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Abortion, the premature expulsing of an unborn child from the womb, is one of the most hotly debated issues of our time. On one side of the argument there is the pro-choice community who believe that abortion should be available to all women, and on the other there is the pro-life community who believe that it is the murder of an innocent human. Deciding what side is correct depends on an individual’s religious, scientific and ethical views. Key issues include the moral status of the unborn child, and whether its rights outweigh the mother’s. In examining this multifaceted debate, a good place to start is the Christian perspective.
Many of the early church fathers had an existentialist view, where the foetus progressively becomes a person over time. Some are influenced by St Thomas Aquinas who identified the moment of ‘quickening’ as the decision point of development. This key moment is also significant for the formation of the brain and the first appearance of the ‘human icon’, when the foetus begins to look like a human being. Personhood is the main issue here. Humans are beings with human tissue, but persons must have moral status. For example, a baby without a brain could be regarded as a human but not a person. The question of whether or not abortion is murder depends on your definition of personhood. With today’s scientific advancements most Christians no longer accept the views of Aquinas and Aristotle on abortion. Dr. Landrum Shettles, sometimes called the father of In Vitro Fertilization, wrote, “Conception confers life and makes that life one of a kind.”
As with all issues, Christian turn to the Bible to defend their position. Christians believe in the sanctity of life, meaning that all human life is created in God’s image and has intrinsic worth. The most important verse they turn to is part of the Decalogue: do not kill. At face value this may include abortion, but on the other hand, it doesn’t cover the killing of animals or killing in battle. It may not be as absolute as Christians make out. Other verses include an instance in Luke when John the Baptist recognised the presence of Jesus before he was born; this suggests that unborn children are alive and have a degree of awareness before they are born. To quote John Calvin, “If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house, then in a field…it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy a foetus in the womb before it has come to light.”
Christian opinion is divided between liberal and conservative perspectives. Conservative churches such as the Roman Catholic Church and the Free Presbyterian Church are against abortion. They believe abortion is murder of the innocent and have respect for human life right from conception. The Catholic Church has an essentialist view of abortion that does not allow for exceptional circumstances, even rape. In the Humanae Vitae of 1968 Pope Pius VI said, “human life is sacred.” This was followed up with the Declaration on Procured Abortion, 1974, where it states that women’s rights, though good in themselves, cannot be an excuse for abortion when it denies another person the fundamental right to life.
On the other hand, some churches have more liberal views. The Methodist Church of Ireland released a document in 2012 that outlines their support for abortion in some circumstances: when the mother’s life is at risk; when her mental or physical health is at risk; in cases of rape and incest and fatal foetal abnormalities. They believe that their view is the most compassionate towards both the mother and child. They do, however, emphasise that they are against abortion on demand. The crux of the document is that while Christians may not agree with abortion, we should respect the separation of church and state when it comes to abortion law.
Moving on, abortion is a situation of conflicting rights – many that are pro-choice believe that the rights of the mother are more important than the rights of the child. Proponents of situation ethics would believe that we should look at the circumstances behind an abortion, not the morality of the act. The Church of England’s position that abortion is evil but may be the ‘lesser of two evils’ is consistent with a situationist approach. Difficult circumstances include when a woman has been raped. There are traumatic and involuntary circumstances surrounding the conception and the continuance of this unwanted pregnancy may well continue the trauma for the mother and her existing family. The foetus should have no claim on the woman unless the woman has consented fully to being pregnant. Another circumstance where a proponent of situation ethics would support abortion is if the mother’s life is at risk – surely it is better to save one life than lose two.
Natural law would generally prohibit abortion. Supporters of this theory see the act of sexual intercourse as an efficient cause that brings about the final cause of the production of a human being. Abortion prevents the final cause from being achieved and is therefore immoral. However, there is the doctrine of double effect. While it may be morally permissible to perform a good action that may have a bad outcome, it is morally impermissible to perform a bad action with a good outcome. The theory of natural law states that you are only responsible for the immediate consequences of your actions, but not for secondary or unintended effects of your action. An example of this could be abortion: it may permit indirect therapeutic abortion (such as treating cancer, which may cause death of the foetus) but not direct therapeutic abortion.
Prolife Christians often use the acronym SLED when arguing against abortion. This stands for size, level of development, environment and dependency. Starting with size, pro-lifers argue that it is wrong to discriminate against the unborn due to their size. Level of development means that the only difference between the unborn and us is that they are not as developed, but the toddler is not as developed as the adult. This does not mean the toddler is any less. Environment refers to the fact that just because the unborn is within the uterus, that does not mean it has no rights. Why should a 7-inch journey down the birth canal make a difference? Finally, dependency means that just because the unborn is dependent on its mother, it does not imply it should be allowed to be killed. A disabled person may be dependent on others but this does not mean we have the right to kill them.
Abortion is much more likely to be supported within the secular realm. Ethicists such as Singer have a utilitarian view of abortion. Singer hold to Preference Utilitarianism which promotes that the preferences of individuals are taken into account except where they come into direct conflict with the preferences of others. For example, if the foetus was diagnosed with a fatal abnormality abortion may be the option that would cause the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people. If the parents go through with the pregnancy they will have to suffer the trauma of watching their infant die, or go through a stillbirth.
Feminists are usually on the front line in the fight for reproductive rights. They believe women and men are not truly equal until a woman has access to abortion on demand. Some would even support viewing abortion as little more than a method of contraception. A notable feminist is Judith Thomson, author of “A Defence of Abortion”, uses abstract analogies to promote abortion. One of these is the violinist scenario. In this scenario a woman finds herself involuntarily chained to a famous violinist in a hospital. The violinist is dying and the woman was discovered to have the correct blood type to save him. Therefore she was kidnapped and is now acting as a life support. Thomson asserts that the woman has no moral obligation to remain connected to the violinist, and if she did it would be an extraordinary act of kindness. However, Singer claims that a utilitarian outlook would imply that one is morally obliged to stay connected to the violinist.
Ultimately, in countries where abortion is legal abortion should be the choice of the mother. However, abortion is not without its dangers, such as damage to the uterus as well as depression and guilt. With this in mind, abortion may not be as safe as many believe.