The following blog is excerpted from a keynote presentation titled #CultureShapers that the author gave at a Chula Vista high school in February 2019.
The internet is currently swirling with an angry vortex of posts devoted to the topic of the life and death of the unborn. As a parent and professor invested in the health and well-being of the next generation, I wanted to share a few stories, stats, and scientific applications that I hope will be helpful in dispelling some of the myths and misinformation surrounding the issue of abortion in the United States. The current social crisis is a symptom of a much larger issue that desperately demands healthy public dialogue.
As you likely know by now, on January 23, 2019, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law a bill that legalizes abortion up to the time of birth (and, in some cases, after birth). The legislation, called the Reproductive Health Act, allows not only for late-term abortion but also for non-doctors to perform the abortions for any reason, including “age, economic, social, and emotional factors,” according to the New York Right to Life Association.
Less than a month later, the Senate voted down a bill that would require doctors to provide medical care to a child who survived an attempted abortion. The Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act would have mandated that doctors would care for the surviving baby as they would any child of that “gestational age,” but according the Washington Post, the bill was voted down 53 to 44. President Trump tweeted that the position was akin to “executing babies after birth” and that the decision would be “remembered as one of the most shocking votes in the history of Congress.” After the defeat, the bill’s author asked the Senate floor a piercing question: Are we now a nation that tolerates infanticide?
In contrast to the RHA and the defeat of BASPA, a number of states have introduced dialogue surrounding the “Heartbeat Bill,” first introduced the previous year by Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, who told NPR (2018), “If death is determined when a heart stops beating, then doesn’t a beating heart indicate life?” The Heartbeat Bill has gained considerable momentum since its introduction, with 57 authors and several states backing it at the time of this writing.
Questions and accusations have ensued since the introduction of the Reproductive Health Act, with a few key issues emerging. Central to the emerging themes is the absence of recognition of personhood for the unborn. When is an unborn child considered to be human? How many lives are being affected, and how do we categorize those lives? Let’s look at the significance of the impact and the definitions on a statistical, scientific, and spiritual level.
In 2016, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill conducted a powerful study on the rate of death by abortion by ethnicity titled, “Induced Abortion, Mortality, and the Conduct of Science.” Three important findings emerged. First, abortion disproportionally destroys the lives of Black and Hispanic babies in the US. Second, and the focal point of the study, abortion is not listed as a “cause of death,” nor are the aborted recognized with a certificate of death. More on this in a moment. And third, coupled with data from the World Health Organization, the findings show that abortion is the leading cause of death over all other conditions, with 56 million abortions worldwide PER YEAR. To put this in perspective, WHO says heart disease kills about 9 million people worldwide per year, strokes kill 6 million, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease 3 million, lung cancer 1.7 million and diabetes 1.6 million.
Let’s compare those leading numbers once again: The leading killer, heart disease, takes 9 million lives per year, while abortion takes 56 million lives per year. According to the World Health Organization’s “Key Facts on Induced Abortion Worldwide,” in 2016, there were 56.9 million deaths worldwide AND there were another 56 million abortions worldwide per year. This means that of the average 112 million deaths per year worldwide, a staggering 50% of those are from abortion.
Now that we have a sense of the quantifiable impact of abortion, let’s look at the second finding mentioned in the study, the “cause of death” delineation. In the UNC report, the authors point out that there is “no credible scientific opposition to the fact that a genetically distinct human life begins at conception and that an induced abortion is a death. Yet abortion is not reported as a cause of death in the US vital statistics system.” These mortality patterns, the authors go on to say, have “profound implications for public policy.”
According to the report, IF death by abortion by ethnicity were reported as a cause of death in US vital statistics, the deaths would be categorized as follows:
64% of Hispanics die from abortion in America
61% of Blacks die from abortion in America
16% of Whites die from abortion in America
As the authors note, “As a cause of death, we found abortion to be highly consequential, with large racial and ethnic disparities.” And, I would ask, as Americans, how can we truly say we desire racial equality if we willingly turn a blind eye and a callused heart to the ethnic inequality represented in these statistics?
In fact, Bishop EW Jackson told CNS News in 2016 that he was deeply disturbed by the Center for Disease Control’s data on abortions and that in any other arena of life, that type of disparity “would be considered as proof of racism.”
Again, this idea that abortion is a “leading cause of death” has been vehemently disputed in the mainstream media, but it’s important to note that the dispute has absolutely nothing to do with the accuracy of the numbers. Rather, the argument purportedly concerns a fuzzy line of semantics. Abortion is not reported as a cause of death because the mainstream medical community does not define “personhood” until birth, and this, the UNC report summarizes, is somewhat of a lie of omission: “The science community is not appropriately engaged in this crucial public health problem…the logical and most cost-effective way to achieve that goal is to formally consider abortion as a reportable death…The exclusion of abortion as a cause of death, in spite of conclusive science to the contrary…may be the ultimate example of science denial” (italics mine).
Heather Boonstra, the director of public policy for the Guttmacher Institute, says that abortion is not listed as a cause of death because it is a “medical process,” not a departure from the realm of the living: “Abortion is a legal, constitutionally protected medical procedure in the United States. It’s not considered a cause of death by CDC, WHO, and other leading authorities.” LA journalist Bethania Palma summarizes these thoughts by noting the implication of the pseudo-political tone of the word “death”: “Stating that abortion is the leading cause of death worldwide (as opposed to a medical procedure) is a problematic pronouncement, because that stance takes a political position, one which is at odds with the scientific/medical world. The medical community does not confer personhood upon fetuses that are not viable outside the womb” (italics mine).
Thus, in short, though we do have 56 million abortions occurring worldwide every year, the lives being taken are not considered human. There is currently no conference of personhood on a child prior to birth. Let’s dust off our critical thinking skills and look more closely at that claim.
In contrast to the mainstream science definition, The American College of Pediatricians says it wholeheartedly defines life and personhood not only prior to birth but from the moment of conception:
“The ACP concurs with the body of scientific evidence that corroborates that a unique human life starts when the sperm and egg bind to each other in a process of fusion of their respective membranes and a single hybrid cell called a zygote, on one-celled embryo, is created. As physicians dedicated both scientific truth and to the Hippocratic tradition, the College values all human lives equally from the moment of conception (fertilization) until natural death. Consistent with its mission to enable all children to reach their optimal physical and emotional health and well being the College, therefore, opposes active measures that would prematurely end the life of any child at any stage of development from conception to natural death.”
This concept brings us to the definition of life and personhood. Scientifically, the basis for distinguishing the differences in cell types has two criteria: cell composition and cell behavior. These are “universally agreed upon definitions,” Dr. Maureen Condic notes in the journal Human Life International. “Human embryos from the zygote stage forward,” she says, “show uniquely integrated, organismal behavior that is unlike the behavior or mere human cells…the cells do not ‘generate’ the embryo…they are produced by the embryo as it directs its own development to more mature stages of human life. This organized, coordinated behavior of the embryo is the defining characteristic of a human organism” (italics mine).
Condic goes on to say that “the conclusion that human life begins at sperm-egg fusion is uncontested, objective, based on the universally accepted scientific method of distinguishing different cell types from each other and on ample scientific evidence (thousands of independent, peer-reviewed publications).” Moreover, she notes, “it is entirely independent of any specific ethical, moral, political, or religious view of human life or of human embryos. …a neutral examination of the evidence…unequivocally indicates that human embryos from the one-cell stage forward are indeed living individuals of the human species; i.e., human beings” (italics mine).
In both the ACP’s definition and Condic’s findings, we see a common denominator, a defining characteristic for life: the cell’s composition and behavior. From the very first cell of life, prior to any cellular multiplication, the zygote itself drives the process of growth and development.
However, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has a slightly different take. They agree that pregnancy begins at the time of conception (fertilization), but they say that pregnancy and “life” are two different terms, and they are not interchangeable. The ACOG explains that they “approach everything from a scientific perspective…but ‘life’ is something of a philosophical question.”
Herein lies the crux of the issue! The scientific community’s viewpoint has been clouded by political dogma. This is an entry point into the conversation! If indeed the scientific community is deferring to the religious and philosophical community to define life, my friends, then by all means, let’s define it accurately.
All reputable parties agree that pregnancy begins at conception, but at what point does the post-zygotic life form take on the concept of personhood? Is it pre- or post-exit?
Judeo-Christian literature is replete with examples of personhood prior to birth: In Genesis 25:21, Rebekah feels her twins, Jacob and Esau, struggling within her. She inquires of the Lord as to why they are wrestling around, and he tells her that two nations are in her womb grappling with one another. The twins wrestled in the womb for leadership, and, in fact, Jacob came out holding his brother’s heel, an action he had to begin prior to his departure from the womb. Hosea 12:3 says of Jacob, “in the womb he took his brother by the heel,” and as an adult he wrestled with God. The same characteristics of adulthood were present in the womb in an undeveloped but clearly patterned format. John the Baptist not only leapt but “leapt for joy” in his mother’s womb when he was greeted in utero by the presence of Mary, who was carrying Jesus in her womb. Luke 1:15 says that John was filled with the Holy Spirit “even from his mother’s womb.” David says in Psalm 22:10, “From my mother’s womb, you have been my God.” Psalm 58:3 says the wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth.” Isaiah 46:3 says “Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel who have been borne by me from before your birth, carried in the womb.”
In these examples, we see the concept of personhood clearly established prior to birth. From a developmental perspective, even the very first human cell of life, the zygote, contains the DNA, the blueprint design, of a human being’s entire development process through the lifespan. This concept, yet unbeknownst to him, underscores King David’s proclamation in Psalm 139 that God’s eyes saw his unformed body in his mother’s womb and that all the days ordained for him were written in God’s book before one of them came to be.
The Heartbeat Bill is a powerful starting place for dialogue, but if cell composition and behavior define personhood from the zygotic stage, then an unborn child is human from its first cell.
Does the definition of personhood matter? Does the absence of a death certificate or cataloguing in vital statistics matter? Yes. As the UNC report summarizes, “The appropriate role of science is to inform the societal dialogue with objective information…refusing to acknowledge abortion as a death undermines the role of science and the value of transparency so fundamental to a free society” (italics mine).
The definitions matter. Our words shape our worlds. When science hides behind semantics and refuses to acknowledge statistics, science impedes our understanding of the social crises that we desire to help eradicate. Information is power. The willful absence of information is manipulation of the truth.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. saw abortion as the disruptor of the dream, saying that his people cannot win if they “are willing to sacrifice the lives of his children for comfort and safety. How can the Dream survive,” he asked, “if we murder the children? Every aborted baby is like a slave in the womb of his or her mother. The mother decides the fate.” His granddaughter, Dr. Alveda King, says that “if we hear the cry of mercy from the unborn and ignore the suffering of the mothers, then we are signing our own death warrants.”
But how did we get here? How did we get to the point where 56 million abortions per year are not only performed but celebrated? How did we get to the place where 3 million teens in the US alone, according to the CDC, each year contract a sexually transmitted disease? How did we get to the point in our culture where, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10 to 34 in the US?
These social crises are symptoms of a much larger issue, an arena where we have a tremendous opportunity to speak words of life and hope to the next generation.
From aggressive sexual education curricula (see my blog on the public school’s SHEP influence) to a lack of parental discipleship, the next generation is desperately lacking in hope and guidance. The multiple partner modality has been celebrated in mainstream media in increasing measure; the vast majority of music, movies, and sitcoms celebrate the “casual sex” relationships that have become the norm for the two youngest generations.
The current crisis of abortion, STD, and suicide rates is indicative of a culture that has lost its sense of value, its personal worth, its connection to the core. The US leads the developed world in youth violence, homicide, incarcerations, abortions, teen pregnancy, self -injury. Clearly, we have some issues. Dealing only with the presenting problem, the stats, is ineffective in the long run. Instead, we have to focus on the lack of value, dignity, self-worth. We have a cultural crisis on our hands, and the 56 million annual abortions are sobering symptoms of a systematic problem.
We noted earlier that organisms are defined by their content and their behavior: what they are made of and what they do. Could the same be said of us as Christians? Yes. We are what we’re made of, what we meditate on, what we talk about – and what we do with that information.
How will we respond to the hidden hurt of America’s hypersexual crisis?
As Christians, we are called to defend the rights of the poor and needy, to speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves, as Proverbs 31 exhorts. We are also called to preach the good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, as Luke 4:18 (and Isaiah 61) remind us. This means we speak up for the unborn AND we care for the wounded, frightened mothers who don’t yet realize that the entity within their womb is a living person created in the image of a loving God. The spirit of the Lord is upon us to proclaim the good news, the gospel.
Throughout history, great men and women have responded to cultural crises by allowing a holy discontent to serve as a catalyst for behavioral change. As sociologist Anthony Giddens once remarked, Christianity is a “revolt against the ruling social order of the day.” How can we as believers act wisely into the conversation of our culture?
In the book The History of Christianity, Collins and Price write that throughout history, Christians being motivated by social ills have made significant progress, from the Salvation Army to the YMCA, even to Sunday School, which was started to address the educational needs of children who had to work 16-hour days Monday to Saturday in hideous conditions in the 1800s.
In 1879 D.L. Moody became increasingly frustrated with how isolated seminaries were from the common people, so he worked to train communicators who could carry God’s simple message to the masses who needed it. The Moody Bible Institute still bears his name as a legacy of his work.
William Wilberforce brought a bill before parliament in 1787 to end the slave trade. In 1833, one month after his death, the House of Commons voted to free the slaves and abolish slavery. Sometimes we plant the seeds and don’t see the harvest, but we must plant the seeds all the same – if not for us, for the future generations.
GI Williamson writes in the Westminster Catechism that most of modern life in society is ruled by the concept of religious neutrality, taking no stand for or against a particular religion. But Christians, he says, are “finally beginning to realize that Christ has been denied” (and, thus, the Great Commission thwarted) “under the innocent-sounding claim of neutrality or tolerance. This is why Christians must work together,” he says, “to build Christian schools to educate the next generation, to break them free of the indoctrination of neutrality.” For the believer, he says, “all spheres of life and activity must manifest open loyalty to Jesus” (p. 203).
In 100 years, what will be said of our generation’s response to the annual destruction of 56 million lives? What can we do? Where do we start?
Clearly, the hidden hurt of America’s abortion crisis is embedded in a much larger struggle. So, we begin, as Stephen Covey would have encouraged, with the end in mind. Using the gifts and talents of writing, speaking, researching, filming, singing, we must educate the next generation on their value, their inestimable worth, in the sight of God. We must share the accounts of history that remind us of both the hurt and the hope of mankind. We must teach our daughters and our sons to protect what is precious, what is holy, what is pure. We must disciple our children.
As citizens of this great nation, we must also be prepared to address the hypersexual hypocrisy flooding the airwaves: from movies to sitcoms to songs, uncommitted relationships are championed and celebrated. The heartbreak of the hookup culture has been normalized, meme-ified. Cause and effect relationships between hookups, disease, and desertion are underrepresented (IF they are represented at all) as the exception, not the norm. Mass media, peer dependency, and laissez-faire parental approaches have co-labored to birth a generation of hurting, hopeless, and increasingly isolated men and women.
For moms like me, who desperately wanted more children, only to face miscarriage and over 50 negative pregnancy tests, the concept of an unwanted child is foreign, painful. For the thousands of moms across the US waiting to adopt a baby, setting up hopeful cribs in empty nurseries year after year, the pain persists. Giving an unwanted baby up to adoption instead of sacrificing it for abortion is, of course, the better option. But let’s face it, the unwanted baby is still a symptom of a larger issue. Abortion is not the cause; it’s the effect: it’s the fruit of a hypersexual culture. Let’s start there.
And let’s not forget that behind every pregnant woman is a man who has, in one way or another, failed to take responsibility for his actions. Behind every pregnant woman is a man who should have been leading as a husband, a father, but instead has become a chronic cohabitator, a perpetual adolescent – the modern version of a deadbeat dad. Men, we are calling you to move from predator to protector.
Fellow believers, in our realms of influence, let’s speak life, hope, and truth cocooned in mercy. In our realms of influence, let’s define truth – and personhood – accurately. In our realms of influence, let’s answer the questions of the culture with the hope of the gospel. For what we tolerate today, we will embrace tomorrow.
Let this be written for a future generation, as the Psalmist said, that a people not yet created may praise his name.