Removal of a small glob of living tissue from a human body requires a surgeon who knows how, what, when, and where to cut, and the consent of the patient to whom the tissue belongs. As technique, this cutting may be rather sophisticated, and since it is intended to prolong the life of the patient, it is significant as well as sophisticated. When it comes to the removal of a small glob of living tissue called a human fetus, however, the situation changes dramatically. This particular bit of surgery is no longer considered merely skillful cutting by a surgeon for the purpose of inducing health in a patient. Suddenly the circle is enlarged to include many others. Why this difference? Why are the surgeon’s skill and the patient’s consent not enough to settle the issue, in this case? What is it about fetal tissue that has drawn doctors, lawyers, legislators, sociologists, psychiatrists, and even philosophers and theologians into the discussion?

All tissue, including fetal tissue, is made up of living cells composed of the same chemicals. Yet fetal tissue is unique. Of all the tissues in the body, it alone has a fixed genetic makeup different from that of the body in which it is lodged. A woman cannot say of fetal tissue, this is mine, in the sense she can say of her kidney tissue, this is mine. She cannot keep it, any more than she can give it to someone else; she must surrender it in birth—or die.

But we can hardly say the physical fact of the genetic uniqueness of human fetal tissue is the basis of all the anxious inquiry, for the same uniqueness prevails in the animal world. Rather, the issue is that human fetal tissue, left unmolested, will develop into a human being, and there is something about a human being that demands an attitude of reverential respect for his life and concern for his well-being. This is why scruples become stronger and the laws of society more explicit as the fetal tissue develops from fertilized egg, to blastocyst, to embryo, to fetus (in the specialized sense), to premature, to infant.

To take the life of a child deliberately is murder, but to prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg in the lining of the uterus is considered by many as merely contraception. Between these two extremes are many halfway houses of opinion. Early American law, for example, following the tradition of common law, forbade abortion after quickening, that is, about the sixteenth week of pregnancy, when fetal motion is felt. Today, in Norway abortions may not be performed after three months, in Denmark after four months, in Sweden after five months. Even where the laws are most permissive, abortions are not allowed, except to save a mother’s life, after viability, that is, after about six months, when the fetus is able to survive outside the womb. This is the position taken by the American Law Institute and endorsed by the American Medical Association at its June, 1967, meeting.

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The same tendency to make the fully developed individual the measure of all things comes into play when factors other than the development of the fetus are considered as grounds for abortion. These factors almost invariably concern the mother, whose humanity cannot be doubted, rather than the fetus, whose humanity cannot be demonstrated. Thus laws allow abortion when there has been forcible or statutory rape, on the grounds that pregnancy would impair the physical or mental health of the mother. Even when the matter is one of preventing the birth of a deformed or mentally retarded baby, it is the effect of such a birth on the mother and other members of the family that weighs largely in the decision.

Although some geneticists insist that in every pregnancy there are always two patients, the mother and the unborn child, many laws do not reflect this fact. For example, a fetus aborted before twenty weeks of pregnancy, does not require legal interment; it is treated as merely a pathological specimen. But is it? Since the potential for future development is as great in the fertilized egg as in the newborn child, why should we permit intervention at one stage of a life and not at another?

To frame an answer to this question, one needs to know whether a fetus is a human being or not; and before one can make this decision, he must answer a deeper question: What is a human being? The answer to this involves philosophy and theology; it demands that one try to become an expert in humanity.

As Christians, we cannot approach our task from any point of view other than that of a Christian view of man. Man is more than a complex chemical machine; he is, or has, a soul; and presumably, if he is or has a soul from the earliest stages of fetal development, then, as a fetus he is a primordial person whose life cannot be taken with impunity.

Having defined the human fetus as living tissue with a unique genetic makeup, destined to become a fully developed human organism, we must now seek to define soul, the term that is really primary in our investigation. Aristotle said long ago that to obtain knowledge about the soul is the most difficult thing in the world, and time has not altered the situation appreciably. Whether or not the soul exists, what it is and how it is related to the body, are questions that have not yet been answered by scientific investigation, or by rigorous philosophical analysis. Neither has scientific investigation discovered that there is no soul, nor philosophical analysis demonstrated that the term is meaningless.

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Even when we limit ourselves to theological considerations, the question of the relation of the soul to the fetus must be discussed along several lines: Biblical theology offers the materials with which dogmatic theology must work; historical theology tells us how dogmaticians have done their work in the past; philosophical theology offers us criteria by which to criticize this effort of the dogmaticians; and moral theology suggests what we should do in the light of our dogmatic conclusions.

According to Scripture, men and animals share a common life that they receive from God the Creator. The word the Israelites used to describe God, which we translate “spirit,” is the same as the word for “wind” or “breath.” Therefore every creature that breathes, in which there is the breath of life, was believed by the Old Testament writers to have received this animating principle from the Creator, the source of all life. Such creatures, including man, are “living creatures.” As their life consists in receiving the living spirit (Spirit) from God, so, when he recalls his spirit (Spirit), they die.

But this is not the only work in Scripture. While animals share with man in the mystery of life and therefore are capable of a conscious response to their environment, there is something about man that makes his response to his environment unique. The life that he has from God, though like that of animals, is at the same time qualitatively different. Like the beasts, man is formed out of the dust of the ground and animated with the breath of life; but unlike the beasts he is copied from his Maker, he reflects his Creator’s image and likeness. He is not only living, not only conscious, but among all the living, conscious creatures, uniquely so. And in this unique form of consciousness he is like God. His “spirit” (or his “soul,” or his “heart”) is a spirit of wisdom and understanding (Exod. 28:3; Job 32:8); he has the word lodged in him. Hence God brings the creatures to man, as the Bible says in its quaint and simple way, to see what man will call them (Gen. 2:19, 20). His “soul” is given man that he may keep God’s testimonies always (Ps. 119:129, 167). His “heart” is a heart with which he is to love God supremely (Deut. 13:3; Matt. 22:37), a heart which he should keep with all diligence, for out of it flow the issues of life (Prov. 4:23).

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But does this Christian doctrine of man’s superiority over the lower orders help us in our specific problem of the soul and the fetus? This marvelously endowed creature called man, whose intelligence reduces remote galaxies and minute atoms to the laws of reason; who lives in the realm of responsibility, knowing the commendation of a good conscience and the condemnation of an evil one; who, as Luther said, in his highest and noblest part is qualified to lay hold of the incomprehensible, invisible, and eternal, in short, to become the house where faith and God’s word are at home—is he or is he not a man while still in his mother’s womb? If we take away the life of a fetus, is this or is it not an affront to the divine image?

Scripture offers no direct teaching on the question of the participation of the fetus in the divine image. The narrative of man’s creation presents as full grown the one made in the image and likeness of God. Since the creation narrative speaks of God’s “breathing into man’s nostrils the breath of life,” it might seem plausible to argue that the soul informs the fetus when the first breath is drawn, that is, at birth. But the ancient Hebrews associated life not only with breath but also with blood: “The blood is the living being” (Deut. 12:23). Therefore the blood of animals was taboo as drink, and whoever shed man’s blood was guilty of a capital offense (Gen. 9:6). To press this teaching about blood as literal science would be to conclude that the human fetus is informed with the soul not at the moment the first breath is drawn but when the blood system develops.

Thus these two biblical criteria yield different answers to our question of when the fetus becomes a human being. Furthermore, neither one could be convincingly supported, since the “breath of life” and the “blood which is the life” are applicable to animals as well as men. The biblical description of man’s distinctive creation “in the divine image” refers to a quality of life that, though it depends upon breath and blood, is not equated with them. Even if a man’s blood can be replaced with a completely different type, he is still the same person. The biblical data here appear to reflect the rough approximations with which ancient “science” conceived the physiological basis of life. If we were to state the equivalent in contemporary scientific idiom, we should have to argue that the soul is present to the human fetus when the nervous system is developed. The fact that man’s likeness to God, which is the ground of reverence for his life, is qualitatively distinct from the physiological basis of his life, means that all efforts to identify the presence of the human soul in terms of some stage of physiological development must prove frustrating.

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Perhaps the nearest thing to a scriptural statement on our problem is found in Psalm 139:13–15: “For thou didst form my inward parts. Thou didst cover me in my mother’s womb.… My frame was not hidden from thee, when I was made in secret and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.” (This last phrase, “lowest parts of the earth,” is a Hebrew expression to describe the dark interior of the womb.) Here the psalmist is principally concerned to confess the divine omniscience. Even before he knew God, God knew him; even before his eyes opened on the light of day, while he was still being marvelously formed in the womb, God was there. But though the thrust of the passage is principally to confess a truth about God, it tacitly confesses a truth about the psalmist, namely that he regards himself as having been a self even before he was conscious of himself. I, the person, was covered by thy hand, Oh, Lord, in my mother’s womb; I was made in secret and curiously wrought in the inner recesses of my mother’s body. While this gives us no precise information about the relation of the soul to the fetus, it seems that the psalmist did not think of his humanity as uniquely tied to the moment of birth. The events leading up to birth are a kind of primal history of the self.

A not unexpected result of this paucity of biblical references to pre-natal human life, and of the orientation of Scripture toward mature manhood, has been a spectrum of opinion drawn from inference and speculation.

Tertullian, the first theologian to speak on the subject, says that Christians abominate as murder both infanticide and abortion, the latter being a kind of murder in advance. For the embryonic man is as the fruit to the blossom, he says, destined in a little while to become a perfect man, if nature meets with no disturbance. As a traducianist—that is, one who believes that the soul as well as the body is derived from the parents—Tertullian naturally inferred that where there was the physical beginning of man, there also was his spiritual beginning.

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Traditionally, theologians have espoused creationism, that is, the view that God creates each individual soul directly, leaving the body to develop by laws of natural generation. Thinking of a person as a rational essence (it was commonly believed that thought was a pure act of the soul involving no bodily counterpart), they concluded that the fetus was informed by a rational soul shortly before birth. The medieval scholastics, employing Aristotelian distinctions, commonly spoke of a vegetative soul at the moment of conception, an animal soul at a later stage of embryonic development, and a rational soul imparted as the moment of birth drew near. Thus, although Augustine and Thomas condemned deliberate interference with the life of the fetus, they considered it homicide only when the fetus was possessed of a human soul. But they did not venture an opinion as to exactly when this moment was reached, a reticence often repeated through the centuries.

The uncertainty still prevails among many modern Christian thinkers, and perhaps it always will. The phenomena of self-consciousness—the rational, ethical, and religious experience of the human I—are not in evidence prior to birth; but to say they do not exist, even in the earliest stages of fetal development, is to say more than we know. A person who is sleeping or unconscious is a person still, though he gives no express evidence of it. And so it may be with the fetus. At least we can say that a fetus is a potential person, and maybe a primordial person, that is, a person in the most elementary form. We do not judge that a person who is in a coma has ceased to be a person. If we have doubts about terminating the life of one who has lost the ability to live and act as a human subject, because he may still be a human subject, should we not hesitate just as much to terminate the life of one who does not yet have the ability to live and act as a human subject? In fact, it would seem that ability lost, the “human vegetable,” can make less claim to respect and reverence than ability in prospect, the “human fetus.”

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On the other hand, the analogy between a person in embryo and a person in a coma breaks down (as analogies are wont to do) in at least one point. The existence of the former is much less an independent existence than that of the latter. The right of the fetus to live, even if it be considered a primordial person, is a right that is held in conjunction with the right of another person to live. The primordial person, if that is what the fetus is, can never become a full-orbed person apart from another person, the mother in whose womb it is conceived and in whose body it is nourished. And while we may question the humanity of the fetus, we cannot question the humanity of the mother who conceives it.

Furthermore, her life is not ordinarily as solitary as that of the life she carries. She is a daughter, a wife, and perhaps a mother. Her life has been woven into the lives of others who also have claims upon her, claims that are more clearly human in their “I-thou” nature than the claims of the fetus. Recognition of these facts has led to near unanimity of opinion that in case of life and death, the mother has the more fundamental claim.

The present tendency to give the psychiatrist and even the sociologist a part in defining “life” and “death” has indeed complicated the picture; yet surely this extension of the terms is valid from a Christian perspective. “Life,” as the Christian understands it, in its distinctively human dimension, is more than biology; therefore the physicians of the soul, like the physicians of the body, should be heard when the question is raised about whether to surrender the life of the fetus to preserve the life of the mother. The problem, of course, is that it is enormously more difficult to measure and evaluate data in the area of psychiatry than in the area of traditional medicine. A physician of the body can give a relatively precise judgment, from the perspective of the laws of physical life, as to the threat that a pregnancy poses for the mother. No such precision is possible from the perspective of the laws of the physical and sociological life. Nor will we attain such precise psychological and sociological knowledge in the future. Man will always be better understood scientifically as body (object) than as soul or spirit (subject), which is the seat of his freedom as an individual. To the extent that he is a free, responsible self, his behavior can never be reduced to the pattern of a strict causality. This means that whenever the decision to sacrifice the life of the fetus to save the life of the mother rests on psychological and sociological considerations, there will always be a factor of uncertainty.

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These are the difficulties that moral theology faces in justifying abortion. It seems that the Christian answer to the control of human reproduction must be found principally in the prevention of conception, rather than in the prevention of birth. Abortion will always remain a last recourse, ventured in emergency and burdened with uncertainty.

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