Thirty years ago, Bill Clinton stated that “Abortion should be safe, legal, and rare.” The issue of its legality is still up in the air, but abortion has never been safe – especially for the developing fetus – and no one in our day can call it rare.
The Guttmacher Institute reported that in 2020 the percentage of pregnancies ending in abortion jumped to almost one in five. So, when Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici, who belongs to Mr. Clinton’s party, intones, “We must, we absolutely must, protect the right to safe, legal abortion,” it’s worth noting that the word “rare” has been dropped from the mantra.
Many of us think that abortion should be rare. In the few cases where the mother’s life can only be saved by aborting the fetus – a situation former Attorney General C. Everett Koop stated he had never seen – then, yes, save the mother’s life by all means. But how to fulfill Bill Clinton’s vision of making abortion rare is complicated.
One way, of course, is to outlaw it. The year before the Roe v. Wade ruling, the abortion rate was 23 percent lower than the year after. But cutting abortions by a quarter will not make it rare. Using current CDC estimates, that would still mean nearly 700,000 abortions annually in the U.S. So, while I support laws to protect the human being in utero, it is clear that more will need to be done – much more.
To understand why this is so, we must learn to see abortion as one thread in a dense fabric that is woven from attitudes and beliefs regarding the nature of the good life. People like Representative Bonamici think that abortion must be safe, legal, and readily available not because they are bad people, as abortion opponents sometimes claim, but because of what they believe—their worldview.
One of the threads that make up the dense fabric of beliefs into which abortion is woven is people’s understanding of sex – it’s place and purpose in human life. Society’s views of sex have varied in different eras, from Chaucer’s late medieval bawdy to Victorian prudishness to the sexual freedom movement of the late 20th century.
Some people view sex as a personal right (think of the women’s liberation movement of the sixties and seventies). Others see it as an amusement or a stress-relieving diversion (today’s hook-up culture). But there are also those who regard sex as God’s good and purposeful gift to humanity for expressing love and commitment, experiencing pleasure, affirmation, and acceptance, and generating new human life within a stable environment of love.
Those who hold this latter view, which is the Christian view (too) briefly stated, will think that abortion should be exceedingly rare. Those who hold the former views will not. Which view we hold will depend on our personal/spiritual formation. Everyone is formed through a learning relationship with teachers. Whether their teacher is Jesus or popular culture will make a tremendous difference.
Another thread in that worldview fabric is a person’s view of what constitutes success. If success is what our culture pictures it to be – a fine house, new car, plenty of time off, social influence, and endless options to pursue – bringing children into the world will at best be deemed an inconvenience and at worst a disaster. Those who buy into society’s version of success will consider abortion a necessary evil. Once again, this is the result of how we are formed.
Yet another thread in the fabric that holds abortion in place is the belief that reputation trumps behavior. Young professionals fear the mockery of their friends. Teenagers think it better to abort their child than abort their reputation—or the reputation of their parents. One’s regard for reputation is also the product of spiritual formation.
Passing laws to protect human beings still in utero is wise and humane, but we who consider abortion inhumane must not limit our efforts to the ballot box, which will not by itself make abortions rare. For that to happen, there must be a revolutionary change of mind and heart, which can only happen through investment in others, particularly investment in their spiritual formation.