Last week, Florida Rep. Mike Hill filed a bill that seeks to criminalize abortion as soon as a fetal heartbeat is detected. Bills like this are being introduced in state legislatures across the country as pro-life forces seek to pass legislation that they hope will bring down Roe vs. Wade as the U.S. Supreme Court tilts farther and farther to the right.
However, while the Supreme Court may be majority pro-life, the country is not. A recent Public Research Religion Institute (PRRI) poll found that 56 percent of people across the country think that Roe should remain the law of the land while only 33 percent think Roe should be overturned.
Floridians tracked very closely to these national numbers in the same PRRI poll with 54 percent supporting Roe and only 31 percent opposing it.
While the same PRRI poll showed that 64 percent of evangelical Christians largely believe that abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, the same poll indicated strong support for keeping abortion legal in all or most cases. Sixty-eight percent of white mainline Protestants, 55 percent of black Protestants and 54 percent of Catholics held this view.
While Christians hold differing beliefs about the morality of abortion, the idea that “Christianity has always been against abortion” is simply not true. In fact, Christian principles provide a basis for when abortion can be a moral and social good.
Christian scripture is completely silent on the topic of abortion. Never once did Jesus address it, and abortion was not a major topic of concern in the church until the late 20th century. In and of itself, this is remarkable because we know that women in the ancient world sought to control their fertility.
The absence of prohibitions related to abortion and contraception in the Bible is even more notable when we remember how prominent women’s fertility is overall as a theme. Many of the stories that involve women revolve around their fertility and/or their sexuality — as wives, mothers, prostitutes, virgins and a considerable amount of attention to the condition of the fertility or barrenness of their wombs. And yet, even with all this attention on women’s wombs — not a word is said about abortion.
The closest we get is text in Exodus that discussed the penalty that men should pay if they are fighting and strike a pregnant woman. If she miscarries that man must pay a fine but if the woman has any further injury beyond the miscarriage, then the penalty is “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” This is clear evidence that the prenatal life in utero was not held in equivalent status to the life of the pregnant woman.
As a progressive Christian, my interest in Scripture is not for it to serve as a rule book for contemporary living. After all, polygamy, rape, forced marriage and concubinage define the sexual ethics of the Old Testament. Paul and many in the early church thought celibacy was the highest sexual aspiration. The idea of consent, particularly for women, in matters of marriage or sex is not a relevant moral norm in most of Scripture.
So, no, the sexual behavior and attitudes of biblical figures is not my go-to guide for sexual ethics. As a Christian ethicist, I search for the deeper moral wisdom of the Bible and the Christian tradition that is often found in these stories and traditions. It is our task as people of faith to discern how to embody these moral principles in contemporary life. This is always a task of interpretation that means there will always be room for dialogue, discernment and disagreement about how we are called to live into the moral wisdom of justice and peace in our world.
When based upon Christian principles to promote abundant life, to seek justice and to recognize the human dignity of women, the decision to end a pregnancy can be a just decision. Christian values that support healthy and secure families also require careful, thoughtful and morally rich consideration about the decision to become a parent and the decision to not become a parent.
In a country where conservative Christians increasingly seek to deny comprehensive reproductive health care to women, it is time for Christians to speak up for reproductive justice. It is time to join forces to fight attempts to pass laws that will test Roe. It is time for Christians to say loudly and clearly that abortion can be a moral and social good.
Rebecca Todd Peters is a professor of religious studies at Elon University, an ordained Presbyterian Church (USA) minister and a PRRI Public Fellow. Her latest book is “Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice.” She spoke this week in St. Petersburg, Naples, Orlando and Sarasota as part of a tour sponsored by the Florida Interfaith Coalition for Reproductive Health.