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Pro-choice? Pro-life?

Joseph Slife, Lay Speaker
(with a testimony by Cathy Coburn)
Gateway Church, Athens GA

Sanctity of Human Life Sunday
January 22, 2006

Prayer: Lord, the Scriptures say that Jesus is "full of grace and truth." I pray that would be so of me in this hour. I pray that it would be true of this sermon -- as we look at a difficult and, for many, an uncomfortable topic. Give us your grace. Speak to us your truth -- that we might run in the path of your commands with hearts that are fully set free. In Jesus I pray. Amen.

For the idea -- and some of the structure -- of this sermon, I am indebted to Adam Hamilton, pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City. Dr. Hamilton is known for helping his congregation think about the issues of the day from the perspective of the Christian faith.

How should our profession of faith affect our pattern of life? What do Scripture, church tradition, reason, and experience tell us that can help us know what to think about controversial topics?

Now, my goal today is to give you information -- from history, from the testimony of someone in this congregation, and from Scripture -- information which can help you make an informed, reflective decision about the issue of abortion. I will attempt to be as evenhanded as possible, although my view on this issue is probably known to many of you.

I also, in this sermon, want to speak a word of grace to anyone who may have had an abortion or who has been involved in helping someone procure an abortion.

I understand that this is a deeply emotional issue for some of you. For you, this is not just about legal opinions and political slogans. This issue touches somewhere deep in your spirit, and I want you to know at the outset, that my purpose is not condemnation.

My purpose is to help us all understand how we got to where we are -- and, out of that understanding, to be people of conviction as well as people of grace.

The witness of Church history

First, let us go back through the centuries.

Earlier this week I e-mailed a link to those of you who are on the church e-mail list. It was a link to a piece titled "The Sanctification of Human Life" by Dr. Alvin Schmidt.

It's actually a chapter from an entire book on how Christianity, over the centuries, has engaged and transformed civilization. The chapter on "The Sanctification of Human Life" gives an overview of the impact the church of Jesus Christ has had on the cultural understanding of the value of human life.

Some of you have seen movies -- such as Spartacus or Gladiator or Quo Vadis -- that give some sense of just how much disregard there was for human life in the Greco-Roman world, the world into which the church of Christ was planted and began to grow.

Life was cheap. In fact, it was so cheap that 75 percent of all the Roman emperors either were assassinated or committed suicide. Gladiatorial games were all about which combatant would die before the confrontation was over. And, of course, you've heard stories about the early Christians being thrown to lions in the full view of cheering crowds.

In that time and culture, infanticide -- the killing of recently born children -- was a common practice. Those born deformed or physically frail were especially prone to being killed, often by drowning. Infant girls, even though born healthy, were common victims of infanticide, because of the greater perceived value of boys. (This practice is still common even today in some parts of the world.)

The early Christians were horrified at the practice of infanticide. To them, infants were creatures bearing the very image of God, the author and giver of life. And so the killing of children grieved the church.

Another practice prevalent in the Greco-Roman world was child abandonment. Rather than killing a child outright, he or she would simply be left somewhere -- at a pagan religious shrine or along a roadside. Some were tossed onto manure piles or into latrines.

Christians not only spoke out against the practice of child abandonment, they stepped in to help, taking abandoned children into their homes and adopting them.

And then there was abortion. Abortion is not a recent innovation. It was a common practice in the ancient world -- largely because of the preponderance of marital infidelity. One historian of the time remarked that Roman marriage was "deprived of all moral character."

Adultery was rampant. Many married women and men had frequent affairs and liaisons, sometimes resulting in pregnancy. To cover up infidelity, women would take herbal potions or sometimes even poisons aimed at killing the developing child. Sometimes, women would submit themselves to other dangerous acts in an attempt to end the pregnancy, such as being shaken violently or allowing strong blows to the midsection.

This is the context in which the church first faced the issue of abortion -- a society in which life was cheap, and in which it was not uncommon for children to be purposely killed, abandoned or aborted.

I have already told you about church opposition to infanticide and child abandonment. What about abortion?

A great deal of church history has been lost, of course -- but we do have scattered writings of various theologians in the 2nd and 3rd centuries of the church.

These writings demonstrate that these particular theologians, at least, were strongly opposed to the practice of willfully aborting a pregnancy.

Then, from early in the 4th century A.D., we have records of official pronouncements -- one from the Synod of Elvira in about 305 A.D. and another from the Council of Ancyra in 314 A.D. -- that are very clear in their opposition to abortion.

We also have writings from the 4th century which show that some Christians of the time mobilized to help women facing unwanted pregnancies. We even have record of public protests being staged to oppose abortion -- again this is in the 4th century A.D.

Finally, after years of prayer and public witness by the Church, anti-abortion laws were put in place. In the Roman Empire, Emperor Valentinian outlawed abortion, along with infanticide and child abandonment, in 374 A.D.

But laws do not necessarily change people's hearts -- the practice of abortion continued, illegally. And the church stood firm in its opposition to it.

It's estimated that between the 4th century and the 12th century, more than four-thousand official church teachings were issued that affirmed the sanctity of human life.

Christian opposition to abortion continued virtually unabated until the 20th century, actually the 1960s and 70s, when some denominations -- rocked by the sexual revolution and the rise of feminism -- began to weaken their stand on abortion.

Abortion in modern America

Let me move now from church history to legislative and judicial history -- not in ancient times but in our own lifetime, for many of us.

Here in the USA, most states -- until the early 1970s -- had laws that prohibited abortion, unless the life of the mother was at stake.

These laws were rooted in the understanding that government had a moral responsibility to protect innocent life

 A few states, including Georgia, allowed abortion in the case of child conceived by an act of rape or in the case of severe fetal abnormality. These allowances were in the law to help women caught up in traumatic situations -- but these were "exceptions" to the general rule that government had the responsibility to protect unborn life.

Even the Georgia law, though it allowed several categories of exceptions, still required three doctors to approve any abortion.

In 1971, a Texas law against abortion was challenged -- in a case known as Roe vs. Wade.

That case eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in one of the most sweeping rulings in the court's history, the Supreme Court, by a 7-to-2 vote, effectively invalidated every state law -- not only in Texas, but in every other state -- every state law aimed at protecting the unborn.

On the same day that the court ruled in Roe vs. Wade, it also ruled in another abortion case, Doe vs. Bolton. This case related to Georgia's abortion's law -- the one that required the approval of three doctors. Taken together, the two rulings -- Roe vs. Wade and Doe vs. Bolton -- created a "right" to what became known as "abortion on demand."

Now listen carefully. The court said that in deciding whether an abortion is necessary, a doctor may consider -- quote -- "all factors -- physical, emotional, psychological, familial and the woman's age -- relevant to the well-being of the patient."

As the Los Angeles Times put it an article last September, "It soon became clear that if a patient's 'emotional well-being' was reason enough to justify an abortion, then any abortion could be justified." Again, that characterization is from news article in the Los Angeles Times.

Let me read that again: "It soon became clear that if a patient's 'emotional well-being' was reason enough to justify an abortion, then any abortion could be justified."

And today, on average, there are five abortions in the United States every minute of every hour of every day -- 1.2 million a year. Over the past 33 years, nearly 50 million pregnancies in the U.S. have been ended by abortion.

Statistical research suggests that the overwhelming majority of abortions do not occur for physical or medical reasons.

According to Alan Guttmacher Institute, a research organization with ties to Planned Parenthood, women who seek abortion do so primarily for the following reasons:

Three-fourths say that having a baby would interfere with work, school, or other responsibilities;

Two-thirds say that the cost of a child is too high; and

Half say that they don't want to be a single parent or that they're having relationship problems with their partner or husband.

In other words, most abortions are performed not for medical reason but as a means of birth control.

Two more statistics:

Half of America women obtaining abortions are under the age of 25;

Black women are more than 3 times as likely as white women to have an abortion, and Hispanic women are 2-and-half times as likely.

This last statistic is particularly interesting, because in its early days, the modern pro-abortion movement in America had strong racist overtones. Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, believed strongly that non-white people were inferior, and steps should be taken to reduce their numbers through birth control and even forced sterilization.

Pro-Choice / Pro-Life

The Roe vs. Wade and Doe vs. Bolton rulings have led to a protracted battle in America between those who call themselves pro-life -- that is, those who oppose abortion-on-demand -- and those who call themselves pro-choice, that is, those who think that abortion should remain legal.

Within each camp there are gradations of views. In the pro-life camp, some want to outlaw all abortions. Others would permit certain exceptions, such as in cases of rape or incest.

In the pro-choice camp, some want the current law to stay as it is, essentially allowing any abortion for any reason. Others in the pro-choice camp are uncomfortable with the idea of no restrictions at all, and think there should some modification in existing law.

Now, within our denomination -- the United Methodist Church -- we have people who would consider themselves pro-life and other who consider themselves pro-choice. And I want to now to summarize, as fairly as I can, their respective positions on this issue.

Let me start with the pro-choice view. And here, I'm not talking about what I would call pro-choice "extremists," but about our fellow Christians, folks who love Jesus, but who hold to a pro-choice position. These are not folks who think every abortion is justified and that abortion is a good thing, in and of itself.

Instead, these people come at this issue from the standpoint of trying to minister to women who are in difficult and traumatic situations. They have genuine compassion toward hurting women -- and they are convinced that in some cases, the best way to ease the hurt, the best way to relieve the suffering, the best way to end the trauma, is to terminate the pregnancy.

Let me describe the types of hard cases one of these pro-choice Christians would probably cite if he or she were standing where I am standing today. A case of a 13-year-old girl -- yesterday just a child it seemed -- but now her body is capable of producing a child.

Her dad walked out when she was just a toddler and she has never known natural fatherly affection. In such a state, she becomes easy prey for 17-year-old boy she meets at school. One afternoon, she is home by herself -- her mother is at work -- and the boy comes by to visit. Longing so much for the attention of a male, she puts up no resistance to his advances. Fourteen or 15 weeks later, it becomes apparent that this young girl is with child.

The pro-choice person would ask, "Hasn't this girl -- barely a teenager -- been through trauma enough? Would you make her carry this child to term? Wouldn't it be better for her to have an abortion? If she has this child, what will happen to her? Will she be able to finish school? Will she ever be able to rise above her circumstances? The most compassionate thing for this girl," the pro-choice person would say, "would be a quick and safe abortion."

Or what about a woman in poverty who has already has five children? She finds she is pregnant and cannot bear the thought of another mouth to feed, another child to care for. The weight of it all is bringing her to the point of being suicidal. Isn't an abortion the most compassionate thing for this woman?"

Well, let me present the pro-life view. "Yes," the pro-lifer would say, "these are difficult cases -- but no matter the circumstance of conception, a child in the womb is still a child, still a creation of God. And God is large enough, his grace and provision are great enough, to make a way where there seems to be no way."

And this is why Christian pro-lifers are the backbone of the ministry of crisis pregnancy centers -- following in the footsteps of our forebears centuries ago. These Christians want to help both the mother and the child find God's provision and sustaining care.

Pro-lifers are strong believers in the providence of God, believing that somehow, some way, He can and will order the circumstances to provide for and sustain those who bring their babies to term, that He can speak peace into even the most traumatic circumstance and bring forth good

Think of the biblical evidence for this view. In the book of Genesis, Joseph faced the trauma of being sold by his brothers into slavery. Later, God used that awful experience to set the stage for something extraordinary. Joseph became the instrument through which God rescued His people Israel during a time of famine.

In the New Testament, Paul was thrown in prison. A terrible thing. But there he wrote letters that have helped sustain the church for two millennia.

And, of course, there is Jesus Himself -- crucified, dead, and buried. Yet, the third day, He rose from the dead!

Pro-lifers trust in the providence of God to transform situations and bring forth good.

The pro-lifer would also argue that submitting to an abortion is not without its own trauma -- sometimes lasting trauma. For many women, it is not simply something they've done and have then forgotten about.

Just a couple of weeks ago, a New Zealand study found more than 40 percent of women who had had an abortion -- 4 out of every 10 -- subsequently experienced major depression. Others experienced elevated rates of anxiety, substance abuse, even suicidal behavior.

Wounded healers

Many of you have been walking with Christ long enough to know that he often calls people into ministry areas out of their own woundedness and pain.

And, indeed, many in the pro-life movement speak out of their own personal experience with abortion -- and out of the healing have found in Jesus Christ.

We have one of those people in our congregation. Tomorrow, she'll be in Atlanta, giving her testimony at a pro-life rally.

And I've asked to come give it to you this morning: Cathy Coburn.

(Cathy's testimony)

What does the Bible say?

Now, in this sermon, I've given you lots of information. We've talked about the tradition of Christian teaching on this issue; we've looked at the legal cases that made abortion-on-demand a reality in America; and you've just heard a personal testimony from someone who has experienced both hurt and healing.

All these sources of information are important in helping us reach our own personal conclusions about how to view this issue. But there is one source of information that is of the most import: the Bible.

Scripture claims to reveal to us the plans and purposes of God. It tells about His character -- and about His design and plan for human life.

The Bible doesn't address the issue of abortion specifically.

But let's look at what the Bible does say in Psalm 139 -- I want to give you just a couple of verses from that passage. The psalmist, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, says to the LORD:

You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body
and knit me together in my mother's womb....

You saw me before I was born.
All the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.

The pro-life Christian argues that the standard for deciding about abortion must come beyond ourselves. We must submit to the fact that it is God who is the author and giver of life. We dare not treat lightly or take away what God Himself has given.

What you can do

I hope I have persuaded you -- if you weren't persuaded already -- that the church needs to stand strong for life, and we need to be in ministry to women in crisis pregnancies.

In your bulletin is a prayer guide supplied by LifeWatch, a United Methodist pro-life ministry. I'd like you to take that guide, put it in your Bible, and pray over it this week.

In addition, Cathy is looking to enlist people who are willing to become pro-life intercessors -- and she has some special wrist bands to remind you to pray.

We need to pray that what has happened before will happen again. That the church, through our prayer and public witness, can bring about a transformation of society.

Today, who in America would think that owning another person as a slave is right? Millions of people used to think that.

But the church started and sustained the abolition movement that eventually led to overthrow of slavery.

Not too many years ago -- some of you remember it -- black students were not allowed to attend the University of Georgia. Who would defend that position today?

Transformation came because Christian people were in the forefront a movement that stood for the rights of all.

Today, views on abortion are changing. Polls show that young people are increasingly pro-life. We're seeing more and more victories in the courts, offering greater protection for the unborn.

We need to pray that these changes will continue -- and that a culture of life will take hold in America again.

Word of grace

Earlier, I said I would offer a word of grace to those here who have had abortions or who have helped someone else procure an abortion.

Let me do that this way. Early one morning, Jesus was teaching at the temple, when suddenly there was ruckus in the back of the room. The scribes and Pharisees pushed through the crowd, dragging with them a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery.

Looking at Jesus, they taunted him. "For committing adultery, the law says this woman should be killed by stoning. What do you think about that, teacher?"

Y'know what? The law of Moses does say that. People who committed adultery -- both the woman and the man -- were to be put to death. The death penalty was God's way of communicating just how serious and destructive the sin of adultery is.

But what did Jesus say? "Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her."

This should be the attitude of the church toward women who've had abortions -- and, yes, toward those who in a crisis situation, not knowing what else to do, have helped someone get an abortion.

I believe, based on Scripture, church tradition, a reasonable examination of current law, and the personal experience of people like Cathy and others I have known, that abortion does violate God's design and purpose for life. It cheapens life and increased human agony.

Like adultery, it is serious and destructive -- at many levels.

But "let the one among us who is without sin be the first to throw a stone."

Jesus is the only sinless One. Only He had the right to throw a stone. But after her accusers walked away, Jesus said to the woman, "I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more."

The message of grace I have for you today are those words that Jesus spoke to that woman.

The Church does not condemn you. Jesus does not condemn you. Go -- and by the grace of God -- sin no more.

A mp3 audio file of this sermon is here (43 min.).
(Download to a PC by right clicking on the link and choosing "Save Target As." Mac users: click, hold, and choose "Download Link to Disk." Depending on your connection speed, the file may take several minutes to download.)

An audio tape of the sermon summarized above is available free of charge (U.S. requests only).

Request a tape by
calling or writing the Gateway Church office.
Please specify tape number 060122a: Pro-Choice? Pro-Life?

© 2006 Joseph M. Slife

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