Is abortion murder? Dietrich Bonhoeffer — my hero and the subject of one of my biographies — certainly said that it was. And I too, am sure that it is. So it’s hard to fathom that our great nation — comprised of a large percentage of dedicated Christians — actually “legalized” abortion in 1973. It’s equally difficult to comprehend that since then we have snuffed out over 60 million unborn children in this way. If we ourselves have not been directly involved, we probably know someone who has been. And almost certainly we can admit we have not done enough to stand against this moral horror. So humility and not moral superiority, must be at the heart of our efforts.
William Wilberforce — the subject of another of my biographies, and of course another hero of mine — led the battle against the Slave Trade in Great Britain two centuries ago. The parallels with abortion are striking. But when he spoke against the Slave Trade in Parliament, he always did so from a position of humility and magnanimity. “We have all been guilty,” he said. He knew that he and many others who were not directly involved but had nonetheless benefited from it in others ways — since their whole economy was virtually built upon it, just as much of our culture is built around the idea of sex without consequences, in which abortion plays a central part.
So to fight abortion as Wilberforce fought the Slave Trade, we should humbly acknowledge that our own repulsion at the horror of abortion is only a gift of God’s grace to us; and that if not for His opening our eyes, we would be on the other side of this issue. Why should we think otherwise? We should acknowledge that because abortion — like Slavery in Wilberforce’s day — has become such an entrenched part of our culture that it’s simply impossible for some to see it as we do. So we must have some grace toward them, even as we do all we can to fight against what we now know — by God’s grace toward us — to be evil.
Fighting with grace means — among other things — that we must patiently but persistently present the facts of abortion to those not yet settled on the issue — or openly in favor of it. Wilberforce understood that many in Great Britain honestly had no idea of the evil of the Slave Trade, and hadn’t given it much thought, just as many in our culture are convinced that what’s in the womb is not a baby, but a mass of cells. After all, isn’t that what everyone says? So just as a central part of Wilberforce’s efforts were in doggedly presenting the facts to those unaware of them, ours must be too.
For example, we can say that thanks to improved technology we now can actually see what we couldn’t not many years ago, that what’s in the womb is indeed human. And we speak of the lies of such “abortion providers” as Planned Parenthood, who go out of their way to avoid giving a woman an ultrasound, knowing that if she sees what’s inside her she is highly likely to decide against abortion — and they are highly likely to lose several hundred dollars.
After five decades of “legalized abortion” we can also talk about the vast numbers of women who have had “safe” and “legal” abortions, but who have nonetheless come to bitterly regret their choice, and who now feel anger at those who blithely led them down the path toward abortion, and have a dramatically different story to tell than those we endlessly hear in the “pro-abortion” media. And if we communicate these things with humility, as Wilberforce did, our chances that they will change some minds rises dramatically.
Of course, just as humility must play a part in how we communicate, we cannot shrink from boldness. In fact, it is precisely because we can see the other side of the issue — or were ourselves firmly on the other side, as I was — that we can more effectively and courageously communicate what we now have the grace to see so clearly.
Secondly, we must see that the issue is not merely a political one but a cultural one. Wilberforce not only fought in Parliament but partnered with playwrights and poets and artists to communicate the issue by every means possible. One of the most effective things he did was to commission a poster of a spaceship, showing how horribly cramped the quarters were. One glance at it changed thousands of minds. He also asked Josiah Wedgewood to create a plague with the image of a chained slave asking the question: “Am I not a brother?” This became fashionable and spread the idea of Abolition in ways mere politics never could.
Wilberforce became a member of the British Parliament in 1780. but he did not become a Christian until 1785, and it was not until 1787 that he knew God was calling him to work toward eradicating the evil of the Slave Trade. It was then that he wrote in his journal:
“God Almighty has set before me two great objects: the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of [culture].”
Because the Slave Trade was so entrenched in his culture — as abortion is in ours — he knew it was sheer foolishness to think he could make progress against it in his own strength. But when he knew that God was calling him to fight for Abolition, he also knew that the battle was not his, but God’s.
Wilberforce knew that his job was not to win, but to be obedient and to fight. God would see to the results.
It was because of this perspective that he kept on, year after year, when others fighting in their own strength became discouraged and dropped out. He knew that prayer and leaning on God were at the heart of all he did.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, concurred with this view. In fact, it was while on his death bed that he wrote his last letter to Wilberforce, encouraging him to find the source of his strength for fighting Abolition in Christ:
“Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you?”
Another central secret to Wilberforce’s success was strong friendships and fellowship. To be more specific, it was that group of fellow believers who came to be called “the Clapham Circle,” intentionally living near each other in what was then the London suburb of Clapham. Many of them were the most influential men and women of that time, and together they would pray and break bread and strategize, week after week and year after year, comforting each other in their defeats and rejoicing with each other in their victories. They worked together not only on the battle for Abolition, but on a host of cultural reforms, and overtime ended up in revolutionizing British culture in a way that is so dramatic that it should encourage us profoundly in our own battles, and most specifically the battle to end abortion.
One of the key friends in this circle was John Newton, an evangelical pastor best known for writing the hymn “Amazing Grace.” In fact, when Wilberforce first came to faith, he thought he should probably leave politics. But Newton advised him against it, suggesting that God could use a man like him in Parliament. And of course, that is precisely what happened. Before his radical conversion to Christianity, Newton had himself been the cruel captain of a slave ship, and knew the subject intimately, so that years after advising Wilberforce to stay in Parliament and use his zeal for God there, it was Newton’s own testimony that played a crucial role in bringing about the success of Abolition.
It must be said that Wilberforce’s battle against Abolition was difficult, and dragged on for eighteen years. If anyone could be justified in feeling discouraged, he could. But because he understood that the battle belonged to God and not to himself, and because he surrounded himself with friends who encouraged him and prayed with him, he was able to persist year after year, until at last, in 1807, he finally saw victory.
So Wilberforce’s story utterly convinces me that if we adopt his attitude toward the principal evil of his time to that of our own, we can and will succeed, by God’s grace. We must pursue every avenue — not just politically, but culturally too — and must present the facts over and over, and must be deeply humble even as we are bold, and must surround ourselves with brothers and sisters who share the journey with us. And finally, we must remember to Whom the battle belongs, and Who has called us to it in the first place.