Abortion - The Moral Maze
Ian Rees, Bath, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
‘I don’t think that infanticide (the killing of infants) is always unjustifiable. I don’t think it is plausible to think that there is any moral change that occurs during the journey down the birth canal’.
Are you troubled when you read something like that? You ought to be, especially when you realize that this is the opinion of a member of the British Medical Association’s ethics committee which was printed in the press recently. In what circumstances would infanticide be justifiable? And why are we even asking the question? Why does the professor talk of ‘any moral change that occurs during the journey down the birth canal’?
The moral debate surrounding abortion has focussed on the point at which a ‘foetus’ (a fertilized egg in a woman’s womb) becomes a human being. A number of positions have been taken. Some say it is from the moment of conception, some say it is at fourteen days, when the ‘primitive streak’ has appeared. Others go later and say it changes with each foetus, and is to be taken at the moment of ‘quickening’ when a mother can feel the child move or kick within the womb. The most widely accepted view is that it is only when the foetus is viable, that is to say when that foetus, were it to be born prematurely,would be able to survive.This point has been settled at twenty-four weeks. In other words, a foetus in the womb can be legally aborted in the UK before the age of twenty-four weeks. The moral justification for this, if one is needed and many don’t need one, is that before that time, the foetus is not a human being with potential but a foetus with the potential to become a human being. The professor quoted above is evidently of the opinion that even a new-born infant is not given automatic protection from the law of murder, as he does not believe any moral change has occurred in the passage from dependant life in the womb to self dependence outside.
Now God has expressly forbidden the murder, or unjustifiable killing, of human beings when, in His seventh commandment, He said,‘Thou shalt not kill’, Exod. 20. 13; Rom.13. 9-10.The force of the word ‘kill’ here is ‘murder’, which is unlawful killing. There are instances where God recognizes some killing of humans as lawful: capital punishment, which is state-execution of a murderer, is one instance, Gen. 9. 6; Exod. 21. 12; Num 35. 31; Rom. 13. 4, as was war where God commanded it, a ‘just war’ in those circumstances. However, unlawful killing is prohibited by God. The killing of animals is not included in this commandment. God has never prohibited the killing of animals. In fact, He expects and commands it in cases of sacrificial offering and for food, Exod. 12. 3-8; Gen 9. 3. Human life, however, is different for the following reasons:
Mankind is made ‘in the image of God’.This was true of Adam and Eve, God’s direct creations in the beginning, Gen. 1. 26-28, and of human beings created subsequently by the natural, yet divinely overseen, process of conception and birth,Gen. 9. 5-6. It is this creation in the image of God that sets mankind apart from all other living creatures, giving a moral and a spiritual capacity that animals do not have. It also reflects the fact that mankind as a whole is placed on the earth as God’s representatives, to ‘rule’ His creation. Man is, therefore, the visible representative of God on the earth. As such, human beings have great dignity in God’s creation.
The human soul will not come to an end, unlike other living creatures. A human soul lasts forever, and will, after this life, either take its place in heaven or in hell, Heb. 9. 12; Luke 16. 19-31. There is, for every human being, the prospect of everlasting life or of everlasting death, the latter being everlasting separation from the presence of God.
Because of this dignity and eternity, the unlawful killing of a human being was prohibited by God, with capital punishment being the sentence, ‘Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed’, Gen. 9. 6. and, ‘He that killeth any man shall surely be put to death’, Lev. 24. 17-21.
The question therefore is, at what point does a foetus become ‘human’? What does the Bible say?
God sees human life even before its conception in the womb
Some scriptures indicate that God knew and recognized human beings before conception. ‘Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee; and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations’, Jer. 1. 5.‘Thine eyes did see my substance yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written . . . when as yet there was none of them’, Ps. 139. 16.
God sees and blesses human life in the womb
Several scriptures indicate that God sees the foetus as human even in the womb. ‘Thou hast covered me in my mother's womb’, Ps. 139. 13; ‘Did not he that made me in the womb make him? and did not one fashion us in the womb?’, Job 31. 15; ‘I formed you in the womb’, Jer. 1. 5; ‘Thus saith the Lord thy redeemer, and he that formed thee from the womb’, Isa. 44. 24. This would evidently undermine the argument that human life does not begin until birth.
Infants (foetuses) can be sensitive to spiritual things whilst still in the womb
Life and spiritual experiences seem to begin in the womb before birth ever takes place. ‘He (John the Baptist) will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb’, Luke 1. 15; ‘When Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb’, Luke, 1. 41.
Mankind as a whole is placed on the earth as God’s representatives, to ‘rule’ His creation. Man is, therefore, the visible representative of God on the earth. As such, human beings have great dignity in God’s creation. Mankind as a whole is placed on the earth as God’s representatives, to ‘rule’ His creation. Man is, therefore, the visible representative of God on the earth. As such, human beings have great dignity in God’s creation.
God calls a born child and an unborn child the same thing
In Hebrew,we are given to understand, there is no word for ‘foetus’. The same word, yeleth, is used of both children in the womb and for children just born. So in Isaiah 9. 6 the word for ‘child’ in ‘unto us a child is born’ is the word yeleth. In the complicated passage on injury to a pregnant woman and its resultant premature birth in Exodus 21 we read, ‘If men strive and hurt a woman with child so that her fruit depart from her and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished’, vv. 22-25. A closer translation of the phrase ‘so that her fruit depart from her’ is ‘if her children come out’ and the word for children here is the plural of yeleth. In Luke chapter 2 and verse 12 the baby Jesus is called a brephos or infant, ‘Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger’. Yet the same word, brephos, infant, is used of John the Baptist in his mother’s womb in Luke 1. 41. Surely this implies that God sees no difference between an unborn infant and a newborn one; each, in His eyes, is a human being. Even still-born children are called infants in God’s eyes, Job 3. 16. In fact the terms ‘child’, ‘children’, ‘son’, ‘infant’ are all used of foetuses whilst still in the womb, Job 3. 16; Gen. 25. 21- 22; Luke 1. 36; Acts 7. 19. There is no moral change during passage down the birth canal because the Bible sees the unborn child as as much human as the born one.
Returning to the verses in Exodus chapter 21, BRIAN EDWARDS has pointed out that the passage refers to the penalties for murder. However, the focus here is not on the woman – the same penalty for murder would apply to her killing whether she were pregnant or not. ‘The focus of attention must be the child in her womb. If as a result of violence to her, the baby ‘comes out’ but there is no serious injury to it, then a fine will be levied, but if the child is dead or injured then the punishment is life for life. What this instructive passage teaches us is that a deliberate act that causes the death of an unborn child is considered to be murder’, The Ten Commandments for Today, p193.
Are there any circumstances when abortion could be acceptable in the eyes of God?
It seems clear that the Bible teaches that a child in the womb is a human being in itself. To abort that pregnancy is , therefore unlawful killing, or murder, in the eyes of God. Is this so in every case? Are there any circumstances in which an abortion is acceptable to God? What of situations where the child in the womb is severely disabled and will have no quality of life? What about a situation where a woman is pregnant through rape and the birth of the child will bring major psychological distress to the mother? What about where the choice is either the life of the mother or the life of the child?
It needs to be stressed that man has no right to decide what is an acceptable quality of life and what is not. To go down this route is to open the floodgates to all sorts of problems.What about ‘quality of life’ for the elderly, the infirm, the terminally ill? Have we the right to terminate the life of an adult just because we feel they do not have the right quality of life? If we cannot do so for a born human why should we arrogate the right to decide the same for an unborn human? Parents are often put under intense pressure to have an abortion where tests indicate the baby is Downs Syndrome. Yet many Downs Syndrome sufferers are delightful people. And does not God Himself say, ‘Who hath made man's mouth? or who maketh the dumb, or deaf, or the seeing, or the blind? have not I the Lord?’, Exod. 4. 11. And did not the Lord Jesus say that the man blind from his birth was born this way ‘that the works of God should be made manifest in him?’, John 9. 3.This does not lesson the sorrow and distress for the parents of such children, but their sorrow and distress do not legitimize abortion. The case of a child born of rape is more emotive, and the mother needs tremendous prayer and support in order to go through with the pregnancy, but believers have often done so for conscience sake. Many would feel that where the life of a mother is threatened and the choice is between the mother’s existence and that of the child abortion is the ‘lesser of two evils’ and may, in those circumstances, not be deemed unlawful killing. Such is the moral maze.
What about those who have inadvisedly engaged in abortion? As with any sin, ‘there is forgiveness with God, that he my be feared’. But let it be clearly stated that God sees human life as beginning in the womb, and that any unlawful termination of that young human life is unacceptable to Him. ‘The value of human life,and God’s refusal to concede that the child in the womb is anything other than truly human, should settle the principle of whether or not it can be right to terminate the life of a child in the womb’, EDWARDS, p193.
It needs to be stressed that man has no right to decide what is an acceptable quality of life and what is not.
AUTHOR PROFILE: IAN REES saw an assembly planted in Francistown, Botswana, having served the Lord there for 13 years. Now based in the UK, he was in fellowship in Manvers Hall, Bath, one of his commending assemblies. He has now moved to establish a new assembly in Tenby, West Wales. He is married and has seven children.