The Abortion Debate

In this final article of the series on abortion we shall look at some more practical aspects. There are several different cases of abortion. It can he performed for the following reasons: (1) therapeutic; (2) psychiatric; (3) eugenic; (4) social and financial; (5) rape and incest. Each case is different and has to be judged on its own “merits.”

1. Therapeutic abortion

By therapeutic abortion we mean the removal of the unborn new life by a competent physician in order to save the life of the pregnant mother. Because this abortion is performed to preserve the physical health of the mother it is sometimes also called “medical” abortion.

Among Christians there is difference of opinion on this point. The R. C. Church utterly rejects it (although, as we have seen, it does allow for the possibility that, due to a necessary operation upon the mother because of a dangerous ailment, the fetus has to he removed). Some Protestant theologians share this view. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for example, wrote in his “Ethics”: “Destruction of the embryo in the mother’s womb is a violation of the right to live which God has bestowed upon this nascent life. To raise the question whether we are here concerned already with a human being or not is merely to confuse the issue. The simple fact is that God certainly intended to create a human being and that this nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of his life. And that is NOTHING BUT MURDER.”

Most Protestant scholars would not go so far. Karl Barth, for instance, has criticized the view of the It C. Church as legalistic. Although he himself also maintains that “the unborn child is from the very first a child…a man and not a thing, nor a mere part of the mother’s body;· and that therefore destruction of this life is a “monstrous thing,” yet he also believes that there may he cases (exceptional cases!) in which we are forced by the circumstances to make a choice between the one life (the mother) and the other (the child). If in such a sit11ation the decision is taken “before God and in responsibility to Him” to destroy the fetus, this cannot he called murder. At the same lime Barth adds that the venture can he executed only with the prayer that God may forgive the elements of human sin involved.

I have the impression that this is the general Protestant position. True, there are some Protestant scholars who call it “murder” in every instance, even when it is done to save the mother’s life, yet they do not deny that it may be necessary to perform such an abortion. Most Protestants, however, would not go to such a paradoxical extreme. The Lutheran scholar Alfred M. Rehwinkel writes in his book Planned Parenthood: “Today Protestant churches, including the Lutheran Church, arc generally agreed if not by official pronouncement then by silent consent—that if a therapeutic abortion becomes imperative to save the mother’s life, such an operation cannot be regarded as n violation of the Moral Law.” In its pastoral Letter of 1952 on “Marriage” the Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church (Ned. Herv. Kerk) rejected all abortion with the exception of therapeutic abortion. “A man may take the responsible risk of destroying the unborn fetus only in an exceptional case, namely, when, in the service of God, he is called to protect the life of the mother.”

I suppose that most of us would agree with this position. Undoubtedly, it is a terrible decision for all concerned. For the doctor is not the only one who is involved. The mother, the father and often other advisers are involved as well. It is a frightful decision, but it cannot always be avoided, and in such a dilemma a decision must be taken which takes all parties into account; not only the mother and the unborn child, but also the other members of the family: the father and, if there are any, the other children.

Let me immediately add that with the present state of medical knowledge this dilemma becomes increasingly rare, and therefore the case of therapeutic abortion itself becomes increasingly more theoretical. In a declaration issued in 1968 by a South Australian panel of Christians (including theologians and doctors) we read; “Today there is no single condition in which anybody would say it is mandatory to terminate pregnancy to save the life of the mother. Perhaps this is an overstatement, but it is still significant that Tillie in an essay ‘The Desperate Dilemma of Abortion’ (1967) gives the following figures. ‘In the early 1940’s, one pregnancy in 150 was aborted to save women with such diseases as diabetes, tuberculosis and hyper. tension. Now medical advance…have helped to cut the ratio to one in 500.’”

2. Abortion for psychiatric reasons

At the present this is the most common ground for abortion. It is, of course, a very flexible ground and it can easily be used to justify abortion in all kinds of circumstances. But how much of it is true? To what extent can psychiatric grounds be accepted? The majority of serious psychiatrists are very cautious in their statements. In a recent article by a Christian psychiatrist I found the following data: Some psychiatrists reject this ground completely. Some would recommend abortion if there have been one or more attacks of schizophrenic psychosis in which the personality is deteriorating or attacks of depressive psychosis in which there have been genuine suicidal or infanticidal attempts. But nearly all agree that the last cases are very rare indeed and that most suicidal threats during pregnancy are either a conscious or unconscious attempt to manipulate the doctor into terminating an unwanted pregnancy. The psychiatrist I have quoted so far states as his own opinion; “Frankly, in psychiatry the question of abortion is more often raised because the pregnancy is unwanted than because of clear and serious risk of the mental health of the mother of the child. Myre Sim states: ‘If the baby is unwanted, remediable social problems are paraded as insurmountable and abortion is recommended.’” His final conclusion is stated in a quotation from Sir Aubrey Lewis, who wrote in 1966; “Termination of pregnancy for purely psychiatric reasons is, on the whole, seldom necessary.”

This being the case, the Christian attitude should be one of extreme caution. We could never approve a legislation which allows easy abortion on psychiatric grounds. I fully agree with the above mentioned psychiatrist when he says: “In general each case should be very carefully considered on its own merits by more than one psychiatrist, and even perhaps by a committee.” In addition, I would say that the religious aspect of the issue should carefully be studied. In some cases the cure might be worse than the illness, because it could easily put a heavy burden of guilt on the soul of the mother concerned.

3. Abortion for eugenic reasons

May we perform an abortion when there is “a substantial risk that the child will be born with a grave physical or mental defect”? A well known case is that of a mother being infected with German Measles in the first four weeks of pregnancy. According to statistics there is a 50% probability that the fetus will be abnormal. If the infection occurs between four and eight weeks of gestation the risk drops to about one in three and if the infection occurs between the eighth and twelfth weeks the risk falls to about 10%. Many people believe that the risk is so high in the early part of the pregnancy, particularly in the first six weeks, and because at that stage the pregnancy has not progressed very far, one is justified in terminating the pregnancy. Tn a recent article Prof. H. M. Carey, professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of N.S.W. writes: “The climate of medical thought at the moment is that when there is a very serious risk of giving birth to an abnormal foetus, one is justified in terminating the pregnancy either for this reason alone or because of the repercussions that it is likely to have on the mother and on other members of the family.”

Most Christian scholars, however, reject this attitude. First of all, there is a strong element of “probability,” that is, chance, in this matter. Most doctors would admit that only rarely can medical science predict with certainty that a child will be defective. Secondly, behind this whole attitude is a wrong approach to the defective or handicapped child. Many parents of handicapped children can testify that such a child has brought rich blessings to their lives. Pearl Buck, in a recent statement, suggests that a retarded child brings his or her own “gift of life, even to the life of normal human beings.” Thirdly, will this attitude not automatically lead to the practice of mercy-killing in the case of the incurably ill and of the “old and useless”? This is not a theoretical question! Recently the British Parliament, which in 1967 relaxed the traditional legislation on abortion, was faced with a bill suggesting that eugenic killing should be allowed in the case of incurably ill persons, who consent to such an act. Fortunately the House of Lords rejected this bill, but the number of those who voted in favour of the bill was distressingly great.

4. Abortion for social reasons

On this point we can be brief. We believe that this can NEVER be a sufficient ground for abortion. If there are financial or educational problems in a family, they should be solved in a different way.

5. Abortion in the case of rape or incest

This again is a controversial area. The R. C. Church strongly denies that abortion could ever be permitted in these cases. Karl Barth mentions the case of R. C. nuns who were raped when the Russians invaded Germany in 1945. These nuns were not allowed to free themselves from the consequences by abortion. Some Protestant theologians adopt the same attitude. For instance, Prof. H. van Oyen says that, however horrible the crime of rape may be, we are never justified to counter it with another crime, namely, infanticide. Most Protestant theologians, however, are not so outspoken. The Rev. R. J. Rushdoony writes in the Encyclopedia of Christianity: “This type of abortion is frequently practiced although technically illegal. There is no specific Biblical text on the matter. Those who oppose such abortions argue that the life of the foetus is not to be taken for the sin of the father, deserving of death though he may be (Deut. 22:23–27). Those who favor it argue that it is an offense to require the family to bring to life alien seed and give it sustenance. The subject is one that has been insufficiently explored and is in need of definition.” My own opinion is that in the case of rape it would be morally allowed, if it is asked by the mother, supported by other members of her family.

But it should also be remembered that genuine cases of rape are very rare and therefore the whole matter is rather academic. Dr. R. Kooistra, in an article in Calvinist Contact, writes: “Not all so-called cases of rape are genuine cases. What is called ‘rape’ is often halfway premeditated, halfway planned and yet ultimately refused or resented intercourse. In such cases pregnancy is sometimes not even completely unwelcome. Such ‘rape’ is close to premarital intercourse, with a tragic bent. Yet, there is genuine rape by a madman or a sexual maniac. In such cases, fathers, rush your daughter to the doctor or the emergency department of the hospital. Happily, conception does not take place immediately after the act of intercourse. God in His wisdom gives your doctor time to help the victim of sexual violence. And there are other reasons why she should see the doctor.”


It is getting time that we come to a final conclusion. The question we discussed in these articles is: Should our present legislation on abortion be liberalized along the lines, for example, of the English Abortion Law I967? My answer to this question is No. Let me formulate my grounds in the following points.

1. From the BIBLICAL point of view we must say that the life of the fetus is sacred, from its very inception. Liberalization of the present legislation would be a clear denial of this biblical teaching.

2. From the MEDICAL point of view there are far too many unknown factors in a liberalized practice of abortion. Although most doctors, including Christian doctors, would feel free to perform an abortion when there is a direct threat to the health of the mother, even on psychiatric grounds (genuine suicidal attempts!), most conscientious doctors admit that we know too little about the psychological consequences of abortion to allow “easy” abortion. A Sydney psychiatrist says that depression, anxiety and guilt feelings often follow so-called psychiatric abortion. He mentions an inquiry in Scandinavia in 1955 by a doctor who followed up 479 women aborted on “psychiatric” grounds and found that 25% regretted the operation bitterly; and one third of those who were not sterilized were pregnant again soon after. It is also very significant that a Japanese doctor reports that one survey of 3,600 Japanese women showed that of those who had abortions (in Japan abortion can be performed at the simple request of the mother) 68% admitted experiencing some after effects of mental disturbance of regret and fear. This is the more significant, because this happens in a country where women have no religious objections to abortion.

3. From the LEGAL point of view, the present legislation may not be ideal (the various cases are not clearly defined; what does “lawful” in the Abortion Act?), yet it has the advantage of being limited and yet flexible at the same time. Prof. H. M. Carey, a medical doctor himself, says that “a lot is to be said for maintaining our local ‘status quo’ and not attempting to define legally what is lawful and what is unlawful. The current position allows a certain amount of flexibility and the freedom to adapt action to meet the circumstances of the individual case.” At most one could aim at a clarification of the present law, so that circumstances allowing for abortion would be defined more clearly, but every liberalization of the law, especially the introduction of social or economical grounds as sufficient reasons for abortion, should be strongly opposed.

Our task

We would all do well, if we carefully watch the developments. Strong pressures are brought to bear on our legislators from the side of the advocates of liberalization. If this matter comes in our state or country we as Christians should make our own view known to our representatives in parliament. This is not a matter of trying to impose our views upon others. It is rather because we believe that an Increase in the practice of abortion will do immeasurable harm to society as a whole. Moreover, “it is our duty as members of a political state to protect the rights of the most defenseless member of our society,” namely, the unborn child.

Dr. Runia is professor of Theology at the Geelong Theological College, Victoria, Australia.