IN MANY areas of the world today considerable interest has been generated in the reform of abortion laws to cover more contingencies. This interest has reached a loud clamor in some circles. Liberation activists find in this uproar the elements of a new humanitarian cause. In fact, the result has been the enactment of more liberal abortion laws, such as those adopted in New York State in April, 1970.
Immediately, well-meaning people have rushed to establish abortion counseling, in formation, and referral services to offer aid to women who might be seeking safe, legal, hospital and hospital-affiliated clinic abortions at reasonable cost. Some of these agencies also offer practical alternatives to abortion and refer women to prenatal clinics, homes for unwed mothers, adoption services, psychiatric and/or religious counseling services, et cetera.
The telephone switchboard of one of these agencies was completely inadequate. It was reported that hundreds of callers constantly received the busy signal. From the start it looked as though abortions might become big business.
As could and should be expected, public opinion is irreconcilably divided. The division is not along the lines of Christian and non-Christian belief. Even in the Christian church camp different values are assessed separately and the differences do not always fall along denominational lines.
The Need for Careful Thought
Certainly Seventh-day Adventist physicians and ministers will need to think clearly on the matter of standards and guidelines. Both represent the spiritual and ethical outreach of the church, and the fact that they are asking for a serious discussion of the factors involved is a heartening indication. We are aware, however, that discussion will reveal considerable diversity of viewpoint.
One physician states the case bluntly as follows: "It will be tragic indeed if our church should support the free and willful destruction of human life [abortion for convenience], while urging those who are of military age not to bear arms in order to refrain from taking life—even that of the enemy."
Responsible leaders of the church and physicians have adopted suggestive guide lines for therapeutic abortions that might need to be performed in denominational hospitals in the United States. We think it would be well at the present stage to publish these guidelines. At the same time a more exhaustive study of the matter has been initiated. A large committee of church leaders, denominational theologians, and medical professionals are spending and will continue to spend considerable time in research and dialog in an effort to assure that the cause of truth and humanity are recognized theologically and medically in this big area of concern today.
Perhaps a tentative review of present-day thinking and the motivations behind it could be helpful at this stage. First, why are abortions sought and under what conditions? A survey of the findings of obstetricians in the United States of America listed five points:
1. The prospective mother may be unwed with no definite prospects of marriage.
2. She may have been the victim of rape or incest.
3. She may have contracted German measles or taken thalidomide and fears that her child will be horribly deformed.
4. She may have some physical condition that pregnancy could aggravate to the point of endangering her life.
5. She may be an unwed child under fifteen years of age.
On the surface, an extension of legal abortion into the above areas would seem humane and practical. It must be pointed out, however, that less than one fifth of the estimated one million women who obtain illegal abortions in a year do so under these circumstances. Four fifths of the abortions fit the following description given by a director of obstetrics and gynecology at a large New York hospital: "A married woman with two or three children, at the height of child-bearing, between 28 and 40." To be sure, this fact greatly narrows the scope of the humanitarian problem.
Now let us consider some of the basic issues that must be faced in determining a Christian attitude.
1. It must be recognized to start with that the right to life is not an unconditioned right. This is true even in the eyes of the most conservative moralists since they accept capital punishment, killing in self-defense, the assassination of tyrants, and generally abortion when the physical life of the mother is involved. The fact that the right to life is not an unconditioned right makes it impossible to find an absolute that would forbid the taking of human life in all circumstances.
2. This is an age of much dehumanization and little of what Albert Schweitzer called the "reverence for life." It certainly behooves Christians today, therefore, to speak out on behalf of life, especially of defenseless life. Current lack of "reverence for life" is possibly the most frightening aspect of our secularized world.
3. Closely related to the problem of "reverence for life" is the penalty sensitive mothers sometimes pay for many decades as a result of their "abortion for convenience." For many women this experience has shattered their psychological well-being. In such cases a feeling of guilt is harbored that is heightened by the constant sight of happy, growing children. One young mother (now not so young) revealed in a conversation how each time she met a child (and now a young lady or a young man), she was and is unable to thrust from her the question, "Would my child now be like that? Possibly I could be planning for a daughter's wedding." Such guilt complexes sometimes become a threat not only to mental but to physical health. In other words, a mother's psychological problems must have thought when the spectrum of abortion is under consideration.
4. For many the crux of the abortion problem really is whether or not the fetus is already a human life. When does the child become a "living being"? Is it such when it lives dependently in its mother's womb or only when later it lives independently outside it?
This problem can be considered from a medical and Biblical point of view. Medically, Dr. Andre E. Hellegers (Johns Hopkins University) lays stress on the stage of implantation five days after conception. There is presently no medical consensus on the timing of the identification of the human being. A considered judgment in this area by medical science would be helpful and interesting, be the time five days, three months, or eight months. However, for the moment there is here a gray area of apparent ignorance or unwillingness to take a stand.
The Biblical Approach
Biblically, scholars again are divided. Some consider the Bible teaches that the fetus becomes fully human at birth when it draws its first breath. Such cite passages like Genesis 2:7: "Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being" (R.S.V.). Special emphasis is given to the "breath" of life. The same word is found in the story of Elijah's healing the widow's son (1 Kings 17:17). Again, in the prophet Ezekiel's book, God said to the dry bones, "Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and we shall live" (Eze. 37:5). Actually, the Hebrew word is ruach and is translated as "soul," "life," or "breath," indicating etymologically that the Hebrews somehow connected breath, life, and being. Thus the entrance of "breath" at birth would start the "living being." Until that point the fetus simply would be a part of the mother's body.
On the other hand, the ecclesiast believed that "the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child" (Eccl. 11:5, R.S.V.), although he gave no reason why he believed this or what the actual implication was. And when Elisabeth (the mother of John the Baptist) heard Mary's greeting, the baby within her leaped for joy (Luke 1:44). Would this indicate that it recognized the mother and participated in her life?
5. To be sure, in the Christian's scale of values (considering particularly number 1 above) the life of the fetus is not the only primary value to consider, though that life is weighted so heavily that only the most extreme circumstances could possibly be allowed to take precedence over it. For instance, though every year thousands of upper- and middle-class women have abortions, many more thousands, perhaps millions, also have abortions under unspeakable conditions. The suggestion is that perhaps just as some societies legalize gambling or prostitution, abortion should be legalized under precise circumstances as a lesser evil. Possibly laws should be reviewed and updated to fit better the actual situation. If abortions are to remain a fact, the evil is compounded by endangering the lives of the mothers and the reputation of physicians.
6. When one considers the immense power of both technology and government, and the demoralizing invasion of secularism generally, considerate care should be the order of the day. All aspects of the problem should be in mind, including possible alternative suggestions to a liberalization of abortion laws beyond the area of therapeutic abortions. Perhaps society would find a better morality and more safety in promoting legislation to facilitate the care of unwanted babies under normal conditions amid signs of esteem and with expert medical care in order to assure them a decent delivery. And when the babies are born, can we not do more to assure proper care for them? Certainly here is an area where tax money would be justified to help women keep their babies instead of aborting them.
Human lives are precious. A mother who, under whatever circumstances, gives one to society, should be the object of consideration. She may have handled God's powers of creation in a wrong way, but God can forgive her, and society must.
All of this seemingly arrives at the conclusion that except in the extreme circumstances listed under our guidelines on therapeutic abortion, it would be better to enhance our reverence for life and the Christian way that leads to it.