Earlier this August a story circulated about an Australian couple who contracted with a Thai woman to carry a surrogate pregnancy. Surrogate Pattaramon Chanbua, a 21-year-old food vendor with two young children of her own, carried unborn twins for the Australian couple. One was born healthy, the other with Down syndrome and a congenital heart condition. According to an Associated Press report, the couple took the healthy child and returned to Australia, allegedly abandoning their other baby with his Thai surrogate mother, who has reportedly not been paid the full $9,300 fee she was promised. The Australian couple has denied the allegation, although they admit to anger that the surrogacy agency had not conducted tests earlier to detect Down syndrome. Had they known earlier, they probably would have terminated the pregnancy, the father told the AP.
“I don’t think any parent wants a son with a disability,” he said, apparently oblivious that his reasoning was not helping his cause. “Parents want their children to be healthy and happy.”
The story has sparked outrage, with questions being raised about commercial surrogacy. Over at the Witherspoon Institute’s Public Discourse blog, Rickard Newman has a piece examining the problems of third-party reproduction, where children can be treated like objects in a market: disposable when unwanted, purchasable when desired.
But before we cast stones at the Australian couple, Americans should come to terms with the reality that reportedly 9 in 10 Down syndrome pregnancies in our own country are terminated before birth. What seems unimaginable after birth is all too common while the child is still in utero. We need to ask what social justice could look like amidst a culture that is predisposed to abortion. The early church offers us some clues.
Contrary to the assertions of some that pro-life sentiment among Christians suddenly materialized in the late 1970s, early church documents make clear that abortion and infanticide were unacceptable practices among Christians. The first century Didache, or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, addresses Christian ethics, instructing “do not murder a child by abortion or kill a newborn infant.”
Indeed, the decision of Christians not to practice infanticide — which Romans did by exposing disabled or unwanted female infants to the elements – set early believers on a significantly different trajectory than the prevailing pagan culture at the time. Historians noted that Christians took in and adopted infants discarded by others.
All of this may seem obvious now – that adults are obliged to care for vulnerable children and that exposing a child to the elements is barbaric – but in the time of the early church, Christians were acting in a counter-cultural manner. Today we do not discard female children at birth, but there are a significant number of people who view the practice of gender-selective abortion to be acceptable.
Part of the role of government is to provide for the common defense – a protection of the population from those who would seek to do harm. With this understanding, I propose that protection of the unborn should be a priority of a just government. But what of social justice for the unborn?
Activists in the pro-life movement are encouraged at the enactment of laws in states such as Texas requiring abortion clinics to conform to the standards of ambulatory surgical centers, and requiring doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges to a nearby hospital in the event of complications. The consequences of this legislation have been profound, with nearly half of Texas’ 40 abortion providers shuttering their clinics as the first phase of the legislation came into effect, and all but 6-8 other clinics expected to similarly close in September with the second phase going into effect.
This is an act of justice, with state officials seeking to prevent the kinds of horrors reported in Kermit Gosnell’s Philadelphia clinic. But social justice requires something more: the 250 miles separating the Rio Grande Valley from the nearest abortion clinic in San Antonio must be lined with pregnancy centers and ministries to ensure that women facing unplanned pregnancies are cared for. It has always struck me as absurd how “pro-choice” could be interpreted as pointing to the abortion clinic and announcing “there is your choice” without legitimately attempting to make other options available – and in the same manner, Christians must ensure that the shuttering of abortion clinics is met with corresponding support mechanisms from churches and community groups to make abortion alternatives readily available.
Pro-life activists are finding legislative success: more state abortion restrictions were passed between 2011 and 2013 than in the entire previous decade, from 2001 to 2010, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion rights think tank. In 2013 alone, at least 87 abortion clinics in the nation have shut down or ceased providing abortions. There are now 582 surgical abortion clinics in the United States, a 73 percent drop from a 1991 high of 2,176.
Before many of these laws came into effect, Christians began opening pregnancy support centers across the street from abortion clinics and listing support services on internet search engines under the search term “abortion”. This is gradually expanding outward into the culture, with non-religious pro-life groups such as Feminists for Life and Secular Pro-Life establishing their own voice. There are now at least 2,300 pregnancy centers across the country – vastly exceeding the number of abortion clinics.
These are the beginnings of what social justice might look like in a culture that affirms life in its earliest, most vulnerable state, and where women facing the uncertainty of an unplanned pregnancy are offered something better than directions to an abortion clinic.