Abortion - Changing Opinions

A Case for Life

A recent film was entitled A Case for Life.

The film began with a scene of "pro-life" demonstrators outside an abortion clinic in America. Then Kelly, one of the film's major characters, is introduced. She arrives to join the protest accompanied by two young children. Kelly is portrayed as a sensitive human being - not an "odd ball". She is a mother with a sense of humour, but with a passionate commitment to the anti-abortion cause.

Her sister, Liz, is a "pro-choice" lawyer. She is seen arriving at the clinic with a client who has come for an abortion. There is then a confrontation at the door and Kelly faints. Her sister Liz rushes to help. But Kelly is in serious trouble because she is pregnant with her fifth child and has heart disease.

She will be all right, it seems, with open-heart surgery. However, her 7-week-old foetus would come through the operation, if at all, having severe brain damage, or so she and her husband are told. The doctor, therefore, recommends a therapeutic abortion.

"What happens if we wait?" is the question the couple ask. The reply is that the growing baby will put more strain on Kelly's heart. She could have an enforced rest regime, but even then the chances that the baby would survive are slim. And the chances that Kelly would survive are put at no more than 15 percent.

Kelly decides against an abortion. Liz strongly opposes. She feels that Kelly should have the abortion for the sake of the other children as well as herself. She, therefore, seeks support in the family. Kelly's father and mother are both "pro-life". With great difficulty they eventually support Kelly's decision. The mother says: "We take life as it comes, try to do the right thing and trust that God in his infinite wisdom knows better than we do."

But when Liz is able to persuade Kelly's husband, Bob, to take legal action to force his wife to have the abortion, the court hearing that follows generates huge hostility between the sisters. The judge, however, rules in favour of Kelly and the pregnancy continues. Then comes the climax. Kelly is 27 weeks pregnant. Her heart gives out. The baby dies. But she lives. Finally, after an interval of time the sisters are reconciled, agreeing to disagree over abortion.

A shift of public opinion

What is significant about this film? The journalist Mona Charen, who has publicized and written about this film, reckoned the significance was that it was shown on an large, otherwise "liberal", US TV network as the Sunday Night Movie. For such a network to schedule such a sympathetic "pro-life" film was in itself evidence of a shift of public opinion. Mona Charen wrote:

What surprised me about the film is that it conveyed more than the humanity of pro-lifers. It offered a glimpse of their nobility. Kelly's willingness to risk her life for her child is presented not as the inexplicable stance of a fanatic but as the selfless act of a believer. Not every pro-lifer would agree that hers was the only possible course. But even her sister, who is equally committed to the pro-choice cause, says, "I admire her so much." It may not be a breakthrough - but when a major network presents the pro-life cause with sympathy and even grudging admiration, the ground of the debate is starting to shift.

There is a shift in this country, too. I discovered that when being interviewed for a TV programme last summer. This was at the time of the outrage at the abortion of a healthy twin of a middle-class mother on "social" grounds.

The producer, in conversation, said that while he would consider himself liberal in theological and ethical matters, that abortion of a healthy twin had made him think. Also the response to Cardinal Winning and his challenge to Tony Blair over abortion has been interesting. Many have argued (rightly, I would suggest) that the Conservative Government has been hypocritical in claiming to be pro-family while liberalising the divorce laws. But the Labour Party, according to the Cardinal's implication, is similarly hypocritical over abortion. It was pointed out that Tony Blair claims to be against abortion but votes for it, while pro-lifers in the Labour Party are marginalised. The local Labour MP for Blyth, Ronnie Campbell, is therefore to be commended. He publicly reported how activists tried to deselect him and fellow MPs said his career was at risk because he supported Liberal Democrat MP David Alton's proposals to lower the legal time-limit on abortions. (If you want to see how all the MPs have voted on this and other moral issues, you can now see that on the Christian Institute's Web Site.

Facts and figures

In the light of all this the presence of "pro-life" candidates in the coming General Election is interesting and also indicative of a certain shift in public opinion. What especially concerns the public, in no small measure, is the Christian Institute's recent high-lighting of official Government figures. The latest figures available show that for married couples only 8 percent of pregnancies are aborted, while for unmarried couples the figure is 33 percent. Nor is abortion a matter of poverty.

The fact is that the most prosperous areas have among the highest abortion rates, while areas of high unemployment have lower abortion rates. Most serious of all, out of 156,539 abortions in 1994 only 147 were because the mother's life was in danger; in only 1,796 cases was there a risk that the child would be born handicapped; and in only 2 percent of cases was there a grave risk of permanent injury to the mental or physical health of the mother. That means that 97 percent of all abortions are performed for social reasons. That surely is quite wicked. But why? Let me repeat some arguments from a Coloured Supplement I wrote seven years ago.

The 1967 Abortion Act never said that abortion was moral. It simply said that certain abortions would not be the concern of the criminal law. But practically that legitimised abortion for millions. So, how, do you decide the morality of abortion? Many people play a game of "ethical snap". Someone cites a case of a woman or girl in desperate poverty who wants an abortion; someone then "snaps" that with horrific photos of dead foetuses and dismembered foetal limbs.

The pro-choice people accuse the anti-abortionists of being sentimental in the operating theatre. The pro-life people accuse the abortionists of being sentimental in the counselling room. Others say it is all a matter of motives. If people have good motives that is enough. If they decide with reasonably unselfish motives, that justifies an abortion. But the Bible suggests that while bad motives make good actions morally hypocritical and wrong, good motives do not make wrong actions good. Peter, no doubt, had some good motives in opposing the way of the Cross for Jesus; but Jesus saw that activity as Satanic.

The Christian tradition

First, we need to note some history. Abortion was common in ancient Greece - hence the Hippocratic Oath for doctors: "Thou shalt not give a woman a pessary to produce an abortion." It was also common in the Roman Empire. By the time of Christ abortion was well-known and common in the ancient world.

But the coming of Christ and the spread of the Christian faith brought a challenge to the practice of abortion. In the period immediately following that of the Apostles - the period of the Fathers - one of the distinctives that marked off the Church from its pagan environment was its opposition to abortion. This was a fruit of the Gospel - the extension of care to the humblest of human "beings", including human foetal life. So early canon law, and then subsequent pronouncements, in general have defended the foetus as "human" or "human on the way" and so worthy of Christian love and protection.

More recently an ethics of "justifiable foeticide" has evolved. This, too, claims a Christian basis, namely that human life itself does not have an absolute, but only a very high value. There may, therefore, be occasions when life can be taken or protection withdrawn. But such a very serious action has to be justified. As with "the just war", the right to do this cannot be presumed. It has to be argued for.

Most would agree that a serious threat to the actual life of the mother is a justifying reason. Some argue that some congenital deformity is a justifying reason (although they would argue that this has to be such that no life outside the womb can be maintained).

But these and other difficult cases are very rare. As we have seen, most abortions are for "social" reasons. That is why the issue is a serious moral issue that Christians cannot ignore. It is the taking of innocent life.

The Bible

But is it innocent life? Is "human life" being destroyed in abortion or in embryo research? And why should conception be so important? What does the Bible say?

Exodus 21.22 refers to an injury to a pregnant woman. If she miscarries, the claims of the foetus are assessed as less than her own. But violence to the foetus is an offence. Mostly, however, the Bible speaks at a more general level. Ecclesiastes 11.5 says:

As you do not know ... how the body is formed in a mother's womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things.

Probably the RSV translation is better - "you do not know how the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child". This suggests that there should be a certain agnosticism or humility in our thinking about ante-natal life. We, indeed, are not facing a blob of tissue, but a divine mystery; the womb contains not only a body but a "spirit".

The philosophical and basic question is this: whose is the history of that which is in the womb - the mother's or someone else's? The Psalmist had no doubt. It was his history. He was in the womb:

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb (Ps 139.13).

Isaiah said much the same thing:

Before I was born the LORD called me; from my birth he has made mention of my name (Is 49.1).

Most importantly this is the understanding of the New Testament in the birth stories of Jesus. The incarnation of the Son of God began not with his birth but with his conception. So we say in the Creed:

He was conceived ...

In so far as Jesus Christ reveals true man (as well as true God), the inescapable conclusion is that life in the womb is human from conception.

Human in what way?

The fundamental Christian belief is in a God who gives, a God of "grace". He gave his only Son for our sins. And human life is a "gift". When Job was bereaved he said:

The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away (Job 1.21).

Human life is "given"; it is not "achieved". This is so important; and that is because we do not "achieve" our humanity by reaching certain standards of performance or development.

But today in the debate on abortion (and foetal experimentation) many argue, or at least imply, that the word "human" (and so the offer of protection) is to be applied only where there are certain "achievements" in terms of physical performance or psychological or mental development. But his is a totalitarian road that goes on to exclude from the category of the "human" certain social, racial or credal "achievements". So the mentally retarded, coloured people, Jews and others can be dispensed with. We have seen all that this century.

But if humanity is a "gift", the first "fourteen" days surely are irrelevant. These cannot be seen as "non-being". What matters is that behind human "pro-creation" is the "divine creation". Protection is to be offered to human beings not because they "reach a certain stage of development" but because of the given fact of being created by God in his image:

Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.

But we must not blur distinctions if we say the foetus is "human". We are saying that in virtue of its genotype or genetic code it is a distinct being that has been pro-created. It may be that God's creative powers, entrusted to men and women, have been misused. But that is not a ground for destroying what has been created. And what is created is a human foetus. It is not a human infant, nor a human adolescent, nor a human adult, nor a senile human being. If a senile person is a degenerating member of humanity, the foetus is a developing member. The boundaries are death and conception.

Nor is the foetus only "potentially human". Yes, the foetus only "potentially" has the characteristics it will develop; but the new born baby only potentially has the characteristics it will develop (as a toddler or teenager). An ovum or sperm is "potentially human". A foetus is a "human with potential". Nor must we moralize, like bomber pilots over Viet Nam, according to size. An embryo may look, and be, tiny. A Viet Nam village looks microscopic from 30,000 feet. So it doesn't feel so bad dropping bombs from that distance. But often innocent people were being killed.

There are many other problems.

The good news is about forgiveness at the Cross of Calvary, where Christ bore the sins of the world, including sins associated with abortion, and including the sins of others that lead to abortion. Some reading this may be scarred by having had, or being involved in, an abortion. The Gospel is that Christ loves the sinner and forgives, but he hates the sin and says: "Go and sin no more."

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