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Strategy, Theology, and Saving Unborn Lives: A Response to Roberto Rivera

Editor's note:
Editor's note: Erik Clary gives an Evangelical response to Roberto Rivera’s The Depressing Problem With Pro-Life 2.0, published last week. A list of the other responses appears at the end.

Criticized for their failure to carry the water of Catholic teaching on contraception and IVF, and for their purported neglect of social justice manifest in a rejection of New Deal-style interventions, Evangelicals laboring alongside Catholics in pro-life coalitions may, after reading through Roberto Rivera’s The Depressing Problem with Pro-Life 2.0, be tempted to just pick up their marbles and go home. I suggest we stay put and simply take Rivera’s discharge of “friendly fire” as an opportunity to reflect upon the pro-life movement. Doing so, we shall find reason to temper the depression without lessening the resolve to keep pressing the cause.

Given the sheer magnitude of the abortion problem, Rivera is not without cause for angst in considering the issue. Unleashed in 1973 by the tandem Supreme Court decisions of Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, abortion on demand has claimed more lives than the Holocaust, Stalin’s purges, Pol Pot’s class warfare, and the “ethnic cleansings” of Bosnia and Rwanda—all combined. Tragically, the running total post-Roe/Doe now approximates sixty million dead. That is more individuals than reside in our most populous state (California), and more than live in most countries of the world.

Every year since Roe/Doe, elective abortion has claimed more lives than our country lost to fighting in World Wars I and II, Korea, and Vietnam, combined. Neither heart disease nor cancer—today’s “big killers”—takes more lives. Indeed, often by a ratio of near 2:1, abortion consistently trumps the former as the leading cause of death. (If you are looking for that fact in the CDC’s annual summaries of U.S. death data, you won’t find it. Death by abortion is completely ignored in those reports and so proceeds the persistent but false narrative of heart disease as the #1 killer.)

Making a Difference

Truly, a deep, national lament is in order. All is not lost, however, for pro-life advocacy is reducing the number of aborted children. Folks working long in crisis pregnancy centers and other ministries engaging at-risk mothers directly already know this, as they have seen counselees initially inclined to abortion choose life instead. Though controversial in some respects, the statistical data seem to bear the point as well.

According to research conducted by the abortion-friendly Guttmacher Institute, the number of abortions performed yearly post-Roe/Doe peaked at 1.61 million in 1990 after fluctuating for a decade above 1.55 million. During that span, the rate of abortion consistently exceeded 25 per 1,000 women of reproductive age (15–44 years) and topped out at 29.3. Beginning in 1991, however, a downward trend began, leading to a low at study’s end (2011) of 1.06 million abortions (rate of 16.9). The trend appears to be continuing as the Associated Press recently reported for the period 2010–2014 a 12% drop in the number of abortions performed nationwide.

Reflecting on the downward trend, abortion advocates routinely cite expanded sex-ed programs and more effective contraceptives. As evidence, some point to a few states in the northeast with decreasing abortion numbers but, contra the general movement nationwide, no new regulations. As an alternative explanation, it may be in those states that pro-life advocacy is simply succeeding on other fronts while the legislative option is closed for business.

Indeed, pro-life supporters are convinced that the dropping numbers partly indicate success in personal ministrations to pregnant women and a public truth-telling campaign emphasizing the humanity of the unborn child. Among them is the National Right to Life Committee, which concluded on its review of the Guttmacher data, “This is an indicator that real changes in attitudes and behaviors are involved, as a higher proportion of pregnant women are choosing life, rather than death, for their babies.”

Soul Care, Truth-telling, and Social Ministry

On many levels, facilitating a change in attitudes and behaviors that lead to life-affirming choices is much to be preferred over a “strong arm” approach that simply denies access to abortion. Soul care, truth-telling, and social ministry may help to change some hearts and minds, but others will bend only to the force of law, and Rivera knows it.

Pro-life advocacy, he rightly observes, “is not only a question of morals and culture, it’s also a question of politics and economics.” Going further, he insists the effort truly needs to recover the Catholic emphasis on “openness to fertility” that places both contraception and IVF out of bounds. That proposal, he understands, will gain little traction within the coalition as currently constituted, and so he resigns to wax “nostalgic” for “Pro-Life 1.0.”

Now, thoughtful Evangelicals committed to the pro-life cause do not deny a connection between sex unhinged from procreative purpose and abortion. Neither are they unaware or unconcerned over the manner in which IVF has facilitated a “shop of horrors” in fertility clinics and research laboratories across the globe. Neither have they shunned discussion of these issues—in textbooks, conference proceedings, class teaching, counseling sessions, and, increasingly, church meetings, these issues are being considered. Generally concluding, however, that there is insufficient biblical warrant for viewing IVF and contraception as inherently immoral, they have labored to discern proper limits for these technologies rather than reject them outright.

Finally, recognizing the current pro-life advocacy as a broad-based political movement, any expectation of theological uniformity is surely misguided, and so also any presumption that participation in its work entails religious compromise. To be sure, Rivera’s lament reflects substantive theological convictions, but it also presents a commentary on strategy for combating abortion, and received in that light, it should offend none within the camp.

And who has time to be offended? However convinced some may be that societal attitudes about abortion are changing for the better, no one in the pro-life movement truly thinks we’ve come anywhere close to the final destination. The throng engaging the services of abortionists nationwide may be diminishing, but with still close to one million lives being lost each year, now is no time to lessen our resolve or to lose focus. If you find Rivera’s depression, well, depressing, don’t dwell on it too long.

Erik Clary is a  Christian bioethicist with MDiv and PhD degrees from  Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Presently, he serves as a Research Fellow at the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture in Wake Forest, NC. Before pursuing theological studies, Erik was a medical researcher at Duke University Medical Center.

Other Articles in This Series

Roberto Rivera’s The Depressing Problem with Pro-Life 2.0

Joe Carter’s How Evangelicals Saved the Pro-Life Movement

Matthew Wright’s Evangelicals and the Run to First Principles

Mark Liederbach’s No Reason to Be Depressed About Pro-Life 2.0


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  • You talk more about this than the 6 million refugees who are suffering .