Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Abortion - part two

This is a follow-up to my previous post on abortion.  Since I wrote that I've had many conversations on the topic of abortion and these, plus further reading of the Bible, are helping me figure out what I ought to think about abortion.  I think I've finished my reading of the Bible on this topic for the moment: my next step will be do read about what the early church thought about abortion, and my conclusions are all provisional until I've done that.

I'd like to start with my findings thus far, then move on to my 'working' as to how I got there.
  • Killing of people is wrong, but killing of non-persons is fine.  Pro-choice people argue that the embryo is a non-person until a particular point of gestation (or until birth or even, in some cultures, for a period after birth - I'm thinking here of places where it's considered OK to 'expose' newborns), pro-life people argue that it is a person (generally right from conception).  Thus whether/when the foetus is a person seems to me to be the key question here;
  • God's work of creating a person starts before they are conceived, at least in some cases and possibly in all;
  • God is at work in the shaping of an foetus in the womb, as He is in all creation;
  • Pro-life Christians put great weight on God's work of creation in the womb as indicating that an foetus is a person (yet few seem to put similar weight on God's work of creation prior to conception indicating that the potential zygote is a person);
  • In at least some cases, people that God is in the process of creating aren't people until God puts life into them (I'm thinking here of Adam and the people in the Valley of Dry Bones);
  • Biblically, there is very little to indicate at what counts as 'alive'.  The only two things I know of is a couple of cases of people becoming 'alive' when they were given breath, and the idea that 'life is in the blood'.  I'm uncertain how to apply either of these to this question;
  • An embryo has value under Jewish law but not the same value/rights as someone who is born (although the text on which I base that is read by some people as saying that their value is not intrinsic but is in the opportunity which they represent to the parents);
  • We have people living amongst us who were born at little more than 20 weeks gestation and who seem indistinguishable from anyone else, so it seems that you are a person at least by 20 weeks gestation.  Twenty weeks also seems to be the stage at which New Zealand law currently considers a foetus a person: on the one hand you can (in certain circumstances) abort up to that stage, and on the other hand a foetus who dies beyond that stage is given a death certificate;
  • Around18,000 foetuses are aborted in New Zealand each year.  If you tighten up on abortion law you will save the lives of at least some of them (assuming they are alive).  However, 18,000 women in New Zealand each year have a pregnancy that they feel will cause them significant hardship.  If we tighten up abortion law, we need to have a good reason, as that means we'll be imposing what they see as significant harship on those women;
  • Quite a few people have suggested to me that, in various circumstances, abortion is the lesser of two evils.  One person cited Matthew 18:6, saying that it would be a lesser sin for a person to send a foetus back to God than to bring them into an environment where they would be inevitably be turned away from God.  I'm uncertain about the truth of this;
  • Strong people have a responsibility to care for the vulnerable.  Living out your life within someone else's body puts you in a very vulnerable position;
  • Our society strongly values having control over our own lives, and this value is held especially tightly amongst the more 'advantaged' sectors of our society.  I suspect most abortions are carried out (and most contraception is used) in an effort to take control of one's own life.  This is not a Christian value and is not a good reason for a Christian to engage in either practise.
From all of this, I think there isn't good evidence to argue that abortion is definitely always wrong and akin to murder (at least before the point at which life can be sustained outside the womb - which seems to currently be considered 20 weeks).  I think it would definitely be wrong to abort a foetus byond that point.  Before that point, however, I'm unsure of the rights and wrongs so I'm unwilling to change the law to prevent it, especially given the perceived hardship it'd impose on a lot of women.  However, I think Christians should approach both contraception and abortion with great caution: there may well be reasons where practising either would be a godly thing to do*, but to simply do them in order to take control of your life is inappropriate.

* I'm using contraception so as to not bring into the world a child for whom we could not care (due to my medical situation).  Thus far, I still think that that's OK, although I want to think and pray about it some more since I've started this project.

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So, that's where I've got to thus far.  Here's how I got there!

The main thing I'm trying to establish is whether the Bible, Christian tradition etc. see the foetus as a live human being.  This seems to me to be the key question to answer as it is the fundamental thing on which the classic pro-life and pro-choice advocates disagree.  If the foetus is a live human right from conception then obviously abortion is wrong: killing people is wrong, and to kill one in such a position of vulnerability is particularly egregious.  If, on the other hand, it is a tissue in which a biological process is occuring that will eventually result in a child then its right to protection seems much less clear.

I've yet to personally look into the question of whether the early church was emphatically anti-abortion but a theologian of my acquaintance, Mark Keown, assures me that they were.  He recommends Michael Gorman's book Abortion and the Early Church to find out more about this and I'm hoping to get a friend to get it out of the Laidlaw library soon and find out what it says.

But what else have I found found from the Bible in relation to my main question?

The texts mentioned in my previous post covered:
  • David speaking of himself as being a sinner from conception;
  • God knowing and/or chosing people before birth;
  • God making people in the womb;
  • God telling people they were going to conceive;
  • children engaging in prophetic acts in the womb.
I then searched in the NRSV in Bible Gateway for all occurences of the words conceived, womb, chose/chosen, elect and destined/destiny/predestined.  I was looking for examples of how writers in the Bible seemed to see the foetus and when they saw a person as being created.  I dismissed any examples that seemed to illustrate the points made in the texts covered in my previous post: I was looking for new perspectives/information.
  • Both Job and Jeremiah wished that they had never been born ( Job 3:10-11, Job 10:18, Jeremiah 20:17-18).  That could mean that they wished they had never existed and they saw birth as when existence began but it could also mean that they wished that they had never experienced the suffering that comes with living in the world and that birth is the point at which they entered the world.
  • Isaiah speaks of himself as being sustained by God in the womb (Isaiah 46:3).  This is similar to the many references to people being formed in the womb but is perhaps a little stronger.
  • Isaiah speaks of himself as being called by God before birth (Isaiah 49:1)
  • Paul speaks of Christians (at least himself and those living in Ephesus at that time) as having been chosen by God to be holy and blameless before the creation of the world (Ephesians 1:4)
  • The whole people of Israel is referred to repeatedly throughout the Old and New Testaments as a people chosen by God.  There may be some significance to my question in that this includes zillions of people who weren't even conceived at the time God chose Abraham and his descendants for this role.
  • Bible Gateways threw up 18 New Testament references to Christians being the 'elect', i.e. those who were chosen.  There is nothing in any of the texts to explicitly indicate when they were chosen but my understanding of the theology of electionis that it is generally taken as happening before creation.
  • Similarly, looking at references to things to do with 'destiny' throws up things like Acts 13:48 ("as many as had been destined for salvation became believers") as well as other bits of Ephesians 1:3-14 (which used the 'before the foundation of the world' phrase in verse 4 and so suggests that all of Paul's references to being destined probably also refer to this having been sorted out before creation) and the rather special case of Jesus.
One further example I found from something I was reading for our homegroup Bible study:
  • The writer to the Hebrews says that, in a sense, Levi (Abraham's great-grandson) was present at an event that Abraham was present at because he was within Abraham's loins at the time (Hebrews 7:9-10).
And, lastly:
  • a smattering of people in the Bible (Zechariah, Abram, Mary) were told that they would have children before they were conceived.
And of course there's Exodus 21:22-25, which seems to me to say pretty clearly that destroying a foetus is a lesser evil than killing someone already born.  Kind of relatedly, several people responded to my previous post by saying that they thought that various children would have been better off if they'd been aborted before birth, but wouldn't even consider that it might be appropriate to murder those kids now they're born.  It seems that many people instinctively feel that a baby isn't quite human/alive until it's born and treat the two a bit differently.

All of that has been looking at the problem from one end: trying to figure out how early on a foetus becomes a live human being and hence the beneficiary of the protections that entails.  What about looking at it from the other end?  There are plenty of cultures that seem to see a baby after birth as still not having full 'human' status.  I gather that, in the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus, 'abortion and exposing infants' were often discussed in one breath: i.e. killing a foetus and killing a newborn had the same moral status.  What about the Bible: is there any indication that a newborn was ever considered not fully human?

I have thought of one thing that may indicate this, although I'm no expert and it's far from definitive!  In the Jewish law, a baby boy was to be circumcised on the 8th day after birth.  Circumcision was the sign of being part of God's people.  I don't know, but maybe he wasn't part of God's people until then?  Was he a person at all?  It seems a bit of a stretch, but I still wonder if it may have some significance in this direction as circumcision is a pretty minor and simple procedure so I wonder why else they waited so long.  However I know of absolutely no evidence suggesting that any Jew considered it OK to expose a baby less than 8 days old so this delay before circumcision probably relates to something else.

The last angle from which I've looked at the problem is: what does the Bible say it takes to make someone 'alive'.

Firstly, there are two stories of people being formed by God (just like God forms a foetus in the womb) but them not becoming alive until God gave them breath.  The first is the story of the creation of Adam and the second is the story of the valley of the dry bones in Ezekiel.  So could it be that a foetus becomes alive when it is able to breathe?  You could take this as being when it is born, or you could take it back to the point where its lungs are sufficiently formed that breathing would be possible, or you could take both stories as being metaphorical and having no bearing on the question!

Secondly, the Bible is big on life being 'in the blood'.  That's why the Jewish food laws forbade them from eating blood, and this was seen as such an important principle that it's one of the very few Jewish laws that the Council of Jerusalem in the book of Acts said that non-Jewish converts to Christianity still had to follow.  So could it be that the foetus becomes alive when it starts making it's own blood?  I gather that this isn't a clear developmental point (plus it seems a bit wierd to argue that the Bible teaches that a foetus becomes alive at a point that there's no way the Bible's writers could have known about) so I don't know if there's anything one can do with this thought but I've included it as it feels like something that may have some relevance...

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Next step: get hold of that book on abortion in the early church and commission Martin to read it for me :-).  As ever, thank you for reading through this.  I'd appreciate hearing your thoughts on it all.

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