Trying to Think Clearly about Abortion
Michael S. Usey
An old proverb says, "There is no fool like an old fool, unless it's a young fool." Being two years shy of 50, I'm not quite ready to say that I'm old, but the aches I have after a day of playing soccer with my 3 kids convince me that I'm not young either. So, being neither an old fool nor a young fool, I guess I am just foolish--as one fellow minister suggested when I said I was preaching on the topic of abortion. He didn't come out and call me stupid, but he said, "Why ask for trouble? This is such a volatile issue; there is no way you can win." But of course, "winning" isn't the issue when you bear the responsibility of standing in front of a community of faith and telling the truth. The issue is to try to bring the mercy and love and wisdom of God on the difficult issues of life. So this is the first reason I stand before you on this issue: The gospel of grace to which I am committed compels me to address this difficult issue.
There is a second reason: in America in 2006, the so-called Religious Right has attempted to claim the high moral ground on issues of abortion, reproductive rights, and even sex education. The article on the front of the bulletin was in this Thursday’s News & Record, and the lead article for the March 20th Newsweek is abortion and the GOP. So why is a Baptist minister in the middle of the South speaking about abortion? The tension around this issue stays high, especially for us in the religious community. Despite that tension, I have made this choice because it's important to remind both those inside and outside the Christian church that the so-called "Right to Life" point of view is not the only religious one. They have the right to hold their view and I honor diversity of viewpoints, even (and maybe especially) on controversial issues, but I remind them that my sincere viewpoint is also born out of a deep faith in God. If we who have a different point of view cease to speak, even if we feel conflicted and complex, we will allow the Religious Right to pressure more and more quietly thoughtful people into silence. And the political implications are obviously staggering.
No issue is more emotionally turbulent at this time as the abortion issue. I have a very, very hard time imagining how someone can investigate this issue and be arrogant about the correctness of his or her position. Yet people do maintain that, on both sides of the issue. I have a hard time understanding an attitude of complete confidence because abortion is just about the most extraordinarily complex medical, legal, philosophical, social, and moral issue I have investigated. I want to address some of the moral dimensions from one minister's perspective, and try to avoid being moralistic in the process.
Let me begin with some personal statements. First, I support the Roe v. Wade decision. I'll say more about this later.
My second personal statement is this: I have come to grieve deeply at the proliferation of abortions--over a million a year--because it suggests to me that reproductive and abortion decisions are not taken with enough moral seriousness.
The third personal statement I make is that I find myself incapable of being any kind of absolute moral judge over a woman who makes the painful decision to abort. Yes, men are a part of this issue as well; we do participate in the origin of the fetus, and we also grieve over the difficulty of the decision. But it is essentially an issue confronting the woman, for she is the one who lives intimately with consequences of her decision. She is the one who has to submit to the medical procedure of abortion. She is the one, who, if young, might have to drop out of school, stress her body, and if she so decides, grow up too soon with a baby at her hip. She may consider putting the baby up for adoption, and, while that is courageous, it has seismic implications emotionally. Above all, regardless of age, she is the one who has to make a very complex, morally sensitive decision in a relatively short period of time. With that in mind, I recognize that it may be very difficult for you who are women to hear a man address this issue.
The worlds of medicine, philosophy, and the law have been unable to determine a "magic moment" when personhood begins. Life may being at conception, or before that or after, when the blood enters, but when does personhood begin? Just as medical science has never absolutely, clearly, and without an ounce of reservation been able to determine when a dying person loses personhood, science cannot tell us with absolute clarity when personhood begins. Most likely it is on a growing continuum, rather than one magic moment. This is a crucial point: there is no one magic moment of ensoulment. Rather the best model I believe is a growth continuum from before conception (taking in contraception) to birth. The further you move towards birth, the more morally serious to interrupt the process. On this growth understanding, contraception is usually a moral good, early abortions may be either good or bad, and late term abortions should only be consider for the most serious of reasons.
As a whole, the Christian church has never formed a consensus on the question, "When does personhood begin?" One of the reasons for this lack of consensus is that the Bible has no clear word. In the absence of such a clear mandate, a number of interpretations have arisen. Let me share some with you. I repeat, there is no place in the Bible where it says, "You shall not have an abortion." In fact, the Bible contains no texts about abortion.
Nevertheless, consider these texts. Genesis 2.7 declares that "God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a living soul. Elsewhere, there is a place in Hebrew law, in Exodus 21 (vv. 22-25), that makes a value distinction between the life of the mother and life of the unborn:
When men strive together and hurt a woman with child, so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no harm follows, the one who hurt her shall be fined, according as the woman's husband shall lay upon him ... if any harm follows [to the woman], then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand.
That is, if the being in utero is harmed, a fine is imposed; if the mother dies, then the life of the injurer is demanded. In fact, what some people ignore is that this text makes a clear distinction between the termination of a pregnancy, and the death of the mother--it does not hold them equally. Rather it suggests a continuum view, where a fully developed person carries more moral weight than a still-developing fetus. This contradicts the idea that abortion is murder. While this is not the noblest form of jurisprudence, it is the only passage in the Bible directly applicable to the abortion issue. Some would say that the commandment, Do not murder pertains to abortion, but actually this assertion begs the question; to call abortion murder assumes an unproved premise. And, actually, Exodus 21.22ff is the part of the law code which fleshes out the 10 commandments. So this one comment about the value of the life of the unborn is a clarification of the commandment, Do not murder. The New Testament, by the way, is completely and strangely silent.
Now, the "Right to Life" people have, as you well know a number of biblical passages at their disposal--the prominent ones being from Jeremiah, Job, and the Psalmist:
- Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you [Jeremiah 1.4-5]
- Your own hands shaped me, molded me. [Job 10.8]
- For it was you who formed my inward parts--You knit me together in my mother's womb [Psalm 139.13]
These passages are all poetic expressions of the truth that God is the Creator and the Source of all creative processes. They should instill in us a reverence toward all life, unborn, as well as born. However, I do not think we should use them as proof of when, in the complex physical, spiritual process of creation, fetal life becomes human personhood. Poetry and "legal or scientific" arguments do not mix well. When a man says he has a broken heart, the physician does not do "open-heart" surgery. So I object in principle to the poetry of Ps. 139 (God "knitting" us in our mother's womb) being used as a proof-text to condemn abortion. In fact, if you take the Jeremiah text literally, it says, "Before you were in the womb, I knew you;" before conception is what the verse actually says. This is clearly poetry, and the poetic language of the Bible is designed to inspire us to respect all life, but it is not designed to determine when fetal life becomes human personality. We are therefore left before the mystery of life with a question mark in our hearts. That leads me to this scripture: "As you do not know how the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of the mother with child, so you do not know the work of God who made everything" (Ecc 1.5).
The Bible does not prohibit abortion, but it always encourages a respect for life. Left with this ambiguity, believers have through the years taken very different positions. For example, some Baptists have repeatedly gone on record as opposing abortion, except in the case of rape, incest, severe fetal deformity, or danger to the mother's health. As you may know, no Baptist speaks for any other Baptist; even as pastor, I speak only for myself, not for my congregation. Thus we must invoke the Protestant principle which says that in cases where scripture is not clear, final interpretation is left up to the individual person, given guidance within his or her community of faith. This is why as a Baptist I strongly support Roe v. Wade: it gives an individual the ability to make the choice before her God. Surely the dignity of women requires this ability to chose.
Where do we go from here? Here are some suggestions for your consideration. I offer them to you with fear and trembling, so great is the mystery of life and death at any point on the human spectrum.
1. The Bible teaches respect for all life, so unborn life deserves our deep respect.
2. We cannot know when a fetus develops human personhood, so I cannot take either extreme position. I cannot say that the fetus is just another mass of cells; neither can I say that it a human person whose life, when we end it, makes us murderers. Rather, the Bible suggests a continuum view of personhood: as the pregnancy progresses, the fetus becomes more and more a person. So interruptions to pregnancy gain more and more moral seriousness, and the being draws nearer to birth.
3. Every abortion represents a critical decision and should never be taken as casual birth control.
4. We must be very careful in even mentioning God's will. We cannot glibly claim God's will is involved in every conception. I cannot ascribe that a conception by rape or by incest or by a couple in no position to marry and parent a child is God's will. These are all occurrences in a tragic and sinful world. Thus, abortion is not the automatic breaking of God's will. Neither can we glibly say that it is God's will that we perform an abortion. In general, we should say that God is against the ending of all life, but that in some tragic circumstances God understands--even allows--and certainly forgives the choices we have to make.
5. We must continue to set before the Right to Life people the issue of quality of life. Too many folks who claim to be pro-life are also in favor of cutting programs that help prevent child abuse, urban poverty, child hunger, disease, and illiteracy. There have been too few adoptions of high-risk, high-disability children, and unwanted children in general, by people who say they are pro-child. All of us on both sides have no excuse not to be deeply involved in fighting to make the life of every child healthier and safer.
6. Making choices about abortion teaches us how to journey through the tragic dimension of life. This dimension includes violence and poverty, genetic defects, and pregnancy outside marriage. It includes unwise choices that result in severe and stressful consequences. It includes tragedy that comes when there are not good choices left and everyone loses; when the choices left are not between good and evil, but between the lesser of two evils; or when we painfully, prayerfully, consider what is least bad.
When I speak with women considering an abortion, I try to listen deeply and carefully to them. I also strongly encourage them to consider the other options, especially adoption. All of us find ourselves in places where no good solution is left. We can only measure the losses and compare the hurt. In such cases, we find ourselves cast out of the innocence of Eden , making choices we hate to make, but have to make--with fear and trembling--amid confession and tears.
And the Christian church's role? It is to guide in the decision-making process by doing what I am doing: safeguarding the woman's freedom to make the choice; to affirm her in her willingness to bear a child under difficult circumstances if that is her choice, and, if she decides instead to have an abortion, not to tell her what she should be feeling. Instead:
- If she feels guilt, offer and act out the Grace of God;
- If she feels grief, offer and act out the Comfort of God;
- If she feels remorse, offer and act out the Peace of God;
- If she feels fear, offer and act out the Love of God.(1)
Many, if not most of us, are disturbed by the number of abortions. We need to support groups that are helping people make wiser, more educated choices. Many of these groups are also reducing the number of abortions by providing education and promoting abstinence and the responsible use of birth control. All of our children are receiving sexual education by the secular media, but it is imperative that they be taught about the gift and responsibility of sex by their communities of faith. We all have that responsibility. But, life being what it is, abortion decisions will always have to be made--at least until further technology comes along that may preclude it. Since there is no moral consensus or biblical mandate, we should accord women the legal, moral, and religious freedom to choose. And, since abortion is a serious moral crisis, we should be around to guide her beforehand and to support and love her through whatever decision she, under God, makes. In short, we should reduce the need but protect the right. May God have grace and understanding for women who must make such decisions, and for ministers who talk about it.
(1) I am grateful to Roger Paynter in an unpublished sermon for his insights on this issue.