Fifty years ago, the US Supreme Court in Roe v Wade interpreted the constitution so as to introduce a right to abortion by extending the right to privacy. Last week, a majority opinion in a case called Dobbs v Jackson led to Roe being overturned. The result means that responsibility for abortion law has been returned to each state legislature rather than being determined by federal government. With abortion consistently being one of the most contested issues in America, around half of all states will introduce limitations to abortion access, while the rest are likely to increase access to abortion up to birth. 

A draft of the decision had been leaked weeks before but the final ruling led to emotional responses on all sides. While many pro-life advocates wept and danced with joy outside the Court and beyond, from presidential offices to the main stage at Glastonbury, political and cultural leaders across the globe reacted with shock and scorn. 


Closer to home

The leader of the UK Women’s Equality party called it an act of hatred against women’ and BBC Radio 4 were heavily criticised for using the term pro-life’ to refer to how some groups self-identy. 

Even though the tidal wave has landed on our shores, it’s still difficult to understand the political culture of our neighbours across the pond. The judges who ruled in favour of the law change are being subjected to death threats and police protection. Just the day before this ruling the Court also struck down, as breaching the constitution, a New York law which required residents to prove proper cause” to carry a concealed firearm in public. 

The new legal and political situation in the US on abortion law is in many ways similar to what we have had in Europe for the past 50 years, where each state largely has the freedom to determine their own laws. In the UK, abortion law is devolved to each of the regional assemblies, though Westminster has overridden this principle by legislating for abortion in Northern Ireland.

In England and Wales the law on abortion largely stems from the 1967 Abortion Act. The aim was to make abortion safe and rare. However, the most recent abortion statistics recorded the highest ever number of abortions at over 214,000 including a rise in repeat abortions at more than 40 per cent. In Great Britain, official statistics show that as many as 98 per cent of abortions are for reasons which have nothing to do with any risk to the life or physical health of the women or baby. 

Church and culture

Even though the original ruling had never been accepted as settled by many, the concept of a woman’s right to choose was such a foundational part of a particular worldview, that the idea of it being challenged or limited in any way was inconceivable. The ability to access abortion has become the litmus test for progress, freedom and equality for woman. But is this the sole or best test for women’s rights?

Even though women are more likely to support restrictions and safeguards’ than men the mainstream women’s rights movement has been framed around a tug of war where both lives in pregnancy are pitted against each other. In this culture war, we are told to pick a tribe and fight, with little regard for the casualties.

Many are reluctant to speak on this issue or are unsure what to think. 

This pastoral letter from Jon Tyson to his Church around Roe v Wade reflects well how God consistently honours women and children, born and pre-born. The church has had a consistent witness for thousands of years that life begins in the womb, all children, born and unborn, are sacred and bear the image of God. In the ancient world, children and often women, were seen as property that could be disposed of at will. The earliest Christians recognised that children had inherent value in the eyes of God and they went out amongst the rubbish tips looking for exposed’ newborns to be cared for and adopted.

Church history shows that Christians didn’t just say life mattered, they demonstrated it in ways that have echoed through the centuries down to us. 

Both Lives Matter – a new conversation?

What if instead of refighting the culture war for another 50 years, we engaged in a new conversation?

What if instead of picking a side on the right or left, we ventured out into new shared ground?

What if we drew a venn diagram, where a new pro-both circle overlapped with concerns from those in the pro-choice circle and concerns from the pro-life circle? 

What would it look like to champion the lives of all women and the lives of the unborn, holding all lives together with as much dignity and compassion, justice and beauty as possible?

What if we refused to ignore the effects of poverty or race, domestic violence or sexual abuse, individualism, consumerism or a fast-abortion culture?

This has been the dream and the reality of the Both Lives Matter campaign where we seek to hold a different conversation in Northern Ireland and increasingly across the UK.

We are committed to building common ground in these spaces with lives of grace, generosity and radical discipleship. 

We will continue to come under fire from all because we refuse to pick a side. Resisting culture war vitriol may cost us reputationally but we refuse to be defined by tired labels.

This is the moment for a new vision of valuing both women’s rights and human life more, not less. This is the moment for the tough conversations about what a robust and consistent Christian ethic of life looks like. The church is at its best and most radical when it cares about life, not just birth.

The overturning of this case is not a silver bullet, nor is it an apocalypse, but could it at the very least be a new conversation about a better future where both women and unborn children are supported to live and thrive – together?