A fetus at 12 weeks (webmd.com)

Last week I made the following post on Facebook directed to my pro-life Christian friends in Alabama in connection with the special election for the U.S. Senate:


To my pro-life Christian friends in Alabama, I am heartsick for you today. Like many of you did, if I lived in AL I would have stayed home or written someone else in. Just remember, in politics you often have to lose battles to win wars. More significantly, remember that through the gospel you will help the cause of life more than you ever can through the ballot box. “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

Based on many comments I had read from friends in Alabama, I sensed that many of them were truly heartbroken by that election – especially those who felt, as I did, that Roy Moore was morally disqualified from holding office. By voting for a write-in candidate (or by staying home), odds were that a pro-choice candidate would win the election, a prospect that was painful for those who treasure the cause of life. I grieved along with my friends who made this painful decision, and I wanted to encourage them.

Social media being what it is, many friends who were not addressed in the post (that is to say, who are not Christians/pro-life/heartbroken), felt compelled to jump in and comment. Since the point of the post was emotional rather than polemical, the last thing I wanted was a re-hash of all the issues of the campaign. Some pilloried the notion of “single-issue voters” who let a candidate’s views on abortion be the determining factor in an election. Others argued that candidates who do not support government aid like the CHIP program were not really pro-life. And so on.

In this post, I want to explain why the life issue means so much to so many of us – why it is such a determinative factor in how (or whether) we vote.

Let me begin with a historical analogy. Let’s suppose you lived in Illinois in 1858, during the Senate campaign that pitted Abraham Lincoln against Stephen A. Douglas. Undoubtedly there were many issues on the table in that campaign, like tariff policy. But the predominant issue was the expansion of slavery into new territories. And at the heart of that issue was what it means to be a person – a person with rights under the protection of the Constitution. Douglas argued that blacks were not persons. Lincoln argued that – as the Declaration declared – “all men are created equal,” and endowed with the inalienable rights of life and liberty.

If you lived at that time and place, who would you have supported? What if you actually agreed with Douglas on all the other issues but slavery – would you have supported him anyway? Or, would you have decided that while other issues are important, the issue of slavery – with its implications about human personhood – was of paramount importance?

Those of us who are pro-life do not see the issue as merely one of several issues. Just like the question of slavery, it strikes at the heart of what it means to be a person. How is personhood decided?  Is it based on extrinsic features (like color, or age, or “viability”)? Or is it based on intrinsic rights given by God to human beings, period?

It is certainly undeniable that at conception we are dealing with a human being. That is basic biology, as this educational video explains. As the narrator comments:

“Fertilization is the epic story of a single sperm facing incredible odds to unite with an egg and form a new human life. It is the story of all of us.”

The issue then is whether this human being has the rights of a person under the protection of the Constitution. In the Roe Vs. Wade decision, the Court decided that the right to life afforded to persons did not include fetuses until they were “viable,” until they could live on their own outside of the mother’s womb.

With respect to the State’s important and legitimate interest in potential life, the “compelling” point is at viability. This is so because the fetus then presumably has the capability of meaningful life outside the mother’s womb.

The Court determined that viability is “usually placed at about seven months (28 weeks) but may occur earlier, even at 24 weeks.” And so the Court ruled that states may prohibit abortions in the third trimester.

In other words, according to the Court there is no intrinsic right to personhood for a human being. This was a purely arbitrary decision, since the point of viability is – as the Court acknowledged – not a hard and fast matter for medical science. Indeed, since the early 1970s, medical technology has made it possible for babies born much earlier than the third trimeter to survive.

By grounding the Roe decision in an extrinsic feature like viability, the Court made the same mistake as did those who denied the rights of personhood to slaves on the basis of another extrinsic feature (race). Those of us who are pro-life believe that human beings as such are persons under the Constitution, and deserving of the right to life. And since that is the case, the abortion issue could hardly be just one issue among many – any more than the slavery issue could have been in 1858.

I recognize there are other issues in any campaign. Take the case of the CHIP program. Providing health care for poor children is a serious issue. But here’s the thing – there are genuine policy debates to be had as to how best to accomplish that objective. I’m not a doctrinaire conservative on such matters, and would be open to lots of ideas. But debating policy is one thing – debating personhood itself is a vastly different kind of issue. And on that issue, there isn’t a wide set of options. Either a fetus is a person or she isn’t.

In the case of the Alabama election, the choice was between a pro-life candidate who was morally compromised (in the view of many of us) and a pro-choice candidate. In fact, Doug Jones is radically pro-choice. Far beyond the Roe decision which defined personhood at viability, Jones expressed support in an interview with Chuck Todd for choice throughout the entire nine months of a pregnancy:

Todd: You wouldn’t be in favor of legislation that said “ban abortion after 20 weeks,” or something like that?

Jones: No, I’m not in favor of anything that is going to infringe on a woman’s right and her freedom to choose. That’s just the position that I’ve had for many years, it’s the position I continue to have…But I want to make sure people understand that once a baby is born, I’m going to be there for that child, that’s where I become a right-to-lifer.”

In a later interview, Jones tried to walk back this extreme view and express support for some restrictions to late-term abortions:

“Having said that, the law for decades has been that late-term procedures are generally restricted except in the case of medical necessity. That’s what I support. I don’t see any changes in that. It is a personal decision.”

I personally find this as unconvincing as Roy Moore’s defenses of his conduct.

And thus the broken heart for my fellow pro-life friends in Alabama who were confronted with these candidates in light of the central human rights issue of our generation. And also the encouragement. The encouragement to remember that politics is a long game in which you sometimes lose battles (as Lincoln lost that Senate race) to win wars, and consolation of knowing that whatever happens politically, the loving spread of the gospel will always be the most pro-life thing we can ever do spiritually.