Abortion and the Value of Human Life, Part I
(a series of articles by Vicar Eric Phillips, Ebenezer Lutheran Church, Spring 2013)
The last weekend of January saw the 40th March for Life in Washington, D.C. It’s been that long since the U.S. Supreme Courtdeclared laws banning abortion to be “unconstitutional,” and in the intervening time, over fifty million abortions have been performed in the United States. Some of these have been deemed medically necessary-as a response to-an ectopic pregnancy, for instance, where the baby is sure to die anyway and the mother’s life is seriously threatened in addition-but such cases account for only a tiny percentage of all abortions. The vast majority are elective, usually performed because the mother fears a baby would interfere with her schooling or career, or that she doesn’t have the money to take care of a child, or that she will end up as a single parent-or some combination of those factors. All three are compelling fears, and would adequately explain a host of other decisions, but they fall far short as justifications in this case. What is the greater evil? Having to drop out of school, or killing an innocent human being? If we’re talking about an already-born baby, almost no one has any doubts about it. People who leave their newborns in a dumpster for such reasons are not only prosecuted for murder, but regarded with horror by society. What makes abortion different?
In the original case law established by Roe v. Wade, “viability” was an important principle. If the fetus was “viable,” that is, if it had developed to the point that it could live outside of the womb, then state law was allowed to protect it. This is an arbitrary standard, though. A baby that is “viable” by this definition still needs an immense amount of care-including extraordinary medical care when born prematurely-in order to survive for long. He’s just outside the womb rather than inside it, and how does that difference make sense as the dividing line between “really human” and “not quite human”? Also, medical technology has improved since 1973, so that “viability” is now achieved much earlier in the pregnancy. Are we to believe that the moral value of certain fetuses has changed over the past 40 years? Or that a 24-week-old fetus in a country with advanced hospitals deserves the protection of the law, but a 24-week-old fetus in a less developed country does not?
Even at the earliest stage of human development, just after fertilization, when there’s only one cell, it is still life. What kind of life? Well, if you let nature take its course, you’ll see. It’s not going to turn into anything but a human being. So defenders of abortion end up arguing instead that it might be “human” but it’s not a person, just an extension of another person-the mother. And with that move, they shift the basis of the debate so that the thing that matters morally-the thing that has supreme value and must be protected by law-is no longer human life, but human personhood. It seems like a clever move, maybe even an insightful one, until you realize that having made it, they can no longer explain why babies should be protected even outside the womb. Is a newborn a person? Is a three-month old a person? How can you tell? Self-awareness is foundational to our psychological concept of personhood, and most psychologists don’t believe that a child is self-aware until about the age of one. If my life has intrinsic value, then abortion is always the willful destruction of something that should be protected, an act that can be justified only in cases where it will actually save human life instead. If my life does not have intrinsic value, but only functional value stemming fiom my psychological identity as a person, then human life in itself actually has no more value than animal life, and the only reason to criminalize infanticide is that society gets sentimental about babies.
From the Bible we learn that the value of human life is intrinsic, in that it derives from its Creator, not from the personal identity of each individual human being. We are made in the image and likeness of God; that’s why we develop as psychological persons. It’s not the other way around.
In Part II, I’ll show how the Bible teaches this.
Abortion and the Value of Human Life, Part II
In Part I, I argued that defenders of abortion-on-demand (and by implication the entire U.S. legal system, in that it allows abortion-on-demand) have abandoned the idea that human life has great intrinsic value-that it is in any sense sacred. In many situations they still talk as if they believe this, but what they really believe in is the great intrinsic value of personhood-the sacred right to self-determination. If they really believed that human life was intrinsically valuable, they would not defend the right of parents to destroy their unborn children for reasons of personal preference and convenience. They would no longer have to try to figure out a point at which the fetus becomes “viable”-that is, able to exist as an independent person separate from its mother.
Their position would no longer run into the incoherence of arguing that a newborn, who has none of the defining traits of psychological personhood and still needs 24/7 care from its mother (or a surrogate) simply to go on living, is somehow more of a person than a 10-week-old fetus. This shift of values from the sanctity of human life (the human being) to the sanctity of personhood (the human choosing) has been momentous, a moral earthquake in Western society, a huge departure from its Christian underpinnings. We who are Christians must not be dragged off by this cultural riptide. God’s Word speaks clearly on the matter.
The Bible wastes no time in distinguishing human life from animal life and establishing its transcendent value. It starts in the first chapter, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them” (Gen.1:26-7). Chapter two adds the intimate detail that God shared His Spirit with the first man: “The LORD God… breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (2:7) Chapters two and three describe a relationship that God has with Adam and Eve. Now, it’s true, the image of God reveals itself in the things human beings are able to understand, to choose, and to do. A baby doesn’t display moral reasoning, or any kind of reasoning for that matter. He can’t “have dominion” over the animals or have a two-way relationship with God-or with anyone else, for that matter. But surely we cannot conclude from this that the baby doesn’t have the image of God yet!
Such actions do not constitute the image of God. Rather, they are made possible by it. We are able to function as rational and willing individuals-as persons-because of how God has made us. He builds us according to His image, then we act on it (though in a deeply flawed way, being sinners).
Chapter nine of Genesis helps us establish some of the moral ramifications of this fact. In verse three, God gives Noah permission to eat the animals, and then in verse six gives completely the opposite instruction concerning human beings: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” God here distinguishes human life from animal life by means of the starkest contrast. He ordains capital punishment for murder, and the reason He gives has nothing to do with the personhood of the victim-the experiences that have been stolen from him or the fact that he has been deprived of his right to self-determination. The reason given is God’s own majesty. A human being, simply by being, is an image of God. To destroy it is to deface God’s image, to commit capital sacrilege. And just in case there is any doubt whether this principle should apply to babies (or only to self-determining persons who are engaged in distinctly human activities when they are killed), God included a ruling on abortion in the Law of Moses. “When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth…” (Ex. 21:22-24). Note, this isn’t even intentional abortion, just abortion by negligence–third-degree abortion, we might say. But it carries the death penalty all the same, because human life is sacred, not just human personhood.