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Six vital questions about abortion

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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On January 22, 2021, Vice President Kamala Harris marked the forty-eighth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the tragic Supreme Court decision that discovered a right to abortion in the US Constitution, by stating, “We recommit ourselves to ensuring that everyone has access to care—including reproductive health care.” Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee responded with the tweet, “Abortion isn’t healthcare,” and encouraged others to donate $48 to a pro-life clinic. 

This is just the beginning of the war on the unborn that we can expect across the coming years. 

It is estimated that last year: 

  • Communicable diseases killed more than 13 million people.
  • About 8.2 million lost their lives to cancer.
  • Nearly 5.1 million died as a result of smoking.
  • Some 2.5 million died from alcohol abuse.
  • More than 1.8 million died of coronavirus.
  • Road traffic accident fatalities took 1.4 million lives.
  • Suicides were responsible for nearly 1.1 million deaths.

By contrast, more than 42 million preborn babies died by abortion in 2020, 9 million more than all these causes combined. 

1. What does the Bible say about abortion?

The word abortion appears nowhere in the Bible. No one in the Bible is ever described as having an abortion, encouraging one, or even dealing with one. The Bible says nothing which specifically addresses our subject.

And so many have concluded that the issue is not a biblical concern but a private matter. They say that we should be silent where the Bible is silent.

“Pro-life” advocates counter that by this logic we should be silent regarding the “Trinity” since the word never appears in Scripture. Or “marijuana” and “cocaine” since they are not in a biblical concordance. However, these issues came after the biblical era, while abortion was common in the ancient world. So this argument doesn’t seem relevant.

If abortion is a biblical issue, why doesn’t the Bible address it specifically? The answer is simple: the Jewish people and first Christians needed no such guidance. It was an undeniable fact of their faith and culture that abortion was wrong.

While the Bible does not use the word abortion, it contains a number of texts that relate directly to the beginning of life and the value of all persons. Let’s look briefly at the most pertinent passages.

Genesis 2:7

The Bible describes man’s creation in this way: “In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up–for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground–then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:4-7).

It seems that Adam did not become a “living being” until he could breathe. And so some believe that a fetus is not a “living being” until it can breathe outside the mother’s womb. Until this time it is not yet a person. President Bill Clinton explained his pro-choice position as based significantly on this logic. He said that his pastor, W. O. Vaught, former pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, told him that this was the literal meaning of the text.

There are three problems with this argument.

  • Adam was an inanimate object until God breathed into him “the breath of life,” but we know conclusively that a fetus is animate from the moment of conception.
  • The fetus breathes in the womb, exchanging amniotic fluid for air after birth.
  • Adam in Genesis 2:7 was a potential life even before he became a human being. By any definition, a fetus is at the very least a potential human being. We’ll say more about this fact in a moment.

Psalm 139

One of David’s best-loved psalms contains this affirmation:

“For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed” (Psalm 139:13-16).

David clearly believed that God created him in his mother’s womb and “beheld my unformed substance” before he was born. “Pro-life” theologians point to this declaration as proof that life is created by God and begins at conception.

Of course, those who do not accept the authority of Scripture will not be persuaded by this argument. And some who do believe that David’s statement is poetic symbolism rather than scientific description. He is simply stating that he is God’s creation, without speaking specifically to the status of a fetus.

Jeremiah 1:5

As part of God’s call to the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord issued this declaration: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). God clearly formed Jeremiah in the womb and “knew” him even before that time. He “consecrated” or called him to special service even before he was born. God’s plan for Jeremiah began before his conception and his birth.

It’s hard for me to see how those who accept biblical authority could make a “pro-choice” response to this statement. I suppose they could claim that the verse is symbolic and spiritual, not scientific, that it is a metaphorical description of God’s eternal plan for Jeremiah. But the text seems to be specifically related to Jeremiah’s conception and gestation.

Luke 1:39–45

Luke’s gospel records the visit of the pregnant Mary to the pregnant Elizabeth: “In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (Luke 1:39-45).

When Elizabeth said that “the child in my womb leaped for joy” (v. 44), she made clear the fact that her “fetus” was a fully responding being. She used the word brephos, the Greek term for baby, embryo, fetus, newborn child, young child, or nursing child. It is the same word used to describe Jesus in the manger, where the shepherds “went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger” (Luke 2:16).

Paul used the word in reminding Timothy “how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15). The Bible makes no linguistic distinction between the personhood of a human being, whether before or after its birth.

(For more, read “What does the Bible say about abortion?“)

2. I don’t believe in God or the Bible, so why should I accept its teachings on when life begins?

But what if a person doesn’t believe in God, or what the Bible says about life? Why should that person oppose abortion?

Protecting the rights of the individual is the state’s first responsibility. No moral state can overlook murder, whatever the personal opinions of those who commit it. The state is especially obligated to protect the rights of those who cannot defend themselves.

But what of the claim that legislation must always reflect the clear will of the majority and protect the public welfare?

The collective will of the culture must never supersede what is right and wrong.

Nonetheless, we ban it because its harmful effects are clear to medical science. The effects of abortion on a fetus are obviously much more disastrous to the fetus. And just because society is unclear as to when life begins does not mean that the question is unknowable.

If more of the public understood the physical and ethical issues involved in abortion, the large majority would consider abortion to be a threat to public welfare. Abortion threatens the entire community in three ways:

  • Abortion ends the lives of millions, on a level exceeding all wars and disasters combined.
  • Abortion encourages sexual promiscuity. Abortion permits women to make a choice that will plague many of them with guilt for years to come.
  • And so abortion meets the standard for legislative relevance and must be addressed and limited or abolished by the state.

As the rights of a mother are no more important than those of her newborn infant, so they are no more important than those of her pre-born child. The stress, guilt, and long-term mental anguish reported by many who abort their children must be considered.

The legal right to abortion subjects a woman to pressure from her husband or sexual partner to end her pregnancy. Killing the fetus for the sake of the mother’s health is like remedying paranoia by killing all the imagined persecutors. For these reasons, “pro-life” advocates argue that a moral state must limit or prevent abortion.

(For more on the ethical arguments for and against abortion see Milton A. Gonsalves’ Right & Reason: Ethics in Theory and Practice, 9th ed.)

3. Why do so many believe the mother should have the right to choose for herself? Why is that wrong?

In 1973, when the Supreme Court issued Roe v. Wade, its landmark abortion ruling, it overturned state laws limiting a woman’s right to abortion. Its decision was largely based on the argument that the Constitution nowhere defines a fetus as a person or protects the rights of the unborn.

Rather, the Court determined that an unborn baby possesses only “potential life” and is not yet a “human being” or “person.” It argued that every constitutional reference to “person” relates to those already born. The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees protections and rights to individuals, but the Court ruled that the amendment does not include the unborn.

The Court further determined that a woman’s “right to privacy” extends to her ability to make her own choices regarding her health and body. Just as she has the right to choose to become pregnant, she has the right to end that pregnancy.

The Court suggested several specific reasons why she might choose abortion:

  • “specific and direct harm” may come to her
  • “maternity, or additional offspring, may force upon the woman a distressful life and future”
  • “psychological harm may be imminent”
  • “mental and physical health may be taxed by child care”
  • problems may occur associated with bearing unwanted children
  • and “the additional difficulties and continuing stigma of unwed motherhood” should be considered.

Since 1973, four positions have been taken in the abortion debate:

  1. There should be no right to an abortion, even to save the life of the mother. This has been the Catholic Church’s usual position.
  2. Therapeutic abortions can be performed to save the mother’s life.
  3. Extreme case abortions can be permitted in cases of rape, incest, or severe deformation of the fetus. Most pro-life advocates would accept therapeutic and extreme case abortions.
  4. Abortion should be available to any woman who chooses it. This is the typical “pro-choice” position.

“Pro-choice” advocates make five basic claims:

  1. No one can say when a fetus becomes a person, so the mother is the most appropriate person to make decisions regarding it.
  2. Abortion must be protected so a woman who is the victim of rape or incest does not have to bear a child resulting from such an attack.
  3. No unwanted child should be brought into the world.
  4. The state has no right to legislate personal morality.
  5. A woman must be permitted to make pregnancy decisions in light of her life circumstances.

4. Why do some Christian leaders and denominations support abortion?

Many theologians, pastors, and denominational leaders consider these claims to be both biblical and moral.

First, “pro-choice” proponents argue that a fetus is not legally a “person.”

They agree with the Supreme Court’s finding that the Constitution nowhere grants legal standing to a pre-born life. Only 40 to 50 percent of fetuses survive to become persons in the full sense. A fetus belongs to the mother until it attains personhood and is morally subject to any action she wishes to take with it.

Second, abortion must be protected as an alternative for women who are the victims of rape or incest.

While this number is admittedly small in this country (approximately one percent of all abortions), it is growing in many countries around the world. As many as one in three women may become the victim of such an attack. They must be spared the further trauma of pregnancy and childbirth.

Third, no unwanted children should be brought into the world.

If a woman does not wish to bear a child, she clearly will not be an appropriate or effective mother if the child is born. Given the population explosion occurring in many countries of the world, abortion is a necessary option for women who do not want children. The woman is more closely involved with the fetus than any other individual and is the best person to determine whether or not this child is wanted and will receive proper care.

Fourth, the state has no right to legislate our personal moral decisions.

The government has no authority to restrict homosexuality, consensual sex, cigarette consumption, or other individual decisions that many people consider to be wrong. Since there is no constitutional standard for when life begins, decisions made regarding a fetus are likewise a matter for individual morality.

The state should impose legislation on moral questions only when this legislation expresses the clear moral consensus of the community and when it prevents conduct which obviously threatens the public welfare. Nearly everyone condemns murder, for instance, and believes that it threatens us all. But Americans are divided on the morality of abortion. It is hard to see how aborting a fetus threatens the rest of the community.

And so abortion should not be subject to governmental control. It is better to allow a mother to make this decision than to legislate it through governmental action. Many who personally consider abortion to be wrong are persuaded by this argument and thus support the “pro-choice” position.

Fifth, the rights and concerns of the mother must take precedence over those of the fetus.

Even if we grant fetuses limited rights, they must not supersede the rights of mothers, as the latter are clearly persons under the Constitution. If we allow abortion to protect her physical life, we should do so to protect her emotional health or quality of life as well.

This was one of the Court’s most significant arguments, as it sought to protect the mother’s mental and physical health. Many “pro-choice” advocates are especially persuaded by this argument and view the abortion debate within the context of a woman’s right to control her own life.

“Pro-life” advocates counter each of these claims with their own ethical arguments.

First, they assert that a fetus is a human life and should be granted the full protection of the law.

The fetus carries its parents’ genetic code and is a distinct person. It does not yet possess self-consciousness, reasoning ability, or moral awareness (the usual descriptions of a “person”), but neither do newborns or young children. As this is the central issue of the debate, we’ll say more about it in a moment.

Second, most “pro-life” advocates are willing to permit abortion in cases of rape or incest or to protect the life of the mother.

Since such cases typically account for only one to four percent of abortions performed, limiting abortion to these conditions would prevent the vast majority of abortions occurring in America.

Third, “pro-life” advocates agree that all children should be wanted, so they argue strongly for adoption as an alternative to abortion.

They also assert that an unwanted child would rather live than die. By “pro-choice” logic, it would be possible to argue for infanticide and all forms of euthanasia as well as abortion.

Fourth, “pro-life” supporters do not see abortion legislation as an intrusion into areas of private morality.

As we discussed earlier, protecting the rights of the individual is the state’s first responsibility. No moral state can overlook murder, whatever the personal opinions of those who commit it. The state is especially obligated to protect the rights of those who cannot defend themselves.

The collective will of the culture must never supersede what is right and wrong.

Abortion ends the lives of millions, on a level exceeding all wars and disasters combined.

Abortion encourages sexual promiscuity and encourages women to make a choice that will plague many of them with guilt for years to come.

And so abortion meets the standard for legislative relevance and must be addressed and limited or abolished by the state.

Fifth, “pro-life” advocates want to encourage the health of both the mother and the child and do not believe that we must choose between the two.

As the rights of a mother are no more important than those of her newborn infant, so they are no more important than those of her pre-born child. The stress, guilt, and long-term mental anguish reported by many who abort their children must be considered.

Killing the fetus for the sake of the mother’s health is like remedying paranoia by killing all the imagined persecutors. For these reasons, “pro-life” advocates argue that a moral state must limit or prevent abortion.

5. If I am considering an abortion, what should I do?

Mother Teresa, writing to the U. S. Supreme Court as it was considering petitions related to the abortion issue, stated boldly:

Your opinion [in Roe v. Wade] stated that you did not need to “resolve the difficult question of when life begins.” That question is inescapable. If the right to life is an inherent and inalienable right, it must surely obtain wherever human life exists. No one can deny that the unborn child is a distinct being, that it is human, and that it is alive. It is unjust, therefore, to deprive the unborn child of its fundamental right to life on the basis of its age, size, or condition of dependency. It was a sad infidelity to America’s highest ideals when this Court said that it did not matter, or could not be determined, when the inalienable right to life began for a child in its mother’s womb.

She has been widely quoted as stating, “It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.”

I attended my first National Prayer Breakfast in 1995, where I heard remarkable speakers address the president and other national leaders. Those attending were still talking about the previous year’s keynote speaker. Mother Teresa, eighty-three years old in 1994, had said to the three thousand in the audience, “I feel that the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a war against the child, a direct killing of the innocent child, murder by the mother herself. And if we accept that a mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another?” Later in her speech, she implored the gathering, “Please don’t kill the child. I want the child. Please give me the child.” 

She received a standing ovation. After her speech, she approached President Clinton, pointed her finger at him, and said, “Stop killing babies.”

Would abortion be a moral choice when a family is very, very poor—when they have fourteen children and another on the way?

That child was John Wesley.

What about a father who is ill and a mother with tuberculosis? Their first child is blind, the second is deceased, the third is deaf, and the fourth has tuberculosis. Now she is pregnant again.

Her son would be called Beethoven.

A white man rapes a thirteen-year-old black girl and she becomes pregnant.

Her child is Ethel Waters.

A teenage girl is pregnant, but her fiancée is not the father of the baby.

Her baby is Jesus.

In a church I once pastored, a woman gave me her unsolicited testimony regarding an abortion she had chosen eleven years earlier. Here’s her story:

I cried tears of shame, tears of pain, tears of heartache. I cried for my sin so black I didn’t believe that there could ever be a way that I could make amends–ever be a way that I could atone for what I had done. That there could ever be a way that I could be clean again. For 11 years I cried for myself, because I couldn’t get away from what I had done.

But God blessed me. In the depths of my dark and lonely valley he was there. His grace and mercy are great–his love is so wonderful. He wooed me back to his side, saying to me, My child, my child, I love you. O my child I love you. Yes, I forgive you.

I am blessed. I know that I am forgiven. I have forgiven myself–God has healed me. But many are not so blessed–they never get to meet my Jesus; they never experience his love and forgiveness. For them, the crying goes on.

If you are considering an abortion, I plead with you to contact an organization who will not be judgmental, who will be concerned about you and your health, and will help you make wise decisions, such as:

6. How can I help other people choose life?

“Pro-life” advocates typically believe that life begins at conception, so that abortion is wrong. “Pro-choice” advocates typically belief that life begins when the fetus is viable independent of its mother or at birth, and that abortion should be a legal choice for the mother prior to that point. The framers of the Constitution did not address this issue. The Supreme Court in 1973 interpreted this silence to mean that constitutional rights to life do not extend to the pre-born. And yet the Bible speaks with a single voice in viewing the pre-born as the creation of God and as children deserving of protection and care.

In light of these contradictory facts, is there a way to move forward?

Given that the participants in this debate come from a variety of religious and personal worldviews, it seems implausible to find common ground by beginning with biblical teachings or religious convictions. So I suggest the following non-religious, constitutional strategy.

First, we should build a consensus for permitting abortion to protect the life of the mother or in cases of rape and incest.

These account for a small percentage of the 1.5 million abortions performed each year. Even though some (like me) question the morality of this position, most would concede the point in order to reduce the 93 percent of abortions which are elective in nature. Allowing for this exception removes the most obvious and emotional obstacle to the “pro-life” position.

Second, we should understand that the pre-born possess at least the potential for “life,” however it is defined.

Many of us believe that a fetus is a human being by every definition of the term except independent viability, and note that the pre-born will attain this status unless harmed. But even those who disagree with this assertion will admit that every fetus is in the process of becoming a “person.”

Third, “pro-life” and “pro-choice” advocates should work together to fulfill President Clinton’s desire that abortion be “rare.”

Even the most ardent “pro-choice” supporters surely would support an agenda intended to decrease the number of abortions performed each year.

One way to achieve this goal would be for both sides to promote adoption as the best answer to an unwanted pregnancy. Both sides could also support abstinence and birth control education. Many “pro-life” advocates view birth control measures as promoting sexual promiscuity, but we may have to choose between sexual activity or unintended pregnancy and a resulting abortion.

Both sides could join forces in educating the public about the actual characteristics of the fetus. It has been proven that women are far less likely to choose abortion when they see a sonogram of their unborn child or learn about its present capacities. Adoption would then become a more likely option for the mother to choose. Leaders from both sides could be asked to adopt a united agenda aimed at decreasing the number of abortions performed each year in our country. If this strategy is successful, it may change the public’s opinion regarding the morality of abortion.

Fourth, whatever the “pro-choice” position decides to do to help limit abortions, “pro-life” advocates must do all we can to care for both the unborn child and its mother.

We must care for the mother and the father of the child, and do all we can to help those who have chosen abortion in the past. We must work hard to advocate adoption and to provide life necessities for at-risk families. We must be “pro-life,” not just “pro-birth.”

It may be that these steps would eventually help to change the legal status of abortion. A constitutional amendment extending legal protection to the fetus would be more likely to pass if more Americans were taught to view the fetus as a life. Alternately, it would be more likely that the courts would recognize the rising consensus against abortion and rule in light of this conventional wisdom.