Abortion Rites

A teenager named Delenia came to her parents with bad news: She was pregnant. Her father, a minister, was shocked and ashamed. Abortion was available but fortunately Delenia discovered an alternative: a Christian residential ministry that took her in and provided maternity care. Eventually Delenia finished her education and was able to support herself and her child. The story has a contemporary ring to it, doesn't it? But surprisingly enough, it happened nearly a hundred years ago. Delenia's story is told in Marvin Olasky's new book Abortion Rites: A Social History of Abortion in America. Olasky discovered that in the nineteenth century, even though abortion was illegal, it was widely available. Abortionists freely advertised their pills and potions in newspapers. In fact, the number of abortions relative to the size of the population was about the same as it is today. That may be hard to imagine for those of us who have watched the number of abortions zoom up since Roe v. Wade, exactly 20 years ago today. But consider the circumstances. In the mid-nineteenth century, America was racked by massive social upheavals. The Industrial Revolution had taken work out of the home, where it had been a family industry, and transferred it to the factory. Cities were flooded with young adults trying to find work. But that's not all they found. Living alone, without family guidance or protection, many were enticed into relationships that didn't last. Young women found themselves pregnant and abandoned, with nowhere to go, no one to help. They were an easy target for abortionists, who profited from their misery. But then a transformation began. Christians whose hearts were torn by the decay of the cities launched a multi-pronged strategy. Laws were passed outlawing abortion. Christian journalists wrote exposés of abortionists. Equal emphasis was placed on prevention. Scores of Christians started homes for unwed mothers. They founded adoption agencies. They ran job training programs. They opened Christian residences for young people living away from home. They formed recreation centers so young singles could "just say no" and still enjoy fun and friends. It was hard work, but it paid off: The abortion rate went down. And it stayed down pretty much until the 1960s, when a new cycle of abortion began. Again it was touched off by major social upheavals. Again it was characterized by young people leaving home in large numbers, this time for college campuses. In our day, pro-lifers have tended to focus more narrowly on efforts to change the law. But under the new administration, that will become harder to do. Like our counterparts a hundred years ago, we need to develop a multi-pronged strategy of prevention, including crisis pregnancy centers, Christian youth groups, and inner-city ministries. As we mark the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, let's not just look back 20 years—let's look back 100 years, to the Christians who labored against abortion back then. They passed laws, but they didn't stop there. They were willing to get their hands dirty ministering to hurting men and women—one by one. Now that's a legacy we can learn from.


Chuck Colson


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