What about abortion?

Ted Grimsrud—October 30, 2011

I have to admit that I have never been especially exercised by the abortion issue.

On the one hand, I have never found the strict anti-abortion position attractive. While self-labeled as “pro-life,” it has often struck me as rigid, legalistic, ideological, and too easily co-opted by political forces that in other respects are pretty anti-life. Yet I also have a hard time thinking of abortions as positive or even morally neutral acts. I also am uncomfortable with arguments that present abortion is strictly a matter of the pregnant woman’s personal choice.

And it is not an issue I have ever had close personal experience with. So it has been easy to focus on other issues—as I still do.

However, in the introductory ethics course I teach to mostly first-year college students, I use abortion as one of several case studies we briefly consider. So I do find myself getting more interested.

The success of “pro-life” rhetoric

I am struck more and more with how successful the anti-abortion advocates seem have been in setting the terms of the discussion. Most students seem to take it as a given that human life (in the sense of deserving of full human rights, let’s call this “personhood”) begins when the egg is fertilized. So, abortion at a very early stage is understood to be the taking of a human life, morally equivalent to murder. When pushed to consider it, many of these students would see that even “birth control” methods that prevent fertilized eggs from being implanted on the uterine wall (e.g., the “morning after pill”) are abortion.

This seems to paint people into a corner. We have heard several true-life stories from guest speakers about cases where the strict pro-life belief led to actions that many in the class recognize as seemingly problematic.

One woman, a happily married mother of three other kids, got pregnant (by choice) a fourth time and shortly thereafter was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. She was told that if she underwent treatment immediately, her chances of survival would be high—but such treatment would terminate her pregnancy. If she waited for the treatment until the baby was born, her chances of survival would be much less. Due, in large part, to her belief that the fetus was a full human being, she felt she would be guilty of murder if they allowed the pregnancy to be terminated. So she did keep the baby, it was born and was healthy, and she then had her cancer treated. But it was too late and she died shortly afterwards.

In a second case, a married woman nearing the end of her child-bearing years and to that point unable to conceive, became pregnant with triplets thanks to implantation of fertilized eggs. Early in the pregnancy, one of the triplets died. At about 20 weeks, the water broke on one of the remaining babies. That meant that the wastes from that baby threatened to poison the other baby. At that point, the parents faced a choice. They could abort the baby whose water had broken with a 95% chance of survival for the other baby. Or they could try to keep both babies with a 95% chance both would perish. The parents were strongly “pro-life” and agonized terribly with the decision. They were persuaded by medical staff and friends to go ahead with the abortion. The remaining baby was born and was healthy—but the mother continued to be plagued with powerful guilt feelings and had an emotionally difficult time with the birth and the early days afterwards.

Now, certainly, these were both complicated situations. However, it does seem that at least part of what made them complicated was what I consider to be an ideological commitment to an abstract and actually counter-intuitive belief. Certainly, most people would appropriately see great value in the beginnings of life in these mothers’ wombs. Especially since, in both cases, the mothers themselves affirmed the personhood of these babies. However, by equating the beginning lives with full personhood, the mothers put themselves in unnecessarily difficult situations, it seems to me. In the one case, by refusing to treat her cancer, the mother may have made a courageous choice but one that was quite costly to many people beyond herself. In the other case, the mother came within a hairsbreadth of greatly compounding what was certainly a tragic situation and, in making what most would see as the best decision, undermined her emotional health and her relationship with the surviving baby with her bad conscience.

But is abortion actually murder?

As we talked further in the class, it did become clear that even the strongly “pro-life” students operate in actual life as if abortion is not actually the same thing as murder. In our case study, we consider the story of a 19-year-old college student who faces an unintended pregnancy. When asked how they would respond if this student were their friend and she did get an abortion, even the most staunchly “pro-life” students tend to think they would counsel her against the abortion but would remain her friend and try to support her in dealing with the emotional complexities of the situation. But when asked if they would offer such support to a friend who murdered a mutual friend, they said no, of course not.

That is, they intuitively recognize that the pre-viability fetus is not a human being in the same sense as one of their peers. Few, if any, actually want to treat abortion as murder. So, the rhetoric of “full personhood from the time of conception” is a slogan more than a consistent and carefully considered conviction.

When we talk about what they base these “full personhood” convictions on, they tend eventually to recognize that these convictions are confessional—that is, based on their religious beliefs. Then they recognize that these beliefs are not share by everyone and that, in fact, there seems to be no way that they could hope for everyone to agree. So, how might we proceed in face of these differences?

Working against polarization and toward a middle way

Is it possible to work toward a middle way? If we were to find an approach that might work in our society, significant numbers of people on each side of the polarization probably would need to bracket a central “absolute” conviction (I say “bracket,” not “give up,” because all that would be needed would be a willingness to recognize the conviction as not fully applicable for social policy). For the “pro-life” people it is this conviction about full personhood from time of conception. For the “pro-choice” people it is the conviction about the absolute right of privacy that makes abortion totally a private decision concerning what a pregnant woman does with her own body.

Maybe people could acknowledge that beliefs about the moment of full personhood are confessional (and even mysterious), not public facts—allowing for the possibilities of diversity of belief and therefore of practice concerning abortion. Maybe people could acknowledge that from its beginnings, a pregnancy brings into existence a living creature that has its own existence and deserves the benefit of the doubt as much as possible. Hence, society does have an interest in reducing the numbers of abortions.

I would suggest that there are several important moral values that should form the basis of an effort to seek a middle way on abortion. First of all, life is to be valued. Public policies should reflect a commitment to honor and sustain life—both the life of the mother and the emerging life in the uterus. Second, it is not socially healthy for anybody to have the kind of politicized polarization that our society has right now on this issue. Third, it is simply a social fact that unwanted pregnancies do happen. That is, we take up the abortion issue in the midst of what we could call a broken situation, which implies that we don’t have any possibility of a morally pure or even morally clear context for addressing the issue. There are always various stakeholders involved whose interests are not fully compatible with each other. This “social fact” argues strongly for a predisposition toward compromise, where are stakeholders are willing to loosen their insistence on the “absolute right” they are advocating.

Toward a public health approach

So, what if we thought more in public health than moralistic terms? What if we agreed in seeing abortion more as a public health problem than as an issue of absolute moral right and wrong? If we think of it as a public health problem, we will focus more on the big picture, more on prevention, less on moralistic “absolutes.” If abortion is a public health problem, we will not think so much about eradicating it as about minimizing it as much as possible. And we will accept that abortion is indeed a problem; it is problematic and we should desire that we have fewer abortions (a lot fewer).

Here might be one way to think about it: What if we were to think of the “personhood”of the fetus as determined by the mother until the time of viability (which now is approximately 24 weeks)? And then, what if we agree that we want a society where all mothers affirm the personhood of all fetuses from the very beginning of the pregnancy? With this assumptions, we could agree that we should seek a society that greatly reduces the numbers of unwanted pregnancies—and thereby the numbers of abortions.

A public health approach would ask, as a fundamental question, why is it that women have abortions? Then, it would ask, can those reasons be addressed without abortion? The focus would be on addressing the issue as a problem of unwanted pregnancies more than as a problem of abortion.

How do we best reduce abortions?

So, then the question would be, do you reduce the numbers of abortions (a lot) by mainly by limit access to abortions or mainly by creating much less demand for abortion? It would seem clear that creating less demand would be much more effective in reducing the numbers of abortions based on evidence from around the world. For example, the countries in the world with the lowest rates of abortion are western European countries that allow for legalized abortion (in most cases paid for through socialized medicine). A number of countries with the highest abortion rates are places that make abortion illegal. For example, the rate in Holland (with open access to abortion) in recent years was 7 abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age; the rate in Peru (where abortion has been illegal) was 56 abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age.

An approach that focuses on limiting access (which is supported by the “pro-life” movement in the U.S.) would emphasize making laws to make abortion illegal, or at least much more difficult. It would eliminate governmental assistance to pay for abortions. It would try to reduce the number and accessibility of abortion providers. It may try to intimidate and “get in the way” of people who seek abortions.

An approach that focuses on reducing demand would would emphasize addressing the factors that lead to unwanted pregnancies. It would encourage sexual education for young people and access to birth control. The sexual education would seek both to inform people as to how the human reproductive system works and to encourage healthy and positive sexual intimacy that does not lead to pregnancy. The demand reduction approach would also seek to address economic and health care issues by providing assistance that would make pregnancy and childbirth less risky and difficult. It would work to empower women and to confront male sexual coercion. It would seek to reduce the stigma that is attached to pregnancies in unapproved contexts (i.e., unmarried mothers).

Of course, this second strategy, the demand reduction approach, would have the virtue of addressing a much broader circle of concern than simply the isolated pregnant woman. It would emphasize healthy relationships, economic equality, and empowerment of women. These virtues, sadly, are also part of the reason why this kind of approach might be resisted by interests who benefit from the problems this approach would alleviate.

40 thoughts on “What about abortion?

    1. Part of the question here, Robert, is what we mean by “murder.” It seems that “murder” is a social construction—a society decides whether the taking of a life is illegal (wrong) or not. Currently, in the US, killing in warfare, the death penalty, and killing in self-defense are not “murder.”

      So, saying “murdering humans is always wrong” is simply repeating the definition of “murder.” A big issue, certainly, is whether “a fetus is human.” I don’t see any way to prove or disprove that assertion—which is one reason why we have the current polarization in our country.

      But even if the fetus is defined as human, taking the fetus’s life is only “murder” when society says it is. One could say, in line with the just war tradition, that the taking of a fetus’s life is justifiable in certain circumstances and therefore is not going to be made illegal (i.e., considered to be murder). I think it is significant that most “pro-life” people (at least in my experience) still are not willing to prosecute women who have abortions as murderers.

      1. Any killing of a human not explicitly outlined by God is murder. Humans have no authority to end the life of one developing in the womb. Further, God has never approved of abortion and even the OT laws are against abortion.

        There isn’t any confusion about what is in the womb, it’s not a platypus! People are merely trying to obfuscate what is in the womb by trying to point to obviously arbitrary points. Asking ‘at what point does *it* become a human?’ is as farcical as saying ‘you cannot go anywhere because in order to go somewhere you have to go half way, and then half of that, to infinity so therefore you can’t go anywhere.’

        Well, we can go places and what is growing in the womb is a human. It can’t be anything else for there is no other option.

        Abortion is simply not on the table for a Christian or anyone that is against murder.

  1. Always like your reflections Ted.
    So much of it comes down do when life starts. From a biological point of view at conception and for quite a while after there is certainly not a life form any more than the cells on your skin you might scratch off with an itch. There is a collection of cells that can continue to proceed into a life (for that matter the cells on your skin or under your tongue have the same potential if directed.. i.e. cloned). There is no person yet, not from a scientific point of view. Therefore the religious perspective comes in to play whereas some traditions maintain there is a soul generated at conception. I think this a strange argument for a lot of reasons though the one that presents the most problems is the idea of a soul existing at all. Not all people or even religious traditions believe in souls and those that do are very inconsistent and random on how they operate… I honestly don’t recall the conventional idea of a soul many Christians have as a concept inherent in original Christianity or Judaism.
    All that being said I think abortion should be both legal and include determinations based on how far a long the pregnancy is and how it came to be (i.e. rape, potential loss of mother, etc) and be highly discouraged, esp. as a mere form of birth control. I think there is a moment, a sacred one at there where there indeed a unique life come into existence though I defer to science on when this is.
    Essentially, we need to make abortion rare and as unnecessary as possible. We need to grow out of it even being an issue and we’ll never eliminate it thru legislation. I think the only way to truly do it is with education, empowerment, and birth control.. including the teaching of abstinence but not limited to it. People who are anti abortion and anti birth control simply can’t have it both ways. It makes no sense ethically or practically and do me what with our world over population simply a immoral and unethical position. The whole idea that to use birth control is to derail the will of God is ludicrous (after all God supposedly has a knack for conception without even a father if its important enough to ‘him’) and even if that was the case then those who practice only the rhythm method of birth control are in theory just as at fault since birth control is birth control and suppressing that urge to go to the bedroom and go for it could just as will be going against God’s will. It’s theologically weak.
    The answer is in really good sex education, advocating birth control and small families, empowerment and protection of women in all sectors of society, and in teaching children up thru their adulthood the virtues and values where they don’t end up sexually active before the appropriate time and with inappropriate people in the first place.
    The fact (and I’ve read several studies backing this up that I admit I don’t have memorized but are out there) there are a higher level of unexpected/wanted pregnancies, sexual crimes, and abortions in highly oppressive religious communities is no mere coincidence.

    1. Thanks, Joseph. I think we are mostly on the same page. One of your key points, that I also allude to, is the need—if we truly want to reduce the number of abortions—to “empower and protect women in all sectors of society.” The “pro-life” movement as a whole has a way to go on this one.

    2. I am a woman, and have never met another women that has used an abortion as a form, of BC. That argument is w/o merit and does not help the conversation. No one looks forward to an abortion, or any other medical procedure. BC is the preferred, easiest choice.Thank you 😉

    1. Thanks for the reference, Eli. I hadn’t seen Sagan’s article before. It is thoughtful, perceptive, and sane. I especially appreciate his recognition that we have to find a “middle way.”

  2. I don’t agree with Joe. From a biological point of view, the union of sperm and egg creates a human. What is created is not sloughed off cells or generic cells, but a human being in formation.

    On the article, pro-lifers don’t necessarily disagree with the course taken by the two mothers. It is normal for mothers in such situations to be distressed about the consequences of the decisions they have made, but also recognize that they were the best decisions for life they could see to make under the circumstances.

    A social safety net providing for the needs of pregnant women and mothers after their children are born is a crucially important pro-life effort, and it is unfortunate that many who oppose abortion oppose the measures which would alleviate the conditions which cause pregnant women to feel desperate and forced into abortion. This is the result of them being in the grip of an unfortunate ideology.

    This does not mean that legislation protecting human life is a bad idea. There’s nothing inherently in conflict between supporting measures to create the conditions in which women feel they really have an option for life, and laws that recognize the value of human life. Some restrictive measures on abortion in states in the USA have proven to reduce the abortion rate. In Minnesota, parental notification reduced not only abortion but also teen pregnancy. Laws are one way society creates a moral atmosphere.

    It is unfortunate that being pro-life on abortion has somehow gotten connected, at least in the USA, with a right wing ideology that is not generally very supportive of human life. This has only come to be true within my lifetime, and I don’t really understand how it happened.

    It makes more sense for being pro-life on abortion to be connected with support for human life in other areas. It really makes little sense, for example, that many who oppose abortion don’t oppose war, and vice versa. But a recent newspaper story said that 11% support a consistent life ethic. There are groups, joined in the network Consistent Life , which do support life across the board..

    1. Thanks for the reflections, Bill. If the “pro-life” movement as a whole shared your views, it would be more admirable—and effective. I really do think right now that the legislative approach is highly problematic in our society because of how it is empowering to many anti-life forces and is not linked with the kinds of demand-reducing approaches I mention.

      1. Hi Ted, I come to this as an EMS graduate (and Mennonite by conviction rather than by birth). Mark Nation (whom I know you share substantial points of theological concordance as well as some significant disagreement) instilled in me the annoying habit of always asking, “But what about Jesus?” when it comes to moral discernment as Christians. And I have to admit, I found myself asking that question once again after reading your essay. I guess I’d ask- what distinctive theological or cultural resources does the Church bring to bear on the abortion question? E.g. how do specifically Christian convictions about the value of human life made in God’s image factor into your thinking on the issue? Or, what can the Church as a contrast society of “resident aliens” offer in the way of resources to the pregnant woman unsure of where to go or whether she should welcome her child into the world rather than destroy it? Can we as the people of God surround her with all the love and support she needs? I’d love to hear your reflections on that question.

        Anyway, here are a few resources that I’ve found helpful in arriving at the consistent pro-life stance I now embrace along with Bill. First- Stanley Hauerwas’s attempt to wrestle with some of the Church-related questions I raised above. I love this essay for the truth it preaches: “Abortion, Theologically Understood” (http://lifewatch.org/abortion.html?vm=r)
        Secondly- this terrific article by Mary Meehan, provocatively titled, “Why Liberals Should Defend the Unborn” (http://www.meehanreports.com/whyliberals.htm)
        Finally, the moral stance of the pre-Constantinian church on the abortion issue to which I devote a chapter in my first book Consistently Pro-Life: The Ethics of Bloodshed in Ancient Christianity- (http://www.facebook.com/l.php?u=http%3A%2F%2Fwipfandstock.com%2Fstore%2FConsistently_ProLife_The_Ethics_of_Bloodshed_in_Ancient_Christianity&h=qAQH62t9H)

  3. Very thought provoking. I have a few things I’m noodling over, but I would address one point you make, namely that there seems to be a correlation between legality of abortion and the abortion rate. The Guttmacher Institute, a recognized body of abortion and birth control statistics, stated “Yet, while it may seem paradoxical, a country’s abortion rate is not closely correlated with whether abortion is legal there”. You can read the whole article at http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/ib_0599.html if you care to, but they show that the rates in Eastern European countries where abortion is legal are quite high as well, although with the availability of contraceptives, those rates have been falling. If we were to compare apples to apples, consider the abortion rate in the US prior to legalization and after. If abortions were again illegal in the US again as in the days prior to Roe V. Wade , it’s hard to imagine that the rate would go UP.

    1. Great to hear from you, Geoff.

      I think I wasn’t clear enough in making my point. I didn’t mean to equate making abortion illegal with increased rates and making it legal with decreased rates. My point would be more about the presence of the demand-reducing factors I mentioned. Hence, Peru made it illegal and had a high rate and Holland made it legal and had a low rate. The difference would seem to be the presence of demand-reducing factors.

      However, the fact that these western European countries have rates as much at 2/3 lower than ours would argue that we would do well to mimic their demand-reducing practices rather than to seek instead to limit access through legal channels.

      I think if “pro-life” advocates truly wanted to reduce the number of abortions they would strongly advocate for public health practices related to sexuality and childbirth that were like Holland’s (rather than by trying to imitate Peru is making abortion illegal and denying access to contraceptives and sex ed).

  4. Ted you don’t seem to stake out a strong anti-abortion position in this article. I was surprised by that, especially considering your strong dedication to peace theology. Do you think that the violence against the unborn is of a different type or quality than the other violence in society?
    The folks at Consistent Life http://www.consistent-life.org/ lump abortion in with war, poverty, racism, capital punishment and euthanasia, which seems quite consistent to me.

    1. Geoff, I guess my main advocacy here is for effective abortion reduction strategies that also respect the humanity of women who suffer from unwanted pregnancies. As I said, my goal would be a society with zero demand for abortions.

      I think it is just being descriptive of the beliefs of most people to acknowledge that “violence against the unborn” is different than “the other violence” in society—hence the response from the “pro-life” students in my class when I asked if they would treat a friend who had an abortion as a murderer. I think people’s intuition on this is more accurate to reality than the ideological insistence that we are dealing with a full human being from the time of conception.

      Right now, it seems as if the “Consistent Life” folks are fighting a losing battle. I think they would have overtly repudiate the rest of the “pro-life” movement and join with people who oppose war, poverty, racism, and capital punishment to advocate for demand-reducing policies in order to have much credibility.

      1. You are implying that the whole rest of the “pro-life” movement is against demand reduction. I don’t believe that holds up. Far more pro-life resources are devoted to helping pregnant women than to political efforts. And some of the most prominent Consistent Life member groups, like Feminists for Life and Democrats for Life, concentrate on demand-reduction strategies.

        I would also note there are any number of demand-reduction strategies, and they would include changing the society’s attitude towards the unorn.

  5. With a background in biology and a spouse who is a professional biologist I have to disagree with Bill. Sperm and egg are the potential for life come together.. as is sperm and egg separate.. It is a life form to be, if things follow a normal healthy trajectory. There are only two cells..nada else. no organs, no nervous system, no body, no brain, nada, no consciousness, no awareness. There is no human yet..not even close. People are entitled to their opinion but not to their version of facts. Facts are facts.

    1. I basically agree with your disagreement with Bill, Joseph. But I also think the definition of “personhood” is more a philosophical than scientific issue. We do have “facts” about the development of the fertilized egg, but not about when this development achieves “personhood.” I think “personhood” is something that we have to define for ourselves.

      As I said in my original post, I am attracted to the idea that “personhood” is especially determined by the mother (though ideally she is not alone) up to the point of viability.

      1. Ted et alia
        I think it is important carefully to define terms to have productive dialog on this issue. The recent bruhaha in Mississippi to attempt to establish by vote and legal process that personhood begins at conception illustrates the conundrum and is ridiculous. I agree with—a zygote is human cellular life with potential to be born and become a person. If, as in your answer to Joe and Carol, you wish to assign the definition of personhood to a philosophical arena, then let’s be on with the task. I don’t think there can be any sensible discussion of morality with regard to termination of pregnancy without clear definitions.

      2. Your comment illustrates what concerns so many of us. That whether an unborn is a person or not should depend solely on the mother’s attitude to the growing life within her seems to follow an extreme characterization of post-modernism that there is no truth beyond what an individual regards as truth. I don’t think this view has any support in scripture.

        John M. Miller says in response to your entry that clear definitions are important. In this case, this seems particularly relevant since the Roe v. Wade decision centered around the definition of person. It could not find much precedent in American law for setting personhood earlier than birth. But it noted that “person” in the 14th Amendment which protects the right to life was subject to definition by Congress. Whether it would be by State remains an open question, but the definitional issue was what led to the failed referenda in Colorado & Mississippi.

        Depersonalizing people is a hallmark of all violence. It has been done with respect to those we declare our “enemies”, with ethnic groups, and with many others besides the unborn. Recognizing and respecting the humanity of all is fundamental to the movement to end violence.

        I would note that the reason why ultrasounds have become so key in the struggle over abortion is because they allow the mother (and others) to see for themselves – and they almost invariably recognize what they see as a human life.

        What does it say about the morality of a society that corporations are recognized as persons and unborn human beings are not?

  6. I appreciated your thoughtful article. If you haven’t seen it already, I’d recommend a (1990’s?) book by comparative legal scholar Mary Ann Glendon (I think it was called “Rights Talk”), comparing the legal frameworks in which abortion is treated in the U.S. (rights-based) and in Western Europe (more of a holistic, social-problem, public-health approach, if my memory serves me right in characterizing it) — possibly a root of the differences in abortion rates which you mention? Might add an interesting further dimension to the discussion.

    1. Thanks, Mary. I am not familiar with the book your mention, but it sounds exactly to the point.

      I think the best approach for people who want fewer abortions in the U.S. is to seek to move us from a “rights-based” to a more European approach. This would probably require a sea-change in social philosophy for many people, but if they truly are more interested in saving what they consider to be human lives, they should be willing to pay that price.

  7. The abortion issue, as you say, is a volatile one. Not long ago, an NPR correspondent introduced a story on abortion, like other media stories have done, “…not since slavery has an issue divided so many people…”

    We weren’t around then, but the arguments appear to be similar:
    Is abortion/slavery a moral issue? A political issue? Civil rights / human rights / states rights issue?

    Re: Personhood: to be honest, it seems like questions about the ‘personhood’ of anyone, rather slaves or the unborn or terrorists or my unruly 19 year old grandson, are metaphysical at best. That’s why just going with science, the universal language seems more appropriate. No intellectually honest person who got a passing grade in biology can argue that the unborn are not ‘unique human individuals’ since they have their own unique DNA from the egg and the sperm at the moment of conception.
    Re: Legislation, without amendments and laws to protect the slave, slavery may not have diminished, or at least not diminished as quickly as it would have otherwise. Actually, we still have not eradicated it entirely since some forms still exist, whether it is in prison populations or ghettos in urban America. Laws against child abuse, bullying, rape, drunk driving, none of these have eradicated these things. But they have been severely lessened.
    Re: Prevention, absolutely. I attend a monthly death penalty vigil, and invariably somebody will yell out, “Why don’t you people just stop crime!” Of course we want to stop crime. But in the meantime, we can’t kill people.
    Re: Pacifism, it is more than an ‘ideology’ to me, but at the minimum it is an ideology. Like the worst case scenarios you discuss at the beginning of your essay on abortion, I hate it when somebody asks me if I would shoot a person who was raping my grandmother. Not to trivialize grandmothers being raped, but let’s talk about the reality of the thousands and thousands being killed with our bombs. The question in abortion is not what we will do in the exceptional situations, but what can we do with the other 99%. It takes courageous people to ask this question, and pacifists like ourselves need to be part of the dialogue. So thanks for this discussion.

    1. I appreciate your comments and affirmation, Carol. One further comment. I will say to you what I said above to my friend Joseph, who also bases his stance (apparently the opposite of yours) concerning the personhood of the fetus on science. I simply don’t think science is capable of answering this question. It’s a philosophical issue, not a scientific issue. “Personhood” is something we define. Science can tell us things about the DNA and the fingers and the heartbeat, et al, but it doesn’t tell us which of these makes a person a full human being.

  8. Rob asks, “But what about Jesus?”… continuing, “what distinctive theological or cultural resources does the Church bring to bear on the abortion question? E.g. how do specifically Christian convictions about the value of human life made in God’s image factor into your thinking on the issue? Or, what can the Church as a contrast society of ‘resident aliens’ offer in the way of resources to the pregnant woman unsure of where to go or whether she should welcome her child into the world rather than destroy it? Can we as the people of God surround her with all the love and support she needs? I’d love to hear your reflections on that question.”

    Thanks for the thoughtful questions, Rob. My first thought is that churches should work really hard at affirming the humanity of pregnant women, especially the most vulnerable among them. Whatever abortion reduction efforts that Christian support should always have at their heart compassion and genuine concern for the well-being of people who find themselves for whatever reason feeling inclined to take this incredibly serious step of terminating their pregnancy. If Christians can’t find it within themselves to offer such love and support unconditionally (even should she decide on an abortion) they are not being truly pro-life.

    Years ago, I had a period of serious reflection about abortion and came to the conclusion that whatever else, we should be respecting the inclinations of the people carrying the burden of these decisions. That is, we should trust that people contemplating abortion probably are doing so for sincere reasons and probably genuinely feel that that is the best option in their lives at that time.

    This is why the best approach seems clearly to be working to prevent unwanted pregnancies and to work toward a society where every pregnant woman does affirm the personhood of the emerging life in their womb from the beginning. Hence, the priority on a strong support system for pregnancy, childbirth, and childhood; sex ed; availability of birth control; and prevention of coercive sex. I also think that to be “like Jesus” Christians should echo his unconditional love and acceptance of the “sinful woman” who washed his feet with her tears—perhaps the analogous being parallel non-shaming of young women who become pregnant outside of marriage.

    There is something about the dogmatism in Bill Samuel’s comments here and in Mary Meehan’s article that you link to that doesn’t sit well with me. I’m not sure exactly what it is. It partly might be because I am ignorant of work of groups like Feminists for Life and Democrats for Life. But I feel like there is something not life-affirming in imagining the early fetus as a full human being. That seems abstract and ideological, not intuitive. I’m a parent and grandparent, and I have experienced an extremely deep sense of connection with these children from the time I know of their existence early in the pregnancies. But I would never have thought of them as actual children—more the promise of life. A miscarriage would have been terrible, but not on the same level as the loss of a child after birth.

    But I am sure there are folks like you who do both—affirm the full personhood of the early fetus and show genuine and active compassion for vulnerable pregnant women. But I haven’t seen it myself, and so I find myself a lot more inclined to see Jesus as present with the desperate young woman who feels she has no choice but an abortion than with the first-trimester fetus.

    1. Well there are thousands of pregnancy centers where Christians offer love and compassion to pregnant women and post-abortive women. This is the heart of the pro-life movement, and I believe well over $1 billion is donated to run these centers, plus millions of hours donated as most of the labor is volunteer. This doesn’t get near as much publicity as the political side, but it’s where the bulk of the resources go.

      Having compassion for those facing circumstances that seem desperate is essential. But it doesn’t really change the basic moral issues. We could also say we understand why many people feel wars are necessary, and we should have love and compassion, but that doesn’t mean we support the wars.

      I think perhaps you are also not understanding the pain and suffering experienced by women who have had abortions which can have enormous consequences for the rest of their lives. A compassionate approach would work to try to provide alternatives to these women which will forestall these very real effects.

      I was astonished at your comment about not seeing your unborn children as children. I have no children myself, but every parent I have known who has a child on the way that they welcome speaks of them as their children throughout the pregnancy.

      1. Bill, you caught me in a misstatement. What I meant to say is that I did not think of my child and grandchildren in the early weeks of the pregnancies as “actual full human beings.” I did indeed think of them as “children” in the sense, e.g., that my wife and I immediately came up with a name and we called what we considered a “baby” in her womb by that name. Likewise with the grandchildren.

        As I said, though, had my wife had a miscarriage we would have been brokenhearted and felt like was lost something beyond precious. But it simply would not have had the same impact if a born child had died.

        I do think genuine compassion for “those facing circumstances that seem desperate” does indeed “change the basic moral issues.” The problem with the kind of absolutism about abstract ideas that I sense in what you are saying is that you seem to separate the “basic moral issues” from the people involved. I think genuine compassion includes as a basic moral issue the respect for the decisions people is these situations feel they must make—even if we don’t agree.

        You are misunderstanding me if you think I am “supporting abortion” (remember, I say I want a world without abortion) or if you think I am saying anything that would imply I don’t want to do everything possible to take into account the traumas women who experience abortion have. That trauma is indeed a crucial reason to work at abortion reduction. But I don’t see how equating abortion morally with murder is going to help.

      2. Unfortunately, the software used here does not allow direct replies to what are already replies to replies. But this is a reply to Ted Grimsrud’s reply to me.

        This is not an abstract issue. It involves real people. In each case, it involves at a minimum at least two real people. What you seem to be saying, Ted, is that that one person should have all the power here including the power to determine whether the other person should even be considered a person! I have difficulty in seeing how that can be defended from a Christian perspective. It is my assumption that Christ calls us to a particular concern for those with the least power from the worldly perspective.

        Of course, I could be wrong in trying to assume a Christian perspective here since in rereading the original post I see no attempt to tie the viewpoint to a Christian perspective, which I guess was the main point of Rob’s original contribution here.

      3. This is a follow-up response to Bill Samuel’s comment: “This is not an abstract issue. It involves real people. In each case, it involves at a minimum at least two real people. What you seem to be saying, Ted, is that one person should have all the power here including the power to determine whether the other person should even be considered a person! I have difficulty in seeing how that can be defended from a Christian perspective. It is my assumption that Christ calls us to a particular concern for those with the least power from the worldly perspective.”

        Bill, in another post you mentioned my call for clear definitions and referred to Roe v. Wade. I am constrained to point out that when you say, “It involves real people. In each case, it involves at a minimum at least two real people.” you assign ‘peoplehood’ to a variety of human cells without spelling out the criteria of peoplehood nor to what configuration of human cells you would apply the term. My understanding is that in common usage the terms ‘people’ or ‘person’ refer to human beings who think, feel, and are capable of life beyond gestation. My question is, therefore, how do you define ‘person’ and ‘people?’ Would you assign that category to any human cell capable of mitosis? Or, do you reserve the term for a new combination of human DNA involving sperm and ova?

        It’s been some time since I read the Roe v. Wade decision and supporting arguments, but my recollection is that this was not a willy-nilly decision but that the Justices carefully examined the moral theology of the main religious traditions in our nation and sought to reach a decision that respected the best thought of those traditions. I find that a much better basis for determining what the law of the land shall be than the voting of persons who use the terms life and person interchangeably and are more influenced by unexamined preferences that careful moral reasoning.

        You address the issue that it involves “one person should have all the power here including the power to determine whether the other person should even be considered a person!” Is this not the essence of this moral decision that one is a person with the capability of decision, able to weigh the myriad factors of life that are involved? Explain to me how that somehow represents a moral conundrum that involves some evil.

        In conclusion, I cannot respond to your ideas until I understand your definitions.

      4. Looking at various dictionaries, I see person is generally defined as a human or as a living human. Ge neral dictionaries generally define human as a person. Circular definitions typical of general dictionaries.

        Going to definitions in biology online, we get a more helpful definition of human as “A bipedal primate belonging to the genus Homo, especially Homo sapiens.” It also references as related human development. Going there, I find it notes, “Human development covers the various stages of human life:” The first such stage is stated as “prenatal – from fertilization to birth.”

        I have deliberately used sources which are not involved in the abortion debate to get an objective view. My conclusion from these sources is that a person is a human from fertilization on. I believe this to be a non-political, objective definition.

      5. Bill, again I appreciate your response but find it necessary to clarify issues and respond to questions involved. I will try to do this in a way that also responds to Ted’s original post and to some of the other issues raised. I may not always go back to identify the specific persons—various persons espouse one viewpoint or another.

        I agree with your evaluation that the definition you found is a truism and doesn’t help with this issue. When ‘human,’ ‘human life,’ and ‘person’ are used interchangeably with equivalent valuation, the issue of pregnancy and abortion become muddled. I found the set of definitions at Dictionary.com to be more nuanced and helpful:

        1. a human being, whether man, woman, or child: The table seats four persons.
        2. a human being as distinguished from an animal or a thing.
        3. Sociology. an individual human being, especially with reference to his or her social relationships and behavioral patterns as conditioned by the culture.
        4. Philosophy. a self-conscious or rational being.
        5. the actual self or individual personality of a human being: You ought not to generalize, but to consider the person you are dealing with.

        #1 defines ‘person’ in the sense of ‘individual.’ I think ## 3 & 4 are most relevant for our discussion. Both of these understand personhood as involving consciousness and personality. They distinguish the referent from human cellular life and provide empirical criteria to be considered with regard to stages of gestational life and the moral considerations relevant thereto and the morality of decisions regarding post natal human beings. I think that Joe provided the clearest exposition of these elements of this discussion. RobertH in the first response confuses them by assigning the legal term ‘murder’ to actions that in the U.S. legal system are not murder.

        If I analyze Ted’s essay correctly, in his classes he seeks to open the students to new ways of thinking about categories and valuation. I have the temerity to suggest that in his proposal of an alternative, i.e., making abortions less frequent, he suggests a practical strategy to appease competing interests and does not address the ontological issue of whether abortion is morally acceptable or not. It’s a neat dodge! (And, I sincerely hope for Ted’s rebuttal on this one.)

        I follow this path in order to posit that the moral question is one of recognition and valuation. With regard to recognition, I would argue that any adequate approach needs to factor in Joe’s points about the biological reality of fertilization and fetal development and not attribute value that is not inherent or evident in the forms of human cellular life. These recognitions also play an important role in moral issues about stem-cell research and cloning.

        With regard to valuation, I would argue that the persons directly involved in the pregnancy have more moral authority for valuation than society. This was reflected in Ted and others who spoke of how they valued the knowledge of conception and the resulting fetus. I share that as my wife became pregnant with our children and we lived in anticipation of their birth. However, I believe that there are cases when human life that has become person as in the cancer case Ted mentioned or tubal pregnancy that the person may or must be more valued than the human life at a pre-personhood stage. Other considerations enter in cases of rape, incest, or deformed embryos. It seems to me that the victim of rape would not be able to attribute the same value to the fetus as do loving parents and grandparents. When I taught social ethics at a midwestern school of theology, a woman student struggled mightily with this question as a conservative evangelical and as a woman. She could not bring herself to condemn the woman for opting for the termination of a pregnancy resulting from the serious moral transgression of rape but neither was she able to conclude—as I’m inclined to do—that such a pregnancy could be terminated without guilt. Her conclusion was that the guilt belonged to the rapist, not the woman.

        I hope this helps to shed light on the issue if not providing an absolute answer, and I welcome critique of my thoughts.

    2. Thanks Ted. I know the Anabaptist in me was wondering where was Jesus in all that! I know I come at the abortion question primarily by means of my Christian pacifist convictions. To me, killing a human being for whatever reason, at whatever stage of development (fetal, infant, child, adolescent, adult, elder) is simply incompatible with the moral life of the follower of Jesus Christ. But in addition to the radical moral norms of the gospel that place that tremendous burden on us, the Christian has the added benefit of the community of faith so that we are never alone. That’s the brilliance of the Hauerwas article I linked to- if the Church would simply be the Church, and surround the pregnant woman with all the love and resources she needs to give birth and raise the child in community, THAT would be the greatest form of abortion-reduction (which you are absolutely right to seek) that could ever be accomplished. I’ve seen it done in my faith community, and it is a miracle to behold. So for me, the Christian moral imperative with respect to abortion is two-fold- (1.) Following the teaching and example of Jesus, to renounce all killing, including of the unborn child, as a means of solving our social problems and (2.) To love unconditionally the pregnant woman and her partner (if he’s in the picture), no matter the circumstances, no matter the cost, with our prayers, our friendship, and whatever material support she needs, whether she intends to keep the child herself or find him/her another loving home.

      My pro-life convictions have been strengthened by my research into the ethics of the ancient Church, some of which I’m sure you’re familiar with. Beginning as it did in the ancient Roman Empire, a society notorious for lack of respect for human life, the early Church maintained a strict pacifist stance with respect to abortion as well as war, rejecting the common cultural practices of infanticide and abortion. One very direct quote that is emblematic and representative of the early church ethic in this respect is from chapter two of the Didache (late 1st or early 2nd century)- ” And the second commandment of the Teaching; You shall not commit murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not commit pederasty, you shall not commit fornication, you shall not steal, you shall not practice magic, you shall not practice witchcraft, you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born.” For the early church, abortion and infanticide were two sides of the same coin. Or as Tertullian puts it “But with us, murder is forbidden once for all. We are not permitted to destroy even the fetus in the womb, as long as blood is still being drawn to form a human being. To prevent the birth of a child is a quicker way to murder. It makes no difference whether one destroys a soul already born or interferes with its coming to birth. It is a human being….” (Apology, chapter 9). I cite these not to win an argument or anything, but just to demonstrate that the early church considered the abortion/infanticide issue from within its overall pacifist moral framework, and I think we’d be wise to do the same. I thus come to the abortion question from the same perspective as my stance on Christian participation in war, capital punishment, or any other life and death issue: with perhaps a few very strictly defined exceptions (such as when carrying the pregnancy to term would seriously threaten the mother’s life or health) it’s just not right for the follower of Jesus to kill, period.

      By the way- this is a pretty personal matter for me, because my wife and I just learned we’re expecting our second child in June. Frankly, I already feel like a father of two, even though I’ve yet to meet my second one yet.

  9. I guess I’d also draw the analogy to war once more. If we don’t want wars to occur, then by all means, take all preventative measures possible to ensure that they don’t happen. But there will come a point when the person whose conscience has been formed by Christ will have to stand up and say “No, this is wrong, I will not participate in this. I will not support this, nor any war.” Dorothy Day was convinced that the only way that wars will finally cease is when everyone becomes a conscientious objector, when their consciences have been formed to realize the immorality of taking life on the battlefield or anywhere else.

    I think the same will hold true of abortion- we can and should employ all the important measures you suggest in your OP to reduce the perceived “need” for abortions and reduce their frequency. But Ted- the world without abortion you seek, which you mentioned in the OP, will never occur until people of conscience stand up and say “No, this is wrong! We will no longer condone nor justify the taking of another human life, in the womb, or elsewhere.” When it comes right down to it, as with war, only a broad-based conscientious objection to abortion (combined with robust and total support for pregnant women and their families) will result in a world without abortions.

  10. Ted–

    My first visit to EMU (then EMC) was more than 20 years ago to be part of a conference on Bioethics and the Beginning of Life from an Anabaptist perspective–actually more than one. The book (same title) from Herald Press includes articles still worth consulting.

  11. Rob, how could killing an unborn child possibly be acceptable if a pregnancy threatened the mother’s health? Health can be interpreted broadly. Being unhealthy doesn’t cause you to die. I don’t see how killing the baby can even be justified to save the mother’s life. Pacifists don’t even believe in killing someone who is deliberately attacking someone, so why kill an innocent baby? If a pregnancy threatens a woman’s life an equal effort must be made to save both mother an child,

  12. I know this is a very old post, but I stumbled upon it while reading recent news regarding overturning Roe vs. Wade, and I want to say this to you: thank you. I find your opinion thoughtful, compassionate, and refreshing.

    I was sexually abused in my youth, and I remember being 11 years old, googling how babies are made, and feeling terrified when I discovered I was at risk of becoming pregnant against my will. I very, very, very fortunately did not become pregnant, but many children in my situation do. I’ve shared my story and have had many conversations about abortion, and I’m frankly appalled at the amount of people who would condemn a violated child to carry an unwanted baby to birth.

    It is so easy to sit on a high horse proclaiming abortion is wrong, especially for those who aren’t in a difficult situation themselves. It’s important to offer not judgement and condemnation–but empathy and compassion–to those who get abortions. I agree that it is crucial to ask and understand, why do people seek abortions? What systemic changes can be made to reduce abortions in our society? Making abortions illegal is not an effective mitigation.

    I identify as both a pacifist and pro-choice; these beliefs *can* be rationally consistent.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Amanda. We indeed will be entering a season when thoughtful moral reflection on these issues will be more important than ever. I plan to share some further thoughts in this blog soon.

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