Odd Comments by Michigan Football Coach Reveal Who Anti-Abortion Christians Think They’re Defending

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This past Sunday, at a “Right to Life dinner and auction” in a Detroit suburb, University of Michigan head football coach and keynote speaker Jim Harbaugh told his audience that women must have the courage to let the unborn be born.”

This odd phrase, which is getting attention on Twitter and elsewhere, is worth unpacking, and not just for the incredible hubris of Harbaugh essentially telling women and those who can get pregnant that they should really just “man up” about the whole thing—despite the obvious fact that Harbaugh himself can’t get pregnant. But his words are also interesting for what they reveal about just who, exactly, many on the Christian Right (both Catholic and Protestant) think they’re defending when they oppose abortion.

As he led up to his plea for “courage,” Harbaugh also said “In God’s plan, each unborn human truly has a future filled with potential, talent, dreams and love. . . I have living proof in my family, my children, and the many thousands that I’ve coached that the unborn are amazing gifts from God to make this world a better place.” Harbaugh seems to be referring here not only or even primarily to actual human embryos and fetuses, but about a fantasy group of tiny humans, “the unborn” people who have yet to be conceived. 

Perhaps recognizing the quasi-religious fantasy at play here can help us understand the current state of forced birth legislation, which no longer even pretends to care about the life of the actual person who must give birth. Last weekend, to name just one example, the Idaho Republican party voted against adopting an amendment that would have allowed abortion exceptions to save the life of the mother. If the battle is between who matters more, the embryo or its host, a full-grown human person (or at least a ten-year-old), that’s one ethical conversation. 

But what if for Harbaugh and others it isn’t only about developing embryos and fetuses, but a whole class of people“the unborn”who are out there somewhere waiting on the sidelines just hoping for their chance to suit up and get in the game? As Harbaugh sees it, these “amazing gifts from God” just want to “make the world a better place.” And all it takes to give them this chance is a little courage. 

Not surprisingly, Harbaugh went on to quote from the book of the prophet Jeremiah, a text which dates back to the sixth century BCE, and whose purpose is to explain the ancient Israelites’ captivity in Babylon as punishment from God for straying from the law and worshiping false gods. Jeremiah 1:5, which reads “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you,” is the hands-down favorite verse of anti-abortion Christians looking for scriptural support for their position. 

(Let’s leave aside for the moment that this verse is part of what’s known as the “Call of Jeremiah” and demonstrates only that Jeremiah was chosen by God for his special prophetic office, not that all of us regular human beings were similarly known and chosen.) 

Regarding Harbaugh’s plea on behalf of the pre-conceived unborn, we should notice that Jeremiah 1:5 reads “before I formed you in the womb I knew you” not “while you were growing in the womb I knew you.” In other words, God isn’t referring to Jeremiah’s mother’s pregnancy but to a mythical time before his conception when Jeremiah apparently already existed, at least in the mind of God. We should be open to the fact that Harbaugh and others on the Christian Right who refer to this passage when discussing abortion may actually be serious about their reading of it and referring to the right of pre-conceived humans to exist.

Harbaugh himself is a practicing Catholic and the father of seven children. According to his Wikipedia page, he has three children from his first marriage, which ended in divorce in 2006, and four from his current second marriage. If there is a group of unborn, as-yet-unconceived children out there, as Harbaugh seems to imply, then it would be the duty of every man to help bring to earth as many as possible of these people who have so much “potential, talent, dreams, and love” to share with the world. All men would need, then, are some women with enough “courage” to help them get the job done. 

And if these unborn are out there somewhere and just really need a break, then it becomes the duty of every woman to bring as many of these hopeful little souls into the world as possible. Is it fair to stop at one or two children when there are so many unborn children out there wanting to be born?

Perhaps this concern for the rights of pre-conceived humans is why losing the right to contraception may be next. The way things are going, we certainly won’t have to wait long to find out.