It has been easy for me to slip into the mentality that engagement in ethical issues is not necessarily the priority of the Christian individually or the Church as a whole. To be honest, as I consider the past eight years of my Christian life, I can say that most of the time that I have spent in seriously pondering the truth of Christianity and its application, I have narrowed in primarily on issues that relate directly to me. To my shame, I admit that I have engaged in little, if any, significant ethical reflection in regards to how I am called, as a Christian, to think and interact Biblically on moral issues in society. It is only recently that I have found a growing conviction concerning the wickedness of abortion arising in my soul and the subsequent compulsion to engage this issue more purposefully.
Evangelical Ethics, by John Jefferson Davis, is a much-needed corrective in my own life and, I would trust, for Christ’s Church as well. In just my first reading (I intend to read it again, or, at least, index it for later reference), I have been deeply encouraged to not only thoroughly engage the significant ethical issues facing the Church, but to not rest content until I understand those issues in light of Scripture. This is not easy work, but it is an utterly essential work. Jesus calls us to be salt and light.
Davis’ Ethics was beneficial to me specifically in forming an understanding of an evangelical response to abortion. Davis’ well-researched and solidly reasoned treatment of this issue was helpful not only in further strengthening my convictions against the evils of abortion, but also in aiding me to think clearly about the issue. The issue of abortion carries with it massive emotional freight, and it is easy for me to bypass solid argument and evidence in favor of emotionally charged rhetoric. Davis enabled me to see both the explicit Biblical teaching concerning abortion and the vindication of God’s wisdom in the evidence surrounding the horror of the actual procedure and the medical and emotional aftermath following the procedure.
One of the most significant questions in the abortion debate is the question of personhood: when is the child considered a person, and what inherent rights to life does that child, as a person, have, apart from the will of the mother, father, or doctors? Biblical teaching on the issue of personhood indicates that conception is the point at which personhood commences. The reality that God relates to the conceived embryo in a personal manner necessitates that we think of the embryo as a person (see Psalm 51:5). God’s relation to that person continues throughout the gestation process (Psalm 139:15-16; Jeremiah 1:5) and on throughout their earthly and eternal life. The Scriptures, Davis writes, “assume a fundamental continuity between prenatal and postnatal human life” (156). In support to this statement Davis demonstrates that the word for “child” in both the Old and New Testaments, is used for unborn children as well as children who have already been born.
Unfortunately, objections are made against the assertion that personhood begins at conception. Davis writes, “Proponents of the abortion-on-demand and abortion-on-indications positions generally take the fetus to be less than a full ‘person’ or ‘human being’ because of the lack of fully developed consciousness” (161). However, Davis warns us that we are in a precarious position if we “equate the fact of personhood with certain psychological states” (161). In other words, personhood does not depend on the presence or absence of certain traits or abilities, like, in the case of a new embryo, a fully functioning brain, sense capabilities, formed appendages, and other characteristics. Rather, personhood is a “metaphysical reality out of which arise, during the normal course of human development, the psychological manifestations of person” (161). These manifestations of personhood are inherent in the nature of the embryo. Davis continues, “A newborn baby does not possess the adult’s power of speech or thought, but in due course the baby will develop these powers, because they are inherent in the child’s nature” (161).
Furthermore, the “metaphysical reality” of personhood also draws into question the common objection of “viability.” Some proponents of abortion will point to the fact of an embryos or fetus’ inability to survive on its own outside the womb, and thus, along with the premise of Roe v. Wade, affirm the constitutionality of the “right of a woman to choose to have an abortion before viability…” (142). The word “viability” ties in with the phrase, “potential life.” Until a fetus is viable (i.e. able to live on its own outside the womb), it does not possess “potential life,” and can therefore be terminated without moral opposition. Justice Sandra O’Connor saw the problem with this kind of thinking when she voiced the foundational flaws in the legal reasoning of the Roe v. Wade case. O’Conner noted,
In Roe, the Court held that although the State had an important and legitimate interest in protecting potential human life…that interest could not become compelling until the point at which the fetus was viable. The difficulty with this analysis is clear: potential life is no less potential in the first weeks of pregnancy than it is at viability or afterward (141)
The question, therefore, is not one of “viability,” but one of personhood. Christians must hold to the Biblical teaching that personhood begins at conception and thus requires protection as human life from that point on. Davis says it well when he writes, “Rather than saying that the unborn represent ‘potential human life,’ it is more accurate to say that the unborn represent actual human life with great potential” (161).
We must also recognize the profound spiritual, emotional, and physical affects that abortion has upon the mothers who endure the abortion, the fathers who consent to (or demand) the abortion, and the physicians who administer the abortion. It is not uncommon for women who have had abortions to later experience complications with later pregnancies such as miscarriage, cervical incompetence, prematurity, and tubal pregnancies. Studies also show that women who have had abortions experience bleeding during the first three months of subsequent pregnancies while demonstrating significant increases in the incidence of low birth weights and birth defects. Davis also discusses evidence of guilt, depression and other forms of psychological conflict that “plague many who women who have had abortions.”
The husbands and boyfriends are not exempt from the burden of emotional pain. Davis quotes Dr. Arthur Shostak, professor of sociology at Drexel University, who has interviewed hundreds of men who have been involved in the abortion procedure. Shostak says that the men “…don’t think of if just as an operation that their wives or girlfriends are having…They think of it—even if they don’t always describe it this way—as a loss of fatherhood” (151).
Abortion also “takes its psychological toll on doctors and nurses,” because, “The killing of human life in abortions produces tremendous tension with the medical profession’s stated ideals of healing and preserving life.” Davis speaks of Dr. Bernard Nathanson, who once was the director of an abortion clinic in New York City, but who changed his pro-abortion position after he was convinced by medical evidence of the “humanity of the unborn” (152). Nathanson tells of abortion doctors who began “ ‘losing their nerve in the operating room…” (152). Nathanson remembers one doctor, “sweating profusely, shaking badly, nipping drinks between procedures” (152), while also learning of another abortion doctor who was continually beleaguered by dreams of blood. Nathanson admits, “I was seeing personality structures dissolve in front of me on a scale that I had never seen before in a medical situation” (152).
Our love for the unborn and for those mothers, fathers and doctors who are blindly walking down a path of emotional, physical and spiritual ruin should compel us to rigorous thought and unrelenting action against the evils of abortion. Yet I wonder how many of us in the Church truly realize how truly terrible abortion is, or how many of us are able to explain why we believe it is so terrible.
Thus the questions remain. How can we wake up the Church to the horrors of abortion? Why does the Church on the whole appear to neglect this vital issue? What reasons do pastors have for why they do not engage this issue with more vigor? Are these reasons legitimate? And how should we approach this issue? How far do we as the Church take it? Can we become too wrapped up in the issue of abortion, to the detriment of the gospel? I pray that the Lord will have mercy on us by forgiving our disregard of this vital issue and by empowering us to think clearly and act courageously in this area.