Should Women Who Have Had Abortions Face Punishment or Be Shown Mercy?

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has a knack for saying things that make Christians examine our faith and how it should shape our views of public policy. He did it again last month while waxing ineloquently about abortion.

In an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, Trump said that if abortion ever becomes a crime again, “there has to be some form of punishment” for any mother who asks a doctor to end her child’s life. The answer sounded so extreme that even Trump, who is famous for standing by his politically incorrect words and deeds, quickly backtracked to say that only abortion doctors should face punishment.

The flip-flop put Trump squarely into a political comfort zone occupied by both pro-life advocates and abortion proponents. But it put some Christians in the uncomfortable position of trying to reconcile a religious conviction that abortion is murder with a political stance against punishing mothers who are parties to it.

The easy answer to that problem is to embrace the hard line that Trump abandoned. The idea of punishing both the abortion seeker and provider is an admittedly lonely stand, but it is the purest pro-life take on the issue. Liberals joyfully trumpeted that fact after Trump’s comments, and conservatives reluctantly conceded it.

More importantly to Christians, that view is consistent with the biblical principle of justice. God condemned murder in the Ten Commandments, and He hates “hands that shed innocent blood” (Prov. 6:17). In theory, it is a no-brainer for His followers to advocate harsh penalties for anyone involved in a murder.

Remember what happened to King David. He was nowhere near the scene of Uriah the Hittite’s death in battle (II Sam. 11:14-16), but God held David accountable for murder, deception and the adultery that inspired it all. The punishment literally lasted a lifetime for David (12:1-15).

But there is another way to look at David’s life after Uriah’s death: David didn’t lose the throne, and he didn’t go to jail. The long arm of criminal law never reached him. In that sense, God showed mercy because the penalty for taking a life under the Law of Moses was the loss of one’s own life (Lev. 24:17).

The apostle Paul benefited from God’s grace, too. Before his conversion, Paul consented to the horrific death of Stephen by stoning (Acts 8:1). The deed no doubt helped shape Paul’s view of himself as chief among sinners (I Tim. 1:15), but he faced no punishment for the crime, in a legal sense or a spiritual sense.

The penalty imposed for the very first murder in history also came with a show of compassion. Cain’s fear of death by vigilante justice for killing his brother Abel prompted God to promise severe punishment for killing Cain (Gen. 4:1-15).

The point is that God is both just and merciful. Is it really so hard to believe that men and women who are made in His image might strive to find an appropriate balance when weighing the proper legal response to abortion?

Some women end their pregnancies for selfish reasons, and some never regret it. With seared consciences, they brag about their abortions on t-shirts and in Twitter hashtags. One young lady actually filmed her abortion.

But Clarke Forsythe, the acting president of Americans United for Life, suggested that they are the exception, not the rule. “Since time immemorial,” he wrote in National Review Online, “the law has recognized that male coercion, abandonment or indifference has been at the center of most abortions.”

If that’s true, then mercy for the mothers and justice for the doctors may be the best moral framing for any future laws on the topic.

Or maybe the focus should be on justice for the babies, which is the ultimate goal of any law against abortion. In that case, granting the equivalent of immunity to women who have abortions might be politically necessary to save lives.

Whatever course of action the government may take against abortion, Christians should avoid being dogmatic about the specifics of any future law. While abortion is a black-and-white issue, both the brother who demands justice and the one who is open to mercy are on solid spiritual ground.