We cannot fix criteria of humanness and then conclude that, lacking these, the fetus is not human.
In both the United States and the United Kingdom the recent liberalization of abortion laws has become for Christians a major moral issue. In England and Wales, since David Steel’s 1967 Abortion Act, although illegal abortions have not decreased, the annual average of legal abortions has increased from 10 to more than 100,000. For every five babies born alive, one is now aborted. A human fetus is being destroyed every five minutes.
What is the issue? Proabortionists begin with the rights of the mother (especially her right to choose) and see abortion as little more than a retroactive contraceptive. Antiabortionists begin with the rights of the unborn child (especially his or her right to live) and see abortion as little less than prenatal infanticide. The former appeal particularly to compassion, and cite situations in which the mother and/or her family would suffer intolerable strain if the unwanted pregnancy were allowed to come to term. The latter appeal particularly to justice, and stress the need to defend the rights of an unborn child who cannot defend himself. But we must not set compassion and justice in opposition to one another. Compassion needs moral guidelines; without the ingredient of justice it is bound to go astray.
The moral question concerns the nature and status of the human fetus. If “it” were only a lump of jelly or blob of tissue, then of course it could be removed without qualms. But “it” is actually a “he” or “she,” an unborn child. What is the evidence for this assertion?
We begin (as we always must) with the Bible. The author of Psalm 139 looks back to the antenatal stage of his existence. Three words sum up what he affirms. First, creation. He seems to liken God both to a potter who “formed” his inmost being and to a weaver who “knit him together” in his mother’s womb (v. 13). Although the Bible makes no claim to be a textbook of embryology, here is a plain affirmation that the growth of the fetus is neither haphazard nor automatic but a divine work of creative skill.
The second word is continuity. The psalmist surveys his life in four stages: past (v. 1), present (vv. 2–6), future (vv. 7–12), and before birth (vv. 13–16), and in all four refers to himself as “I.” He who is writing as a full-grown man has the same personal identity as the fetus in his mother’s womb. He affirms a direct continuity between his antenatal and postnatal being.
The third word is communion, or relationship. Psalm 139 is arguably the most radical statement in the Old Testament of God’s personal relationship to the individual. Personal pronouns and possessives occur in the first person (I, me, my) 46 times and in the second person (you, yours) 32 times. Further, the basis on which God knows us intimately (vv. 1–7) and attaches himself to us so that we cannot escape from him (vv. 7–12) is he formed us in the womb and established his relationship with us then (vv. 13–16).
These three words supply us with the essential biblical perspective in which to think. The fetus is not a growth in the mother’s body (which can be removed as readily as her tonsils or appendix), nor even a potential human being, but a human life who, though not yet mature, has the potentiality to grow into the fulness of the humanity he already possesses. We cannot fix criteria of humanness (like self-consciousness, reason, independence, speech, moral choice, or responsive love) and then conclude that, lacking these, the fetus is not human. The newborn child and the senile old person lack these also. Nor can we draw a line at any point and say that after it the child is human and before it, not. There is no “decisive moment of humanization,” subsequent to conception, whether implantation, or “animation” (when some early fathers, building on Aristotle, supposed that the fetus receives a rational soul, a boy at about one month and a girl at about two), or “quickening” (a purely subjective notion, when the mother first feels the fetus move), or viability (which is getting earlier and earlier), or birth (when the child takes his first independent breath). All these are stages in the continuous process by which an individual human life is developing into mature human personhood. From fusion onwards the fetus is an “unborn child.”
The rest of Scripture endorses this perspective. An expectant mother is a “woman with child.” When the pregnant Elizabeth (carrying John the Baptist) was visited by the pregnant Mary (carrying Jesus) and heard her greeting, “the babe leaped in her womb for joy” (Luke 1:41, 44). The same truth is confessed in the creed, since he who “was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate” was throughout—from conception to death—one and the same “Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord.”
This biblical evaluation of the humanness of the fetus is confirmed by modern medical science. In the 1960s the genetic code was unraveled. We now know that from the moment the ovum is fertilized by the penetration of the sperm, the zygote has a unique genotype distinct from both parents. The 23 pairs of chromosomes are complete. The sex, size, and shape, the color of skin, hair, and eyes, the intelligence and temperament of the child are already determined. At 3 to 3½ weeks the tiny heart begins to beat. At 4 weeks, although the embryo is only a quarter of an inch long, the head and body are distinguishable, as are also rudimentary eyes, ears, and mouth. At 6 to 7 weeks brain function can be detected, at 8 every limb has begun to appear, including fingers and toes, and at 9 to 10 weeks the child can use his hands to grasp and his mouth to suck his thumb. By 13 weeks, when the pregnancy is only one-third through—and when abortions usually begin—the embryo is completely organized, and a miniature baby lies in his mother’s womb. He can alter his position, respond to pain, noise, and light, and have an attack of hiccups. Even his fingerprint is already unique. From then on he merely develops in size and strength.
If, then, the life of the fetus is a human life, with the full potentiality of growing into an adult human person, we have to think of mother and unborn child as two human beings at different stages of maturity. Doctors have to consider that they have two patients, not one, and seek the well-being of both. Lawyers and politicians have to think similarly, in accordance with the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1959), that children need “special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth.” Christians will want to demand “extra” safeguards and care before birth because at this stage the child is helpless to protect himself, and the God of the Bible defends the powerless.
So “we have to assert as normative the general inviolability of the fetus” (Archbishop Michael Ramsey in 1967). Most Protestant theologians go on to say that, in certain extreme cases of urgent necessity, when the continuance of the pregnancy threatens to kill the mother, or drive her to suicide, or render her a complete “physical or mental wreck” (the McNaughten judgment in 1938) and so significantly shorten her life, it would be morally justifiable to sacrifice her unborn child in order to spare her. But in such circumstances death in some form is already present; “the doctor has not introduced death into the case” (Oliver O’Donovan in The Christian and the Unborn Child, 1973). The Christian conscience rebels against the notion that an unborn child may be destroyed because his birth would be a “burden” to the mother or her family. This argument could equally justify the destruction of a newborn child, the comatose victim of a car crash, or an imbecile. Yet such merciless “mercy killing” is totally unacceptable in a civilized community, as Dr. Francis Schaeffer and Dr. Everett Koop have powerfully argued in Whatever Happened to the Human Race?
If we Christians campaign for a stricter abortion policy, as we should, we must both back it up with an educational program to reduce unwanted pregnancies and also accept full responsibility for its social effects and ensure that mothers receive the personal, social, medical, and financial support they need. Louise Summerhill, the founder of Birthright, rightly said, “We help rather than abort. We believe in making a better world for babies to come into, rather than killing them.”
John R. W. Stott is rector emeritus of All Souls Church, London, England.
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