Tuesday night was another blow to the pro-life movement as Ohio voted overwhelmingly to enshrine the right to abortion into its constitution.
This was the seventh win out of seven such referenda, including in many conservative-leaning states. In Virginia, where Governor Glenn Youngkin promised to sign a 15-week limit on abortions, pro-life Republicans both failed to flip the Senate and also lost the House, largely on the strength of consistent pro-abortion messaging by Democrats. And in Kentucky, Daniel Cameron lost to incumbent Governor Andy Beshear, who attacked Cameron for his pro-life positions.
There’s no way to sugarcoat these results. It appears that a year after the overturn of Roe v. Wade, the pro-life cause is still on the defensive. Arguably, we weren’t prepared to make the case for life as we were to make the case against Roe. In at least 14 states, abortion is completely outlawed. In two states, abortion is outlawed after six weeks, and in another two states, it’s outlawed when there’s a heartbeat. There’s a strong indication these laws have made a difference. One study shows that in the two months following the Dobbs decision, there were 5,000 fewer abortions, and in the states where abortion was outlawed, there was a 95 percent reduction.
This is encouraging, but the recent electoral losses show we have much more work to do. The half-century of work by pro-life activists that resulted in the Dobbs decisions must be met with an equal commitment to building a culture of life over the next 50 years. What might building a culture of life look like? Here are a few things for those who engage in the pro-life cause to consider going forward.
1. We must reaffirm our commitment to the cause of unborn life.
Evangelicals are often tempted to nuance away the gravity of abortion, but we mustn’t waver. Too often we speak with a thousand caveats, or we’re hesitant to speak out for fear of being unpopular. It’s possible to be both civil and bold (1 Pet. 3:15–16). From Genesis to Revelation, the Scripture tells us how God feels about image-bearers at the earliest stages of life. Unborn children are humans with full personhood (Ps. 139:13–14; Jer. 1:5). The pro-life issue is a justice issue. It’s the human-rights issue of our time. This is righteous work.
2. We must recognize the importance of persuasion.
It’s not enough to be right. We must also creatively persuade the public of the moral importance of protecting the unborn. Those of us who have been in the pro-life movement for a long time can’t assume the public understands the arguments against abortion. We can’t assume our neighbors see the humanity of the unborn and recognize the need for protections in law.
We must persuade not only our left-leaning neighbors but also our right-leaning ones. Many vote for pro-life candidates but also vote for pro-abortion legislation when it’s a single issue on the ballot. The referenda results appear to confirm the conclusions of the The Great Dechurching study, which found a large cohort of unchurched yet conservative voters. Some Republicans consider pro-life activists to be an electoral albatross and even blame our pro-life convictions for election losses.
Evangelicals are often tempted to nuance away the gravity of the issue of abortion, but we mustn’t waver.
Further, we can’t attach our righteous cause to people with unsavory character. This compromise both hurts the cause electorally and also harms our goal of awakening the American conscience. Instead, the pro-life movement must be proactive in recruiting and training good candidates who believe in the sanctity of human life and embody this ethic with their personal integrity and character.
Taking up the discipleship imperative, churches must intentionally and creatively teach about the sanctity of human life. We must ask, Have church members regularly heard the Bible’s teaching on the imago Dei, human dignity, and the value of the unborn child? Evangelical churchgoers shouldn’t be confused on this issue. They shouldn’t wonder what their pastors think. They shouldn’t be ill-equipped to engage this important issue of justice.
3. We must go beyond the legal arguments against abortion and help shape America’s moral imagination.
Abortion is a tragic symptom of the revolution that severed sexuality from the covenant of marriage and the beautiful fruit of family life. Our culture desperately needs the church to be a counterculture, an invitation into the flourishing way of life Jesus offers.
Shaping our country’s moral imagination will require us to resist atomization and expressive individualism and instead show our culture that pursuing these dangerous paths only produces loneliness and despair. It’ll mean celebrating the reality that God intends something more for our sexuality than our pleasure. It’ll mean helping fellow citizens embrace the truths that lifelong covenant marriage between men and women helps society flourish when children have both a father and mother in the home.
We should help Americans see that there is another human inside the womb, not merely a clump of cells, to awaken their consciences to see what they don’t want to see.
4. We must continue and extend our work with crisis pregnancies.
A woman who seeks an abortion often doesn’t arrive at this decision alone. She can be under pressure from a community that can’t envision her future as a mother but only sees her unborn child as an obstacle. If she finds a Christian community that values the life within her and sees value in her, and that offers to help, she’ll often choose to keep her baby and raise her child in that community.
This work also needs to be done with young biological fathers, many of whom have little or no connection with their own fathers. Abortion strips men of their responsibility and calls them away from true masculinity. These lost boys need men in their lives who can point them to the joys and responsibilities of fatherhood. They need models who will encourage them to reject the passive abandonment of the First Adam and pursue instead the righteous and obedient manhood of the Second Adam.
5. We must take the long view when it comes to building a culture of life and enacting protections into law.
After the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, when the first few courageous souls began their work to undo that grievous decision, they saw ahead to what no one else in society could: Roe’s end. Few political observers predicted that 49 years later, the decision would come crashing down. It did because faithful leaders, often women, refused to go away. They refused to accept that unborn babies were destined to early graves. They refused to be intimidated by media opposition, cultural scorn, and a lack of resources. They refused to let the enormity of the injustice keep them from speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves.
We must go beyond the legal arguments against abortion and help shape America’s moral imagination.
We need a similar vision for the next 50 years. We should envision a day when abortion will be not only illegal across the land but also undesirable. Taking the long view helps us make important, strategic advances. It reminds us that every justice movement is a movement of endurance. William Wilberforce devoted his entire life to ending the slave trade. Rosa Parks understood that the fight for civil rights would outlast her bus boycott. A culture of life will be no different. It will advance step by step, with incremental victories.
Pro-life advocates may be disappointed by recent election results, but we shouldn’t be dispirited. We should understand that while we make legal and moral arguments, ultimately the battle for life is a spiritual one. The taking of innocent life is the work of the Enemy, who the Bible says “has the power of death” (Heb. 2:14). But Christ has defeated this final foe (1 Cor. 15:54). We can fight the pro-life fight joyfully in the power of the Spirit, knowing one day the One who conquered death will return to make all things new.