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Challenging 'Compassion' in Crisis Childbearing

Susan and Marvin Olasky

The problems of unwed pregnancy are growing more severe, not because solutions are unavailable to us, but because the dominant worldview finds those solutions intolerable. Those who challenge the conventional wisdom are fighting against a slavish academic and media devotion to ideology rather than good sense.

Cultural changes that have glorified unrestrained sexuality and minimized the importance of marriage while legitimizing single-parenting, easy divorce, and abortion have had a tremendous social, cultural, and economic effect. Educated women weathered feminist advances fairly well, but as Christopher Jencks acknowledged in The New Republic, "for less privileged couples, the demise of traditional norms about marriage and divorce posed more serious problems."[1]

Jencks went on to note that in these days of liberation, boyfriends felt "freer to walk out after they conceive a child.... [P]oorly educated ex-husbands can seldom afford to support two households, and they seldom make adequate child support payments."[2] This breakdown of social pressure to "marry, to live together, and to support children" has led to increased economic vulnerability for children, especially those in the black community: "Single parenthood has always been much more common among poor blacks than in any other group, so doubling its frequency for everyone hurts poor black children more than any other group." [3] In 1970 a gap of 26 percent existed between the percentage of black (36 percent) and white (10 percent) never-married mothers who were single-parenting. By the mid-1980's the white rate had doubled to 20 percent and black rate had increased by two-thirds to 59 percent, so the racial gap had stretched to 39 percent.[4]

Overall, many more black children are being raised in poor, mother-headed families where they are "virtually programmed for juvenile delinquency."[5] Many white children seem headed in the same direction. Conventional solutions that ignore morality merely make things worse. Jencks argues:

Even when almost every "respectable" adult thought unwed parenthood, desertion, and divorce immoral, it was hard to keep families together in poor communities. Now that the mass media, the schools, and even the churches have begun to treat single-parenthood as a regrettable but inescapable part of modern life, we can hardly expect the respectable poor to carry on the struggle against illegitimacy and desertion with their old fervor. They still deplore such behavior, but they cannot make it morally taboo. Once the two-parent norm loses its moral sanctity, the selfish considerations that always pulled poor parents apart often become overwhelming.[6]
Some conservatives with materialist orientations have reacted to a perception that welfare is the culprit and have called for "workfare rather than welfare." Certainly, an emphasis on gaining economic independence rather than fostering dependence is vital; yet, as urban analyst William Tucker has noted, "Workfare will do nothing to put the black family back together. The main problem with single mothers, after all, is not that they don't work, but that they don't get married."[7]

Until Christians once again support those struggling to uphold marriage and Biblical values in the face of widespread disregard for them, and until society responds, the problems of unwed parenting will get worse. Some academics like to talk about complicated structural causes of poverty, but the key factor stares us in the face. Divorce and unwed motherhood, both resulting from individual decisions, account for essentially all the growth in poverty since 1970. Revisions in divorce laws and welfare policies are important, but large-scale change is likely only if revival and reformation touch the hearts of millions of individuals, as well as thousands in academia and the media who crucially influence long-range trends. "Every child a two-parent child" should be our goal, with the understanding that tragedy sometimes interferes. Christians particularly need to stress the crucial role of fatherhood in developing the attitudes we have towards both God and man. The Westminster Shorter Catechism's discussion of the first clause of the Lord's Prayer ("Our Father who art in Heaven") notes that it "teaches us to draw near to God with all holy reverence and confidence -- as children to a father, able and ready to help us."[8] It is harder for children to glimpse the nature of God the Father when they have no experience of drawing near to an earthly father with respect and with confidence.

While most Americans profess belief in God as revealed in the Bible, antipathy to Biblical norms of conduct is widespread and deep. It comes out in statements like this one, made often by pregnant women considering abortion: "I could never place my baby for adoption once it was born. I have to have an abortion." Pro-life counselors, surprised by the seeming illogic of the statement often conclude sadly: "They'd rather kill their babies than place for adoption." That common attitude exemplifies the egocentric spirit of philosophies that value self-fulfillment and autonomy above anything else. As former NIMH analyst Joanne Greer noted, "Giving birth has become a self-focused act, and one which should be avoided unless it is self-aggrandizing.... One is struck by the reasoning that `a child of mine who cannot live with me can give me no joy, and therefore he cannot and must not exist at all.'" [9]

That same "spirit of the age" has weakened the traditional commitment to marriage. Christopher Jencks notes that "shotgun weddings and lifetime marriages caused adults a lot of misery, but they ensured that almost every child had a claim on some adult male's earnings." [10] Jencks argues that, historically, the unabridged right to conceive children carried with it the responsibility to care for them within marriage. This unstated contract was enforced through "very strong social pressure on couples to marry if they conceived children and to stay married thereafter."

The Horrid Consequences of "Compassion"

But what can Christians do when sexual intercourse becomes more common in courtship than flowers? Over the past twenty years, powerful forces in academia, media, law, social work, and government have led a systematic assault on the two-parent family. Piece by piece, they have dismantled the Biblical foundation supporting families in order to set women and children free to be...whatever. Instead of freedom, we have reaped sorrow. Families have been thrust into poverty. Children have suffered from neglect, abuse, and instability. Millions of babies have been aborted.

Now the chickens are roosting. It is relatively easy to be pro-life when we are thinking about middle-class white women whose babies will be loved either by them or by one of a hundred couples yearning to adopt. It is another thing to be pro-life when standing in a room full of "boarder babies" --newborns of crack-using mothers -- in an inner-city Washington, DC hospital. Each boarder baby shows how dangerous a little knowledge, without wisdom or compassion, can be. His or her pregnant, cocaine-addicted mother knew that smoking a large amount of crack would send her into premature labor. When she tired of pregnancy, that's what she did -- she smoked, and then she walked into the hospital and gave birth. The next day, anxious for more crack she checked out of the hospital, leaving her cocaine-addicted baby behind.

What happens next? The baby suffers withdrawal pains and sometimes needs phenobarbital. He has what nurses call "gaze aversion" -- something is wrong neurologically, and he cannot bear to make eye contact. And the mother? Typically, the hospital hears nothing from her for close to thirty days. But just as she knew the crack can bring on labor, she knows the rules. If she makes contact with the hospital , even by telephone for a minute once a month, she can hold onto custody of the child. Selfish, but knowing that she has left her possession behind, she calls the hospital every four weeks -- often enough to insure custody, but not often enough to get tied down.

The baby, meanwhile, spends his vital first few months under the harsh glare of unrelenting hospital lights and constant noise. Nurses try to provide continuity of care for these boarder babies, but emergency labor or a thousand other things force them to help someone else with immediate needs. The nurses cry out for help. Volunteers come in to hold the babies. They try to make up for the absence of parents, an hour at a time. But they are not parents, and the baby stays in the hospital, a boarder.

Even when the mother stops calling -- if she does -- DC social service officials say they are overloaded with abuse and neglect cases. District officials say they have neither the resources to license foster care homes, nor the personnel to do the necessary work to place these babies. Foster parents licensed in the Virginia or Maryland suburbs have to be relicensed in the District; that takes time. And the months roll by, and the baby stays on, a boarder.

No one knows the long-term effect of fetal crack addiction combined with newborn social deprivation, but here is one instance in which the sins of parents are clearly visited upon children. Other sins also have an effect; babies born HIV-positive also face frequent abandonment. Occasionally a large-hearted relative will take home an HIV baby. One grandmother did so. She received training on how to keep that baby well and avoid opportunistic infections. But when she applied for Social Security funds to pay for the baby's care, she was told, "You cannot get money unless the baby has an opportunistic infection. Come back then."

What can we do? Part of the problem is public policy. A law that allows a mother to make a telephone call once every thirty days in order to avoid losing custody of her children is not a pro-family law, but an abuse of parental rights. Foster care rules that tie children up in a DC hospital rather than getting them into a home are not pro-family, but bureaucracy run amuck. It's crazy that a foster care license in one jurisdiction isn't good in the neighboring one. It's crazy that babies who are HIV-positive cannot get Social Security benefits unless they show evidence of an "opportunistic" disease. But even when these policy matters are changed, there will have to be people willing to care for these children. And so, we must confront the issue of what it means to be compassionately pro-life, to meet the challenge of affirming that all children, even these from the most difficult of environments, need not only protection in the womb but nurturing afterward.

"Compassion" in Newspeak

A search through newspapers and magazines shows that the word compassion has a variety of loose usages these days. [11] It is used frequently as a synonym for "leniency." The Los Angeles Times reported that when a sheriff's deputy was to be sentenced for selling cocaine, the judge was asked to be "compassionate." It is used as a synonym for warm feelings that cannot be expressed in words. A California musical group attempted to "communicate" the idea of compassion in a "non-cognitive way" by playing gooey melodies. It is used to convey a certain attractive pose. An actor was described as perfect for a role because "he's got the strength, the compassion." (Actresses are taught to give come-hither looks, actors, looks of compassion.)

Compassion also has a political meaning. The word is used as a bulwark by those on the left who want Americans to remain "unshaken in liberalism's belief in governmental compassion for the weak and poor." The word also is a prop for some conservatives. In the fall of 1989, as Jim Courter ran away from his previous pro-life positions and lost the gubernatorial race in New Jersey, he told reporters, "I'd like to be considered as a person who is compassionate...." Sometimes, the word compassion is merely the verbal equivalent of elevator music, a throw-in for a speech or article stuck in a shaft. A music reviewer in Chicago complained that an LP record was filled with "make-out ballads" for "the wine-and-cheese crowd," but was saved by "the mix of spiky aggression and compassion."

Sadly, all of these loose usages have created a flabby word out of one that could once pump iron. Compassion has become like Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, the ruins of which were excavated in 1989; what remained of the theater was covered over by a parking lot. And yet, if we look at the first definition of compassion offered by the Oxford English Dictionary, we see something magnificent: "Compassion: Suffering together with another, participation in suffering." The emphasis, as is evident from the derivation of the word --"com," with, and "passion," from the Latin pati, to suffer -- is on personal involvement with the needy, suffering with them as Mother Teresa does, not just having warm feelings or putting a check in the mail.

The idea of "suffering with" is central in Christianity because it was central in the life of Christ. Question 27 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which dates from the mid-seventeenth century and is one of the central Reformed documents, indicates well the nature of Christ's compassion. The question is, "How was Christ humiliated?" The answer in a modern English version is, "Christ was humiliated: by being born as a man and born into a poor family; by being made subject to the law and suffering the miseries of this life, the anger of God, and the curse of death on the cross; and by being buried and remaining under the power of death for a time." Paul put it this way in his letter to the Philippians: "Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus -- Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death -- even death on a cross" (Phil. 2:5-8). What we celebrate in the incarnation, in short, is humiliation, God coming to earth to suffer with. [12]

Nineteenth Century Compassion

In the nineteenth century, Christians gleaned several important lessons from the Scriptures that guided them in administering charity:

* Charity begins with the gospel. Christ, God Himself, gave up His glory for sinful men and women who were "dead in our transgressions" and "following the ways of this world." All of us naturally are "gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts," but "God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions" (Eph. 2:1-5).

When we extend kindness to others, we are identifying with Christ's suffering and endeavoring "to live a life worthy of the calling you have received" (Eph. 4:1). We are called to "be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God" (Eph. 5:1,2).

* Charity is personal. Nineteenth-century ministers such as William Ruffner fought against the tendencies to think of Christian duty primarily in terms of money:

To cast a contribution into the box brought to the hand, or to attend committees and anniversaries, are very trifling exercises of Christian self-denial and devotion, compared with what is demanded in the weary perambulations through the street, the contact with filth, and disease, and distress, and all manner of heart-rending and heart-frightening scenes, and all the trials of faith, patience, and hope, which are incident to the duty we urge.[13]
Ruffner also argued that professionals should be involved as facilitators, not major or sole suppliers:
There must, of course, be officers, teachers, missionaries employed to live in the very midst of the wretchedness, and to supervise and direct all the efforts of the people. And it is just here that the Church ought to connect herself directly to the enterprise. The leading officers should be appointed by the Church... but mark you! These officers are not to stand between the giver and receiver, but to bring giver and receiver together. [14]
The Christian emphasis, clearly, is on individual involvement with those in need, and not a delegation of activities to government, philanthropic bureaucracies, or other designated helpers.

* Charity is predominantly local. In 1844, William H. McGuffey placed in one of his McGuffey's Readers, a wonderful little dialogue between a "Mr. Fantom" and a "Mr. Goodman." Parts of it went like this:

Mr. Fantom:I despise a narrow field. O, for the reign of universal benevolence! I want to make all mankind good and happy.

Mr. Goodman: Dear me! Sure that must be a wholesale sort of job: had you not better try your hand at a town or neighborhood first?

Mr. Fantom: Sir, I have a plan in my head for relieving the miseries of the whole world....

Mr. Goodman: The utmost extent of my ambition at present is to redress the wrongs of a poor apprentice, who has been cruelly used by his master....

Mr. Fantom: You must not apply to me for the redress of such petty grievances. It is provinces, empires, continents that the benevolence of the philosopher embraces; every one can do a little paltry good to his next neighbor.

Mr. Goodman: Every one can, but I do not see that every one does ... [you] have such a noble zeal for the millions, [yet] feel so little compassion for the units....[15]

Christians also understood that charity was to begin with members of the church. In Galatians we read, "Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers" (Gal. 6:10).

* Charity is to be given in accordance with God's Law. Throughout the Bible we are shown that sin has consequences, but that when man cries out to God in distress, God is merciful. II Chronicles 30:9 states the process precisely: "The Lord your God is gracious and compassionate. He will not turn his face from you if you return to him." Nehemiah 9:27 notes that "when they were oppressed they cried out to you. From heaven you heard them, and in your great compassion you gave them deliverers...." God's refusal to be compassionate at certain times makes the pattern even more evident. Isaiah 27:11 describes Israel as "a people without understanding; so their Maker has no compassion on them...." In Jeremiah 15:6, God tells Israel, "You have rejected me....I can no longer show compassion."

Similarly, it's important to note that Jesus' miracles, like those of His Father, were never at random or universal. For example, Jesus certainly had the power to feed everyone...but He did not. Only after people had studied with Him for three days and had nothing to eat did He say -- in Matthew 15:32 -- "I have compassion for these people." (Then from seven loaves and a few small fishes, he created enough to feed 4,000 men, plus women and children.) Jesus could have healed everyone, but He did not. Matthew 20:30-34 tells us that Jesus had compassion on two blind men who kept following Him and shouting, "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!"

The Biblical picture is not one of God frantically rushing around trying to save mankind from the effects of sin. Rather, God often let mankind suffer to the point of repentance. Early American Christians understood that compassion must be warm-hearted but hard headed. One early nineteenth-century program was described as "thoroughly Christian in its severity and its generosities." And we too should not worry about being labeled severe within God's commands, as long as we are generous under God's grace. The principle of suffering with, but at times refusing to suffer with, must go together in any realistic program to help crisis childbearers and their children. Otherwise, good intentions will actually cause those in need to lose ground.

Recovering Biblical Compassion

How, then, can we apply the Biblical and historical Christian understanding of charity and compassion to the problems of crisis childbearing? What is our responsibility when we see fathers refusing to accept their responsibility, or crack mothers abandoning their babies? Do we show compassion by bulwarking irresponsibility? Here, again, we must closely look, not at contemporary ideas of offering help, but at the Biblical meaning of compassion.

First, we cannot just give money to those in need, though we must support Biblical ministries. Providing money alone implies that the major problem confronting pregnant women is material. We know that is not true. The problem is spiritual. When we administer charity personally, we also are in a position to share the gospel in word and deed. Peter wrote that we should "live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us" (I Pet. 2:12). If those in need are to learn about God through our good works, they have to see us and see what motivates us -- we can't be hiding in our church buildings. As Paul wrote, we need to be in position to "hold out the word of life" (Phil. 2:16).

Second, we cannot refuse to help a woman because we think she is beyond help. After all, since Paul writes about himself, "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst," we need to see ourselves that way also (I Tim. 1:15). We do not know who has been called by God, so we have to be wherever sinners are. The writer to the Hebrews reminds us "to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourself were suffering" (Heb. 13:2,3).

Third, we must not be promiscuous in our charity. It is only by knowing those with whom we work that we can guard against subsidizing the idlers. Paul warned the Thessalonians about idleness: "If a man will not work, he shall not eat" (II Thessalonians 3:10). The Bible teaches that wrongful charity undermines character -- idleness breeds gossip and busybodies. The people who receive services from Christians should be known by them -- or willing to become known. Otherwise we risk subsidizing a sinful lifestyle. In order for Timothy to follow Paul's instructions on supporting widows, he had to know that the widow "is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the saints, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds" (I Tim. 5:9,10).

Since God is not indiscriminate in His compassion, those who embrace a Biblical worldview should not be indiscriminate either. God does not discriminate in His compassion on the basis of race, sex, or any other natural characteristic. He does not offer grace because of any action of ours, but He does have rules that we must obey. It is wrong for us to help other individuals to live apart from those rules. God defines for us what a family is; it is wrong for Christians to support those who think they can ignore God's rules and still live harmonious lives.

In an age of self-seeking, both among yuppies and among crack mothers, many commentators think compassion is a wimp word -- and it is, when a Biblical understanding of compassion is gone. Without the Biblical understanding, textbooks teach students about "the incompatibility of policies that simultaneously preach compassion and stress deterrence." Yet, properly understood, only those policies that stress deterrence are truly compassionate. We are told that "the spread of fear and the kindly treatment of decent poverty could not coexist." But just as God is both fearful and kind, so compassion and fear can -- must -- go together. We need to learn that we do not increase compassion by letting everyone have a claim on it. Instead, we kill a good word by making it mean too much, and nothing.

To accept the challenge that crisis childbearing offers to the pro-life movement generally, and to Christians specifically, we need to shift our societal understanding of what "compassion" for young unwed mothers and their infants means.

The common Planned Parenthood-inspired understanding today is that unmarried young people will have sexual relations, and that those who care for their welfare will make sure that they use contraceptives. The common understanding is that some will become pregnant, and the caring response in that situation is to make abortion available. The common understanding is that some will choose not to have abortions and that the caring response in that case is to provide accepting support for never-wed mothers and their children. Underlying these responses is the belief that nothing is intrinsically right or wrong; individuals choose and should be supported in whatever their choice is.

Biblically, however, we are not to accept or even applaud whatever a person chooses to do. Biblically, the strong emphasis should be on abstinence, and those who choose to sin need to face the major consequences of their actions. Biblically, we are not to murder, so a child who is conceived must be carried. Biblically, that child should be part of a family with a mother and father whenever possible, so adoption or marriage is preferable to single-parenting. Biblically, work is a vital part of life, and economic independence whenever possible a vital goal, so single-parenting dependence on government is to be discouraged. Throughout, the emphasis should not be on picking up the pieces "downstream" at the end of a series of rapids and hazards created by wrongful activities. The emphasis should be "upstream," so that every young person is aware of the dangers, aware that no one can fall hundreds of feet and crash into rocks without being severely damaged.

Many leaders in government and at major foundations now seem unwilling to state that the two-parent family must be supported. Many federal officials, ever since the Carter administration, have tended to talk about "families" rather than "family" -- as if children do equally well in households led by never-wed mothers or by homosexual couples or by other Biblically deviant groupings. Christians and other pro-lifers need to anger some on the right by saying that government can have a role in helping those endangered by crisis childbearing, as long as it is a Biblically positive role. The pro-life coalition should be willing to anger some on the left by saying that governmental and philanthropic programs based on a non-Biblical understanding have often done far more harm than good.

Those public policy questions, while vital, are, in many ways secondary, however. As we have said before, real change will come about as hearts change, and when, as a society, we stop trying to make it easy to sin.

Christians have fought valiantly against abortion. But to the extent that "pro-life" has implicitly gone along with societal trends in the encouragement of single-parenting, we have been losing the war; to the extent that we have sat back and complained instead of suffering with children both unborn and born, we have been dishonoring Christ's suffering. When Nehemiah repaired the wall of Jerusalem, he repaired the whole wall, and he called on each family to reconstruct the portion of the wall near to its home (Neh. 3:10; 6:15). American culture has no security if most of the wall is falling while one piece is propped up. American churches have no strength if those who sit in them are hearers of the Word and contributors to its preachings, but not doers.

When it comes to caring for the children born out of crisis pregnancies, some Americans apparently want to give up. Columnist Carl Rowan warned that pro-life efforts would merely yield "a multitude of children who will be hated by many and loved by so few that they can never become educated enough to become more than the beasts of burden and the producers of more doomed babies."[16] Lobbyist Lloyd Cutler scolded pro-lifers for their "moral zeal" which should be tempered "by the realization that for every unwanted child they force into this world, they may be piling huge future obligations on all of us that our government would be bound to satisfy.[17]

But giving up is not a Biblical option. Pro-lifers can and must be pro-challenge. "Stop bringing meaningless offerings!" God declared through Isaiah. Instead, "Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow" (Is. 1:13, 17). These are commands, not suggestions, and they are commands that we need to act on personally. In this sense, when pro-abortionists sneer, "Have you adopted a needy child?" they may be the burr we need.

All of us need to go back to the Bible to gain the wisdom, knowledge, and confidence to be not only pro-life, but consistently pro-family. The challenge must be accepted, or the pro-life movement and our entire culture will fail.


[1] Christopher Jencks, "Deadly Neighborhoods", The New Republic, June 13, 1988, p. 29. Jencks's article also critiques economic determinist explanations of delinquency and crime.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] William Tucker, "Our Homestead Plan for the Poor", The American Spectator, July, 1988, p. 28.

[6] Jencks, "Deadly", p. 30.

[7] Tucker, "Hmoestead".

[8] The Shorter Catechism, Question 99.

[9] Joanne Greer, "Adoptive Placement: Developmental and Psychotherapeutic Issue", Pregnancy in Adolescence, (New York: Van Norstrand Reinhold, 1982), p. 398.

[10] Jencks, "Deadly", p. 30.

[11] The following discussion of compassion is taken from a lecture, "Reclaiming Compassion: A Christian Meditations", given by Marvin Olasky at the Heritage Foundation, Washington, DC, on December 5, 1989, and published as Heritage Lecture 228.

[12] Jesus suffered with, and, throughout His life on earth, He told parables about the suffering with of Good Samaritans and others. (Note that the Samaritan in Christ's story bandages the victim's wounds, puts him on a donkey and takes him to an inn -- the Samaritan walks alongside -- nurses him there, pays incurred and future costs, and only then goes on his way, with a promise to stop back.)

[13] William Ruffner, Charity and the Clergy, (Philadelphia: Lippincott, pp. 142-143.

[14] Ibid.

[15] William H. McGuffey, Newly Revised Eclectic Reader, (1844), pp. 50-53, reprinted in O'Connell, Brian, ed., America's Voluntary Spirit (New York: The Foundation Center, 1983), pp. 59-61.

[16] Carl Rowen, Dallas Morning News, July 5, 1989.

[17] Lloyd Cutler, The New York Times, July 7, 1989.

Susan Olasky co-founded and chaired the Austin Crisis Pregnancy Center and was a volunteer crisis pregnancy counselor in Newark, Delaware. Marvin Olasky is a professor at the University of Texas and the author of The Press and Abortion 1838-1988 and five other books. He is currently a resident scholar for Americans United for Life. The foregoing is a revised version of an essay published in More Than Kindness: A Compassionate Approach to Crisis Childbearing (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1990).

Copyright © by Covenant Community Church of Orange County 1991
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