The Abortion Debate

In recent months there has been quite some debate on the subject of abortion. Newspapers discussed it in leading and special articles, while the column “Letters to the Editor” time and again carried letters by advocates or opponents of change in our present legislation on abortion. The debate started, when in some Australian States (notably W.A., N.S.W. and Vic.) strong voices advocated a change in the law. The leading article in the Melbourne “Age” of 14 January 1969, for instance, stated that the existing legislation on abortion is hopelessly out of touch with the needs and moral outlook of the community at large. On the whole the opposing view has been stated most vocally by Roman Catholic priests and laymen.

Unfortunately the discussion has often been rather heated and emotional. On both sides there has been much prejudice and a serious lack of perspective. Some advocates of change speak about the fetus as “just a piece of tissue” or “an insensible blob of tissue” or “vegetating unborn matter,” thereby hurting other people’s feelings. Some opponents of change brand the others as “murderers,” without really going into the problems involved. In my opinion this kind of debate is of little use. We have to face the problems honestly and squarely, look at them from all angles, and as Christians we have to seek first of all the light of Scripture.

Some definitions

It may be helpful 6rst to define a few terms. Abortion itself can be defined as the expulsion from the womb of the mother of a living fetus which cannot survive outside it. (Fetus or Foetus is the scientific name for the young of an animal or the offspring of a human being, before birth, i.e., in the womb. Sometimes it is called “embryo,” namely, in the first three months of pregnancy.) An abortion can be of two kinds. It can be natural and is normally called “miscarriage.” It can also be artificial, namely, when it is induced by artificial means of any kind, whether by external interference or by taking medicines or drugs internally.

Artificial abortion can take place for different reasons and we therefore distinguish different kinds. There is therapeutic abortion: the removal of the unborn new life by a competent physician in order to save the life of the pregnant mother. At the present this kind of abortion is generally accepted as lawful, although officially it is not always covered by the letter of the law. Others want to go further and induce abortion for psychiatric reasons, namely, when the mental or psychological health of the mother is endangered by the pregnancy. Others want to go further again and allow it for social reasons: when another child means too much economical pressure on the family or even for the simple reason that the mother does not want another child. Another ground often mentioned is the so-called eugenic reason, i.e., when there is a possibility that the child to be born is deformed or mentally retarded. Finally there are the special cases of pregnancy due to rape or incest.

From this mere enumeration of cases it is quite obvious that we are dealing with a very complex matter, which has many angles and is touching on many different areas of family life.

Present-day legislation

At the moment all kinds of abortion, apart from therapeutic abortion and abortion in the case of rape or incest are prohibited by law and in the past it was common to refer to them as crimi’1UlI abortion. The Victorian Crime Act states that anyone, including the woman herself, who unlawfully administers “poison or other noxious things” or unlawfully uses any instrument of other means with intent to procure a miscarriage, is guilty of a felony. In N.S.W. there is a similar law. In Victoria the penalty is 15 years imprisonment, in N.S.W. it is ten years.

But does this formulation cover “therapeutic” abortion? Technically it does not. But there is some latitude in the term “unlawful.” It is a crime to “unlawfully” terminate a pregnancy. Does this imply that there are cases in which it is lawful? Legal experts answer this question with Yes. This answer is based on the famous 1938 case of the London gynaecologist Mr. Alex Bourne, who operated on a 14-year-old girl raped by several soldiers. Mr. Bourne did it openly in the hospital and reported the matter to the police. The matter came up for trial before Mr. Justice Macnaghten, and the specialist was acquitted. In his verdict the Judge laid down the principle that where the continuation of the pregnancy is a threat to the life and health of the mother, it is justifiable to choose the lesser evil and terminate the pregnancy in order to safeguard the life or health of the mother. As far as I know this principle has never officially been incorporated into the Australian law, but it has been generally accepted as a workable rule and has been applied accordingly.

Proposed changes

Many people nowadays believe that the law is still far too restricted. Some suggest changes on the model of the American Law Institute’s Model Penal Code, which would permit abortion in three situations: 1. if the continued pregnancy is likely to impair gravely the mother’s physical or mental health; 2. if there is substantial risk that the child will be born with a grave physical or mental defeat; 3. if the pregnancy results from rape or incest. Others, however, want to go further and follow the English Abortion Act of 1967, which adds a fourth ground, namely, if there is a risk of injury to the physical or mental health of any existing children of the mother, account being taken of “the pregnant woman’s actual or reasonably foreseeable environment.” This last clause has been called the “social” clause of the Act.

The advocates of change use several arguments. A Roman Catholic priest, Father Paul J. Duffy, has classed them under five headings. (1) The statistical argument. It is said that every year a vast number of women seek abortions and because the law disallows abortion they have to resort to illegal abortionists, with all the risks involved. The figures vary greatly. Some mention a figure of 70,000 cases a year. Others mention even higher figures. The logic of this argument is that legalized abortion will reduce the number of illegal abortions. (2) The horror stories argument. Here they point to the fact that the women have to go to “back street” operators who are often inexpert and unhygienic. resulting in serious illness or even in death. They also point to cases of suicide and mental disturbance that sometimes follow boldly performed operations. (3) The hard case argument. No woman should be forced to bear and rear a child conceived through rape or incest, nor should she be forced to bear a child that is likely to be deformed. (4) The woman’s rights argument, which asserts that it should be the woman’s own decision to continue a pregnancy or not. (5) The bad law argument. A law that is not generally observed is a bad law. The law on abortion is mainly Routed, so it is a bad law and therefore must be changed.

Evaluation of the arguments

Father Duffy also discusses the value of these arguments and we want to pass some of his counterarguments on to our readers. It should be noted that Fr. Duffy does not argue from Scripture, but meets his opponents on their own level, i.e., on the level of purely practical grounds. Undoubtedly he does this on purpose. in order to show that even on merely humanistic grounds their arguments do not hold water. Indeed, in a discussion with unbelievers one sometimes has to do this, because a “Christian” argument would not carry any weight with them.

What are Fr. Duffy’s counter-arguments?

(1) As to the statistical argument he argues that it is beset hy two great weaknesses. One is the impossibility of getting any accurate figures about the number of illegal abortions. The other is the assumption that the level of illegal abortions will drop with legalization.

As far as I can see he is right on hath points. Everyone who docs some reading in this field soon discovers that the statistics that are being used arc mere speculation. Naturally there are no reliable statistics of illegal abortions. They may be as high as some advocates claim, but they may also he much lower. As to the second point. it is definitely not true that the number of illegal abortions is decreasing after the legalization of abortion. It might happen, if abortion were left completely in the freedom of the individual, but as long as there are some restrictions (which would be the case. even if the English Law of 1967 were accepted ), the illegal abortionists will still be very busy. The magazine Time, in an essay on abortion, even writes that the new laws “increase illegal abortions.” For evidence it points to the situation in Sweden, which as early as in 1938 adopted a more liberal law. “Sweden puts women through a multi-layered screening that creates excruciating delays; 56% of Stockholm-area legal abortions occur after the 16th week of pregnancy. Bureaucratic paper shuffling often holds legal operations until the 24th week—producing live babies that sometimes cry for hours before dying. To avoid all this, Swedish women flock to Poland for early efficient $60 abortions.” Significantly Tillie adds that the Swedish government has concluded that the law must be broadened to allow more and faster abortions. In other words, one cannot stop halfway. Once the door is open a little, practical problems will push it wider open. In a later article T ime discusses the new situation in California. where the law has also been broadened. Again the same situation prevails. It takes far too much time to learn when abortions are permitted and how to go about applying for them. It costs far too much. since specialists have to be called in, an official operation has to be performed and the patient has to be hospitalized for some time. The total bill can run up to $2,000. The result is that those who can pay prefer a quick trip to Mexico or Puerto Rico, where abortion, although illegal, is easily arranged, with a competent gynaecologist performing the operation. The great majority of other women are still forced to go to the “back yard” performer!

(2) The horror stories argument is rather emotional. Of course, it is horrible what some women have to go through, but this is not the fault of the law. The law has been framed to safeguard the life of the unborn child. If a mother docs not want to abide with this law. which has been framed for the good of society and also for the good of herself and her unborn child, one cannot blame the law if she suffers by her own illegal action.

(3) The hard case argument is very much open to questioning. First, it is almost impossible to frame a law that covers all possible “hard cases.” Secondly, it may be asked whether there really are so many hard cases. “The simple fact’s appear to be that by far the majority of women seeking abortions are not moved by ‘hard case’ considerations, nor even by genuine medical or psychiatric ones: they want an abortion simply to get rid of an unwanted pregnancy that is socially inconvenient.” Dr. Tietze. of the Population Council, said quite plainly that “the vast majority of illegal abortions performed in the U.S.A. involve a healthy woman wishing simply to head off an undesired pregnancy.” Prof. Henry Mayer, who has been studying abortion practice in Australia for a number of years, says: “In industrialized societies about 80% of these abortions are performed on married women or self-induced by them. The overwhelming majority are undertaken on women who are not in physical danger h om the pregnancy, have not been raped, and have no fears about giving birth to a deformed child. The women do not want the child.”

(4) The woman’s right argument is very one-sided. It completely ignores the question. whether or not the unborn child has a right of life. Usually the latter point is countered by the argument that one cannot yet speak of a human being in the case of a fetus at the time at which abortions are usually performed. One advocate of change writes: “The fetus is only 1–3 inches long after six weeks when most abortions take place and cannot realistically be called a human being.” We shall come hack to this question later on, but at this point we want to state already that this whole approach is incorrect. As if size would determine whether one can speak of a human being or not!

(5) The last argument, the bact law argument, does carry some weight. A law that is not enforced, because it is unenforceable, is a very bad law. But one has to be careful in using this argument. Could this not be applied to the law on murder as well? Many murders are committed in Australia, which are never punished, because the murderer is not found. Should we therefore abolish the law against murder? Is it not so that the law of the state has to protect life, the life of horn and unborn human beings, irrespective of the question, whether people adhere to this law or try to break it?

As we said before, these arguments deal with the matter from the practical angle. The Christian view point is not raised at all. But as Christians we are naturally vitally interested in this view point. In the next article we intend to study the matter in the light of the Bible and of the history of the Christian Church.

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