In the last issue of The Standard Bearer, we began a discussion of this subject once again. We noted then that the central question concerning the rightness or wrongness of abortion is the question of when the fetus becomes a person. If the unborn child is a person at the moment of conception, then abortion is a violation of the sixth commandment. It is murder. Abortion can be defended only on the grounds that the unborn child, either until birth or until some point after conception is less than human; is, as a matter of fact, only a mass of tissue and basically no different from an appendix or one’s tonsils.
That the issue is a critical one is plain from the number of abortions now legally performed in this country. In a recent issue of Newsweek magazine some statistics were given. We quote a few pertinent paragraphs.
“Abortion,” says Dr. Donald Minkler of San Francisco’s Center for Legal Abortion, “is finding its place as a perfectly acceptable and valid health measure. People no longer think of it as a crime,” The statistics seem to bear out Minkler’s contention. Lawrence Lader of the National Association for Repeal of Abortion Laws estimates that there were 8,000 therapeutic abortions in the U.S. in 1966, the year before the first liberalized law was passed. This year, he predicts, the number will reach 400,000.
Interestingly enough, (it is estimated) that the number of abortions is approaching the number of live births in the New York city hospitals, with 950 abortions reported performed for every 1,000 children born.
Those pushing hard for abortion reform do not envision clear sailing ahead, however. There are roadblocks on the way. President Nixon has said, for example: “Unrestricted abortion policies I cannot square with my personal belief in the sanctity of human life—including the life of the unborn.” Potential presidential candidate Edmund Muskie has expressed similar views. In some states the courts are ruling against unrestricted abortion and in many areas of the country, groups of churchmen are organizing to stop the repeal of present abortion laws which make abortion a crime.
But the debate goes on concerning the question of whether an unborn child can be considered a human being or not. Does it live? This is the question. In an article in Christianity Today by Kenneth J. Sharp, this question is faced. He writes:
The question inevitably arises, what is life? I long believed with countless others that the time when a specific human life begins is a question of ethical belief rather than scientific conclusion. I am now not so sure that this is true. Dr. Landrum Shettles of Columbia University states, “From the union of the germ cells there is under normal development a living definite going concern. To interrupt a pregnancy at any state is like cutting the link of a chain; the chain is broken no matter where the link is cut.” Dr. Jules Carles of the French National Center for Scientific Research also reports, “This first cell, formed by sperm and egg union, is already the embryo of an autonomous living being with individual hereditary patrimony.” The scientific community unanimously holds that the tissue of a fetus from the time of conception has a unique nature, though it must be nurtured and protected by the mother until viability. It is far more than simply a biological extension such as a tonsil or an appendix; every aspect bears the attributes of individuality.
While there are some aspects of this quotation with which we agree, we are very much inclined to believe that it nevertheless states the problem wrongly. And it is increasingly our conviction that this is quite usually the case with those who argue either the pro or the con of abortion. The question is phrased in such a way that the problem is looked at from the viewpoint of when the fetus becomes alive; or when the soul enters the body which is formed through the union of sperm and ovum. This seems to be a wrong way to approach the whole question.
It is also this viewpoint which leads Dr. Henry Stob to some erroneous conclusions in a recent article in theBanner. We refer to this article quite at length because it touches upon many aspects of the abortion debate. In answer, first of all, to the question of whether the embryo or fetus is a human being, the article answers:
That is a large question, and we shall have to pursue it for a while. The thing first to be observed is that the fetus is an in-between-entity. It is obviously not a simple ununited spermatozoon, nor a simple unfertilized ovum. It is also not a post-partum baby or infant. It exists somewhere between these things. That is why people have disputed about its exact nature or status, and about whether it can be destroyed without moral fault.
This, in our opinion, is stating the matter wrongly. And this incorrect statement of the problem leads to the following conclusion:
Of course, the fetus is neither an infant, nor a sperm, nor an ovum, but the last two together—a fertilized ovum. It is neither an actual human being, nor the mere bare potentiality of humanness (as are the sperm and ovum), but “something” in the process of becoming human.
It is this “in-between” status of the fetus—this “becomingness” residing somewhere between “being” and “non-being”—that makes it hard to judge whether or not we are here dealing with an “object” that the sixth commandment has in view.
It seems to me that this same misstatement of the problem leads Dr. Stob to the conclusion, erroneous, in our opinion, that Scripture says almost nothing about the question of the nature and status of the fetus.
Texts are sometimes cited to prove that the Bible regards the embryo as human from the moment of conception, and that it therefore considers the destruction of the fertilized egg as the destruction of human life itself. Cited are texts like
where Esau and Jacob are said to have struggled together in the womb of their mother; or
where the Lord declares “before you were born I consecrated you”; or
where John the Baptist is reported to have leaped in the womb of his mother Elizabeth. But these texts, couched in the religious language of faith, do not, in my judgment, speak with any directness to the question.
Just exactly what Dr. Stob means to say by the expression, “Couched in the religious language of faith” is not clear. The implication seems to be that these texts must be taken in some other sense than their literal one; and this involves a question of inspiration and authority into which we cannot now enter.
Getting then to the point of the matter, Dr. Stob says,
Because of what I have called the “in-between” status of the fetus I do not regard its destruction as tantamount to infanticide. What is destroyed in abortion is not a human being; at most it is “something in process of becoming human.” This, of course, is a great deal; and the fetus therefore deserves everyone’s respect and protection. But one is not entitled to speak too quickly and too loudly of murder when the question of abortion is raised, particularly when it concerns the embryo in the very earliest stages of its existence.
After this position is staked out, it is not difficult to predict that Dr. Stob Will, at least under some circumstances, favor abortion. He does precisely this. First of all, he condemns various kinds of abortion. He condemns abortion when it is performed simply because a woman finds it inconvenient or otherwise undesirable to have a child. He condemns abortion as a means to restrict the size of a family. He condemns abortion when it is a means of terminating a pregnancy resulting from fornication and adultery.
But while these kinds of abortion are condemned, they have got to be condemned on grounds other than a violation of the sixth commandment. Dr. Stob does not say very clearly why he condemns these types of abortion. He only says:
In all these cases, and perhaps in others, there is nothing to justify the taking of so sacred a thing as a life in process of becoming human.
The kinds of abortion which he approves are abortions calculated to preserve the life of the mother when continued pregnancy threatens her life. With this we, of course, agree. But then he goes on to say:
Not every Christian will endorse my judgment, and among these dissenters are people whose friendship I cherish and whose Christian sensitivity and integrity I deeply respect.
Although I am not as certain about any of these as I am about critical abortion (already mentioned), I am disposed—on the ground that the value of unborn life must be weighed against the value of the life of the already born, and on the ground that we are not called upon to increase by our generative activities the increment of evil already in the world—to classify as allowable abortions the following additional types:
Forecastive abortion, that is, abortion calculated to prevent the birth of a child who, because of the occurrence of German measles or because of the use of Thalidomide, and so forth, is likely to be horribly deformed or deranged.
Social abortion; that is, abortion calculated to forestall dire personal and social consequences, the pregnancy being due to criminal behavior on the part of the father, that is, rape or incest.
Therapeutic abortion, that is, abortion calculated to preserve the physical and mental health of the mother when continued pregnancy will significantly and continuously undermine these.
I have named these three types in the order of their moral priority. I am more certain of the legitimacy of the first and second than I am of the third, but when all the conditions here recorded are maximally and assuredly present, I believe that these kinds of abortion are to be Christianly permitted.
We have noted above that our objection to this entire presentation is basically the objection that the problem is wrongly stated. It seems to us that one can get involved in useless argumentation when one asks when a fetus comes to life; or, when the soul enters the body. It is probably correct that the Scriptures do not give any answers to these questions—at least, if they are formulated in this way and limited to these points. But we cannot agree with Dr. Stob that therefore the Scriptures have nothing to say about the matter at all. It seems to us, in the final analysis, that Dr. Stob has rejected the Scriptures altogether as being of value in the settling of this problem, and has come to his conclusions on the basis of social, medical and psychiatric considerations. This leads to a cul-de-sac, a dead-end street. This is finally situation ethics of one sort or another.
We must postpone our discussion of this matter to the next issue of The Standard Bearer. It might be of some interest to our leaders to have before them a brief summary of what various denominations have had to say in recent years about abortion. We quote from Christianity Today.
American Baptist Convention (1968): “. . . We . . . urge that legislation be enacted to provide: 1. That the termination of a pregnancy prior to the end of the 12th week (first trimester) be at the request of the individual(s) concerned and be regarded as an elective medical practice and licensure. 2. After that period, the termination of a pregnancy shall be performed only by a duly licensed physician at the request of the individual(s).
Episcopal Church (1967): “. . . Resolved, That the 33rd Triennial Meeting of the Episcopal Church support efforts to repeal all laws concerning abortion which deny women the free and responsible exercise of their conscience. . . .”
United Methodist Church (1970): “. . . We urge . . . that church-related hospitals take the lead in eliminating those hospital administrative restrictions on voluntary sterilization and abortion which exceed the legal requirements in their respective political jurisdictions, and which frustrate the intent of the law where the law is designed to make the decision for sterilization and abortion largely or solely the responsibility of the person most concerned. . . .”
United Presbyterian Church (1970): “Our committee’s position is that abortion should be taken out of the realm of the law altogether and be made a matter of the careful ethical decision of a woman, her physician and her pastor or other counselors. In the later stages of pregnancy, serious consideration must be given to the competing claims of the developing fetus as well as to the increasing risk to the life of the mother in surgical abortion. . . .”
Lutheran Church in America (1970): “On the basis of the evangelical ethic, a woman or couple may decide responsibly to seek an abortion. Earnest consideration should be given to the life and total health of the mother, her responsibilities to others in her family, the stage of development of the fetus, the economic and psychological stability of the home, the laws of the land, and the consequences for society as a whole.”
That major church denominations can take such stands as these is frightening. It is clear that they are based entirely upon the idea that the unborn child is nothing but some tissue in the mother’s body that can be removed at will. Is this Scripture’s teaching? We shall have to look more closely at this problem next time.