The Abortion Debate II

In the previous article we looked at some of the arguments used by those who advocate liberalization of our present legislation on abortion. We also saw that these arguments are not as convincing as they look at a first glance. As Christians, however, we are primarily interested in the Christian point of view, and in this article we will try to do this. We begin with some historical observations. It is interesting to see how the church of the past has dealt with this matter.

Attitudes toward Abortion in the Christian Church

To understand the attitude of the Early Church we must see it against the background of its environment, i.e., the Greek and Roman world of those days. The Greek philosopher Plato approved of the practice of abortion. In his book “The Republic” he states that if conception takes place past the limits of the state-controlled procreation, it constituted “an offense against religion and justice, inasmuch as he is raising up a child for the state.” Since procreation was forbidden without state sanction, abortion in other cases was mandatory. The second leading Greek philosopher, Aristotle, advocated a similar view. He defended it on the basis that the rational soul entered the embryo at a rather late date. In his opinion, the future child was endowed at conception with the principle of vegetative life only, which was exchanged after a few days for an animal soul, and was succeeded by a rational soul at a much later stage. Roman law went much further. It stated that the embryo is still a part of the body of the mother. The human person begins to exist with birth! This naturally made abortion a rather easy matter and it was a rather common practice in the Roman world (although it was not approved by all; some Stoic philosophers opposed it as a sin against nature).

It is against this background that the attitude of the Early Church must be seen. From the beginning it rejects all abortion. In one of the earliest writings, immediately after the apostolic period, the soc. “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles” (the “Didache”) we read that abortion is murder and the way of death, and thus contrary to the love of God and the way of life. Tertullian (c. 100–c. 220) writes: “To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing (homocidium); nor does it matter whether you take way a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth. That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in the seed.” In the “Apostolic Constitution,” a Christian document from the 4th century, it is stated: “Thou shalt not slay the child by causing abortion, nor kill that which is begotten; for everything that is shaped, and has received a soul from God, if it be slain, shall be avenged as being unjustly destroyed, Ex. 21:23.”

The Church Father Augustine, in the early fifth century, introduced some distinctions. He distinguished between a “formed” and a “non-formed” fetus, and between a “living” and a “no-yet-living” fetus. In the Middle Ages this approach was continued, especially when the view of Aristotle was accepted, namely, that the rational soul is infused into the body at some later stage. It is very remarkable to read that they distinguished on this point between male and female children. In a male child the soul would be infused on the fortieth day, in a female on the eightieth day. I call this remarkable, because no one knew how fetal sex could be predetermined! For a long time the discussion about when the soul was infused into the body continued. In the thirteenth century Thomas Aquinas defined motion as the principle of life. Thus in England after the fifteenth century, when common law declared that life began at the moment of quickening, abortion was a criminal offense only after the fetus was quick. This position has influenced present laws, which require a birth certificate only after the fetus is twenty weeks old.

In 1588 Pope Sixtus V tried to change the position of the R. C. Church by stating that the soul entered the embryo at the moment of conception. Consequently all abortions, at any period of fetal development, were regarded as murder, punishable by excommunication. In the year after his death (1591), however, his successor, Gregory XIV, returned to the former position and stated that excommunication was necessary only when abortion was performed after a fetus was forty days old. It was not before the 19th century (1869) that Pius IX reverted the R C. Church to the position of Sixtus.

This is still the official position of the R. C. Church. Ensoulment begins at conception and therefore every form of abortion, including the soc. therapeutic abortion, is sinful. The R. C. position is often stated in these words: “If it is a matter of choosing between the life of the mother or the life of the child, the new life has precedence. In recent times this formulation has been vigorously denied by Roman Catholics themselves. Pope Pius XII, for instance, has said: “Never and in no case has the Church taught that the life of the child must be preferred to that of the mother. It is erroneous to put the question with this alternative: either the life of the child or that of the mother. No, neither the life of the mother nor that of the child can be subjected to an act of direct suppression. On purpose we have always used the expression ‘direct attempt on the life of an innocent person,’ “direct killing.’ Because if, for example, the saving of the life of the future mother, independently of her pregnant state, should urgently require a surgical act or other therapeutic treatment which would have as an accessory consequence, in no way desired nor intended but inevitable, the death of the fetus, such an act could no longer be called a direct attempt on an innocent life.” In other words, if a hysterectomy is necessary for the purpose of removing a cancerous growth and abortion is the unintended result, it is permitted. But it is not permissible to kill the fetus in order to save the mother in any other circumstances.

Most Protestant Churches do not take this rigid view. Although few of them have made official statements in the matter, they generally would allow for THERAPEUTIC abortion, i.e., if it becomes imperative to save the mother’s life, such an operation is not a violation of God’s law.

Some central issues

From this short historical survey it is quite evident that abortion is a very complex matter. The Christian Church itself has not always followed a consistent line of approach, and even today Roman Catholics and Protestants do not fully agree.

There are some rather difficult questions in this whole problem, questions which must be faced, if one is to find a satisfactory answer to the problem. Some of them are the following.

What is a fetus? Is it a human being or not? This immediately raises some other questions. When does life begin? When does one become an individual human being with full human rights? What are the rights of the non-viable fetus (i.e., the fetus that is not capable of maintaining life, e.g., in a miscarriage) and of the viable fetus (which is capable of maintaining life)? Next, there are some questions concerning the mother. What are the rights of the mother? What happens when the rights of the mother are in conflict with those of the fetus?

A much more general question is: Is it ever right to destroy human life deliberately in any stage of its development, or should a decision as to who is to die. in the latter case the mother or the child, which has no voice in the matter, be left to an act of God? Is it, as some say, always a matter of “murder”? Or is this term incorrect? Is not murder the malicious, premeditated killing of one human being by another, prompted by hostility, hatred, perhaps a desire for vengeance, and a complete absence of love?

A basic question with regard to legislation is: Who has the control of the power over life and death in society? Can this he given to one particular individual, e.g., the mother, as is virtually suggested hy the advocates of change in the present legislation? Can it be put into the hands of a doctor or a committee of doctors?

It is, of course, impossible to deal with all these questions within the limits of a few articles. It would require a complete book We shall discuss only a few of the most important issues and try to answer some of the more practical problems.

By the way, you may have noticed that we did not ask the question: What does the Bible say an this matter? The reason for this omission is that the Bible does not directly deal with it. I know, some appeal to the story of Esau and Jacob who struggled together in the womb of their mother (Gen. 25:22) or to what the Lord says to Jeremiah (ch. 1:5 – “before you were born I consecrated you”) or to John the Baptist who leaped in the womb of his mother Elizabeth, when she heard the greeting of Mary (Luke 1:41), but I do not think these texts are conclusive. Undoubtedly they clearly state that the fetus in the mother’s womb is a living person, but they do not explicitly state WHEN it becomes a living person. Yet this is the central question.

What is a fetus?

According to many modern abortionists, in the early stages of pregnancy it is just an “insensible blob of tissue.” They usually write about it, as if this is a most obvious fact. Mr. John Bennett of the Victorian Council for Civil Liberties says: “The fetus is only 1–3 inches long after six weeks when most abortions take place and cannot realistically be called a human being.” Yet, as we have seen, in history there have been three different positions. (a) The Roman law: only after birth one can speak of a human being. (b) Aristotle and the Medieval Church: it is a human being after the rational soul has been infused or at the moment of quickening. (c) The view of the Early Church and the R. C. Church today: life begins with the conception. I repeat these views to show that Mr. Bennett’s view is an oversimplification of the problem. For him it is a matter of size and weight, but actually there is much more involved.

It is interesting to note that many members of the medical profession reject Mr. Bennett’s view. Dr. J.S. Scott, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Leeds University, writes: “The most important fact that gynaecologists know, and the one most understandably suppressed, is that performing an abortion at the time they are usually Galled upon to do so involves destruction of a CLEARLY RECOGNISABLE HUMAN BEING”! The Ethics Section of the Harvard Divinity School—Kennedy Foundation’s International Conference on Abortion (1967) declared: “From the present available data, we can only conclude that human life begins at conception, or no later than ‘blastoclyst’ (eight days after conception). The fetus, therefore, at least from blastoclyst, deserves respect as human fetal life.”

This is, as we have seen, also the position of the R. C. Church. In 1951 Pius XII declared that “innocent human life…is from the first moment of its existence, to be preserved from any direct voluntary attack.” Fr. John A. Philips, S.J., writes: “The unborn child is a human being, and it comes into existence at the time of conception. This is the finding of modern science.”

I believe I am not saying too much, if I state that this is also the general opinion among Protestants.

Yet I must add that some Protestant scholars speak in this connection about “human life” with certain qualifications. H. Thielicke, for instance, says that “the fetus has its own autonomous life, which, despite all its reciprocal relationship to the maternal organism, is more than a mere part of this organism and possesses a certain independence.” Others speak of the fetus as “a potential child” or “potential adult.” In other words, they suggest that there is a certain difference between the unborn and the born child, and that there is a certain margin of uncertainty as to what the fetus precisely is before it is viable, that is, before it is capable of maintaining life outside the womb. In “Christianity Today” a Reformed doctor points to the fact that in the case of a spontaneous abortion the fetus, after proper medical examination, is disposed of as such. Likewise, the non-viable fetus is not baptized or given a burial. But after the fetus has attained viability, it is usually treated different. It may be baptized, and the parents have the choice of a burial or scientific disposal of the fetus, whether it is born dead or alive. In other words, there is a certain ambiguity in the whole matter. Yet he emphatically adds that all this should not obscure the fact that the embryo IS A HUMAN LIFE and therefore IS SACRED.

Personally I agree with this last statement. Whatever the difficulties involved may be, at any rate the fetus is the beginning of a human life and therefore it is sacred. It must be carefully preserved and given every opportunity to come to birth and to full human development. This also fully agrees with Scripture. The Bible may not deal specifically with our problem (abortion), but it clearly states that children are a gift of the Lord and it is he who opens and closes the womb. In our soc. scientific age many unbelievers may smile at this view, which they most likely would call old-fashioned and primitive. But as Christians we shall always maintain that the conception of a child is not just a natural, biological affair. In fact, this is confirmed by our modern knowledge of the whole process. “It is not up to the male to choose any of the 800 or 900 eggs the female carries within her female organs nor is it up to the female to choose any of the millions of mature male sex cells in the sperm. Each time a child is born this child embodies one particular CHOICE out of 2,400,000,000 possibilities.” No, this is not a merely biological process, but Psalm 139 is still fully true and relevant: “Thou didst form my inward parts, thou didst knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise thee, for thou art fearful and wonderful. Wonderful are thy works. Thou knowest me right well; my frame was not hidden from thee, when I was being made in secret, intricately wrought in the depths of the earth (the womb). Thy eyes behold my unformed substance; in thy book were written, everyone of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them” (Psalm 139:13–16). Indeed, we are wonderfully made!

In the next article we shall go into some practical issues.

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