Christians, generally, want to do the right thing. Or at least we can say that as Christians we know we ought to do the right thing, and we should want to do the right thing. But we often do a lot of discussing, debating, and even arguing over what exactly is the right thing to do.
Should Christians be “completely pro-life”? Or as some are framing it, “Whole Life Pro-Life? I ask this question in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek way. But only somewhat. Let me explain.
When I was coming of age politically it was in the heat of debates about abortion. I was born in 1965, and eight years later in 1973 the Supreme Court of the United States effectively legalized abortion in all fifty states with the Roe v. Wade decision. As a high school and college student in the 1980s, there was a fierce debate about abortion and the proper Christian ethical response to it.
While it took evangelicals (including my own Southern Baptist Convention) a while to fully grasp the horror of abortion, and to fully embrace a principled pro-life position, Evangelicals in the 80s and 90s generally came to affirm the necessity of opposing abortion, and of adopting a principled pro-life stand. Or at least many Evangelicals did so.
Nothing New Under the Sun
An interesting line of thought developed along the way, however. As evangelicals were getting our house in order on the abortion issue, Ron Sider and others began saying things like: “Well, certainly evangelicals should be ‘pro-life’—in the sense of opposing abortion, but evangelicals should be completely pro-life.” Today, political and Christian advocacy groups are doing the same, calling themselves “Whole Life Pro-Life.”
Before, when I would hear this line of critique it was almost like when certain charismatics would ask me (this was the 1980s) if the church I went to was a “full-gospel” church or not (i.e., was the church charismatic or not). What is one to say when one is asked if one’s church is “full-gospel” or not? This calls for Solomonic wisdom.
The same is true now. What if someone were to ask me if I were “whole life pro-life” or only partially pro-life? Again, wisdom.
Making a Straight Path
To clear some brush from our path, let me offer two preliminaries. First, all Christians should want to work out a full-orbed Christian ethical worldview which seeks to apply all of Scripture to all of life. This of course would mean—ideally—a way of thinking Christianly and faithfully. All sides should be able to agree on that.
Second, the persons who pose this question should be honest and admit that they are engaging in a bit of rhetorical sleight of hand—at best, and a bit of shameless posturing and disingenuousness—at worst. That is, when someone says, “Are you completely pro-life,” what the person generally means is something like this: “Okay, fine. You think abortion is wrong, but do you also support this social program, that redistribution of wealth, this government agency, this perspective on the death penalty, or that perspective on the military and war, etc?” So here’s what’s hiding behind the question, “Are you completely pro-life?”—it is really part of a rhetorical shell-game that is built upon a premise that is at least open to debate and critique.
Again, I think if those who pose this question are honest, there is simply a bit of intellectual dishonesty here. It is almost as if such persons begrudge the necessity of being pro-life, and thus are going to trouble pro-lifers who spend all their time opposing abortion, but do not advocate government spending as they would prefer, or do not think like they do about paid family leave, maternal health, or the death penalty, or the military.
Responding Reasonably to Rhetoric
So, how should one respond to the riposte, “Are you completely pro-life?” First, we should not allow ourselves to get sucked into a rhetorically charged and loaded scenario. For again, when this question is asked, the question behind the question is: “Do you think like I do about government funding for this or that program, and (perhaps) do you oppose the death penalty, or do you oppose significant military spending?” So, we should not feel the need to answer the question on the interlocutor’s terms.
Second, we may simply want to deny the (hidden) premise of the question. Perhaps we should re-frame the question along different lines. Thus, instead of seeking to be “completely pro-life,” we should use more traditional biblical language, and we should simply be “pro-justice” or the like. Perhaps we simply respond:
“Good question. I think Christians should seek to apply all of Scripture to all of life. That means we seek biblical justice in each and every situation, and we try to do so with an eye to the entire Christian canon, and where we find ourselves in the history of redemption. With abortion we should seek to limit and ultimately eradicate legal abortions. At the same time, we should seek to provide mercy to woman in need (and what the civil government does here is a completely different question). We should seek biblical justice whenever a crime is committed, and it sure seems that means the death penalty could have a place in the contemporary nation state. And the question of warfare and the military is a tough one, isn’t it? Let’s try and think through that.”
In short, we should do what all good and careful thinkers do. We should make distinctions and we should use words carefully, and not fall into the trap of rhetorical games, especially when dealing with such a crucial issue as the life of the unborn. We might also say something like the following:
“In order to clear away some brush and some unnecessary entailments, let’s agree that the taking of an innocent human life is something every Christian (and every thoughtful human being) should oppose. We can then discuss or debate other issues separately: the level of public/government funding for this or that purpose; the role of the death penalty in contemporary nation states; the question of pacifism versus just war versus other options related to military action, etc.”
A Wise Answer Makes Distinctions
In short, perhaps we need to practice that nifty word which seems more prominent in recent years thanks to Wikipedia: “disambiguate.” But “disambiguate” is simply a concept which medieval Christian thinkers would have already known: “distinguo, distinguo, distinguo.” That is, we need to make proper and necessary distinctions, and we need to use words carefully.
Thus, we distinguish between (1) the fact that all Christians should affirm that innocent life ought not be taken, and (2) the various perspectives one might take on government spending on this or that social program, as well as the place of the death penalty in modern nation states, or the place of the military in contemporary statecraft.
The unborn are literally the most vulnerable among us, and because of other forces—seen and unseen—they are also the most under threat. Therefore, we should do all ethically and morally permissible to protect them. While we can be thankful for the Dobbs decision, we must press on and continue to strive to protect these little ones. We should not let unnecessary rhetorical entanglements keep us from the important task of being truly pro-justice and pro-life.