Book Review: Schlesinger, Pro-Choice and Christian

Kira SCHLESINGER. Pro-Choice and Christian. Reconciling Faith, Politics, and Justice. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017. pp. 130. $14 pb. ISBN 978-0664-26292-1.

Kira Schlesinger is priest-in-charge at The Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in Lebanon, Tennessee. In this book, Schlesinger’s intention is to find common ground and bring together all the sides of the abortion debate, as she believes there is more that unites, rather than divides Christians. One of the most valuable lesson in this book, is that “a consistent pro-life ethic includes not only an unborn child but its mother, her community, and the world in which she lives” (96). There is certainly a need to define what it means to be pro-life, which will open the door to finding “common ground with those who are anti-abortion.” It is a great intention on her part, yet one should be warned the approach is not one of neutrality. In the first two chapters, Schlesinger looks at the political history of abortion and abortion laws in the United States before and after Roe v. Wade. These chapters are very informative and a valuable introduction to the debate. They show how “abortion” laws are not really abortion laws, but laws protecting a woman’s privacy (Roe v. Wade), and the unlimited right to choose. In chapter 3, she looks at the impact that societal changes and medical technology have had on the debate concerning where life begins. In chapters 4 and 5, Schlesinger presents what the Bible has to say about conception, birth, and life, as well as statements from different Christian churches. In the final chapter, Schlesinger attempts to reclaim what it means to be pro-life, which includes supporting abortion access.

In order to bring all sides of the debate together, Schlesinger explores the biblical, theological, political, and medical aspects of the debate. The result is an attempt to offer a Christian argument for a pro-choice position with regard to abortion issues. More precisely, Schlesinger situates the debate in the context of a “reproductive right.” It is not about the life that is being taken away through abortion, but rather about the choice that the woman makes together with her medical team, her family, or her personal counsel. For that reason, she supports “a woman’s access to abortion because of our Christian values of caring for the most vulnerable, not in spite of them” (2). Yet, she considers herself to stand in the middle, that is, valuing the gift of life, but believing “there is a difference between a just-fertilized egg and a fetus at thirty or forty weeks’ gestation” (1). And thus, she argues that “Christians who are in favor of legal access to safe abortions are rarely pro-abortion and do not consider the termination of a pregnancy a decision to be entered into lightly” (6).

In the end, Schlesinger’s argument is one for abortion, while making the case that there are other aspects that should also be taken into consideration. As a Christian, she argues, one should not focus only in abortion and leave aside so many other aspects of a “consistent pro-life ethics” such as capital punishment, food programs, housing, and access to health care. Yet, her reasoning in favor of abortion does not seem very reasonable, as I will argue below.

In the first place, when talking about abortion, one cannot leave aside scientific research, especially when so much has been achieved in the field of embryology and genetics. Yet, this is one of the greatest short-comings in the present book, making it more of an emotional, rather than a rational, approach to abortion. Schlesinger mentions the tragedy of miscarriages, and that, “scientifically, we were talking about the same biological entity.” In those cases, “these groups of cells were a person.” Yet, “for others choosing to terminate their pregnancies, this collection of cells was not yet a distinct human and certainly not compatible with life outside the womb. Their pregnancies were unwelcome and stressful, and to terminate them was a relief” (9). It seems that, from her perspective, someone is a person depending on the perception of the one carrying the “group of cells.” Now, if the whole issue is that we don’t know where human life begins, why not center the abortion debate on this issue? This would be the most reasonable approach. The opposite approach seems very unreasonable in fact. If, as she affirms, human life is sacred, then it seems obvious that any serious discussion should be centered on this fact, not on dismissing or failing to mention the immense research that has been conducted in the last few decades. Yet, for her, the problem of conducting a scientific debate is that it is at “the expense of the woman herself” (52). Schlesinger doesn’t go further than citing William Robinson, a leading advocate of birth control and humanist, who interestingly enough states that abortion “does mean the destruction of a commencing life” (30). What is the problem, then, with bringing science into the discussion, especially when “we know more than ever about reproduction, fetal development,” fertilization, implantation, brain waves? The problem is that this type of discussion “centers on the fetus, the embryo, even the fertilized egg­—at the expense of the woman herself” (52). Can this approach be called reasonable? Can we leave science aside and instead adopt dogmatic or merely arbitrary assumptions? It does not sound very modern to say the least! Perhaps science is the greatest enemy of pro-choice positions, since it is standard knowledge in embryology, developmental biology, and microbiology, that human life begins at fertilization, the process during which a male gamete or sperm unites with a female gamete or oocyte to form a single cell called a zygote. This highly specialized, totipotent cell marked the beginning of each of us as a unique individual. Yet, Schlesinger would not address this point, either because it is at the expense of the woman herself, as she claims, or because pro-choice reasoning does not really care about science. Perhaps this lack of scientific reasoning is what prompts pro-choice defenders to project it on those opposed to them, labelling them as religious extremists, old-fashioned, or even as being against women altogether. She states that “regardless of scientific advances or medical technology” we will never be “in a place to definitely name when life begins.” For that reason, she makes a safe bet: it is “somewhere on a spectrum from the conception and implantation on an embryo to when a baby is viably delivered” (74). According to this unscientific way of reasoning, human life may begin in the seconds leading to birth. Shall we discuss this? We should not it seems, as it would mean bringing science to the debate, and this is not about science… Now, if a human life is killed, Schlesingerseems to concede that it will make abortion an evil act. Yet, she argues, it is not the mother’s fault. “It is borne by all of us . . .. It is a tragedy and a sin that is part and parcel of the system we exist in” (77). Let’s blame the system then! What about personal responsibility? Isn’t part of what it means being a Christian taking responsibility for all of our actions, since Jesus took upon himself the sins of the world? It seems to me that, from a Christian perspective, a child outside of marriage is never the failure, but a sign of God’s blessing despite our failure.

In the second place, even though Schlesinger is critical of Margaret Sanger’s eugenics in order to limit the reproductive capabilities of poor African American women, the arguments Schlesinger provides seem to go along those lines. In fact, it seems that Schlesingeris in favor of eliminating the poor, those of “color,” and gravely ill children. For example, she argues that women of poverty and women of color have decreased access to abortion and contraceptive services, thereby perpetuating cycles of poverty (6). Schlesinger is also in favor of abortion in areas where the Zika virus is spreading, causing “devastating birth defects for pregnant women and their children.” She laments that “in many Zika-affected countries abortion rights and access to affordable contraception are nonexistent or limited” (8). The reasoning behind the argument sounds eugenic, as she argues that without abortion, these women will “suffer the consequences of a disabled child with special needs . . .. This is just one scenario that demonstrates the need for access to safe and legal contraception for all women, including procedures for terminating pregnancies” (8). Now, the logical answer to the problem of poverty is to provide ways to help the poor rise above those standards, not to avoid pregnancies through abortions so that no more people are born into that cycle. Form that perspective, it seems that abortion is the enemy of the poor. In fact, the pro-choice argument that wealthy women have access to safe abortion while poor women do not is a Marxist fallacy and a trap. The problem is that in both cases it is a human being that dies, regardless of what is the social background of the mother. Thus, one may address the problem of poverty either by bettering their living conditions or by eliminating the lives of the poor altogether, and the abortion answer seems to do the latter. It seems that behind Schlesinger’s argument for abortion and contraception there is a subtle argument for the elimination of the poor, people of color, and those gravely ill, even though that does not certainly seem to be her intention.

In the third place, Schlesinger states that the life of the mother is as important as the child, and that defending her life is being pro-life. Yet, she then goes on to affirm that, since illegal abortions are the primary cause of maternity mortality, “doctors ought to provide with safe and legal ways to terminate pregnancies in hospitals” (29). Nowhere does she provide scientific evidence for maternity mortality. In Argentina, for example, where abortion laws are currently being debated, there were 31 deaths caused by illegal abortions last year, while 700 women died of malnutrition. Besides, if illegal abortions were the primary cause of maternal mortality, legal abortions are not the solution to the problem. She even goes on to argue that doctors that perform abortions are not pro-abortion, since they prefer instead the lesser of two evils. Worse than that, however, is the fact that the claim to safe abortions is deceiving. One of the arguments to legalize abortion is that in that way the life of the mother is protected. If that was the case, why would Schlesinger object that “antiabortion laws” require that doctors performing abortions set standards similar to those of surgery clinics? Was it not about safe procedures after all? It reminds me of the case of Nova Scotia, in Canada. At one point there was no doctor willing to perform abortions, for which reason the abortion movement pushed legislation so that a medical degree was not needed to perform one. That means that the safety argument is but an excuse to get something else. This type of contradictions and inconsistency reveals an ideological intent rather than a real concern for women and their health. Yet, for Schlesinger, “the issue is whether abortions will be safe and accessible” (65). From a medical perspective, there is no such a thing as a safe abortion. It is totally dishonest to hide the numbers when it comes to the many women that every year die from “safe” abortions. We can all certainly “work to make abortions rare,” but why is it that “we should also endure that it remains safe, in that it is offered by a licensed medical professional” (78) when it is no such a thing as a safe abortion?

In the fourth place, Schlesinger argues that “there is no right way to be a woman,” for women face harsh criticism regardless of what they do, “playing right into the hands of the patriarchy that seeks to limit our collective power.” Yet, it is “women who engage in these criticisms of other women” (45). I’m not sure how to fit the “patriarchy” oppression here, when she admits the criticism comes from women themselves. What about corporations pushing for abortion rights who have no concern for women? Planned Parenthood is the best example when it comes to that. Argentina is currently in the midst of an intense debate for and against the legalization of abortion. Curiously, Planned Parenthood has donated millions for the legalization of abortions, as they are never free. In a country where health care is paid for by the citizens through taxes, it is a huge business to provide abortions when it is the state that pays the bill.

In the fifth place, it wouldn’t be fair to leave aside Schlesinger’s mentions of possible objections from the Bible, since after all she is a church minister. She dismisses all biblical objections, as according to her they do not speak of abortion per se, and, in many instances, cannot be taken in a literal sense. She is right in that the passages of scripture must be interpreted according to their proper literary genre. However, among the passages that she quotes, there is one that caught my attention. The prophet Amos states that the Ammonites will not be spared of punishment, for they have opened pregnant women in Gilead and have murdered innocent children in order to enlarge their territory (Amos 1:13). Schlesinger is right in that the passage is not about surgical abortion; yet, the material act that God condemns through the prophet is exactly the same. She would argue against it, because a surgical abortion is “chosen by a woman herself and performed by licensed professionals” (59). For Schlesinger, it is the choice by the woman that changes the morality of the act. It seems to be a dangerous contradiction, because if that is the case, then anyone can argue that what they do is certainly their choice, even if intrinsically evil, and as a result it becomes a good act. She, as a pastor, cannot ignore that an act involves not only the intention and awareness, but also the moral aspect of the act itself.

In the sixth place, Schlesinger  rightly argues that “as Christians we should all be pro-life.” Yet, “we are far from the kingdom that Isaiah promises” (64-65), meaning that we live in an imperfect world, where children suffer, there are no adequate resources, and families struggle to purchase basic necessities. While one can agree with Schlesinger that “abortion is a tragedy,” it does not seem right to reduce the issue to a choice “between parenting another child and making a living” (65). How to justify such a stance? She does so by bringing it under the umbrella of what seems to be a virtuous act: “social justice.” Thus, “helping women access . . . abortion is a social justice issue.” As if a woman’s pregnancy were a social sin, with no responsibility on the part of the parents, the rapist, or the woman. “Women’s need for abortion access is a symptom of these deeper, more ingrained sins of our society” (91). If that is the case, it is certainly “tragic that our society is unwilling or unable to support the conditions necessary for both mother and child to flourish” (92). Yet, is that really the case? And why is abortion the answer? How can Schlesinger argue in favor of considering “the fullness of life from birth until death, and the possibility of human flourishing,” and then state that if a life will not lead to flourishing the best option is to terminate it? (65).

Finally, one would imagine that “robust social policies” will improve the present situation, since Schlesinger strongly favors them. Yet, one is astonished to read at the very end of the book that in Scandinavian countries, where strong social policies have been in place for many years, the reality of abortion has not changed (115). If these social policies have had no effect by her own admission, which means that they are a failure, why does Schlesinger strongly favors them?

Schlesinger defines herself as being pro-choice because of her faith, not in spite of it (68). The arguments to justify her approach are plagued with contradictions. One hopes that in the future she will address the unreasonable arguments and contradictions laid out in the book.

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