Abortion as a justice issue

Roe vs. Wade is in the news again. For anyone who doesn’t know, that’s the case that legalized abortion in the United States (although “Jane Roe” herself later came to oppose abortion).

The legality of abortion is a volatile issue, but one in which Christians, and others who believe that life is a basic human right, have an important stake. Beyond and distinct from its legality, which tends to dominate headlines, its morality is an issue that many families, Christian or not, must sooner or later confront.

Here I speak outside my expertise as a biblical scholar. Although I believe that I am correct in my analysis (that is, I genuinely believe my beliefs), subsequent generations often provide clearer perspectives than those writing in the thick of cultural debates. That limitation is, however, true for all of us, so I offer my best thoughts here. If I fail to persuade some readers, I hope that I will at least help them to consider why many who hold my position do so with ethical integrity and concern for justice.


Not just a partisan issue

I have openly opposed the current administration’s stance on immigration. I have written about biblical teaching on care for the poor; defended the full participation of women in ministry; and advocated for racial justice. Most of my writing specifically about social justice sounds, in a U.S. context, as if I am left of the political center, although in none of those posts have I advocated for or against any political party.

It is, however, concern for justice, not a connection to any political party, that drives my interest. Thus I would like to highlight a justice issue that I think that many of those who tend toward the political left need to reconsider. Of course, we need to care about the welfare of the mothers, and if abortion laws ever change, we will learn how committed to life those on the political right really are. Indeed, genuinely prolife commitments ought to show themselves now in costly commitments to nutrition programs for impoverished mothers globally (nutrition, malaria and so forth affect fetal development and mortality). Yet how can we not also care about the unborn if (as suggested below) we genuinely acknowledge them as live human beings?

This post is about abortion, but it is not about political parties and still less about individuals who have had abortions. Regarding individuals, Scripture is abundant in its teaching about grace and forgiveness. It is not even prolife to speak about forgiveness in cases where the mother’s life was at stake. Other cases involve wrestling with tragic situations or someone aborting a fetus before coming to the belief that this was a live human being. There are other cases where the moral dimensions of the decisions are more conspicuous.

The point is not about political parties or about individuals who have had abortions. It is whether we can help more people to recognize the value of human life even in the womb, so that together we can seek alternatives that affirm the value of every human life.


Limited Biblical Material

I have not written much about caring for the unborn, not because I think it unimportant but simply because as a biblical scholar I don’t have as much to work with textually. When I don’t speak as a biblical scholar, I don’t speak from my own expertise. Of course, we cannot limit ethical and moral reasoning to specialists in particular areas, so my limitations do not preclude me from speaking out. They just mean that you should take my limitations into account here, as you should take into account the limitations of the vast majority of people who are currently speaking about the issue.

To engage in intelligent discussions in ethics, we may have to reason with others about a range of issues such as nuclear weapons, social security, gun control, civilian casualties through smart bombs, market economies, and a host of other issues not directly addressed in the Bible. That the Bible does not directly address an issue does not exempt us from sometimes needing to consider the ethics of such situations. In fact, among issues not addressed, I think this one is clearer than most. (Again, some other issues, such as sacrificial care for the poor, are crystal clear in the Bible, though the most effective means of such care in modern economic contexts are often debated.)

Then again, the Bible’s lack of more specific attention to abortion is not completely surprising. Abortion wasn’t much of an option in ancient Israel; it was more of an option in the Roman empire, but, like direct child abandonment, seems to have been rare enough among Jews and Christians to not have come up in the New Testament.


Ancient Christian teaching

Among northern Mediterranean gentiles, however, abortion was enough of a cultural issue that it does appear in some early Christian documents. One cannot accuse these precedents of politically partisan U.S. biases.

Note for example the Didache, probably from the late first century, and thus perhaps contemporaneous with some of our New Testament. It often offers great advice, such as: welcoming in trust those prophets who come to you, but: if they ask for money, they’re false prophets!

Most relevantly here, it warns: “Don’t murder! Don’t commit adultery! Don’t molest children! Don’t have sex with someone you’re not married to! Don’t steal! Don’t practice sorcery and witchcraft! Don’t kill a child by abortion or kill one already born!” (Did. 2.2). Or compare the late first- or early second-century Epistle of Pseudo-Barnabas: “You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain. You shall love your neighbor more than your own life. You shall not abort a child nor, again, commit infanticide” (Barn. 19.5, trans. Holmes).

Neither of these works is part of the biblical canon (a fact for which I am particularly grateful in the case of Pseudo-Barnabas), but they do show us that from an early period Christians in the gentile world grappled with the question.

Much stronger is a later second-century work: “those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion” (Athenagoras Plea 35, trans. ANF). Near the end of the second century, Tertullian insists: “For us murder is once for all forbidden; so even the child in the womb, while yet the mother’s blood is still being drawn on to form the human being, it is not lawful for us to destroy. To forbid birth is only quicker murder. It makes no difference whether one take away the life once born or destroy it as it comes to birth. He is a man, who is to be a man; the fruit is always present in the seed” (Apology 9.8, LCL trans.). In Sibylline Oracles 2.281-82 (which may be a Christian interpolation), abortion merits eternal punishment.

Such sentiments reflect the prevailing Jewish view of the time as well; note for example the first-century writer Josephus: “The Law orders all the offspring to be brought up, and forbids women either to cause abortion or to destroy it afterward; and if any woman appears to have so done, she will be a murderer of her child, by destroying a living creature, and diminishing humankind: if anyone, therefore, proceeds to such fornication or murder, he cannot be clean” (Against Apion 2.202, trans. combining Whiston and LCL).

Or Pseudo-Phocylides: “Do not let a woman destroy the unborn babe in her belly, nor after its birth throw it before the dogs and the vultures as a prey” (Ps.-Phoc. 184-85; trans. OTP). (The Diaspora Jewish philosopher Philo, by contrast, seems to begin life only once the fetus is fully formed; Philo Special Laws 3.108-9.)

Examples could be multiplied, but rather than reinventing the wheel I simply refer those interested in the question to, for example, Michael J. Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church, who shows the church’s consistent position in its first four centuries. Those interested in a consistently prolife treatment from a justice-emphasizing ethicist should also look at Ronald J. Sider, The Early Church on Killing (addressing early Christian pacifism as well as rejection of abortion).


A fetal-fatal justice issue

Scripture may not address abortion explicitly, but if one grants that the fetus is a live human being, the moral principle involved seems fairly clear, at least to me. A key biblical expression of justice is to defend the weak and the vulnerable; who could be weaker than an infant, and especially an infant still in the womb?

Perhaps some oppose abortion simply because that position is considered “conservative.” Most Christians who oppose abortion, however, do so out of a sincere commitment to justice. Now, many are inconsistent in what sorts of justice they argue for; many ignore many genuine justice concerns advocated by the left. This inconsistency, however, does not justify critics on the left simply dismissing concerns about justice for the unborn.

Since nearly all of us believe that it is wrong to kill human beings, at least those who are not seeking, individually or corporately, to harm us, the key question of abortion’s morality is whether the fetus is a live human being. Here I reason less as a biblical scholar because biblical evidence is limited, but there is biblical evidence. For example, just as mothers attest babies kicking in their womb today, John the Baptist could leap for joy in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:44); the Spirit of God was already at work in him (cf. 1:15).

Believing that the fetus is a live human being is the key reason why many of us Christians oppose abortion. A prochoice professor friend with whom I once dialogued about abortion wanted to exclude from discussion the question of whether the fetus was a live human being. He said that raising that question was cheating, because it was designed to immediately end the argument. I responded that it is instead the very point that the argument is about; if the fetus is just extraneous tissue, there is no legitimate reason to oppose abortion, and few people would object to it. If, conversely, the fetus is a live human being, then deliberately killing that fetus is killing a human being.

I am a biblical scholar, not a biologist, but we have to make ethical decisions based on the best information available to us. In this case, the unborn child is not only genetically human, but he or she is a human genetically distinct from the mother.


Some of the more cogent objections

Granted, although the fetus is alive, it remains dependent on the mother until birth. Nevertheless, dependence can be an arbitrary criterion for personhood; indeed, medical technology has permitted fetal viability at a younger and younger age. Moreover, unlike infants of some other species, human babies remain dependent on others for survival even after birth.

Further granted again, there are legitimate debates as to when personhood begins. The majority of fertilized eggs spontaneously abort before a mother knows that she is pregnant. If all embryos within the first two weeks are persons, the majority of heaven’s (or on some views, limbo’s) human population could well be embryos that never saw the light of day!

But simply foreclosing the question of personhood’s beginning by declaring life to begin at birth or at fetal viability is not satisfactory. Development at, say, thirteen weeks, the end of the first trimester, is considerably beyond a two-week embryo. The fetus is now kicking, opening and closing fingers with distinct fingerprints, and more than two million eggs already reside in her own ovaries. By nineteen weeks, she may hear and respond to her mother’s voice. By twenty-two weeks (about five months), she looks much like she will after birth, although much smaller. Whatever the particulars, we can at least be certain medically that the fetus is human and genetically distinct from the parents.

Further granted, U.S. law does not directly commit or endorse abortion; it simply allows it. This differentiates the issue from any injustices directly perpetrated by a government. Thus some who believe that abortion is wrong do not believe that the government should be involved in restricting it. Many of us do acknowledge areas where we believe certain behaviors wrong yet do not advocate legal restrictions (such as, for example, consensual but casual sexual intercourse).

Nevertheless, should not the political left, which often seeks to regulate even details of interaction to reduce pain to the emotionally vulnerable, seek to protect the most vulnerable and voiceless persons of all (Prov 31:8)? If we would oppose a law that permitted the execution of one-year-olds or ninety-year-olds based merely on the general vulnerability of their age, should we not also stand for justice for the unborn? (Again, I speak to the U.S. situation, where citizens are granted a role in shaping the government; in societies where citizens lack such a role, they may be limited to addressing justice within their own voluntary communities.)

Many markers of human development have ambiguous or amorphous boundaries. For example, brains are not fully formed even in adolescents (and adolescents are definitely fully human; I love ours). The rational part of the human brain may reach the apex of its development somewhere around age 25; after roughly age 30, it begins to decline (woe is me!)

Happily, no one limits personhood to the late twenties, but a (very) few may start it after infancy. Thus Princeton University ethicist Peter Singer, for example, permits infanticide. Those who treat birth as an arbitrary criterion for personhood may either treat abortion as a form of prenatal infanticide or infanticide as a form of postnatal abortion. Some appeal to past legal precedent to deny the fetus’s personhood. The judiciary’s track record of shifting biases, however (consider, for example, the periods in which many members of the Supreme Court were slaveholders), does not engender confidence in mere legal precedent as a determinant for morality. (The same may be said, of course, for public opinion in general.)


Not just a left-right issue

Again, most of my posts that have addressed social justice have supported issues more often emphasized by the left than the right (“left” and right” being defined by the usual polarized U.S. political categories). In this case, it looks to me like the left and the right have matters backwards.

The U.S. political right tends to emphasize freedom from government interference, so one might expect them to be prochoice. The U.S. left tends to emphasize defending human rights, and therefore we should expect them to champion the vulnerable in the womb. What human right is more urgent than right to live?

It looks to me like a freak of historical development that in the U.S. the right is prolife and the left is prochoice. (We all, of course, have our own historical and cultural contingencies.) But it seems to me that whether we tend to favor the right or left on other issues, if our allegiance is to justice rather than to a particular party, we should celebrate what supports the right to life.


Prolife preaching

For better or for worse, only once over the years have I addressed this issue from the pulpit. This is partly because I like to preach expository sermons and not a lot of passages lend themselves to an expository treatment of abortion.

I was an associate minister speaking out on a matter where it would have been risky for the senior pastor, who supported my plan to address the issue, to speak. One member of the youth group was pregnant by another member of the youth group. The young man’s mother wanted the young woman to abort, but the young woman wanted to keep the baby, and the pastoral staff agreed with the girl’s right to do so.

I spoke about King David killing Uriah to cover up David’s sexual sin, and how we still sometimes take life to cover up our behavior—sometimes by abortion. If this thought scandalizes you, you would be right to imagine that it scandalized a lot of people that day. My guess is that a strong majority of that congregation’s members were Democrats. But as I noted explicitly, I was not advocating a political party. I was addressing a moral issue, no less than when I (more often) challenged people to sacrifice materialism and share their resources with the needy. I probably faced more hostility that week than any other. (Happily this congregation was very forgiving and liked me again the next week.)

But if truth is not partisan, we cannot limit our preaching based on what sounds most palatable to a given setting—even if it must be communicated as graciously as possible and balanced with a lot of preaching on other issues of justice as well.



The fundamental question that makes abortion a moral issue is whether the fetus is a live human being. If the fetus is a live human being, then should we not seek ways to protect it the way we would insist on protecting every other human life? If feticide takes a human life, then fifty or sixty million abortions in the U.S. since Roe vs. Wade is a serious and pressing justice issue, one of the most serious and pressing moral issues of our day.

Because I believe that the fetus is a live human being, I want more people to recognize the value of human life even in the womb. May we together, whether from the right or from the left, seek alternatives that affirm the value of every life.


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