what it might take to empower women in a time when they feel they have no choice but to seek a termination. CMF is working with a number of other groups to try to understand what the real issues driving people to seek abortion are, with a view to addressing some of those and ensuring real choice for women facing unexpected pregnancies.
How might the picture change if, instead of being known for negative speech and restrictive attitudes, Christians were seen for their abundant love and generosity towards families in need? What change could God bring about in the UK and the US if his people responded to unexpected pregnancy the way they have responded to food poverty through food banks, or debt through organisations like Christians Against Poverty? Or if we look further back in history, the way Christians in the 19th century provided education and skills training to children living in poverty? This isn’t to say that poverty is the only driver of abortion; simply to note that God uses his people to meet the needs of those who feel trapped in a situation not of their choosing. What creative approaches could we find in our day to address the drivers of abortion and start to see those numbers decline, not through lack of supply, but through lack of demand?