Wednesday, June 17, 2009

An Evangelical Christian Ethic for Life (ECEL), II: Abortion

Though we are proceeding through each topic alphabetically, it is fitting that our first topic is probably the litmus test which most use to define their attitudes toward bioethics: abortion.

Before we begin, let us discuss a quick definition for clarification: the willful termination of a human pregnancy by the mother will henceforth be called abortion; the accidental, natural, or unintentional termination of the pregnancy will be called stillbirth (if the fetus passes through the birth canal through labor) or miscarriage (if the fetus passes through or is removed without labor).

Abortion is an extremely difficult and detailed subject, with many excellent people on both sides of the debate. There are a number of nuanced positions, and it is instructive for us to approach the problem logically, by framing our research in two stages:

(1) General Law of Abortion: To begin, the Christian must examine Scripture, logic, moral philosophy, biology, and ancient writings to determine a general law toward abortion. This will be a statement which tells us, in general, the Christian “take” on abortion.

(2) Corollaries to the General Law of Abortion: Once a general law has been developed, we may interpret that law through a variety of corollaries discussing specific situations (rape, incest, protection of mother’s life, etc.).

Recall that one of our key mottos here at Reboot Christianity is “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, love.” By framing the discussion as above, we separate the essential Christian ethic (General Law) from the non-essentials (Corollaries). Thus, Christians can present a coherent theory of abortion, while allowing slight differences of interpretation on minor, rare situations.

General Law of Abortion

In developing our General Law, it is instructive to consider the input of Scripture and ancient tradition.

Scripture
The Christian Scriptures never directly address the topic of abortion; that is, there is no statement saying, “Abortion is a sin.” Therefore, for we as Christians to interpret the Scriptural stance on the topic, we must examine the Scriptures en masse and determine how to apply them to this particular topic (if such an application is possible!).

In general, the Scriptural stance is actually fairly clear to determine (indeed, though there are Christians who are pro-choice, you will rarely if ever hear a pro-choice argument beginning from Scripture). The ethical argument from Scripture proceeds like this:

P1: Intentionally taking the life of another human is a condemnable sin. (cf. Gen 4:11-12, Exo 19:13, Exo 21:28-32, Exo 21:14).
P2: God defines life as beginning prior to birth. (cf. Psa 139:13-16, Jer 1:5, Isa 49:1-5, Lk 1:36-41).
C: Therefore, intentionally taking life in the womb (abortion) is a condemnable sin.

The logic is difficult to argue against, for there is no logical fallacy if the two propositions are correct. Furthermore, there is little room for misinterpretation of the Scriptures cited: Psalm 139:13-16 says that God plans the life of a person while they are still a fetus, and that God is the active cause behind the forming within the mother’s womb; Jeremiah 1:5 and Isaiah 49:1-5 both say that we are set apart for God even before being formed in the womb, being assigned our future positions in His plan; Luke 1:36-41 records the fetus of John the Baptist leaping with joy when his spirit was close to the spirit within Jesus’ fetus. Clearly, the implication is that there is more within those wombs than just fetal tissue.

(Note: Some pro-lifers—including ancient thinkers like Tertullian—also use Exodus 21:22-25 as an example of a fight causing an abortion, and resulting in God’s condemnation. However, this is a result of a mistranslation in the KJV. In reality, the Hebrew words imply a live birth that simply happens prematurely; thus, this passage is irrelevant in the abortion debate.)

Looking at the evidence, one must conclude that the Scripture does not directly condemn abortion, but that all relevant Scriptures to fetal development clearly imply that life and personhood do exist in the fetus and, thus, it should be protected by God’s commandment.

Early Christian Writers
The early Christian writers were quite outspoken on the topic of abortion, and all were in complete agreement. Because there is no disagreement, we will simply briefly mention the statements made in a list, with little elaboration:

• “You shall not procure an abortion, nor destroy a newborn child.” (Didache 2:2, c.70 AD)
• “Thou shalt not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor again, shalt thou destroy it after it is born” (Barnabas 19, c. 74 AD)
• “these were the accursed who conceived and caused abortion” (Apocalypse of Peter, c. 150)
• “We say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion…the very fetus in the womb [is regarded] as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care” (Athenagorus 35, c. 177 AD)
• “We may not even destroy the fetus in the womb…it does not matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to birth. That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in its seed.” (Tertullian, Apology 9:8, c. 200 AD)
• Tertullian describes in gruesome detail the instruments used for abortion, and says that “all knew well enough that a living being had been conceived” (The Soul 25, c. 210 AD)
• “We contend that the soul also begins from conception, life taking its commencement at the same moment that the soul does (ibid., 27)

There are many others; Hippolytus called abortion due to a questionable father to be a combination of adultery and murder; Minucius Felix says that Christians do not consider it lawful to commit murder or even to stand idly by; the Council of Ancyra stated that those who committed adultery would be banned from the church until ten full year’s penance showing remorse for the crime had been completed.

There can be no doubt as to the stance of the early Christian fathers on this topic.

From this evidence, we can make the following claim:

The General Law of Abortion: "Personhood and life exist in a fetus at some point prior to birth. Therefore, abortion of a fetus is an act of murder, carrying the same condemnation which exists for the murder of a human after birth. A Christian cannot take part in, or approve of, abortive acts.”



The Corollaries to the General Law of Abortion

Having established this general law, we now must establish and understand how to apply this law to specific circumstances. Each corollary comes from a common question.

1. The Origin Corollary: At what stage does life begin?
2. The Rape Corollary: How does the Law of Abortion apply if the mother conceived by rape?
3. The Incest Corollary: How does the Law of Abortion apply if the mother conceived under incest?
4. The Defect Corollary: How does the Law of Abortion apply if the baby is proved to have a birth defect?
5. The Risky Pregnancy Corollary: How does the Law of Abortion apply if the mother’s life is at risk?

The Origin Corollary
The Origin Corollary is a very important point. In the General Law of Abortion, we merely established that life began “at some point” prior to birth. However, there is a great deal of debate as to when life truly begins; any act prior to the “alive date” would be definition not be abortive (for the fetus is not yet a person); anything after the “alive date” is an act of murder. Obviously, clarifying this is crucially important.

Developmental biology can help us somewhat here. The definition of life varies greatly from scientist to scientist, and theologian to theologian. We by no means will attempt to capture all possible developments here. However, extensive research will no doubt lead the reader to the conclusion that most experts in both fields agree that there are only four plausible dates for the beginning of life: at conception (immediate), at implantation (a few days after conception), at fetal development (8 weeks), and at birth.

The General Law establishes that Christians must conclude that life begins prior to birth, and thus the final option is discarded. In brief, we may summarize the remaining arguments thusly:

1. The argument for life beginning at conception is perhaps the oldest and is strongly supported by modern genetics. Ancient Christians like Tertullian argued that once conception occurred, the necessary information for making the human exists and God begins “knitting” the human (cf. Psa 139). Modern genetics supports this argument, as within moments of conception, the chromosomes have mated and the genetic code for the individual has been formed. Cell multiplication begins within minutes, copying that code throughout the egg.
2. The argument for life beginning at implantation is, if I might be so bold, rather weak. The arguments most commonly used to defend this position are: (a) lots of conceived eggs don’t implant, so why would God allow so many children to die?, and (b) the location of being at rest in the womb is somehow spiritually significant. The weakness of argument (b) should be obvious: one might as well argue that embryos implanted above and below an invisible line are somehow significant. Argument (a) is logically fallacious, as it is nothing but an argument from pity. One might as well argue that a seventeen year old with Down’s Syndrome is not human because he is not properly formed.
3. The third option is that life begins at around eight weeks, when the embryo becomes a fetus. There are two primary arguments here. The first is that this is the point life begins, since miscarriage rates drop dramatically at this point; this is rejected for the same reason as 2(a) above, for it is an argument from pity without logical merit. The second argument is more compelling. Scripture at one point states that the “life is in the blood” (Lev 17:11). If this is taken as a definition, then we may well conclude that life begins when the heart begins to pump. Thus, though the argument is perhaps a bit weak, it is logically valid.

Based upon the above, we reject the second argument in its entirety. As such, we make the following conclusion:

The Origin Corollary: “Christian tradition and Scripture clearly indicate only two possible starting points for life. Life begins either at conception, or at the point that the fetal heart begins beating. Any act taken to terminate the pregnancy after these points is an act of abortion; thus, by the General Law of Abortion, these are acts of murder.”


NOTE: The reader may be concerned that it is left up to individual Christians to determine whether life begins at conception or heartbeat. Note, however, that this is largely a distinction without a difference, as the pregnancy cannot be confirmed by doctors with certainty until the heartbeat is seen; thus, virtually any abortion applies to both scenarios. (The only exception would be hormonal birth control pills and the morning-after pill. If life begins at conception, these could well be abortive; if not, these are acceptable. My personal belief is that Christians should err on the side of caution, assume life begins at conception, and avoid an abortifacient medication. However, I cannot prove from Scripture that this is a requirement of the faith.)

The Rape Corollary
The Rape Corollary is an answer to the question, “Is abortion acceptable in the case of conception by rape?” Though conception by rape is exceedingly rare (most sources indicate that it accounts for less than 1% of all abortions), many feel that it is wrong to expect a mother to carry and give birth to a child conceived against her will…even if she has the option of giving the child up for adoption.

Certainly, rape is among the worst and most horrible crimes in human history. It is an emotional assault as well as a physical one. I am very close with a family member who suffered from sexual assault when she was young, so I am very understanding of the impact this has on someone’s future.

However, if we are to be consistent in our ethic of life, we must conclude logically that abortion is not acceptable in the case of rape. If abortion is murder (as established in the General Law), how can it have exceptions? Is it acceptable for a rape victim to murder her attacker? We would all say no. Is it acceptable for a rape victim to murder a random passer-by on the streets to get her vengeance? Of course not.

Why, then, would the child of a rapist be held accountable for his father’s sins? It is not the child’s fault that he was conceived by rape. If this is allowable, then can we not by the same logic kill an ten-year old child of a rapist? Or a grown man, if his father was proved to be a rapist in his infancy?

The sins of the father cannot be thrown upon the child. In this very rare, unfortunate circumstance, the mother must bear the child unto birth; at this point, there is nothing immoral with giving it up for adoption, but she cannot kill it out of anger over her attack.

The Rape Corollary: “A pregnancy resulting from rape does not nullify the life-hood of the fetus and, therefore, the fetus may not be aborted.”


The Incest Corollary
The Incest Corollary is really simply another version of the rape corollary. The fact that the pregnancy results from an incestuous relationship in no way can be used to logically condone murder.

The Incest Corollary: “A pregnancy resulting from incest does not nullify the life-hood of the fetus and, therefore, the fetus may not be aborted.”


The Defect Corollary
The Defect Corollary is an interesting new development as science has progressed. In modern medicine, we have progressed sufficiently that we can sometimes predict birth defects in the child. These tests are still not completely reliable (often having high rates of both Type I and Type II error), but they are certainly better information than parents have ever had in past generations. The inevitable question, of course, is: if there is a high likelihood that my child will have a birth defect, is it more humane/allowable to abort the fetus?

If you believe that life begins at birth, this is a difficult and heart-wrenching question. However, for the Christian, this is actually a fairly easy answer. Because life begins within the first eight weeks of pregnancy, we have no more right to abort a malformed fetus than we do to kill a ten-year old with Down’s Syndrome or some other birth defect. Life is sacred, even if it does not meet what we would consider a “normal” standard of living; indeed, many might argue that life is more sacred among those who, do to accidents of birth, are handicapped and lack some of our natural advantages.

Therefore, unless you believe it is acceptable to kill grown handicapped persons, you certainly must conclude that it is immoral to abort a malformed fetus.

The Defect Corollary: “A living fetus known to possess a birth defect deserves the same protection against murder as that of a full-grown disabled person.”


Note that I have added a qualifying statements: the fetus must be living (heart pumping). Obviously, if the heart no longer is pumping in the fetus, and it has died in the womb, then the removal of the perished fetus is by no means an abortion.

The Risky Pregnancy Corollary
The Risky Pregnancy Corollary relates to those rare situations where the physician deems it impossible to save the lives of both the mother and the fetus.

In this case, the situation is far more difficult. Here, you are deciding which of the two lives are more valuable to save. It is at its heart a choosing between two lives: thus, neither choice is more or less moral than the other. In either case, a life will end and a life will be saved. Ideally, the correct decision is that the life most likely to be saved will be saved.

In this rare and exceedingly unfortunate circumstance, the spouse, mother, and physician must decide which life is most likely to recover based upon the evidence available to them, and make the decision least likely to cause two deaths. Therefore it is possible that in this situation, abortion might be the lesser of two evils.
It is interesting to understand how first-century Jews interpreted this situation. Like the Christians, ancient Jews were steadfastly anti-abortion. However, when the fetal birth placed the mother’s life at risk, they considered the child to be a criminal and required that the mother be saved and the child be aborted. Though we must reject the absurd conclusion that a fetus had ill will against its mother, this stance further supports the ethical stance that we have taken: if both the mother and fetus are likely to perish during the birth, it is allowable to minimize the risk by choosing one life over the other, rather than lose both lives.

Also understand that the Principle of Double Effect likely applies in the case of aborting the fetus for the protection of the mother. This principle of ethics was developed by St. Thomas Aquinas in analyzing the act of self-defense. Essentially, the principle of double effect says that if you are performing an act which is morally good or neutral, which intends a good effect and not the bad as an end, and that the good effect outweighs the bad, then the act is ethical. So for example, let us look at what a doctor should do when his patient is in grave danger and can only be saved by removal of the uterus. If the purpose of the action is to save the patient (a morally good act), and the removal of the uterus is the intention (the abortion being simply a side effect), and the good effect (saving the mother) outweighs the bad effect (the abortion), then the act would be ethical. In this case, one could certainly make the argument that the Principle of Double Effect applies.

In conclusion, we conclude that if the mother's life is in grave and imminent danger, it is morally acceptable to abort the fetus, as long as the purpose is to save the mother's life and not to remove the pregnancy.

The Risky Pregnancy Corollary: “If giving birth to the fetus is likely to result in the imminent death of both the mother and fetus, and only one may be saved, then either the mother or the fetus may be allowed to die in order to save the other.”


Note that this is an extremely rare circumstance: the birth must be likely to kill both, the death must be imminent, and only one must be able to be saved, and the guardian and/or physician must choose which is the most appropriate course of action.

Conclusion
In conclusion, the stance of the Evangelical Christian Ethic for Life is:

General Law of Abortion
“Personhood and life exist in a fetus at some point prior to birth. Therefore, abortion of a fetus is an act of murder, carrying the same condemnation which exists for the murder of a human after birth. A Christian cannot take part in, or approve of, abortive acts.”

Corollaries
“Christian tradition and Scripture clearly indicate only two possible starting points for life. Life begins either at conception, or at the point that the fetal heart begins beating. Any act taken to terminate the pregnancy after these points is an act of abortion; thus, by the General Law of Abortion, these are acts of murder.

“A pregnancy resulting from rape does not nullify the life-hood of the fetus and, therefore, the fetus may not be aborted.”

“A pregnancy resulting from incest does not nullify the life-hood of the fetus and, therefore, the fetus may not be aborted.”

“A living fetus known to possess a birth defect deserves the same protection against murder as that of a full-grown disabled person.”

“If giving birth to the fetus is likely to result in the imminent death of both the mother and fetus, and only one may be saved, then either the mother or the fetus may be allowed to die in order to save the other.”