So now it is official. The Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization has overturned Roe v. Wade, and the legal issue of whether and how to restrict abortion has been returned to the states.
I cannot imagine how much this is going to be discussed in the coming days, months and even years—from every conceivable angle. Moreover, many states will become legal and political battlegrounds for this issue. This includes my own Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Dobbs shifts and even intensifies the struggle between pro-life and pro-choice, but it certainly does not end it.
Still, those who have stood for the pro-life cause, many of us for decades, have much to be thankful for. Not least among them are the many Evangelicals and Catholics who have stood for life, voting, pressuring, picketing, appealing, funding, manning legal organizations, lobbying, and educational organizations focusing on state and federal efforts, and a lot more. We stayed in the fight and have seen a wonderful victory.
However, a major concern I have had for a long time has not been so much political, as it has been pastoral and personal. This includes what will now be a growing need to care for pregnant women in difficult circumstances before and after they give birth. It includes compassionate ministry for post-abortive women and others, such as the biological fathers of these aborted babies and the families of these women. And this last thing includes, for too many who were comfortable with that decision to abort, helping them see the sin of abortion, encouraging confession and spiritual restoration. We have done a lot, and now will need to do more.
Which brings me to one of the issues I tackled in my recently released book, After the Revolution: Sex and the Single Evangelical. That is, the degree to which abortion is far more common among believers associated with conservative churches which are overwhelmingly opposed to it than most people realize or want to know.
Consider the two most recent releases of the large and prestigious National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), which is an undertaking of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Among middle-aged women 35 to 44 years old who have been pregnant, 13 percent of Evangelical Protestants and 12 percent of Roman Catholics have had at least one abortion. Their level is not significantly different than that of mainline Protestants, even though many if not most mainline churches do not oppose abortion, and many support it. They are certainly doing better than those of no religious affiliation, an astounding 29 percent of whom had had an abortion by that age. But still.
And for too many, it has not just been one abortion. Among these respondents, of those who had ever had an abortion, one-third of both the Evangelicals and Catholics had more than one.
A report of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine shows that things are actually a lot worse. Despite the anonymity and professionalism of the NSFG, the women surveyed tend to dramatically underreport abortion. Up to half or more of the women who said they had not had an abortion in fact had one. This problem is probably worse for religious women because they are more likely to experience guilt and shame when they have done this than those who are not religious.
We Evangelicals and Catholics must face up to the reality that we have a serious pastoral issue on our hands. The shepherds of Christ must not focus so much on the larger political and cultural scene that they end up ignoring the hurting people needing their care.
Sound teaching on all that the sanctity of human life means, rooted in the larger themes of Christian theology and anthropology, must characterize our churches. Too many pastors and priests rarely if ever address this sensitive issue, from the pulpit or other teaching ministries.
But we must also uncover and confront the plague of actual abortions, and their effects, in our own spiritual houses. The heating up of the abortion debates in the coming days, months, and years will open more raw wounds than we think. How many of these women have never confessed this sin? How many have but continue to suffer from it, even years or decades later? And what about the others in their intimate circles?
When I read the Gospels, I see a Jesus who, though perfect and without sin, approached sinners with compassion, person-to-person, without ever diluting the truth. As He did with the Samaritan woman at the well or the weeping prostitute, He laid bare the reality of their sins, realizing that they themselves were typically conscious of them. But He never did so in ways that demeaned them or left them without hope.
Religious people, let us be honest about how much abortion has occurred in our own churches. Let us redouble our efforts to instruct the people of God. But let us also draw out those who have sinned, even terribly, into the healing light of God’s grace and the love of His people.