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Abortion: The Questions, Bioethical Issues, and Scripture

April 29th, 2005 by Jason · 6 Comments

There’s certainly no end to the number of excellent articles about abortion in the blogosphere. Hugo has posted a number of times about his struggle to maintain a consistent life ethic. Glen Stassen, a professor from Fuller, put many pro-life advocates up in arms when he suggested that addressing economic issues may do more to reduce the number of abortions than criminalizing it. Camassia pointed out that make abortion illegal may not be the most moral thing to do, even if you are pro-life. So why write one more entry on the topic? Well, easy answer is I had to write a summary of a bioethical issue for my “Ethics of Life and Death” class that I’m taking at Fuller. But, more importantly to me is that I wanted a chance to try and sort out the basics of the debate, and I find it helps me to think an issue through when I write about it.

Abortion is a topic over which Christians of all stripes are bitterly divided. Many Christians, hearing good arguments from both sides, are paralyzed by ambiguity. Many other Christians come to a position of such certainty about the issue that they can no longer engage in constructive dialog with the other side. Yet, despite these difficulties, talk about it the Church must. And if we are to discuss it in a way that honors the weightier matters of the law, “justice, mercy, and faith” (Matt. 23:23) we must be willing to hear all sides of the issue with open ears and humility. Thus, this paper will look at how the issue has been framed by both sides, the medical data about the procedure of abortion, the witness of Christian tradition and Scripture upon the issue, and will conclude with a few tentative conclusions.

The two most obvious ways the issue has been framed is as a debate between those who are pro-life and those who are pro-choice. The advocates of the pro-life stance frame the issue as a refusal to “justify the deliberate killing of an innocent human being” (O’Rourke et al., Medical Ethics: Sources of Catholic Teachings, 1999, 32). At the moment of conception a unique human life is formed which is inherently worthy of respect and dignity because it is made in the image of God. Although there are obvious scientific and philosophical difficulties with determining the moment of “personhood” we must always err on the side of life, especially the life of the weak and vulnerable, lest we participate in a “culture of death” (Ibid.) that denies the dignity of all the life God creates.

On the other hand pro-choice advocates insist that those who would force a woman to bear her child are in no way acting morally. Instead, pro-lifers are perpetuating abusive patriarchal structures in which women are denied a right to be their own decision-makers about what they want to do with their body. There is no way to prohibit safe, legal abortion without also violating “the conditions of well-being for the vast majority of women…” (Beverly Wildung Harrison with Shirley Cloyes, “Theology and Morality of Procreative Choice” [from Moral Issues and Christian Responses ed. by Patricia Beattie Jung, 2003], 159).

Both of these positions often center the debate on the status of the fetus: is it a full-fledged person with all the rights and dignity we accord to other fullgrown persons? This discussion has proven to be a landmine of problems. Traditionally, humans were thought to be persons because they have souls which are distinguishable from their bodies. However, as science has continued to link areas of the brain with functions that used to be assigned to the soul (i.e. will, emotions, rationality) and as Christian theologians have emphasized the Hebrew notion of our embodiment it has become increasingly harder to use the soul as proof for personhood. In response, some have turned to the genetic uniqueness of a zygote as the criteria for personhood. However, even that line of reasoning is suspect for we are now discovering that an embryo can divide into two separate persons up until 14 days after conception (c.f. Margaret A. Farley, “Roman Catholic Views on Research Involving Human Embryonic Stem Cells” [from Ethical Issues in Human Cloning: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives ed. by Michael C. Brannigan, 2001], 116). On the other side of the debate pro-choice advocates argue that until a fetus attains the status of “person” (whenever that may be) it can be treated as any other organ of the mother’s body. Both sides belie the futility of the personhood debate by the way they live: advocates of abortion rights are unlikely to treat an abortion as only, say, an appendectomy, and those who would prohibit abortion are “unlikely to to check the menstrual flow each month to see if there is has been a death in the family” (Allen Verhey, Reading the Bible in the Strange World of Medicine, 2003, 195).

Though the debate about abortion has been framed in society as a question of whether pro-choice vs. pro-life there are other questions, perhaps more helpful, that the Church must raise. What is our response as a community to children? Are they a right, an option, a gift, or a burden? How is the church to act towards the marginalized and oppressed of society, which include both the unborn and women? What obligation does the church have towards those women who have an unwanted pregnancy? Is there a difference between what the church does about abortion and what public policy should be on the issue, especially considering we live in a largely post-Christian society? We will seek to answer these difficult questions below, but first we must examine some of the medical details of abortion.

The biggest distinction to make between the different methods of abortion is surgical abortion and chemical abortion. Surgical abortion involves the physician killing the fetus while it is still in the mother and then either manually extracting it or inducing contractions to expel the fetus. The most common method used in the first 15 weeks is suction-aspiration where a hollow tube is inserted into the uterus and fetus is sucked out. A more dangerous procedure is dilation and curettage (D & C) where the woman’s uterus is dilated and a curette (a sharp, hooked, instrument) is used to clean out the lining of the uterus, thus removing the fetus. Dilation and evacuation (D & E) is similar, but is used between weeks 15 and 18. The uterus is dilated and then, using surgical instruments, the fetus is dismembered and extracted. In the third trimester abortion becomes more difficult and dangerous for the woman. Drugs such as prostaglandin can be given to force the fetus to be expelled prematurely. Usually the fetus dies in the labor, though there are cases where it is born alive. To prevent the fetus from being born alive the amniotic fluid can first be injected with saline or urea which poisons and kills the fetus. In very late abortions the fetus is delivered part-way, but it’s skull is crushed before it is fully extracted. This is commonly known as partial-birth abortion, but is also known as dilation and extraction (D & X) (“Abortion, from Wikipedia the free encyclopedia,” en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abortion).

Chemical abortions (also known as medical abortions) can be done within the first nine weeks of pregnancy. The procedure involves administering methotrexate or mifepristone (RU-486) which cause the lining of the uterus to become inhospitable to the embryo, thus causing it to become disconnected from the uterine wall. Misoprostol is then taken 24-72 hours later causing the fetus to be expelled from the body (Ibid.).

One final pertinent medical issue is when the fetus begins to feel pain. Unfortunately, the medical data here is mixed. Pro-life advocates say that a fetus can experience pain as early as 7 weeks since that is when the pain receptors start developing. Abortion advocates argue that a fetus cannot experience pain until the pain receptors are connected via the spinal column to the thalamus, an egg-shaped structure in the brain, which does not occur until the 26th week of pregnancy. Many argue that a woman having a late-term abortion (about 1% of all abortions) should be notified that the fetus can feel pain and given the option to give the fetus pain control medication (B.A. Robinson, “Can a Fetus Feel Pain? Various Opinions,” religioustolerance.org/abo_pain.htm).

Having examined the pertinent ethical questions and medical data surrounding abortion we can now turn to looking at what Scripture has to say about the issue. Here we quickly discover why the issue is so hotly contested among Christians. There are no Scripture passages which directly mention or discuss abortion, a fact somewhat puzzling since the Assyrian Code, a middle-eastern law code from the 15th century B.C., specifically prohibits abortion (Verhey, 197). However, Scripture’s silence should not be used as a foundation for one’s position since an argument from silence can easily be used to support either side (Verhey, 198). Furthermore, the silence of Scripture did not prevent the early church from taking a strong stand against abortion (c.f. Didache 2.2). Before continuing we should note that there are a few passages that have been used by both sides as arguments for their position. Exodus 21:22-25 seems to differentiate between the legal status of a fetus and its mother – at least, when read in the NRSV. When read in the NIV, which also has strong support for its translation choices, it appears to make no legal distinction between a mother and its fetus (Verhey, 200). Another passage is Psalm 139:13-16 which is a frequently quoted text by the pro-life side to prove that from conception a person is being “knit together” in its mother’s womb, “fearfully and wonderfully made” by God. The most serious problem with this interpretation is that it ignores the context and genre of the psalm. As a psalm, it is poetry that figuratively expresses the nature of God, his intimacy and foreknowledge. It is not a scientific treatise about the legal or moral status of a fetus (Verhey, 205).

If we are going to find Scriptural insight into the issue of abortion, then, we must look at Scripture paradigmatically. In other words, what stories or themes in Scripture might be used to focus our vision regarding abortion? First, we note that in Scripture a sacrifice made by the powerful and privileged is an example of profound love, and this is best exemplified by Jesus who “laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16). However, when the relatively more powerful and privileged force the less powerful and less privileged to make a sacrifice the story of Christ is not being told (Verhey, 209). We might also look at the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Here we learn that while the rich young ruler wanted a strict definition of who was and was not his neighbor, Jesus emphasized what kind of a neighbor we are to be. Christians are to “become neighbors to those who are helpless” (Richard B. Hayes, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 1996, 451). This means providing over-the-top aid to those whom we might otherwise treat as strangers . Finally, we can also learn from the early Jerusalem community where “everything they owned was held in common” and thus “[t]here was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:32-35). From this we learn that the Church should assume the responsibility of caring for the needy in its midst (Hayes, 452).

Where does all of this lead us in terms of concrete conclusions? In terms of public policy, the Church should advocate for policies which serve the interests of women and reduce the number of abortions. This includes, among other things, addressing the failing health-care system and educating boys and men on the moral and financial responsibility they accept whenever they have sex. Additionally, the Church has an obligation to support and raise those children who would otherwise be aborted. A Church that embodies hospitality to “unwanted” children will not only powerfully witness to the watching world, but will also be living out its calling as a community that truly supports the least of these. Certainly a Church that endeavors to do so will quickly find itself stretched financially and emotionally, but this has always been the case when the Church has faithfully lived out its calling to be a counter-culture. If a Church decides it will not or cannot support a mother and her child and thereby chooses an abortion, then the Church corporately shares in the guilt and suffering of the act.

There is one thing evident to anyone who reads much on this issue which is there is a large amount of “bad faith” on both sides which has lead to stalemates and a lack of common ground for advocating for policies like the ones mentioned above. It is with those considerations in mind that I offer one final suggestion for those on both sides of the issue: “Let us all be more hospitable to those who ‘do not count’ for much as the world counts” (Verhey, 252).

Tags: bioethics · theology

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 may de la cruz // Sep 23, 2006 at 8:58 am

    hi well just wanna say that issues today are quiet very for kids like me . maybe the guidance of parent’s are needed to assist us with this issues where kids should be teach

  • 2 alexa // Jul 30, 2008 at 3:28 pm

    ..yeah…do agree too. parents should always be responsible in guiding and teaching their kids….in avoidance and awareness of issues like this…..

  • 3 Nick // Apr 29, 2010 at 6:37 pm

    Hello, I’d like to post my thoughts about abortion. As wrong as it sounds I believe women should do whatever they want with their body. I know it is killing a baby, but maybe it was for the best. They either made a mistake, or couldn’t take care of it. Thank you for your time.

  • 4 Irene Allen // Aug 30, 2010 at 7:41 am

    @Nick, It is never right to kill a baby under no circumstances. God says, thou shall not kill and our body is not ours..it’s God’s body. He gives life and take it! Creating a baby is never a mistake and if you can’t afford a child then don’t have one. Thanks,

  • 5 Gabito // Jun 1, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    nike what irene said is very true.if you think you own your body and want to do whatever you like you can but know that the Bible says that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit.one more advice try and stop sickness and death when it comes since you think you own your body and can do whatever you feel like.

  • 6 Katie // Jan 21, 2012 at 10:52 pm

    Irene & Gabito –
    HELLO! Not everyone in this freakin’ world is religious like you. You must realize that we live in a society that has a separation between church and state where religious leaders will NEVER HAVE AUTHORITY and religious beliefs will NEVER become the basis for law.