07/09/2013 11:33 am ET Updated Sep 08, 2013

Where Faith and Abortion Meet in Texas


When Texas state senator Wendy Davis was forced to stop her filibuster against a restrictive anti-abortion bill two weeks ago, observers in the gallery stepped in -- the People's Filibuster, some called it -- and shouted down the attempted vote in the final few minutes of the Senate's special session. Some called it a victory for the people; others called them an unruly mob. In my piece for Patheos on the People's Filibuster and women having a voice in their own health care, one commenter said I was defending screeching animals -- a small sample of the anger and recrimination swirling around the abortion issue.

Now Governor Rick Perry has called another special session, and despite the energy and national media attention generated by the last special session, the abortion bill will almost certainly pass this time. Pro-Life advocates including Mike Huckabee are turning out in force, and Texas will again see lots of discussion, debate, finger-pointing, and name-calling.

I wrote about abortion last year in my book Faithful Citizenship as an example of an issue where we might seek to make decisions out of our Christian beliefs instead of our partisan political identities, and abortion has only become an even more contentious issue since (131-ff). If you've seen message threads or comments where abortion gets debated online, you've noticed there isn't much actual debate going on. Pro-Choice comments accuse opponents of abortion of being Neanderthals, intellectual lightweights, or chauvinists; Pro-Life comments accuse supporters of abortion of being Nazis, murderers, or (my favorite) people so unattractive that no one would wish to conceive with them anyway.

The debate is normally not the least bit Christian, at least in terms of humility, compassion, and love for one's perceived enemy. It also typically employs only one type of argument -- what in Faithful Citizenship I referred to as our central American rhetoric of rights. Because of our formative documents and the development of a nation where we pursue our rights and the rights of those we support ("What about women's rights? What about the rights of the fetus?"), we tend to make even faith-based arguments from the standpoint of what I deserve -- or what those for whom I advocate deserve.

I can be as guilty of that as anyone. When I wrote my piece on Texas women last week, I was thinking especially about how I wanted the women I love to have a voice -- to have a right to help determine their own fate, something Texas women have not always had and still sometimes do not have.

But a faithful understanding of abortion -- or of any issue -- requires that we balance our thinking of rights with our awareness of responsibilities. Christian theology recognizes fundamental human rights, but even a cursory examination of the tradition suggests that those rights are balanced against responsibilities. What we get is less important in the Christian tradition than what we give, so that a faithful life is about how we treat others, about the consideration and service we offer those in need, and about how we love our neighbors.

How might that reshape the way we think about this question as Christians? Well, unfortunately Texas women -- especially poor women -- have been the political football in the abortion battle. In 2011, the budget for family planning in Texas was slashed by two-thirds, a move that closed 60 clinics and left 150,000 women without care. Providers like Planned Parenthood that offer abortion (as well as many other services), were barred from providing services to Medicaid patients needing reproductive health services, and women were told to simply find another provider -- in many cases a virtual impossibility. More indignities and insults have followed. Andrea Flynn summed up the difficulties for Texas women in Salon:

What are women -- especially poor women -- to do? Women in Texas already face heavier burdens than women in many other states. Texas has one of the nation's highest teen birth rates and percentages of women living in poverty. It has a lower percentage of pregnant women receiving prenatal care in their first trimester than any other state. It also has the highest percentage of uninsured children in the nation and provides the lowest monthly benefit for Women, Infant, and Children (WIC) recipients (an average of 26.86 compared to the national average of 41.52). And soon the majority of women may not have access to abortion care at any stage of their pregnancy.

Let's say you have a faithful opposition to abortion. Okay. I respect that. But how do you feel about the fact that hundreds of thousands of women are being steam-rollered by Texas male politicians trying to end-run Roe v. Wade? How do you feel about the poor women who are deprived of family planning options, the poor families without sufficient food or medical care?

If you are like me, you are filled with compassion for those suffering, and with outrage about the situation.

And, if you are like me, you imagine that Christian love requires us to take better care of our neighbors.

I would love to live in a world where no abortions took place, where every baby was conceived by a consenting mother, where prenatal care was universal, where we agreed to show as much care for an infant as some do for a fetus. Richard B. Hayes concludes in his magisterial The Moral Vision of the New Testament that Christian institutions should take the lead in making this a world without rape, a world engaged in ending birth defects, a world committed to supporting every infant and every family. This would, Hayes, points out, require every member of every church to make "serious personal sacrifices. In other words, it would find itself living as the church envision by the New Testament." (459)

But that hasn't happened yet and probably will not, so Hayes also argues that since the New Testament does not offer concrete guidance on abortion, "it is perhaps inevitable that Christians will in good conscience reach different conclusions." (457)

When Mike Huckabee and high-profile Pro-Lifers seem to be the only Christians weighing in on abortion, it can become hard to recognize the positions held by other Christians. I believe that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare -- and I acknowledge the difficulty of balancing that position with an ethic of life that extends from birth to death. So too do most faith traditions. In a Pew report on the positions of Christian denominations, Muslims, Buddhists, and others toward abortion, there is general agreement among most that abortion should be a last resort -- and that it should remain a resort. To remove this option completely is to behave without compassion for those asked to carry an insuperable burden -- a child of rape, a child with lethal birth defects, or a child who cannot be supported by the mother -- and will not be supported by society.

Yes, abortion is a difficult issue, even though we sometimes pretend that it is simple. And most of us do not like abortion. But to make it impossible -- or inexpressibly difficult -- for women to choose it in extreme circumstances seems cruel.

And, ironically, unchristian.