NECAC First Debate: November, 1984: Gordon College with Rev. Spencer Parsons of the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights (RCAR)
John C. Rankin
The first time I was invited to debate the abortion issue was at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, a Christian college, in 1984. My interlocutor was the Rev. Spencer Parsons. I report elsewhere (click here) on a central question I posed him in the debate, “Can you ever imagine Jesus performing an abortion?”
In the November 5 article in the school newspaper, The Tartan, by Carolyn Jenko, I was a bit surprised at how tilted it was in the side-by-side profiles. I was introduced as a general “pro-life advocate,” but no mention of my role as the founder and executive director of the New England Christian Action Council, the first and already the largest evangelical pro-life ministry in New England. Or that I had just graduated with my M.Div. from the neighboring and affiliated Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. The Rev. Parsons was introduced as a staff member of the Department of Church and Society of the American Baptist Churches of Massachusetts, but not in his role as principal regional spokesman for the Washington, D.C. based Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights (RCAR) (click here and click here for related articles). Not that all these details were necessary, but due diligence appears not to have been done, and the result was a tilt. The reporter did identify herself to me afterward, nor ask for my business card.
In the article, Rev. Parsons’ views are the first presented, then my views are reported, then our interaction, and it concludes with his views. Which is to say, Rev. Parsons is given the first and last word in the literary structure, and much more space as well (ten paragraphs as compared with five). It was my baptism into jaundiced reporting, which is almost universally the case in the media when reporting on the abortion debate, but I guess I did not expect it at a Christian college.
Rev. Parsons is cited for his favor of birth control, privacy in sexual decisions, the horror of the “60,000 illegal abortions” in Chicago annually from 1968-1971, how making abortions illegal again will not solve anything, and faulting the view of “the fertilized egg” as a person as being a theological view, as there are “millions of Christians who don’t believe believe that.”
” ‘ It’s not that any of us are pro-abortion,’ he said. “There are many circumstances where I don’t think abortions are good, but I don’t think all abortions are unmitigated evil.’
“According to Parsons, the circumstances which may warrant abortions arise when a woman is the victim of rape or incest, knows her baby will be seriously deformed, or feels she is too old to become a new mother. In these cases, Parsons would not be troubled by an abortion, and doesn’t think Jesus would be either.”
This last quoted clause is untrue. As I write elsewhere (linked above), in the midst of addressing hard situations (click here and click here for where I address the question of rape and incest), I asked Rev. Parsons spontaneously, “Can you ever imagine Jesus performing an abortion?” He was taken aback, and this was one of those kairos or “aha” moments when time stands still for those present, the focus is poignant, and his eyeball and body language betrayed serious discomfit. He tried in several attempts to say yes (as the reporter gave indication that he had), but in the final analysis he did not. He did ask me though, “Is this an ordination exam?” I replied, “Maybe it should be.”
The one place where Rev. Parsons cited the Bible is in reference to the soul in Genesis, but in a way that tried to mitigate the humanity of the unborn: “As far as the early embryo goes, we are dealing with an early biological process which is to be valued, but the fertilized egg does not have the rights like human beings do.” Valued if he or she can be aborted? I ask. What the Rev. Parsons did not do here is show how the human soul in Genesis 2 is not fully human; he simply asserted it without exegeting the text. Now, several years after this I had an article published in the Journal of the Evangelical Society on the human soul (nephesh in the Hebrew of Genesis 2:7) and the unborn — click here for an address of this subject.
Here then are first three of the five paragraphs on my presentation that followed the profile of Rev. Parsons:
“Rankin gave his pro-life presentation where Parsons left off; with Genesis. He held that God breathed into us the ‘wholeness of life’ from conception through eternity. Prior to sin, there was no possibility of pregnancy being cut off; it was not a part of God’s plan.
” ‘Sin pulls the order of creation apart,’ Rankin said. ‘It is atomistic and by the same token, abortion is atomistic.’ He holds that the one cell zygote has full genetic identity and he refused to separate origin from destiny.
“He interpreted Psalms 139:13 as showing God identifies with the whole creation process from the moment of conception, and questioned, ‘Would our Redeemer bless the abortionist as he hooks up the suction tube?’ “
The reporter also added that I do “not accept abortion under any circumstances,” and this is untrue, for from the beginning of my pro-life work, I always excepted the life of the mother when otherwise both mother and child would die (rare but real back then, rarer now). She also said that I said “the laws of murder apply” in terms of the proper legal concerns for abortion, and this I doubt is accurate. I do not remember the context for addressing this question, nor if I were unclear in some chosen language in addressing a hypothetical. But from the beginning of my pro-life work I placed primary responsibility for abortion on the shoulders of the man who abandons the woman — that which drives the overwhelming number of abortion decisions — and as well, I rejected the language of “murder” given its accusatory tone for a reality far more complicated. I was aware of those who called women “murderers” for having an abortion, and I rejected that up front. I did speak about abortion as killing, or more frequently, as the destruction of human life, in the context of the male chauvinistically driven reality — the subject of my first issue of Contrabortion the prior summer. The tilt of the article permeated consistently.
After giving five paragraphs on our interaction, noting that the Rev. Parsons received the most questions from a largely pro-life audience of 75 students, in Wilson Hall during the daytime, the final two paragraphs cite Rev. Parsons’ concluding remarks. My good friend, Dr. Jack Davis, professor of theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, was also in attendance. He later served as president of the board for Massachusetts Citizens for Life.