Toward a Principled Pro-Life Ethic in Post-Roe America

Toward a Principled Pro-Life Ethic in Post-Roe America

The Supreme Court of the United States’ possible reversal of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion is reason for Christians and moral people everywhere to rejoice. Dobbs v. Jackson will go down in history as significant as Brown v. the Board of Education for overruling previous, unjust decisions by the Supreme Court. Much of the joy, however, has been drowned out by a vitriolic clash among pro-life Christians regarding how best to work for the abolition of abortion in our nation.

Many traditional “pro-life” leaders feel threatened by those who insist, in the language of the 2021 Southern Baptist resolution, on “abolishing abortion immediately without exception or compromise.” Denny Burk, who opposed that resolution, believes it to be “a repudiation of the pro-life movement” and claims that the messengers who overwhelmingly voted to adopt it were uninformed. Consequently, he is calling on Southern Baptists to attend the annual meeting in Anaheim next month to withstand any other attempts to encourage the SBC to reaffirm the views that were adopted in that 2021 resolution.

It seems to me that most of the people involved in this clash are genuinely committed to the abolition of abortion, though they may disagree on the best way to work for that. There are some elites within the pro-life establishment, however, who are taking positions that undermine our common goal. As we have seen in so many other areas of evangelical life the last several years, it is the elite class that is woefully out of step with the rank-and-file believers who are working hard to see the scourge of abortion brought to an immediate end in our nation.

Last week provided a perfect illustration what I am talking about. Those events highlight the divide that exists among sincere Christians who want to see the end of abortion in our country and also expose the pro-life elitists whose actions helped undermine what could have been a tremendous step to outlaw abortion in Louisiana.

For the first time in the history of the United States, a bill made it out of committee that had the prospect of making abortion illegal in the state of Louisiana (HB 813). Called the “Abolition of Abortion in Louisiana Act of 2022,” the bill contained language that should have caused all Christians to celebrate:

Section 2. Acknowledging the sanctity of innocent human life, created in the image of God, which should be equally protected from fertilization to natural death, the legislature hereby declares that the purpose of this Act is to:

(1) Fully recognize the human personhood of an unborn child at all stages of development prior to birth from the moment of fertilization.

(2) Ensure the right to life and equal protection of the laws to all unborn children from the moment of fertilization by protecting them by the same laws protecting other human beings.

(3) Recognize that the United States Constitution and the laws of the United States are the supreme law of the land.

Such language excites any Christian who genuinely wants to see the end of abortion, whether a self-identified “abolitionist” or not. The response from 76 pro-life groups, however, proved that such was not the case. Leaders from those groups, including the Southern Baptist Convention’s acting president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Brent Leatherwood, issued “An Open Letter to State Lawmakers from America’s Leading Pro-life Organizations.”

These leaders of the pro-life establishment express their complete opposition to a law that would treat any woman who procures an abortion as being culpable in any way. They build their argument on this stated premise:

The tragedy of abortion isn’t limited to the unborn child who loses her life. The mother who aborts her child is also Roe’s victim. She is the victim of a callous industry created to take lives; an industry that claims to provide for “women’s health,” but denies the reality that far too many American women suffered devastating physical and psychological damage following abortion.

According to that philosophy, all abortive women are victims. Because they suffer post-abortion trauma they cannot ever be held legally responsible for ending her preborn baby’s life. Strange logic that.

Shall we apply it to drunk driving, too? After all, professional marketers are paid around 6 billion dollars a year by the alcoholic beverage industry to convince people to drink booze. When a drunk driver kills a family of five, using the elitist-pro-life logic above, should we not hold the driver responsible because he also is a “victim of a callous industry”? After all, alcoholism is defined by the National Institutes of Health as “an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol”

To make sure that no one misunderstands the elitist-pro-life position Leatherwood, et al., continue:

Women are victims of abortion and require our compassion and support as well as ready access to counseling and social services in the days, weeks, months, and years following an abortion.

As national and state pro-life organizations, representing tens of millions of pro-life men, women, and children across the country, let us be clear: We state unequivocally that we do not support any measures seeking to criminalize or punish women and we stand firmly opposed to include [sic] such penalties in legislation. (emphasis in the original)

By that flawed logic, women who have abortions for any reason are never responsible in any way for the death of their babies. To hold them responsible, according to these elitist pro-life leaders, is incompatible with showing compassion and support.

In 2021 Southern Baptists adopted the most decisive anti-abortion resolution in the history of the convention. It builds on and extends the language of previous resolutions, affirming the sacredness of human life and calling for the immediate ending of abortion. Over 5,000 copies of the text of the resolution were printed and distributed to messengers before the vote. Denny Burk, who is one of the Southern Baptist theologians and ethicists who took exception to that strongest anti-abortion resolution Southern Baptists have ever adopted, provides a little better assessment of what a post-Roe Christian ethic should look like. But only a little. His arguments also lack the kind of clear, biblical thinking that is desperately needed as we move forward.

In an article entitled “Why Pro-Lifers Support Laws to Punish Abortionists but Not Mothers,” Burk tries to defend the “pro-life” position that both pro-abortionists and abolitionists see as clearly inconsistent. He writes:

Pro-lifers believe that it should be illegal to perform abortions. Thus we favor policies that punish those who perform abortions, not the mothers who allow them.

He divides his defense of this position into two dimensions: moral and legal. Morally, the reason that women who hire abortionists should never be punished is because “it is not always clear what level of culpability should be assigned to the mother.” He at least acknowledges that the woman has some “moral agency and culpability,” but because it is not always clear “to what degree she is implicated,” she should not be punished for her involvement in ending a human life.

His arguments about the legal dimension can be summed up in his opinion that, if the woman who hires an abortionist is held legally liable with the abortionist for ending a human life, it will be harder to convict the abortionist. I find his argument on this point (and those of Americans United for Life, whom he quotes) completely unconvincing. To provide one simple objection, if there’s no potential charge available, how can you make a plea bargain in exchange for testimony against the abortionist? But since these legal arguments are not germane to my concerns, I won’t engage them but simply encourage you to read them for yourself.

To summarize Dr. Burk’s moral argument, he believes that women who hire someone to abort their preborn babies are morally culpable in some degree, though it is difficult to know how much. Because of that difficulty, no woman should be held legally accountable in any sense for ending the life of their babies through abortion.

Rather than alleviate women who hire abortionists of all culpability, as the pro-life open letter does, Burk acknowledges that they have some responsibility. But because it is not easy to determine exactly how much or in exactly what way, they should not be prosecuted at all. Yet recognition of different levels of culpability in homicide cases has been a part of jurisprudence at least since Old Testament times. This is the rationale for cities of refuge, where those guilty of unintentional homicide could flee for protection from the manslayer (see Deuteronomy 19:1-13). Such cities, however, were no refuge for anyone who willfully or maliciously took life because that person was fully culpable for the homicide he or she committed.

Within American jurisprudence there are various classifications related to homicide laws (and some variance from state to state): murder, manslaughter, vehicular homicide, negligent homicide, conspiracy to commit murder, etc. The distinctions are due to the different degrees of culpability of the perpetrators. The court system has the responsibility of sorting that out, and there is very well-developed case law in the American system that helps to differentiate between varying levels of culpability. This analysis is commonplace—necessary any time the judicial system responds to the unjustified taking of a human life. The challenge that Burk identifies, varying levels of culpability, can be complex but it is not unique to the case of abortion. Legal systems are accustomed to dealing with this sort of complexity.

Does it not, then, make sense to allow the legal system to do its job regarding what charges to file and what sentence to impose for a homicide that occurs in an abortion, rather than using the fact that determining the degree of culpability is hard as an excuse to withhold any legal sanctions?

In light of these disagreements and the confusion they have spawned, here are my recommendations of some basic principles that all Christians should hold as we try to develop a common-sense ethic about abortion in a post-Roe nation.

  1. Human life begins at conception/fertilization. On this I think all pro-lifers, abolitionists, and right-thinking Christians agree.
  2. All killing of human life by another human is homicide.
  3. There are varying degrees of culpability for homicide resulting in varying kinds of crimes. Some homicides are justified (self-defense) and some are first-degree murders. Others fall between that spectrum.
  4. Both biblical and United States criminal law recognize #2 and #3.
  5. LA HB813 sought to codify that a human life begins at conception/fertilization and is to be granted equal protection under the law from that point.
  6. The Open Letter signed by ERLC acting President helped dissuade Louisiana legislators from passing the bill.
  7. The Open Letter contradicted the 2021 SBC Resolution on abolishing abortion that the messengers adopted. I addressed this more fully in a thread on Twitter, but compare the language of the Open Letter quoted above to what SBC messengers approved in 2021:

RESOLVED, that the messengers of the SBC meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, June 15-16, 2021, do state unequivocally that abortion is murder, and we reject any position that allows for any exceptions to the legal protection of our preborn neighbors, compromises God’s holy standard of justice, or promotes any God-hating partiality (Psa 94:6; Isa 10:1-2; Prov 24:11; Psa 82:1-4), and…

RESOLVED, that we affirm that the murder of preborn children is a crime against humanity that must be punished equally under the law, and be it further

RESOLVED, that we humbly confess and lament any complicity in recognizing exceptions that legitimize or regulate abortion, and of any apathy, in not laboring with the power and influence we have to abolish abortion, and be it further

RESOLVED, that as Southern Baptists we will engage, with God’s help, in establishing equal justice and protection for the preborn according to the authority of God’s Word as well as local and federal law, and call upon pastors and leaders to use their God-given gifts of preaching, teaching, and leading with one unified, principled, prophetic voice to abolish abortion… (emphasis added)

  1. The moral law of God functions both to restrain evil and instruct in what is good and right. In the Protestant-Reformed tradition these functions have been regarded as the second and third uses of the law, respectively. Civil law that prohibits hiring an abortionist and affixes penalties for doing so would, thereby, help teach everyone, including women who might contemplate seeking an abortion, that abortion is homicide.
  2. It is right to legally prohibit abortion by granting equal protection under the law to preborn humans. It is at this point that the stark inconsistencies of the professional pro-life position become apparent. They want to affirm the full humanity of preborn babies but do not want to afford them equal protection under the law that is afforded to humans who survive the womb because either the woman who hires an abortionist is not culpable (i.e. Brent Leatherwood and the other Open Letter signers) or the degree of her culpability is too difficult to discern (i.e. Burk). Were a preborn child granted equal protection, then her homicide would be treated like that of any other homicide that had co-conspirators or accomplices requiring the court system to sort it out legally.
  3. Such prohibition does not mean that all women seeking abortion, doctors performing them, and helpers facilitating them would be judged equally culpable or equally guilty. As in all homicide cases, each case should be adjudicated based on the facts and any mitigating circumstances (#3 above).
  4. This would mean that no woman who arranges to have an abortion would be judged either automatically guilty or innocent of any particular crime simply because she is a woman or simply because she had an abortion.

These 11 principles can help frame the debate going forward for Christians who take the written Word of God seriously. All but one of them (#7, which is particularly of concern to Southern Baptists) deal with issues that all evangelicals should think through carefully.

We should all want to end the holocaust of abortion. But we should work to be precise in our language and measured in our judgments. Much confusion, I believe, has resulted from a lack of appropriate nuance in our communication at this point.

While abortion is always homicide, it is not necessarily murder on the part of everyone involved (though it sometimes is). When some who want to see abortion abolished hear “abortion is murder and should be criminalized,” they might think that those talking this way are advocating murder charges for every mother, father, and all others involved in such a killing. Emphatically, this is not my position.

We must not err on either side at this point. That is, we must not treat all post-abortive mothers as victims. But neither must we treat them all as murderers. Each case must be considered on its own merits. Those forced into having abortions by abusive boyfriends or pimps are victims. Those who choose to kill their preborn children of their own volition while #ShoutingTheirAbortions are murderers, and there are numerous scenarios in between. We must care for and proclaim the gospel to all these women as we call upon civil magistrates to provide preborn children the equal protection of the law and let the legal system do its job in determining the degree of culpability in each case.

That is why I refer to elective abortion as homicide, as opposed to murder. It should be legally prohibited and preborn children at risk of being killed should receive the equal protection of the law. I cannot imagine why any Christian who believes that abortion ends the life of one of God’s image-bearers would disagree with this.

It is important for Christians to get the nature of abortion right. If, like the open letter, we treat as victims all women who pay abortionists to kill their preborn babies, then we cut them off from the grace of God in Christ Jesus. The Lord Jesus is a real Savior for real sinners. If you convince someone that they are not responsible for their sin, then you eliminate their need of a Savior for that sin and effectively shut them up to a life of trying to deal with what they have done without the forgiveness that is found in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Are women who seek abortions victims? Of course, in the sense that every human being is a victim of sin and its consequences. Beyond that there is no doubt that some women are coerced and manipulated into abortion due to being trafficked or otherwise abused. As the Bible requires in making any judgment, all the relevant facts must be taken into account. But these realities do not mean that as a class all women who procure abortions are victims in some special sense, or on par with the babies that are intentionally killed by the procedure. We should be compassionate toward all women who seek an abortion and especially to those who have been lied to, intimidated, or in some other way manipulated into participating in that act of homicide. But I would defy Brent Leatherwood and the pro-life leaders who signed the open letter to convince the women who “shout their abortion” that they should see themselves that way. Better yet, I would encourage them to watch these testimonies of post-abortive women.

If a person is only a victim and has done nothing wrong, then she doesn’t need forgiveness. But those who are guilty of sin do. Jesus did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. Until abortionists and the women who pay for their services come to terms with their complicity in the ending of a human life that is made in the image of God, they will never seek forgiveness. Until reality is honestly assessed, genuine repentance will never be sincerely professed.

So my plea to those who think they are being compassionate to women by absolving them of any responsibility in the abortion they freely secure is to recognize that they are doing tremendous spiritual damage to the very people they desire to help. Such compassion is cruel.

There is a Savior for sinners, including those who are guilty of participating in the sin of abortion. Jesus Christ came into the world to live a righteous life and die a sacrificial death so that all who repent and look to Him in faith might be saved. His grace is enough to forgive both abortionists and those who employ them to end the life of their preborn child.

So while we work for justice to protect the lives of the preborn, let’s never forget to preach the gospel that saves even the foremost of sinners and encourage abortionists, those who employ them, pro-lifers, and abolitionists to trust the Lord Jesus Christ and find eternal life in Him.

Tom Ascol has served as a Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL since 1986. Prior to moving to Florida he served as pastor and associate pastor of churches in Texas. He has a BS degree in sociology from Texas A&M University (1979) and has also earned the MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. He has served as an adjunct professor of theology for various colleges and seminaries, including Reformed Theological Seminary, the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, African Christian University, Copperbelt Ministerial College, and Reformed Baptist Seminary. He has also served as Visiting Professor at the Nicole Institute for Baptist Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Tom serves as the President of Founders Ministries and The Institute of Public Theology. He has edited the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written hundreds of articles for various journals and magazines. He has been a regular contributor to TableTalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries. He has also edited and contributed to several books, including Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry, The Truth and Grace Memory Books for children and  Recovering the Gospel and Reformation of Churches. He is also the author of From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist ConventionTraditional Theology and the SBC and Strong and Courageous. Tom regularly preaches and lectures at various conferences throughout the United States and other countries. In addition he regularly contributes articles to the Founders website and hosts a weekly podcast called The Sword & The Trowel. He and his wife Donna have six children along with four sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law. They have sixteen grandchildren.
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