October 21, 2020

Clarification: Why ‘Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden’ Is a Monumental Ethical Failure

Must we “rise and boldly denounce the words and acts of people who claim that they are for us when their actions run contrary to the very things we believe”? Yes.

By E. Calvin Beisner

Early this month, as if on cue, left-leaning evangelicals Ronald J. Sider and Richard Mouw released a statement that begins, “As pro-life evangelicals, we disagree with Vice President Biden and the Democratic platform on the issue of abortion. But we believe a Biblically shaped commitment to the sanctity of human life compels us to a consistent ethic of life that affirms the sanctity of life from beginning to end.” It goes on to say, “Poverty, lack of accessible health care services, smoking, racism and climate change are all pro-life issues.”

I critiqued the statement in my article “‘Pro-life evangelicals for Biden’ is a monumental ethical failure.” Some have strongly embraced my critique. Others, whether by comments on that article or by emails to me, expressed strong opposition, sometimes reaching the level of utter bewilderment that any Christian could think such awful things as I allegedly said there.

To summarize, my article had three main points:

  1. Intentional harm is worse than unintentional harm.

  2. Killing is worse than harm that falls short of killing.

  3. Every successful abortion intentionally kills an innocent human being. In contrast, poverty and environmental pollution (let alone smoking, a self-chosen behavior) rarely if ever lead to intentional deaths, and even racism expressed in action need not. Therefore — as well as because standard dictionaries define “pro-life” as opposition to abortion — calling efforts to reduce poverty, environmental pollution, smoking, and racism “pro-life” is deceptive and harms efforts to end abortion on demand.

Here is one response I received, typical of others who disagreed:

I believe LIFE is integral and is not only limited to life in the womb. I think a definition of pro-life that limits life to only life in the womb is parochial and short-sighted. I cannot see how a person of ethics can consider a part of life more important than the remaining 90% of the totality of that life.

The gospel has its own power and course of action in society and if anything now is the time for us — the bearers thereof to rise and boldly denounce the words and acts of people who claim that they are for us when their actions run contrary to the very things we believe.

There is a ditch on each side of the political situation in this country and as Lesslie Newbigin has said, we must be careful not to be co-opted or domesticated by any.

I’m thankful that some people with concerns about my critique of “Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden” take the trouble to express those concerns directly to me. I think, however, that those who respond as above misunderstand me in some important ways.

First, who said life is only in the womb? Who said pro-life limits life to only life in the womb? Who said a part of life was more important than the remaining 90%? Not I.

I never said — and nothing in my article implies — any of those things. Indeed, I deny them all.

So if, like the person quoted above, you think you understood my article to say or imply them, then I would encourage you to re-read the article, focusing carefully on what I really did say and imply rather than forcing upon me beliefs that I repudiate. And if you’re still not sure what I meant, read my booklet How Does the Creation Care Movement Threaten the Pro-life Movement?

Second, I trust my critics and I have some solid common ground in terms of the two basic ethical distinctions I made in the article: (1) the distinction between harm that is intentional and harm that is unintentional, and (2) the distinction between harm in the form of death and harm that falls short of death.

The first exemplifies the Biblical teaching that intentionality contributes to the severity of sin or crime and hence should also inform the severity of punishment in response to it (see, e.g., Deuteronomy 19:4-6 compared with Numbers 35:31-32).

The second exemplifies the Biblical teaching that what is due as a matter of justice reflects proportionality: namely, killing, whether intentional or unintentional, deserves greater punishment than stealing or destroying property (see, e.g., for intentional, Exodus 21:12–14, and for unintentional, which could include a completely non-culpable accident, again Deuteronomy 19:4-6 and Exodus 23:1, 5). For more discussion of the criteria of Biblical justice, see my Social Justice vs. Biblical Justice: How Good Intentions Undermine Justice and Gospel.

That is, surely my critics agree with me that to kill someone is worse than to cause that person lesser harm, and that to harm someone intentionally, with pre-planning and hatred, is worse than to do the same harm to someone in a momentary fit of passion; which is worse than to cause that harm through negligence; which is worse than to cause that harm completely accidentally.

These are the distinctions I’m drawing between, on the one hand, abortion, every successful procedure of which intentionally kills an innocent human being, and, on the other hand, poverty, environmental pollution, or even racism, none of which necessarily kills a human being, and none of which necessarily causes any harm intentionally.

If we have common ground on those distinctions, then I’m satisfied. I think those distinctions should lead one to recognize that to apply the “pro-life” label equally to opposition to abortion and to efforts to reduce poverty, environmental pollution, racism, and smoking is likely to cause confusion and so to weaken efforts to protect life in the womb — while not helping efforts to protect life outside the womb. But if they’re not persuaded of that point — I can live with that. But I hope they’ll also take a look at what other pro-life leaders said eight years ago in their public statement, “Protecting the Unborn and the Pro-life Movement from a Misleading Environmentalist Tactic,” a message reinforced later, condemning this watered-down notion of what it means to be “pro-life” because it undermines the pro-life movement.

Finally, must we “rise and boldly denounce the words and acts of people who claim that they are for us when their actions run contrary to the very things we believe”? Yes: the words of those who say they’re pro-life but want to elect a president and vice president, both of whom favor legal abortion on demand with no restrictions throughout pregnancy and who lead a party whose platform does likewise.

E. Calvin Beisner, Ph.D., is founder and national spokesman of The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation and former associate professor of Historical Theology and Social Ethics at Knox Theological Seminary.

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