A. Clarification of biological factors/terms
Conception takes place when a male germ cell (spermatozoon) combines with a female germ cell (the ovum), resulting in a single cell (the single-cell zygote), which embodies the full genetic code, 23 pairs of chromosomes (this occurs @ 22-24 hours after insemination). The single-cell zygote soon begins a process of cellular division. The resultant multicell zygote, while continuing to grow and take shape, proceeds to move the through the fallopian tube and then to undergo gradual implantation at the uterine wall. Up to the time of implantation, the unborn entity is formally designated a zygote (from conception to implantation: @ 10-14 days).
Thereafter, until the end of the eighth week, roughly the point at which brain waves can be detected (although on occasion this may be earlier), the unborn entity is designated an embryo. It is in this embryonic period (i.e., from the second to the eighth week) that organ systems and other human characteristics begin to develop.
From the end of the eighth week until birth, the unborn entity is designated a fetus.
· Quickening refers to the point at which the mother begins to feel the movement of the fetus. This may occur anywhere between the thirteenth and twentieth weeks.
· Viability is a term used to refer to the point at which the fetus is capable of surviving outside the womb. Viability is often estimated at from 24 to 28 weeks (6 to 7 months). However, with increased technology 5 month "premies" have been known to survive.
B. Defining Abortion
Abortion is that act by which the life of the fetus is voluntarily and artificially terminated. Abortion is therefore to be distinguished from birth control. Abortion is the termination of a previously existent entity (the fetus) whereas birth control is the prevention of the initiation of that existence.
The IUD is not a contraceptive device but an abortifacient. A fertilized egg (zygote) will never become an embryo or fetus unless it becomes attached to the uterine wall. This may take up to 8 days and often does not happen at all (@ 40% of all fertilized eggs are simply washed away in the menstrual stream). The IUD, unlike oral contraceptives and the condom, does not prevent fertilization of the egg. Rather, it prevents an already fertilized egg from implanting in the uterine wall.
The crucial ethical question is this: does personhood begin with fertilization or implantation? More on this below.
C. Methods of Artificially Induced Abortion
1. D & C (dilation and curettage) is most often used prior to the 12th or 13th week of pregnancy.
2. Suction is utilized in @ 80% of all abortions performed in the first trimester and is often used in conjunction with a D & C (the force of the suction is @ 28 times greater than that of a normal vacuum cleaner).
3. Saline abortion is employed after the 16th week. A saline solution is injected through the uterine wall, effectively poisoning/burning the fetus to death. Anywhere from 24 to 36 hours later the mother goes into labor and delivers a dead baby.
4. Hysterotomy is essentially delivery by C-section, with this distinction: the child is delivered to be killed.
On occasion, abortion by saline injection and especially by hysterotomy are unsuccessful, resulting in the delivery of a live baby. In 1977 a Boston jury found Dr. Kenneth Edelin guilty of manslaughter for killing the product of a hysterotomy. Dr. William B. Waddill, an obstetrician in California, was twice indicted for allegedly strangling to death a baby born alive after a saline abortion. Both trials ended with a hung jury.
D. Arguments used to Justify Abortion
1. Therapeutic abortion
The only category under this heading is abortion performed in order to save the life of the mother. The two most frequent threats to the life of the mother should the baby come to term are a) ectopic or tubal pregnancies and b) cancer.
At one time the Roman Catholic Church defended the view that one is never justified in taking a life, even if another life could be saved by doing so. "There is a difference, so the argument goes, between taking a life and letting one die. The former is never a moral option; the latter may be" (Feinbergs/74-75). This view is rarely if ever defended today.
Most argue that in such cases the life of the mother should be preserved. But why? Helmut Thielicke writes:
"Can there be a situation in which I am allowed to destroy innocent life? Can I ever intervene as a judge when nature --- to put it for the moment in this neutral way --- allows two lives to be set in competition with each other? . . . The question presents itself, which life is the more valuable, that of the mother --- upon whom the care of the family and the rearing and education of the children so largely depend --- or that of the fetus --- which has still to face the test of life and which at first appears to be only a burden and not to have any productive value whatsoever?" (Theological Ethics, III:232-34).
Is this reasoning cold and pragmatic? Can we rank life in terms of comparative value?
The Feinbergs believe there are principles that justify giving preference to the life of the mother:
· "One is that if it is possible to do good to someone else without endangering or harming oneself, one is obligated to do so. Otherwise, one is not so obligated. As applied to this case, this rule means the mother is not morally required to give up her life to save that of the baby [Although she is certainly free to choose to sacrifice her own life for that of her child. But the principle here is that she is not morally obligated to do so.]" (74-75).
· Another principle "is that one is not morally responsible for failing to do what could not be done or for doing what one could not fail to do. That is, one is not guilty for failing to do something if one is not free to do it. In this case, it is not possible for the mother to save both her life and that of the baby. But then, she is not morally culpable if she doesn't do both. Granted that she cannot do both, the first principle shows that she need not save the baby's life instead of her own" (75).
2. Elective abortion
Under this heading are the reasons given for voluntary abortion, i.e., abortion when neither the life of the mother nor her baby is in jeopardy.
Abortion is said to be justified or permissible if it can be determined that the child will be seriously deformed or retarded (e.g., Mongolism). This is called eugenic abortion.
However, "while some persons are born with disabilities, others develop them along life's way. If one is justified in terminating the life of an unborn child merely on the suspicion that he or she may have some disability, does it not follow that those whom we know have some handicap should be put to death postnatally?" (Feinbergs/76).
In other words, if a handicap or disability renders the unborn sufficiently sub-human to warrant their death, why does not the same apply to the born?
Moreover, notwithstanding advanced technology, there are still cases of false positives and false negatives. The former lead to the killing of perfectly healthy infants "while the latter raise the question as to whether those who escape detection prenatally ought to be euthanized postnatally" (Feinbergs/76). The logic of such reasoning is sound, but it is morally and biblically intolerable.
Abortion is said to be justified if the woman has been involuntarily impregnated, i.e., in cases of rape. More on this below.
Other reasons cited to justify abortion include: voluntary incest, unwanted financial burden, the social stigma of illegitimacy, overpopulation, the mental stability of the mother, and the inalienable right to do with one's body whatever one chooses.
Clearly the issue at stake is the nature of personhood and the point at which it begins. For the fact of personhood establishes a right to life that none of the preceding arguments can override.
E. The Fundamental Issue: Personhood
What is the nature of the fetus? Is the fetus a living person or only life with potential of becoming a person? If the fetus is a living person, abortion is murder, both in terms of biblical morality and the protection of the 14th Amendment.
When does the product of conception become a person? There are three general answers, each of which is subject to slight variations: 1) the fetus becomes a person at birth; 2) the fetus becomes a person at some stage of gestation; 3) the fetus is a person from the moment of conception. According to 1) and 2), life itself is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for personhood. That is to say, personhood, according to these two views, is not grounded in the possession of biological human life.
· One argument used to deny that personhood is coincident with biological and genetic life is the phenomenon of twinning. Twinning involves the splitting of the developing zygote into two zygotes, sometime between the seventh and fourteenth day. The results are identical twins. Hence, so goes the argument, there is not an individual person antecedent to the fourteenth day of pregnancy.
· However, as the Feinbergs note, "the argument does not in fact prove that what is developing inside the mother is anything less than human. Check the DNA strands. They are species-specific at the point of conception. The most the argument shows is that until after blastocyst we do not know how many persons are present, but that is clearly a different question than whether personhood is present" (62).
1. Developmental Criteria for determining Personhood
This argument insists that as long as the fetus is absolutely dependent on the mother for its life, it cannot be regarded as a human person in the fullest sense of that term.
John T. Noonan responds:
"There are difficulties with this distinction [i.e., between viability and non-viability]. One is that the perfection of artificial incubation may make the fetus viable at any time: it may be removed and artificially sustained. Experiments with animals already show that such a procedure is possible. This hypothetical extreme case relates to an actual difficulty: there is considerable elasticity to the idea of viability. Mere length of life is not an exact measure. The viability of the fetus depends on the extent of its anatomical and functional development. The weight and length of the fetus are better guides to the state of its development than age, but weight and length vary. Moreover, different racial groups have different ages at which their fetuses are viable. . . . If viability is the norm, the standard would vary with race and with many individual circumstances. The most important objection to this approach is that dependence is not ended by viability [emphasis mine]. The fetus is still absolutely dependent on someone's care in order to continue existence; indeed a child of one or three or even five years of age is absolutely dependent on another's care for existence; uncared for, the older fetus or the younger child will die as surely as the early fetus detached from the mother. The unsubstantial lessening in dependence at viability does not seem to signify any special acquisition of humanity" ("An Almost Absolute Value in History," in Social Ethics: Morality and Social Policy, ed. by Thomas A. Mappes and Jane S. Zembaty, p. 13).
Furthermore, as Harold O. J. Brown has noted, "it is no more reasonable to destroy a child by abortion because it could not live if suddenly delivered than to drown a non-swimmer in a bathtub because he could not live if thrown into the middle of the ocean" (79).
According to this argument, a being who has experienced the fullness of life (such things as sorrow, joy, suffering and pleasure) is more human than one who has not.
But the fetus is experiencing while yet in the womb: the embryo is responsive to touch after eight weeks and feels pain as early as twelve weeks. More important still is the question: on what basis does one argue that experience, in any degree, confers personhood? The argument is wholly arbitrary.
c. Adult Sentiment
The argument is that if a fetus dies, the grief of the parents is less intense than if it were a young child. But, as Noonan points out,
"feeling is notoriously an unsure guide to the humanity of others. Many groups of humans have had difficulty in feeling that persons of another tongue, color, religion, sex, are as human as they. Apart from reactions to alien groups, we mourn the loss of a ten-year old boy more than the loss of his one-day old brother or his 90-year old grandfather. The difference felt and the grief expressed vary with the potentialities extinguished, or the experience wiped out; they do not seem to point to any substantial difference in the humanity of baby, boy, or grandfather" (Ibid., p. 14).
d. Miscellaneous Criteria
Mary Anne Warren, professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University and a pro-abortion advocate, lists the following as traits "most central to the concept of personhood or humanity in the moral sense":
1) consciousness (of objects and events external and/or internal to the being), and in particular the capacity to feel pain;
2) reasoning (the developed capacity to solve new and relatively complex problems);
3) self-motivated activity (activity which is relatively independent of either genetic or direct external control);
4) the capacity to communicate, by whatever means, messages of an indefinite variety of types, that is, not just with an indefinite number of possible contents, but on indefinitely many possible topics;
5) the presence of self-concepts, and self-awareness, either individual or racial, or both.
Based on these criteria, she draws this conclusion:
"Thus, in the relevant respects, a fetus, even a fully developed one, is considerably less personlike than is the average mature mammal, indeed the average fish. And I think that a rational person must conclude that if the right to life of a fetus is to be based upon its resemblance to a person, then it cannot be said to have any more right to life than, let us say, a newborn guppy . . . , and that a right of that magnitude could never override a woman's right to obtain an abortion, at any stage of her pregnancy" ("On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion", in Social Ethics, pp. 20,22).
Be it noted that based on some or all of Warren's criteria for personhood we could justify infanticide, euthanasia, as well as the elimination of those suffering senility or any form of extreme mental retardation.
Consider this comment by Ingrid Newkirk: “There really is no rational reason for saying a human being has special rights. . . . A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.”
2. Biblical criteria for determining Personhood
For those who embrace the authority of Scripture, there is far more to personhood than physiological development, intellectual capacities, or social skills. Personhood is fundamentally a spiritual reality dependent upon the presence of the image of God in man.
So what is the image of God in man?
Genesis 2:7 - 1) man is physical or material ("dust"); 2) man is spiritual or immaterial ("breath of life"); 3) man is a living soul (the result of animated substance is "soul"); 4) but animals are also "living souls" (1:24); 5) therefore, man must be distinguishable from animals for reasons other than mere physical dissimilarity.
Genesis 1:26-28 - 1) that which distinguishes man from the animal kingdom is the imago Dei, the image of God; 2) the image of God has traditionally been identified with such things as rationality, self-consciousness, the exercise of dominion, and moral conscience; 3) however, we must be careful in defining the image of God in wholly functional terms. The image of God is as much a state as it is a capacity. The image is not to be conceived as an end in a process whereby an unborn entity progresses into personhood. The image is a given, not a goal to which the fetus moves in its physiological development. No one denies that the fetus develops. But this development is not from non-person to part-person to full-person, but rather from full-person to the consummate expression and experience of all that personhood entails.
The question, then, is this: are there biblical texts which attribute to the fetus those elements essential to the image of God?
Before looking at those texts, a word on the biblical evidence regarding abortion is in order:
"The Bible does not deal specifically with abortion. For that matter, it does not deal specifically with infanticide, the killing of babies. Nor does it talk about parricide, fratricide, uxoricide (killing of one's wife), nor genocide (the killing of a whole race). Examples of such crimes are mentioned, but not singled out for special treatment. In fact, the Bible does not even discuss suicide (self-killing). There are specific provisions against homicide --- the deliberate taking of human life ('killing' or 'slaying' is the usual expression). The Bible prohibits the taking of innocent human life. If the developing fetus is shown to be a human being, then we do not need a specific commandment against feticide (abortion) any more than we need something specific against uxoricide (wife-killing). The general commandment against killing covers both" (Harold Brown, pp. 118-19).
The key phrase is: "so that her fruit depart from her" (KJV). Literally this reads, "and her children go out." This phrase has been interpreted in two ways:
1) Some insist this refers to miscarriage (see the NASB). Hence, "If men are engaged in a struggle/fight and they (accidentally) strike a pregnant woman thereby inducing a miscarriage (i.e., the fetus dies), but they do no further harm to the mother herself, these men shall be fined. However, if the mother also suffers injury, possibly death, then you shall require life for life, eye for eye, etc., according to the nature of the injury."
On this view, a different penalty is imposed for the death of a fetus than that imposed for the death of the mother. If the fetus dies, the men (or man) shall pay a monetary fine. However, if the mother also dies, they shall be put to death. This has led to the conclusion that the fetus is not a living soul, not a human person, at least not in the sense that the mother is. The difference in the severity of the penalty reflects a difference in the value of the life. This interpretation has been used to justify abortion. The reasoning is as follows:
Major Premise: the OT law requires death for the taking of innocent human life.
Minor Premise: Exod. 21:22 requires only a monetary fine, not death, for the destruction of a fetus.
Conclusion: the fetus is not human life.
In terms of the abortion argument, this conclusion is taken one step further:
Major Premise: according to Exod. 21:22, the fetus is not a human life.
Minor Premise: the Bible does not condemn nor forbid the killing of that which is less than human life.
Conclusion: abortion of the fetus is not condemned nor forbidden in the Bible.
2) Others insist that the phrase is referring, not to miscarriage, but to a live, premature birth of an otherwise ordinary child. The NIV translates: "If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury . . . " If there is injury to either mother or child, perhaps even death, the appropriate penalty is to be enforced.
Note well: this text does not prove that the fetus is a living soul (I believe it is; but this text itself does not prove it). Why? Because according to this view, the child is born alive, prematurely to be sure, but nonetheless alive, and dies shortly thereafter. The penalty of capital punishment, therefore, is inflicted on the individual who struck the woman because his action caused the death, not of a fetus, but of a prematurely born infant. The text proves that a newly born infant is a living soul, but not that an unborn fetus is. For the latter, other texts must be consulted.
Evidence in support of view 2 (premature birth):
First, the Hebrew verb translated "go forth" or "come forth" is commonly used in the OT to describe live birth (Gen. 25:25-26; 35:11; 38:28-30; Ex. 1:5; 2 Sam. 16:11; 1 Chron. 1:12; Job 1:21; 3:11; Eccles. 5:15; Jer. 20:18). It is used in Num. 12:12 to refer to the birth of a stillborn child, but with the accompanying verb "to die". It is also used in Deut. 28:57 of the discharge of afterbirth. But it is never used of miscarriage, unless one chooses to make Ex. 21:22 the sole exception.
Second, had Moses intended to describe miscarriage he had another word that unmistakably described it (shakol;cf. Ex. 23:26; Hos. 9:14).
Third, the subject of the verb "to come forth," translated by the KJV as "her fruit" is more literally rendered "children" or "offspring" (yeled). It is used 88x in the OT and always refers to a child or infant. Again, had Moses intended to describe a fetus, he had a word that would have done so unambiguously (golem; cf. Ps. 139:16).
1) David traces his sinfulness to the very inception of life. He goes back beyond his birth to conception. Could moral guilt be predicated of a non-person? In v. 5 David emphasizes that it is not the act which leads to conception nor conception itself that is sinful. It is himself, he who is conceived, who bears the presence of sin in the eyes of God. Original sin . . . (cf. Ps. 58:3; Job 14:4; 15:14).
2) David refers to the "inward parts" or "innermost being" and the "hidden part" in v. 6, a probable reference to his mother's womb, wherein God "desires truth" and makes known "wisdom". E. R. Dalglish explains:
"In the depths of the womb the psalmist was wrought in the context of sin (v. 5); but there is another factor: the psalmist knows full well the divine desire for truth to be a moral imperative even in the formative stages of his being within his mother's womb and is conscious that even there wisdom was taught him, i.e., in his embryological state in the closed up chamber of the womb, the moral law was inscribed within his being" (Psalm Fifty-One in the Light of Near Eastern Patternism, [Leiden: T. J. Brill, 1962], p. 124).
1) God's creative handiwork and providential oversight extends into the womb and encompasses the most profound emotional elements of David's soul ("reins"; v. 13).
2) The phrase "lowest parts of the earth" (v. 15) is regarded by most commentators as a figurative reference to the womb. "Curiously wrought" means to weave or embroider, as if God were intricately and intimately forming David in the womb.
3) The phrase "substance yet unperfect" (v. 16) literally means "rolled up" and may refer to the fetal position of the unborn child.
See also Gen. 25:23; Jer. 1:5; Judges 13:3-5; Luke 1:41-44.
Related issues of importance:
1. The right to life vs. the right to control one's body
At what point, if at all, does “the right to control one’s body” end or need to be qualified and restricted? To what degree is a fetus truly part of the woman’s body?
2. The right to life vs. unwanted children
"If it were possible for the unborn child to choose to be wanted or unwanted, the child would predictably and rightfully choose to be wanted. But if the alternative to being wanted is being eliminated, what kind of choice is that? Since the child cannot even make the choice (fruitless though it would be, considering the alternatives), there are those who make its choice for it by killing it, and then piously pretending that their killing is really not an act of murder but of mercy because it is done as a humanitarian favor to the child" (Bajema, Abortion and the Meaning of Personhood, p. 68).
"We agree that every child should be wanted. A world without unwanted children would be an idyllic place in which to live. No one would quarrel with that as an idealistic goal. Wouldn't it also be a wonderful world if there were no unwanted wives by husbands, no unwanted aging parents by their children, no unwanted Jews, black people, Catholics, Chicanos, or ever again a person who at one time or place finds himself unwanted or persecuted. Let's all try to achieve this, but also remember that people have clay feet and sadly, the unwanted will always be with us. . . . The measure of our humanity is not that there aren't unwanted ones, but what we do with them. Shall we care for them or kill them?" (Willke, pp. 46-7).
3. The right to life vs. the right to be loved
4. The right to life vs. the right to choose one's morality
5. The special problem of pregnancy by Rape
Note: Less than ½ of 1% of all abortions are for rape.
As horrible and devastating as rape is, I do not believe it justifies abortion.
a. It is not morally right to punish the child for the sin of his/her father.
b. While rape is an act of violence against the mother, so too is abortion.
c. It is never right to commit murder to alleviate suffering. It is not right to require the child to forfeit life in order to ameliorate the mother's pain.
d. A child conceived by rape is no less human, no less a person with dignity and value, than a child conceived in love. Nowhere in Scripture is a person's right to life conditional on how one's life began.
6. What about the use of RU-486?
This drug blocks the action of the hormone progesterone which is needed at every stage of pregnancy. It either prevents implantation or causes the uterine lining to break down, thereby triggering menstrual bleeding.
7. What about the ethics of fetal tissue transplants?
8. Should the death penalty be imposed on abortionists?