I originally posted the following article four years ago, here, and with the current discussion of Planned Parenthood and the renewed cultural debate on abortion this is a particularly relevant post to revisit. What follows is an unedited reposting of my 2011 article followed by a brief addendum to clarify the original conclusion.
Abortion and the Illusion of Sovereignty: Addressing the Real Issue
This Sunday’s cover story, “The Two-Minus-One Pregnancy”, for The New York Times Magazine is nothing new. I wrote several years ago, in “When the Fertility Clinic Meets the Abortion Clinic: A Modern Paradox,” about a similar article in the Los Angeles Times. In fact the only thing that has changed in these four years are the numbers. The reasons and the response are the same things that have been around since the first abortion and if we were to go back further to the origins of infanticide. When reading these articles, or the responses to them, they are so predictable that they almost appear to be scripted. With that I hope to take a departure from the typical response and argue that the real issue here is not life, it is not choice, and it is not even murder. The real issue is sovereignty.
Let me explain what I mean. In her June article, “Yes, Abortion is Killing. But It’s the Lesser Evil,” Antonia Senior explains how having a child changed her perspective regarding abortion. After explaining the lack of a consensus regarding a scientific or philosophical definition of life she concludes,
What seems increasingly clear to me is that, in the absence of an objective definition, a foetus is a life by any subjective measure. My daughter was formed at conception, and all the barely understood alchemy that turned the happy accident of that particular sperm meeting that particular egg into my darling, personality-packed toddler took place at that moment. She is so unmistakably herself, her own person — forged in my womb, not by my mothering.
Any other conclusion is a convenient lie that we on the pro-choice side of the debate tell ourselves to make us feel better about the action of taking a life. That little seahorse shape floating in a willing womb is a growing miracle of life
She then explains that such conclusions have resulted in a movement aimed at separating feminism from “fertility control.” However, she views this as entirely incompatible with the central aim of feminism exclaiming, “The single biggest factor in women’s liberation was our newly found ability to impose our will on our biology.” The freedom of women then depends upon one thing the unencumbered exercise of the will.
With a shocking candor she concludes,
As ever, when an issue we thought was black and white becomes more nuanced, the answer lies in choosing the lesser evil. The nearly 200,000 aborted babies in the UK each year are the lesser evil, no matter how you define life, or death, for that matter. If you are willing to die for a cause, you must be prepared to kill for it, too.
For Antonia Senior, and I would argue for all of us, the principal issue is sovereignty, a woman’s ultimate right to impose her will upon herself and upon others.
Sovereignty occurs vertically in the form of worship, we could use other words but the concept remains the same. We either rejoice in the sovereignty of the God in whose image we are made or we deny it by worshipping any number of god’s made in our image. Horizontally human interaction exists upon a continuum of two extremes; escape and conflict. Both extremes end in death and both are false exercises of sovereignty. At the extreme end of escape is suicide where the sovereign self claims sovereignty over the self by taking one’s life. At the extreme end of conflict lies murder where the sovereign self claims sovereignty over another by taking another’s life.
The first two articles mentioned, “The Two-Minus-One Pregnancy” and “The abortion debate brought home,” regarding reduction, which let’s be honest is a clever play on words to sanitize something far more grisly and sinister, bring another exercise of sovereignty into the question, namely in vitro fertilization and the creation of life. Imposing one’s will upon one’s own biology may require medical assistance and donated eggs which is where our current discussion often begins. With in vitro fertilization, when multiple embryos are transferred, there is always the possibility of multiple embryos implanting and when multiple babies are not wanted or the mother is unable to give birth to multiple children then one or more of them must be put to death. In 1988 Dr. Mark Evans penned guidelines for this procedure stating that “most reductions below twins violated ethical principles.” Things have changed over the past 23 years; the medical community has rethought its ethics and is now willing and able to reduce your pregnancy to one. “The Two-Minus-One Pregnancy” ends with a counterintuitive conclusion. After choosing to reduce their pregnancy to one child the author asks the women what would happen if they miscarried to which one of them replied, “I’ve come to realize there’s only so much we can control. There’s a point where you just have to let nature take its course.”
After all this talk of a woman’s complete control of her own fertility comes the tragic conclusion that “there’s only so much we can control.” Ultimately you cannot impose your will upon your biology because ultimately you are not sovereign. Your sovereignty is an illusion.
How are we to respond to this? Should we call our senator or state representative? Should we start building picket signs and begin protesting abortion clinics? No, we must respond with the Gospel, in word and deed. We must respond in the same way that God responds to humanity’s first act of false sovereignty in the garden, with grace and the promise that in Christ we will be liberated not unto self but from self and sin and set free to worship the one true Sovereign. Any other response is incalculably inadequate and nearsighted.
The church is a global reality and when I address issues, such as this one, my primary concern is how the global church should respond. And our primary response and concern must be proclaiming and incarnating the Gospel (Ephesians 6:10-20). After all abortions do not occur simply because they are legal or because of Planned Parenthood. No, they occur because of our insatiable desire for control, for sovereignty; they occur because humans, both as individuals and as humanity, a global culture, are unflinchingly committed to our rebellion against the true Sovereign. That must be our first and primary response. Any other primary response is, as I said four years ago, incalculably inadequate and nearsighted.
Now, I still have little patience for evangelical political activism. As Ed Stetzer lamented in Breaking the Missional Code, ” For many, evangelicals have become a voting block rather than a spiritual force” (2006:9). Political activism alone, defunding Planned Parenthood for example, would only be as beneficial as God bringing the Jews out of Egypt without also bringing them to Himself. But in 2011 I was unbalanced and failed to recognize the uniqueness of the American situation. The global church must respond with the Gospel, as in many places political change is not possible in the same way that it is in the United States. The church mush make the gospel our primary concern, we must make the truth known, we must seek to see men and women reconciled to the God whose image their born and unborn children bear.
At the same time when there is opportunity seek political change we must do so humbly, with a knowledge that political change is important but not ultimate. God is redeeming the whole of creation from the cancerous cells growing in your body and the raging of the seas to the political and cultural structures of man. He is, and ultimately will, set those things right, their rebellion will be brought to an end, and the earth will be renewed and inhabited by the new humanity. But the renewal of creation is inextricably tied to the reconciliation of God and man (Romans 8:18ff.). So feel free to contact the political powers that be and seek to persuade those who make those decisions but do so knowing that what your neighbor who is considering an abortion needs most is not legislation but reconciliation.
I hope this was a beneficial read and I hope that this addendum has clarified what was lacking in my previous conclusion.