It’s Not a Debate: The Christian Century Fails to Advance Discussion on Abortion

Look, the last thing the Christian Century needs is somebody else piling on from these quarters. That being said, a pair of articles from the august representative of mainline Protestant liberalism demonstrate everything that’s wrong about our current discourse on abortion.

Take this Religion News Service piece carried on the CC site speculating on how [George Tiller’s murder] might affect the “abortion debate,” for example. It’s heartening to see language like this:

The charge of vigilantism now confronts antiabortion activists, indicated Susan Thistlethwaite, former president of Chicago Theological Seminary and a supporter of abortion rights. She said that outspoken antiabortion activists like Randall Terry, who led protests outside Tiller’s clinic as far back as 1991, asserted on June 1 that Tiller had “reaped what he sowed.”

If Terry is the loudest voice in the antiabortion movement, that’s a problem because Tiller’s death “shows the consequence of the inflated language of murder,” she said. “The broad middle of Americans regard choice as a legitimate and moral option.”

Quite so, although it’s more than “the broad middle” – [ lopsided majorities] favor the legality of abortion in one form or another. It is only a tiny minority of Americans who want it outlawed altogether, and even of those, only the smallest fraction are sympathetic to Terry’s extremist position.

And yet at the end of the article, we hear this:

Troy Newman of Operation Rescue has made a career of fighting Tiller’s work, particularly late-term abortions, which opponents find particularly abhorrent. Though he condemned Tiller’s murder, he said churches that support or tolerate abortion need to reexamine their positions.

“Can an abortionist be a deacon or hold a leadership position in a church?” Newman asked. “Those who would somehow justify their sinful actions are misguided, steeped in sin or heretics.”

If you wonder why people like Randall Terry are able to infect the discourse on abortion, look no further. Terry and his former friends at Operation Rescue, among many others, don’t believe that people like George Tiller can be Christians. They say it all but explicitly here and pretty directly elsewhere.

They’re out of step with the vast majority of their co-religionists, and they have utterly no grounds, scriptural or otherwise, for sneering at them. But you’d never know that from this article. Every “he said” has to be carefully balanced, even when there is no real balance. On the one hand, you have hundreds of millions of Americans who believe that abortion is a “legitimate and moral option,” at least under certain circumstances. On the other, you have a few thousand who question the authenticity of belief of those millions and are willing to go to absurd lengths, even accepting violence, to enforce their views. Yet, each side is given equal footing in the “debate.”

To be clear, I don’t expect journalists to evaluate who the “real” Christians are. But they should be able to inform their readers of who’s in the mainstream and who is not. Otherwise, they put their thumbs on the scale by giving greater weight to extremists than they deserve.

A companion to the RNS piece by Christian Century editor [ John Buchanan] asks,

Is it naive to hope for a civil conversation on the subject? Can we cease using language that allows for no diversity of opinion? Calling abortion “baby killing” and abortion providers “mass murderers” leaves no room for conversation.

There is nothing good about this appalling killing in Kansas. But could it possibly lead people of good will on both sides to show more civility and respect as we continue to talk about the issue?

Answering Buchanan’s first question, in that “civil conversation” typically begins when everyone puts their guns down, yes, it probably is naive to hope for that sort of discourse at the moment.

More to the point, though, it isn’t “both sides” who are failing to demonstrate civility and respect. Where are the pro-choice advocates who have stalked, harassed, intimidated, bombed, and murdered leading pro-lifers? Where are the pro-choicers who have shrugged their shoulders at the deaths of their opponents? Where are the pro-choicers who have even questioned the faith of their opponents, or called them murderers?

It’s true that many advocates for reproductive rights have pointed to the violent rhetoric of the pro-life movement after Dr. Tiller’s murder. But it’s hardly a slur to draw a straight line. Words have consequences, as conservatives never tire of pointing out.

It is a simple fact that the “culture war” surrounding abortion has been decidedly one-sided. As a diarist at Street Prophets pointed out,

All told, according to statistics provided by the [ National Abortion Federation] and not including this morning’s murder, since 1977, there have been seven murders, 17 attempted murders, 41 bombings, 175 arsons, 96 attempted bombings or arsons, 390 invasions, 1400 cases of vandalism, 1993 cases of trespassing, 100 butyric acid attacks, 659 anthrax threats, 179 cases of assault and battery, 406 death threats, four kidnappings, 151 burglaries, and 525 cases of stalking specifically directed at clinics, their workers, or their volunteers in the US and Canada. That’s over 6,100 cases of terrorist activity by the “pro-life” movement. And that’s just what was reported — the actual numbers are probably much higher.

This, you may say, is not conversation; it’s violence. Precisely. It’s well and good to call on “both sides to show more civility and respect as we continue to talk about the issue,” but without acknowledging that that conversation goes on against a campaign of violent intimidation directed at women who seek abortions and their providers, such a call isn’t worth the electrons it appears on.

And this is more than simply to say “but they started it!” Reconciliation is a balancing of the books, a grand leveling of the claims of opposing sides. It depends on a sense of justice, if not exact parity. As a political matter, it requires a shared determination that it is better than the alternative, which is continued conflict.

On each of these counts, a call to reconciliation – even to “common ground” – on the subject of abortion fails. It is hardly an equal struggle when one “side” of the debate is exercising rights that have been legal for nearly forty years, and calls for those rights to be respected, while the other seeks (legitimately) to overturn the law and (illegitimately) to suppress the exercise of the rights through violence. The two sides are not equal in number, and they’re hardly equal in how they have treated one another.

Even changing perspectives and accepting the extremist claim that killing abortion providers is justifiable to prevent further “murders” undermines the possibility of reconciliation. Until these believers come to perceive that it’s in their interest to forge compromise with pro-choice advocates, they’re unlikely to invest much in a reconciliation process. Given that their beliefs include the idea that 40 million babies have died in a “Holocaust” since 1973, that seems unlikely.

I, too, am all in favor of respect and civility. Lord knows it would be nice to be able to talk about abortion in a new way. But the path forward is not to call on “both sides” to speak more productively, or to make sacrifices for the good of all. “Both sides” aren’t the problem here. It’s the one side.

So let that side use respect and civility. Let them reject not just violence but the rhetoric of violence. Let them sideline and ostracize those who would condone it, even as “just desserts.” Let them say that they will respect settled law and the ability of women to make choices for themselves. It’s their turn to give something up in the interests of reconciliation, not those who have only been doing what has been legal and well-accepted for well-nigh forty years.