Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Rising above the Rights-based Abortion Debate

Michelle Crotwell Kirtley


August 31, 2012

By Michelle Crotwell Kirtley 

For much of this year’s presidential campaign, social issues have taken a back seat to debates over economic policy, job creation and the future of safety net programs such as Medicare.  

But in recent weeks, the controversy raised by Senatorial candidate and Congressman Todd Akin’s  (R-MO) remarks on rape and abortion, coinciding with the Republican party’s decision to again include opposition to abortion in its party platform for its national convention, moved abortion center stage again, for at least a little while. Indeed, the way events have unfolded have given Democrats the opportunity to reinforce their message—articulated earlier this year in the wake of widespread GOP opposition to the “contraceptive mandate”—that the Republican party is waging a “war on women.”  

But politics aside, for Christians these events raise an important question. What should be our public policy aims regarding abortion, and what should be the content and tone of our public debate about abortion policy? 

As the Center for Public Justice Guideline on Human Life states, “Abortion entails the taking of human life and is a violation of the life-generating process. Therefore, abortion should not be allowed under public law as an ordinary or standard means of family planning, or for the social and psychological convenience of those responsible for a pregnancy.”  There are two important principles embedded in this statement. The first is, of course, that God clearly prohibits taking human life in most cases, and as such, under most circumstances abortion is a moral wrong. 

But, since we do not live in a theocracy, declaring abortion a moral wrong is not sufficient. The second question that Christians must ask is: What is the role of government with regard to abortion?  As the Guideline also states, “Government’s responsibility for the political community begins with the protection of a) the lives of its citizens and b) the life-generating, life-sustaining institutions of marriage and family… Government bears responsibility for decisions that involve the taking of life.” 

Of course, many in our culture disagree with these basic principles. The abortion debate has been one of the most polarizing debates in our culture in recent years, in part because many view the issue of abortion through the lens of individual rights.  Indeed, a right to privacy was the basis for the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade. Yet this perspective of rights-based autonomy has been destructive for both supporters and opponents of abortion. Supporters claim a “right” for individual women to choose and control what happens to their own bodies, and opponents of abortion claim a “right” to life for the unborn. As a result, the rights of the unborn are pitted against the rights of women, creating a win-lose paradigm with enormous emotional stakes for all involved. 

Because of this paradigm, many Christians have essentially taken sides, choosing to focus on protecting the unborn, neglecting to promote women’s dignity. As a consequence, the pro-life movement and the Church by association have been quite effectively labeled as anti-woman, despite some concerted efforts to challenge this stereotype. Another troubling consequence of the rights-based paradigm is that cultural and political efforts to oppose abortion have been separated from efforts to promote women’s dignity and address the many injustices women face—some of which lead women to the awful, unwanted decision of whether or not to have an abortion. 

If, instead of talking about the rights of either the unborn child or the mother, we used language of human dignity and justice, the very character of the debate might change. As Christians, our opposition to abortion is rooted in the God-given dignity of all creatures. This requires us to direct attention not only to the dignity of developing fetuses but also to their mothers, whose dignity may have been assaulted in untold ways, including those that fail to meet criminal definitions of rape. This does not mean we stop publicly opposing abortion, but it does mean that in our churches and in our political communities, we must nurture compassion that leads to action on behalf of women who face injustice.

A focus on human dignity challenges individualism in favor of a more community-based approach to the issue of unwanted pregnancy. As the Center for Public Justice Guideline says, unwanted pregnancies “call for the assumption of extraordinary responsibilities by extended family members, supportive friends and neighbors, churches, social service organizations, and/or public authorities.” And in the realm of public policy, “government should do everything in the sphere of its responsibility to support adequate health care for pregnant women and for infants, encourage pregnancy counseling, promote adoption and strengthen foster care.”

In conclusion, it is not enough for Christians to oppose abortion .We must actively promote the dignity of women, whether that be through working to decrease maternal mortality in Africa, end sex trafficking or helping women suffering from domestic violence. In so doing, we will more accurately reflect the heart of Jesus to our fallen world.

—Michelle Crotwell Kirtley is the Editor of Capital Commentary and a Trustee of the Center for Public Justice. 

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”