As promised on Tuesday, here is the bonus post reproducing the section in The Act of Marriage which deals with abortion. It’s notable, I think, that a Christian book on sexuality deals with abortion only in the final chapter, in a question-and-answer section, rather than having either a) a chapter devoted to the subject, or b) addressing abortion in the chapter on family planning. This may seem odd to present-day readers, who are used to abortion being one of the rallying cries of the “family values” coalition. But actually, abortion did not become a major political issue for non-Catholics until the late 70s. So the way abortion is handled in The Act of Marriage is a fascinating sliver of post-Roe, pre-Operation Rescue abortion ethics for evangelicals. I’m reproducing the text here in full, with my interleaved commentary.
ABORTION: Is it ever right for a Christian woman to have an abortion?
Note immediately how the question is framed: “a Christian woman.” This phrasing pulls the question from the realm of law and politics and places it in the realm of personal, religious conscience. Since no one can be forced to be a Christian in the United States, and whatever the LaHayes say subsequently applies only to Christian women, there is no explicit coercion — no forced birth, at least in the legal sense. Obviously, a woman could be pressured and forced on a much more intimate scale by religious community, doctor, and family — but this is not being framed as a matter of law.
A crucial issue in today’s society relates to the morality of abortion. Ever since the 1973 Supreme Court ruling granted a constitutional guarantee of privacy in such matters and left the decision to the individual woman during the first six months of her pregnancy, legalized abortions have increased at a catastrophic rate. Many opponents of abortion warned that if it were made legal, it would result in promiscuity, infidelity, venereal disease, and guilt. Who can deny the accuracy of their forecast?
On the other hand, we do start out at the gate talking about Roe v. Wade. And it’s clear the LaHayes feel the decision led to general degradation. Notice what’s not listed in the results of abortion? That’s right: murder. They’re talking about sexual misbehavior, not about baby-killing. In a lot of ways, these are still the root concerns of sexual conservatives — they’ve just learned that “baby killing” is a much more effective rhetorical move. Basically, the concerns the LaHayes list here about abortion mirror the concerns they have about secular, humanistic, “un-Christian” sexual mores in general. No more, no less.
There are two kinds of abortions — natural and induced. Although medical science cannot always tell why, some women abort their pregnancies naturally, which may be nature’s way of dealing with birth defects or other prenatal complications. Induced abortions are medically simple if performed by a competent doctor in the early stages of pregnancy.
The way miscarriage and abortion are grouped together here, and the accurate observation that early-stage abortions are “medically simple” and can be performed safely by a trained physician, serve to reassure the reader, to normalize the idea of abortion. This is not a passage designed to frighten or shock.
There are two reasons for inducing an abortion: (1) when such action is necessary to save the life of the mother — called “therapeutic abortion”; and (2) for the convenience of the mother because she is either unmarried or does not want the child. In such cases those making such a decision must bear the moral responsibility for their actions.
So they’re creating two distinct categories here, and it looks as if category one (“therapeutic abortion”) is deemed “necessary” and not at moral issue here — and even the second category, abortion for “convenience” is not automatically decried.
Christians as a rule know that the Bible condemns murder; consequently, many use the sixth commandment as justification for condemning all forms of abortion. The problem is that the Bible is not clear as to when the fertilized egg becomes a person — at the moment of conception, or when the embryo develops into a fully formed human being at three to six months. If one regards the fertilized egg as just “a living cell” that has potential to become a human, it is easier to approve of some form of abortion than if he believes that the soul enters at conception.
Throughout The Act of Marriage the LaHayes are careful to differentiate between moral parameters they find support for in the Bible (homosexuality; adultery) and those which they don’t necessarily approve, but about which the Bible is silent (oral sex; birth control). They make no exception for abortion, suggesting that Biblical censure of abortion hinges on whether abortion equals murder — and notice that they leave that question open-ended!
We faced this problem initially when a mother of four who thought she could not have any more children became pregnant. Because of a rare blood condition, her doctor advised, “If you do not get an abortion, the birth of this child will take your life.” If we had relied only on the sixth commandment, our response would have resulted in murder either way — the mother or the unformed child. After much prayer we counseled the couple to follow their doctor’s recommendation.
The modern-day anti-choice movement rarely, if ever, places the pregnant woman’s life at the center of the story in this way — let alone articulate the notion that two lives may be at stake here: the pregnant woman as well as that (potential) life of an “unformed child.” The abortion debate has sidelined women’s lives in the interest of focusing on what happens inside the womb, as if it were somehow disembodied from the woman who must decide (or be forced) to carry the pregnancy to term inside herself.
I think it’s also notable that the example above is of a woman who is already a parent. Often, in the anti-choice rhetoric of today, women-who-have-abortions and women-who-give-birth-and-parent are imagined as two separate populations; in this instance, they are found (as they most often are) in the same person.
Another case involved an innocent fourteen-year-old rape victim. The crime occurred while she was coming home from school, and investigation disclosed she had never seen the man before.
Ah perfect-victim-stranger-rape, how we miss hearing about you … oh, wait.
We felt that she had been through enough trauma. Certainly a loving God would not require an innocent girl, victim of a man’s bestial appetite, to drop out of school, endure nine months of pregnancy, and inaugurate motherhood before her fifteenth birthday. We found that her pastor’s approval was very important for her mental and spiritual rehabilitation. To this day only about six people know of this tragedy, and now, some years later, she is a happy, well-adjusted wife and mother.
Again we see the melding of women-who-have-abortions and women-who-are-mothers. Yes, the approval of abortion as an option in this instance is predicated on the “stranger rapes innocent girl” trope, but these days many anti-choicers argue against exceptions for rape/incest and the life of the mother.
Still another case concerned a couple who had a retarded child and were expecting again. A chemical analysis indicated that their unborn child would also be malformed in some way. After much prayer and soul-searching, we advocated a therapeutic abortion. Admittedly, we may some day have to account to God for these decisions, but to our best understanding of the Bible and the peace we had in our hearts at the time, we have no regrets.
I find it fascinating that they hold up these decisions difficult, human decisions for which there may be no fully right answer. They may “some day have to account to God” for the way they counseled families to seek abortions, but they “have no regrets” about encouraging families to choose abortion, even when the life of the mother was not immediately at stake. Particularly in this last instance, their decision-making process included a much more comprehensive understanding of family well-being and caretaking capacity than is normally up for discussion in present-day anti-abortion circles.
Through these experiences we have developed the following opinion on the subject.
Once again, the distinction between Biblical truth and the LaHayes’ (albeit pastorally-authoritative) ethics.
We oppose abortion for all personal or selfish reasons, but accept therapeutic abortion in those rare cases in which a Christian doctor, minister, and the girl’s parents prayerfully agree that it is in the best interest of either the mother or the unborn child. If a girl or woman is immoral and becomes pregnant, she should bear the responsibility for her actions by giving birth to the child.
Slut shaming in all its glory!
If she is a minor, we recommend that a Christian couple who desires a child be found and the child be adopted immediately after birth; the man involved should pay all necessary expenses plus room and board for the girl during her pregnancy. We do not believe that a forced marriage is always a solution, for it depends on the two people’s ages and whether one is an unbeliever. We have observed that unless the couple is mature enough to marry, they start out with so many strikes against them that marriage becomes a tragic mistake following an unfortunate sin. Better that they confess their sin in God, then responsibly do what is best for the unborn child (235-237).
They don’t articulate it in so many words here, but I think it’s telling that — in the mid-1970s! — they’re still assuming that an underage teenager will be sent to an unwed mother’s home for the duration of her pregnancy (why else the need for “room and board”?). And while this is obviously far from a liberal-progressive position on teen pregnancy, I appreciate the changing mores that allowed the LaHayes to encourage their readers not to pressure teens into shotgun marriages before the baby was born, in fact suggesting that “what is best for the unborn child” may, in fact, not be a childhood spent in an unhappy household.
So there you have it: fundamentalist, evangelical Christian abortion ethics, circa 1976. If only we could make our way back to even that narrow window of opportunity!