Last year saw the (unsuccessful) amendment vote instigated by Nadine Dorries MP to ensure that women considering an abortion are offered counselling that is independent from abortion providers. Christians are regularly told that opinions and views formed by faith should not influence public policy in the area of abortion.
But what if we can show that everyone has faith — from the parent requesting an abortion, to the doctor performing the abortion, to the policy-maker deciding on matters of legality?1 It seems to me that there are three levels of beliefs which impact the faith position that abortion is acceptable. My aim is to show that everyone brings their own faith to this difficult issue — and therefore that Christians have as much right as anyone else to air their views.
I am aware that this is a most sensitive issue. There may be readers of this article who have themselves been party to an abortion. Abortion is not the unforgivable sin. I am also aware that Christians will hold different views as to certain circumstances in which an abortion could be appropriate. Therefore I want to generalise the discussion: to the underlying societal beliefs which render abortion acceptable, and to the vast majority of abortions which are not initiated because of significant physical health risks to baby or mother.
This is an important discussion for us to have. Abortion has been confined to the prison of ‘private morality’ for too long; and as we saw in a previous issue2 there is no such thing as ‘private morality’ — just as there is no such thing as a ‘neutral public sphere’.
Superficial level: life’s beginning?
Viability: much discussion concerns the appropriate period from conception within which an abortion should be permitted. The current legal limit of 24 weeks is loosely based on an estimate of the point at which the foetus is ‘viable’ — able to exist independently of its mother. This definition of viability is entirely arbitrary. Is a one-year- old baby any more likely to survive without its mother than a 20-week-old foetus?
Personhood: another argument used in favour of abortion is that a foetus is only a ‘potential’ human being. A ‘person’ is defined according to what they are able to do, rather than what they are. But again, by this definition a one-year-old isn’t really a ‘person’ either.
Scientific and biblical evidence: the Bible is clear that life begins at conception.3 What is less well known is that the scientific evidence suggests the same. At conception, a new individual comes into existence with his own genetic code. After 21 days, his heart is beating. After 40 days his brainwaves can be recorded.4
The benefit of the doubt: even if there were any doubt about the beginning of life, the baby should be given the benefit of that doubt. Theologian John Frame uses the analogy of going on a hunting trip with a friend: ‘Imagine we separated at some place in the woods, then I saw a rustling in the bushes, and I raised my gun, thinking that my deer was in the vicinity. But the thought came to me, “What if the movement is not a deer, but my friend?” … On (the pro-choice principle) I would be free to shoot first and ask questions later.’5 The point is clear: if there was any doubt at all, you wouldn’t shoot.
Many encourage shooting anyway. Why? Because of the middle level of faith.
Middle level: women’s rights
I preached on abortion at church not so long ago. I sought to find a balance between truth-telling and pastoral sensitivity. But the church family were glad to hear a coherent case against abortion. In the sermon I referred to the comment by Antonia Senior in The Times: ‘You cannot separate women’s rights from their right to fertility control’.6 I suggested that effectively what is being said is that a woman’s right to an uncontrolled sex life is more important than a baby’s right to life. Harsh perhaps; but is it not fair? And surely no one can deny that this is a faith position?
But what about the man’s role? Space does not permit us to enter into a discussion of the faith commitments which mess up male-female relationships in our society. Suffice to say that for every woman seeking an abortion, there is a man who, at some point down the line, has not taken his responsibility seriously. We men must share the blame for the current tidal wave of abortion.
Deep level — freedom from God
In his excellent The Rage against God, Peter Hitchens makes the following suggestion regarding the motivation of some people in requesting an abortion: ‘I have often thought that the strange popularity of abortion among people who ought to know better has much to do with (the) sensation of lost control, of being pulled downwards into a world of servitude, into becoming our own parents. It is not the doomed baby that the unwilling parents hate… It is the life they might have to live if the baby is born’.7
This is clearly an argument which applies to a particular generation — Hitchens’s own generation — a generation which he blames for many of the nation’s current troubles.
Sadly, generations are now growing up, my own included, which don’t even think twice about an abortion. But the point is clear: our (sinful) imaginations decide what lifestyle we want to live and then, when obstacles arise (such as an unwanted pregnancy or a wife with whom we no longer feel ‘in love’), our intellect gets to work rationalising and justifying whatever we will need to do in order to remove those obstacles.
What greater example can there be of blind faith? For, outside of Christ, men and women are being driven by a false idea of what brings happiness and freedom. As God says through Jeremiah, with regard to apostate Israel: ‘My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water’.8We seek freedom and happiness. But we look in the wrong place. And what we thought would bring freedom and happiness brings bondage and despair — at a personal level, and at a national level.
Where do we go from here?
In thinking about a way forward, I am drawn to the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery.9 Christ refuses to condemn the woman — though he does call on her to repent. Contrast this with Jesus’s attitude to those who have wilfully rejected his teaching.10
Most of us do not have the opportunity to engage with beliefs at a societal level. But each of us rubs shoulders daily with people who have imbibed such beliefs: with women who have had abortions and with men who have been party to them through pressure or neglect. We need to show compassion to those who have sinned and are suffering the consequences. As we love them and care for them, we may find that their conscience has been softened by their experience.
As we analyse our local community to assess its underlying belief system, we will find a complex web of attitudes towards abortion. The challenge is to confront those who are hardened to the teaching of Scripture and science on this issue, while also continuing to provide compassionate care to those affected, through post-abortion counselling or other ministries.
Finally, there will be some readers who do have the opportunity to confront beliefs at the societal level. How encouraging it was to hear of the stand taken by Nadine Dorries MP and others like her in Parliament last year. As churches we must encourage and pray for those in positions of authority like hers, who have a real opportunity to influence faith and policy at a national level. And, as individuals, we can all write to the press and our government leaders. For everyone has faith — and who can say how destructive the accepted national belief system on this issue has been for humanity, and for the cause of the gospel, over the past 50 years?
Steve Wilcox is a vicar who ministers in West Hull.
1. For explanation of the use of ‘faith’ in this way, see my article in the November 2010 issue of Evangelicals Now, page 19.
2. January 2011 issue of Evangelicals Now; page 19.
3. This is perhaps clearest in Psalm 51.5. But see also Psalm 139.13, Luke 1.41, Job 31.15-18, Psalm 22.9.
4. Randy Alcorn, Pro-life answers to pro-choice arguments (Multnomah, 2000), pp.65-66.
5. John Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life (P&R, 2008), p.725.
6. Antonia Senior, ‘Yes, abortion is killing. But it’s the lesser evil’ (The Times, June 30 2010).
7. Peter Hitchens, The Rage against God (Continuum 2010), p.16.
8. Jeremiah 2.13.
9. John 8.1-11. I am aware that this story may not have been included in John’s original manuscript. However, it appears to me that even if it was not, the principles contained within it are clearly attested to by other parts of Scripture.
10. E.g. see Matthew 21.28-32,33-46; 23.1-39.