From Womb to Tomb: A Better “Pro-Life Ethic”
It would seem, irrespective of everything else, we are all born with the innate belief that we each have a right to sustain the life given to us.
In 1776, Thomas Jefferson penned this belief into the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Marquis de Lafayette articulated a similar premise to the people of France in 1789 stating, “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi spoke before the Indian National Congress and declared “We believe that it is the inalienable right of the Indian people, as of any other people, to have freedom and to enjoy the fruits of their toil…”
Adam Smith, the father of modern Capitalism wrote in his book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, “The most sacred laws of justice are the laws which guard the life and person of our neighbor.” Mildred Fay Jefferson, The First African-American woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School spoke out on the injustices of her age declaring, “The fight for the right to life is not the cause of a special few, but the cause of every man, woman and child who cares not only about his or her own family, but the whole family of man. Even the great Philosopher Epictetus wrote similarly in 50 A.D., “The people have a right to the truth as they have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Therefore, when it comes to the modern concept of a ‘Pro-life’ position, it is generally within these premises that its ideology rests. I cannot enumerate the number of neighbors in my life whose civic participation is contingent upon this one issue. Perhaps you have heard it as well. “I vote with the babies.”
Considering the former reiteration of history, the sentiment is understandable. Here is what I find interesting though. Not one of those quotes was ever spoken or written with the idea of abortion in mind. Rather, they were written to ascribe life to the expanse of all humanity. From womb to tomb and at every point in between.
Let me be clear. I do not believe the modern Pro-life position to be wrong, legally or morally. Yet when I begin to reflect on the character of God, I do find it to be narrow. In the modern understanding the term Pro-Life simply means ‘against abortion.’ But what should Pro-Life mean for the one who follows Christ?
Genesis 2:7- Then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.
This verse, amongst a multitude of others, should be the foundational premise for the Christian’s understanding of a right to life. Life is a gift of God. Though we know how to reproduce, we have no control over conception.
As the Psalmist wrote so beautifully, “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.” (Psalm 139:13-14)
It is God who allows the lungs to breathe and the heart to beat. Therefore, the premise should lead the Christian to a very simple conclusion. What God has given; man has no right to take away.
The danger that we encounter today however, is to take that conclusion and apply it to the narrow issue of abortion. What then does that say to the value of someone’s life beyond the womb? If babies are all that God cares about, perhaps Christians should rebrand themselves as merely pro-birth.
Leviticus 19:9-18- “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God. You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord. You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired worker shall not remain with you all night until the morning. You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor: I am the Lord. You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”
We often misunderstand the meaning behind Israel being God’s chosen people as if they were the people whom received his blessings. The reality is that it was just the opposite. Israel was chosen by God to be holy, in order be a blessing to the world. It is exactly the language God used when he called Abram out of his homeland. “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:2-3)
God provides Israel with laws that advocate for the life and prosperity of their neighbors, whomever they may be. We are shown a God who loves all his creation. Thus, he calls Israel to be righteous and just so that the entire world would know God to be righteous and just.
No nation left a portion of the harvest unpicked to care for their homeless and their refuges. His law by contrast protects them. God asks his people to care for the welfare of people like these. To protect the deaf and the blind and to ‘not stand up against the life of their neighbor.’
We understand that an unborn child cannot care for themselves because they have no power and therefore are often willing to put our votes, our mouths and sometimes even our anger in opposition to the realities of the age. But if this is the God revealed to us in scripture, to be Pro-Life should extend far beyond the womb.
Jeremiah 22:3- Thus says the Lord: “Do justice and righteousness and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.”
Zachariah 7:8-10- “And the word of the Lord came to Zechariah, saying, Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.’”
Isaiah 1:17- “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”
Micah 6:8- “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Amos 2:6-8;13-16- Thus says the Lord: “For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals— those who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and turn aside the way of the afflicted; a man and his father go in to the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned; they lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge, and in the house of their God they drink the wine of those who have been fined… “Behold, I will press you down in your place, as a cart full of sheaves presses down. Flight shall perish from the swift, and the strong shall not retain his strength, nor shall the mighty save his life; he who handles the bow shall not stand, and he who is swift of foot shall not save himself, nor shall he who rides the horse save his life; and he who is stout of heart among the mighty shall flee away naked in that day,” declares the Lord.
It was the role of the prophets to speak on behalf of God. Following suit, we see a handful of them reiterate God’s command upon Israel to bring justice, life and flourishing to the people who cannot attain it themselves. Micah, Isaiah, Zechariah and Jeremiah all declare exactly what God expects of his people. He commands us to be justice seekers, mercy lovers and peace makers; people of embrace and hospitality who offer redemption and dignity to the oppressed and neglected. It is God’s words through the prophet Amos however, that show us why.
God accounts for all the ways in which Israel’s value system is perverted. They trample the poor to exult themselves. They extort property from others and celebrate in their treachery. They degrade the boundaries of marriage, family and sexuality in ways that make Yahweh look worse than even the pagan gods. Amos shows us that our injustice to one another is a deliberate rejection of the value God has ascribed to others through his gift of life (and furthermore by his meritorious blood upon the cross).
Injustice, at any point in regard to one’s life, is a degradation of an individual’s value as God has established it. In order to commit such an offense against another, one has to somehow diminish the other’s humanity. Effectively, we have to alter our premise from ‘This person is a child of God’ to ‘this is not really a person at all.’
For many, abortion is not an injustice because the child is not really a child. But what about the prisoner? The poor? The refugee? We reject the former logic of abortion but simultaneously accept execution to be just if the prisoner’s crime was violent enough. Poverty is not an injustice we are obligated to rectify if we tell ourselves that they are in that position because of their own choices. Likewise, the refugee is not our responsibility if our duty is limited to national allegiance.
Just like the unborn child, the poor cannot care for themselves because they have no wealth. Widows cannot care for themselves because they have no husband (less culturally applicable today). Orphans cannot care for themselves because they have no parents. Refugees (foreigners) cannot care for themselves because they have no nation. The infirm cannot care for themselves because they have no strength. Prisoners cannot care for themselves because they have no freedom.
But this God cares and loves them all. This God breathed the same life into each one of these and counts them all as precious children. Therefore, he calls his people Israel, as an extension of himself, to sustain and flourish the life of those who cannot do so themselves, whether they be unborn children in a mother’s womb OR anyone else along the way.
Matthew 25:31-46- “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
This passage needs no interpretation. Jesus is very clear. For the Christian, a ‘Pro-Life ethic’ accounts for the entirety of a person’s life. We are called to care for the unborn, the child, the orphan, the sick, the handicapped, the insane, the incarcerated, the elderly, the poor, the voiceless, the hungry, the thirsty, the refugee, the naked, and everyone else in between. The call of God is to be life-giving representatives of Christ in every area of a person’s life where that life might be denied.
As representatives of a God who had compassion on everyone, we cannot reserve our own compassion for only the unborn.
In Calcutta, India, it was common practice of Mother Theresa and her fellow sisters to go to the train station every morning and gather the sick and wounded. One morning Mother Theresa came upon a particularly weak man. He was severely ill. He had open wounds all over his body. Maggots had even begun to eat his dying flesh. She claimed him for herself.
Mother Theresa spent the rest of the morning tending to his needs. She cleaned his wounds and kept him as comfortable as she could. As soon as she had finished mending him, he looked up at her briefly, said thank you, and then died.
That evening Mother Theresa told her fellow sisters, “Today I had the privilege of caring for the dying Christ.” For one brief moment, this woman’s compassion returned to this man his God-given dignity. In the face of a dying man, she saw the face of the God who died for her. May Christ graciously equip us to see our neighbors the same way.