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A Rational Assessment of Roe v. Wade

This week marks the fortieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, legalizing abortion in the United States. Since that ruling, more than fifty million abortions have been performed in our nation. For those of us who believe the Bible to be God’s inerrant Word, that is no mere statistic; it is a mind-numbing tragedy. Fifty million lives have been lost. That is the inescapable conclusion of a faithful reading of Psalm 139:13-16. Verse 16 is particularly clear. “Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; and in Your book were all written the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them.” “Unformed substance” (or “formless mass”) refers to a human being at the embryonic stage, when organs and limbs have not yet formed. God knew us, loved us, and was at work in us even before our mothers knew they were carrying us! The unequivocal teaching of scripture is that life begins at conception. Therefore, abortion is morally unacceptable other than in the rare case where another life is at stake (the life of the mother or other fetuses in the womb).

That biblical argument holds weight in the church, but not in the public square where the Bible’s accuracy is doubted and authority is denied. Do we have any ground, then, outside of scripture to make a compelling case that abortion is morally unacceptable for a just society? I believe so. Here is my best attempt to advocate a pro-life stance without appealing to scripture.

Let’s begin with what is seemingly the most important question, “When does human life begin?” If science could prove without doubt that human life begins at conception, then abortion would find few proponents. Unfortunately, modern science can’t even agree on a definitive definition of human life, much less a definitive assessment of when it begins. Some argue for conception, others for a difficult-to-define point of “viability” (the fetus could live outside the womb with medical help - a point that grows earlier with every advance of neo-natal medicine!), and others for an even later point in gestation. That uncertainty has become our legal rationale for permitting abortion. If science can’t tell us when human life begins, then let’s leave it to expectant mothers to decide for themselves. Without certainty, we assume we simply can’t legally prohibit abortion.

But perhaps we've put far too much stock in certainty! As Peter Kreeft wisely argued some years ago [1], the immorality of abortion is NOT dependent on our certainty regarding the question of when life begins.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that we cannot know when human life begins. We don’t know when a fetus [2] begins to constitute a living human being guaranteed rights under the law. And so, we allow abortion. In this scenario, there are only two possible outcomes:

  • The fetus was, indeed, a person (human life had already begun).
  • The fetus was not a person (human life had not yet begun)

Assuming the mother’s life was not at risk, nor were any other fetuses at risk, then option 1 would constitute involuntary manslaughter. We made a choice to allow an action for other-than-life-saving reasons recognizing that it could kill innocent life. And, since the fetus is a person in option 1, the choice did indeed result in death. Society is therefore responsible for manslaughter.

Option 2, to the contrary, is not illegal. No law was broken since no life was taken. However, while not illegal, it is immoral.[3] Just societies ALWAYS ERR ON THE SIDE OF LIFE. That is, when faced with a choice between two options, one of which could possibly kill innocent life, the other of which could not, we are morally obligated to choose the safer option.[4] In fact, we often go to great pains to preserve a life, even if we don’t know that a life is at stake. That’s what guides and often painfully limits our military options in the war on terror. We abort a drone attack on even the possibility of civilian casualties. The action is moral whether or not civilians are actually present (in other words, morality is not conditioned on after-the-fact evidence that life was indeed at stake). Doctors order expensive MRI’s for patients on even the slightest suspicion that a discomfort could indicate a tumor. Firemen risk life and limb to rush into a burning home on even the smallest suspicion that there might be a person inside. Just societies always err on the side of life.

Except, it seems, in the case of abortion. When Barack Obama was asked during his first election campaign, "When does life begin?" he answered, "That's above my pay grade." No less than the President of the United States admits that a fetus could be a human life! He is therefore, whether he admits it or not, acknowledging that abortion could kill innocent life. And yet, he and society at large have chosen to allow abortion to continue. That defies logic and basic morality. If we don't know with certainty that the fetus is not a living person, how can a just society risk the possibility that we might be killing an innocent person? Unless the reason to abort carries equal moral weight (save the life of the mother; save as many fetuses as possible), it fails this most basic test of morality. We don’t need the Bible to prove the immorality of abortion on demand; we need only common sense.

And now, let me end on a more pastoral note. To supporters of abortion rights, the arguments above may seem cold and uncaring. What does all this talk of a just society matter to a young, terrified woman grappling with the shame, pain, and financial hardships of an unplanned pregnancy? She needs love, not moral philosophy. So shouldn’t we allow her the freedom to choose what works best for her? Isn’t it love to give her the freedom to abort? Absolutely not! Think about it. We have admitted, as a society, that we do not know if the fetus growing in her womb is a life or not. The best scientific minds are divided. Our own President is unsure. And so we hand the fateful decision to assess when life begins to a woman at her most vulnerable moment. We give her the choice to make a decision that we know will consign her to a life of uncertainty and nagging guilt. This assumes science will not one day answer the question of when human life begins. If science does answer that question, and finds that it began at conception or at some early stage that predates the age of the fetus she aborted, then she will have to live the rest of her life knowing that she killed a person (involuntary manslaughter). How is it love to foist that potential guilt upon someone at their moment of need? To love her is to help her make the only morally rationale choice: err on the side of life. Let us come beside her with support and grace. Let us equip her and resource her to either raise her child or place her child in a loving, caring adoptive home. Legalizing abortion is not love; it’s cruelty wrapped in the guise of choice.

Blake's blog can be found at www.grace-bible.org/blakesblog/

____________________________
[1] Article can be found at www.peterkreeft.com/topics-more/personhood_apple.htm. It first appeared in the December 2000 issue of Crisis Magazine.
[2] For the sake of simplicity I will use the term “fetus” even though the argument holds for both the embryonic and fetal stages.
[3] Since the term “immoral” may carry unhelpful baggage in the minds of our secular peers, it may be more useful to say “unjust,” “wrong,” or “unwise.” Abortion-on-demand is all three.
[4] There is a caveat: the cost/benefit test. An action that could possibly endanger human life is regarded as moral/right if the benefit far outweighs the risk. So, for example, we have (rightly, I believe) decided to allow driving despite the fact that around 35,000 Americans die every year from automobile accidents. The risk to life is outweighed by the benefits of automotive transportation. Does this same logic support abortion? Abortion advocates will argue that ending an unwanted pregnancy does benefit both the pregnant woman and society at large. Her life returns to pre-pregnancy condition (or so abortion advocates would lead us to believe – while she can indeed resume her studies or employment, her psyche will carry enduring affects). And society is spared the expense of caring for an unwanted child with a higher-than-average chance of incarceration. But I would object on two grounds. First, the risk to life in abortion is far higher. If you drive an average amount, your lifetime risk of dying in an automotive accident is 1 in 84, or 1.2% (from well.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/10/31/how-scared-should-we-be/). In contrast, the risk is far higher that a embryo aborted at 7-8 weeks (the average gestational age of abortions according to CDC) will be found by future medical discoveries to constitute a human life. At that stage, all essential organs have at least begun to develop. The heart is beating. Arms and legs begin to move. The least we can say is that there is a much greater than 1.2% chance that the embryo constitutes human life! And that chance only increases as we look at later term abortions. Second, what about the benefit abortion provides. While abortion does allow a woman’s life and earning potential to recover in some measure, it often inflicts great psychological harm. Numerous scientific studies have demonstrated a substantially increased risk of depression and suicidal ideation in women after abortion compared to women who gave birth (www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/feb/20/disclosing-the-abortion-suicide-association/?page=all). While automotive transportation provides an undeniable benefit, abortion does not. For these two reasons, I conclude that on-demand abortion fails the cost/benefit test.

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