Abortion - part one
This is a super-long post: in no way a 'little note'! However, if you do have time to read it through and comment on it I'd be very appreciative: this is stuff I'm trying to think through and I value the contributions of my community in helping me do that :-)
[Updated 19/7/2014 to say most Christians are pro-life, not pro-choice. It's good to know that at least one reader got far enough through to be surprised at that statement.]
The Green Party recently released its policy on abortion, which basically consists of wanting abortion to be available to any woman who wants it. You can read the full text towards the bottom of this page.
My initial response was twofold:
- 'Good on them'. Our current abortion system is a huge mess. Nominally you can only get an abortion if the pregnancy causes serious danger to the woman's life, mental health or physical health; if there is a foetal abnormality; if the pregnancy was as the result of incest by a parent or guardian or if the woman is mentally subnormal (source). Most abortions are carried out under the 'serious danger to mental health' condition. However, on the one hand, pretty much anyone who wants an abortion appears to be able to claim that the pregnancy causes 'serious danger to mental health': so in many ways what the Greens are asking for is what we already have. Yet, on the other hand, abortions are completely unavailable in many parts of New Zealand: even in some reasonably substantial centres like Invercargill. This policy would change the current situation into one of 'one law for all', rather than one where you have abortion on demand in Auckland but abortion only for the very resourceful (and reasonably well off) in Greymouth and Invercargill. So I like the way the Greens are putting on the table how messy the current situation is, and I like the justice aspect of the way it would even up access.
- Despair. The Greens are the party whose policies most coincide with my own values: values which I see as coming out of my faith. I would like many other Christians to vote Green, but I feel that this now just won't happen: this policy will make them so negatively disposed towards the Greens that they won't see the good that is there.
My 'official' position is the mainstream Christian one: the foetus is a full human being and deserves to be treated as such, and deliberately killing it is murder. But is that what I actually believe at an instinctual level? Here are some 'case studies' of my own response to various situations that might shed some light on what I really think.
- In recent years three close friends of mine have experienced miscarriages. I was sad for each of them and did various things to try and support them in that situation. However, all three also have 'born' children. When I think about how I would feel if any of them lost one of those children, I think I would feel it was a far greater tragedy than the loss of their unborn child.
- When I think about the process of abortion I kind of want it to be really inaccessible, so that as few women as possible will choose it. However, I feel that there are women who are going to have abortions no matter how inaccessible they are (after all, people went to back-street abortionists, despite the huge physical danger to themselves of doing so and the pain and awfulness of the process), and for those women I want the process itself to be as non-traumatising as possible. This is quite different from how I feel about the killing of people who have already been born: there may well be people who want to murder other people no matter what, but I don't strive for that process to be non-traumatising for them, I strive for them to be stopped!
- Two friends of mind gave birth to stillborn children: children who were very close to term at the time they died. These children were both named, in a way that no one I know has named a miscarried child (i.e. one that died much earlier in gestation). Similarly, we know some people who had many miscarriages and then had a live-born child who died in the first few weeks of her life. None of those miscarried children where named but the one who was live-born was named and is buried in a proper grave.
- Some friends of ours who are unable to have children who are biologically their own have instead 'adopted' someone else's excess IVF embryos, had them implanted and given birth to them. I think it's neat that those embryos have had a chance to develop into babies through this process. However, it doesn't feel wrong to me that many other excess IVF embryos are simply destroyed.
Based on that, I guess my ideal policy would probably be to have abortion available BUT restricted to cases where the pregnancy would cause serious harm to the mother: i.e. not unlike the letter of our current law but quite unlike current practise!
So that's where I seem to be now. That leads to the question: what should I believe? These are attitudes I have inherited from the society around me (both the church and the largely non-Christian surrounding culture) and are the attitudes I have now, but what does the Bible say?
So far as I can tell, the Bible says nothing directly about killing unborn children. However, there are a pair of texts that seem to shed some light on the situation:
When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelites, and say to them: When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, so that a slayer who kills a person without intent may flee there. The cities shall be for you a refuge from the avenger, so that the slayer may not die until there is a trial before the congregation.
The cities that you designate shall be six cities of refuge for you: you shall designate three cities beyond the Jordan, and three cities in the land of Canaan, to be cities of refuge. These six cities shall serve as refuge for the Israelites, for the resident or transient alien among them, so that anyone who kills a person without intent may flee there.
My reading of these is that, if you accidentally kill an unborn child, you have to pay a fine; but if you accidentally kill someone already born then you are yourself to be killed unless you up sticks and move to a designated place where you will be given asylum. That makes me think that killing an unborn child is identified a bad thing, but not as bad a thing as killing someone already born: it's not of no importance, but it is of lesser importance.
It seems plausible to me that this reading could be applied across to deliberate killing. Doing so, it seems to me that the deliberate killing of an unborn child is likely also a lesser offence than the deliberate killing of someone already born. That would mean that abortion was bad but that it wasn't the same as murder. That seems to be consistent with the position I currently hold, as stated above.
However, not everyone reads the Exodus text the same way, and their readings lead them to quite different conclusions from mine.
Firstly, some Christians take it to mean that it is an offence to cause the death of someone else's unborn child not because of the inherent value of that unborn child but because, in doing so, you are taking away from them the possiblity of having that child. To put it in terms economists use, you are imposing an opportunity cost on them. As that isn't the case when you make the decision to kill your own unborn child they see nothing wrong with choosing to abort your own foetus.
On the other hand, some Christians say that the Exodus text lays out two penalties: the fine for causing a premature birth then the 'eye for an eye' etc. for any injury that causes the infant - right through to death for the perpetrator if the baby dies. I had read the 'eye for an eye' etc. bit as relating to injury to the woman and the fine being for causing the premature birth.
This reading feels much less plausible to me than either my own or the 'pro-choice' one outlined above. In situations where things like strict hand hygiene and kangaroo care aren't practised today (things that were unknown when this text was written), babies born even a few weeks premature simply don't survive. It thus seems extraordinarily unlikely to me that a baby in this situation would survive, so it doesn't make sense to me that the law would include a provision for what to do depending on what condition the baby was in. I think that that it is much more logical to apply that section to the woman than the infant, although I do acknowledge that it's not 100% clear.
However, most Christians are strongly pro-life, and they base that position on a variety of texts: not just the pair I've already mentioned. To look at these, I'll focus on the points made on this website Martin recently came across:
- They note that unborn children are referred to in the Bible as 'children' or 'babies' and so conclude that they shouldn't be treated any differently from children or babies already born. This feels weak to me. That just feels to me like they were just using 'normal' rather than 'scientific' language - and in a context where 'scientific' language may not even have been available for use anyway.
- They note that intentional killing is murder and is strongly prohibited in Scripture. That seems significant, but only once we can figure out what a person is. After all, it's not like all intentional killing is a problem: killing of animals is actually encouraged, it's just the killing of people that is murder.
- They note that the Bible prohibits inflicting punishment on children for the sins of their parents and so state that it isn't appropriate to abort a baby because it was conceived through rape, incest etc. This point feels important to me as we consider on what grounds abortion should be allowed.
- Psalm 51:5 refers to David as being a sinner from conception so they conclude he must have been a person from conception.
- One that speaks of God knowing someone before they were conceived (Jeremiah 1:5) and a couple more that speaks of them being chosen before birth (Romans 1:9, Galatians 1:15)
- A great many texts which I can't see the relevance of that speak of God making people (sometimes referring to them being made in the womb) and, in the case of Jesus, referring to him being conceived by God: Psalm 119:73, Psalm 139:13-16, Job 10:8-12, Job 31:13-15,
- Several that refer to people being told they were going to conceive. Again, I can't see the relevance of these to whether or not it is wrong to kill an unborn baby, but the texts are Matthew 1:18-20, Judges 13:3-5,
- Three that refer to children engaging in prophetic acts in the womb (Genesis 25:22, Hosea 12:2-3, Luke 1:39-44)
So, what do I make of these texts?
The one where David refers to himself as having been a sinner from conception is one of the more convincing ones: something that's not yet a person can't be a sinner. But it's poetry, not argument, so it's hard to know whether he's using a poetic device to state hat he's been a sinner from his earliest days or whether he actually means that he thinks he was a person from conception. The ones that speak of people being known and/or chosen before birth are similar. They could just mean 'from my earliest days' but they could also literally mean 'from before birth', and in this case they're generally not poetry so I find it easier to take them literally.
The ones that speak of God making people don't seem to me to shed any light on whether or not a foetus is a person. I mean, a farmer who wants to make milk sows grass in a paddock and then brings cows over to graze it, but it's not milk until the cow's actually turned it into milk. Similarly, God is definitely making a person when an embryo is conceived and grows, but that doesn't mean it's a person yet.
However, both those texts and the ones that speak of God telling people they were about to conceive do give me some pause: not because they state that the foetus is a person, but because they state that it's God's work, and interfering in God's work is always a bad idea.
Lastly, the three that refer to children engaging in prophetic acts in the womb: two that refer to Jacob and Esau struggling with each other before birth and one that speaks of John the Baptist leaping in Elizabeth's womb when Mary came to visit.
At first these seemed to me the strongest of all because they referred to children acting, and acting in accordance with God's will, before birth. Yet what is the significance of that? After all, God caused Balaam's donkey to act in a certain way to confirm what He was doing: is that really any different from what each of these children were doing? The donkey didn't confirm itself to be a person by what it did: it was just something God used as his agent. Are these babies any different?
So these texts give me pause in that they make me think that God could well have a purpose for a person that he's in the process of building (and interfering with God's purposes is definitely wrong), but they don't really seem to offer any challenge to what I concluded from the earlier Exodus text, i.e. that a foetus isn't quite a person yet and so doesn't have quite the same rights.
Yet, I gather that throughout church history, Christians have tended to be very strongly anti-abortion. Why? I don't know, but I guess that finding out should be my next step. I can think of two potential reasons from my reading/thinking so far:
- As mentioned earlier, it's interfering with God's purposes (similar to the Catholic argument against contraception);
- The Bible makes it clear throughout that everyone is hugely precious to God and made in His image so should be protected. That seems to run counter to my reading of Exodus 21:22-25, but maybe that means I've got that reading wrong?