How the Image of God Shapes our Pro-Life Passions
Do you ever stop to think about what drives you? What makes you passionate about certain things? What causes you to not give up in your pursuit to achieve? I’ve given that some thought recently. And I’m joining you to talk briefly about what motivates us to engage in the work of the pro-life movement.
So, what is it that compels us to speak for our precious preborn neighbors? What is it that causes us to be the fierce defenders of those mothers who, for so long now, have been targeted and preyed upon by the abortion industry? And what is it that places a weighty responsibility on each of us to be an advocate for these families, so much so that we are willing to plead their case before our nation’s highest officials or even the highest court in the land?
There must be something deeply meaningful that drives our passion for these things. Something that causes us to have a perseverance that endures for generations. There is. It’s a simple truth that has mighty implications. The imago Dei.
When one understands that each and every person from our preborn neighbors who were just formed in the womb to those walking at the end of their journey on this earth, each of us was knitted together in the image of God.
The reality that we have been formed by our Creator, who spoke the very universe into existence, means we are all endowed with an inherent and unchanging dignity that demands respect by our neighbors and protection by our government. So, this is what underlies our drive and gives us our unceasing commitment to see to it that our laws and the laws of all the nations of the earth recognize the full humanity of our neighbors, both born and preborn alike.
And it causes us to sacrificially give our time and resources to churches and initiatives that are dedicated to wrapping around moms and children in need so that they’ll have a brighter future, a future that has been longed and prayed for by countless Christians, just like you and me. And given that, we now understand what gives us this pro-life passion of ours, and we know the lofty goals that we want to reach.
But we need to stop for a moment and take stock of where we are now. For despite significant recent advances, ones that should rightfully be celebrated, challenges remain. And that means we need to steel ourselves for the road ahead, understanding it may take another generations-long effort by the pro-life movement to advance our cause state by state and neighborhood by neighborhood.
For this movement, though accomplished and advancing, still in many respects represents a minority position. We are reminded in almost every study that comes out, that our pro-life position is in the minority. In the days after the Dobbs Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, long a priority in our movement, Pew found that 62% of Americans disagreed with the decision and supported abortion in almost all cases.
By a margin of 2 to 1, Americans agree that abortion should be permitted in most instances. Two to one. So, it’s clear, while the truth of the imago Dei guides us, and we have secured a historic legal win, our views constitute a minority position. However, let me give you a number that is even smaller. Four percent. Four percent of women who received an abortion said that the reason was not because they didn’t want the child.
That number is still much larger than the 0% we would hope for, but it is an incredibly small percentage. So, what about the other 96% of women? What do they give as their reasons for seeking an abortion? Forty percent of those women said that they were not financially prepared or that they wanted to provide a better life for their baby than they were currently able to do. And almost a third said that they needed to focus and provide for their other children or that they had situations and relationships with their partner which made having a child problematic, economic insecurity, family and relationship dynamics, and in almost every case, a recognition that they did not want to give up their baby but felt they had no other choice.
Now, why bring this up in the wake of the overturning of Roe? Doesn’t this mean that the pro-life movement has achieved its goal? That case that we’ve long sought to overrule? In one way, yes. The downfall of Roe was a monumental win for the pro-life movement and pro-life Christians and advocates who have worked tirelessly for 50 years and in some cases even longer when you consider those who were fighting to stop the advance of abortion even before Roe was even a case. It is an acknowledgment from our nation’s highest court that there is not a constitutional right to take the life of the most vulnerable. This is a victory that should be celebrated and acknowledged for the epic-making moment that it is.
However, the end of Roe is not the only goal of the pro-life movement. There was a pro-life movement, as I just mentioned, before Roe. And those workers advocated for policies to protect women and limit the desire for abortion. For these early pro-lifers, abortion was a symptom of a much larger problem in society, namely the devaluing of life, which must be met at every turn.
They committed themselves to tirelessly working to see what was later described as a culture of death stopped in its tracks. Their work was one that was generational in scope. At several points, none more so than what they received the ruling in Roe, these early pro-life advocates faced the reality that it may not be in their lifetime that they would see culture turned from its awful trajectory back to one of life.
Still, like we read in Hebrews, they worked faithfully seeking a city and a land which they did not know, and in many ways following the historic Dobbs decision, this parallels the moment we face now, though for different reasons. Whereas before, these activists may have felt discouragement in the face of so much work, we face the possibility that we may rest easy, thinking that our work is done. It can be tempting to think the pro-life movement has accomplished what it set out to do. Roe is no more, and yet abortion remains. But again, the pro-life movement was not and is not just concerned with the overturning of Roe.
Those early pro-lifers were pushing back against a culture of death, and our job now is to establish a true culture of life. And just like our forerunners, this will be a generational project which will require the same kind of effort and dedication that have long been the hallmarks of the pro-life movement, but it will require new strategies as we adapt to this next chapter of the pro-life struggle.
Looking ahead will require us to commit ourselves, like those who came before us, to the hard task of sowing seeds for orchards we may never get to reap at the harvest. It will require us to have a perspective that is bounded by eternity, rooted in God Himself, and not the wins or losses that come with the moment.
Instead, we must know who we are if we are to adequately prepare to meet the challenges ahead. And we can say without a doubt, that the pro-life movement is a movement committed to caring for our defenseless preborn neighbors and serving mothers and families. To read the news or hear some talk about it, the pro-life movement is only about the end of Roe, which they say is really about controlling women. And yet the pro-life movement has been and will always be fundamentally about the care and justice for the vulnerable.
That means we are committed to the flourishing of both mother and child. Those who oppose our efforts and profit from the deaths of preborn children say this isn’t the case. Planned Parenthood, for example, touts itself as an organization dedicated to helping provide medical services and support to women who they say have no other option.
They claim to be about empowering women, but we know the truth. How do we know this? Because of Planned Parenthood’s own records. At present, they operate almost 600 centers across the country where they offered over 350,000 abortions in 2019 and received some $600 million in government funding. If we compare that to the pro-life movement’s response to Planned Parenthood, which is chiefly the Pregnancy Resource Center (PRC), there are some 2,700 PRCs spread across the country.
Those clinics are often operating on shoestring budgets, dependent on volunteers, and yet are committed to this work. There are places across the country where women can find help and care. Essentially, there are four PRCs for every Planned Parenthood in our nation. So, there is no basis for the claim that the pro-life movement has been about something other than serving women.
In the face of a tragedy of societal proportions, PRCs and their volunteers have invested their money, time, and talents into serving others and meeting needs. They set before themselves the task of telling the men and women they meet a story of hope, community, and God’s provision, even in the face of those very difficult realities that 96% of women have for thinking that abortion is their only option.
In many ways, these clinics are the best representative of where the pro-life movement is headed for the future. PRCs are embedded in their local communities, familiar with its unique challenges and resources, and able to respond to immediate needs. While the public may think of the pro-life movement as legislators on Capitol Hill or lawyers arguing in a courtroom, it is truly found in the rural communities and urban centers where daily, men and women are being served by people from their own community who know them.
And that local contextual, community-driven nature of the pro-life movement is the way forward. The results of Dobbs were not that abortion was outlawed or that every life is now protected. In fact, in the wake of Dobbs, some states have moved to quickly enshrine abortion measures that are even more permissive than they were under Roe.
Moving forward, it will look like 50 different struggles to advance a true culture of life. This means that how you participate in the pro-life movement will depend in many ways on where you live. If you’re a pastor in California, then your advocacy will likely look different than if you are a local clinic director in Alabama.
As of January 2023, 12 states have completely banned abortion, except in limited instances, and two others have bans that make it almost impossible to receive an abortion. On the other end of the spectrum, 16 states have put in place protections for abortion access. So that leaves 22 states with varying degrees of restrictions or permissions in the middle.
This is not the same landscape that we were working under even a year ago. That means that as you are thinking about how to engage, it is incredibly important to know what the laws are in your state, and what they mean because they’re changing quickly. It also means that one single strategy is not going to be sufficient.
What works in Mississippi is probably not going to work in Michigan. For advocates in those states that have more permissive abortion laws, this will require wisdom, creativity, and perseverance about how to move forward. And even as we work toward a day when abortion is banned completely, and every life is recognized as inherently worthy, you may have to draw encouragement from small, incremental steps that save some lives.
The goal is always going to be the eradication of abortion and that culture which tells women that ending a preborn life is necessary in order to have a fulfilling life of her own. But in the meantime, we must save as many lives as we can. This may look like supporting 15 or 20-week abortion bans, born-alive protections, or even simple measures such as those that place restrictions on abortion providers.
In all of this, we must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good and the possible. And at the same time, there may be ways in which local municipalities can act to protect life. For instance, there is a movement of cities and counties across the country who have decided to clearly state their opposition to abortion, declaring themselves to be a safe-haven for the preborn. Measures such as these are representative of the fact that even in states where abortion is permitted and sanctioned, there are still unique ways for individuals to work to protect life. In many ways, these local ordinances and resolutions are drawn from the very same inspiration as our PRCs.
Both are grounded in local communities and spring up not from some top-down structure, but rather the activism and dedication of individuals at the grassroots. For those who live in states that have already restricted and eliminated abortion, advocacy will look different. For example, people who live in a state like I do, like Tennessee, it is important for us to remember that just because abortion is outlawed, does not mean that there is not a demand for it.
It is good and right for us to work to legally end abortion, but we must not stop there. Abortion is not just a problem solely solved by laws. It is good and proper to secure laws that protect the preborn, but once those are secured, we must look into the drivers of abortion.
Consider these facts about who receives an abortion. Fifty-nine percent of women who receive an abortion are already mothers. Forty-nine percent are below the poverty line, and 86% are unmarried. The problems that many of these women and families face are daunting, and they will require a massive response. Thankfully, this is what many organizations, such as where I serve at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, our partners like Stand For Life, and numerous clinics across the country are already working on and addressing.
This means that the pro-life movement may need to pursue policies that help to address things like reimagining the use of child credits, allowing tax deductions for preborn dependents, or developing policies that reward families, not penalize them. It means ensuring that we are a culture that values motherhood and does not pit a mother’s ability to hold a job and provide for her family against her ability to be pregnant.
One of the most insidious responses to the Dobbs decision was the corporations who stated that they would provide funding for their employees to travel to states to obtain an abortion, something we call, “abortion tourism.” Think about why they would do that. Fundamentally, it’s because it is cheaper for those corporations to provide funds for travel and an abortion procedure than to implement policies that make it possible for women to have maternity leave and flourish with their families.
Like Planned Parenthood, which speaks of providing health care while they deal in death, these corporations have chosen profits over support and human flourishing, all while wrapping themselves in a cloak of justice and equality. The same culture of death that treats infants as disposable also treats men and women as only useful for the bottom line and for profits, not human beings with inherent dignity and worth.
Responding to these issues will require adaptation and a multi-pronged strategy that is embedded and enfleshed in local communities. And this, again, is where it can be helpful to look back to those early pre-Roe advocates. They were community activists and local organizers. They did not know all the ins and outs of abortion policy or of legislation, though many became experts. What they knew were their communities and the people close to them. They responded and mobilized to support specific needs around them, and only then began working towards larger national goals.
I began with the troubling statistic that the pro-life position is a minority position. When asked about whether abortion should be illegal, by nearly two to one margins, people think it should be permitted in some form. And yet, that’s not the end of the story.
When you dig a little deeper, as researchers at Notre Dame did, and move beyond just asking about whether abortion should be permitted, but to the question of what people actually believe, they found that no one actually thinks of abortion as a societal good.
While there are people who think it should be permitted, or that because of unfortunate circumstances it may be necessary, no one interviewed described it as a good in and of itself. For many, abortion is just a method of achieving something else. And in that, we can take some comfort because it means that we can offer a different path, a different set of options, and show the women who are abortion-vulnerable that they are not trapped and that they do not need to make such a destructive decision in response to their difficult circumstances.
It will require us to adapt. And to think about those systemic drivers that I mentioned, it will require us to work in our own communities, and it will require us to know the people around us and their challenges. But in this, we have a model from Scripture already.
When sent to exile, the Israelites were told to seek the welfare of the city in which they were placed. In its peace, they would find flourishing. Just as they were to build houses and plant gardens, we too must deeply embed ourselves in our local contexts and care about the people around us. We must take the mentality that our pro-life clinics have embodied and carry it even further so that no person who is vulnerable thinks of themselves as trapped.
That is our new frontier. And like the last generation, it is one that we must meet with all of our effort and perseverance because we know that though our beliefs may not be popular, we speak on behalf of those who have no voice and must continue to seek the day when justice and mercy roll down like a never flowing river and each person is recognized as inherently worthy because they are made in the image of God.