Is Abortion Murder? Rhetoric in the Abortion Debate

by
December 7, 2015

A recent article in Christianity Today online, cautioning Christians to resist inflammatory rhetoric in their opposition to abortion, drew sharp criticism from some fellow pro-lifers. The article, “Loving Our Pro-Choice Neighbors in Word and Deed,” written by Karen Swallow Prior, urges Christians to speak the truth in love.[1]

Prior does not encourage backing down from opposition to abortion. Indeed, she believes that to speak the truth includes and requires such opposition. Why, then, the strong criticism from some Christians who also oppose abortion? A primary point of contention concerns not the main point of the article, but whether abortion ought to be called murder, and whether women who have abortions should be called murderers.

Prior’s article exhorts Christians to engage in civil discourse and avoid inflammatory rhetoric, and asserts that referring to “women who obtain abortions as ‘murderers’ is worse than inflammatory: it is unchristlike.” Some have responded that abortion is murder, and thus the woman who has an abortion is a murderer, so to speak the truth requires calling abortion murder.

It seems that the criticism misses the target here. First, Prior doesn’t deny, in fact she affirms that, “according to God’s law, abortion is murder” in a parenthetical comment. Second, it misses her primary concern, which is how Christians ought to engage our pro-choice neighbors, including abortion-minded women, in a way that both reveals truth and changes lives and minds.

To this end, Prior makes at least two main points. One is that, in the wake of the recent Planned Parenthood shooting, we ought not to do evil to achieve good. A second point is that our words may soften or harden hearts, win people over or drive them away.  Those who volunteer at Crisis Pregnancy Centers and do sidewalk counseling at abortion clinics—as Prior has for many years—desire that the women they counsel will choose life. To call abortion murder in that context, she suggests, is counter-productive and inappropriate. It might be added that many women who have had an abortion have come to the sobering conclusion that they have killed their own child and are guilty of bloodshed.

The article and the controversy surrounding it, raise some important issues for discussion.

First, words matter. Prior’s article is an important reminder of this, as we seek to engage our neighbors and advocate on behalf of unborn human beings. What we say communicates not only our convictions but also our concern for people. We should seek to win opponents with persuasive words of truth spoken in love. Further, we should be gracious with those who are on the same side of the abortion issue, together seeking clarity and understanding. Prior certainly has pro-life credentials, in words and practice, over a considerable number of years. I appreciate her reflection on language, her desire to get to the truth that is sometimes clouded by inflammatory rhetoric, and her care for women in a crisis pregnancy who feel hopeless and helpless.

Second, context matters. This is an underlying point in Prior’s article. As indicated, in the context of counseling an abortion-minded woman, the language of murder for abortion is not the most appropriate. There is a difference between how we ought to speak about Kermit Gosnell and others who show grotesque indifference to unborn children, and how we ought to speak to a woman who is in a crisis, confused, and misled.

In a related sense, in the broader legal and cultural context, Prior suggests, it can be confusing, unproductive and polarizing to call abortion murder. She recognizes that there is a difference between the legal declaration of what constitutes murder and the moral reality of what is murder, and that the legal status of abortion affects how it is perceived. This is the context in which perhaps her most contested statement should be understood: “Calling legal abortion ‘murder’ when it isn’t (it is, to our shame, lawful) is to say what isn’t true, at least in a civil (not church) context.” Her quotation marks, underlining, parenthetical comments, and the fact that she has in mind women in crisis pregnancies, all qualify the notion that we should not call abortion murder.

Nevertheless, her statement lends itself to confusion and concedes too much. If abortion is, morally speaking, a case of murder (as the deliberate killing of an innocent human being), as Prior affirms, then how should we best reflect that moral truth in our speech? In the broader debate at least, we ought to assert that it is the law that says what isn’t true, since (by making abortion legal) it declares that abortion is not murder when it is. If it seems preferable to substitute other terms for murder (“unjustifiable killing”; “clinical manslaughter”; or even “fetal homicide”), it must be noted that they convey the same point, that abortion is the intentional killing of innocent human life. None of these terms will be accepted by those who defend abortion.

In the 1980’s, CNN’s Crossfire featured debates between conservative host Pat Buchanan and liberal host Michael Kinsley, with guests on both sides of the aisle. When the issue of abortion came up, Kinsley sometimes asked pro-life advocates if they thought abortion was murder, trying to get them to admit that the logical conclusion of their position. Kinsley clearly thought that this was a way to back pro-lifers into a corner, believing they would lose credibility. When there is only time for soundbites, he is probably right. But he was also acknowledging a crucial point: if you argue that the unborn are living human beings, then you must think that abortion is murder.

Perhaps, in the right context, we should not shy away from that point. Dietrich Bonhoeffer sought to articulate a balanced perspective when he declared, “To kill the fruit in the mother’s womb is to injure the right to life that God has bestowed on the developing life. Discussion of the question whether a human being is already present confuses the simple fact that, in any case, God wills to create a human being and that the life of this developing human being has been deliberately taken.  And this is nothing but murder… It may be a deed of despair from the depths of human desolation or financial need, in which case guilt falls often more on the community than on the individual… Without doubt, all this decisively affects one’s personal, pastoral attitude toward the person concerned; but it cannot change the fact of murder. The mother, for whom this decision would be desperately hard because it goes against her own nature, would certainly be the last to deny the weight of guilt.”[2]

[1] http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2015/december/loving-our-pro-choice-neighbors-in-word-and-deed.html.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 6 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 206. Remarkably, in this critical edition, the editors seek to soften Bonhoeffer’s words by suggesting that he has in mind compulsory abortion of the “genetically unfit” under the Nazis, which ignores the specific reasons Bonhoeffer actually gives in his


Kenneth Magnuson
Kenneth Magnuson is a Professor of Christian Ethics at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.