Archives For Abortion

Baby In UteroScience can do many things. Since the scientific revolution, we increasingly get the feeling that science can do anything it sets its mind—or calibrates its microscopes—to do. But, of course, that’s not true. There are things that science simply cannot do. One of those things is settle the abortion debate.

The abortion debate hinges on one’s definition of personhood. Contrary to the rhetoric employed, not a single person on either side of the debate believes in murdering innocent persons.

On the pro-choice side, advocates believe that a woman has a right to make her own decisions about her body. And that phrase is key: her body. They believe that the fetus is an extension of the woman’s body. It’s her egg, and it’s growing and developing, but it’s still a part of her body. At some point, that egg will become a person, but prior to that point, it remains a part of the woman’s body and she can choose to have it removed if she wants to. The moment at which a fetus becomes a person is disputed even within the pro-choice camp, but the idea is the same regardless of the timing of personhood.

On the pro-life side, advocates believe that a fetus is a person. Sure, a woman can do with her body what she wants,[1] but the fetus is not her body. It’s a human being. The person is small and inside of her body, to be sure, but that doesn’t entitle the woman to take a human life.

All of this comes down to when exactly a fetus becomes a person. It seems clear that an egg by itself is not a person. It also seems clear that a solitary sperm is not a person. But as soon as these two meet, the debate begins. Many pro-lifers (myself included) believe that personhood begins with fertilization. Other people believe that personhood begins when the fetus is implanted. Or when the heart begins to beat or the brain waves become detectable. Or during a certain trimester. Or at birth. Or even at some point after birth. There are even those who would deny personhood to full grown adults if they have some type of handicap.

The point is, science can tell us exactly what is going on with the growth of the fetus. It can tell us what is going on when fertilization or implantation happen. It can detect and describe the heartbeat and the brain waves.

But science cannot tell us when that fetus becomes a person. Why? Because that is a matter of definition. It is a philosophical question. It is a religious question. We can and should appeal to science in informing our definition of personhood, but we need to understand that this question will not be answered through the scientific method.

And this means that the abortion debate can only be settled at the level of worldview, personal philosophy, and religious beliefs. Christians appeal to the Bible to show that personhood goes all the way back to the womb—even before that, actually. But without divine revelation to guide them, it seems likely that our society will debate the moment of personhood forever.

This does not make the abortion issue futile. Every just cause is worth fighting for. But it does mean that our efforts must be aimed at worldview. Science is a good thing, and it may be useful in illustrating the humanity of even the smallest persons. But we need to recognize that the battle is for the definition of personhood and focus our energies there.


[1] We need to be careful about this terminology, however, because none of us is completely entitled to “do with our bodies what we want.” We are forbidden by law from putting certain types of drugs into them, for example. We’re also not allowed to sell them for sex. No matter which side of the debate we are on, we have to be clear that a person’s “right to choose” always has limitations.

Over the last two posts, I have discussed the suggestion, published in The Journal of Medical Ethics, that parents (or the state) should be able to kill their infants if they discover a defect or hardship that would have led them to have aborted the baby before birth. Much of this discussion hinges on the authors’ (Giubilini and Minerva) definition of personhood.

In this post, I will address an important question that actually gets discussed in the article: why not put the kids up for adoption rather than killing them? I mean, it can’t be easy for a parent to put their children up for adoption, but that has to be a better option than killing them. Right?

Wrong. At least, according to Giubilini and Minerva. In the article, they assume that unhealthy or unhappy babies will be killed. But what of the healthy and happy babies? Wouldn’t it be better to put these babies up for adoption? That way the babies can live and even bring happiness to those adopting them.

Before we consider this too seriously, however, we need to take the mother into account. Giublilini and Minerva explain that giving up a child for adoption can be psychologically difficult for a mother. They acknowledge that abortion sometimes creates a psychological hardship for would-be mothers, but argue that the psychological trauma caused by giving up a child for adoption is worse, because the potential exists to reverse the decision. A woman who has had an abortion is able to move on because she knows her decision was permanent and can’t be undone. A woman who has given up her child for adoption, however, will always have to live with the thought that maybe she could or should reconnect with her child.

I am certainly not inclined to rank levels of psychological distress, especially not in such matters where I do not (and cannot) have any experience. But I do think that it’s important to identify what is happening here. The avoidance of feelings of guilt is exalted above the dignity of human life. Better to kill a human being than to go through life with a burdensome child. Better to deal with some temporary guilt over killing the child than to deal with lifelong guilt over seeing the child live with another family.

There is no discussion of right and wrong, just a desire to alleviate the consequences of our actions and a firm commitment to avoid guilt.

Francis Schaeffer explains: “Humanism makes man ‘the measure of all things.’ It puts man rather than God at the center of all things.” Ironically, in giving ultimate value to man, we lose the only adequate basis we have for considering humanity to be valuable. Man is valuable because he has been created by God, created in his image even. But once we make man “the center of all things,” then he is free to decide that some people are not people. The value of humanity has not been placed in each individual by a Creator, it comes from our ability to contribute to society (or whatever arbitrary standard of value prevails).

Speaking in the late 1970s, Schaeffer compared the harsh realities of abortion and euthanasia to the child sacrifices of the ancients:

“In Old Testament days, God expressed special abhorrence for the Canaanite practice of infant sacrifice…the ancient Europeans also offered up their offspring to the gods. These people killed their offspring in order to purchase from the gods, they hoped, their own personal peace and affluence. Today, indiscriminate abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia are also performed for the personal peace and affluence of individuals. People who destroy their own children and others’, so that they can maintain their life-styles, are also sacrificing to the gods—the gods of a materialistic world-view and practice, and the god of the ‘self’ as the egotistic center and measure of all things.”

We need to be careful here. There are reasons that people pursue abortions that are not to be scoffed at or quickly dismissed. A Christian solution to these social issues will require a depth of compassion, commitment, and sacrifice that the Christian community is not accustomed to. We ought to bear the burdens of those who feel they have no other options than abortion—before or after birth—rather than simply condemning them. But we must be aware of what is being proposed and prepare ourselves to respond with wisdom and compassion.

I will let Schaeffer’s words conclude this series of posts:

“We challenge you to be a person in this impersonal age. Be human in this inhuman age. Put the people in your life first—whether perfect or marred…You and the those around you are people, made in the image of the personal God who created all people in His image.”

Yesterday I posted about the Journal of Medical Ethics‘ article about “post-birth abortions.” In this post I’d like to focus on one important aspect of that article: their definition of personhood.

Few questions could be more important than this: what makes a person? The way we answer this question reveals much about our worldview and will do much to shape the destiny of our society.

In their controversial article, Giubilini and Minerva argue that killing a newborn baby is morally different than killing an adult because the newborn has not yet formed “aims” for his or her future. It’s okay, they argue, to kill a severely handicapped child on the grounds that the child is incapable of forming aims for his or her life, and therefore, on the same grounds, there is nothing wrong with killing a healthy child who has “not formed any aim yet.”

The operative definition of personhood here is the ability to make goals, to develop plans. If you can’t make plans for your future, you’re not a real person. In killing a young child (an age cap of 1 year has been thrown out there, but this is as arbitrary an age as any), no real harm is done because we are not keeping the child from fulfilling any of her (nonexistent) aims for herself. In addition to being a completely arbitrary grounds for declaring someone a person and for constituting a “harm,” this definition is very convenient for the argument of the pro-post-abortionist.

Later in the article, the authors more clearly define personhood:

“We take ‘person’ to mean an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her. This means that many non-human animals and mentally retarded human individuals are persons, but that all the individuals who are not in the condition of attributing any value to their own existence are not persons. Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life.”

Let’s let that suggestion that some animals are persons but some humans aren’t persons speak for itself. It is both bizarre and upsetting, but it’s not the part of the quotation that most concerns me. That last sentence causes my stomach to churn: “Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life.” Really? Are you sure? The authors’ worldview is on full display here. All remnants of the Christian worldview in which mankind carries inherent value as the image-bearers of God have been stripped away. All that is left is the Darwinian assumption that man is merely the accidental victor in the “race” to be the most-evolved specimen on earth. There is no dignity to man’s position atop the food chain. He has attained his self-awareness without intending to, and his seemingly dignified position is no reason to think that merely belonging to the human race should carry with it any special privileges—like the right to not be murdered.

Though the suggestion that merely being human does not warrant one the right to life has been hugely controversial, Giubilini and Minerva deserve credit for riding their worldview all the way to its logical conclusion.

They offer a case in point for what determines personhood. Let’s say a woman is pregnant with identical twins, both of whom are affected by a genetic disorder. The woman can choose to kill one of the fetuses and to use it to develop a cure for the other fetus. In this case, the woman decides that one fetus should be considered a person, and the other fetus should be considered a means to developing a cure. The value of each fetus is not determined by anything inherent to the fetus (both are identical)—the value is projected onto the fetus by the mother.

Who gets to decide what makes a person? Should our Creator be allowed to speak to that issue? Apparently not. Man has made himself the center of the universe, and he reserves the right to decide his own worth and the worth (or lack of worth) of the human beings around him.

What do we lose when we abandon the Christian worldview? Everything. We lose all steady footing for our society, for our progeny, even for ourselves. (I will speak to this a bit more in tomorrow’s post.) Now more than ever Christians must hold to that which we know to be true. The world needs the answers and the firm foundation that God has revealed to us.

The Journal of Medical Ethics recently published an article advocating “post-birth abortions.” Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, who wrote the article, argue that there are many cases where women have abortions because having a child would be physically, psychologically, or economically difficult for them. But what if these hardships are not realized until after the baby is born? What if the child’s father leaves, for example, or the child is born with an unforeseen disability? Should the mother have to bear the burden of raising a child in non-ideal circumstances? Or what if the financial and organizational burden of caring for the child falls to the state?

Though Giubilini and Minerva acknowledge that people with severe disabilities are often “reported to be happy,” they argue:

“to bring up such children might be an unbearable burden on the family and on society as a whole, when the state economically provides for their care. On these grounds, the fact that a fetus has the potential to become a person who will have an (at least) acceptable life is no reason for prohibiting abortion. Therefore, we argue that, when circumstances occur after birth such that they would have justified an abortion, what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible.” (emphasis original)

Medicine is one of those front lines where the specific definition of key words such as “person,” “fetus,” “justified,” “burden” and so on have huge implications. For example, why call the active murder of a baby (some advocate killing children up to a year old) “post-birth abortion”? Giubilini and Minerva explain:

“In spite of the oxymoron in the expression, we propose to call this practice ‘after-birth abortion’, rather than ‘infanticide’, to emphasize that the moral status of the individual killed is comparable with that of a fetus (on which ‘abortions’ in the traditional sense are performed) rather than to that of a child. Therefore, we claim that killing a newborn could be ethically permissible in all the circumstances where abortion would be.”

There is much here that should concern us as Christians. Rather than offering my own thoughts on this, I will share some insights that I gleaned from reading Francis Schaeffer’s book Whatever Happened to the Human Race? (co-authored by C. Everett Koop, M.D.). Schaeffer wrote this book in 1979 to call attention to the issues at stake in the growing popularity of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia. Relevant as his words were in his day, they proved to be prophet of our time as well.

Though many were shocked that the Journal of Medical Ethics would publish such an article, this is merely the logical conclusion of people operating within a Darwinian mentality. If survival of the fittest really is the driving force behind life, then humanity has no inherent value. What value he has must be derived from his ability to survive. And if a young child stands in the way of another evolutionary being (i.e., a mother) of surviving in the way she wants to, why shouldn’t she practice survival of the fittest with her infant?

As soon as we leave behind an absolute standard of right and wrong, the inherent value of human life gets reworked, even discarded. We are left only with prevailing notions of what humanity is and ought to be. Looking at the push for abortion in the late 70s, Schaeffer says, “It all started with the acceptance of the attitude that there is such a thing as a life not worthy to be lived.”

He insightfully explains the degenerating logic that unfolds once we abandon an absolute standard of morality:

“At first we hear much talk of compassion for the unwanted. The discussion moves on to ‘rights,’ then to ‘my’ rights and soon to pure ‘economics.’ The discussion of life must be brought back to where it belongs—not to emotional, extreme examples, not to selfish questions of rights, not to expedience, and certainly not to economics. The matter should be discussed in terms of right and wrong.”

With regard to the use of language in these types of debates, do we really think we’re kidding anyone by calling the murder of young children “post-birth abortions”? Does the softened title make the act itself any less reprehensible? Yet this simple decision to not call it “baby-slaughtering” will likely go a long way towards its being perceived in a more understandable light. Schaeffer warned: “Language has power. The language we use actually forms the concepts we have and the results these concepts produce.”

I will explore some of the issues presented in Giubilini and Minvera’s article in the next two posts as well. But before I close this post, Schaeffer gives us another warning that we should take to heart:

“One wonders what the chances are for someone who becomes a burden in a society that practices the concept of the survival of the fittest and has begun this practice by starting to eliminate its children.”

As I mentioned some time ago, I love Freakonomics. Steven Levitt, an economics professor at Chicago University, and Stephen Dubner, a journalist, teamed up to write two books—Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics—which explore “the hidden side of everything.” Levitt brilliantly manipulates and interprets statistical data in order to find why things happen the way they do in everything from teacher’s cheating on their students’ tests to realtors selling your home for less than they could to drug dealers choosing to live at home with their parents. There’s no doubt about it, these books are fascinating.

As Levitt examines these situations, he feels compelled to go where the data leads him. In at least one case, this approach landed him in the midst of some very intense controversy.

Levitt was fascinated by the decline in crime during the 1990s. As the 80s came to a close, everyone expected the growing crime rates to continue to skyrocket. By all accounts, our society should have been overcome by crime. But suddenly, magically, crime dropped dramatically in the 90s. Why?

Many explanations have been offered. Some say that changes in the crack market caused the drop in crime rate. Others cite innovative policing strategies (incidentally, this faulty (according to Levitt) assumption forms a major basis for Malcolm Gladwell’s conclusions in The Tipping Point). But Levitt finds these and many other suggestions unconvincing—they can only account for a small percentage of the reduced crime rate.

So what really caused the decline? According to Levitt, it was the ruling of the infamous Roe v. Wade trial, which led to a huge increase in abortions. As Levitt looks at the numbers, he sees a huge drop in the population of those who tend to commit the highest number of crimes. In other words, the type of people who most often get abortions are also the type of people who live in the types of environments that tend to produce the highest number of criminals. So his premise is that these people had more abortions, and eventually, when these unborn babies would have been reaching their prime age for committing crimes (the 1990s), the criminals simply were not around to commit the crimes they otherwise would have committed. So why was there less crime? Because a huge number of the would-be criminals were aborted.

Needless to say, Levitt’s conclusion here has been hugely controversial. Levitt himself says that his findings should not be used to support the pro-choice position, but it’s easy to see why pro-choicers would do so and why pro-lifers would be outraged by his conclusion. For Levitt, he was simply explaining what he found to be the most convincing way of interpreting the data.

So here’s the real question: how should we, as Christians, respond to this?

Assuming that Levitt’s conclusion is correct (which is definitely an assumption; I am in no position to judge the truth or falsity of his analysis), do we simply disregard the evidence because we don’t like where it leads? I hope that we are above this. If Christianity is true, we don’t need to doctor the facts in order to support our beliefs. So let’s reject that approach.

But does that mean we need to start promoting abortions? Of course not! I think that what Levitt found in his study confirms what God says about the world, albeit in a roundabout way. In essence, Levitt is saying that society functions better when teenagers aren’t having babies outside of wedlock. He’s not trying to make any moral judgments; he is simply saying that when we don’t have as many babies born to parents practicing promiscuous sex—the kind of parents who want sex but don’t want babies—then society works better.

Wouldn’t we agree?

God has designed sex to operate in a specific context, and when we try separate it from that context, the beautiful fruit of a sexual relationship—a child—becomes an unwanted burden that ruins our lives and drags down our society. But when we celebrate sex in its appropriate context and maintain healthy relationships, the fruit of sex—a child—becomes a welcome part of a loving family, and society is strengthened. God tells us that the world works this way, so we shouldn’t be surprised to see an economist agreeing.

Of course, Levitt wasn’t arguing against extramarital sex any more than he was arguing for abortion. And some pro-choicers will use Levitt’s study to promote abortion. Rather than being outraged over statistical analysis, however, our response should be ministry. We should seek to help those who are hurting, even if their pain is self-inflicted. But keep in mind that our goal is not a comfortable, crime-free society. Rather, we are working to see the people around us conformed to the image of Christ for the glory of God. And ultimately, this approach is the only one that will lead to a sinless society, though we are waiting for Christ’s return to experience this reality.