Acton Institute Powerblog

Abortion and Intergenerational Justice

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I’m not sure I have ever really encountered the term intergenerational justice before this discussion over “A Call for Intergenerational Justice,” at least in any substantive way. This unfamiliarity is what lay behind my initial caveat regarding the term, my concern that it not be understood as “code for something else.”

The Call itself provides a decent definition of the concept, or at least of its implications: “…that one generation must not benefit or suffer unfairly at the cost of another.”

One of the commenters here at the PowerBlog is Peter Vander Meulen, who runs the Office of Social Justice at the Christian Reformed Church (the denomination to which I belong). Vander Meulen rightly reiterates that much of the disagreement has to do with our differing views of the primary responsibilities of government.

Much of my concern with the Call is that is does not display enough in terms of substantive commitment to principles. I think our debates about the budget crisis need to lead us back to consider from first principles what the role of government in society ought to be relative to other social institutions. (I hope to provide more on that positively later this week.)

It is on this point that my concern about the invocation of intergenerational justice in this context, and social justice more broadly, is not being construed in a vigorous enough manner.

To put it bluntly: How can a call for intergenerational justice in particular, or social justice more broadly, have any plausibility without addressing the fundamental social problem of abortion? If intergenerational justice is about the duties and responsibilities from one generation to another, it seems obvious that the starting point of the discussion, from a particularly evangelical and even more broadly Christian perspective, should be on the question of whether that next generation has a right to come into existence in the first place.

It is an unfortunate reality that social justice and abortion are oftentimes not viewed as related in this way. Acton Institute research fellow Anthony Bradley wrote last week at WORLD’s site about how abortion is often not considered a priority justice issue. In the context of the abortion rate in New York City, he writes,

I’ve been browsing the mercy and justice websites of several of New York’s well-known churches and Christian non-profit groups for discussion of New York’s abortion crisis. Outside of the crisis pregnancy centers themselves, I have not found much of anything. What one will find are very good discussions on subjects like fighting homelessness, improving inner-city education, opening women’s shelters, and dealing with sex trafficking and juvenile delinquency. I raise this issue because I am concerned that perhaps the missional pendulum has swung too far in one direction.

Closer to the context of this discussion, Mr. Vander Meulen’s agency, the Office of Social Justice (OSJ), was instructed by the denominational synod last year to “boldly advocate for the church’s position against abortion.” This instruction was deemed necessary because the OSJ did “not currently offer many resources to advocate for the unborn,” despite the fact that there is an official denominational position on the question of abortion (while there is not one on so many of the issues that the OSJ does “boldly advocate” for). You can judge for yourself whether that situation has changed substantively in the intervening time (e.g. “Advocacy…Coming Soon!”).

One of the signers of the Call, Jim Wallis, perhaps illustrates this illegitimate dichotomy between social justice and abortion in his judgments about the moral status of the abortion question. In a 2008 interview with Christianity Today. When pressed on this point, Wallis spoke candidly:

“I don’t think that abortion is the moral equivalent issue to slavery that Wilberforce dealt with. I think that poverty is the new slavery. Poverty and global inequality are the fundamental moral issues of our time. That’s my judgment.”

By contrast I do think the “Guideline on Human Life” offered by CPJ is rather more helpful and substantive than the current efforts of the OSJ to “boldly advocate” against abortion.

But shouldn’t consideration of abortion be a critical consideration in any discussion of “intergenerational justice”? The Call itself invokes the context of “generations yet unborn” and the relationship between “grandparents” and “grandchildren.”

If the connection of abortion to the budget debate remains unclear to some in the context of intergenerational justice, we might raise the following considerations:

Does the Call adequately address government provision for funding of abortions, whether through entitlement coverage or through funding for organizations that provide abortion services, such as Planned Parenthood? There are clauses advocating that “Effective programs that prevent hunger and suffering and empower poorer members of society must continue and be adequately funded,” and that “We must control healthcare expenses.”

Is funding for Planned Parenthood support for “an effective program” that prevents suffering or something that should be cut?

And there are also clear demographic and population implications for questions of future funding of entitlements, including Social Security. As I noted above, I hope to make the link more clear later this week when I talk about the need to get back to basics in the budget crisis.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Dan Hugger


    Speaking of first principles would you say that we can even talk about a ‘just state’ or a ‘just law’ in the manner we can speak of persons being ‘just’? (The idea can be traced back to The Republic but just because it has a long historical pedigree doesn’t necessarily mean it’s valid)

    More specifically can law ever institute justice? Can a state of justice be achieved through legislation?

  • Dan, I think there is a valid way of talking about social institutions approximating or manifesting justice to a greater or lesser extent yes.

    I don’t think this side of the eschaton law ever will institute justice perfectly, but I do think it has a positive role in realizing a more or less just social order. There are better and worse laws, and just legislation is a necessary but not sufficient condition of a just social order.

  • Michael C

    From the perspective of a lawyer who is not a philosopher, justice is the process, not the result. The right to engage in the process is the right to justice. Human beings being as flawed as they are will never administer judgements in a way which achieves justice in any sense which withstands scrutiny on a case by case basis. Both the limits of the remedies provided by the law and the limits on the factfinding process are important impediments to achieving the just outcomes which society would prefer.
    It is one of the problems with the US administration of abortion law that no one advocates for the rights of each individual unborn child. They have no voice in the process! They have no right even to engage in the “justice system.” The person usually charged with protecting the rights of the child, the parent, is the very one whom the child would seek to restrain.
    This is similar to, but not the same as, the fact that those non-voting members of our polity who will have to suffer longest under a perpetual public debt, have had no political voice in creating that debt.

  • Margo

    Is there no issue on which anti-abortionists will not hang out their shingle? Should health care be eliminated — of course, because somebody might figure out a way not to be pregnant? Should the public unions get to have collective bargaining — of course not, because somebody might bargain for abortion coverage. Etc., ad nauseam.
    NOBODY is making the author, or his relatives, have an abortion. It is, however, a purely theological argument, based on the unprovable assertion that a fertilized ovum has a soul. And because it’s not provable, it’s one person’s belief versus another’s belief.
    The author should do some historical reading on the way people used to be treated if they happened to disagree with the state religion. In western countries, that is. They are still treated badly in many non-western countries.
    In America, Quakers were flogged, Baptists run out of the colony, innocent “witches” hunted and hanged . . . until we got the idea that forcing one theology on everybody was a bad idea.
    The author can advocate his position, just as I can advocate mine. But his insistence on having his theology translated into law is a violation of my Freedom of Religion.

  • Nic Van Engen

    I’m not trying to side up against you here and maybe I’m reading too much into it, but it seems like your goal with this particular blog is to discredit the OSJ and Peter VM in order to further your position against the Call. If that is not your intention, please make it clear so that less-familiar readers don’t misunderstand. Maybe I don’t understand in fullness your argument against it, but I’m certainly more lost now.

    Perhaps the problem with the Call is that it’s too vague in some areas, and too specific in others. Perhaps it should be re-written. But considering what is at stake, we need to take the approach of searching for common ground rather than eroding away at the base. I know that your intentions are honorable but in this case you may be pulling too far away from the more urgent issue at hand, and into a much larger arena of ideological differences.

  • Nic,

    Thanks for your charitable words of critique. My intention is to point to the avoidance of the question of abortion as a hallmark of a truncated view of justice (social, public, intergenerational). This truncated view is characteristic of particular figures and institutions, and I name some of them here. It is in this context that I judge the Call to have shortcomings. My sense is that on a number of points the Call was “watered down,” you might say, to accommodate a broader spectrum of bi-partisan representation.

    I suspect that the omission of abortion, however, was not something that was consciously ever raised at all, and that’s in part why my post is intended to be a bit provocative. I’m awestruck that in the context of a discussion about intergenerational rights and responsibilities, the right to life of the coming generation can simply be overlooked. I don’t find this oversight to be something that is endemic to the work of CPJ or Gideon Strauss, but I do think it is characteristic of some others I name here.

  • The Office of Social Justice is doing an exceptional job on the issue of abortion imho. Before summer 2010 the instruction to the OSJ was to focus on injustices that result in poverty and hunger (notice we don’t address marriage issues either). This instruction to include abortion is new add on. It was not a “start doing better in this area,” instruction as you imply. The OSJ only has four staff who are full time and the 400 pages of website are only a small part of what they do. Now they are working hard on an abortion page (new area of competence) to offer expert education that will help lower the number of abortions in the world. Having been with them now for 5 months I can only say that I am impressed.

  • Kris, thanks for your insights. I’d be interested in hearing more about how the OSJ(HA)’s first mandate came about and who was involved in crafting the scope of that advocacy.

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  • Jordan,

    One piece of the OSJ’s original story is the finding that it is ineffective to address poverty without addressing systemic causes. In 1978 the CRC Synod said that the church should call on Government to address systemic causes of poverty and teach its members about addressing systemic causes. (Theology aside, nations that don’t address systemic poverty face grave issues down the road.) Later the OSJ specialized ministry was formed to continue that cause. We support the Call because we believe government addressing systemic causes of poverty doesn’t happen for free; is this where you and the OSJ part ways?

  • Kris, thanks again for that information. I suppose I part ways from the OSJ not only in its definition of “social justice” as concerning “systemic causes of poverty” and hunger, but also in the methods by which those systemic causes ought to be addressed.

    Would you say that the 2010 instruction from synod effectively expanded the definition of “social justice” for the OSJ, or that the definition remains the same (e.g. focused on “structural causes of poverty” and hunger), or that the definition of social justice has always been larger but the advocacy of the OSJ has simply never dealt in concerted ways with that larger definition?

    Just as a comparison, you might want to look at the 7 themes of social justice that Roman Catholics typically employ:

    The first one is understood as the “the foundation of a moral vision for society.”

  • Roger McKinney

    Kris, what are the “systemic” causes of poverty? I don’t see any. Poverty is the natural state of mankind. Creating wealth is very hard work. The systemic blocks to wealth creation are high taxation, heavy regulation and persistent inflation.