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Fully Prolife or Partly Prolife?: A Response to Heidi R. Unruh and Ronald J. Sider, “Gender Equality and the Sanctity of Life”

June 22, 2023
By Alan Branch

In the most recent edition of Discovering Biblical Equality, Ronald Sider and Heidi Unruh offer an egalitarian perspective of the sanctity of human life and argue for a moral stance they call “fully prolife.” In the chapter titled “Gender Equality and the Sanctity of Life,” Sider and Unruh insist sanctity of life questions need to be stretched beyond the narrow focus of abortion and euthanasia to include other questions such as hunger, poverty, and racism. While they make some sound observations, their argument is substantively weak.

Ronald Sider (1939–2022) was a profoundly influential advocate for social justice. He earned his PhD in history from Yale in 1969 and taught for many years at Palmer Seminary (previously known as Eastern Baptist Seminary). He was the founder of Evangelicals for Social Action, a group which changed its name to Christians for Social Action in 2020. His most well-known book was Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (1977), which he modified through six editions. Heidi R. Unruh is a graduate of Palmer Seminary, where she earned an MA in Theology and Public Policy (1996) and is now a ministry consultant living in Hutchinson, KS, where her husband is part of the ministerial staff at First Mennonite Church. Together, Sider and Unruh published several articles and books, including Churches That Make a Difference: Reaching Your Community With Good News and Good Works (2002) and Saving Souls, Serving Society: Understanding the Faith Factor in Church-Based Social Ministry (2005).

What does it mean to be “fully prolife”? Sider and Unruh say,

To be fully prolife means to intervene wherever the flourishing of human life is threatened. This threat may result either from direct actions that degrade and destroy life, such as war, human trafficking, and capital punishment; from lack of access to food, health care, and other life-giving necessities; or from the ruin of the environment on which all of life depends (513).

Sider described this same view prior to the 2016 election in the Bruderhof journal Plough and said, “When we turn to the whole of Scripture, it quickly becomes clear that the God of the Bible cares about both the sanctity of human life and economic justice (especially for the poor); about both marriage and peacemaking; about sexual integrity, racial justice, and creation care. The political vision of the Bible is what I call ‘completely pro-life.’”[1] In this manner, the term sanctity of human life is expanded from bioethical discussions regarding abortion and euthanasia to encompass nearly every aspect of life and government policy.

Sider and Unruh’s chapter makes the same move by redefining the term “prolife” from a focused analysis of bioethics regarding abortion, euthanasia, and human research to encompass a broader discussion of social justice. The authors posit a dichotomy between prolife and feminist camps, suggesting they have a better third way, saying:

Yet there have always been those who did not feel wholly at home in either camp – those who have upheld the sanctity of life within the womb, while also caring deeply about the human rights and freedom of the mother and her access to health care, childcare, education, and economic support. Today, a growing number are claiming to be both pro-woman and prolife, redefining established labels. Rather than taking sides, they are changing the debate (522).

Indeed, Sider and Unruh are changing the debate — they are doing so by engaging in confused moral argumentation about the moral status of preborn human life.

Confusing the Debate about Preborn Personhood

“Gender Equality and the Sanctity of Life” begins with an accurate summary of the image of God in relation to the sanctity of human life, but then follows this summary with confused argumentation regarding the concept of personhood. The authors begin the article by citing Genesis 1:27 as evidence of the “unique status and equal dignity of every person” (510). They continue by saying, “The image of God is not measured by qualities such as capacity for self-fulfillment, autonomy, quality of life, or social usefulness. No attribute belonging to a human — gender, age, physical or mental maturity or ability — affects their essential humanness and thus the sanctity of their life” (515). If Sider and Unruh had stopped here, their position would have been stronger, but sadly they slip into muddled argumentation that serves to devalue the preborn.

Immediately following a clear assertion that all people are made in the image of God, the very next paragraph says, “This foundation [the image of God] . . . does not settle the question of abortion because we are still faced with a crucial question: Are the unborn human?” (515). They then add, “Mere biological continuity does not tell us, however, at what point the imago Dei is fully present” (518). The authors equivocate on the terms image of God and human. In one paragraph, they assert all humans regardless of their status are made in the image of God, and then make the completely opposite assertion insisting we still have to decide when people are human and when the imago Dei is fully present.

How can the authors assert such seemingly contradictory ideas? By smuggling in a vague notion of personhood. They state, “Scripture nowhere teaches explicitly that the being in the womb is a person” (515). Later they ask, “When should this prenatal human be considered a person, created in God’s image, ‘crowned . . . with glory and honor’ (Ps 8:5)” (518)? Here we see equivocation, as a vague philosophical notion of person is substituted for the image of God. While giving perfunctory acknowledgement to the force of the doctrine of the image of God, Sider and Unruh actually describe the developmental personhood view, saying, “We ought to assume that, at some point in a pregnancy, an abortion would end an irreplaceable life sacred to God” (519). Here, the authors modify the way they use the word life without telling the reader: To the average person, life refers to biological life and there is no debate about when human life in this sense begins — biological life begins at conception — but when Sider and Unruh say “life” they actually have in mind philosophical, extra-biblical debates about personhood.

Debates about the use of the word person can be confusing because the average person uses the terms human person and human life as synonyms. But in debates about the bioethical issues of abortion and euthanasia, person is used as a different conceptual category than life. Merely having human life doesn’t guarantee one is a human person. The developmental personhood view defines a human person based on cognitive abilities, emotional response, and the ability to interact with others. Based on this view, humans develop into beings which possess an abstract trait called “personhood.” Of course, if humans develop into persons, it is also possible to develop out of being a person, meaning a sick person suffering from dementia or in a comatose state at the end of life may no longer be a person. Personhood is a trait that comes and goes based on our human abilities.

Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen explain two flawed assumptions undergirding the developmental personhood view. The first assumption is that the human person and the human body are separate entities, dividing human beings into two distinct realities at the same time: a person and a subpersonal body.[2] Thus, the body which exists prior to personhood is not the person. Life begins at conception; personhood does not. The second assumption is that the person began at a later moment in time than the body, thus the human life conceived in the womb is one kind of substance and the later person is a second kind of substance. When human life is conceived, it is a particular expression of a type of substance we might call a “human animal,” but this human animal does not possess personhood. Persons are a different type of substance who do not come to exist until the onset of psychological traits, and this occurs later — much later according to some theories — than the conception of human life. George and Tollefsen explain, “Because persons are taken to have some set of psychological properties essentially, it is held that entities of the person sort cannot come into existence before these properties emerge, and that entities of the person sort cease to exist when these properties disappear.”[3]

For the developmental personhood view, human life and human personhood are separate ontological categories. The view does not deny that human life begins at conception; the view denies that human personhood begins at conception, and only persons get legal protection. Since the preborn human is not a person, it is morally permissible to end the life. This is exactly the sort of argumentation Justice Blackmun used in Roe, and Sider and Unruh reflect almost the identical stance regarding preborn human life.

Developmental Personhood is Contrary to God’s Word

The developmental personhood view is in direct conflict with the striking way Genesis separates the creation of the rest of the universe in Genesis 1:1–25 with the creation of humans in Genesis 1:26–28. In Genesis 1:1–25, both plants and animals are repeatedly described as being made “after their kind,” the idea being there are lots of similar things in the category of “kind.” The divergence in Genesis 1:26–28 is striking: Humans are not made “after their kind;” humans are made in the image of God. We find points of reference for understanding animals and plants by examining other things made in the same “kind.” But the primary reference for understanding humans is not other humans; man’s image is not simply of himself oriented to other humans made after the same kind — man also shares a likeness to his Creator in a way nothing else in creation does.[4] The image of God is not an attribute bestowed on us by other humans as we develop; from conception to natural death the ontological reality is all humans are made in the image of God.

The imago Dei dignifies every human being. The Bible never gives a specific definition of the “image of God,” but the term clearly assigns a unique value to human life. At the most basic level, the fact humans are made in the image of God means the ethical value of human life does not come from humanity but from God. As Dan Heimbach says, “[The image of God] is a matter of reflecting or expressing something beyond ourselves, which makes it something we cannot generate or lose, do not share with animals, do not control, do not own, and all bear the same regardless of gender, age, intelligence, health, wealth, or social status.”[5] Fundamentally, the image of God is a status, not a function, and it is a status granted to humans by their Creator. It is not a status humans grow into; to be human is to be in the image of God. The image of God is not distributed to some more than others. Thus Sider and Unruh’s musings about when the imago Dei is “fully present” are as confused as the disciples asking Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” (John 9:3)

If one is wondering when human life begins, there is no argument: Human life begins at conception; there is no human who did not begin at conception. Yet Sider and Unruh would have us believe that at some point in pregnancy, a living human entity possibly does not have the image of God and thus is not a person. In contrast,   Other than conception, any other suggested marker for when human life begins and deserves protection is subjective and based on the personal opinion of the individual arguing for his or her position.

A “Prolife” Position that Fails to Prioritize Life

Sider and Unruh’s “fully prolife position” fails to prioritize rightly the issue of abortion. They say, “Abortion, which ends nearly one in five pregnancies in our country, is a prolife concern” (513).[6] They follow this statement by listing several other issues which they identify as prolife concerns, such as mothers who die in childbirth, malnutrition, and political corruption. Yes, all of these are issues which should be of concern to right-thinking Christians, but one of them has a place of logical priority: abortion. Why? Because if someone is not allowed the right to be born, then that person will never get to exercise any other right. Hypothetically, I can be wrong on some matter related to economics and my wrong stance could negatively affect another person, yet it is possible for the affected person to overcome misguided policies related to economics and live a thriving life. But if I advocate a wrong view of abortion and a child is killed, that child will never be able to recover from the consequences.

Sider and Unruh’s “fully prolife” position seems to embrace everything under the rubric of the sanctity of human life, and thus winds up poorly protecting all people. By insisting all manner of issues be addressed under the banner of the sanctity of human life, abortion gets pushed to the side as one issue among many. But doing this blurs the helpful distinction between the sanctity of life issue in bioethics regarding how we as a culture should treat the very young and very sick as opposed to economic issues, which have a tertiary sanctity of life component. By adding in other issues, Sider and Unruh dilute the force of the term prolife.

Furthermore, fiscal and public policy conservatives challenge the premise that the expanded statist interventions Sider and Unruh have in mind will actually reduce poverty (529n60). Broadening state-sponsored programs requires higher taxes and a larger government footprint. Here we encounter the opportunity cost of spending, in that when the state takes money from its citizens, Christians in particular will have fewer resources to share in a generous manner to help their neighbors. Though Sider modified his views on the idea of redistributing wealth throughout the various editions of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, he still seemed to have Rawlsian views about wealth. Yet, in my opinion, the very economic policies Sider suggested would not reduce poverty on a broad scale but instead weaken the entire economy and increase the number of people in poverty. If the premise of Sider and Unruh’s “fully prolife” ethic is that poverty is a prolife issue, the very policies they advocate which increase poverty should be opposed.

A fully-orbed prolife stance will certainly do more than merely urge someone not to have an abortion. From a complementarian perspective, the issue of widespread demand for abortion emerges from a complex of ideas conditioning men to see women as objects for sexual gratification as opposed to fellow image bearers. In a culture that persistently degrades women via pornography, the moral thinking of men is warped to view a pregnant woman as a broken sexual toy which an abortion can fix.

Frankly, there have been some in the prolife movement who seem to forget it takes two people — a male and a female — to conceive a baby, and too often rhetoric has focused solely on the pregnant woman and little attention has been given to the men fathering the children. Often, a pregnant woman’s boyfriend will say, “If you abort, I will stay with you, but if you choose to have a baby, I’m moving on to someone else.” Sider and Unruh recognize these dynamics and say, “All too often it is not safe, advisable, or even possible for women to consult the biological father about their reproductive choices” (527). The Danvers Statement points the way towards addressing these issues when it says that among its purposes are “to bring healing to persons and relationships injured by an inadequate grasp of God’s will concerning manhood and womanhood.”

“Gender Equality and the Sanctity Life” seems aware of the need to stress the goodness of marriage, but doesn’t emphasize enough the large number of pregnancies and abortions among single women. For example, Sider and Unruh say, “The majority of women who have an abortion already have at least one child” (533). Though they don’t give a source, they apparently have in mind data from a widely cited 2021 CDC report which said about 59% of women who abort already have at least one child.[7] Yet Sider and Unruh do not note that the same report said around 85% of women who abort are unmarried.[8] Taking these two data points together indicates a large percentage of women who abort aren’t just mothers, they are unmarried mothers. Clearly, data indicate becoming pregnant while married is strongly correlated with a decision not to abort.

Sider and Unruh have a flawed view of the image of God and its relation to preborn human life, and their “fully prolife” stance dilutes clear thinking on the moral status of preborn human life. Though they have a dim view of abortion, they advocate a form of developmental personhood popular among people who want abortion on demand. The “fully prolife” moral position advocated in “Gender Equality and the Sanctity of Life” is more accurately, at best, a partly prolife position, and at worst obscures the truly prolife position altogether.

Alan Branch is Professor of Christian Ethics at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of several books, including Affirming God’s Image: Addressing the Transgender Question with Science and Scripture (Lexham Press, 2019), and a former U.S. Army Reserve Chaplain.

[1] Ronald Sider, “Womb to Tomb: Imagining a Completely Pro-Life Politics,” Plough October 12, 2016,

[2] Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen, Embryo: A Defense of Human Life (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 76.

[3] Ibid., 74.

[4] John Sailhamer, Genesis, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 37.

[5] Daniel R. Heimbach, Fundamental Christian Ethics (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2022), 325.

[6] “Gender Equality and the Sanctity of Life,” 513.

[7] Katherine Kortsmit, Michele G. Mandel, et al, “Abortion Surveillance – United States, 2019,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 70.9 (November 26, 2021): 22.

[8] Ibid., 6.

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