In this episode of TGC Q&A, Karen Swallow Prior introduces a new four-part series on the sanctity of life, addressing the true meaning of being pro-life and what she believes is necessary to end abortion. She addresses:
- Defining “sanctity of life” (1:42)
- Understanding abortion in her own story (3:52)
- Getting involved—serving those facing crisis pregnancy (6:23)
- Acting as a last voice giving women the opportunity to choose life (8:01)
- Moving beyond politics to end abortion (9:00)
- Building a bridge to those who are secularly pro-life (11:56)
- Defining “pro-life” and a pivotal call to action (14:59)
Explore more from TGC on the topic of abortion.
Karen’s recommended resources:
- Abortion and the Early Church by Michael J. Gorman
- Defenders of the Unborn by Daniel K. Williams
- Beyond the Abortion Wars by Charles C. Camosy
- Embryo: A Defense of Human Life by Robert P. George
- The Gospel and Abortion by Russell Moore and Andrew T. Walker
- Find your local crisis pregnancy center for volunteer opportunities and resources
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Heather Calvillo: From conception to the grave, all life is precious to God. We’re all created in his image. We are foreknown and the scriptures remind us that God knit us together in our mother’s womb, forming each part of our being. His eyes saw our unformed substance. As followers of Christ, how should we view the sanctity of life? How should we enter into conversations about pro-life matters? How do we love ourselves, our neighbor and the unborn in a way that honors God’s creation? You’re listening to TGC Q&A, and this is the sanctity of life series, where we seek to answer questions related to the pro-life topic from a loving, biblical perspective.
Heather Calvillo: If you’re listening today with little ears around, we encourage you to save this episode for later. And if you or someone you love has ever walked through a story of abortion, we want you to know that the episodes in this series are meant to point you to the love of Jesus in whom there is hope, forgiveness and healing. Today, you’ll hear from Karen Swallow Prior. Karen is a writer, speaker, professor, and in the past a sidewalk counselor at a crisis pregnancy center. She shares what it means to be pro-life and talks about how ending abortion actually requires more than just changing policy.
Karen Swallow Prior: I’m Karen Swallow Prior. I am a research professor of English and Christianity and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. I’m also a writer. I’ve written a number of books and write often for websites like the Gospel Coalition, and I’ve written quite a bit on abortion because it really is one of the passions of my life.
Heather Calvillo: Before Karen shares more of her story of how she got involved in pro-life work, we asked her to define the often misunderstood and even unknown term, the sanctity of life.
Karen Swallow Prior: That term sanctity of life is certainly a religious term that might sound strange two ears outside the church. And it really just talks about the sacredness of life, which again, is another religious term. I think I like to describe it more as simply the reality that all human beings are made in the image of God, because that is what makes human life so sacred. We are bearers of God’s image. Every one of us male, female, black, white, born, unborn, no matter our age or race or creed or ethnicity. And all of us bearing that image of God are equal and precious in his sight, and that is a profound truth to think about. Of course, we’re talking about abortion and it’s important in that context, but it’s important in the context of all human conditions and situations. And abortion is the issue I think that we talk about it most in the church right now, because abortion is such a prevalent reality in our culture.
Karen Swallow Prior: There was a time in the church when abortion, when it was legal only under the most extreme circumstances. And we’ve seen now that we have abortion on demand and it is so widespread that it is something that the church always needs to speak to, yet it just simply when it’s something that’s so prevalent in our culture, it does demand more of our attention. And I think it’s important when we talk about the sanctity of life in the abortion context, that we also think about how it connects to all of the other situations in which life is sacred. And we have to make hard decisions to uphold the sacredness of that life, because that’s just what it means to be human. We have to sacrifice for one another.
Karen Swallow Prior: I grew up in a solidly Christian home and accepted Jesus as my savior. As a small girl, grew up in the church, went to Sunday school and youth group. And yet abortion was something that we didn’t talk about in my home or in my church. I grew up really just before the beginning of what we now call the Culture Wars. And so I was pretty oblivious to abortion as an issue. I even took a class in high school, I remember, on child-rearing and childbirth and parenting, just something that was an elective and learned a little bit about fetal development there. I had a girlfriend from high school get pregnant out of wedlock shortly after we graduated and her boyfriend was pressuring her into having an abortion, and I had never even really thought about it. But I was instinctively against her being pressured and encouraged her to have her child, which she did.
Karen Swallow Prior: But I still hadn’t really thought about abortion as a Christian or as a biblical issue until I was about to enter graduate school and my husband and I were attending a small, independent Bible church where we had married and a local crisis pregnancy center was going to come in and do a presentation at church one Sunday night. And I just remember being really curious about what they would say about abortion. And so we went to this Sunday evening service, and I just remember it like yesterday. We were sitting in the back of the church and they were showing a video on a small black and white television set on a cart in the front of the church. I couldn’t even really see what was being shown on the screen, it was so far away.
Karen Swallow Prior: But I heard what was said in the video. I heard the process of abortion being described and I remember thinking at the end of that video, not only that abortion was taking a human life and I just had never realized that before, but also that a woman who felt like that was her best choice must be in such horrible circumstances. And I remember thinking, “I want to help women not feel like that is their best choice.”
Karen Swallow Prior: After I heard this presentation in my church, I became involved in this local crisis pregnancy center. We lived in a very rural area and this center was very, very small. It was in almost like a shed off the side of a little storefront building in our little town. And this is actually so long ago that the service that we offered at this crisis pregnancy center was pregnancy tests, which were not as widely available as they are now. And women who were afraid they were facing a crisis pregnancy, or even just needed to know if they were pregnant or not even if it wasn’t going to be a crisis, would come in and have this test for free. And there we would be able to talk to them about their concerns and their needs.
Karen Swallow Prior: And so many of the women that I encountered in that little storefront center were actually women who had already had an abortion. And that’s when I came face to face with the cycle that abortion entails and statistics show that 40% of abortions or somewhere around that number are repeat abortions. And more and more, I would hear the women talk about their abortions in terms of regret and remorse. And one of the things that I kept hearing them say over and over again, is that they wished that they had known about the resources available to help them make that other choice. They wished that someone had told them. They wished that someone had been there. And that just deepened my conviction that even if a woman went through with that choice, because it is unfortunately legal and widely available in our culture, I wanted to be a last voice that would give them that last chance to choose life by standing out at the clinics and letting them know before it was too late, that there was help available.
Karen Swallow Prior: And so I did go out weekly for a number of years when I lived in a city that had several abortion clinics actually, not just one, and offered help to women going into the clinics. And eventually of course, there were many protests out there as well that raised the consciousness of our culture about abortion. But, many of the women going into those clinics just didn’t know the help that was available. Many of them didn’t want it, and they were determined to have abortions and they did have them. And we would often be able to offer help afterwards because post-abortion counseling and ministry is very important in the lives of these women.
Heather Calvillo: In this segment, Karen explains why she believes we have to go beyond politics to change abortion laws and eradicate abortion altogether.
Karen Swallow Prior: I think since abortion was legalized in 1973 in the Roe v. Wade decision, the church and the pro-life movement has been really focused on this political event and changing that reality through political means. I know that when I became pro-life in the late 80s, that I was really focused on the political part of it, because that is how we got to this place, or so it seemed, with this sudden decision that surprised everyone when it happened that made abortion so widely available in our country, so just literally overnight. And I really got involved in the political part of it. I even ran for office on the right to life party of New York state, because I really believed that politics was the way to combat this problem in our society. And of course, politics will always be important. It continues to be important.
Karen Swallow Prior: But what I see now is that this is going to be a much longer battle. And even though we got this ruling overnight through a Supreme Court that decided that abortion should be available widely on demand, we aren’t going to change the culture that creates such a consensus overnight. And so while we do work on the political parts of it, we work on laws, local laws, state laws, federal laws that protect the lives of unborn children and their mothers. We really are not going to change abortion unless we change the cultural or social imagination about abortion. We have to have it because we live in a democratic society. We have to have enough people who believe that these laws need to be changed.
Karen Swallow Prior: And so even though some of us are called to the political realm, I think all of us are called to promote a pro-life message and ethic and cultural imagination in our churches and our schools and our families. And it also means making some of the sacrifices that are required to actually, to not just promote a pro-life culture, but to be a pro-life culture. So we have to look around in our own communities and families of the ways that we can help people who are facing these decisions and support them, so we can get the pro-life message out. But, we also have to put feet to our words by being that pro-life culture that is welcoming to children and their mothers.
Heather Calvillo: We asked Karen what it looks like for Christians to build a bridge with those who are secularly pro-life. Not everyone is motivated by biblical principles for protecting the unborn. So, how can we come together, even though our motivations might look a little different?
Karen Swallow Prior: As a Christian, what motivates me and my pro-life views and my pro-life actions is of course my belief that human beings are made in the image of God and are sacred. And that as a Christian, therefore I have an obligation to protect human life. Yet, as Augustan said so powerfully so long ago, “All truth is God’s truth.” And so there are ways that we can promote the pro-life message, even among unbelievers. And that means sometimes speaking their language and addressing their own professed values. The pro-life issue is a human rights issue. So, even those who might not be motivated by biblical truth to support human life, they can be motivated by basic science and by the idea that the most vulnerable and oppressed among us are the ones that are most deserving and needing of protection and help.
Karen Swallow Prior: And so I think there are lots of ways in our language and even in our political endeavors to find common ground with those who are not motivated by the same things that we are, but who also might be sensitive to issues of human rights and healthcare and concern for women. And so I think there are a number of ways that we can promote the pro-life message beyond the church. There are organizations out there such as Feminists for Life of America, Secular Pro-Life. There are Catholic organizations. There are Jewish organizations that believe in the sanctity of human life and want to protect human life, and yet perhaps have a different moral and ethical framework for it.
Karen Swallow Prior: And I think just like any other issue that we might be fighting for, whether it’s something related to taxes or gambling or some other issues that our communities are facing, we can be co-belligerents with other people. This is actually how slavery was abolished in Great Britain in the 19th century. It took a number of decades, but the Christians who were opposed to slavery on biblical principles actually worked together with other people who had different beliefs to abolish slavery, and they avoided civil war. They brought about an end to the slave trade by working together, even though their belief commitments and their motivations were different. They still managed to bring an end to something that was wicked, and they worked together to do that. So I think Christians can really think about how we can find common ground on this issue, because it really is a human issue.
Heather Calvillo: Of all the questions that we received from you, our listeners, this question came up the most. How can we expand our definition of pro-life to include all of human life? So we asked Karen to define what pro-life really means.
Karen Swallow Prior: The term pro-life has a pretty long and complicated history. It has always meant since Roe v. Wade, a position against abortion. And when the media started reporting on the movement, that was opposed to legalized abortion, they used the term anti-abortion, and for the other side they used the term pro-abortion rights. Well both sides actually didn’t like those terms because we live in an age of marketing and we want to present positive messages. So those who support abortion rights insisted on being called pro-choice, and those like us who oppose abortion wanted to be called pro-life. And for a long time, the media didn’t cooperate with that. But eventually over the years the terms pro-life and pro-choice developed to designate being for or against legalized abortion. And that’s what the terms were understood to mean, even though obviously they are both, I think on both sides, they’re really euphemisms because they don’t have the word abortion in them.
Karen Swallow Prior: Personally, I have never shied away from being called anti-abortion because I am anti-abortion. But as the term pro-life gains traction and as the Culture Wars continued on into the decades and a new generation of Christians emerged who had been taught biblical worldview and had been taught to approach issues holistically, I think it’s really these younger Christians who have been questioning the inconsistency of our application, of this idea of being pro-life. And I applaud them because really to be pro-life is to be more than just against abortion. And if we’re talking about abortion, then we can use that term. But if we really want to consider ourselves to be pro-life, then I think we have to address all of the range of issues, from womb to tomb, that threaten the sanctity of human life.
Karen Swallow Prior: And so while I do want to be able to talk about abortion as an issue and to treat that as its own issue, just as we need to treat euthanasia as an issue or capital punishment as an issue. There are a whole range of issues that ask us to think about what the sanctity of life means in those. We do, I think we have an opportunity here to think about what it really means to be pro-human life in every way, even though obviously there will be political differences about what it means. How we deliver healthcare, or how we implement justice in the justice system. All of those things, no matter what our position ends up, should be based on the understanding that all human life is sacred.
Heather Calvillo: To end our conversation, Karen shares her vision for the future and her hopes that one day abortion will be unthinkable.
Karen Swallow Prior: A while back I was invited by Vox, which is a publication that is secular and pretty far left, to write an essay about why I think abortion will be unthinkable in 50 years. Now it might take longer than 50 years, I will admit that. That was what I was asked to write about. But I really, truly, sincerely believe that history will look back at this period where abortion was not only legal, but just pervasive throughout our culture. And our ancestors will wonder why on earth we were so blind, because clearly our technology shows that this life in the womb is active, and living, and human and beautiful. And yet we so willfully destroy it. And we have convinced women who are in many ways a victim of this abortion dependent culture, we have convinced them that this is the best choice for them.
Karen Swallow Prior: And just as we look back in history and see the barbaric things that human beings have done to one another, and we have wondered how on earth we could have done that, we will think the same way about abortion. We now have generations of people whose photo albums of their own lives begin while they are in the womb. We have surgeries that can be done to correct impairments and injuries on little children in the womb. They are human. They are vulnerable. They are precious. And I believe, with all my heart, that one day our ancestors will look back and they will not know how we could have allowed this and they will not be able to explain to their children how we did. So we can begin imparting that vision now, because I do believe that is the future.
Karen Swallow Prior: There are certainly people who are unapologetic about abortion and deny how wrong and how devastating and how harmful abortion is. But I believe that even the majority of people who consider themselves pro-choice, know deep in their hearts, that this is not a choice that anyone would want to make or should make. And that’s an area where we can build common ground, because nobody is pro-choice about everything. The things that damage one another, the things that harm one another, we just simply do not have the choice in our society to do. So I think that we can build on many of the other issues that we’re grappling with today, issues of racism and sexism. We see those as the results of oppression and the abuses of power that surround us today.
Karen Swallow Prior: And abortion, in many ways, is a similar issue. Women who are vulnerable and facing this choice need help and support. Nobody wants to have an abortion. As Frederica Mathewes-Greene long ago said famously, “They want to have an abortion the way an animal whose leg is caught in a trap wants to gnaw off its leg to be free.” Women deserve better and children deserve better, and men deserve better. I think there’s much fertile ground for us on both sides of the issue to find common ground, so that we can make abortion unthinkable.
Heather Calvillo: Thanks for listening to this episode of TGC Q&A. Be sure to tune into our next episode in the sanctity of life series. We hope these conversations will encourage you to draw closer to God’s heart and seek his wisdom on this topic. If this series brought up new questions for you, please send us an email at [email protected] We’d love to hear from you.