Some time ago a fellow I know, but not well, sent me a text asking me, as an Episcopal priest, if abortion is a sin. I don’t know what prompted the question, but he comes from a conservative background, including a number of family members adamantly opposed to abortion in any form.
It’s a complex question not given to easy answers, and given the Georgia “Heartbeat Law,” it’s become a more frequent topic for virulent arguments. All I could offer at the time were some starters for conversation that never happened. They remain all I can offer. Is abortion a sin? Yes, but probably not in the sense that will satisfy those who are unalterably opposed to it.
Every abortion is a tragedy. Something in a woman’s life has gone terribly wrong, running counter to the abundance of life’s blessings that God would have for all. In that sense, it is a sin. But what has gone terribly wrong? I’ve counseled several women who’ve had abortions, and several who were contemplating it. Each presented unique problems: rape, incest, physical and mental illness, and sometimes the foreknowledge that the developing baby wouldn’t survive birth. No two were alike. For what it’s worth, none who were contemplating an abortion had one.
What I never encountered was abortion as a form of birth control, or abortion just because having a baby would be inconvenient. There was one young woman, counseled by a colleague, who was ignorant of the causes of pregnancy, had no idea what abortion meant, and only a vague understanding of what parenthood might mean. She was the exception, and her level of sheer ignorance was an indication of how important sex education is.
This may come as a surprise, but no man has ever been pregnant, nor has the power of the state been used to prevent a man from having a medical procedure he otherwise might have, on advice of his physician and conscience. It means, as a man, I’m unwilling to support the power of the state to do the same to a woman. Are there exceptions? I think there are, although agreeing to what they might be is not easy to come by. Screaming about late term abortions is not helpful, nor is it truthful. Neither is yelling murder whenever abortion is mentioned. Pro life and pro choice need not be mutually exclusive terms.
Abortion cannot be eliminated, but it can be reduced to the medically necessary. What has been proven to work is sex education, birth control, and prayerfully wise counseling. What continues to help are policies that assure new mothers and their babies will not be abandoned by society. Pro life sentiment cannot end at birth. It has to include all that is needed to aid a child toward successful transition to adulthood. For the same reason, pro choice sentiment cannot end at rallies.
What doesn’t work is the state using its coercive power to force its will on the most intimate, sacred, and painful decisions that must be made between a woman, her physician and her God. I’m always puzzled by conservative friends who demand that government stay out of their private lives, but are OK with state coercion stripping women and their care givers of the right to make a critical decision involving their own bodies – compounded by enthusiasm for policies endorsing use of lethal force against real or imagined threats from persons who are not infants.
I wonder what would happen if we held men criminally liable for abortions of embryos fertilized by their sperm from rape, incest, STD infections, etc? Let not the woman, but the rapist who caused a pregnancy ended in abortion, be found guilty of murder.
Is abortion a sin? Yes. Something has gone terribly wrong that should not have gone wrong. When Jesus healed women rejected by society because of sin, he restored them to wholeness of life not only in body, but in their relationships with others. Their sin had something to do with their condition in life, and much to do with guilt adhering to the society that accused them of sinfulness.