Writing to Christians in Rome about the spiritual condition of the pagan world, Paul diagnosed it in this way: “Although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools.… Since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct” (Rom. 1:21, 22, 28). Not only the thinking but often the laws of men, and even the decisions of religious councils, can conflict with the laws of God. That is why Peter and John, called before the Sanhedrin, declared that they must obey God rather than men (Acts 4:19).
In a sweeping decision January 22, the United States Supreme Court overthrew the abortion statutes of Texas, indeed, of all the states that protect the right of an unborn infant to life before, at the earliest, the seventh month of pregnancy. The Court explicitly allows states to create some safeguards for unborn infants regarded as “viable,” but in view of the present decision, it appears doubtful that unborn infants now enjoy any protection prior to the instant of birth anywhere in the United States. Until new state laws acceptable to the Court are passed—at best a long-drawn-out process—it would appear impossible to punish abortions performed at any stage.
This decision runs counter not merely to the moral teachings of Christianity through the ages but also to the moral sense of the American people, as expressed in the now vacated abortion laws of almost all states, including 1972 laws in Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania, and recently clearly reaffirmed by state-wide referendums in two states (Michigan and North Dakota). We would not normally expect the Court to consider the teachings of Christianity and paganism before rendering a decision on the constitutionality of a law, but in this case it has chosen to do so, and the results are enlightening: it has clearly decided for paganism, and against Christianity, and this in disregard even of democratic sentiment, which in this case appears to follow Christian tradition and to reject permissive abortion legislation.
The Court notes that “ancient religion” did not bar abortion (Roe et al. v. Wade, No. 70–18 , VI, 1); by “ancient religion,” it clearly means paganism, since Judaism and Christianity did bar abortion). It rejects the “apparent rigidity” of the Hippocratic Oath (“I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suggest any such counsel; and in like manner I will not give to a woman a pessary to produce abortion”) on the grounds that it did not really represent the consensus of pagan thinking, though pagan in origin, but owed its universal acceptance to popularity resulting from “the emerging teachings of Christianity” (ibid., VI, 2). To these, the High Court unambiguously prefers “ancient religion,” that is, the common paganism of the pre-Christian Roman Empire. Against the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church that the “life begins at conception” (curious language on the part of the Court, for no one denies that the fetus is human, or that it is alive: the Court apparently means personal life), the Court presents “new embryological data that purport to indicate that conception is a ‘process’ over time, rather than an event, and … new medical techniques such as menstrual extractions, the ‘morning-after’ pill, implantation of embryos, artificial insemination, and even artificial wombs” (ibid., IX, B). It is hard to understand how the contention that conception is a “process” of at most a few days’ duration is relevant to the possible rights of the fetus at three or six months, and even harder to comprehend the logic that holds that “new medical techniques” for destroying or preserving the embryo “pose problems” for the view that it was alive before being subjected to those techniques.
Pleading “the established medical fact” that “until the end of the first trimester, mortality in abortion [of course the reference is to maternal mortality—fetal mortality is 100 per cent] is less than that in normal childbirth [nine maternal deaths per 100,000 abortions vs. twenty-five per 100,000 live births, a differential of 0.016 per cent, of course not counting the 100,000 fetal mortalities]” (ibid., X), the Court decreed that a state may not regulate abortion at all during the first three months, and during the second, only to protect the health of the mother. After “viability,” defined as “about six months,” when the fetus “presumably has the capability of meaningful life outside the mother’s womb,” then, “if the State is interested in protecting fetal life … it may go so far [emphasis added: since abortion is 100 per cent fatal to the fetus, it is hard to see the value of “protection” that goes less far] as to proscribe abortion during that period, except when it is necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother” (ibid.). Since health is explicitly defined to include “mental health,” a very flexible concept, this concession to the protection of the fetus from seven to nine months will, in practice, mean little.
The Court based its abortion decision on the right of privacy, and that without empirical or logical justification. “This right of privacy … is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy,” Justice Blackmun wrote in delivering the opinion of the Court. But the right of privacy is not absolute, and, much more important, no abortion decision can ever be by any stretch of the imagination a purely private matter. The fetus, if not a full-fledged human being, is at least a being owing his existence as much to father as to mother, and is therefore an individual distinct from both. Curiously, fathers are scarcely mentioned in the fifty-one-page majority opinion! The decision would appear to contradict itself when it insists that the “private” abortion decision must be made in conjunction with a physician and/or in line with some kind of medical judgment.
In his concurring opinion, Chief Justice Burger fatuously comments, “I do not read the Court’s holding today as having the sweeping consequences attributed to it by the dissenting justices [White and Rehnquist].” The New York state tally stood in 1971 at a ratio of 927 abortions for 1,000 live births; now that abortion has become allowable nationwide, the ratio will presumably change, but the experience of nations with easy abortion suggests that it may very well remain as high as one abortion for every two live births, or even higher. What would the Chief Justice consider sweeping? Mandatory abortion for all those falling into a certain class? Infanticide? Mass extermination of undesirables? Make no mistake: the logic of the high court could be used with like—in some cases with greater—force to justify infanticide for unwanted or undesirable infants; the expression, “capability of meaningful life” could cover a multitude of evils and will, unless this development is stopped now.
In his dissent, Justice White sums up the situation and the Court’s action:
The common claim before us is that for any one of such reasons [he cites convenience, family planning, economics, dislike of children, the embarrassment of illegitimacy, and others], or for no reason at all, and without asserting or claiming any threat to life or health, any woman is entitled to an abortion at her request if she is able to find a medical doctor willing to undertake the procedure. The Court for the most part sustains this position: during the period prior to the time the fetus becomes viable, the Constitution of the United States values the convenience, whim or caprice of the putative mother more than the life or potential life of the fetus.…
In arriving at this position, the majority of the Supreme Court has explicity rejected Christian moral teaching and approved the attitude of what it calls “ancient religion” and the standards of pagan Greek and Roman law, which, as the Court notes in self-justification, afforded little protection to the unborn” (ibid., VI, 1). It is not necessary to read between the lines for the spiritual significance of this decision, for the Court has made it crystal clear.
In view of this, Justice Rehnquist’s dissenting observation that the Court is engaging in “judicial legislation” may seem almost insignificant. Nevertheless, we must ask what remains of the democratic process and the principle of local initiative when not only long-standing older laws but the most recent state laws and even the will of the people expressed in state-wide referendums are swept from the board in a single Court ruling, when the people and their representatives are prohibited forever—or at least until the Constitution is amended—from implementing a higher regard for the life of the unborn than that exhibited by seven supreme judges.
Having previously seen fit to ban the formal, admittedly superficial, and possibly hypocritical acknowledgment of God that used to take place in public-school prayers and Bible readings, the Court has now repudiated the Old Testament’s standards on capital punishment as cruel and without utility, and has rejected the almost universal consensus of Christian moral teachers through the centuries on abortion. Its latest decision reveals a callous utilitarianism about children in the womb that harmonizes little with the extreme delicacy of its conscience regarding the imposition of capital punishment.
Christians can be grateful that the court has not yet made the “right” to abortion an obligation. It is still possible for us to consult the will of God in this matter rather than the laws of the state. The present decision makes it abundantly clear that we are obliged to seek his will and not to be guided only by public law. We should recognize the accumulating evidence that public policy is beginning to display what Paul called “a base mind and improper conduct,” and for similar reasons. Will the time come when this nation “under God” is distinguishable from those that are aggressively atheistic only by our currently greater material affluence? Christians should accustom themselves to the thought that the American state no longer supports, in any meaningful sense, the laws of God, and prepare themselves spiritually for the prospect that it may one day formally repudiate them and turn against those who seek to live by them.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more