Abortion- An Overview
Written by Chris Richards
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Reformed Ethics - Abortion

Abortion – ‘The greatest single offence that is being  regularly perpetrated in Britain today and the first thing that an Old Testament prophet would reproach us for’ (Raymond Johnston).

What is this atrocity? How many babies are being killed by abortion? What does the Bible say? What does British law say? What consequences are being suffered?

The current situation

At the moment, UK law—though not in Northern Ireland, where abortion remains illegal—recognizes several ‘grounds’ for abortion. One ground is when the mother’s life is threatened; but this is rarely the case. About 98% of abortions are justified by the assessment ‘that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of the family of the pregnant woman’. This can be applied only to pregnancies of under 24 weeks’ gestation. The law also allows for abortion at any gestation when there is ‘substantial risk’ of the child suffering ‘physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped’. In 2010 in England and Wales 482 babies were aborted on account of Down’s syndrome.

‘Thou shalt not kill’

This law is a full assault on the Sixth Commandment.

  1. In permitting abortion, our society has rejected its duty to restrain sin through law. What should be prohibited now becomes an agonizing temptation for every woman who finds herself pregnant under less than favourable circumstances.
  2. By leaving the interpretation and implementation of the law to the medical profession, it has given abortion a respectability it should never have.
  3. It gives no ethical consideration to the life of the unborn child (except in a negative way, when the baby is expected to be disabled) and takes into consideration only the circumstances of the mother and family.
  4. It leaves doctors with the uncertainty of risk assessment. Those who originally argued for the Abortion Act said that it would only allow abortion when the mother’s life was clearly at risk. But risk assessment is so vague that in effect we have abortion on demand. Giving birth to an unwanted baby is seen as a greater threat to the mother’s mental or physical health (or her children’s) than having an abortion.
  5. In fact, abortion carries with it substantial physical and mental complications. Nursing mothers have much better health. It could be argued that risk assessment should always favour continuing the pregnancy.

How many abortions?

Since the Abortion Act 1967 was passed, over seven million abortions have been performed. Currently in the UK around 210,000 are carried out every year: approximately one abortion for every four live births. 77% of these abortions were carried out at less than 10 weeks gestation. That is not all. There are three other causes of abortion not included in the official figures.

  1. IVF. Since 1991 IVF (In Vitro Fertilisation) has ‘created’ over three million embryos. For every IVF baby born, on average 20 embryos have been created. Nearly 1,500,000 have been destroyed and over 760,000 are currently being stored. Many of these embryo orphans have little or no prospect of ‘womb adoption’.
  2. MAP. We do not know how many early abortions are caused by the so-called ‘morning-after pill’. Otherwise known as post-coital or emergency ‘contraception’, this high-dose progesterone tablet has been developed to be taken after intercourse. It can work in a number of ways—usually by preventing fertilization, but sometimes by preventing implantation of the already fertilized embryo, thereby causing an early abortion.
  3. Some contraceptives effectively cause early abortion. Although a biochemical means of preventing the sperm from reaching the egg has been sought, none can guarantee that an already fertilized embryo will not be destroyed.

The progesterone-only or ‘mini’ Pill and the intra-uterine device both commonly act by preventing implantation and therefore cause an early abortion. We also know that the more commonly used Combined Oral Contraceptive Pill may prevent implantation of a newly formed embryo. Even women who take it reliably may become pregnant, confirming that breakthrough ovulation does occasionally occur. Therefore, though seemingly rare, the possibility of induced abortions through its use cannot be ruled out.

How is an abortion performed?

For many years, most early abortions were performed surgically—using powerful suction or by scraping out what was in the womb. Nowadays, when the pregnancy is still in the early stages (it can also be used later on), a medical method is preferred, usually by means of an oral hormone tablet followed by a vaginal prostaglandin tablet. This may avoid hospital admission since most of the process takes place at home over a couple of days. In effect the medications induce an early labour, which may culminate in the explicit passage of the fetus, to the shock of the woman.

What does God’s Word say?

There is no direct mention of abortion in the Bible; but much may be deduced. It is important that Christians think biblically about this subject for at least two reasons.

First, we are commanded to search God’s Word thoroughly and obey it diligently (Ps.119: 4). We must expect to wrestle until we see clearly how to apply God’s law to the pressing ethical issues of our day.

Second, confidence in God’s Word will strengthen us so that we do not capitulate under pressure to sin, even in the hardest circumstances. In this way we can avoid incurring guilt.

The sanctity of life

The Bible teaches that man is unique—distinct from all other life—created in the image of God (Gen.1:26). God forbids the deliberate taking of human life. God said to Noah, ‘Whoso sheddeth man’s blood,, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God made he man’ (Gen.9: 6). The protection and honouring of life is further demanded by the Sixth Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ (Ex.20: 13). The case law of the Pentateuch penalises even the accidental taking of life (Num.35:15, 32) and permits deliberate killing only in selfdefence (Ex.22: 2), in war (Lev.26: 7), or in judicial punishment for serious crimes (Lev.20: 15).

The Bible teaches us to respect the sanctity of human life not only by not taking life but also in the positive protecting and compassionate upholding of life, most clearly expressed by Christ in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk.10:25-37). We are called to care sacrificially for others, especially those who are weak and helpless. This goes against man’s fallen instinct to abuse his power for selfish ends. Providing such care is the positive intent of the Sixth Commandment.

God requires all people to obey his moral law, which is ‘summarily comprehended in the ten commandments’ (Shorter Cat.41). It is by the standard of the moral law that sin is exposed and defined. Therefore, God’s demand to respect life applies to the believer and non-believer alike. A righteous and wise nation will use God’s moral law to inform its state laws (2Sam.23:3).

When does life start?

Does life actually start at conception? If it does, then abortion, including early abortion, is murder. The Bible recognizes life from conception. We have further support for this, which earlier generations lacked, from scientific knowledge of the process of the formation of human life in the womb.

1. The Bible recognizes life at conception. Scripture repeatedly declares the creative activity of God at the very moment of conception and recognises that life in the womb is a precious gift from God. Psalm 139:13-16 describes actual, not simply potential, life from conception. These verses beautifully and movingly express God’s involvement in the growth and development of the unborn child, the personal continuity of a unique life—before as well as after birth—and the Psalmist’s special relationship with God even before birth.  In Psalm 51:5 we read, ‘Behold, I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me’. David recognizes his own life and sinful nature from conception. Of course, he had to be a person and alive to possess a sinful nature!

In Luke 1:41-44, we read of the astonishing, joyful recognition of the unborn baby Jesus (perhaps only a two-week-old embryo), by John, still in his mother’s womb (six months), thus denoting the ‘womb life’ of both boys. Matthew 1:20 predates this in describing the conception of Jesus by Mary ‘of the Holy Ghost’, thus identifying the commencement of Jesus’ life with His conception.

Are we in danger of forming a circular argument if we assume that biblical conception equals the start of pregnancy, and that equals life?

Today the event of a mother conceiving is taken to coincide precisely with the biological event of fertilization when the sperm unites with the ovum to form one new cell (ie the mother conceives when the egg is fertilized). The biblical writers may not have known these biological details. However, they did make a clear connection in time between sexual intercourse and conception, which is particularly clear in 2 Samuel 11:4, 5, and in David’s desire to cover up the deed by urgently recalling Uriah so that the baby’s origin might be concealed (vv 6-13). From this temporal association we may infer that the writers were using the word ‘conception’ to describe the start of the pregnancy that resulted.

In the biblical description of early life in the womb there is no hint of an early body dissociated from the spirit or soul (or of a later ensoulment, as postulated by Aristotle andothers). Throughout the Bible, an individual is recognized as a single body-soul unit, until his or her death indivisible and interdependent. The end of our earthly existence, death, is defined by the separation of the body and soul. There is no suggestion of identity without life from conception. The embryo you were, is the human being you are!

2.  We have scientific  knowledge of the process and nature of the formation of human life. All that man has learned over the last few decades regarding early life confirms what the Bible reveals. God, in His kindness, has in recent years enabled us to discover more about how He skilfully creates each one of us (Ps.139:15). Those of us who have  looked through this window on our substance yet unformed (Ps.139:16) are privileged indeed, and can confirm that the process is ‘fearful and wonderful’ (Ps.139:14). Such knowledge establishes the identity of the baby from conception in at least three ways.

First, the genetic sequence formed at fertilization is unique (except in the case of identical twins, though even they eventually develop a somewhat different sequence). Although our nature is not defined solely by our genes, our conception determines innumerable aspects of what we are and how different we are from all other persons on earth.

Second, the process of development is continuous. Beyond the moment of fertilization, there is no point at which one could obviously say there could be any distinction of life from non-life. Attempts have been made to argue the legitimacy of abortion by defining the start of life by the acquisition of certain qualities such as pain awareness. This approach is arbitrary (who chooses and how?), based on uncertain science, variable for the individual baby, and leads to an unbiblical ‘you are worth what you can do’ view of life. There are dramatic events in the development of the unborn child, such as the start of the heartbeat at four weeks after fertilization, the first spontaneous movements at six weeks, and, of course, birth. But all serve to further the continuous process of the baby’s development.

Third, development is progressive, each stage laying the platform for the next and all straining towards maturity beyond puberty. Scientific observation, then, confirms the declaration of Psalm 139 that development in the womb is both individual and purposeful.

Ethical conclusion

In the light of God’s Word, supported by scientific observation, we need to recognize abortion for what it is, the intentional and wrongful killing of an unborn child between conception and birth. Legalizing this has allowed the unborn child’s God-given advocates, his parents, and particularly his mother, to reject him, and so allow the murder of the smallest, most vulnerable and most dependent members of our society.

How do they try to justify the Abortion Act?

The widespread practice of sex outside marriage in the 1950s and 60s led to an increasing number of women with an unwanted pregnancy. Abortion could supply what contraceptives could not—the guarantee of ‘pregnancy-free’ sexual intercourse. Contraception was never going to be fully effective due to practical failures and the indiscipline that goes along with sexual licence.

Some used to seek an abortion illegally (and not always safely) though many others kept their pregnancies. Arising from the personal consequences of breaking the Seventh Commandment (‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’) came a demand for the state to allow the breaking of the Sixth Commandment by making abortion legal.

Proponents of abortion did not tend to make such observations.Rather they used arguments still common today:

  1. The need to offer a compassionate way out (other than adoption) of the hopelessness of a woman with an unwanted child, especially in hard cases of rape or foetal abnormality.
  2. The moral obligation of the state to provide a healthy alternative to illegal abortions, which were sometimes complicated by infection—a ‘harm reduction’ approach.
  3. The right of the mother to autonomy over her body, including over her unborn child—whose life was denied or whose rights could in no way be balanced against the right of the woman. In practice for many women this was a right to a convenient life, freedom from embarrassment, or to be able to continue her education.

How should we respond?

With confidence in God’s commandments, we must assert that no consideration of personal circumstances (except perhaps the extraordinarily rare situation of the imminent death of the mother herself), nor the knowledge of possible disability in the child, should be allowed to threaten that precious life in the womb.

Pregnancy after rape or incest is a tragedy and demands the most-tender response. But we must remember that the mostwise God of love has defined compassion as obedience to His commandments (1Jn.5:2, 3). We must resist a pragmatic response contrary to God’s laws.

How did the church respond in the 1960s? Battered by liberal theology, which had already weakened the church’s voice against the change in sexual ethics, the church’s opposition to the introduction of legal abortion was generally muted or confused. This was true of some prominent churchmen who held to Reformed doctrine. Whilst ministers of religion prevaricated, secular politicians strengthened their hand in this moral vacuum. Perhaps most damaging of all was the fact that some professing Christian doctors (enjoying public respect for their medical profession) displayed a lack of confidence in God’s law as they broadcast their moral agonizing (in contrast with Ps.119:113).

If we give in?

Let us make three observations about the result of yielding to the arguments for legalized abortion.

First, the pleading of special cases, such as rape, at the time when the Abortion Act was passed, opened a door, which has since let in a flood of abortions permitted on lesser grounds. This is a clear illustration of the legal maxim that ‘hard cases make bad law’.

Second, the personal and societal consequences of abortion have been terrible. Actions in defiance of God’s commandments never reduce harm, but rather cause harm. In contrast, we are reminded of the kindness of God in the protection from harm that obedience to his commandments affords, even in the most testing of circumstances.

Third, removing the deterrent of an unwelcome consequence of sexual sin, abortion has promoted promiscuity, with increased demand for both contraception and abortion. As with other so-called ‘harm reduction’ approaches, sin begets more sin.

Consequences of the legalization of abortion Carnage.

The quiet carnage of our youngest and weakest! Guilt keeps it well hidden! The walls of otherwise respectable NHS hospitals guard the terrible secret. The continuing desire for sexual licence keeps it going. Though silent in their death, those aborted babies continue to speak: their blood cries out from the ground (Gen.4:10).

God’s judgment on our society. We cannot underestimate the seriousness of our society’s decision to permit in law a wicked act that is in clear violation of God’s laws. The rulers of the earth are warned to take heed of the Lord and His laws, lest they and their nations face the full blast of God’s anger and ‘perish from the way’ (Ps.2:10-12). Surely we are already seeing some evidence of God’s judgment today. Violence in the womb spills over into violence on our streets, as the implications of moral lawlessness are more openly expressed. The philosophy underlying abortion is used to argue for infanticide and euthanasia (the deliberate ending of the life of a disabled infant is already permitted in at least one European country). And what about the demographic implications? We have an ageing population! There is an imbalance: elderly people outnumber young people. Who will pay their pensions? Who will provide care for them in old age? Already the pension burden is so great that the retirement age must be increased. As life expectancy goes up, the problem is intensified. Dare our society complain, when it has acquiesced in the killing of so many young ones?

God’s judgment on the church. In the run up to the legalization of abortion, the church was complicit in her silence and indifference. Since then, despite pro-life declarations from some denominations, our response has remained muted, perhaps for fear of causing offence or appearing to lack compassion. Genuine repentance is marked by ‘grief and hatred of sin’. How many of us have shed a tear or torn our metaphorical clothes over such an abomination? Let us be warned by Jesus’ prescription for salt that has lost its savour: ‘good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men’ (Mt.5:13).

God’s judgment on individuals. It is well documented that women who choose to have an abortion experience spiritual, emotional and physical consequences. They are often plagued with guilt and regret, sometimes accompanied by low mood and anger. The father of the unborn child may suffer similarly. Only those who repent find genuine relief from this burden of guilt. Some attempt to deny or suppress their guilt through drugs and alcohol, but the memory and guilt can eat away and eventually destroy the person. Suicide rates are substantially increased. The woman faces an increased risk of having a premature baby, should she decide to keep a subsequent pregnancy, and may find it difficult to bond with the next child.

God’s judgment on the professions. The state has coopted the legal and medical professions to enact the provision of abortion services, thereby contradicting and threatening their legitimate role of upholding righteousness and providing healing. Individual lawyers and health professionals become complicit in the process of abortion itself.

Despite the conscientious objection clause, many Christian doctors who oppose abortion find it impossible not to be drawn in somehow—even in the state’s demand to refer women seeking abortion to a colleague (who will refer them for abortion instead). Their professional codes expect them to swallow the double-mindedness of clinical care in a ‘non-judgmental’ manner, as the service treats one unborn child as ‘him’ or ‘her’ but another as merely an inanimate ‘product of conception’. They are asked to clothe themselves with emotional indifference, while the God of glory thunders His judgment. It is staggering to read the web site of one abortion clinic that never mentions the baby, but only refers to the pregnancy as a condition to be corrected, and—how cruel!—frequently uses the word ‘gentle’. Gentle murder is a strangely evil concept.

The Christian response

Repent and pray. We need to repent of any commission of, or indifference to, this sin. We must then ‘bring forth fruits worthy of repentance’ (Lk.3:8). Only then will our repentance be proved genuine. With boldness and perseverance we may declare that ‘It is time for thee,Lord,to work: for they have made void thy law’ (Ps.119:126). May the Lord grant a full repeal of the Abortion Act.

Speak out. All of us, but especially our ministers, need to intercede on behalf of the unborn child, proclaiming and arguing the wrongfulness of abortion. Whilst supporting organizations such as Christian Medical Fellowship and the Christian Institute in their determined opposition to abortion, how good it would be to see the churches united in one voice of evangelical opposition, since that is not happening at the moment.

Act. We must seek to obey the Sixth Commandment with absolute diligence by not causing abortion through the use of certain contraceptives, the ‘morning-after pill’ or IVF. We must seek to ‘deliver them that are drawn unto death, and  those that are ready to be slain’ (Prov.24:11) by supporting the work of pregnancy centres which help women in so-called crisis pregnancies. Many women find themselves under pressure from family and circumstances, as well as ignorance of the nature of the life inside them and the implications of choosing an abortion.

Dr. Chris Richards is a Deacon at Gateshead Presbyterian Church in Gateshead, England, UK. He is  a consultant pediatrician and the director of Tyneside Pregnancy Advice Center.  This article was printed in the Free Church of Scotland's "Free Church Witness" and is republished here with permission.