Science in Christian Perspective
Abortion: A Subject for Research
JOHN B. DeHOFF
Deputy Commissioner of Health
Baltimore City Health Department
Baltimore, Maryland 21202
From: JASA 25 (June 1973): 53-55.
Should physicians abort any undesired pregnancy on demand and with little or no legal restraints? May they do this only until an arbitrarily numbered week, or at any time in a given pregnancy? Under what circumstances should physicians recommend an abortion because of genetic aberrations? These questions and other important aspects of proposed liberal abortion laws are being discussed by legislators and interested groups, often with conflicting opinions that becloud the issues.
For adherents to an organized religion, whether they be liberal or conservative or undecided about abortions, a central set of questions might include: Is that body which occupies a pregnant womb simply a fetus? If it is not simply a fetus, how human or how much of an individual is it? If it is an individual soul, how and when did it get there? In the ease of induced abortion, what happens if it is denied birth? For these and related questions, are there available sound religious answers?
Mechanical prolongation of life, organ transplants, human experimentation, recurring proposals for euthanasia, and even assisted suicide are prime discussion topics today, along with new laws to regulate abortions. For all of these, like the debate over abortion, each side can collect reasonable support for argument from health data, hospital records and statistics, anecdotes and philosophy. Social scientists, in speaking of abortions, emphasize economic or family problems associated with unplanned and unwanted children. Gynecologists and obstetricians are apt to be more concerned with the relative safety of carefully timed and surgically correct techniques, contrasting these to the dangers of illegal or clumsy abortions. Psychiatrists report emotionally traumatic experiences of patients they see after crude abortions, or the distress which parents or even children may suffer when that pregnancy is not wanted.
Even as these related professional persons have differing but predictable opinions, so do the clergymen of several major faiths, based on respective Scripture, dogma or religious law. Their opinions may also reflect contributions from medicine, social sciences and legal thought because church groups sometime lack their own clearly derived and tested experimental evideince.
A Fresh Theological Approach
What now seems required is that the governing bodies of major organized religions initiate fresh theological research into the nature of being or of existence. Life itself has always been a primary concern of major religions. Church-sponsored action programs, in the main, relate to concerns about human life, improving human existence, lessening suffering, and preparing individuals for life everlasting. Christianity has a particular concern for man's individual being-ness but, without a continually expanding knowledge of this life-force, its statements and social action to protect individuals tend to become either progressively more secular or more dogmatic. In the matters of life and death, which the debates over abortion and euthanasia bring to our attention, spokesmen for organized religions must be prepared with cogent arguments reasonably developed, if they -wish to influence public policy.
New attitudes concerning birth and death generate new questions, answers to which will require that religious professionals possess an improved understanding of the life process. Dad Wolfe, in an editorial about dying (Science, 12 June 1970) said, "Physicians alone cannot answer such questions. They call for wider attention, for they all involve scientific, ethical, humanitarian, social, and sometimes religious questions." Denis Cavanaugh, M.D., professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the St. Louis University School of Medicine, said (American Medical News, 22 June 1970),
I think that certainly from the blastocyst stage the fetus qualifies for respect. It is alive because it has the ability to reproduce dying cells. It is human because its parents are human and because it can be distinguished from other non-human species. It seems evident that the fetus is only different from you and me in that it has not yet been given the time to develop its whole potential.
For the fetus, abortion is always a matter of life or death.
Sometimes it is also
for the mother, and in this case society cares what happens to her. If society
really believed that the unborn infant needed only time to develop
its whole human
potential, think what a difference it would make in any consideration
It is interesting to note that psychoanalytic literature reports cases in which
people related their adult problems to their experiences in the womb or while
being born. Should this really be so, one would have additional reason to think
of the fetus as a developing human being.
What, then, should be done about this fetal child, this person on the way to incarnation or embodiment? Is it fair to brush aside considerations of his destiny because one does not yet know him? Obviously, abortion either makes no difference at all to the unborn child or it matters greatly to him. At this time, no evidence supports either supposition, and one guess is as valid as another.
Only occasionally do physically harmful conditions truly threaten the lives of mothers. Ample legal permission now exists to abort dangerous pregnancies. However, the hulk of requests for abortions are to terminate healthy conceptions in healthy' women. The Maryland State Department of Health reported that 91 percent of legally performed abortions in that State for 1969 were to relieve "maternal emotional distress." Career women, careless marital partners, unmarried women, or accidental pregnancies later in married life are major components of this broad category of legal abortions.
A physician can find it difficult to evaluate women who plead severe emotional distress when they demand that he abort their pregnancy or they will abort themselves. "The clear-cut fetal, medical and severe psychiatric case is not difficult." wrote Charles A. Dafoe, M.D., in the American Medical News for 15 June 1971); for the other eases which put professional judgments to severe test "there must he a middle ground of medical, social, and public opinion. This we must seek out and find." Major church organizations should insist that effective religious opinion for that middle ground be available.
Religious questions about abortions should have to do at least with the nature of ensoulment and the effects of human tinkering with this process.
Questions which face churchmen, then, are not those which deal with
are safe or dangerous, legal or illegal, free or restricted. These are matters
for physicians and lawyers. Religious questions about abortions should have to
do at least with the nature of ensoulment and the effects of human
this process because the very nature of existence has always been a
study. Indeed, it is now an urgent subject inasmuch as technology can
becoming or prolong human existence even when conscious life has
From their own knowledge, as well as from that understanding gained from the study of other disciplines, major denominations should begin by issuing comprehensive opinions on the nature and process of birth and death. Denominational statements about abortion, euthanasia, and assisted suicide, based on religious experience and interpretation, are urgently needed.
Having first responded by these fresh expressions of their unique concepts of existence, which are in addition to their other official statements, major denominations soon thereafter should engage in serious attempts to gain new insights into life processes through religious research.
Imaginative medical and scientific research has developed techniques which can interrupt pregnancies without danger to the mother, extend reasonable life by transplants, or prolong existence by mechanical support. Just as medical-engineering partnerships have solved complicated technical human problems, so can equally determined medical-theological investigative partnerships learn more about the life which is in those humans with problems.
One would hope that church governing bodies could seriously consider the sponsorship of research centers allied with other university-based health and social welfare study groups, and with staffs who match them in curiosity and integrity. Moves of this nature should attract additional contributions from foundations interested in human studies, if church money is also sincerely committed.
Should an independent research center not be feasible at this time, a seminary associated with a medical school or university could, if it desired, attract research professors and graduate students with sufficient
curiosity and proficiency to investigate religious problem areas previously considered impossible. Although it is not easy to persuade either the biological scientist or the theologian to accept each other's viewpoints, often apparently' incompatible, the beginning and ending of human life surely is an exciting area for joint exploration. Together, they should succeed in developing a new set of valid research techniques which are needed to explain much of what has been considered a mystery. Some movement in this direction has been made at universities like Harvard and Vanderbilt, where several professors have joint appointments in schools of divinity, medicine and social science.
Unfortunately, church governing bodies cannot be expected to receive favorably a proposal to establish a religious research institute. In addition to the constraints of increasingly limited budgets, and the tendency for large ruling or governing groups to be conservative and resist all hut the most orderly change, the serious impediment to collaborative research is attitudinal.
Progress through research is rendered difficult by the heavy reliance of most religions upon belief. Uncritical belief or belief that permits no doubt will block research in any field; but it is particularly troublesome in organized religion because both its leaders and the rank-and-file regularly say, "I believe." Creedal statements and Scriptural statements emphasize this belief base. It is natural, therefore, for a true believer to find it nearly impossible to deny a belief which has been regularly stated publicly, or to openly question the membership vows which provide access to a circle of respected fellow-worshippers. Although belief may he a useful attribute in the act of worship, it is apt to become a hindrance in the pursuit of knowledge which, paradoxically, can improve the worship process.
One would hope that church governing bodies could seriously consider the sponsorship of research centers.
Religious beliefs may perhaps be termed paradigms, which have recently been discussed in another context by Charles C. Tart.1 He pointed out that "A paradigm is an intellectual achievement that underlies normal science and attracts and guides the work of an enduring number of adherents in their scientific theory." He further stated that a paradigm is an implicit framework for most persons working within it, and that it does not seriously occur to the adherents of a paradigm to question it any more. (His paper should be consulted for a further discussion of state-specific sciences and religion.)
Inasmuch as organized religions are composed of leaders and followers with firmly established sets of believing relationships or paradigms, one can expect only gradual, evolutionary changes, if the formal organizations are to survive. However, Canon David Jenkins, a well-known British theologian and Director of the Humanum Studies for The World Council of Churches, has suggested that interdisciplinary inquiry into problems of biology and the quality of life be started, even though "it is not cry clear what, if anything, biologists, moral philosophers and social scientists have in common in their respective customary methods of investigation for dealing with problems."2
Beliefs upon which we have built assumptions for handling questions no longer work smoothly, and these new uncertainties appear in the form of problems. Canon Jenkins says that problems are merely symptoms of disturbances, and do not necessarily describe the nature and causes of the disturbances. He proposes an interdisciplinary approach, with full use of respective expertise to probe into the causes and features of disturbances recognized as problems. Furthermore, he believes that a collaborative investigation into the quality of life can be constructed so that scientists, social scientists and theologians may work together on the questions "Who am I?" and "What am I for?"
An Effective Research Institute
Relevant religious research can hardly be expected to issue from a constituency which repeatedly and faithfully affirms belief in a system. Nor can it be expected to issue from dedicated pastoral clergymen, or even from governing bodies unless they are encouraged and supported by theologians or divinity school faculties.
No doubt, the development of an effective research institute will he difficult. Without a research technique, without religious persons interested in research, it may be almost impossible. Yet, there are signs of a growing interest in the problems of life and death now evident in progressive universities. One can only hope that the news will reach denominational headquarters soon.
1Tart, C. C., "States of Consciousness and State-Specific Sciences," Science pp. 1203-1210, 16 June 1972.
2Jenkins, D.: "Problems of Biology end the Quality of Life." Anticipation: Christian Social Thought in Future Perspective, pp. 21-29, (Published by Department on Church and Society, World Council of Churchics, Geneva, Switzerland).