NECAC First Debate: Gordon College: “Can You Imagine Jesus Performing an Abortion?” And: What About the Life of the Mother?

John C. Rankin

My first public debate after I founded a pro-life ministry, what came to be called the New England Christian Action Council (NECAC), in December, 1983, was at Gordon College the following autumn. The abortion-rights advocate was the Rev. Spencer Parsons, a minister with the American Baptist Churches, and member of the Massachusetts chapter of the Religious Coalition of Abortion Rights (RCAR). During our interaction, as he tried to argue for the biblical permission for abortions in certain instances, I saw the strained logic, and then spontaneously asked him: “Spencer, can you ever imagine Jesus performing an abortion?”

He was taken aback, and he tried in several attempts to say yes, but in the final analysis he could not do so. Then he asked me, “Is this an ordination exam?” And I replied, “Maybe it should be.” I have yet to meet anyone who has answered yes to that question with a straight face, and the inability to imagine Jesus performing an abortion sums up the nature of the Redeemer’s perspective on this matter.

But we need to be careful not to be too simplistic here. Neither can we properly imagine Jesus leading an armed revolt against Roman occupation. But this focuses in on the distinction between his two comings. In his first coming, he came as the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. And as Isaiah 42:2-3 points out in the first servant song, the Messiah does not snuff out a smoldering wick or break a bruised reed. So too his attitude toward the unborn.

But in the second coming, Jesus will lead an army of heaven against his enemies (cf. Revelation 19:11-21), now that they have given final rejection to his love. He will come as the Judge, and in this capacity he will also protect the unborn. Consistent with the ethics and power of informed choice, the innocent are upheld and the guilty are judged according to their owned choices. It is because of the ethics and power of informed choice that his redemption comes by invitation and not by force, thus sin will produce its moth tamuth until the second coming.

Too, there are those rare instances when a pregnancy threatens a mother’s life, an abortion may be needed to save her life – apart from which both mother and child would die. This is as redemptive as possible in terms of human ability. One life is redeemed by aborting the second life – otherwise both would die. It is admitted that a human life is taken, but this is also the case in unparallel acts of self-defense when no other option is possible. The unborn are not morally guilty as is a thief or rapist, but the focus is not on this element of the analogy. It is on the redemption of the life that is possible to redeem.

In January, 1987, Dr. Marvin E. Eastlund, an obstetrician/gynecologist in Fort Wayne, Indiana, wrote an article reprinted in a newsletter from the Northeast Indiana Christian Action Council, a pro-life group. I then headed up the New England Christian Action Council (which I also had founded), affiliated with the same national organization.

The letter gave the testimony of a local Christian woman who was newly pregnant, but was then diagnosed with a virulent cancer in the uterine area related to a hydatidiform mole pregnancy. Dr. Eastlund was a committed Christian, and he realized that if he treated the woman with chemotherapy to destroy the cancer, the unborn child would soak it up, instead of the cancerous cells being affected by it. Thus, the child would die and the mother would not benefit. Because of the rapid spread of the cancer and its toxicity, Dr. Eastlund knew she would also die. But he knew that if the child were aborted, then the chemotherapy would likely succeed in destroying the cancer, save her life, and restore her to her husband and other children. He checked all the expert sources he could think of to discover an alternative, but he could find none.

Thus he realized that this was one of those rare cases where he as a Christian knew abortion was legitimate, even necessary. He told his patient, and she painfully agreed. He then referred her to a place to get the abortion, but she wanted him as her physician to do it. He reluctantly agreed, praying the whole time that if this were the wrong decision, God would deliver him.

Before the operation, he took an ultrasound, and a healthy unborn child was observed. He then dilated the cervix, went into the womb with the curette, and was astonished to find nothing there but some “burned-out” placental tissue (as confirmed by a later toxicological exam). He checked again, and no unborn child could be found. He then closed up the womb, and took another ultrasound – no unborn child was there. He concluded that God had taken the child so that he did not have to. The cancer was then successfully treated.

It is a marvelous story that included eyewitnesses on the physician’s staff who were not believers at the time. God does intervene. But why, we might ask, did God not simply heal the woman’s hydatidiform mole and cancer instead? I do not know – but we do know that all healings are but a taste of the power of the age to come for the sake of our salvation, and that Lazarus died twice before he was clothed with the resurrection body. This intervention on God’s part bore witness to the physician’s integrity in doing a last-ditch redemptive act, in the one exception clause a pro-life advocate can make.

But even this story cannot enable some to imagine Jesus performing an abortion, as Rev. Spencer Parsons struggled to imagine. Biblical redemption in the midst of human affairs will never destroy the innocent, and the only temporal destruction it allows is to save people from a greater and then an eternal destruction. This interfaces with the ethics and power of choice in terms of the larger reality of what leads to such an evil as a hydatidiform mole or cancer. But the abortion-rights position the Rev. Parsons was advocating was one which was allowing healthy unborn children to be killed for reasons that usually revolved around personal choice.

I had the occasion to debate Spencer Parsons on several occasions. Then one time I chanced to cross paths with him at an abortion-rights conference sponsored by the Massachusetts Council of Churches in 1986.

At that conference I sat in on a group discussion meant to be a sounding board for abortion-rights sympathies. It was remarkable. First one man, whose politics used to be in favor of abortion, shared how he had been converted by the work of the Sojourners magazine and community in Washington, D.C.

Then a woman told a painful story of having been pregnant in the 1950s, when her husband decided to leave her. She had four children, and she told of the humiliation she went through trying to get a hospital to grant her a “therapeutic” abortion – and not being able to get one in the days before legalized abortion. She was very emotional, and her pain was palpable – she was winning people’s empathy. I was expecting to then hear the horror of a tragic end in some fashion with a “back-alley” abortionist.

But it was a spontaneous sharing on her part, and she even surprised herself. For once she had testified about the humiliation, she suddenly concluded by saying that she gave birth to a boy, her husband returned to her, and that this son was the greatest joy of her five children.

After the conference, I talked with Spencer in the parking lot. I was answering various questions he had for me at a more personal level than formal debate allows, and he concluded by saying that I was right about the Bible’s opposition to human abortion – he just did not believe we should impose pro-life laws on others. I addressed this concern and sought to allay his fears as I spoke about my commitment to the power of informed choice within democratic process, where persuasion is celebrated and imposition opposed.

He then thanked me for talking with him, saying that I was the first pro-life advocate he ever met who listened to him and respected him as a human being. I remember thinking as I drove away: What is so difficult about listening to someone? Is that not the nature of Christian love? What would happen if we in the church did show such love, instead of a condescension into dehumanizing political rhetoric?

Early on in my involvement with this issue, I learned that it is the ethics of how we treat people that is the key – not just knowing facts about the horror of human abortion. Facts are important, but if they are not in service to biblical ethics, they will boomerang and communication will not happen. Thus I did not spend time on systematic education about the nature of human abortion per se. I dealt with those elements as they might naturally come up. Rather, my focus was on theological education, which is the root reality we need to know.

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