Science in Christian Perspective



  Notes on "Science and the Whole Person "
A Personal Integration of Scientific and Biblical Perspectives

Part 16

Department of Materials Science and Engineering
Stanford University
Stanford, California 94305

From: JASA 33 (September 1981): 158-165.

The abortion question is heavily emotion laden. Opinion is readily polarized with anti-abortion "Right to Life" forces upholding the rights of the fetus as an absolute on one hand, and pro-abortion "Women's Rights" forces upholding the rights of the woman as an absolute on the other. Often the former position becomes categorized as "the Christian position" because of the Christian concern for human life as a creation of God, in opposition to the latter as "the anti-Christian position" because of its willingness to take the life of the fetus. Like many other issues of this type, the abortion issue calls for a neither/ nor approach to ethics that excludes extreme positions and enables us to deal with the real and imperfect world in a meaningful and compassionate way. We are aided if we come to the point where we realize that relative values are often the key to specific decisions, not always absolute values that form an inflexible code capable of dealing with all general problems in the same way. Unfortunately our preference for simple solutions is not realistic; complex problems demand something more.

The abortion issue is another major ethical issue we are considering in this continuing series on "Science and the Whole Person." In the spirit of this integration of science and biblical perspectives, we are concerned to see what inputs we can derive from scientific and theological approaches in order to arrive at specific decisions.

Scientific Inputs

The major scientific inputs describe the development of the fetus from conception to birth. If we understand the nature of this biological development, we may be ennabled, in keeping with our previous emphasis on the human being as a pneunopsychosomatic unity, to guide our ethical decisions. These basic scientific inputs are summarized in the following Table.

This summary emphasizes the rapidly changing biological development of the conceptus from the moment of conception through full development and viability. A continuous process can be seen in which biological and personal attributes develop in parallel, as we would expect from our view of living creatures as whole creatures with attributes commensurate with their concurrent stage of development.

A common approach is to argue that at least human identity is present from the moment of conception and that any interference with development of the conceptus after conception has occurred corresponds to the termination of a human identity. If this approach were taken seriously, objections to the use of the IUD device and the morning-after pill would of necessity follow; as a matter of fact, use of these techniques seldom encounters ethical objections.

Another approach is to argue that once a human life has been started, with its full potential for development into a mature human being, any attempt to terminate this development is tantamount to destruction of a human life which, so to speak, already has reality and dimensions in the purpose of God. This perspective can easily lead to the conclusion that all conception is good since it brings into

Stage of Development                       Time Period Involved                            Processes Used for Birth
                                                                                                                     Control and/or

1. Separate ovum and sperm.            Before conception.                            Chemical and mechanical means 
                                                                                                                  to keep ovum and sperm separate.

2. Fertilized ovum.                             From conception to                           IUD devices: morning-after pill.
                                                          implantation in the uterus.

3. Embryo                                         From implantation to                           Abortion with consent of           
                                                          about 8 weeks old.                              woman and her doctor.

4. Fetus                                             From 8 weeks to birth.                        Abortion requiring
                                                                                                                     progressively more
                                                                                                                     levels of approval as
                                                                                                                     time passes; only in dire
                                                                                                                     emergency during the last 

   a. Development of central               From about 3 months.
       nervous system

   b. Viable outside the uterus.            From about 5-6 months.

5. Infant                                             From birth.                                        Infanticide.

the world creatures made in the image of God, and that efforts at birth control by any means might well be suspect.

Both of these arguments are somewhat tempered by three other inputs from a scientific understanding of the processes involved in development of the fetus, as discussed by Gardner.1 (1) Identical twins separate from a common cellmass as late as the fourth week after initial conception; the identities of those two twins does not exist therefore during those first four weeks. (2) Up to half of all conceptions end in spontaneous abortion (miscarriage), usually very early and without the realization of the woman; do half of the

This continuing series of articles is based on courses given at Stanford University, Fuller Theological Seminary, Regent College, Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, Foothill Covenant Church and Los Altos Union Presbyterian Church. Previous articles were published as follows. 1. "Science Isn't Everything," March (1976), pp. 33-37. 2. "Science Isn't Nothing," June (1976), pp. 82-87. 3. "The Philosophy and Practice of Science, " September (1976), pp. 127-132. 4. "Pseudo-Science and PseudoTheology. (A) Cult and Occult," March (1977), pp. 22-28. 5. "PseudoScience and Pseudo- Theology. (B) Scientific Theology, - September (1977), pp. 124-129. 6. "Pseudo-Science and Pseudo- Theology. (C) Cosmic Consciousness, " December (1977), pp. 165-174. 7. "Man Come of Age?" June (1978), pp. 81-87. 8. "Ethical Guidelines, " September (1978), pp. 134-141. 9. "The Significance of Being Human, " March (1979), pp. 37-43. 10. "Human Sexuality. (A) Are Times A'Changing?" June (1979), pp. 106-112. 11. "Human Sexuality. (B) Love and Low, " September (1979), pp. 153-157. 12. "Creation. (A) How Should Genesis Be Interpreted?" March (1980), pp* 34-39. 13. "Creation. (B) Understanding Creation and Evolution," September (1980), pp. 174-178. 14. "Determinism and Free Will. (A) Scientific Description and Human Choice, " March (1991) pp. 42-45. 15. "Determinism and Free Will. (B) Crime, Punishment and Responsibility, " June (198 1), pp. 105 - 112.

identities God brings into the world never exist in this world beyond the biological state of a mass of cells? (3) Human eggs have been fertilized outside the human body in the laboratory and have developed up to the 16-cell stage at least; does each of these fertilized eggs have an identity as a human being before God? Certainly if this were true, such research should never be carried on.

Indications for Abortion

In a very helpful treatment of the problem Nelson2 lists seven commonly accepted possibilities for requesting and/or granting abortion. In discussing these we also attempt to indicate the basic reasoning involved. In all these cases we are considering possible grounds for granting an abortion to someone who desires it, not grounds for forcing abortion upon someone who chooses not to request it.

1. Non-psychiatric medical risk of a pregnancy to the woman. This is perhaps the easiest of all ethical problems related to abortion. The situation is one in which competition for life exists between two human beings. The human ness of the fetus is still at the biological level in the early stages of pregnancy; the humanness of the woman, on the other hand, is the fruit of a mature life, a life with biological, social and spiritual dimensions, a life with personal relationships and dependencies. To end the life of the fetus to preserve the life of the mother is still a tragedy, but it is less of a tragedy than to end the life of the mother.

2. Threats to the mental health or psychiatric condition of the woman. Once again the welfare of the mother is the focus of attention, with perhaps the welfare of the family also in view. But this time the dilemma does not pit human life against human life, but the life of the fetus against the personal (mental, social, spiritual) wholeness of the mother. An adequate resolution of this kind of dilemma can hardly be done once and for all in general; specific needs and situations must be evaluated.

The common but extreme argument that all abortions are permissible because they lie within the right of a woman to have control over her own body cannot be sustained. Although it is true that a woman does have the right to control her own body, the decision for abortion is not one of these simple kinds of decision. When the woman has the absolute right to control her own body is in the period before conception. But after conception has taken place, it is not simply a matter of a woman and her own body. Now a third human life is involved, whose existence, possibilities and prerogatives must be considered in addition to those of the woman herself.

3. Abnormality of the fetus. This indication for abortion can be separated into several different subcases: (a) Should an abortion be allowed in cases where there is a statistical probability of abnormality but no direct evidence? (b) Should an abortion be allowed in cases where there is direct evidence (as from amniocentesis) of abnormality? (c) Should a Christian consider abortion in the case of (a) or (b)?

The standard refutation of the proposal that abortions should be granted in cases where a statistical probability of abnormality exists is to cite the following case history.

The father has syphilis, the mother tuberculosis. They have already had four children-the first is blind, the second died, the third is deaf and dumb, and the fourth has tuberculosis. The mother is pregnant with her fifth child and the parents are willing to have an abortion should you so decide.3

If ever a case history seemed to support the wisdom of abortion, it is this one. The punchline, however, is that the fifth child was born and turned out to be Ludwig van Beethoven! A decision for abortion would have deprived the world of the genius of Beethoven. Such an argument by hindsight cannot, in my opinion, be sustained. How many untold Einsteins, Mozarts, Michelangelos etc. have failed to appear on the earth because conscientious parents practiced birth control? Taken seriously this objection would call for massive efforts to increase procreation- hardly a responsible action in today's world.

There are many heartwarming histories of abnormal children who have brightened the lives of parents who took care of them and lavished upon them the love and care they needed. If the parents desire to continue through with the pregnancy and are prepared to bestow upon the abnormal child the needed love and care, then this should certainly be their prerogative. Does this mean, however, that all parents should be required to give birth to such abnormal children regardless of the consequences to the matured child, the parents or the family? If it is known that a fetus is physically or mentally malformed in such a way that its full human development cannot take place, but that it would exist in a short and painful life with only the most severe physical and mental limitations, is there some divine requirement that would prevent the termination of develonment of this fetus by abortion at an early stage of the pregnancy if the parents so desired?

Such a situation does raise the difficult question Of grounds on which the abortion is desired. An abortion formed for the sake of the fetus raises the anomalous of "saving" the fetus by ending its existence. It is esse in deciding about such an abortion that it be clear why abortion is being sought and that the reasons proferred consistent, meaningful and accepted by those involved.

4. Rape. 

Pregnancy following rape is a case where the woman has been forced to  similar to the second case, with even additional basis for considering the psychiatric wet of the woman. Shall a woman who has been assaulted humiliated, then in addition be required to endure the experience of pregnancy and labor in order to give birth to an unfortunate child who comes into the world without the love of father or mother? Prompt termination of the pregnancy at the earliest possible moment with the request of the woman involved seems a responsible option.

5. Incest. This case is related to the previous one in many ways. Most cases of incest involve young girls in their early teens who desperately need to be delivered from the consequences of their environment.

6. Population control. Abortion is widely used in many parts of the world as the major method of birth and population control. In societies and among individuals for whom hindsight is both easier and more culturally acceptable than planning in the area of sexual experience, abortion takes the place of prevention of conception. For a variety of reasons, probably all would agree that conception prevention is desirable to abortion, but many financial, political and cultural barriers need to be overcome.

7. Eugenic control. Of all the indications advanced for abortion this one has the most ominous sound, calling up visions of Hitler's plans to develop a super race through genocide and control of reproduction. It need not have quite this negative an image, and indeed our discussion above of the possibility of abortion in the case of fetal abnormality is a specific type of eugenic control. As in all these cases, the prospect for abortion darkens immeasurably if we shift attention from the grounds on which abortion should be granted to those who desire it to the grounds on which abortion should be required of those who do not desire it. The latter is such a dangerous area that it should be consistently rejected and circumscribed with as much safeguarding as can be managed

Criteria for Abortion

Many of the dilemmas raised in this discussion would be appreciably lessened if there were just some simple way of drawing a line during the development of the fetus so that abortion before this time would be totally devoid of all moral implications and abortion after this time would be morally forbidden. If we could argue that a fetus didn't become human until such and such a time, or if we could argue that the soul doesn't enter the fetus until a specific date during pregnancy, our problems would be greatly eased.

It is exactly this kind of attempt that has characterized so many historical ways of dealing with the abortion question. True humanity and the infusing of the human soul have been dated all the way from the moment of conception, through the moment when movement is first felt or viability outside the mother becomes possible, to birth itself with the drawing of the first breath as the occurrence which is like God's breathing into man the breath of life in Genesis 2. Our own line of reasoning consistent with biblical and scientific inputs, as spelled out in Part 9 of this series, does not allow us this kind of an escape. The conceptus is wholly human from the moment of conception, in that no 1-hour old fertilized ovum is ever more human than the 1 -hour old fertilized ovum of a human woman; on the other hand the conceptus is by no means fully human and will not become fully human until it has passed through all the stages of this life, come to faith in Jesus Christ, and been raised to new life in the resurrection. For the human conceptus there is no human/not-human disjunction; being human is a process of becoming.

Similarly our view provides us with no mechanism of escape by considering the time of the infusion of soul and/or spirit. Soulfulness and spirituality are characteristics of the total human organism as it develops as a single unity. Again, for the human conceptus there is no ensouled/not-ensouled disjunction as if a fully-developed soul were added to a biologically developing body at some particular interval during pregnancy.

These considerations do not mean, however, that the timing of a proposed abortion or the passage of time are of no consequence in coming to a decision concerning abortion. Although the humanity of the conceptus is assured from conception on, what we may call the "person" is not. To speak of a "person" is to speak of a human creature beyond that stage of development at which the biological correlatives or personhood are formed. Before the central nervous system has formed, we cannot meaningfully speak of the thoughts or experiences of the fetus; i.e., we cannot speak of the fetus as having personal attributes. Although no actual discontinuities exist, as a practical matter a case can be made for dividing the pregnancy into three trimesters as has been done in the Supreme Court decision on abortion. Such a vague and indefinite division seems more in keeping with the development of the fetus and its significance than an attempt to draw a fixed line at the time of viability outside the mother's body, or at the time of birth.

The first trimester is a time in which abortion based on grounds such as those discussed above may be undertaken for responsible reasons. Even here there is no place for flippancy, 

The abortion issue calls for a neitherlnor approach to ethics that excludes extreme positions and enables us to deal with the real and imperfect world in a meaningful and compassionate way.

or abortion-by-whim; abortion at any stage of development remains a serious choice, not to be entered into lightly. The shorter the time between conception and the ending of the pregnancy, the less critical the considerations. The common use of the IUD for pregnancy prevention is probably a very short term type of abortion in which implantation of the fertilized ovum is prevented. Once pregnancy is actually realized, however, about one-third of the first trimester has already passed, and the time has come for separating out motives of a purely selfish and convenience nature from motives with more justifiable bases.

Once the first trimester is past, the situation is different and only the most serious bases for abortion during the second trimester seem sufficient. The central nervous system, the biological counterpart of personhood, is developing rapidly during this second trimester. Finally, when the third trimester has begun, we are dealing with a fetus that is viable outside the mother's body; abortion for any grounds whatsoever except the actual physical endangering of the mother's life is out of the question. Even in such an extreme case, the operation should more properly be considered as premature Caesarean delivery than abortion, with every effort being made to sustain the delivered child.

Those who believe it is appropriate for purely convenience and social reasons to end a pregnancy by abortion in the final months can have little reason to oppose ending the life of an infant after birth. In other days and cultures such consistency was exhibited and may be again if present trends continue unabated. We ought, perhaps, to turn this argument around. Appealing to a residual abhorrence for infanticide on purely social if not theological grounds, we should argue for an equal abhorrence for the taking of the life of a fully-developed fetus, which is essentially indistinguishable from a newborn child.

Biblical Inputs on the Status of the Fetus

In his chapter in Birth Control and the Christian Waltke gives two arguments from the Old Testament which seem to allow abortion, and three arguments that protect the fetus .4 Taking the latter three arguments first, they are: (1) Unlike the Assyrian Code, the Mosaic Law never demands that the life of an innocent fetus be sacrificed to repay for the life of a fetus killed by accident or on purpose. (2) The Old Testament consistently upholds the view that children are not only the consequence of sexual relations but are in a direct way a gift of God and a sign of His blessing, e.g., see Psalm 127:3-5, Genesis 4:1; 16:2; 17:19; 29:31; 30:22, and Ruth4:13. (3) The Old Testament describes God as directly involved in the formation of the fetus in the womb, e.g., see Psalm 139:13-18.

Waltke's first argument in favor of abortion comes from the silence of the Old Testament on forbidding abortion. Although in general the Mosaic Law is stricter on sexual matters than the Assyrian Code, the Assyrian code requires that a woman found guilty of abortion be impaled and not buried. By contrast the Mosaic Law contains no such injunction.

The one specific passage in the Old Testament dealing with the fetus is Exodus 21:22-25,

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 according as the woman's husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (KJV)

I have used the KJV translation rather than the RSV since the latter already involves an interpretation of "so that her fruit depart from her" as "so that there is a miscarriage."

At least three different interpretations of this passage have been set forth leading to different conclusions about the significance of the fetus in this Old Testament passage. These are summarized in the following table.

"fruit departs from her"           "no mischief follow"                         "mischief follow"

1. miscarriage-fetus dies               woman is unharmed                             woman is harmed
2. premature birth of a                  neither child nor                                     either child or
    healthy child                             woman are harmed                               woman is harmed
3. labor is induced                        woman is harmed but                            child is harmed
                                                    child is healthy

The first interpretation is what might be called the "standard interpretation," embedded in the official translation of the RSV. If only the fetus is lost, then only a fine is exacted; if the woman is seriously harmed, then the full requirements of lex talionis are invoked. The conclusion is that although the fetus is valuable, it does not have equivalent value to a mature personal human life. WaItke4 who defends this interpretation presses further by pointing out that the Mosaic Law expressly commands that "If a man kills any human life he will be put to death." Since in the present instance the death penalty is not required if only the fetus is killed, it follows that the fetus is not considered to have full human status.

The second interpretation is defended by anti-abortion groups. Montgomery advocates this position.5 What is being described is not a miscarriage at all, but rather a situation where induced labor produces a healthy child . If neither child nor mother is harmed, then only a fine is imposed because of the interference with the normal progress of the pregnancy. But if either child or mother is harmed, then the full payment of the law is required, even to life for life. Thus the passage maintains the essential indistinguishability of the status of the fetus from that of the woman.

The third interpretation is also an anti-abortion position defended by Kline.6 Through a detailed linguistic study, he concludes that the penalties described for "no mischief" and for "mischief" are identical, that "no mischief" refers to harm to the woman, and that "mischief" refers to harm to the child. His conclusion is that the fetus, at any stage of development, has the full human rights of the mother; any harm to the fetus, even life for life, must be repaid according to the lex talionis.

General Guiding Principles

The discussion of Exodus 21:22-25 in the previous section leaves us with the general conviction that a clearcut response to the status of the fetus is not to be obtained unambiguously from exegesis. Guiding principles must therefore be derived from a broader view of the whole scope of the biblical revelation. Sometimes these lead us into very practical matters in an imperfect world, as well as into abstract moral and ethical models.

1. The conceptus at whatever stage of development is wholly human and deserves to be valued in a manner commensurate with that stage of human development. This means that abortion is always a serious matter (even as are other methods of birth prevention) and that the future of the conceptus is not to be decided by the whim of any human being, even the mother.

2. Although the conceptus is always wholly human,' it is involved in a process of becoming more and more fully human as its capability for personhood develops with its biological framework. It is therefore appropriate to view early abortion as the ending of human life, but not as the ending of personal life. The biblical concerns are primarily with personal life, not with biological human life in the abstract. It is therefore not appropriate to argue that the fetus has all the rights and prerogatives of a mature human being in that first stage of development in which personhood has not yet developed. 

The common but extreme argument that all abortions are permissible because they lie within the right of a woman to have control over her own body cannot be sustained.

3. Just as it is fallacious to argue for the absolute human rights of the fetus, so it is equally fallacious to argue for the absolute human rights of the mother. A woman does have the right to control her body; this right is properly exercised before sexual relationships. Once pregnancy results from sexual relationships freely entered into by the woman, the newly conceived human life may still be in her body and dependent upon her body, but it is not her body. Justifiable reasons for an early abortion may exist within the framework of the woman and her social and emotional environment, but such an abortion is not properly subject to the arbitrary choice of the woman.

4. A society that treats human life callously will degenerate morally. Therefore it is essential to defend fetal personhood against arbitrary abortion. This is particularly true in the later periods of pregnancy when abortion essentially means the killing of a live and viable child.

5. When all abortions are made difficult to obtain, it is the poor and underprivileged women who suffer. Wealthy women can always find some way to obtain a safe abortion regardless of their motivation. Poor woman may also have justifiable motives for early abortions; opportunities for such abortions should not be taken away from them.

6. In many cases (psychological problems of the parents, abnormality of the fetus, unwanted children etc.) abortion can be viewed either as (a) a way to escape from the burdens of caring for a human life that God has given to a couple in order to test, strengthen and then bless them, i.e., a way to escape selfless sacrifice, care for the defenseless, and redemptive suffering, instead of accepting these burdens in faith; or (b) a way to exercise human stewardship before God in such a way that the normal commitments to the reduction of human disease and suffering are extended to the area of terminating the life of pre-personal human matter before it develops to the state where personal suffering, limitation and deprivation have meaning. Each individual must decide before God where he stands in such a choice.

7. In many cases a false approach to abortion decisions may occur if all of the options are not explored. To provide a full range of freedom to the pregnant woman, counseling is necessary to enable her to be aware of all the options possible. Financial aid may be an essential ingredient of such counseling if the woman is to he ennabled to make a meaningful choice. In husband-and-wife situations, or even in the case of an unmarried couple, the perspective of the father should be included in the total decision making process.

8. The fetus does not derive its value from being wanted. Therefore, not being wanted cannot be taken as an automatic sanction for abortion. On the other hand, all too many cases exist in which an unwanted child has been brought into the world only to face a life scarred by early lack of love and personal rejection. A child unwanted by its natural parents may however be very much wanted by another couple unable to have children of their own and anxious to adopt.

The Importance of Case Histories

If there is anything that we can learn from a consideration of abortion, it is that no simple formula can be put together which makes all abortion decisions a simple and straightforward matter. In addition to the many gray areas we have described above (e.g., no human/not-human or soul/no-soul dichotomies), the complexity of the actual situations is brought out most clearly by the consideration of pseudo case histories. In his book Gardner' has put together twelve such case histories and then has obtained the opinion of groups of conservative evangelical Christians in the following categories (24 in each): consultant obstetricians and gynecologists, general practitioners, ministers of religion, well educated lay people and clinical medical students; he also included a control group of Christian ministers with a wide range of theological and denominational viewpoints. For our purposes here, we reproduce just three such case histories, give the results of Gardner's questionnaire, and propose a rationale based on the guidelines of this paper.

Case 1. Mrs. A is a woman of 28 years, with two children, a boy aged 10 and a girl aged 8 years. She is happily married. Her husband is a clerk who is having to spend an increasing amount of time helping his wife with the housework. Three years ago she was diagnosed as suffering from cardiac disease, which is causing increasing limitations in activities so that now she gets breathless on carrying out normal household duties. Cardiac surgery is being contemplated but she is told that any improvement may not be lasting. Despite the fact that she has been using a vaginal cap and contraceptive jelly she has missed two periods. On examination she is found to be an intelligent woman, rather underweight, with evidence of valvular heart disease, ten weeks pregnant.1

The obvious disadvantage of such case histories is that they do not tell us all that we might wish to know; our comments must therefore be provisional. In each case the woman comes asking for an abortion; there is never any question of forcing an abortion on an unwilling woman. Mrs. A. has responsibly tried to prevent conception in view of her weakened physical condition. Although we cannot be sure that continuing the pregnancy will prove to be a threat to her health, it seems highly likely. She has two other children that require her love and care, insofar as she is strong enough to give it to them. She might be brought through the pregnancy and then give the child up for adoption, but this would appear to be a severe strain on both her physical and mental health. Being ten weeks pregnant, she is about at the end of the first trimester. Almost all of the facts and

Abortion decisions are highly complex, highly personal, and highly specific. Two questions dominate: (1) Why do you want to have an abortion? (2) Have you waited too long?

their reasonable extrapolations favor giving her an abortion as requested. Of those questioned, permissions for abortion ran from 57% for the medical students to 100% for both the consultant obstetricians and the general practicioners; the average for all groups was 88%.

Case 2. Mrs. C is 40 years of age. She has had 6 children, the youngest of whom is now 9 years. Her husband is a skilled craftsman. She herself recently started work in a shop. This she claims is largely for the sake of companionship and for the pleasure of at least being able to get out of the home. She is at present complaining of not having had a period for 4 months, and wondering whether or not she is at the "change," On examination she proves to be 16 weeks pregnant. On being told this she appears indignant stating that she cannot be bothered to start again at her age.1

This case is almost the exact opposite of Case 1. The woman's health is apparently unthreatened, and although it is true that she has had 6 children there appear to be no severe financial constraints on the family. The major effect of a pregnancy would be an inconvenience and an adjustment of lifestyle during the period of the new infancy. Since she is 16 weeks pregnant, she is well into the middle of the second trimester. Although a basic appeal to women's rights might defend abortion on the grounds of Mrs. C's right to choose for herself, all other indications are against granting an abortion. Of those questioned almost none would grant an abortion except for 6% of the laymen and laywomen; the average over all those questioned was 3% in favor of an abortion.

Case 3. Mrs. F is aged 35 years. She has four children, ages 12, 10, 8 and 6 years. Her husband is a schoolmaster. She herself is a housewife. They have a nice home which is normally happy. She admits to a single act of folly, resulting in adultery with the husband of a friend. He is of another race. He has two children. It is now 6 weeks since her last period. She does not know whether her neighbor, or her husband, is the father of the baby, but if the former, the fact will be unmistakable after delivery. On examination she is a likeable woman, in great distress with full insight into the problem and her own responsibility for it.8

The first two cases were relatively clear cut, but most cases, of course, are not. Our third case is simply one example of the kind of tangled human relationships that may enter into a decision to grant an abortion. Other cases might well include such considerations as a history of abnormalities with previous children, a critical threat to lifelong career hopes of the woman, severe financial problems in the family, pregnancy without prospect of marriage, mental incompetence with possible rape or incest, pregnancy outside marriage with fear of social consequences, teenage indiscretion leading to pregancy etc.

In Case 3 there is no apparent threat to the woman's health but there is a threat to the woman's family life. She seeks abortion to cover up an indiscretion that she now sorely regrets and presumably repents of. We do not know how her husband would respond if she confessed her actions to him and asked for forgiveness. Given normal statistics, the probability that the child has been conceived in adultery is rather low, and her worst fears of public stigma on both herself and the child may be groundless. In this case counseling would seem best directed first toward being honest with her husband in the hope that he would accept the situation and support his wife without the need for abortion. If it should be obvious that the child was born from the adulterous act, it would be possible to know this immediately upon birth and offer it for adoption with all parties consenting. Although it would certainly be a mistake to insist that the woman carry to term as punishment for her adultery, it would be equally a mistake to needlessly end the life of a healthy fetus. Still, pregnancy has probably proceeded for only about 4 weeks and it is still early in the first trimester. The case is evidently not simple. Of those questioned the fraction approving abortion ranged from 14% for the ministers and the medical students to 38% for the general practitioners; the average over all categories was 27% in favor of granting the requested abortion.


The title of this series is "Science and the Whole Person: A Personal Integration of Scientific and Biblical Perspectives." The choice of this title in the context of ethical issues implies the acceptance of the basic principle that ethical decisions in the real world cannot be made without full inputs from both scientific and biblical sources.

In the case of abortion, for example, it is shown that biblical exegesis provides general guidelines but no specific do/don't references. Application of these guidelines is informed by an understanding of the chronology of biological development and by that model of the human being, derived from scientific and biblical inputs, as a pneumopsychosomatic unity.

Many traditional approaches to the abortion issue are defective. Emphasis on the absolute right of the fetus or on the absolute right of the woman is inappropriate. Criteria that seek to set the time at which abortions become morally questionable based on whether or not the fetus is human or whether or not the fetus is ensouled are inapplicable. To call abortion in the early stages of pregnancy "murder" is as misleading as to refer to the third-trimester fetus as "the woman's body."

Human life begins at conception. Half of such human conceptions terminate spontaneously without even the knowledge of the mother in many cases. Although it is never an insignificant act to end a human life, it is conceivable, as outlined in this paper, that situations may exist which justify the ending of a human life before the biological development giving rise to human personhood. If spontaneous abortion (miscarriage) can be consistently viewed as the will of God, it would seem that induced abortion in the early stages of pregnancy can also be viewed as the will of God expressed through human agents. If infanticide is viewed as a crime against society and a violation of the commandment against murder, it would seem that the killing of a viable fetus in the third trimester of pregnancy for any reason other than saving the life of the mother should also be viewed as murder.

It must be recognized that abortion decisions are highly complex, highly personal, and highly specific. Case histories form the kind of matrix in which the actual nature of these decisions can be seen, when one tries to make them in this present imperfect and sinful world. Two questions dominate: (1) Why do you want to have an abortion? (2) Have you waited too long?


1R.F.R. Gardner,
Abortion: the Personal Dilemma, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids (1972)
2J.B. Nelson,
Human Medicine, Augsburg, Minneapolis (1973)
3Cited from a newspaper article that quotes from L.R.C. Agnew in an article in the Lancet, a British medical journal.
4B.K. Waltke, "Old Testament Texts Bearing on the Problem of the Control of Human Reproduction," in
Birth Control and the Christian, W.O. Spitzer and C.L. Saylor, eds., Tyndale, Wheaton (1969)
5J.W. Montgomery, "How to Decide the Birth-Control Question,"
Christianity Today March 4, 1966, p. 10 (554).
6M.G. Kline,
"Lex Talionis and the Human Fetus," Jour. Evangel. Theolog. Soc. 20, 193 (1977)
7For the distinction between
"wholly human" and "fully human", see R.H. Bube, Jour. ASA, 30, (1978)


If an IUD device works by preventing implantation of a fertilized ovum into the uterine wall, does this type of termination of human life raise ethical problems for you?

2. There are laws that prohibit parents from harming their children by acting or refusing to act in accordance with their own religious convictions. Do you think there should be laws to prevent a woman from asking that her own life be sacrificed for the sake of the fetus if she has a number of other children who rely upon her continued care as their mother?

3.  Is a 1-week embryo different from a woman's appendix? Is early abortion different from an appendectomy? If there are differences, what are their consequences?

4. If you have had several children, did you ever think about the situation involving the last child if you had decided to stop having children after the next-to-last child? What about the next child you would have had but didn't? Did you deny life to a potential human being? How does this kind of thinking fit in with ethics on birth control and abortion?

5. Is it possible for a Christian consistently and in good conscience to abort in the early stages of pregnancy in order to prevent the birth of a severely physically and/or mentally deformed child?

6. Consider the situation where a man is "made" in the laboratory by synthesizing all the material that makes up a man in exactly the same way that it occurs in a normal living man, but that this synthesis is done at a sufficiently low temperature that consciousness has not yet come into existence. If this being is thawed out, he will become a normal human being, according to the arguments of Part 9 of this series.' But suppose that before he is thawed out, i.e., before he has any self-conscious experience, he is ground up in a meatgrinder and put down the garbage disposal. Would murder of a human being have been committed? Is this story relevant to considering abortion of a fetus before development of the central nervous system?

7. Suppose that the scriptural record had unambiguously said that a person's life was forfeit in the Mosaic law if he caused the death of a fetus by physically injuring the mother. Would this unambiguously establish that the fetus had the same human status as the mother? 

8  It seems as if many attempts to legislate morality broadly end up by depriving the poor and underprivileged of badly needed aid in emergency situations while leaving the wealthy free to purchase violations of the legislation in some legally acceptable way. How can this kind of social inequity be overcome?

9. Could the Supreme Court have done better than to decide that abortion within the first trimester was a matter to be decided by the woman and her doctor?


D. Alexander,
Beyond Science, A. J. Holman, N.Y. (1972)
J.N.D. Anderson, Issues of
Life and Death, InterVarsity, Downers Grove (197 )
American Friends Service Committee, Who
Shall Live? Man's Control Over Birth and Death, Hill and Wang, N.Y. (1970)
D. Callahan,
Abortion: Law, Choice and Morality, Macmillan, N.Y. (1970)
R.F.R. Gardner,
Abortion: the Personal Dilemma, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids (1972)
D. Granfield,
The Abortion Decision, Doubleday, N.Y. (1969)
J.B. Nelson,
Human Medicine, Augsburg, Minneapolis (1973)
J.T. Noonan, Jr., Ed.,
The Morality of Abortion, Harvard University Cambridge (1970)
R.L. Shacklett, "Christian Perspectives on Abortion,"
Journal ASA, 25, 44 (1973)
W.O. Spitzer and C.L. Saylor,
Birth Control and Christian, Tyndale, Wheaton (1969)