Science in Christian Perspective
Christian Perspectives on Abortion
ROBERT L. SHACKLETT
Professor of Physics and Assistant Dean,
School of Graduate Studies,
California State University Fresno, California 93710
From: JASA 25 (June 1973): 44-53
Samuel A. Jeanes,
Michael Tooley and
[ My interest in this subject grows out of a long study, extending over some 25 years, of the Biblical teaching on the nature of man. This study, quite logically, led to the consideration of such questions as, "V/hen does man have his beginning?" I soon found that the subject of abortion is closely intertwined with these theological issues with the result that my theological interest began to expand into the social, medical, and legal aspects of abortion. My association with people interested primarily in the latter led to the formation of a local chapter of the California Committee on Therapeutic Abortion for which I served as chairman until its merger with a local affiliate of Planned Parenthood. I now serve as Vice President of the board of directors of this organization.]
The subject of abortion is one manifesting particularly strong coupling between Christian and environmental concerns. This paper will attempt an analysis of this relationship, concentrating on the moral aspects of abortion as seen from a Christian perspective.
Abortion is a very complex subject and because of this complexity many people have made up their minds on the matter based upon the emotions that are related to a few key phrases such as "sanctity of life," "murder of human beings," or 'secret and loathsome crime." It is not the triggering of emotional responses by value-laden words that I would object to, but the attitude that these few trigger words suffice to come to a reasoned conclusion on the subject. In an attempt to minimize the impact of value-laden terminology, I would like to use a method of analysis which I find to be helpful in dealing with moral questions that Are further complicated by legal prohibitions.
Let me illustrate this method by supposing there exists some aspect of human behavior, call it X, which has been regarded by a large enough segment of a society as sufficiently immoral or "had" so that a law or code has been enacted or otherwise established prohibiting X. For example, X could be miscegenation in the deep south, skinny-dipping in Vermont, or wearing clothes in Kampala, Uganda. 1, 2 The dispassionate analysis of the X issue proceeds as follows. One attempts to discover all the reasons why the society regards X as immoral and then one tries to find the reasons why the prohibition of X works to the disadvantage of that society. Once the reasons are accumulated, the analysis continues with a careful assessment of the validity of each reason proposed. The investigator arrives at his conclusion that X is indeed "bad" for that society or that its prohibition is just as bad or worse through a subjective weighing of the relative merits of each argument.
The analysis is based upon the existence of negative aspects, both of X itself and its prohibition. The reason that the negative or "bad" aspects are examined is because the law enters the moral scene only through negative commandment, "Thou shalt not." Societies do not make laws prescribing good behavior. As the apostle Paul observed, "It was the law that made me know what sin is. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, 'Do not covet.'3
The analysis concludes with a subjective evaluation of all the reasons proposed as to why X is bad and why its prohibition is bad. It may happen that scientific or objective data will he used in support of one or more of the reasons examined. This does not alter the fact that the final evaluation of the situation cannot be a scientific one. However logical one tries to he in his analysis of the situation, he cannot automatically expect someone else who has followed the analysis to arrive at the same conclusions. As G. J. Warneck has observed, moral arguments suffer the handicap that while an argument offers reasons to people, people are not always reasonable.4 In spite of this difficulty, the exercise we are about to go through will still accomplish an important objective, namely, to force a subject which is heavily cloaked with emotionalism to open itself up to the light of patient inquiry.
Moral Propositions on Abortion
We must now get down to cases. X is going to be abortion and the prohibition of X, of course, refers to the antiabortion laws on the statute books of most states in our country. Our methodology calls for the assembling of all the major reasons offered as to why abortion is immoral and then the reasons why the laws against it are had for our society. This task is not
Our methodology calls for the assembling of all the major reasons offered as to why abortion is immoral and then the reasons why the laws against it are bad for our society.
made less arduous merely because there can be only a relatively small number of
ma/or reasons to assemble. The difficulty comes in stating these
reasons so that
they overlap as little as possible and still cover the necessary
indication of this territory is suggested by Daniel Callahan in his
Law, Choice, and Morality. He notes that, "Abortion is at once a
legal, sociological, philosophical, demographic, and psychological problem, not
readily amendable to one-dimensional thinking." These category
suggest the extent of the territory to be examined and are not
intended to define
separate areas of concern that are relatively isolated from one another. It is
important that none of these broad categories is overlooked in the process of
analysis we are undertaking.
This process can be continued by listing two separate sets of propositions. The first set states the major reasons why it is claimed that abortion is immoral or otherwise bad for a society. The second deals with the major reasons why it is claimed that antiabortion laws raise moral questions.
In the first set I include four propositions which seem to cover the moral, theological, legal, and sociological aspects of the antiabortion side of the issue. These are:
1. An abortion terminates human life.
2. An abortion interferes with the Divine Plan,
3. An abortion interferes with the rights of the fetus.
4. Abortion fosters sexual promiscuity.
In the second set are five propositions which relate to laws prohibiting abortion and which seem to cover the ethical, sociological, medical, legal, and religious aspects of this side of the issue. These are:
1 The law denies a woman authority over her own body.
2. The law forces unwanted children upon society.
3. The law discriminates against females and low income groups.
4. The law gives preference to one religion over others.
5. The law can he held responsible for unsafe medical practices.
I have arranged the order of these propositions to indicate roughly my own evaluation of their relative weights.
We now undertake an examination of each of the nine propositions stated above, attempting in each case to see if a Christian perspective tends to support or refute it.
Analysis of the Propositions
A. The Antiabortion Propositions
1. An abortion terminates human life.
There is no doubt that this proposition is used most frequently by those who are opposed to abortion. A pamphlet published by the Knights of Columbus expresses this point of view rather succinctly: "The killing
The labeling of the blastocyst as a human being at this stage depends completely on the attitude and cultural religious background of the potential mother.
of human beings through abortion strikes at the common good so gravely that it endangers the fabric of society and so should he suppressed by law."6 With terms that home in on their emotional targets, this statement demonstrates that little progress is likely until the central issue is separated out from the proposition. This central issue can be east in the form of a question. "When does human life begin?"7
A variety of answers have been offered to this question over several centuries
of contemplation by theologians, philosophers, legal scholars, and scientists.
They range from the moment of conception, to implantation, to
ensoulment, to quickening,
to viability, to actual birth and possibly even beyond birth. I would like to
comment briefly on these various answers in order to provide an indication of
the wide variety of philosophies and opinions one can encounter in this study.
For those desiring a more exhaustive treatment of the question, Callahan's hook
snakes an excellent reference.8
That the moment of conception marks the beginning of human life is the position of most Roman Catholics9,10 A Catholic friend of mine, and incidently a scientist, remarked that lie accepted this teaching simply because the time of conception was well defined-any later stage of development was too fuzzy to use as a starting point. Certainly there is no debate about the fact that conception marks the beginning of a developmental process which eventually culminates in a human being. And there is no debate about the fact that conception does take place at a definite point in time. But when the definiteness of time is coupled with the indefiniteness which is intrinsic in the word "human" the result is a concept which has little pragmatic value.
The set of responses that are triggered when a person hears or reads the word "human" are typically those resulting from his experiences with adult persons, not from experiences with children or babies or fetuses and certainly not from his experiences with newly fertilized ova. The application of the word "human" to that which is potentially human is a perfectly legitimate use of the figure of speech synecdoche,' or the substitution of the part for the whole. Unfortunately, the use of this figure of speech is not sufficient to convey the status of fact to that to which it is applied. For example, the figure synecdoche would allow the term "human being" to be applied to an unfertilized ovum provided that the particular ovum in mind was regarded as eventually developing into a full-fledged person. But to then insist that the unfertilized ovum is, in fact, a human being is to debase and degrade a valuable tool of language, the figure of speech.
It would be naive to suppose that the traditional Catholic teaching is adhered to by all practicing Catholics. A typical liberal Catholic position has been stated by Father Joseph F. Donceel, S. J., Ph.D.:
Nobody can tell with certitude when a child is capable of performing his first free moral choice, but all of us are quite certain that, during the first months or years of his life, a human baby is not yet a tree moral agent. Likewise I do not know when the human soul is infused, when the embryo becomes human. But I feel certain that there is no human soul, hence no hum an person, during the first few weeks of pregnancy, as lung as the embryo remains in the vegetative stage of its development.11
In addition, Daniel Callahan, a Catholic and former editor of Commonweal, in which
lie published strong antiabortion editorials, after his four years of
study and research on abortion, is able to state, ". . . at no stage of
its development does the conceptus fulfill the definition of a
person, which implies
a developed capacity for reasoning, willing, desiring and relating
to others...12 These opinions are in stark contrast to
another statement in the Knights of Columbus pamphlet, "Biologically it is
clear that life is present from the first moment of conception and
all the evidence
is in favor of saying that the resulting fetus is a truly human
Implantation of the fertilized ovum in the uterine wall occurs about a week after conception. This stage
of embryonic development is crucial, and there is a probability of somewhere between 10% and 38% (depending on which authority is cited) that a spontaneous abortion will terminate the pregnancy due to failure to achieve implantation.14 Without implantation the hormonal changes which signal the onset of pregnancy so not take place and the fact of fertilization would go undetected. Paul Ramsey, a Protestant etheist, discusses the idea that the human being begins at the time of implantation," The point made is that the growing mass of cells (now called a blastocyst), once implanted, begins the development of its own "life support system " in the uterine wall. In a sense, the mother merely supports the parasitic existence of a new liv ing entity within her.
In what sense is this entity "human"? The question now is a little different than it was at the moment of conception. here the existence of the blastocyst is clinically detectable, and in a few days the potential mother will know of its presence through her first missed period.
Once she becomes aware of the fact of her pregnancy, the whole complex of attitudes and expectations will begin to determine how she views this "new development." If the pregnancy has been hoped for, human status is attributed at once. If the pregnancy is a disaster for her she may regard the intruder as human but she is likely to develop a hatred for it.
The labeling of the blastocyst as a human being at this stage depends completely on the attitude and cultural-religious background of the potential mother. Theologians and philosophers may engage in eloquent debates over whether the entity is human or not, but they are not the ones that are pregnant. How can they, or any outsider for that matter, make the determination for this woman that she has a human being within her when "human" is such a subjective quality at this stage?
The concept of ensoulment or the "infusion" of the soul has an important hearing on the question we are exploring especially since we are interested in a Christian perspective. Here we encounter what is purported to he a Divine act, the merging together of the human soul and body even though the body has only the most primitive form. If it can be established that ensoulment is something that indeed occurs in the womb of a pregnant woman, and not merely in the minds of theologians, then we have the answer to the question, "When does human life begin?"
In all the research I have done on the subject of man's nature 1 have yet to come across an elaboration of the process of ensoulment. Because of this deficiency ill my resource material I am forced to extrapolate from the implications contained in the terminology and from widely held religious beliefs in the existence of the soul.
Ensoulment, then, seems to imply a supernatural process in which a preexisting or newly created entity
called the soul is somehow merged with or infused into or otherwise intimately identified with the group of cells that is called the embryo. Whether this merging is done in the space-time realm of the embryo or whether it extends beyond the four dimensions of the physical world is a matter only for speculation.
However, as scientists who also have the conviction that the Scriptures have something authentic to say to
mankind, we can do more than speculate. The Bible contains 859 occurrences of the Hebrew worn ne,ohesh
and the Greek word issue psuche (the words commonly translated soul). A study of all these occurrences has persuaded me that the Biblical writers do not set forth a dichotomy or a trichotomy in man's nature. Instead, they see man as a unity, with the word soul describing this unity from the sentient point of view. Nowhere in tile entire Bible is there real evidence that an entity called the soul has an existence separate and independent from the physical body. Any attempt on my part to substantiate this assertion would take us far from our subject so I shall resist the temptation. Instead, may I observe that the pages of the Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation have carried several articles past issues which tend to refute this dogma.16
d. Quickening and Viability
These two terms are considered together since they have a close relationship, medically and philosophically. Quickening, of course, refers to the first movements of the fetus that can he felt by the mother and takes place generally between the Mill and the 16th week. Viability is defined as occurring near the 20th week when the fetus has a definite chance of surviving outside the uterine environment.
FIle embryo announces its presence through chemical signals. As already discussed, these signals can be interpreted variously by the mother will) may or may not attribute human status to the entity causing them.
Fetal movements, on the other hand, provide signs of life which have more than just symbolic content. The mothers interpretation of these signs of life are still highly dependent upon her attitude toward her preg nancy. If the pregnancy is desired, quickening is ac-companied by joy; if not, then anxiety is increased and could mount to desperation levels.
It can he seen that attributing human status to the fetus is still an arbitrary matter depending on the attitudes of the observers. Outsiders, through common law up to the nineteenth century, have generally regarded quickening as a point beyond which the fetus should have the protection of law. 17 As medical knowledge increased and showed that no logical distinction could he made between the fetus before and after quickening, the religious climate of the times prevailed to cause legislatures to move this legal protection hack to the time of conception. The current trend toward a liberalization of these legal restraints has recognized that the concept of viability implies more than just the ability to live outside the womb.
Our examination has been sufficient to demonstrate that the concept of human life is a growing, a developing thing which roughly parallels the growth and development of the fetus itself. Of course, there are those who contend for its full humanity from the moment of conception, but their argument is based more on the sanctity of life in any form rather than attributed human status.
The proposition that abortion terminates human life can then be said to have increasing validity with the length of time that has elapsed since conception.
2. An abortion interferes with the Divine Plan.
The analysis of this proposition requires knowledge of the Divine Plan as it relates to the existence of bnman life in general and individual human beings in particular. I have been able to isolate three reasons that are usually offered in this category by antiabortionists.
a. An abortion prevents a soul front entering the world.
This reason is based on a belief in preexistent souls that live in some supernatural realm prior to the preparation of a human body for them to inhabit. Since I have already dealt with the theory of ensoulment and its lack of support both in the Scriptures and in science
It should not be necessary to comment further on this point. However, it is interesting to observe that the Mormons, who believe in pre-existence, are strongly opposed to abortion and that India, where there is an almost universal belief in reincarnation, had restrictive abortion laws. Population problems in India have proved to he of greater moment than religious tenets, and a much more permissive statute is about to be adopted 18
b. An abortion deprives Cad of a potential worshipper.
The Bible ought to be a valid source of information on this point, but the only passage I can find that deals with Cod seeking worshippers is john 4:23. It would appear that quality of worship, not quantity, is of greater value to God.
Another passage that bears tangentially on this point is Matthew 3:7-9. If Cod were being denied potential worshippers because of interrupted pregnancies, it would seem that He is able to cope with the problem, resorting to rocks if necessary.
3. Abortion violates Carl's command to multiply and replenish the earth.
William Pollard has pointed out that the lot has fallen to the present generation to experience the fulfillment of the injunction of Genesis 1:28.19 We are now hearing the pleas of the experts, "Please turn off the people machine!" With the doubling time of world populations now at about 35 years and with the prospect that some of us here may have to live in a world of 6 billion people, we can rightfully ask if the earth has not indeed been replenished to Cod's satisfaction. Since He has allowed nations to walk in their own ways, 20 it would appear that man is forced to use his own best judgment on how many people he can stand to have around him. Same nations, such as Japan and Hungary, have determined that they have enough people for the resources available and allow abortions to he practiced as a primary method of birth control. The argument that abortion is wrong because it doesn't allow the population to grow would not be warmly welcomed ill such countries.
3. Abortion interferes with the rights of the fetus.
This proposition arises from the fact that law, tort law in particular, recognizes that the unborn fetus has certain rights. Abortion makes it impossible for the
fetus to enjoy these rights and therefore must be immoral. The argument is based on the contention that law, being a distillation of what is in the public mind, reflects at least a relative morality.
Noonan and Lonisell, in Nnonan's book The Morality of Abortion, deal with this point at some length.21 The following paragraph illustrates the approach taken.
The tort law is not simply a guide to the status of the fetus in in one branch of the law. It is a reflection of how judges responding to changing medical knowledge and attempting to do justice have conic to regard the being in the womb. In the words of Dean Pl osser summarizing the revolution in tort law. ''all writers who have discussed the problem have joined in condemning the old rule and in maintaining that the unborn child in the path of an automobile is as much a person in the street as the mother." We shall see if the unborn child can become less than a person if he stands in the path, not of a negligent motorist, but of a surgeon who would take his life.
Apart from the fact that the supposed analogy in the last statement is grossly
deficient in its logical structure, the argument set forth above contends that
if tort law recognizes the fetus as a person then there is greater reason for
maintaining antiabortion laws.
The situations that arise in tort actions on behalf of a fetus, however, actually support roy contentions that the person status of a fetus is an attributed rather than an absolute quality. Let me illustrate with this example. Suppose a woman is crossing the street on her way to get a legal abortion and she is struck by a negligent motorist with the result that the fetus is killed. Now I have no doubt that any jury would award the fetus damages (payable to the mother) as a result of a wrongful death. But what would the jury do if it knew the mother was planning on an abortion? Furthermore, if the mother were honest would there even be a tort action on behalf of the fetus?
4. Abortion fosters sexual promiscuity.
The public seems to he about equally divided on this proposition. In
survey conducted by Louis Harris 42% agreed with the proposition, 45%
and 13% were not sure.22 About the same time the survey results were published,
an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at University Hospital, San
Diego, Dr. Paul Brenner, noted that there had been a sharp increase
in the number
of abortions performed on girls under 21. He said, "Many more are getting
pregnant now, because fewer are taking the pill in concern over its
The proposition could be stated as follows: Since abortion provides a sure cure for the pregnancy problem, many more people will engage in illicit sexual activities. Whether the increase in the number of legal abortions is a direct indication of an increase in promiscuity or reflects changes in other variables such as a decrease in illegal abortions, only further research can verify. Garrett Hardin has pointed out that people do not avoid committing a dangerous or wrongful act merely on the basis of the risk of getting hurt or getting caught unless the risk is better than 1 in 10. This means that fear of pregnancy could reasonably deter illicit sexual relations without responsible use of contraceptives if the chance of becoming pregnant were close to 1 in 10 or greater. However, studies show that this probability is more like 1 in 25, which is far smaller than the level needed to he an effective deterrent.
I am of the personal opinion that sexual promiscuity
I think the evidence is mounting to justify enlarging the scope of the phenomenon battered child syndrome by using the term "unwanted child syndrome".
has a deleterious effect upon the kind of human relationships that are conducive to a stable society. But I also believe that human nature is such that unless a had effect follows a pleasurable activity in such a direct and forceful way that the connection is unmistakable, it is unlikely that man will cease that particular activity on the basis of the bad effect alone. Until carefully controlled research studies indicate to the contrary I think it is more reasonable to attribute a rising promiscuity (if indeed, this is the case) to a complex of other pathological social factors rather than to the availability of legal abortions.
B. The Anti-Law Propositions
When I use the term law in these propositions, I meal) that law which would prohibit abortion for whatever reason. Of course, no law is that prescriptive. Even the states wills the most restrictive statutes make exceptions for the preservation of the life of the mother. But I am referring to that overriding philosophy which, if it could prevail, would eliminate even the exceptions.
1. The lose denies a woman authority over her own body.
In the face of mounting feminine militancy, even the most ardent advocates of male supremacy are beginning to acknowledge that a woman may have a few rights over her own body. The fact that women have minds as well as bodies is also being recognized, as indicated by a small but growing number of state legislatures that have made provision for abortion on mental health grounds.
Even with abortion law liberalization there are those who contend that the restrictions on what is regarded to he a personal medical problem are demeaning to a woman. As Alice Rossi put it, "A woman may have compelling reasons for not having a churl, but if they are not pathological, she has the cruel choice of hypocritical feigning or seeking all illegal abortion, She must show her 'weaknesses' not her 'strengths.' "24 As a specific example of this, consider the wording of the mental health provision of the California Therapeutic Abortion Act:
25951, (e)(1) (An abortion is authorized it) there is substantial risk that continuance of the pregnancy would gravel)' impair the physical or mental health of she mother.
25954. The term "mental health" as used in Section 2,5951 means mental illness to the extent that the woman is dangerous to herself or the person or property of others or is in need of supervision or restraint.
The American Civil Liberties Union has taken the
position that, "It should not he deemed a crime for a woman to seek, and
for a doctor to perform, the termination of a pregnancy in accordance
accepted community standards of medical practice."25 The ACLU
laws as unconstitutional because (among other reasons)
Whether we like it or not, our system honors the rich and dishonors the poor, and the law is the tool used to make this happen.
They infringe the Constitutional right to decide whether and when to
have a child,
as well as the marital right of privacy and the privacy of the
relationship between parent and physician. (Furthermore), they deprive women of their
lives and liberty
in the sense of deciding how their bodies are to he used, without due process
The main argument that contradicts this proposition is that the rights of the woman are not absolute and that they must be balanced against the rights of the fetus she carries. Callahan pursues this line and finds that neither extreme, the absolute right of the woman to abort or the absolute right of the fetus to live, can accommodate the multitude of other dimensions that are necessarily intrinsic to the abortion decision."
2. The law forces unwanted children upon society.
A new term has recently thrust itself into medical, legal, and sociological parlance. It is "the battered child syndrome." Hardly a week goes by without the newspaper reporting on a child beating case or perhaps a child's death with the cause still under investigation. I think the evidence is mounting to justify enlarging the scope of the phenomenon by using the term "unwanted child syndrome." This is not to suggest that all battered children were born unwanted, but the etiology of these eases may show that being unwanted is a common factor in many of them.
It is probably important to distinguish between an unwanted pregnancy and an unwanted child. The former may he the result of fear of childbirth or the embarrassment or inconvenience of a protruding abdomen. Upon reflection or counseling the woman may grow to accept the prospect of having a baby even though still maintaining negative feelings about her pregnant condition. The real problem of the unwanted child arises out of either the mother or father or both being unable, for whatever reason, to accept the longterm consequences of the pregnancy.
Evidence supporting the proposition comes from several studies done in Sweden where a moderate abortion law has been in effect since 1939. One followup study of 120 children born between 1939 and 1941 after an application for a therapeutic abortion had been refused, made assessment of their mental health, social adjustment, and eduetional level through age 21. Comparison was made to a control group born at the same time in the same hospital or in the same district. The results of the study indicated that, "The unwanted children were worse off in every respect ... The differences were often significant (statistically) and when they were not, they pointed in the same direction . . . to a worse lot for the unwanted child."28
Callahan discounts the implications of these studies suggesting that the refusal of the abortion in itself could have a tendency to produce a negative reaction against the child. In addition there was a significant number of mothers who, while having an abortion refused, nevertheless made a normal adjustment after delivery.29 While Callahan may have a point in cautioning us not to be too quickly swayed by these studies, I feel that he is sidestepping a major conclusion, namely, that a large number of unwanted children did indeed encounter a sufficiently hostile environment so as to cause both them and society a degree of anguish which is rather difficult to justify.
3. The law discriminates unfairly against women and low income groups.
I have made a fine distinction between this proposition and the first of this set on the basis that the first proposition deals with the woman's own personal autonomy whereas the present one is concerned with class discrimination. Both propositions come under the province of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Perhaps a woman's point of view could be allowed at this time. In an essay entitled, "A Woman Views Abortion," Marya Marines says:
Who decided that life began and was therefore sacred-when sperm and ovum met?
Men of the cloth, who never bore or suckled a child. Who drew up the laws that
determined in effect, that women had no control over the uses of her own body?
The inseminators, not the bearers. Who governed the states and nations, who saw
that these laws were sustained and enforced? Men, of course. And for
In their terms, for the good of society. For the good of the soul.
For the preservation
of the family, the state, the agriculture, the economy, the wars of
But whose society? Whose land;' Whose state? Whose markets? Vhose wars? Not woman's. Through all these thousands of years, with a handful of exceptions, the laws that governed the lives of women were never written by women; and the matter of life never held subject to the decision of the hearers of life. That a man should he issaster of his own body was never questiousd. That woman should be mistress of her own body was out of the question. She was a vessel to be filled, a field to be planted. Such was the natural law. Such was the will of God-such was the convenience (couched in the loftiest, most spiritual terms) of man.30
A Christian perspective on women's rights on abortion can hardly avoid acknowledging the controversy about the place of women in the Judeo-Christian tradition. I have no doubt that the present inferior status of women in our society can he attributed, in part, to this religious tradition.31 However, in other cultures not influenced by this tradition, women have even a less significant role. My own tentative resolution of this dilemma is that the apostle Paul was expressing prevalent cultural maxims when he dealt with women in public such as in I Cor. 11 and I Cor. 14:34. As far as the marriage relationship described in Eph. 5 is concerned I have found no reason for disagreeing with Paul. And in the final analysis, I believe that his statement in Gal. 3:28, where he notes that, "So there is no difference between . . . men and women: you are all one in union with Christ Jesus," describes the foundation upon which Christian men and women can build a relationship of mutual respect.
The defenders of the antiabortion laws do not deny that the laws discriminate on the basis of sex. The defense is expressed in terms of the good of the society. As David Granfield expressed it,
A sound political decision would oppose the passage of liberal abortion laws because they are against the public interest of the community, not merely because these laws are immoral but primarily because they undermine the basic principle of our democratic structure, the equal dignity of all men before the law and their legal right to equal opportunity for personal fulfillment.32
I think it is interesting that Granfield uses the phrase
"equal dignity of all men;" one can only wonder whether lie would be
willing to include women.
The fact that the restrictive abortion laws discriminate against low income groups hardly needs documentation. Whether we like it or not, our system honors the rich and dishonors the poor, and the law is the tool used to make this happen.33 Any woman desiring an abortion, regardless of her state of residence, can fly to New York and have it taken care of. All she needs is the plane fare plus about $400. This little matter of money plus the restrictive abortion laws of about 43 of our 50 states are quite effective in making sure that pregnant women of less than modest means have their babies whether they want them or not. It is true that Jesus said, "You will always have poor people with you," but this is not an excuse to deny them equal protection under the law.
4. The law gives preference to one religion over others.
In a pluralistic society it is not surprising that people of different religions view things differently. As far as abortion is concerned the Harris survey cited above22 showed that the public is exercising its religious preferences in typical American fashion. The question asked was, "In general, do you favor laws permitting abortion for almost any reason or do you oppose them?"
Favor Oppose Not Sure
Protestant 39% 49% 12%
Catholic 30 64 6
Jewish 71 18 11
Many people of different religions have strongly held beliefs which directly influence their behavior: Jehovah's Witnesses will not submit to a blood transfusion even to save life; a Sikh will not allow his hair or beard to be cut; an Orthodox Jew will not eat pork even if he is starving. While we may find these beliefs' arid practices strange, we respect them because their adherents do not expect outsiders to engage in the practices or submit themselves to the beliefs. We also respect the people who hold these doctrines because they have restrained themselves from pressuring legislative bodies in an attempt to force other people to see things their way.
Such restraint is not evident among some Roman Catholics who seem to want everyone to subscribe to their belief that human life begins at conception and that abortion is murder. When the California Legislature was considering liberalizing the State's century-old abortion law the pressure on the lawmakers to defeat the liberal bill was extreme, and came almost exclusively from members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. 34 It is somewhat mystifying to compare this activity with a statement by another member of the hierarchy, the late
Catholics do not need the support of civil law to be faithful to their own religions convictions and they do not seek to impose by law their moral views cm other members of society ... It does not seem reasonable to me to forbid in civil law a practice that can be considered a matter of private morality.35
If the public good were truly placed in jeopardy by the removal of
one would nominally expect a cross section of the public to be represented at
legislative hearings protesting the removal of such restrictions. In
view of the
fact that such is not the case one can only conclude that when lawmakers yield
to the demands of one religious group they are doing so in open
violation of the
5. The law can be held responsible for unsafe medical practice.
Abortion is said to he the most widespread, and the most clandestine, method of birth control in the modern world.36 That the clandestine nature of this practice is directly responsible for a large number of maternal deaths each year is widely believed but difficult to verify. Between the years 1955 and 1960 most of the socialist countries of Eastern Europe adopted legal abortion primarily to protect women from perilous and unhealthy illegal abortions. 37 In Chile where abortions can be performed only when a pathological condition makes it absolutely necessary, pregnant women in the lowest economic class, in order to get an abortion, usually induce hemorrhage by inserting anything from
rubber probes to knitting needles. They then can go to the hospital where the abortion is completed under more antiseptic conditions.38 Callahan, after reviewing a variety of reports on the mortality due to illegal abortion, concludes:
Lacking any real accuracy, the data on illegal abortions can be used either way, by choosing to stress the high or the low estimates; but neither side can make a solid case. Significantly, however, even those who have complained about the constant citation of high, but unverified, figures on the number of illegal abortions have not tried to contend that illegal abortion does not constitute a problem. Even if the lowest cited figure, 200,000, is closest to the troth, it is a figure worthy of considerable concern. Similarly, even the low figure of 500 deaths each year from illegal abortion means that illegal abortions constitute a significant health hazard.39
We have reviewed nine propositions, four on one side and five on the other, that cover most of the important territory around the abortion question. Our analysis, while exhausting, has not been exhaustive; much more could have been said on each of the propositions, and even other less important propositions could have been reviewed. As one who has had a glimpse of the enormous amount of material in existence on abortion, I shall be the first to acknowledge the deficiencies in this paper.
But aside from the shortcomings, this research has enabled me to come to some fairly definite conclusions on the abortion question. First of all, the question "When does human life begin?" has, I believe, an answer. Perhaps "answer" is an inappropriate term; "elucidation" might be better. As I tried to demonstrate, one can no more designate a point on the continuum of growth and development as the beginning of human life than one can pinpoint a wavelength in the color spectrum of the rainbow and say, "Red begins here." The sensation of color called "red" cannot be defined objectively and no one bothers trying. In like manner, the "sensation" that goes under the label of "human" depends on the observer and is equally incapable of objective evaluation. In spite of this uncertainty in the word when applied to a fetus, the closer the fetus is to birth the more consensus there is about its hu manity and its right to live.
I am persuaded that God loses nothing in an abortion. While this sounds terribly assertive, I see no reason to put it any other way. To contend otherwise is to place man's will above God's.
The sudden removal of restrictive abortion laws may result in a temporary rise in sexual promiscuity. The extent to which this may happen, I believe, is insufficient to erode the general moral level of society and certainly not enough to justify retaining the restrictive laws.
I agree with the five propositions that assert that restrictive abortion laws have a much greater deleterious effect upon society through the abridgment of fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution and through the creation of complex sociological and medical problems than the purported evil they are supposed to curtail.
This paper has concentrated on abortion to the excusion of any mention of other forms of birth control. Some may get the impression that because I take a liberal stance on this issue that I would advocate abortion as a perfectly acceptable and normal form of birth control. Actually, quite the contrary is true. Abortion, in my opinion, is the last resort. Compared to the other methods available, in our country at least, it is the worst method by almost any measure. Reliability is about its only virtue. But since it is a last resort it must not be withheld from those who need it.
In summary, I believe that abortion is a matter to be decided by a woman and her physician and should not be made a point of criminal law. Others close to the woman may he involved in helping her come to a decision, but outsiders should no more be a party to this matter than if she were seeking sterilization. I believe this position is in accordance with the evidence that can be brought to hear on the question. Finally, I am persuaded that it is its accordance with a Christian understanding of love and life.
1Time Magazine, August 2, 1971, p. 42
2lbid., p. 31.
4Warneck, C. J. Contemporary Moral Philosophy, (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1967) p. 72.
5Callahan. Daniel. Abortion: Lair. Choice, and Morality, New York: Macmillan, 1970) p. 1.
6The Sacredness of Life, (St. Louis: Knights of Columbus, 1966) p. 23.
7Noonan, John T. Jr., led.) The Morality at Abortion, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970) p. 51.
8Callahan, op. cit., Section III, pp. 305-404.
9The Sacredness of Life, op. cit., p. 20.
10Callahan, op. cit., p. 417.
11Doiscccl, Joseph F., "A Liberal Catholic View," in Hall, Robert F., (ed.) Abortion in a Changing World, Vol 1. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970) p. 42.
12Callahan, op cit., p. 497.
13The Sacredness of Life, op. cit., p. 20.
14Callahan, op cit., p. 402.
16Ramsey, Paul, "Points in Deciding about Abortion." in Noonan, op. cit., pp. 64-72.
ttSee, for example in the Journal ASA: Bube, Richard H., "The Whole and the Sum of its Parts," 18, 8 (1966); "Asking the Right Questions," 22, 49 (1970); Stanley, Paul E., "Spirit: God and Man," 22, 148 (1970); Brauer, Oscar L., "Source of Error in English Bible," (Letter) 23, 78 (1971).
17Louisell, David SW and Noonan, John T., "Constitutional Balance," in Noonan, op cit., pp. 223.226.
18HaIl, op cit., pp. 245-250.
19PoIlard, William C., "Man on a Spaceship," Journal ASA, 21, 34 (1969).
21Noonan, op. ri 230.
22I'he Fresno Bee, June 22, 1970.
23The Fresno Bee, June 3, 1970.
24Rnssi, Alice, "A Behavioral Scientist's View," in Hall, op cit., p. 194.
25Croup for the Advancement of Psychiatry, The Right to Abortion, (New York: Charles Svribner's Sons, 1970) p. 27.
26lbid., p. 28.
27Callahan, op. cit., pp. 460-468.
28The Right to Abortion, op. cit., p. 30.
29Callahan, op. cit., p. 77.
30Manoes, Marya, "A Woman Views Abortion," in Gnttmaelser, Alan F. (ed.) The Case for Legalized Abortion Now, (Berkeley: Diablo Press, 1967) p. 54.
31Life Magazine, August 13, 1971, pp. 40-55. op. cit., pp. 226-230. The paragraph quoted is on
Abortion is a matter to be decided by a woman and her physician and should not be made a point of criminal law.
32Granfield, David, The Abortion Decision, (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1969) p. 147.
335ee Chapter V, "Anatomy of the Corporate State," in Reich, Charles A., The Greening of America, (New York Bantam Books, 1971).
34Pocijic Churchman, April, 1967.
36 Tietze, C. and Lewit, S., "Abortion," Scientific American, 220, 21-27 (1969).
37Hall, op. cit., pp. 302-314.
38 Ibid pp. 226-237.
39Callahan, op. cit., p. 136.
The thrust of our more recent Civil Rights laws as well as the Fourteenth amendment are designed to make clear that its legal guarantees cannot he denied any person within the jurisdiction of the States. There
are no categories in the Constitution such as slaves or free, black or white, born or unborn ... in fact the constitutional guarantee of equal protection has been applied to business corporations as persons. How can it be denied to unborn children who are in actual fact, living human beings?
To argue that abortion is a private matter is to put all of our rights upon the uncertain ground of shifting sands. It is unacceptable to leave a moral or ethical judgment to any individual when the rights of a third party are at stake, There is no room for tolerance when human life is at stake. A basic, fundamental human right as -well as a moral issue is contained here and it cannot he satisfactorily answered by saying "you may kill" but "I will not kill." There is no room for tolerance here. We all admit that we have a pluralistic society . . . but that society has become a corrupt society when we can't agree on human life.
The idea that abortion should be elective is an outrage to the conscience of hosts of Americans and attempts to legalize it either by judicial decisions or acts of the State legislatures or the Congress will polarize millions of Americans against those who make their laws arid those who interpret them.
To set aside the laws governing abortion could establish "irresponsibility" as the new norm for our society. If abortion becomes a right, shall the support of a child by his parents, or the support of a family by its father, also become an elective for those who do not want to face all the consequences of the decision to marry?
Samuel A. Jeanes First Baptist Church, Merchantville, N.J. 08110
Member of the Board of Directors of the N.J. Right to Life Committee
POTENTIAL VS. ACTUALIZED HUMANITY?
Some opponents of abortion .. would claim that something may have a right to life not only in virtue of its present properties, but also in virtue of its potentialities-the properties that it will come to possess in the normal course of its development.
Let us suppose that technology has advanced so that it is possible to construct humans in the laboratory,
starting with just the chemical elements, Given these technological advances, suppose that we put together an adult human in the laboratory, carrying out the construction at s temperature at which it will be frozen . . . . If we now allow the organism to thaw out, we will have a conscious, adult human being with beliefs, desires, and a distinct personality.
But what if . . . we grind it up, (still unthawed)? Would our action be open to moral criticism? In particular, would we have been guilty of murdering an innocent person? Surely not. Until the organism has been brought to consciousness and until it envisages a future for itself, and has hopes arid desires about such a future, one does not violate anyone's right to life by destroying it. This example shows that a thing does riot possess a right to life simply in virtue of its potentialities.
Michael Tooley Department of Philosophy, Stanford University Stanford Daily, November 17, 1972
HUMANNESS NOT PURELY PHYSICAL
For a great many Christians the answer to the question of the permissibility
of abortion depends on determining the time when the body comes to possess an
entity which survives beyond physical death. This question is very
in its significance by Dr. Shaeklett. Dr. Shaeklett asserts that this question
has no answer, contending rather, if I understand him correctly, that
is not a state with sharply defined bounds, and thus there is no
instant when a fetus or a child becomes human. In essence, it would appear that
he would have us consider "humanness" within a purely
I must take exception to his assertion. Not only am I unable to reconcile with the tone of Scripture a proposition which would lead to assigning different degrees of moral rectitude to the taking of a life depending on the "humanness" of the victim, but, even more basically, I cannot conceive of an intermediate answer to the question of whether some part of a person's being survives the death of his body. The silence of the Scriptures on the question of the precise time at which such an immortal entity commences its existence in the body should not lead one to conclude that this question is unanswerable.
Surely the Scriptures affirm the continued existence of those whose bodies have died. (. . . absent from the
body present with the Lord (II Cor. 5:8). See
also II Cnr. 12:2,3; Phil. 1:23; II Sam, 12:23; Luke 23:43,46; Acts 7:59; Matt. 10:28.) I would certainly hope that our relatively meager knowledge of the nonphysical side of our existence would not be deemed a justification for neglecting it as a consideration in confronting the issues of our day.
Gordon Brown Associate Professor of Mathematics University of Colorado Bouldcr, Colorado 80302