Humans have exploited one another since the Fall in Genesis 3. In an attempt to elevate ourselves, grow in influence, or amass control and power, we often abuse and marginalize those around us to get what we want. “All that we call human history,” writes C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, “money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery – [is] the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy” (p.49).
After sin entered the world in the Garden of Eden, our relationships became radically twisted and mangled. Now, we no longer live in peace with God, ourselves, creation, or other people. In our depraved state, human beings are not perceived as fellow image-bearers of God but commodities to be taken advantage of for our gain. But God, in His kindness, showered humanity with common grace – grace made available to Christians and non-Christians alike. As we explored in “Discussing Dignity in a Post-Christian World,” it is because of this common grace that most people in our society still have some shared sense of right and wrong. Despite the fact that their morality is no longer anchored in the gospel itself, a majority of Americans still believe that horrors like genocide and murder are wrong.
However, oppression and subjugation remain pervasive. This is because we have developed the ability to dehumanize other people to ease our consciences and justify our evil actions. Sadly, it is this kind of dehumanization that makes most abortions possible. We can numb ourselves to feelings of empathy when the other person becomes nothing more than a “parasite” or “animal” hindering our wellbeing or the wellbeing of others. In fact, we dehumanize others every time we deem them inferior or insignificant to us. We shut our eyes, plug our ears, and repeat lies to ourselves to convince our hearts they are not really people like we are. When we dehumanize others to make our lives more comfortable, we refuse to acknowledge their human rights or affirm their God-given dignity.
WHY WE DEHUMANIZE
Sin has fundamentally broken the way we think about and interact with God and the world around us. The prophet Micah shows us how sin changed society’s power dynamics. Rather than using our gifts, talents, and influence for the good of others in our families and communities, we now use people to serve ourselves.
Both hands are skilled in doing evil;
the ruler demands gifts,
the judge accepts bribes,
the powerful dictate what they desire—
they all conspire together. (Micah 7:3 NIV)
Some may dismiss this verse as irrelevant. I am not a ruler. I don’t have any power to abuse. This is the farthest thing from the truth. Even the weakest among us shape and influence the lives of those around us. In verses five and six, Micah tells us the same self-aggrandizement that leads rulers to abuse their people pits neighbors against neighbors and family members against one another – all for self-gain. Sin keeps us from seeing one another as representatives of God, co-rulers in the world, and creatures who have a relationship with Him. Without believing someone else inherently possesses that identity, their dignity is easily lost.
This is how we justify abortion. It is just a clump of cells. It won’t even feel it. This “it” is not a person. I am the one in charge. I need to do this to get my life back on track. We convince ourselves abortion is just a routine medical procedure, as easy and morally uncomplicated as removing a pair of tonsils. We blind ourselves to science and God’s Word so we can sleep at night, so we can put on a smile for others without guilt and shame eating us alive. As long as abortion-choice is about “women’s rights” and the impersonal “fetus,” we can justify the act in pursuit of our own happiness and comfort. “In every society until Jesus returns, there will be an attempt to de-value certain persons because they lack utility, or because they’re an inconvenience, or they are seen as a threat,” says Pastor Halim Suh, “but Jesus makes it clear that the baseline assumption in His kingdom is that every person from conception to their final breath has intrinsic value, dignity, and worth.”
The Enemy loves to kill, steal, and destroy the human life God so fearfully and wonderfully made (John 10:10; Psalm 139:14). Satan whispers almost-truths to us—subtle distortions of God’s good Word—to do that which we should not: take the lives of unborn children and oppress the vulnerable and powerless.
HOW WE DEHUMANIZE
The Christian pro-life view teaches all human beings are intrinsically valuable. However, writes author Scott Klusendorf in his book The Case for Life, “secular critics deny this, insisting that mere membership in the human species is not enough to confirm a right to life” (p.50). Some will even acknowledge that the unborn are human beings but remain convinced that they are not yet real people with real rights. In a 2013 Salon article titled “So What If Abortion Ends Life?” Mary Elizabeth Williams writes:
Yet I know that throughout my own pregnancies, I never wavered for a moment in the belief that I was carrying a human life inside of me. I believe that's what a fetus is: a human life. And that doesn't make me one iota less solidly pro-choice….
...Here's the complicated reality in which we live: All life is not equal. …[A] fetus can be a human life without having the same rights as the woman in whose body it resides. She's the boss. Her life and what is right for her circumstances and her health should automatically trump the rights of the non-autonomous entity inside of her. Always.
This is dehumanization in its rawest, ugliest, most horrific form. This same line of reasoning was used by Hitler to exterminate the Jews, white South Africans to oppress black South Africans during Apartheid, and southern plantation owners to support and maintain the institution of slavery. Dehumanization always delivers deep suffering and pain, and as long as we dehumanize the unborn, we deface the image of God on them and their mothers. There are several ways our society seeks to dehumanize unborn babies, but two of the most prominent metrics are the viability standard and “Trait X” standard.
The Viability Standard
The viability standard says a baby is not a person until they can live outside their mother’s body. The problem with this standard of humanness is that it changes based on what kind of medical care is available. In 2019, a 24-week-old-baby born in the U.S. would likely live outside the mother’s womb. However, a 24-week-old-baby born in many developing countries today would not because they lack the resources and infrastructure to care for them. Should we really decide the worth of a human’s life based on geography and access to technology? In Beyond the Abortion Wars, Charles Camosy argues that this line of thinking makes “a being’s moral status” a moving target that changes “based on race or gender or on the decade into which one happens to be born; or on whether one happens to live in the developed or developing world” (p.46). We don’t apply the viability standard to other groups of people—who would argue a diseased man in Africa is any less of a person than a sick woman in New York City? We acknowledge the humanity of both and do all we can to meet their needs. The same must be said of the unborn.
The “Trait X” standard suggests a baby is not a real person until certain traits are exhibited. These traits often include the ability to feel pain, form relationships, experience self-awareness, or compose rational thoughts. It takes little time, however, to see how this standard is wholly inadequate. Most infants wouldn’t meet these requirements until they were two years old! Camosy explains how the “Trait X” approach forces us to “either pick a ‘lower-end’ trait and end up claiming that animals like mice and rats count as persons with a right to life, or you pick a ‘higher-end’ trait and end up claiming that not even newborn infants are persons” (p.48-49). If our humanness is decided by a set of arbitrary metrics when we exist in the womb, why would it not also be decided by such metrics outside of the womb? With such false standards, how will we defend the human rights of the sick, mentally or physically disabled, marginalized, elderly, and others?
In a 1977 article, black civil rights activist Jesse Jackson described how dehumanization fueled the abortion movement. Although Jackson would later become a pro-choice candidate for president in 1984, his earlier words continue to ring true:
Another area that concerns me greatly, namely because I know how it has been used with regard to race, is the psycholinguistics involved in this whole issue of abortion. If something can be dehumanized through the rhetoric used to describe it, then the major battle has been won. So when American soldiers can drop bombs on Vietnam and melt the faces and hands of children into a hunk of rolling protoplasm and in their minds say they have not maimed or killed a fellow human being something terribly wrong and sick has gone on in that mind. That is why the Constitution called us three-fifths human and then whites further dehumanized us by calling us ‘niggers.’ It was part of the dehumanizing process. The first step was to distort the image of us as human beings in order to justify that which they wanted to do and not even feel like they had done anything wrong. Those advocates of taking life prior to birth do not call it killing or murder; they call it abortion. They further never talk about aborting a baby because that would imply something human. Rather they talk about aborting the fetus. Fetus sounds less than human and therefore can be justified.
EYES THAT SEE AND HANDS THAT SERVE
Rejecting dehumanization means rejecting it for any and every person or group. Without the right eyes to see, our anger toward abortion can actually cause us to dehumanize women who have received abortions. In our hearts, they can become heartless villains or self-obsessed monsters. This cannot be our response. While God grieves for the aborted child, he sees post-abortive women, loves them, and offers them new life through His Son, Jesus. We cannot make other human beings so one-dimensional – women in these situations are just as complicated and sinful as we are. These concerns and fears they have are real, and networks of support and care should be leveraged to work with the women and families wrestling with these circumstances.
While the world tells us that we must decide whether we are for women or against women in the abortion debate, Christians can confidently say their God is devoted to the flourishing of both women and their unborn children. He is a passionate defender of the vulnerable wherever they are found. He is for the poor pregnant woman that doesn’t know what she’ll do with another mouth to feed. He is for the teenage girl holding a positive pregnancy test, crushed by anxiety about the future. He is for the defenseless unborn child He is knitting together inside her mother’s womb. This is the kind of heart we must beg God for. “To say, ‘It’s murder, but good luck’ is sinful and disgusting for the church of Jesus Christ,” says pastor Matt Chandler. “No, we roll up our sleeves, we foster, we adopt, we babysit, we come alongside, and we free up capital to support. We send off to junior college, and we watch. It’s difficult, and it’s messy. It feels like it will never end. God honors it, and lives are saved.” May we be a church that cares for both women and unborn children as the incredibly loved and cherished human beings they are.