Culture

What’s the Real Issue behind the Abortion Debate?

Attendees at the March for Life rally in Washington, D.C., in 2013 (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)
No matter how civilized we may believe ourselves to be, we can see what happens when a child is considered both unpopular and defenseless, and the results are tragic.

With the recent confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, there has been much discussion regarding abortion. Some of this is your standard political posturing, but any time this debate comes up, I’m struck by the debate behind the debate. Even more interesting to me, sometimes this subtle debate is going on in our own hearts — including among those who are the most ardently “pro-life” when it comes to political issues.

Some of this starts as far back as kindergarten. No matter how strong or influential we think we may be, our kindergarten class pictures can show us otherwise. When we look at the image of ourselves as that young boy or girl, we can almost immediately feel all the fears and insecurities of that time. If we’re honest, we will also admit that we are, in many ways, still that same person, still protecting ourselves from being hurt. That sense of vulnerability leaves us with conflicted feelings about ourselves, and thus about children, who remind us of where we started and where we must end up.

On one hand, vulnerability is exactly why most people love babies. Advertisers will use images of babies and toddlers for scenes in which they would never think of featuring adults. The babies are non-threatening. They cannot hurt us, at least not in a serious way. Ironically enough, it is this same vulnerability that makes children so scary. They cannot hurt us physically, but they can be hurt by us. And we know that, sooner or later, they could break our hearts.

Moreover, in a fallen world in which human beings seek to protect ourselves from one another with displays of strength and aggression, small children seem oddly out of sync. Their vulnerability and dependence are thus used as a weapon to marginalize them, to make them invisible, when we do not want to see them.

Children at their most vulnerable, in the womb of their mothers, are celebrated when they are deemed to be “wanted.” When they are deemed to be intrusive, they are made invisible by the use of clinical language such as “embryo” or “fetus” or “products of conception,” in order to make violence against them more palatable to the conscience. The children of refugees and immigrants are likewise made invisible by language — often presented culturally or politically as parasites or as “anchors” for their parents to draw welfare benefits from a wealthier country. No matter how civilized we may believe ourselves to be, we can see what happens when a child happens to be in the category of both unpopular and defenseless, and the results are tragic.

Unfortunately, we will never create a true culture of welcoming children if we do not upend the priorities of our churches when it comes to power. Why is the church so constantly drawn to economic and political power? This is not only the case for the highest levels of the church — whether medieval popes or contemporary culture warriors — but also happens locally. We are drawn to the conversion testimonies of celebrity athletes or beauty contestants or reality television stars because they bring a sense of weight and influence, on their own terms — a weight and influence that they are, in our view, lending to the gospel. In how many congregations are decisions made on the basis of spoken or unspoken decisions about who gives the most money and who might, if he or she were rankled, withhold that money?

In such situations, we can see where our true religion is, and it is summed up in the dollar sign of Mammon, not in the cross beam of Jesus. When the church prioritizes power, influence, access, expertise, invulnerability, how on earth can we see ourselves as little children? If all of our illusions were put away, and if we were to see where we are on the scale of the trillions of years in front of us, we would see that we are, in fact, embryos and fetuses in the kingdom of God. We are able to be hurt, but hemmed in all around by the protective embrace of our God.

When we see children — whether those the world considers impressive or the ones the world considers defective— we do not see their potential, as though their lives will matter when they are grown and they contribute to society. We can see instead our own potential — if we would put aside our vain pretensions to superiority over others, to self-confidence and expertise, and to simply hold out our hands and cry, “Abba, Father!” We must crucify our lust for power. Our Father doesn’t love us because of what we might do, nor does he need us in order to accomplish his will, but he does want us to reach for him, as desperate and dependent children.

This article was adapted from Moore’s recently released book The Storm-Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home.

Russell D. Moore is president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination with 15.2 million members and 46,000 churches.

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