How should Christians think about abortion? Dr. John D. Ferrer, president of Pella Pro-Life and teaching fellow with Equal Rights Institute, answers questions about what Roe v Wade did, what the Bible teaches about abortion, and how Christians can effectively and faithfully respond to the abortion debate and other issues surrounding abortion.
Q: What exactly did Roe v Wade do?
That’s a good question, Daniel. People tend to think Roe v. Wade (RvW) made abortion legal, but it didn’t quite do that. Abortion-choice policy had already been installed at the state level in 27 states. And the remaining states had exception clauses making abortion legal in a limited sense. Nevertheless, RvW and its companion case Doe v. Bolton, did radically expand abortion-choice culture by protecting abortion-on-demand at the federal level. All states now must allow abortion-on-demand at least till the child-in-utero is viable (i.e., can survive outside the womb). Once the fetus is viable, then the state can regulate and restrict abortion access so long as they’re not overly burdensome to the mother.
To be more specific, this watershed Supreme Court case in 1973 ruled, by a 7-to-2 decision, that women have an implicit constitutional “right of privacy” which includes the choice whether to have an abortion. Roe also stipulated that, once the fetus is viable, states can regulate abortion as long as those regulations don’t place an “undue burden” on women.
“…one of the most hotly contested cases in legal history…”
This court decision remains one of the most hotly contested cases in legal history. It set off a firestorm of opposition, still burning bright almost 50 years later—perhaps brighter than ever before. Its supporters, however, look upon the Roe decision as a formidable landmark—established proof that abortion is a natural right and it’s here to stay. Critics, on the other hand, are eager to see this landmark case scrutinized by the highest court since, they believe, it’s based on bad science, bad logic, and thinly-veiled social activism. In their view, when you peel away the layers of rhetoric and misinformation even in the RvW decision, we find that no one’s right to privacy ever included a license to kill innocent, non-threatening, defenseless, family members in the womb.
Q: The Latin term stare decisis has been used surrounding Roe v Wade. It means to “stand by things decided.” Should abortion be seen as just the way things are?
You’re speaking of the doctrine of precedent. This is an imposing issue in the Supreme Court (SCOTUS) right now. In the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health case, SCOTUS is currently weighing the merits of a Mississippi law restricting abortion access to 15 weeks. Depending on how the court interprets stare decisis, they could uphold RvW and reject the 15-week abortion ban. Or they could review the Roe decision, perhaps overturning RvW.
Because of controversial cases like Roe, some people may think stare decisis is a bad idea. But, as long as it’s handled correctly, stare decisis is vital to a healthy functioning judicial system. In stare decisis, past cases are treated as authoritative precedents for guiding current and future cases. This way courts don’t have to rehash old cases, constantly challenging past decisions, and wasting a lot of time retreading the same disputed ground. The courts try to respect past rulings by giving them the benefit of the doubt, rarely overturning a case. This helps reduce waste, prevent gridlock, and maintain the rule of law.
As long as it’s handled correctly, stare decisis is vital to a healthy functioning judicial system.
If our legal history were a big map, stare decisis says you shouldn’t go redrawing the streets, renaming the cities, and shifting the borders all willy-nilly, or else the map won’t be trustworthy anymore. If everywhere you turn, court decisions were discarded left and right, the legal system would look incompetent and unreliable. Confidence in the rule of law would crumble and civil society could tear apart at the seams. Stare decisis is an important organizing principle in the justice system.
It is not, however, a moral principle per se. Stare decisis isn’t claiming that all previous rulings are correct, or that “the way things are is the way things should be.” That’s clearly a fallacy. Even when something is traditional and legal, it can still be quite evil. Stare decisis is not a moral, but a legal, principle.
“Even when something is traditional and legal, it can still be quite evil.”
Also, stare decisis is a general principle, not an absolute law. There are exceptions such as when new evidence could exonerate someone, or a fault line surfaces in a landmark ruling. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh explains,
“If you think about some of the most important…consequential cases in [Supreme Court] history, there’s a string of them where the cases overruled precedent. Brown v. Board outlawed separate but equal. Baker versus Carr, which set the stage for one person/one vote. West Coast Hotel, which recognized the states’ authority to regulate business. Miranda versus Arizona, which required police to give warnings…about the right to remain silent and to have an attorney present to suspects in criminal custody….In each of those cases…and those are some of the most consequential and important in the Court’s history—the Court overruled precedent.”
Overturning past cases is rare, but it does happen. And RvW is a great candidate for that rare judicial review since it was a split decision (7-2), and it was never explicitly constitutional. In the Dobbs case, Justices Alito, Thomas, and Kavanaugh harp on this constitutionality question. Roe has also been a deeply controversial case within legal studies, and the country has divided over it for the last 50 years—suggesting abortion-choice is not self-evidently “good.” Plus, the evidential basis for the court ruling may be outdated. Its description of fetuses as merely “potential humans” defies the scientific consensus today which aligns on the conception definition. New human life begins at conception. It’s not a “potential human” but a human with potential.
Q: Does the Bible have anything to say one way or the other about the abortion debate?
Yes. Lots. I discuss this at length on my website at “What does the Bible have to say about abortion?” There I cover most all the major Bible verses and biblical arguments about abortion. I’ll just hit some highlights here. Pro-choice advocates often claim that the Bible is silent on abortion. They’d be correct if they mean there’s no specific Greek or Hebrew word for “abortion” in the Bible. But, of course, that’s not the only way to address abortion. Plus, this claim is just an “argument from silence” (fallacy) at best. Also, critics like to point to two spots in the Old Testament which, if you read them a certain way, sound like special cases where abortion is justified. See Exodus 21:22-23 and Numbers 5:11-31. But there’s good reason to doubt their stretched interpretations. And even if we granted them, the passages speak only of narrow, obscure circumstances without any abortion-choice culture or policy in view. Those passages are really just proof texts. They don’t add up to a biblical pro-choice stance.
“…tons of evidence from Scripture affirming anti-abortion culture…”
Meanwhile, there’s a ton of evidence from Scripture affirming anti-abortion culture. We are called to respect the sanctity of human life (Genesis 1:26-28), love others as ourselves (Mark 12:31), and refuse to shed innocent blood (Proverbs 6:16-19). Because Christ loved us first, we need to reflect the love of Christ to women and families struggling through unplanned pregnancies as they’ll need a community of support in raising their child (1 John 4:11). We can even endorse bodily autonomy (1 Peter 2:16); we just don’t grant any implicit “license to kill.” That’s because autonomy is balanced with responsibility. As the apostle Paul explains, we “are not our own…[we must] honor God with our bodies” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Remember also that it is God who gives us life. We’re in no position to take God’s gift and destroy it. We don’t have that right. That’d be playing God. And the only one fit to play God is God himself (because he ain’t playin’).
Q: Just because the Bible takes a stand on an issue doesn’t mean that it becomes a pressing cultural issue for Christians. So, on a scale of passionately for it to passionately against it (with “whatever” being the safe middle), how should Christians feel about abortion?
You’re right. We can’t realistically treat every biblical comment like it’s the #1 most important issue. We have to prioritize, picking our battles carefully. After all, you can only die on one hill, so make it count. That said, abortion-choice culture might be the most imposing affront to God in the modern world. We Christians should adamantly and unequivocally oppose abortion-choice culture. That includes pro-choice ideologies and policies.
Given the size and scope of abortion in the modern era, we are entirely justified making abortion our number one humanitarian concern. Besides the great commission (Matthew 28:18-20), I can’t think of any humanitarian effort more important for the church today. I don’t say that lightly. There are all sorts of cultural battles beating down the doors of the church, but abortion looks to be the beastliest of the bunch. It’s eroding traditional marriage, fracturing families, distorting sexual ethics, and implicating whole societies in a killing spree of genocidal proportions. Not to mention it’s profoundly traumatic, surprisingly dangerous, and pretty hostile to women and families. With abortion-choice policy, it’s like ancient idolatry revisited. The ancient Canaanites offered child sacrifices to Molech. And so do we. Without exaggeration, we can say that abortion is a crime against humanity and the deadliest act against fellow man in world history. Christians have every reason to dedicate themselves to combatting abortion-choice culture with grace, love, and truth.
“Abortion is a crime against humanity and the deadliest act against fellow man in world history.”
This isn’t a lost cause either. In my own experience, I first got into pro-life apologetics not because of pro-life arguments but because of the pro-choice arguments. They are sooo weak. I won’t belabor them here but simply say that this battle is very winnable. We can win the battle in the courtroom, as we’re seeing now. If you’ve had a chance to read the transcript in the Dobbs case, you’ve seen how the progressive justices are flailing. They can’t show that abortion is constitutional. We can also win the battle in the classroom since we have better reasons, better arguments, and more coherence. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but it is winnable.
Q: I’ve heard Christian thinkers say that there’s an even better goalpost than making abortion illegal. It’s to make it unthinkable. In other words, there’s something upstream from politics, and that’s cultural engagement. So, how are evangelical Christians doing with cultural engagement on this issue?
Fortunately, we don’t have to choose between the two: we can work to make abortion illegal and unthinkable. Those kind of reinforce each other, so it makes sense to aim for both goals. Evangelical Christians and Catholics engage heavily in both these efforts too. The pro-life movement is mostly—but not entirely—composed of Christians and religious conservatives. Through all these efforts, pro-life women’s clinics outnumber abortion clinics almost 4 to 1. We’re volunteering in adoption and foster care programs. We’re opening our homes to adopt children and take in single mothers. We’re staffing charities serving underprivileged families.
Of course, there’s always more work to be done, and I wouldn’t dare vouch for all the clumsy and ineffective tactics that some pro-lifers have used. But, overall, when it comes to the biblical mandate about caring for widows, orphans, and struggling families (see James 1:27), pro-life Christians are leading the way. That’s in spite of the fact that most every pro-life ministry is running on a shoe-string budget, under-staffed, and under-supported. We have a lot of love and passion for the cause, but we can always use more church and community support.
Q: Even if we happen to have friends on the Supreme Court, we don’t have a politician-constituent relationship with them that we could try to influence them one way or the other. So, what can we do?
Besides the obvious advice of “get informed” and “volunteer with pro-life ministries,” I find the biggest problem is that the Christian church is pretty nominal on the issue. I dream of the day when the vast majority of church-going Christians would align against abortion-choice culture. We could abolish abortion overnight. But realistically, the church is too compromised, and far too many Christians are huddled comfortably on the sidelines watching passively while a handful of missionaries are doing most of the work.
It’s not that pro-life Christians need some bold new strategy or specialized revolutionary tactics. What we need most of all is more warm bodies. We don’t need a whole bunch of experts. We need regular people who are willing to help. A tender heart, a strong back, a positive attitude, whatever you can offer, the pro-life movement has a place for you. There are already thousands of pro-life ministries, and if they just had the staff and resources to fill out their ambitious vision, we could flip the culture upside-down.
“…we could flip the culture upside-down…”
We’re also at a place now where we can start preparing for a “post-Roe” America. I don’t mean to count our chickens before they hatch. But if RvW is overturned, we shouldn’t expect that to end abortion in America. Many of our efforts before Roe will become more important after Roe. That includes legislation at the state level, and ministry at the community and personal levels. For almost 50 years, people have been viewing society, family, and their own bodies through an abortion-choice lens. They’re not going to trade worldviews overnight.
Instead of just waiting for the closing bell to sound over Roe, we can meet it with a running start. Right now, we can be preparing our communities, families, and homes to absorb the fallout from half a century of abortion-choice culture. That means get out the vote, supporting smart economic and social policies. Volunteer at a crisis pregnancy clinic. Sponsor an adoption scholarship or fundraiser. Engage with the schools, school boards, and teachers’ unions. They may be voting on new leaders, or they may need a new guidance counselor or another teacher for their sex-ed class, or a better role model and coach for the cheerleaders or football team.
“There are unwed mothers who just need a helping hand.”
There are hospitals and health departments needing pro-life Christians. There are unwed mothers who just need a helping hand. There are abuse victims who need a ride to the police station. There are young fathers who need a job. There are parents struggling to impart a biblical sexual ethic to their kids. There are young couples who are trying to do things the right way, but all they know about sex and marriage was what they learned in public school and on TV.
Here’s a list of links for if you want to get more involved:
- Are you pregnant or know someone who is? Care-Net
- Can’t get to a pregnancy clinic? Sonograms on Site
- Want to discuss and defend the pro-life position? Equal Rights Institute and Life Training Institute
- Like to promote pro-life policies, candidates, and causes? National Right to Life Center
- Interested in working with pro-life students? Students for Life of America
- Want to learn more? Abort73
Want a ridiculously long list of hundreds of pro-life ministries to choose from? Randy Alcorn’s Pro-Life Resource List
 “Opening Statements,” in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, no. 19-1392 (1 Dec 2021), pgs. 78-79. accessed 2 Dec 2021 at: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/21122957-dobbs-v-jackson-womens-health-transcript.