Every year, on the third Sunday of January, churches around the United States recognize Sanctity of Human Life Day. The day is scheduled to coincide with the January 22nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. Worship services are devoted to teaching the doctrine of imago Dei, promoting pro-life organizations, and raising funds to continue the fight.
In many ways, this organized celebration of human life is a relatively recent addition to the church calendar. While Christians have always advocated for human rights, US Christians were not always so adamant that abortion fell into that category. In fact, in 1971, the largest US Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, passed a resolution that supported abortion in cases of “rape, incest, clear evidence severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” When SCOTUS ruled that abortion was constitutionally protected, an op-ed in The Baptist Press hailed it as a victory for privacy and individual rights.
The task for us, much like it was for abolitionists and early pro-lifers, is to find ways to reveal the humanity of our fellow image bearers.And yet, forty years later, evangelicals are the staunchest opponents of legalized abortion. So what happened? How did the evangelical church come to understand abortion as a question of human rights? Among other things, the pro-life movement convinced the Church that the child growing within the womb was a human being.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of how evangelical opinion changed is that the pro-life movement did not simply argue from theological or statistical categories. Although these were part of a larger strategy, success came by highlighting the more intimate aspects of abortion, by shifting it from the theoretical to the personal.
Pro-life films revealed the grizzly nature of abortion with images of aborted fetuses that were all too obviously human. Language shifted from fetus to “baby” and “unborn child.” Christian writers told stories supporting the sanctity of life, sometimes using abortion as a central plot point. In the late 1980s, Frank Peretti, widely known for his supernatural thrillers, penned Tilly, a novella about a mother who meets her aborted daughter in heaven. Those who regretted their abortions came forward with stories of loss and healing. And those who’d lived through abortion, like Gianna Jessen, toured churches and rallies, not simply as pro-life advocates but as physical reminders of the potential of life in the womb.
But of all the ways the pro-life movement argued for the personhood of the unborn, none was more effective than the use of ultrasound imagery. As technology developed, pictures from inside the womb seemed to confirm that what pro-lifers were contending—that an unborn baby is as human as I am. So effective was this technology that pro-life legislators worked to obtain federal funding for ultrasound machines and passed laws requiring that women view an image of her unborn child as a way of promoting “informed choice.” So effective was it that pro-abortion advocates have lobbied against such laws as a form of emotional manipulation. In Safe, Legal and Unavailable?, Melody Rose writes that “developments in imaging techniques have facilitated a reliance on powerful pictures that humanize the fetus in a way not possible two decades earlier.”
Interestingly the twentieth-century pro-life movement’s reliance on images and stories mirrors the approach of nineteenth-century abolitionists. Underneath the political debates about free and slave states, abolitionists cultivated a vibrant conversation about the humanity of African slaves, encapsulating it in the question “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” Abolitionist literature focused on stories of suffering humanity: forced servitude, physical abuse, sexual oppression, and children sold away from parents. Abolitionists also utilized first-person narratives of those who had escaped slavery, among them Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The goal of such literature was not merely to shock but to prompt readers to identify with the suffering of a fellow human being. Commenting on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Frederick Douglass wrote that “[t]he word of Mrs. Stowe is addressed to the soul of universal humanity.”
Images and stories moved the question of slavery (and abortion) beyond a political issue to be argued in the halls of Washington and around dinner tables to a human one. And given the very question at stake—whether a fetus or a slave can expect the same treatment that we enjoy—one could argue that no other form of argumentation would have been as effective. If form follows function, using pictures and stories to reveal the humanity of the oppressed is not only good rhetoric; it is the best kind.
Last month, when a Staten Island Grand Jury refused to indict the officers involved in the death of Eric Garner, a picture circulated on social media. It was not a picture of Garner lying on the ground surrounded by police officers. It was a picture of a smiling father, surrounded by his children. It was a picture that revealed the humanity of Eric Garner.
Few would argue that the United States is not still deeply divided by race, but the events of the last few months have also revealed how deeply the American Church continues to be—even among those who celebrate Sanctity of Human Life Day. It seems that while we have learned to apply the doctrine of imago Dei to the unborn, we have not yet learned to see each other, once born, as entirely human.
In many ways, our current dilemma is the result of a complicated history. Historians suggest that part of the reason some evangelicals initially supported Roe v. Wade was because another controversy had captured their attention. During the same years that US courts were wrestling with the question of abortion, they were also entertaining the question of whether the government could regulate private schools, including whether or not a private school could practice racial segregation. (Adam Laats offers a more thorough analysis of the rise of the Christian school movement in his essay “Christian Day Schools and the Transformation of Conservative Evangelical Protestant Educational Activism, 1962-1990.”) So when Justice Blackmun, writing for the majority, positioned abortion as a question of privacy and individual liberty, Roe v. Wade was seen as a victory for those eager to keep the government out of private schools—including those eager to use private schools as a form of segregation.
Whether intentional or not, such private schools inevitably erected another barrier to African-Americans and whites integrating within the church—a segregation that has also been the greatest barrier to racial healing because it has kept us from knowing each other in detail, from knowing each other a people. But if the success of the pro-life movement suggests anything, it is that it is possible to learn to see someone else as human. It is possible for those who were once ambivalent to the suffering of the oppressed to be changed.
Every year during the third week of January, a strange thing happens. On Sunday, churches celebrate Sanctity of Human Life Day, recognizing the lives lost to abortion. The very next day, the American citizenry celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day, recognizing the slain Civil Rights leader who advocated for the sanctity of African-American life. In 2009, this week also included the inauguration of the first African-American President of the United States, who just happened to be strongly pro-abortion.
As distant as the issues of race and abortion appear on the political spectrum, at root, both ask the question of what it means to be made in God’s image. In many ways, evangelicals are still trying to learn the answer. The task for us, much like it was for abolitionists and early pro-lifers, is to find ways to reveal the humanity of our fellow image bearers. This will require artists and storytellers, photographers and playwrights. It will require the courage to share our stories in order to reveal those things that, to quote Douglass, are common to “the soul of universal humanity.” But more than anything, it will require the courage to hear these stories. We must open our minds to read, our ears to hear, and our eyes to see the smiling faces of those who, despite the flaws that each of us possess, do not deserve to die.