The simple answer to a complex question is often wrong
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From Luke’s Journal 2022 | Termination of Pregnancy | Vol.27 No.3
Context is everything… here’s my context
I am a pastor’s wife, a mum, and an obstetrician and gynaecologist. I fully believe in the value of unborn life. I also fully believe in supporting women.
Whenever there is a simple answer to a complex question, the answer is often wrong. Context is vital – this discussion involves different contexts: political, spiritual, social, emotional, theological and historical.
This is not an abstract issue – these are people’s lives. By God’s grace and mercy, I am invited into this sacred place to minister love, grace, compassion and truth. It’s not a role I take lightly.
Why do you think there has been such an intense reaction in Australia to the overturning of Roe v Wade in the USA?
It’s brought into question something that people thought was a given, the established norm. We tend to follow the US (and the UK) in many ways. Now people are scared that something they have will be taken from them.
What do they have? Well from one view – bodily autonomy, choice over their life direction, ability to wrestle back control after a poor decision, to cover shame, or defend themselves after a violation. If you have something that gives you power, and then it is taken away, the immediate response is often a visceral reaction. The loss of control. A push in the back and deeper into the unknown. The emotions are intense.
When the overarching law of the land says, “It’s ok”, that also justifies your actions. Everyone says it’s ok! Now suddenly it’s not ok. So which is true? When shame and vulnerability are exposed, fear kicks in, and thus, the reaction.
Our modern world does not do well with fear and shame, and seeks to minimise it, cover it, or dilute it wherever possible. The world is looking for a solution to this problem – without looking at the only One who can give it (after all, conquering fear and shame is His core business).
We’re hearing the terms ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ being used in commentary around Roe v Wade – can you comment on these are helpful to use? If not, are there more helpful terms we can use?
No, they are not helpful – they are divisive.
It leaves no room for nuance, compassion, or context (and context is everything!!). It pits the two sides (pro-life vs. pro-choice) against each other, and there are huge variations within each of those two camps. Until we can recognise that this issue is more grey than black and white, the two sides are never going to be able to hear each other.
These terms have become very entangled with religiosity and anti-religion as well. People associate Christian judgementalism with the term ‘pro-life’. Police officer friends were tasked with security for an abortion clinic during a ‘pro-life’ protest – they came away thinking, “Those poor women and those heartless Christians”.
Someone was passionately advertising a ‘pro-life’ event during church announcements – I heard their heart for the unborn, but this was the only focus, and I was very troubled to think how a woman who has had an abortion might feel hearing this.
We must do better than this.
People who are ‘pro-choice’ also all get tarred with the same brush – godless murderers. Remember ‘pro-choice’ is NOT the same as ‘pro-abortion’.
How can we have a discussion and love people well if these are the boxes we’ve put everyone into?
I don’t think there is a helpful term to use. There’s not going to be a simple term to delineate a complex issue. How about ‘pro-grace’? Or ‘pro-context’?
What does it look like to discuss a Christian viewpoint with love and grace?
Well, first we have to decide on the Christian viewpoint.
We have two tasks as Christians – we have to take scripture seriously, and we have to be loving. If we’re not doing both simultaneously then something is wrong.
So what does scripture tell us about abortion? First and foremost, it doesn’t tell us anything specific. There are a few different scriptural interpretations as to when life begins: some at first breath, some within the womb, and some before creation. It seems clear to me that God values us even before we are born. Then, there are plenty of moments when God wants people to die. The Old Testament barely has three chapters written before God’s standards of holiness require death. A blanket statement of “God values all life” clearly has limitations. The Bible also shows us a recurring theme of redemptive love (grace) and giving people a choice. So there is plenty of ‘grey’.
“A blanket statement of “God values all life” clearly has limitations. The Bible also shows us a recurring theme of redemptive love (grace) and giving people a choice. So there is plenty of ‘grey'”.
Now, we have to apply scripture with love.
Many denominations acknowledge the grey in theology and account for them in their denominational distinctives. For example, Baptists “oppose all forms of religious coercion and affirm the rights of all people to follow their conscience on matters of faith”, or Churches of Christ – “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things love”. These are statements of how to navigate the grey in love, not how to apply pure doctrine like a firehose.
Scripturally, the greatest commandment is to love God and then, love your neighbour. These are our starting points. Based on this alone, I would say as Christians we owe women an apology. This doesn’t mean we support abortion on-demand. But we need to acknowledge that historically the church has done a pretty bad job of showing God’s love to hurting women and a broken world. And unfortunately, it looks like the American Evangelical Church is heading that way again.
If we want to have these discussions with love and grace, we have to recognise this: it’s easy to have a very black and white theology until your life ends up in the grey. I was struck by this before I was a doctor – I was monologuing about abortion to a (Christian) friend when she quietly said, ”You know, I’ve had an abortion.” I was shocked, then felt deeply ashamed at how judgemental I must have sounded. I had never considered how someone might feel hearing that. That context caught me out.
When it is your sister, your friend, your daughter… what Bible verses would you quote? What campaign posters would you use? You wouldn’t, would you? Your belief might not change, but the conversation is different.
Listen. You need to hear where they are coming from, so you can respond with love and grace to the person, not the theory. We need to treat others how we want to be treated.
Do you believe there can be medical justifications for termination pregnancy that fit within Biblical ethics?
Yes. Absolutely. You just have to dig theologically deeper to get there. I’m an Obstetrician and Gynaecologist, so this is part of my job. It’s something I have had to wrestle with. But I have the professional experience of being “in the trenches”, which most people who speak long and loud about abortion do not.
There are medical conditions diagnosable in utero that are incompatible with life. That decision for life has been made. Some mothers make the agonising decision to terminate. Some carry on, knowing the inevitable outcome. Some induce early and palliate (and I think this is sometimes confused with a late-term abortion).
“Sometimes that mother must make the impossible choice between the child in utero, not yet viable, and her own life, and the children she already has who need their mum”.
There are maternal conditions that threaten the life of the mother (and inevitably the foetus too). Sometimes that mother must make the impossible choice between the child in utero, not yet viable, and her own life, and the children she already has who need their mum.
Sometimes there are pregnancy complications early on and the outlook is grim. Some parents decide not to subject their baby (and themselves) to more suffering. Some want everything done and we will fight to save that baby if that is their wish.
These are the more clear-cut decisions. Many are not.
Some conditions lead to disabilities but are not incompatible with life. Is this justified? I admit I struggle with this, e.g. Down syndrome. Welcome to the grey, where there are no blanket answers. Ultimately, the woman is my patient, and I know this is the most heartbreaking decision she has ever had to make. Does she give up this child, deeply loved already, or give up her life to care for a disabled child, to watch them never have a normal life, and perhaps, see them suffer? I cannot judge the woman making this decision. I can only listen and care for her as best I can.
Then there are the ‘social’ terminations. I’ll be honest – I wrestle with these as well. Personally, I don’t do these terminations. This is where I draw a line. Deep down, I am grateful others do.
Anyone can end up in this situation. A woman might have had a contraceptive failure. She might be in an abusive relationship. She might not be coping with the children she has. I’m not justifying abortion – but there’s always a back story, a context of extreme pressure, and a real woman involved. I saw a quote recently that resonated with me – it went something like, “In my heart, I hope she chooses life for this baby, but I will always side with the living, breathing woman sitting in front of me.”
I’m not ‘pro-abortion’. But I am ‘pro-choice’. And I hope they choose life.
If you remove the freedom to choose, that’s not loving. That’s tyranny. It’s focusing on law and control. That’s definitely not grace. And it’s not going to stop abortions. It is just going to make it harder, more dangerous, and more traumatic for the women who make that decision, and these women are often the most vulnerable women to start with.
Jesus didn’t condemn the woman caught in adultery. He saw her and he loved her – and that’s what changed her. That’s why she could make a different choice. Jesus also offered the young rich ruler a choice – Jesus invited the young rich ruler to follow him, but the man chose to walk away. Jesus didn’t go chasing him with a big stick (or a protest poster).
Are there organisations and resources we can advocate for and support to care for women seeking abortions more holistically?
Honestly, I’m not sure an unbiased organisation exists, and I’d love to know if there are some. ‘Pregnancy support centres’ can provide great support to women who have chosen to continue with their pregnancies. However, they are often very much ‘pro-life’ in the decision-making process and can promote misinformation, which is very wrong. In clinics where termination is offered, often other options are not explored to any depth.
As healthcare providers, we get the opportunity to provide holistic care. Book in that extra time. Run a bit late. Pray your heart out over your patients.
As a pastor’s wife, I hope our church rallies around women with unplanned pregnancies with all the support we can. And I hope we can embrace the woman who has made a different choice in the past with love and grace, not condemnation, however unintentional.
Anonymous The author is a specialist obstetrician and gynaecologist, pastor’s wife, and a mother. She works in both public and private practice, and has a special interest in teaching, ultrasound, and doctors’ wellbeing.