Abortion: a moral issue?

Should the church take a stand on the abortion question? Could it be that there is a moral issue involved.not only in what we say about abortion but in how we treat those who have to decide whether or not to have an abortion?

Dr. Richard Muller is dean of students and Bible teacher at Vejlefjord Hojere Skole, Daugaard, Denmark.

Recently I read an article about abortion in an Adventist magazine. It left me wondering whether we as a church have become so accustomed to the secularized thinking of the world that we are losing sight of the Biblical and theological roots of our thinking. "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth" (Gen. 1:1), and on the sixth day "God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth" (verses 27, 28).

Man is made in the image of God. This distinguishes him from the rest of creation. Man, in the image of God, is to rule the earth. The ruling over the earth as an expression of the image of God presupposes, among other things, the ability to think, to remember, to will, to evaluate, to love, to take care.

In the New Testament, Colossians 3:10 and Ephesians 4:24 demonstrate that the image of God includes, further' more, the knowledge of God, righteousness, and holiness. This image of God, although marred, debased, often hardly recognizable through the Fall, should always be restored but never willfully destroyed, except by God Himself, who created it in the first place.

After creating man and woman, God told them to procreate and people the earth. Each time the sperm of a man and the ovum of a woman unite, the process of re-creating a unique creature, a living soul, a person called man, begins. Genesis 4:1 beautifully describes the first act of procreation: "And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bore Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the Lord."

Note that the next event mentioned after conception was the birth of the child. Numerous texts could be quoted from Scripture that show the close relationship between conception and the birth of a child, indicating that the beginning of the particular human life started with conception.

In the New Testament we find the same idea, perhaps expressed even more forcefully. The angel told Mary, "And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus" (Luke 1:31). Even more telling, the angel continued, "And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren" (verse 36).

The last text quoted emphasizes that she "conceived a son," that is, a human being, a person. Conception and the birth of a person cannot be separated in Hebrew-Christian thinking. The beginning of personhood starts with conception.

A study of the word womb in the Bible illustrates this point clearly. The Biblical writers understood that that which was developing in the wombs of women was not some unimportant tissue, but per sons, individuals, who could be consecrated to God, whom God watched over, and who were designed, while still in the womb, to become progenitors of whole nations.

"And the Lord said unto her [Rebekah], two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger" (Gen. 25:23). The two fetuses were here prophetically seen as people and nations. What has been conceived and is under development is very important. Also of interest are the two preceeding verses, where we find the conception in one verse and the struggle of the children within the womb in the next.

In the book of Judges, chapter 13, we read about the birth of Samson. The Angel of the Lord appeared to Manoah's wife and told her that she should conceive a son and that this son should but while still in the process of development, while still in the womb (verse 7; cf. chap. 16:17). And if you read Judges 13:7 carefully, you can even get the impression that in this special case the dedication started with conception. The mother was to observe the vow of the Nazarite from conception on. Samson would be consecrated from the womb to the grave.

Job also recognized that God creates man within the womb. The Bible does not view the making of man as a purely biological development, but as a creative act of God. Man receives his worth--and this is exactly the context of Job 31--from the Creator. Chapter 31 is Job's plea of innocence. He hasn't even despised his servants, he declares. And why should he? They were made, like himself, by God, while still in the womb. "Did not he that made me in the womb make him? and did not one fashion us in the womb?" (verse 15). Should man freely, willfully, and purposefully destroy the life that God makes and fashions through the procreative powers? Even the lowest, the servant, is the product of God's creative work in the womb and should be dealt with respectfully.

The psalmist also testifies that it is God who upholds the life in the womb. "By thee have I been holden up from the womb: thou art he that took me out of my mother's bowels: my praise shall be continually of thee" (Ps. 71:6).

Isaiah agrees that God forms mankind in the womb. He compares the gods of the neighboring people with Yahweh and declares, "Thus saith the Lord, thy redeemer, and he that formed thee from the womb, I am the Lord that maketh all things; that stretches forth the heavens alone; that spreadeth abroad the earth by myself (Isa. 44:24).

A significant group of texts tell of individuals who were called by God while still in the womb. In Psalm 139:16 David testifies, "Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them." According to this, God had David recorded in a book even before he was born Jeremiah also testifies to God's foreknowledge: "Before I [God] formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou earnest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations" (Jer. 1:5). The apostle Paul testifies to similar foreknowledge in Galatians 1:15.

But perhaps the most impressive example to demonstrate the importance God attaches to fetuses is found in the stories recorded in Luke 1. Although the passage deals with two extraordinary pregnancies, verses 41 and 44 furnish food for thought.

Mary, filled with the Holy Spirit, went to visit Elisabeth when Elisabeth was six months pregnant. When Mary arrived, "the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost" (verse 41). John, who was filled with the Holy Spirit from the womb (verse 15), responded here to the Holy Spirit while still a fetus. His response was not just the normal movements of an unborn child, but Elisabeth testified that "the babe leaped in my womb for joy" (verse 44). The implication is that this unborn prophet was already an individual capable of responding to the Spirit of God.

The thought of abortion is so foreign to Judeo-Christian thought that it is not even mentioned in Scripture. Exodus 21:22, 23 deals with an exceptional case in connection with accidental injury to a pregnant woman. But it does give insight into how an unborn fetus is viewed by God. "If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman's husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life." The word translated "mischief" here is ason, which Gesenius defines as referring especially to a fatal accident. In the light of the Old Testament's respect for unborn life, I believe that the passage should be interpreted in the following way: If the woman concerned is in an advanced stage of pregnancy (from the seventh month onward), when the possibility of losing a child is much greater than in the earlier part of pregnancy under these circumstances, and is hurt and goes into labor and the child survives--that is, it is not a fatal accident--then only a fine should be paid, recognizing the absolute protection of pregnant women and that women with child under no circumstances should suffer hurt. But if the child is born too early and does not survive, or is hurt so much by the accident that it dies, then the old law of life for life is to be enforced. Thus even the very young life is protected by the old statute.

Besides this somewhat difficult text, we find some other texts that show that the surrounding nations and a wicked king of Israel did not have this high regard for unborn life. They even dared to slit up the pregnant women to get hold of the unborn babies in order to destroy them. These acts are presented in Scripture as acts of sinful cruelty because they reveal a total disrespect for unborn life. (See Isa. 13:18; Hosea 13:16; 2 Kings 8:12; 15:16-18.)

The prophet Amos makes the case against destroying unborn life even clearer. In chapters 1 and 2 of his book, Amos pronounces judgments upon six of Israel and Judah's neighbors. The reason for judgment on Ammon is portrayed graphically: "Thus saith the Lord; For three transgressions of the children of Ammon, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they have ripped up the women with child of Gilead, that they might enlarge their border" (chap. 1:13). Was this terrible deed only a punishable transgression there and then? Why did God single this one out? Was it not to point out that the Ammonites' total disrespect for the pregnant and the unborn was a sin?

All of the texts mentioned thus far shed light directly or indirectly on the subject of abortion, but in seeking God's will in the matter, we mustn't overlook the basic underlying principle of respect for life as expressed in the sixth commandment: "Thou shalt not kill" (Ex. 20:13). Is this commandment not straightforward, clear in itself? Does it include the protection of the unborn? Is it not clear from the texts covered so far that the Bible writers would include the unborn in this protection? lathe fruit of the womb they saw individual persons, leaders for God's cause, progenitors of whole nations.

Some might argue that the commandment in its original setting speaks about murdering, not about accidental killing, but is not murdering exactly what we find in cases of abortion, where young children under development while still in the mother's womb, these most innocent and defenseless ones, are intentionally killed? Is this not one of the most brutal forms of murder? One knows of the taking of life in the Old Testament, but this was only because people willfully opposed the clear instructions of the sovereign God. But the unborn infant has not as yet purposefully done anything wrong. It hasn't even asked to come into existence, and yet its developing life is not respected. In many countries it has no rights whatsoever in the first trimester of its development.

The Ten Commandments, of course, say much more than the casual reader would expect. The sixth commandment does not include just the right to live, but commissions us to spare human life, to protect human life, to guard human life. John Calvin comments in his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion: "The purport of this commandment is, that since the Lord has bound the whole human race by a kind of unity, the safety of all ought to be considered as entrusted to each. In general, therefore, all violence and injustice, and every kind of harm from which our neighbor's body suffers, is prohibited. Accordingly, we are required faithfully to do what in us lies to defend the life of our neighbor, to promote whatever tends to his tranquility, to be vigilant in warding off harm, and, when danger comes, to assist in removing it." 1 Calvin here expresses a fact few Christians would dispute: The whole human family has one origin, and we are all in some way related to one another. All men, according to Jesus, are our neighbors. And isn't the unborn child the mother's closest neighbor?

Commenting on the sixth commandment, Ellen White wrote: "All acts of injustice that tend to shorten life; the spirit of hatred and revenge, or the indulgence of any passion that leads to injurious acts toward others, or causes us even to wish them harm (for 'whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer'); a selfish neglect of caring for the needy or suffering; all self-indulgence or unnecessary deprivation or excessive labor that tends to injure health--all these are, to a greater or less degree, violations of the sixth commandment." 2

And of course, Jesus Himself amplified the meaning of the commandment. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus sharpens the senses and leads us into an even deeper understanding of the law. He does not lessen the requirements of the law. No, He amplifies the requirements of the Ten Commandments to include the words and the thoughts, the starting point of all law breaking. And with this expansion He "hits" us all. No one can stand before God and say, "I am innocent." No, we all have come short and have sinned, but this only widens the respect for the law and deepens the appreciation of unfathomable grace. Read Matthew 5 in the light of the question of abortion and you will see how Jesus wants to get hold of the spirit of the law and not just the letter. As John Calvin puts it: "This commandment, therefore, prohibits the murder of the heart, and requires a sincere desire to preserve our brother's life." 3

According to the spirit of the law, one has to preserve life, also the life--and it is indeed real life--that has not yet been fully developed and has not seen day light. Jesus does not reduce the law, but widens it, and this must also mean a widening of the understanding of life, widening it to the point of conception, the starting point of a unique creature--made in the image of God--whose life no man should take.

Finally, in presenting a Bible-based case against abortion, we come to the heart of the gospel. The good news of the Bible is that God loves and cares and saves. God demonstrated this through His act of incarnation, that is, God becoming man in the person of Jesus Christ. We read about such things as the conception of Christ, His development in the womb of Mary, a little bit about His childhood experience, and then the years of ministry among His people. God identified Himself with humanity so that mankind might feel and taste and understand the justice, mercy, love, long-suffering, and goodness of God. God is interested not only in humanity as a whole but in you and me and each individual of the human race. This total identification of the Son of Man with every man and woman gives everyone the final assurance of worth. God sets His "rubber stamp" on each one of us, telling us, You are of much worth in My sight, so much so that I died for you so that you can live here and hereafter.

Jesus Christ is the God who stepped down to the humblest of human creatures. The Gospels paint a most complete picture of this identifying God. God identified and cared for the runaway lost son who caused his father much trouble and heartache. Wouldn't it have been better if he never had been born? No, not after God entered his life. God gave a totally new meaning to his life.

God identified with the harlot who met Jesus at Jacob's well. Who conceived her? Who let her see the light of day? What went wrong with her upbringing? Questions that the Bible neither asks nor answers. But the Gospel record clearly describes the change in the life of this woman when she discovered that God loves and cares. God identified with the crippled man at the Pool of Bethesda. We find no philosophical discussion about whether it might not have been better had this man never been born. No, Jesus cared for him and healed him, giving him a new life. Jesus even identified with a slave, bowing so low that He was willing to wash the feet of His own disciples, and by so doing illustrating among other things what caring, loving, and serving mean. No one was too low to receive His attention. Jesus can identify with every person in every situation. He, as the risen Lord, Saviour, and High Priest, offers His help to suffering humanity. And He most often wants to administer His help through His outstretched arm: His fol lowers, the church.

The church has often desperately failed to help people in need. If the church says No to abortion, then I hope that every member of this church may live up to the caring, loving, and serving spirit of the Lord. Then we will be willing to help in the various situations that bring suffering, inconvenience, and hardship to individuals and families. And even if Christ's followers do not fully measure up to their responsibility, each agonizing, suffering, downtrodden, neglected, or misunderstood person should know that Christ laid down His life for him. Christ did not come to save the perfect, the righteous, the self-sufficient, but those who are in great need. We should try to avoid suffering, especially in the lives of others, but not if it requires transgressing purposefully, will fully, and with full reflection one of God's commandments. If lawbreaking and suffering stand in opposition to each other, we always have to choose suffering, choose it together with Christ, who suffers with us.

This, then, is the immediate Biblical foundation that the Christian should take into consideration when contemplating abortion. For me the Bible is not neutral, but says quite a lot about abortion. The Bible can never be neutral on such vital questions of life and death.

1 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion,
Book II, chap. 8, sec. 39.

2 Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 308.

3 Calvin, loc. cit.

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Dr. Richard Muller is dean of students and Bible teacher at Vejlefjord Hojere Skole, Daugaard, Denmark.

January 1985

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