David Closson is Director of the Center for Biblical Worldview at Family Research Council. Tessa Longbons is a Senior Research Associate at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. This article appeared in The Gospel Coalition on November 29, 2021.
On December 1, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, a case that has the potential to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion on demand in America. In the lead-up to the case, abortion will once again be in the national spotlight, and when the court announces its decision sometime next year, it will generate massive media attention.
Abortion is one of the most contentious and perennial topics in American political discourse. But it’s much more than a political concern—the topic of abortion prompts deep moral and theological questions. What do pastors need to know about the Dobbs case so they can educate and prepare their congregations for the national conversation about abortion that will follow?
What Is Dobbs About?
In 2018, Mississippi passed the Gestational Age Act to limit elective abortion after 15 weeks of gestation. Mississippi’s only abortion center, Jackson Women’s Health Organization, challenged the law, and lower courts blocked it from taking effect. Mississippi has appealed the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Mississippi’s law offers a direct challenge to the legal framework imposed by Roe and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. In 1973, under Roe’s trimester framework, states were prevented from prohibiting abortion until the third trimester — but the court’s definition of a broad, all-encompassing “health exception” in Doe v. Bolton made fruitless any attempts to place meaningful limits on abortion. In 1992, the court considered abortion again in Planned Parenthood v. Casey.
The court ultimately upheld Roe, replacing the trimester framework with a prohibition against states creating an “undue burden” on women seeking an abortion before viability (i.e., the gestational age at which an unborn baby is thought to be capable of surviving outside the womb), but again leaving in place the “health exception” that enables states to permit elective abortion until birth. Under Roe and Casey, abortion is permissible through all nine months.
In Dobbs, the court will consider a single question that goes to the heart of Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey: are all pre-viability prohibitions on elective abortion unconstitutional? The court’s decision could have major implications for states’ ability to limit abortion.
Why Should the Court Reconsider?
We know a great deal more about what goes on inside a mother’s womb than we did in 1973, when Roe was handed down. Scientific and technological advances have given us a front-row seat to the miraculous voyage of life that occurs between fertilization and birth. At 15 weeks, an unborn baby’s heart has already beat more than 15 million times. Doctors can tell whether a baby is right- or left-handed based on which thumb the baby prefers to suck. The baby is already beginning to learn favorite foods by tasting flavors from the mother’s diet in the amniotic fluid. Moreover, we now know that unborn babies can feel pain by at least 15 weeks.
The United States has taken an extreme position on abortion compared to the rest of the world. We’re one of just a handful of countries that permit elective abortion past five months of pregnancy, placing us in the company of China and North Korea. Roe places no limits on late-term abortion, and in some states, abortion is legal throughout all nine months of pregnancy. In contrast, most of Europe limits elective abortion even prior to 15 weeks, making the Mississippi law at the center of Dobbs liberal in comparison.
In the nearly 50 years since Roe, America has lost well over 60 million pre-born babies, and science is increasingly making clear what the Bible told us all along.
What Does This Mean for Pastors?
It would be a mistake for pastors to assume that their congregations know about the Bible’s pro-life ethic. There might have been a time when it was widely acknowledged by those inside and even outside the church. That no longer appears to be the case.
Consider the reaction to a tweet published by Family Research Council on September 3 that simply stated, “The Bible is ardently and unequivocally pro-life.” Within a few days, the tweet had gone viral, generating nearly 20 million impressions, 218,000 engagements, and 17,000 replies. Approximately 95 percent of the replies were negative, with Twitter users claiming the Family Research Council was misquoting the Bible and that Scripture does not affirm the personhood of the unborn or say anything that could be interpreted as opposition to abortion. Many self-professed Christians condemned the tweet.
Although the Bible’s teaching on the sanctity of life, the personhood of the unborn, and God’s concern for vulnerable children might appear obvious to those familiar with Scripture, the vast majority of Americans—including many who attend church—are unaware of the Bible’s teaching on these subjects.
This is consistent with the findings of researcher George Barna, who discerned that only six percent of Americans—and 21 percent of those who regularly attend evangelical churches—have a biblical worldview (seeing every part of life through the truth of Scripture). Undoubtedly, this lack of a biblical worldview contributes to recent surveys that show only 60 percent of born-again Christians (compared to 39 percent of the public) say that human life is sacred. These abysmal statistics should galvanize pastors to explicitly affirm the personhood of the unborn as they preach passages that declare the value of human life.
One of the best-known Scripture texts that affirms the personhood of the unborn is Psalm 139:13–16:
For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. . . . My frame was not hidden from you, when I was made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.
This remarkable passage highlights the fully personal nature of unborn life. The unborn baby in his mother’s womb was not an impersonal blob of cells with no moral value; God was forming and knitting together David. David’s use of the personal pronouns “I” and “my” to describe his yet unborn self highlights the personhood of the unborn child.
The account in Luke 1 of Mary’s visit to her relative Elizabeth contains a remarkable affirmation of the unborn’s personhood. First, upon hearing Mary’s voice, John the Baptist “leaped for joy” in Elizabeth’s womb (v. 44). This is evidence of personal human activity in utero. The unborn John was capable of feeling joy, an emotion ascribed to persons. Moreover, John was acknowledging the unborn Jesus, who was in Mary’s womb. This was John’s mission in life—to be the forerunner of Christ. Although he was still in utero, John’s ministry of heralding the Messiah had already begun.
Second, Elizabeth referred to Mary as the “mother of my Lord” at a point in Mary’s pregnancy when most women don’t yet know they’re pregnant (v. 43). This means Jesus, in his embryonic state, was already recognized as “Lord.”
Third, Luke tells us that Elizabeth was “filled with the Holy Spirit,” meaning her reaction to Jesus was both fitting and appropriate (v. 41). These details point to the reality that Jesus’s incarnation began at his conception.
In the lead-up to Dobbs, it may be helpful for your congregation to hear teaching from these passages or one of the many others that express the Bible’s high view of unborn life.
For 2,000 years, Christians have argued from Scripture that unborn children are made in God’s image and possess inherent dignity. Widespread biblical and historical illiteracy means we are at risk of forgetting this fact today. It’s crucial for pastors to preach the whole counsel of God’s Word, including passages that inform the conscience on abortion. Christians need to know that the sanctity of human life at all stages is not a merely modern political concern but one that our forebears in the faith have cared deeply about for millennia.
How Can We Pray?
Pastors can also encourage their congregations to pray. Here are 10 specific ways Christians can pray for the Dobbs case:
1. Pray for the Supreme Court justices: Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer, John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett. Pray that they would have wisdom as they hear the oral arguments, deliberate, and write a decision.
2. Pray for the law clerks who will research the case and assist the justices.
3. Pray that Mississippi’s lawyers would have wisdom, winsomeness, and courage as they argue on behalf of the Gestational Age Act.
4. Pray that the public discourse and media coverage on the case would be accurate and truthful.
5. Pray that women facing unplanned or challenging pregnancies would receive the counsel, resources, encouragement, and support they need to choose life.
6. Pray that men would choose life for their unborn children and take responsibility for them. Pray that men would support their children’s mothers.
7. Pray that pregnancy care centers throughout the nation would have wisdom, compassion, and empathy when interacting with women considering abortion or women who have had an abortion. Pray that these centers would continue to have the means to lend medical, material, and emotional support to these women.
8. Pray that churches and communities would support mothers who choose to parent their children in difficult circumstances. Pray for adoption agencies as they find loving homes for children whose mothers cannot parent them.
9. Pray that abortion would end not only in America but also in every nation around the world.
10. Pray that local, state, and federal lawmakers would stress legislation that protects unborn children and that our nation’s courts would uphold these laws.