The New York legislature passed the Reproductive Health Act last Tuesday evening, January 22, 2019, on the 47th anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade decision. A lot of misinformation is propagating on the Internet.

Before reading further, I would encourage you to take a moment to read the bill for yourself here. I also recommend two pieces by Joe Carter, Communications Specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission: “Explainer: New York removes Barriers to abortion” and “New York Reveals Where Fight against Abortion is Headed.”

These articles explain what makes the Reproductive Health Act unique, but the major tenet in dispute on social media is about its allowance for abortions after 24 weeks, even up to the due date, if (1) “there is an absence of fetal viability” or (2) “the abortion is necessary to protect the patient’s life or health.” Social media makes it appear as if this is altogether new in the United States, but this is false. New Mexico, Vermont, New Jersey, Oregon, Alaska, Colorado and New Hampshire have also legalized abortion after 24 weeks.  

Much can be said about the Reproductive Health Act, as well as the larger debate between pro-life and pro-choice advocates, but my goal is to address three common objections to (2) above when Christians raise concerns about the new bill.

Objection #1: “But it is the mother’s body.”

Yes, but the baby’s body is also a concern. At 24 weeks, a baby has a high chance of survival outside of the womb. There is no reason to end the baby’s life, even if the mother’s life is at risk.

Christians traditionally have believed that a person’s life begins at conception. From the moment a sperm fertilizes an egg, a zygote has a complete set of DNA like the mother and father. The heart, skin, brain and other organs begin to develop during week five of pregnancy. I will not belabor this point, but there is strong evidence that a fetus is not simply a part of the mother’s body but another body—a person—altogether!

Most pro-choice advocates, however, would agree with this assessment but would make a distinction between a “human” and a “person.” Ben R. Crenshaw, a graduate of Denver Seminary, explains,

In the voluminous literature on abortion, a distinction is often drawn between the zygote being a living, human organism (i.e. ontologically human), and some point during fetal development when the fetus becomes a person (existing in a morally relevant sense). Usually, this is known as the ‘decisive moment’ when personhood–and thus human value, rights, and interests obtain for the fetus (p. 71).

While most pro-choice advocates make a distinction here, pro-life advocates do not make a distinction; a fetus is a human and a person at conception. As a result, pro-life advocates view the government’s responsibility to protect the “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as no less binding to lives inside the womb as they are to lives outside the womb.  

When Christians raise concerns about abortion, this does not mean they are unconcerned about the mother’s life; they are concerned for the mother and baby’s lives as people made in the image of God. 

Objection #2: “But the law legalizes abortion after 24 weeks only if the mother’s ‘life or health’ is at risk.”

This objection is true, but it is not the whole picture. (Keep in mind, however, that this objection still dismisses the baby’s high chance for survival outside of the womb.)

The bill states that a health practitioner can perform an abortion if “the patient is within twenty-four weeks of the commencement of pregnancy, or there is an absence of fetal viability, or the abortion is necessary to protect the patient’s life or health.”

The phrase “life or health,” however, can be interpreted in different ways. In the 1973 case of Doe vs. Bolton (also decided on the same day as Roe vs. Wade), the court stated,

We agree with the District Court, 319 F.Supp. at 1058, that the medical judgment may be exercised in the light of all factors –physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman’s age — relevant to the wellbeing of the patient. All these factors may relate to health. This allows the attending physician the room he needs to make his best medical judgment. And it is room that operates for the benefit, not the disadvantage, of the pregnant woman.

With this working definition of health, all of these factors—physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman’s age—can play a role legally in the practitioner’s best judgement about whether he or she should perform an abortion after 24 weeks of pregnancy.

People are concerned because health is broadly defined under Doe vs. Bolton. Because “health” is not narrowly understood as a physical threat to the mother’s life under the Reproductive Health Act, what constitutes “health” is left up to the medical practitioner.

This debate is not simply a “conservative” or “pro-life” talking point. Former President Barack Obama said in an interview with RELEVANT Magazine,

I have repeatedly said that I think it’s entirely appropriate for states to restrict or even prohibit late-term abortions as long as there is a strict, well-defined exception for the health of the mother. Now, I don’t think that ‘mental distress’ qualifies as the health of the mother. I think it has to be a serious physical issue that arises in pregnancy, where there are real significant problems to the mother carrying that child to term. Otherwise, as long as there is such a medical exemption in place, I think we can prohibit late-term abortions.

“Health,” therefore, is relegated to an amount of subjectivity and interpretation without any such definition, as in the Reproductive Health Act.

Objection #3: “But most doctors will not perform an abortion and most mothers do not desire an abortion this late in the pregnancy.”

Even if this is true, it still diverts the conversation away from the question over whether a fetus in utero is a person, regardless of whether most doctors will not perform an abortion or most mothers will not seek an abortion after 24 weeks of pregnancy.

But there is also a subtle claim underneath this objection that one can see into the future and know what a doctor or mother will decide now that the Reproductive Health Act has passed in New York. This might be true now, but there are many people who say “I would not do this or that” when it is illegal. When an action becomes legal, people often are more willing to consider that option because legal consequences have been removed. The Reproductive Health Act also expands allowance to perform abortions beyond licensed physicians to licensed nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and midwives.

Again, it is important for Christians to remember that all of these objections are diversions away from the question of whether the baby is, indeed, a person.

A Final Plea for Christians

I encouraged my conservative friends on Facebook two years ago to consider ways we can act on our pro-life convictions beyond a vote from time to time. A woman replied with frustration at my remarks because she thought I was saying we should altogether abandon hope and efforts for an end to Roe vs. Wade. But this was not my intention.

My argument was simply that we get creative about how we can live out our pro-life convictions in our communities, even when laws run contrary to those convictions. I long for a day when abortion ends, but I also understand the challenges of overturning Roe v. Wade and the possibility of politicians using their pro-life position as little more than a strategy for garnering votes.

If we truly believe God’s mandates promote human flourishing, we certainly will apply his mandates to how we vote, with an understanding that decisions about policy are very complex and require additional wisdom beyond Scripture. In the meantime, we can also practice what we preach in other relational and practical ways.   

In his book Culture Making, Andy Crouch writes,

No culture experiences itself as thin or incomplete… Consequently, cultural change will only happen when something new displaces, to some extent, existing culture in a very tangible way… So if we seek to change culture, we will have to create something new, something that will persuade our neighbors to set aside some existing set of cultural goods for our new proposal.

How can we create new culture that values every person, including babies in the womb and their mothers and fathers, if we believe that our culture in the United States is thin and incomplete without these children living in it?

Imagine how you might offer a “new proposal” in your community. I love some of these suggestions given by New Orleanian Laura Hamilton Hui in a Facebook post last week:

  • Invest in single mothers (and single fathers). We are responsible for supporting life AFTER birth as well, so we must support these parents as they live out the day-to-day of their decision. Offer free babysitting, bring a meal, listen to their hardships and successes, and be another loving adult in the life of the child.
  • Invest in teenagers. If many abortions are due to teen pregnancies, build relationships so that if a teen finds themselves in such a situation, they know they have a loving adult in which to confide.
  • Teach both men and women the value of life, the sacredness of sex, and the wonderful responsibility of sacrificially loving the children you have.
  • Support a foster/adoptive family! Again, offer free babysitting, bring a meal, listen to their heartaches and successes, and be another loving adult in the life of the child.
  • Adopt! When a woman chooses adoption as an alternative to abortion, we need families ready and willing to adopt.
  • Offer post-abortion Bible studies or retreats for women.

I encourage you to read her Facebook post in its entirety, as it offers many concrete ideas for your community and includes links for the New Orleans area, too. I would add that quality healthcare is often hard to find for some women outside of clinics that offer abortion; perhaps you or others in your area have the means to offer quality healthcare and counseling services. We are also called to love and empathize with anyone who felt abortion was their only option as we listen to her story and extend the same grace that Christ has given all of us.  

Let us remember that there is a winsome and loving way to discuss our pro-life convictions and respond to these objections, and let us seek concrete ways to live out our pro-life convictions in our communities, even as we contend for them in the public square.