Looking Past Abortion Rhetoric
by James A. Brix
Dr. Brix is pastor of Georges Road Baptist Church in North Brunswick and an instructor at Somerset Christian College in Zarephath, NJ. This article appeared in the Christian Century October 24, 1984, p. 986. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
“Abortion is murder!” So reads the hand-lettered placard carried by a demonstrator in front of an abortion clinic. “Protect a woman’s right to choose!” counters the demonstrator across the Street.
Abortion is an issue so emotional, so divisive, that Christians who would normally engage in dialogue about the most controversial of matters find it easier to change the subject when this one comes up. Those who make the attempt often wish for an interpreter. Few topics employ a vocabulary as mutually exclusive on each side as this. One side calls itself “prolife” but is known as “antichoice” to its opposition. The other takes for itself the title prochoice” but is branded “proabortion’’ by the other side.
A principal, though silent, party in the debate is known as the unborn child to some, as the product of conception to others. What prochoice people call termination, prolife people term killing. To some, the human fetus (Latin for “unborn child”) is a mass of protoplasm which has no personal rights. To others, the fetus is a human being who should be protected with the constitutional right to life.
How easily these discussions bog down! Even when those involved are personal friends who hold differing views, they often find themselves challenging one another’s terminology. Feelings come to the surface quickly. Friendships have been strained, sometimes to the breaking point, over this volatile issue.
I espouse a prolife position. I have marched in Washington, D.C., with my son on my shoulders. I support the call for a human life amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which would define a fetus as a person entitled to legal protection from untimely, unnecessary death. I feel anger when I read a full-page advertisement from Planned Parenthood which warns women that they could go to jail for having a miscarriage if the amendment succeeds. I challenged a newspaper’s interpretation of a poll it had conducted when it declared “Abortion No Issue in New Jersey,” although 76 per cent of those polled opposed abortion at least some of the time. They chose to emphasize the nine out of ten who favored permitting abortions under some circumstances, including a threat to the mother’s life.
Yet I am frustrated. As a Christian, I am aware that some other Christians, who love the Lord with the same sincerity as I do, disagree with me on this issue. My own denomination has taken a middle-of-the-road position which regrets abortion but favors freedom to choose. I have friends I respect and cherish who, nevertheless, oppose me on this issue. Why am I frustrated? Not because we differ, but because we are unable to communicate in this area. And that breaks my heart. I write with the hope that I may express my concerns about abortion clearly, and with the hope that truly helpful dialogue might result.
The issue may be engaged on several fronts. It is a scientific issue. However, most discussions have moved beyond the question “Is the fetus really human?” I hear few arguments against fetal humanity any more. Some would call the fetus “potential” life, but the clear fact is that the unborn are alive; they must therefore be defined as human. They are not of the carrot family. Abortion as a legal issue now dominates the debate. Should the fetus be granted legal status as a person and provided with protection?
Although scriptural evidence is irrelevant in Congress, its importance to followers of Jesus is self-evident. Does Exodus 20:13 (“Thou shalt not kill”) apply to all abortions, some abortions or no abortions? Genesis I declares that God created human life and declared it “good.” Exodus 23:7 protects the life of the “innocent.” Zechariah 12:1 describes God as the one “. . . who forms the spirit of a man within him” (NIV). Hosea 9:4 describes miscarriage as a part of God’s curse on Israel for its disobedience. The loss of prematurely born children denotes tragedy. Ephesians 1:4-6 asserts that God knows us from before our births.
Exodus 21 and Psalm 139 form, in my judgment, the two clearest statements about how God views prenatal life. The much-debated Exodus 21 passage gave instruction to ancient Israel about how to handle the accidental killing of a fetus when a pregnant woman is injured by fighting men. Note first that the death described is accidental. Nowhere does Scripture make reference to the deliberate destruction of a fetus, other than in acts of wartime atrocities (e.g., Amos 1:13). The Israelites needed no specific law to tell them whether God approved the willful destruction of fetal life. Israelite women lived in a society which recognized their value primarily as child-bearers. They could not have seen abortion as a legitimate option.
The penalty to the fighting men in Exodus 21 depended on the severity of the injuries to the woman and to the fetus. If the fetus died but no further lasting physical harm came to the woman, the men were fined. But why a fine for the accidental death of the fetus? Because the unborn child was valued as a human life, tragically lost. Had the death resulted from deliberate attack upon the woman, I think the men would have been put to death.
Psalm 139 contains, in verses 13 through 16, the clearest and most complete biblical statement regarding fetal life:
For you created my inmost being: you knit me together in my mothers womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made: your works are wonderful. I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be [NIV].
David, the writer, did not physically become “David” at birth or even at viability but rather when he was knit together” in his mother’s womb. What a beautiful description of conception! This inspired hymn of praise clearly shows that God regarded David as a person within the womb.
I cannot understand how anyone who regards Scripture as authoritative can argue against the personhood of the fetus. However, I can hear the objections even now. OK. that’s your position. Others differ. There are biblical scholars on both sides. So don’t encourage anyone to have an abortion. But don’t make their decision for them” Most of the time I follow that very approach. I don’t promote laws to forbid people to smoke cigarettes if they keep their smoke to themselves. Yet if I had strong evidence that parents I knew were abusing their six-month-old baby. I would cooperate with the authorities to have the child removed from their home. Yes. I have a concern for unwanted, neglected, abused children. But abortion is not the solution to that problem. Abortion is itself a severe form of child abuse. What sense does it make to kill an unborn child to prevent future mistreatment?
Yes, abortion prevents the birth of children handicapped by physical and mental disorders. Before C. Everett Koop became surgeon general, he specialized in saving the lives of infants born prematurely and with a variety of handicaps. At times he has given some of them an opportunity, when they have grown older, to speak about their own sense of worth. They cannot be unaware that many parents would have denied them the opportunity to be born. Yet they fairly glow with the joy of living. It frightens me a little when I envision a society in which a commission would be appointed in every hospital to decide which pregnancies would be terminated and which newborns should be permitted to die of neglect. We are not as far from that situation as some might assume.
The strongest argument in favor of legalized abortion is not that a woman should have the right to choose what to do with her own body. The mother provides temporary housing for the child in utero, but the child is not a part of the mother’s body. Father and mother together conceive a child, and each conception is a unique human life. A pregnant woman is not, therefore, a prospective mother: she is a mother.
The strongest argument in favor of abortion is the very real dilemma which some pregnant mothers must face. A 13-year-old girl has intercourse for any one or more of many equally foolish reasons. Pregnancy terrifies her. She is in no way equipped to handle motherhood. The social consequences are painfully real. Or a poor family already has four children who cannot be cared for properly. Another pregnancy threatens to lessen the quality of life for the entire family. And although pregnancy resulting from forcible rape is extremely rare, it does happen. Who can blame the woman for not wanting to bear the child? When amniocentesis reveals the probability of birth disorders, who may stand in judgment of a woman’s tragic inner conflict? I do not take these questions lightly.
Almost every extended discussion I have had regarding abortion has eventually returned to the question of how to define the fetus. If one defines the fetus as a human child with the inherent right to life, one must seek to defend that child. We don’t defend it to the exclusion of consideration for the rights of others, but neither do we ignore the child. If pregnancy becomes a physical threat to the life of the mother, then abortion is not performed with the intent of killing the child. The death of the infant is a tragic result of the attempt to save the mother.
If the pregnancy does not threaten the mother’s physical existence, then the rights of the child ought to be considered as on the same level as the mother’s. Compassion may be demonstrated in providing all possible assistance, including emotional support to the mother throughout pregnancy and beyond. It is not a perfect solution, but neither are many in life.
I stand with those who feel committed to work for legal protection for the unborn. I respect the views of fellow Christians who hold opposing views, and I welcome dialogue. I offer what I have just shared with the hope that the position I have outlined will be better understood.