by Ruth Rosell
“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” Deuteronomy 30: 19
These words are found in a narrative that records the final instructions Moses gave the Israelites before they crossed the Jordan River to enter a new land. He encouraged the people to follow God’s ways by listing the blessings for doing so – blessings of children, a fruitful earth, plenty of food, and peace. He also described in graphic detail the terrible consequences of unfaithfulness to God – disease, drought, hunger, and oppression by enemies. His urged them, “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”
During the final weeks of this election season, we too are confronted with consequential choices. Christian citizenship involves much more than voting, but voting is certainly important. Who we vote for in national, state, and local elections will determine to a significant degree our future. How might we use our vote to choose life and the blessings that come with it?
The words ‘choose life’ have often been the rallying cry of those in the ‘pro-life’ movement that opposes all abortion. I have many dear relatives and friends for whom the one defining issue that determines their vote is a candidate’s promise to enact laws or appoint judges that will more sharply restrict abortion, no matter what else that candidate does or says. But are laws and court rulings the most effective way to reduce abortion? And is abortion the only issue related to choosing life?
The complexity of the abortion issue must be acknowledged. People of faith and goodwill have different perspectives. In Kingdom Ethics, evangelical ethics professors Glenn Stassen and David Gushee called all Christians to embrace “a certain epistemological humility” (2003, p. 216) because the Bible does not deal directly with abortion, and Jesus makes no mention of it. Scripture does affirm that human life is precious and made in the image of God. There are a few passages that mention God’s creative involvement prenatally that are poetic expressions of God’s life-encompassing care and knowledge, not statements about the moral status of fetal life. Certainly, from conception there is human personhood potential, and day by day there is steady development that results in a baby after nine months. But there is also a significant difference between a lentil-sized embryo at 6 weeks and a baby that takes her first breath. Nevertheless, whatever our opinions may be, we surely can all agree on wanting to reduce the number of abortions.
Some studies indicate that the most effective way to reduce abortion may not be through legislative means but rather by ensuring that women have access to contraceptives to prevent unwanted pregnancies. In addition, medical care and sufficient income are also needed for those who get pregnant so that they can birth and care for their babies. The highest rates of abortion occur with women living in poverty who lack basic conditions for life to flourish. When interviewed, many women indicate they chose abortion because they could see no other realistic option.
Between 1982 – 2013, abortion rates in the United States dropped, but much more sharply during Democratic presidencies (when access to affordable contraceptives and medical care increased) than during Republican ones. Internationally, when U.S. presidents have enacted the Mexico City policy (which bans U.S. funding for women’s health clinics that offer abortion services along with contraceptives), the abortion rates went up 40% in the 26 sub-Sahara African countries studied. Women no longer had sufficient access to contraception. In many Latin American countries where abortion is a crime, abortion rates are high, although illegal and dangerous for women. In the United States and northern European countries with higher income and access to contraception, there are less restrictive abortion laws and significantly lower abortion rates.
We must also recognize that there are many other issues besides abortion that involve choosing life for ourselves and our descendants. Always looming is the existential threat of the climate crisis. With the increased intensity of wildfires threatening the West and hurricanes pounding the Southeast, we are given glimpses of the future that will be ours if climate change is not addressed – an increasingly uninhabitable earth. This is a pro-life issue that will determine whether the human species itself survives, and actions taken within the next few years are critical. There are solutions that can make a difference, but at this point it requires a resolute effort at all levels of government to transition to a way of living that is sustainable and will reduce greenhouse gases. Choosing life means voting for candidates that are committed and ready to lead us in scientifically based climate action.
Nuclear weapons are another existential threat to human life. Although they are not frequently in the news, in the last few years our country’s leaders have walked away from many nuclear weapon nonproliferation agreements. The result is that many countries are ramping up their nuclear arsenals, including the United States which is spending over $1 trillion. Making such foolish expenditures is choosing death, for use of these weapons would result in massive loss of life. Choosing life means voting for candidates who are committed to bolstering international agreements that decrease and finally eliminate nuclear weapons.
The reduction of gun violence is another pro-life issue. Every year in our country, over 36,000 people die of gun violence. This gun death rate is significantly higher than any other developed country. There are many proven measures that can be enacted to regulate guns that would drastically reduce death and injury. Choosing life means voting for candidates who are committed to gun regulation to stop the violence.
We are in the middle of a pandemic, in which over 218,000 Americans have died and many of the millions who have had Covid-19 suffer from painful lingering aftereffects. At the same time, there has been a steady effort by some elected leaders to undermine public health efforts and to eliminate the means by which many receive health insurance. Choosing life is voting for candidates who are committed to every person receiving good medical care and taking public health actions to keep our communities safe.
As we each thoughtfully consider the issues and the candidates in deciding the way we will vote, let us choose life. Let us use our Christian citizenship to choose candidates who respect every human life irrespective of race, nationality, skin color, immigration status, gender, or socioeconomic level. Let us choose candidates who will work for measures that will actually decrease abortions, not simply enact restrictive laws. Let us choose candidates who will lead us toward a flourishing life, where basic needs are met, medical care is available, and the threats of gun violence, nuclear catastrophe, and climate crisis are being addressed and thereby diminishing. Let us choose life, so that we and our descendants will live.
This was first published as the eighteenth in a series of opinion articles on “Beyond the Divisions: Faith and Politics 2020.”
The Rev. Ruth Lofgren Rosell, Ph.D., is the Dianne C. Shumaker Chair of Peace and Justice and the Director of the Buttry Center for Peace and Nonviolence. She teaches as Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology and Counseling and is the Director of Contextualized Learning at Central Seminary.