100 Answers in 100 Days

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Sharing answers to the various questions of faith I have faced, and which others have been challenged with also.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

#89: Is abortion always wrong?

In our society abortion is a legal option for a woman; the termination of a pregnancy by killing the fetus inside of her. Women have all kinds of reasons for wanting an abortion, and whilst some of those reasons are just plain selfish, we can often be faced with reasons that appear perfectly justifiable. In asking today's question, I want to make the assumption that abortion is, indeed, wrong. What I'm asking is whether it is always wrong. But it seems to me that for many people, we need to first straighten out that initial assumption. Why is abortion wrong at all?

When we ask ourselves why an embryo has as much right to life as a “born” human, we run into all kinds of questions to do with what makes any person worthy of life at all. There is a common apologetic, for example, which reads something like this:

A woman is pregnant. She suffers from tuberculosis, her husband from syphilis. One of their children is blind, one is deaf, and one suffers from syphilis. Another is dead in his childhood. What should she do? Abortion? Great, you've killed Beethoven.

This is a very well known citation you may have seen before. But besides the fact that most of this information about Beethoven's family is false, it's really making a terrible argument in the first place. It seems to be saying that Beethoven's life was worth keeping because of the musical genius that he was. This is not how we ought to think at all. All human life is valuable in God's eyes, whether that person contributes to society or not. A baby, when it comes out of the womb, cannot contribute anything to society but is entirely dependent upon its parents. Yet we would not murder that child. The reason we like abortion is because we don't see a human figure being killed. We can tell ourselves that it is not the same thing. But I’ve seen the heartache of enough women who have suffered miscarriages to know that those women saw that embryo for the child it was. Of course, these women wanted a child. It’s when a woman doesn’t want the child that she begins to reason that it was “just a clump of cells”. This is precisely what justifies any murder; the dehumanising of people, seeing them as inferior or not even human at all. On the other hand, some women get an abortion out of what they see as necessity; perhaps they can’t afford to raise a child. These women do tend to suffer emotionally over the loss of the child because they know it was a human life.

Leviticus 18 is a chapter to do with sexual sins; what people ought not to do sexually. It includes forbidding incest and adultery. But in the midst of all this, there is a verse which might seem out of place...

You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD. (Leviticus 18:21)

In the midst of all of these sexual prohibitions, we read about a sin of idolatry; the offering of children to the idol Molech. How does this fit the context? The way that children were offered to Molech was to place them in the arms of the bronze idol and then burn a fire underneath the statue until the child was incinerated. The reason this relates to the passage is that through sexual immorality, many unwanted pregnancies would occur. The people could see this “offering to Molech” any way they wanted, but the plain truth of the matter is that it would be the murder of children born as a result of their sexual promiscuity. It was their form of abortion. In that pagan religion, making an offering to this idol would have been a noble and justifiable thing to do. But frankly it was murder. And thankfully, to this day few people aren't shocked by it.

But what about some of these hard cases? What if carrying the child to term will probably kill the mother? Well, there are difficult moral dilemmas like this one, and we need to carefully think through such things. This short blog post isn’t going to address every scenario. For me, this is one case where I don’t think the abortion would be considered murder, because it’s not out of hatred or a devaluing of the child’s life that we would abort. Rather, we’re trying to save a life. But it's not a simple matter to judge.

Hard cases are only hard because they cause a conflict between two values that a person holds. I recall a passage in Richard Dawkin's book “The God Delusion” which reads, “Even resisting rape could be represented as murdering a potential baby (and, by the way, there are plenty of 'pro-life' campaigners who would deny abortion even to women who have been brutally raped).” Now, Dawkins' just assumes his readers will be appalled by the idea that rape victims aren't justified in having an abortion. He doesn’t even seem to view it as a hard case. But let's think; if my mother was raped, is that my fault? Should I suffer for the evil of some other man? This justification seems to be based more on the fact that the woman’s right to choose when and with whom she will become pregnant has been violated. So this may be seen as a hard case because it causes a conflict between two values; the preservation of life and the right to choose whether to become pregnant. Well, the choice to become pregnant is every couple’s right; but it doesn’t outweigh the moral obligation to respect and preserve a life that now exists. Rape is an evil, and we ought to resist evil. But denying the possibility of conception by resisting rape is nothing like terminating an existing life. Likewise, a couple has every right to choose whether or not to have a child, but that’s different from exercising that choice at the expense of killing an unwanted child after conception. Even a child borne of rape should be wanted because it is a human being made in the image of God. A right set of basic values will often resolve these “hard cases”. People cannot justify terminating an unwanted child because no child should ever be unwanted.

But what if the mother falls pregnant and cannot afford the child? Of course, if she had any control over it, she ought not to have fallen pregnant knowing she could not afford to raise a child. Perhaps she has brought this upon herself? But sometimes even contraception fails. We often find ourselves burdened by the needs of others. Many of us will some day face the financial burden of caring for our elderly parents. But of course, we would not kill them to alleviate the problem. Rather, as the Bible says, we should “bear one another’s burdens.” I know of a girl who became pregnant at the age of 17. She was urged to keep the child by her mother, and when the baby was born she was overwhelmed by the love and kindness of family, friends and the Church. This was both a witness to her of the truth of Christian love, and prevented her from doing something which she now says would have been the greatest regret of her life.

Finally the other most common, seemingly justifiable reason for abortion, is when the child will be mentally or physically impaired. Again, we need to be careful that we're not more worried about the inconvenience of this to the parents. The inconvenience you suffer should have no bearing on the matter; just as I cannot kill my annoying neighbour for continually borrowing and never returning, regardless of how "inconvenient" I find that to be. But we might genuinely say that our concern is for the life of the child. We think that because we could not tolerate the quality of life they'll have that they should rather be dead. But I wonder if such parents have ever spoken to a mentally or physically impaired person before and asked them whether they'd rather be dead? They don't, typically. And in any case, don't suicidal tendencies run even amongst the healthy and wealthy? I don't think disability is really the ultimate reason behind wanting to die. All life is valuable to God, and God has entrusted to us all a solemn responsibility as parents to take care of our children and bring them up to be men and women of faith.

Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward. (Psalms 127:3)

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