Late last week, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) — a candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination — condemned pro-life efforts to protect unborn babies as “against Christian faith.” Specifically, she slammed Georgia’s law protecting unborn babies from the moment a heartbeat may be detected in the womb. Rather than addressing serious science and faith concerns about the humanity of the unborn and the Christian tradition of defending life, Gillibrand defended abortion by referencing free will.
“If you are a person of the Christian faith, one of the tenants of our faith is free will. One of the tenants of our democracy is that we have a separation of church and state, and under no circumstances are we supposed to be imposing our faith on other people. And I think this is an example of that effort,” the 2020 candidate said.
Gillibrand laid out a three-step abortion policy: federal legislation to codify abortion as a woman’s right across the country, an end to the Hyde amendment, which protects taxpayers from funding abortion; and a guarantee of “reproductive health care” in every state — which likely will amount to coercing health care providers to perform abortions. She also promised to appoint judges and Supreme Court justices committed to defending Roe v. Wade (1973), the outdated decision striking down state laws protecting unborn life.
As The New York Times reported, Gillibrand’s campaign is struggling to take off, since she was known for being a conservative Democrat, she replaced Hillary Clinton in the Senate, and she has failed to raise a competitive amount of money. It seems she has seized on the issue of abortion to make a name for herself, and when it comes to Christianity, she has made a tremendous misstep.
There were many philosophical and religious problems with Gillibrand’s statement, as Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler noted on his podcast “The Briefing.”
Christianity has a rich heritage of debate on the issue of free will, tracing back to Augustine’s debates with Pelagius in the fourth century. The Bible clearly presents human beings as morally culpable for their sins, so that God is just in judging them. Yet only God offers salvation through Jesus Christ, and Christians debate whether or not human beings have the free will to choose Jesus or whether God has to work in their hearts before receiving Him.
Abortion has nothing to do with this issue. Democrats have pushed the message of being “pro-choice” on abortion, supporting women having the option to choose whether or not to kill their unborn babies. Any connection between this and the Christian debate over free will is entirely superficial.
As for the real connection between Christianity and abortion, Christians have opposed abortion from the days of the early church.
The Bible itself arguably condemns abortion — and not just abortion, but chemically-induced abortion, the central issue in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. “Medications” to induce abortion, commonly referred to as “abortifacients,” either in the form of pills or various herbs or potions, have been with humanity for thousands of years. In his letter to the Galatians (dating to approximately 55 A.D.), St. Paul listed a catalog of sins including pharmakeia (Galatians 5:20), the making and administering of potions. In Revelation 21:8, St. John the Evangelist condemned “sexual immorality,” including pharmakois, the plural form of pharmakeia.
Although this word is often translated “sorcery” or “witchcraft,” Alvin J. Schmidt, in his book How Christianity Changed the World, noted that “it is quite likely that when Paul used the word pharmakeia in Galatians, he meant the practice of abortion, because administering medicinal potions was a common way of inducing abortions among the Greco-Romans.”
The pagan Plutarch used the word pharmakeia to refer to contraception and abortion potions, and the early Christian document the Didache (or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, written between 85 and 110 A.D.) argues that abortion is forbidden, using the words ou pharmakeuseis, “you shall not use potions,” immediately followed by “ou phoneuseis teknon en phthora,” “you shall not kill a child by abortion.”
Perhaps one of the clearest statements came from Tertullian, a North African church father who died around 220 A.D. In his Apology, Tertullian wrote, “We may not destroy even the foetus in the womb,” and added, “Nor does it matter whether you take away the life that is born or destroy the one that is coming to birth.”
Athenagoras, a Christian philosopher writing to the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius in about 177 A.D., defended his fellow Christians against the charge of cannibalism (a Roman misunderstanding of the Christian belief that believers receive the body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper). “What reason would we have to commit murder when we say that women who induce abortions are murderesses?” Athenagoras asked.
The pro-life approach of the early church extended beyond abortion. Both the Greeks and the Romans practiced child abandonment — as any reader of Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex well knows. Indeed, the founding myth of the Roman Republic centers around Romulus and Remus, two boys abandoned as infants who were raised by a she-wolf. The ancient Greek city-state of Sparta was particularly notorious for abandoning children unfit to be raised as warriors.
Early Christians condemned this practice. Indeed, the church father Clement of Alexandria attacked Romans for saving young birds and other creatures while lacking moral compunctions about abandoning their own children. Lactantius wrote, “It is as wicked to expose as it is to kill.” Early Christians started adopting the abandoned babies, establishing the very first orphanages in history.
Gillibrand’s statement that restrictions on abortion are “against Christian faith” is absurd. Furthermore, her claim that laws restricting abortion are an example of “imposing our faith on other people” is similarly ridiculous.
While many Christians rightly oppose abortion as a matter of faith, the best arguments against abortion are based in modern science. From the moment of conception, an unborn baby has a completely unique set of human DNA. About six weeks into pregnancy, the baby has a detectable heartbeat. Human DNA and a heartbeat are extremely strong witnesses to the humanity of the unborn.
In this case, the witness of the best science backs up the religious convictions of pro-life Christians. As a Christian myself, I find the arguments from science even more convincing than the arguments from the Bible and from Christian tradition. The claim that life begins at the moment of conception is not a Christian idea but a conclusion of modern science. While I believe the Bible condemns abortion and upholds the dignity of the unborn (Psalm 139), I think the best arguments to convince believers and unbelievers come from science.
Gillibrand could not be more wrong on this issue. In fact, the Georgia law sets out to defend the unborn at the moment a heartbeat can be observed. This is a scientific — not a religious — litmus test.
Some Christians may reject the witness of scripture, Christian tradition, and modern science, arguing that the needs of a woman outweigh the question of whether or not her unborn baby deserves legal protection, but they stand on shaky ground. If Gillibrand wants to argue for abortion, Christianity is not her ally.
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.