Abortion and the Value of Human Life, Part III
(a series of articles by Vicar Eric Phillips, Ebenezer Lutheran Church, Spring 2013)
In the previous columns, I’ve argued that the moral debate over abortion boils down to the question of whether human life is sacred, or just human personhood. Those who support a right to abortion-on-demand end up arguing the latter, that although a fetus is biologically human it is not yet a person, and therefore can be destroyed at will, without moral outrage. Those who seriously maintain the former, on the other hand, must conclude that abortion is the taking of an innocent human life, and thus something that must be permitted only in those rare cases when it can be expected to prevent an equal or greater evil from occurring (e.g. the death of both the mother and the baby). In part II, then, I demonstrated from a few foundational biblical passages that the former is the position taught by the Christian faith. A human being is made in the image of God, and is transcendently valuable for that objective reason, before we consider all the wonderful ways in which this image manifests itself through the development of human personhood. But there’s more. If we continue looking at the biblical witness, we will see that even if we were to allow the morality of abortion to be judged on the basis of human personhood rather than human life, it would fail that test too.
Even before human beings have developed into recognizable persons, capable of pursuing relationships with other persons, God has entered already, unilaterally, into a personal relationship with them. In Isaiah 49:5, the prophet says that the Lord “formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him,” meaning that God began personal dealings with him-developing him with a specific purpose in mind-even before he was born. In Jeremiah l:5, God speaks to another prophet, and traces the line back even before that point: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations,” Before Jeremiah was a psychologically recognizable person, God knew him and had already drafted him into His service. In Psalm 139: 15-16, David writes, “My frame was not hidden from you when I was being made in secret …. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” If God has a personal relationship with human beings, even before they are capable of having what we would recognize as a personal relationship with Him, is He not treating them as persons?
And when we consider this, we realize that we’ve leapt right past a more obvious argument, namely that God isn’t the only one who does this. Simple human parents also do. Mothers experience a personal relationship with their children long before they are born. To a lesser degree Fathers do too, when they hope for the baby’s safety, plan for his future, and look forward to getting to know him. Even older siblings do. On one occasion, at least, a fetus treated another fetus as a person-when John the Baptist, less than six months in the womb (certainly not “viable” given the medical technology of his day) leapt in joy to acknowledge his Savior-still in his first month-in the womb of the Blessed Virgin. Yes, this particular argument is subjective (except for that last example), but this particular subjective kind of valuation still has legal force in America, even though the value is being projected onto the baby by another person rather than emanating from the baby’s own (presently nonexistent) self-awareness and self-determination. If the mother wants her pre-viable baby, that baby enjoys the full protection of the law. If she doesn’t, the child has no legal protection at all. And realizing how parents subjectively create personality for their unborn children helps us understand what God is doing in the passages l’ve referenced. But what He does is not subjective. If He treats us as persons from the earliest stages of life–and even before the earliest stages of life, in His timeless knowledge, then that’s what we are, whether psychologists are ever able to prove it or not.
This principle lies at the root of infant Baptism, incidentally. In Baptism, God makes all kinds of personal declarations about a newborn who, though now safely beyond the reach of abortion, is still not a psychologically recognizable person yet: “You are my beloved child, you are my heir; you are forgiven all your sins, my Holy Spirit now lives within you.” If God did not treat infants as persons, the Sacrament would make no sense as applied to them.
But how do we talk about abortion with people who don’t recognize the authority of God’s Word? And should we? What’s our place? What’s our job? In part IV I’ll wrap the subject up by considering those questions.