My good friend Tim King of Sojourners took the Rachel Held Evans stage after I did–an admittedly easy act to follow–as a Christian progressive.  His answers are precisely in line with those which I’ve come to expect from him:  thoughtful, considerate, and compassionate in the best sense of the word.

The section on being pro-life, however, pushed the eyebrows up involuntarily:

I won’t try to articulate here a prescriptive policy position, but a description of how I approach the issue more broadly.

My older sister is pregnant and this August, I’ll have a nephew. Really pumped to be an uncle. My sister told me that as a result of her pregnancy, she has never been so pro-life and pro-choice. This isn’t unusual. In fact, the Public Religion Research Institute has found that about two-thirds of all American’s identify as pro-life and pro-choice simultaneously.

I think that is for good reason. Most people don’t view a fetus as a clump of cells indistinguishable from any other clump of cells but many also don’t see that the state has the same interest in a fertilized egg as it would a three-year-old child. You describe well some of the tensions that I think many people feel when they think about the issue.

In resolving a complex ethical issue, while taking into consideration multiple and often competing demands, we need to ask, what’s the role of government? At what point is the state the best arbiter? Currently, the state registers and logs a record of all births. Should they instead try and register and log all pregnancies? Monitor women of childbearing age? What is the state’s interest in the 15 to 20 percent of known pregnancies that end in a miscarriage? What about the many more “chemical pregnancies”? What kind of interest does the state have in the health and habits of women of childbearing age as it effects their bodies’ ability to carry a child to term? What other practices and protections currently extended to those who have been born should be expanded by the state to include fertilized eggs?

I think most people recognized a gradation of responsibility. The interest of the state is not the same at the moment of conception as it is at the moment of birth.

This is what leads me to believe that the primary role of the state is not to dictate decisions around these complex ethical considerations and its primary role lies with preventative and supportive policy.

I appreciate Tim’s kindness earlier in the Q&A in signaling agreement with me on the importance of non-governmental organizations to solve social problems.  (Tim, if you’re trying out the conservative end of the pool, dive in.  The water is great.)

But on this pro-life business, well, I’m afraid we’re at odds.

For one, Tim describes the problem democratically.  “Most people” is a decent enough starting point for ethical and policy deliberations (Socrates made heavy use of the trope), but it’s not an ending point.  The fact that many of us feel tension on the position is a diagnosis, not a remedy.  More thinking and better thinking would be a good next step:  holding contradictory opinions on a question is okay as a temporary season, but eventually the question must be resolved.

What’s more, Tim frames the question as one of the state’s interest while dodging the metaphysical question:  is the fertilized egg a human person as the three year old child is, or is he not?   If he is, then the state’s purported interest can go to hell–precisely where it will end up if it fails to judge accordingly . The person has rights and ought to have the protection that comes along with them, regardless of what the people say.

Tim throws the series of questions up to muddy the facts of the matter and succeeds admirably at his task.  But the list also reveals the fundamental progressive instinct at work.  The fact that we have human rights doesn’t entail that the state is there to ensure that we live:  rather, they are there to safeguard us from the deliberate and intentional taking of our lives by another human person.  Presume that we come up with some way to reduce the number of miscarriages.  Well done, if it happens, for alleviating more pain and suffering in the world.

But because miscarriage is not a moral wrong, not an infringement of someone’s rights by an agent who can be held culpable, then the state isn’t obligated do anything at all. And the same goes for logging pregnancies, monitoring pregnant women, and the like.  Though the whole thing would give a rather new meaning to the phrase “nanny state,” which is exactly where Tim’s progressive instincts lead anyway.

(Apologies, Tim.  The joke was too good to resist.)

In short, Tim’s rhetorical questions are nonsensical unless we grant that the state’s interest in preventing abortion is the same as its interest in preventing death.  They might both be evil, but they are evils of a different sort.  And the state has responsibilities to act in one realm, and none in the other.

This “gradation of responsibility” that people recognize may be true enough, then, if we were taking a survey.  But as a matter of governing in anything approaching a pro-life manner, it simply will not do.

The metaphysics of the matter–the matter of the fertilized egg, to be specific–have to be evaluated and our ethical reflection and public policy brought into line accordingly.  Even within a liberal democracy, where our differences of opinion apparently extend even to our own minds, we must resolve the question of who will be admitted.  A principled pro-life position depends upon it.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. This is fantastic, Matt. You nailed it.


  2. I would really like to hear Tim’s answer to the metaphysical question. Progressive Christians always seem to avoid answering it.

    Also, a technical/scientific note: There is no such thing as a “fertilized egg.” In humans, a sperm and egg go through a process of fertilization to form a human embryo – something that is neither an egg nor a sperm. I only point this out because I’ve noticed that Christian progressives (and liberals, in general) tend to use the phrase “fertilized egg” way more often than “human embryo” when discussing this issue, despite being a scientifically incorrect phrase (you won’t find the phrase in any human embryology textbook). I can only assume it is used for rhetorical reasons.


    1. Eric,

      Yeah, I should have put quotes around it when I repeated his usage of it. Thanks for pointing that out. And I agree about the frequency of usage depending on political affiliation.



  3. Matt, Have you read Thomas F. Torrance’s defense of the unborn? It is one of the best arguments for the pro-life position I have ever read. It is titled “The Being and Nature of the Unborn Child.” The pdf link is about halfway down the page.


    1. Steve, haven’t read it. But sounds awesome. I’ll try to get to it sometime in the next couple weeks. Thanks for passing it along, and I hope you’re well!




  4. Great analysis, Matt. Well done as usual. From a practical standpoint and perhaps prior to the metaphysical question, we might add that Tim’s thought that “the primary role of the state is not to dictate decisions around these complex ethical considerations” is wishful thinking. The state HAS quite literally dictated decisions around these complex ethical considerations in the matter of abortions. It has taken a specific moral position in granting that the privacy of a woman is so prior to the consideration of the baby inside her that we cannot even consider said baby. We cannot even get to the metaphysical question, a perpetual frustration for so many people. The rule of privacy (autonomy) to the neglect of life by the state does not in any way constitute a “neutral” position by the state. Let’s hit up Schlafly again soon. Peace


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson March 22, 2012 at 8:49 am

      Thanks, John. I think you’re right about the impossibility of neutrality on this question (and, I suspect, many others). And yes, we should hang again soon.



  5. The “gradation of responsibility” argument reminds me of a discussion of abortion where someone tried to defend it by using an analogy of the difficulty of deciding whether or not someone has a beard. Beards grow gradually, just as preborn humans do. Who can say how many hairs on the chin, and how long must they be, in order to say that someone has a beard? So it is with the stage of development of humans within the womb. Who can say at what moment we have a human being who has a right not to be killed by others?

    My response was that this is a very good argument for why we don’t make things like having a beard a condition for whether or not its wearer has a right not to be killed by others. There’s no such thing as having “sort of” a right not to be killed because the consequence of being “sort of” dead is nonsense, unlike the condition of “sort of” having a beard.


  6. William Harris April 29, 2012 at 5:36 pm

    I’m interested in this link between metaphysical status and moral obligation. Things are messier than what apparently is assumed. First, the metaphysical status of the new life is initially not directly known; we may assume that status of the fertilized egg understood generally, but we are blind as to status of any particular egg in the woman’s womb. And this blindness as to the actual state of the developing life continues into the early weeks of the pregnancy.

    This it seems raises the second question, that of the nature of the moral obligation. When is it properly and consciously assumed by the woman, that is, when does she become a moral actor? Or more generally, can I have a moral obligation which I am fundamentally and physically unable to know about?

    And in turn, this brings in the State and its coercive power. Obligation to the State (i.e. public policy) properly ought to flow from what can be seen, tested or validated. This is the principle of equity. If there exists a general class of “fertilized eggs” that ought to be protected, then how do we effect the State’s gaze, this the prerequisite for any action? The blindness as to the actual state of the pregnancy in the earliest days seems to bar State action apart from the most dystopian policy. (Indeed, in reductio absurdum if we follow the logic that metaphysics must determine policy, do we not end up with the State literally in the bedroom making sure that every act of sex be seen as creating legal obligation and so justifying intrusion?)

    To summarize, it is not at all clear that metaphysical status generates the practical moral, let alone legal obligations.


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