Abortion, Miscarriage, and the Question of When Life Begins

May 21, 2019
The first time that I heard Matthew West’s song “Unplanned,” it tore my heart in two.

Part of me wanted to leap for joy. Finally, someone in contemporary Christian music had spoken eloquently and powerfully in favor of unpopular truth. Someone had the clarity of mind to know what is right and the courage of heart to say it.

On the other hand, part of me fell over a cliff of despair. Even if you agree with these words—and I do, with every fiber of my being—think about how they might sound to someone who has lost a child to miscarriage (or even to stillbirth).

“Every life deserves a voice
Every child deserves a chance
You are more than just a choice
There’s no such thing as unplanned”

Can you hear a mother’s anguished cry, “Where is my child’s chance?” Can you see a father’s bitter tears, wondering where God’s plan went wrong?

An Uncomfortable Tension

Evangelical Christians have been leading the way in the fight against abortion on demand for at least two generations. Their foundational assumption, and their rallying cry, has been that life begins at conception. There have been, of course, dissenting voices; some might argue for implantation as the beginning of life, while others might argue for a milestone that is slightly later in the pregnancy. Nevertheless, the generally accepted premise among evangelicals is that an unborn child is emphatically not the property of the woman in whom the child resides. It is a fully human entity, and no argument based on the child’s lack of development can justify taking away the child’s dignity and rights.

But this view creates complications—at least for those of us who take it seriously—when a miscarriage occurs. From the beginning of our own journey into the dark and lonely world of miscarriage, my wife and I have had the sacred honor of listening to the stories of people who have lost children, both before and after birth. Many of us have a similar experience. On the one hand, our loss is severe—many times, the most severe loss that we have experienced. On the other hand, we feel uncomfortable talking about, or even thinking about, our loss as if it were the same thing as losing a child at a later stage in life. The last thing that we want to do is to be insensitive towards the couple who lost a six month old or a six year old.

And yet, for us, losing our two children was like, well, losing two children. There are some biological factors that make a miscarriage more bearable, especially when it happens early on in the pregnancy (as our second miscarriage did). And yet, if life begins at conception, then it seems wholly appropriate to us to think of our loss in terms of losing a real, fully human child. And we do not think that we, or anyone else, should have to apologize for grieving such a loss.

Doubling Down

Given what we have experienced, I guess I should not be surprised that, at least for my wife and I, the tragedy of miscarriage has only deepened and intensified our antipathy for abortion. What used to be an intellectual commitment informed by a keen awareness of history has become a visceral reaction fueled by a keen awareness of a parent’s sacred responsibility. Because there is so much emotion involved, we feel a burden to address the issue as infrequently as possible, so as not to bulldoze those who have not had the same experiences that we have. Nevertheless, the commitments that we have always held are still there, and they are given new urgency and clarity by the intensity of our grief.

This interaction of conviction and experience can have effects that are profound and unanticipated. For example, social scientists sometimes present out-of-wedlock births as a measure of social dysfunction, and it is not hard to understand why. Nevertheless, the practice has always made me a little uncomfortable, since it feels like it is the woman who is always getting the blame. (Yes, I know that many social scientists are quite careful to insist that this is not what they are doing, but it still feels that way to me a lot.) But now that since of discomfort has been heightened significantly. Do our conversations about out-of-wedlock births imply that it would be better if those children were never born? Women and men are responsible for their sexual behavior, but do even subtle acts of shame encourage people to take the easy way out and terminate an unplanned pregnancy? Do the children of unplanned pregnancies suffer needless social sigma because of the circumstances of their birth? These are questions that I think about a lot these days, and they are questions that I think we in the church ought to think about more often and with more care.

All of that is simply to illustrate the point that I have already made. I do not know how other people’s experience of miscarriage has informed their views on abortion. I can only speak for myself (and, with her permission, for my wife). For us, experiencing the loss of two children in this way did nothing to undermine our conviction that a child is a child, no matter where they are in their development. Rather, it strengthened that conviction. We will not surrender our commitment to the true humanity of the unborn in order to assuage our grief. Rather, we will look our grief full in the face, knowing that death will not have the last word. After all, “death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54).

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