Difficult issues series
This naturally brings us to the polarising topic of abortion, and christian attitudes to termination of pregnancy.
This is a “hot button” issue, but if it is more personal than “an issue” to you, I apologise if any of my words are insensitive. I hope to offend no-one, but rather to offer thoughtful comment. If you have strong opinions either way, please try to avoid being upset at anything I say, and if you wish to express an opinion, please do it graciously.
Accurate statistics on births, miscarriages, stillbirths and abortions are hard to obtain. Many miscarriages are unnoticed or unreported, and not all terminations are reported either. But on top of this, the various sources give inconsistent, poorly defined and often confusing statistics. The figures I’ve used are therefore very approximate, based on recent estimates, and are provided simply to give the general idea.
In the western world, it appears that about 20% of known pregnancies end in miscarriages and stillbirths, and a further 25% in termination, so that just over half known pregnancies lead to a live birth. In addition, it is estimated that up to half of all fertilised eggs are miscarried, but often the mother is not aware of it, or doesn’t report it.
The table below shows how these percentages work out in Australia, UK and USA (round figures only).
|Known miscarriages & stillbirths
|up to 220,000
|up to 560,000
|up to 3,000,000
It can be seen that abortions occur approximately as frequently as known miscarriages. Some studies suggest that evangelical christians have about 200,000 of the US abortions, a rate lower than average, but still significant. Catholics have abortions at the same rate as average.
A short history of abortion ethics
Most cultures in ancient times were reasonably accepting of abortion in general, and often even infanticide, but abortion was often punishable if the father wished to keep the child. Most cultures were patriarchal, with both women and children subservient to men.
Jewish culture tended to see the child as fully human when its head appeared at birth or when it took its first breath and its spirit entered it. Nevertheless, abortion was condemned because of the loss of a potential child, and some rabbis considered abortion to be murder. Modern Judaism generally allows abortion when the mother’s life is threatened, but officially opposes it gently otherwise.
The early church most often treated abortion as murder and thus opposed it, as they opposed infanticide. Christians in the Roman Empire were known for their more humane treatment of children and women, to the extent of rescuing babies left out to die by others. In later centuries,some christians believed abortion before “quickening” (which generally occurs sometime after 12 weeks) was acceptable.
The debate about abortion really heated up and became polarised in modern times when medical science made it much safer and women’s rights became an important issue. Almost all christians oppose abortion except in special circumstances, whereas non-religious people generally believe it should be allowed, at least up until 20 weeks.
What does the Bible say?
I have looked up several christian sites that list Bible verses on abortion, and found that the main subjects the passages address are these:
God knew us before we were born
It is true that God knew us before we were born (e.g. Jeremiah 1:5, Galatians 1:15), but these passages say he knew us before he formed us in our mother’s womb. In fact, he knew us before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4)! These passages are about God’s omniscience and foreknowledge, not about abortion.
The wonder of God’s creation of us
God created us in our mother’s womb (e.g. Psalm 139:13-16). But these passages don’t discuss abortion or define when life begins, only the amazing process by which life begins.
The sanctity of human life
Many passages point out the value of human life and the punishment for taking life (e.g. Exodus 20:13). Most of these passages have nothing to say about the unborn, but two may be relevant:
If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
In context, it seems clear to me that this passage (1) is not necessarily about taking human life, which is the question we are examining (it also talks about kidnapping and wounding) and (2) the concern here seems to be injury done to the mother by an enemy, not the loss of the baby, and certainly not the choice of the mother to abort.
For he did not kill me in the womb
This is a strange verse. It comes in the middle of a lament by Jeremiah that he was ever born. In this verse, he is actually complaining that the man who brought his father the news of Jeremiah’s birth should have killed him before he was born. This is hardly a verse that speaks against abortion – it actually speaks in its favour, in this one case at least.
On the other hand, it does use the word “kill”, which suggests that an unborn baby should be considered to be “human”. But overall, I can’t see how this passage, a lament by Jeremiah, can be taken as a source of a clear teaching.
So what does the Bible say?
I really don’t feel it says much at all about abortion. The Old Testament does indicate that human life is valuable, and the unborn worthy of some protection, but the New Testament says nothing that is directly relevant. I’m not sure this gives us very much clear guidance.
Reasons to question the “pro-life” view
Deciding on conception as the point where human life begins, and hence judging abortion to be murder, is perhaps the most obvious choice. But there are reasons to question this choice.
We have seen (When does human life begin?) that it isn’t easy to say with certainty that human life begins at conception – or at any other definite time for that matter. Christians and Jews haven’t always been as certain about abortion as modern pro-lifers are.
For millennia, rules on abortion (as well as on marriage and conception) have been made mostly by men, and women have not had a lot of control over their own bodies, nor of the long term task of rearing each new child. It is understandable that many modern women would see readily available abortion as part of female emancipation.
The natural rate of abortion is high – more than the current rate of induced abortion, and probably much more if very early miscarriages could be counted. It seems that God has created us with a reproductive process that naturally involves many abortions, and it seems that either these early miscarriages are not taking human life, or God is willing to allow that to happen.
It may be that miscarriage is a result of human sin and “the fall”, but I’m a little doubtful that evolutionary biology could support that view – animals can miscarry too.
It seems that the relatively common occurrence of natural abortions (miscarriages) must cause us to question whether the pro-life case has been over-stated.
Is abortion sometimes allowable?
Most of us would accept that abortion is sometimes allowable – for example, if the mother’s life is seriously threatened, or if a young girl is raped (which may leave her with physical or emotional issues). But after a baby is born, we would admire a mother who gave her life for her baby in some extreme circumstance, and would generally not approve of a mother who jettisoned her baby when under some external threat.
Such a situation may only be hypothetical, but it does indicate there is some difference between an unborn baby and and a post-natal baby. The difference may not be in the baby’s status as a human being, but more in our pragmatic assessment of its ability survive without its mother, but it does seem that there is some difference.
Being “pro-life” doesn’t just mean opposing abortion. It surely covers being willing to assist pregnant women who would choose to carry the baby to birth. Abortion rates are higher among poorer women, illustrating that abortion is a social (poverty) issue as well as a moral one. So being pro-life must surely also mean supporting poorer mothers to allow their children to have reasonable opportunities for healthcare, education and work.
But we could go further. If we are truly pro-life, we will surely oppose war as a solution to almost all situations, and support measures to reduce third world poverty, slavery and exploitation, all of which lead to reduced life expectancy.
Hate is unbecoming
Some segments of the pro-life movement seem to be unsympathetic to the dilemmas faced by some women, and almost hateful in their attitude to those who have an abortion or support abortion. This demeans the pro-life movement. Even if we see pro-choice people as enemies (and as christians I cannot see how that can be justified), we have Jesus’ command to love our enemies. If we cannot share our convictions without sounding hateful, we surely need to think again.
In the US, abortion clinics have been attacked, at least one abortion doctor has been murdered. It is beyond ironic that someone would commit murder in the pro-life cause. Christians should not give any support, not the slightest bit, to such atrocities and attitudes.
Reasons to question the “pro choice” view
The uncertainties about when life begins work both ways. If we cannot be certain that life begins at conception, we cannot be certain that it doesn’t. If we have to choose a definite point, conception is probably the easiest to justify.
Don’t take risks with human life
In most situations in life, we try to reduce the risk to human life. For example, new drugs are supposed to pass stringent tests about their side effects before they can be released for general use.
Risk is defined as consequence x likelihood. For a new drug, the consequence may be the loss or severe impairment of human life, so the likelihood must be significantly reduced to make the risk acceptable.
With abortion, the risk is of a different nature. The likelihood of the termination ending the opportunity for the fetus to live is almost certain, so to keep the risk at an acceptable level, we should be fairly certain that this consequence is not the end of a human life. But we don’t have that near-certainty.
Funerals after a miscarriage
When a natural miscarriage occurs, the parents are often grief-stricken. They had plans, or at least hopes, for this baby, perhaps they had a name picked out. The loss can be devastating. Some parents still name their miscarried baby and have a funeral for them.
All this suggests that intuitively we know this is a human life, and something of great value has been lost. Perhaps these responses are just ways of coping, and mean nothing, but perhaps they reveal a deep truth.
Sometimes a woman can choose to have an abortion and at another time grieve a miscarriage. Can the value of an unborn child vary so much with the mother’s circumstances and feelings? Perhaps it can, but perhaps not.
What is human?
Christians hold a high view of human life – we are made in the image of God, however we may understand that. But for naturalists or materialists, who don’t believe in the supernatural, while humans are “our species”, objectively, we are no more that clever animals, in the end reducible to mere atoms.
Some naturalists take that to the logical extreme of believing there is no morality and no purpose, but most do not. For them, ethics are based more in avoiding causing pain and maximising happiness. Therefore, they may think it is quite moral to abort an early stage fetus that has no self consciousness (it is presumed), or even a late term baby, if they won’t experience significant pain or apprehension of pain.
However much we might disagree with this philosophy, many people hold something like it. So for them abortion may be quite acceptable. But if christians also support easy availability of abortion, we are (it is argued) supporting a godless philosophy.
What is morality?
It can be argued that, in many cases at least, justifying abortion is a victory of self interest over ethics.
1. We lack certainty
I think there are good arguments on either side, and I don’t feel anyone can speak with certainty on this matter. While I don’t think it is simply a matter of a woman’s control of her own body, I feel a man needs to be careful in what he says. This means I must be sensitive in presenting any view.
2. I think it is better to avoid risk
Because the ethics of termination are uncertain, I think it is better to be cautious. And that means avoiding abortion if at all possible. As a christian, I think I would be extremely reluctant to support termination except in rare circumstances (not that I’m likely to be in any position to have a say in such a matter!).
3. God can cope
The high natural miscarriage rate suggests that God can cope with abortion. We cannot know how he does this nor why he allows this, but it suggests that for him it isn’t the supremely desperate issue that many pro-lifers feel it is. I feel that we should avoid too strong an anti-abortion emphasis in the christian community, because it distorts our message of good news and can lead to condemnation and anger rather than grace. However christian convictions should be shared gently, and doubtless some people are specifically called to minister and advocate in this area.
4. It’s unlikely to go away soon
In western societies, christianity has been in slow decline as a cultural force, and materialism or a less well-defined spirituality are gaining cultural adherence. Without a definite belief in a creator God, there is less reason to believe that pre-birth life (at least before 20 weeks) is “sacred”. It is therefore less likely that non-believers will hold a “pro life” viewpoint.
Christians need to understand that the issue is often comes down to a philosophical or spiritual difference, and respond in an appropriate way.
5. Opponents of abortion must be loving
Those who feel they should oppose abortion, must do it lovingly and sensitively. Women have abortions for many reasons, and we cannot presume to know how reasonable and ethical they are, nor how inescapable the decision may have seemed.
It is unlikely that the law will be changed in any country any time soon, and attempts to strongly influence legislators may antagonise and be counter-productive. Gentle persuasion and gradual cultural change may be the only way forward, and christians would do well to develop a better understanding of all the facts and issues so they can present a more nuanced response. Men have to be particularly sensitive.
6. Let’s all be truly pro-life
Christians and churches can be truly pro-life by providing tangible, “no-strings” and non-judgmental support for girls and women who may be at risk – counselling, contraception (yes I know this may facilitate promiscuity, but we need to decide which battle we want to win, and freely available contraception reduces abortions), pathways out of poverty, marriage and relationship support, and, ultimately, spiritual renewal – in our home countries and globally.
We can also offer non-judgmental support for pregnant women who would be willing to carry their baby to term if they have financial, housing and emotional support.
7. Forgiveness is at the core of christianity
If abortion is a sin, it is certainly not the ultimate sin, any more than murder or other killing is. It is not an unforgivable sin. Women who feel guilty because they have had an abortion need comfort and reassurance, they need to hear Jesus say “neither do I condemn you, go in peace” (John 8:11, Luke 7:48-50), they need to receive forgiveness and restoration in exchange for guilt.
Let us be christians who love extraordinarily rather than condemn.
I am still exploring this issue. I would be interested in hearing your views, and your response to the issues I have raised here. But please be sensitive and loving.
- Some birth, abortion & miscarriage statistics from Australia (ABS on births, miscarriage and abortion rates), UK (miscarriage and abortion), USA (abortion, miscarriage risks) and worldwide (fetal mortality by WHO, abortion, and this up-to-the-minute count).
- Explanations of the statistics on miscarriage, and on abortion in Australia.
- The Jewish view on abortion – AISH.com, the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies and Jewish Virtual Library.
- The history of attitudes to abortion by BBC and christian views in Wikipedia.
- Bible passages on abortion: God Vine, Bible Study Tools, and Christian Answers
- Pro-life views: You Don’t Have To Be Afraid To Be A Pro-Life Progressive (Benjamin Corey), Why the Anti-Abortion Movement Must Start by Changing the Culture (On Faith), How to Defend Your Pro-Life Views in 5 Minutes (On Faith), It’s time to rethink our attitude to abortion (Telegraph) and a strong pro-lifer criticises Francis Collins’ moderate views (BeliefNet).
- Pro-choice views: a christian doctor who performs abortions to help people in need (Esquire), a writer who believes life begins at conception but is still pro-choice (Salon) and Reproductive Choice Australia
- Healing for those feeling guilt over abortion: The Secret Shame of Abortion in the Church (Christianity Today), secular counselling by Women on the Web and Children by Choice, and christian counselling by Silent no More and Got Questions.