Why we should work to overturn abortion laws

August 28, 2018

Last week, writer Katelyn Beaty wrote an article at RNS arguing that the politics of ending abortion are less important than the politics of reducing abortion.

There is much to commend in Beaty's article. I especially appreciate her taking a whole-life approach to the abortion debate in recognizing the need to provide economic support to pregnant women. Her argument goes: Make the cost of children less burdensome, and the likelihood of abortion decreases. She writes:

In general, the anti-abortion movement should get over its aversion to federal social programs. Family-friendly public policies have a powerful effect on reducing demand for abortion services. It’s a natural extension of caring for prenatal life to create strong social support programs, particularly for economically vulnerable women, so that no one feels she has to abort to stay financially afloat.

I, for one, join Beaty's call for seeing vulnerable women cared for. This is where my economic conservatism takes a backseat to my social conservatism. If the dials of public policy can be altered to make abortion less necessary, then that is an economic program I am open to exploring.

But there's a troubling confusion lurking beneath Beaty's argument that makes me uncomfortable, and it infects much evangelical thinking on the prioritizing of public policy dilemmas. Like I said above, Beaty thinks reducing abortion is more tenable than "criminalizing" it. For one, I think this framing is wrong. As she notes, overturning Roe would pitch the issue back to the states. So, the question of criminalization, while important, is not the primary issue at stake. 

At stake is the fact that the American legal regime has in place legal mechanisms that allow the targeted extermination of a class of vulnerable people. And this is where I think Beaty's argument really goes off the rails, because it's ethically inconsistent in how we talk about other issues. If you were to replace the issue at hand with something other than abortion, it falls apart. No one talks about merely "reducing" sex trafficking, for example. People want it outlawed and criminalized. It is incoherent to say "Let's not criminalize murder; let's just make it so that people do not want to murder."

My fear is that we soft-peddle our language on abortion because we've grown accustomed to it, and so "reducing" becomes the primary talking point. But it ignores the crushing reality and injustice of abortion on demand. We should not have "reduced" Jim Crow laws—they should never have happened, and America is a better place for reversing this injustice. Laws that subjugate and dehumanize human beings need to be categorically overturned.

Relatedly, Beaty's article perpetuates a deeper confusion in evangelical public thinking. There's greater moral urgency to repeal morally unjust and codified laws than there is the priority to ameliorate social evils that exist because of social wickedness and criminal behavior. The difference between abortion and sex trafficking (both of which are wickedly abhorrent and should be ended) is that with the latter, there's no legal framework in America—at least on a federal level—making sex trafficking a positive right. There is no bad law to undo. There's simply injustice and criminal behavior needing policed. But with abortion, there is. In America, there is a positive right to terminate the life of a child. This is wicked and evil, and the fact that American law enables this grisly practice is a reproach on our country. Sex trafficking is an injustice where no justice system props it up. Abortion, on the other hand, is an injustice where the justice system does indeed prop it up, and for that reason, is of primary urgency in combatting.

Lastly, Beaty frames whole debate as an either/or, and it's not. Pursue the well-being of pregnant women. Also, work to pass laws and overturn court rulings that chip away once and for all at America's greatest moral evil—abortion. The idea that pro-life individuals are not prepared to care for pregnant women were Roe overturned is a distraction to the larger moral problem at hand. I do not know of a single church or a single Christian family that would not bend over backward to protect the dignity of both mother and child.

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew T. Walker is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center. Read More