David P. Gushee is distinguished university professor of Christian ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University and author of The Sacredness of Human Life: Why an Ancient Biblical Vision Is Key to the World’s Future.
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As I mentioned at the end of yesterday’s post, neither our political nor our moral philosophies can find anything to celebrate in the estimated 1.2 million abortions performed annually in the US.
To the contrary: there is some kind of social pathology at work here. Abortion has become a massively institutionalized response to a grave set of underlying social conditions. Recognizing this gives us the possibility of initiating a meaningful response to those factors.
Abortion is an often-desperate response to the problem of being accidentally and unhappily pregnant. About half of all pregnancies in the US are unintended.
The burden of this unhappy accident falls on women. While a man can attempt to evade the crisis of having conceived an unwanted child, a pregnant woman experiences that crisis within her own body.
We need better customs and laws enforcing male sexual and paternal responsibility. But still, the brute facts direct us to the particular life circumstances of women. We need to know what is happening in so many women’s lives, and in our culture more broadly, that leads to so many unwanted pregnancies for women. We do know a few things.
We know that far too many people are having sex outside of a context in which a resulting pregnancy can be handled without resort to abortion. Our culture lacks an ethic of sexual responsibility, and women disproportionately pay the price.
We know that far too many people who have sex are not using birth control, or not using it properly. While only abstinence is 100% effective to prevent pregnancy, birth control is better than an unwanted pregnancy. Those who are opposed to abortion need to support access to birth control and accurate information on how to use it. They have often opposed such access.
We know that over 60% of pregnant women are poor or near-poor (up to 199% of the federal poverty line). Three-fourths of surveyed women who have had abortions say their lack of financial resources contributed to their decision. Those who say they care about abortion must support rather than oppose universal access to health care and social welfare services so that no woman has to choose abortion for lack of resources.
We know from surveys that many women choose abortion because of the perceived impact of a pregnancy on their romantic and family relationships. We need safer, sturdier, healthier relationships between men and women. We need families and religious communities that support rather than ostracize pregnant women.
We know that the choice to give up a child for adoption is very difficult, and that successful domestic adoptions are hardly routine in this society. It takes enormous moral support not just to carry an initially unwanted child but then to make the wrenching decision to give it up for adoption. We need to get better at this.
What if all of us who are involved in American politics — politicians and voters — were challenged to embrace a national goal of reducing the number of abortions in this country by one-fourth (300,000 per year) during the course of the next four years?
Probably those of you who are Republicans would say that meeting this goal requires overturning current federal abortion law. Well and good. But whether it happens or not, you will be held accountable to what actually matters the most — reducing the number of abortions by getting at the very roots of the problem. Will you set that goal and do the practical things required to accomplish it?
If those of you who are Democrats were courageous enough to embrace the abortion-reduction goal over and against the vocal objections of many in your party, you would probably say that you will seek to achieve it without any change in abortion access. Well and good. You also will be held accountable for reducing the actual numbers of abortions — by whatever means.
Let both sides compete with each other to see who is right on the best means. But let them do so on the basis of a shared goal of reducing the number of abortions dramatically, a goal which fits with both our legal and our moral traditions.
Let us challenge ourselves, for the challenge belongs to all of us.
After all, it’s not talking points, not sound bites, not marches or empty rhetoric or symbolic victories, but human beings that really matter — especially the people who have the most at stake in our national conversation on abortion: lonely, poor, frightened women and the children whose lives depend on them.
Click to read David Gushee’s EerdWord post “After Newtown: Protecting the Sacredness of Human Life” or to order The Sacredness of Human Life.
An earlier version of this article was published January 16, 2012 at ABPnews.com.