The pro-life ethic shapes our understanding of the value of human life because we believe that all people are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). And as Christians, we live out our pro-life ideology by championing life.
Over time, the traditional scope of the pro-life ethic has rightfully broadened to include the valuing of all life, not just the life of the unborn. Being pro-life is certainly being anti-abortion, and it’s also much more. It means valuing life from the womb to the tomb. And it boldly contradicts the value system of the world by championing the vulnerable. Russell Moore says in Onward, “The spirit of every age seeks to define human worth in terms of power and usefulness, while the gospel of the kingdom defines human dignity in strikingly different terms, as Christ himself identifies himself not with the powerful but with the vulnerable.” Christians, like their king, value the vulnerable.
One of the things valuing the vulnerable means is being a champion for orphans. Certainly, being pro-life means being pro-foster care and pro-adoption. But family placement is a small, albeit valuable part of engaging the global orphan crisis. Orphan prevention is a more comprehensive part of the solution and requires Christians to engage their voices and expertise. To be effective, though, we must first understand what we’re trying to prevent.
What is an orphan?
Imagine a little girl in Haiti. She lives in a children’s home, and all her needs are met by the caretakers. On Thursdays, her mother and baby sister come to visit her. Over Christmas break, she leaves the orphanage and spends a few weeks with her biological family. In early January, she resumes her life in the children’s home. She goes to school, eats every day, and has a roof over her head at night.
While this little girl doesn’t fit the traditional definition of an orphan, her story is all too common. In fact, of the more than 140 million orphans worldwide, only about 10 percent of them fit within the traditional scope of orphanhood—a child who has lost both parents. Children become orphans either because their parents are deceased or because their parents are unable or unwilling to care for them. Most orphans have at least one, if not both, parents living.
The newer term, orphans and vulnerable children (OVC), was created to reflect the broader definition of orphan. Most OVCs belong to a family but are susceptible to harm as a direct result of poverty. These poverty orphans are the primary focus of orphan prevention.
What is orphan prevention?
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Benjamin Franklin coined this phrase in 1736 when he was tasked with teaching fire safety to the citizens of Philadelphia. Preventing fires is easier, cheaper, and safer than fighting blazing fires. But what about preventing orphans? Is an ounce of prevention worth a pound of cure when it comes to caring for the vulnerable?
At my first Christian Alliance For Orphans (CAFO) conference, I heard the following story that introduced me to the concept of orphan prevention. Imagine a group of people having a picnic next to a river. They notice crying babies flowing downstream and immediately jump into the rushing water to save the babies. No matter how many babies they save, more keep flowing downstream. Eventually a few rescuers get out of the river and start to run upstream. The remaining rescuers in the river desperately ask them where they’re going. The upstreamers reply, “We’re going to see what is causing these babies to be thrown in the river.”
The river analogy is a picture of two necessary components of orphan care. We need emergency aid, but a newer concept is demonstrated through the upstreamers addressing the source of the problem instead of reacting to the effects of it. This is orphan prevention. It proactively engages the global orphan crisis upstream by establishing sustainable livelihood for the poor and discipling communities toward family preservation. Russell Moore writes in Onward, “We should work for justice for orphans and for widows, by empowering people of good will to fight the root causes of fatherlessness (war, disease, genocide, famine, poverty, divorce cultures).”
For example, 127 Worldwide, a nonprofit in Raleigh, N.C., that partners with local leaders around the world caring for orphans and widows, is a pioneer in orphan prevention. They recently brought together a team of people to build an aquaponics system at a children’s home in northern Uganda. Aquaponics is an agricultural system where plants and fish grow symbiotically. One goal of the aquaponics system is to enable church members to buy fish and vegetables at a reduced rate because members of the local church are impoverished and struggle to provide for their children. They can then sell the fish and vegetables in the local market to increase their livelihood.
When parents have the resources to provide for their children, they are less likely to hand them over to the government or a children’s home. This is just one of many ways we can practice orphan prevention. In fact, Philip Darke writes in his book In Pursuit of Orphan Excellence, “Work to strengthen families, men and women, and communities in such a way that orphans are not produced.”
Orphans are among the most vulnerable people in the world. Engaging the global orphan crisis is difficult and costly, but the pro-life ethic doesn’t allow us to see the vulnerable as burdens; we see them as image bearers. Like Christ, we value and champion the lives of the vulnerable because, as the Global Orphan Project reminds us, “The line between children who’ve been abandoned and vulnerable children on the brink is a thin one. The difference lies in whether a child has a champion in her life.”
Will we be champions for the orphans and vulnerable children around us? May the Lord give us the wisdom and fortitude to serve and cheer them and their families on every step of the way.