Friday 18 July 2014

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:
  1. '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.
  2. 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.
However, as I thought about it more, a third response developed: what do I personally think about abortion?

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.
  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
Looking at these examples, it seems that, whilst I don't see the foetus as 'just a clump of cells', I don't see it as quite as valuable as someone who's been born either.  Also, I seem to see a foetus as having increasing importance/value/personhood as gestation advances (e.g. I don't mind IVF embryos being destroyed but it seems appropriate to me to name a child who dies near-term).  I seem to see it as a proto-person whose humanity increases as birth approaches.

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.
In the sidebar they go through a series of individual texts:
  • 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:
  1. As mentioned earlier, it's interfering with God's purposes (similar to the Catholic argument against contraception);
  2. 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?
That's basically where I'm at now.  Thank you so much for reading this: I'd be very grateful for any comments you have that might help me think this through.  Before I quite finish, though, I'd like to make one last point.  My thinking so far has led me to think that abortion should, on the whole, become less available than it currently is in New Zealand.  Many other Christians think it shouldn't be available at all.  In order to move to a world where that is possible, I feel that one big thing needs to change: hospitality.  Have a read of this post by a friend-of-a-friend, where the author reflects on possiblities of a society that welcomes in those children who result from unplanned pregnancy.  I'd love to see New Zealand move more in those directions.

1 comment:

  1. A very interesting read, Heather. I got your letter and have been pondering my own stance. My stance comes more from a non-Christian perspective, although I've been interested reading what the bible has to say. I was wondering if the bit quoted from Exodus was directly from God speaking or someone's owns thoughts on the matter?? Reason I ask is that I 100% am anti the death penalty unless there is no other option at all to prevent further harm to others (ie, no chance whatsoever of rehabilitation of the perpetrator).

    For me, I am really struggling with this new stance from the Green's. It pains me to say it, but I feel so strongly about this topic that I may not be able to vote for them for the first time in my life this year. Which will be a real shame given they have so many great policies, this country really needs. I understand their reasoning for change, however I don't agree with the way they want that implemented.

    I agree that in some cases abortion needs to be more accessible. However it's so easy to get signed off in most cases, I have real concerns that as people we are very quick to make (what I see as a very HUGE decision) choices about unborn children's lives. Being pregnant is stressful even when you want to be, we go through so much change, emotionally and physically and it can at times be overwhelming. I can only imagine then how traumatising it would be for someone who's not in the right place in their life to find themselves pregnant. But we underestimate ourselves as to how much we can indeed cope with and adapt to, however inconvenient.

    But I believe abortion has its place. Some women are unsafe when they find themselves pregnant, for a host of reasons, incl risk to their own lives. Are we OK to make a decision that the woman can die if the pregnancy proceeds? We were faced with some tricky thoughts about this when we were due our 12 week scan. What would we do if there was something pretty majorly wrong with the baby? A pregnant Christian friend said they'd have the baby no matter what. However the cost to the system of having a child with major high needs means that money that could potentially save a 5 or 10 year old's life would be redirected to give aide to the child with the major disability. I felt really stuck. Would I be making a decision about someone's life no matter what I did (if the baby was found to be abnormal)? Would I be comfortable in saying to myself "oh well, it will be someone in the MOH's job to make that decision about where funding goes, so I'm off the hook?" I really began to see how it's not clear cut and thankfully everything was fine with this baby (so far).

    I have real issues with no sign off being required before 20 weeks. I know it's impossible to figure out when a human is a human and that comes down to all sorts of personal belief. Some cultures don't believe the person is "human" until the soul enters the body at birth. Some believe it's a human from the cell stage. Someone has to make the draw the line somewhere and that's tricky. It opens a huge debate about what makes a person a person and when this happens. I recall Isaac Asimov giving a good talk on this but I can't find the link unfortunately.

    I like your friend of a friend's blog post about alternatives and I think alternatives should be part of the answer to this problem. I think abortion is symptomatic of wider issues I'd rather see addressed by the Green's. And making abortion more accessible without making light of the fact that it is indeed a life.

    I feel that where a woman 'can', a woman 'should' give birth. The 'should' needs to be made more a point of, I believe. People are begging for children to adopt, or to bring up in relation with the mother. These were not even options discussed with the many people I know who have had abortions.

    Sorry for the ramble, I probably haven't added much to this!!