This is an essay from the upper level Christian Ethics course at Concordia University-Ann Arbor, which has been revised to fit the needs of this blog.
On the issue of abortion, the pro-life side argues the child has the “right” to life, whereas the pro-choice side argues the mother has the “right” to choice. Yet as sinful human beings who have rebelled against God and continue this pattern on a daily basis, do we truly have a right to anything? In his essay, Individualism as the Insistence on My Rights, Rev. Dr. Joel Biermann argues, “There are no unalienable rights, there are no basic human rights, and there are no inherent rights of the individual—at least not in the sense that these ‘rights’ are commonly understood in twenty-first century America” (44).
We have rebelled against God, thus we have lost our “right” to anything. If we truly want to talk about what we deserve, it is death (Romans 6:23). Both sides of the abortion debate have used the word “rights” to project the façade of caring for the mother or the infant. Yet, “To demand one’s right—yes, even to demand the rights of another—invariably ends with the individual self enthroned and both God and neighbor deposed” (Biermann, 46). This is because the language of rights puts forth the following pattern: “My rights are over your rights; therefore, your rights matter less than mine.” In either discussion, when we use this language either the mother is left deposed or the child is left deposed. Instead of using the language of rights—which imposes the sacred self over another person’s self and thus deposes neighbour—we ought to use the language of duty.
There are two ethical schools of thought to approach the abortion debate: deontological ethics and teleological ethics. Deontological ethics is “duty-centered” whereas teleological ethics is “end-centered” (Geisler, 19). In teleological ethics, the end is what matters—the end justifies the means. For pro-choice proponents, the end goal is that the woman is happy with a relatively comfortable lifestyle. If the means to this end comes at the cost of killing a child in the womb, then the killing is justified.
In deontological ethics, however, the focus is on duty to one’s neighbour. For pro-life proponents, duty is focused primarily on the unborn child. While this is a good focus, pro-life proponents often forget about their duty to the mother, which I will discuss later. Both sides of the debate have in mind the Golden Rule, “love thy neighbour as thyself.” Yet “neighbour” is narrowly defined on both sides of the debate. The neigbour for pro-choice is limited to the mother; the neighbour for pro-life is limited to the unborn child. Yet both sides of the debate fail to see both the mother and the infant as neighbours to be equally served. On either side of the argument, one neighbour is eventually left deposed.
While the “Golden Rule” is certainly to be emphasised in the abortion debate, something is still missing. “Love thy neighbour as thyself” is the focus, but this is the second greatest commandment (Matthew 22:39). The first greatest commandment is, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). Since this command comes first in temporal order, it logically follows that this command is more important—or greater—than the second.
How can we love our neighbour if we first do not love God? How do we love God? “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15). We obey God not because it earns salvation but because it is how we show our love for Him. We obeyed our earthly fathers not out of terror or as mindless automatons, but out of love for our fathers (and indeed, a certain reverence). There may indeed be a fear factour, yet it is a reverent fear in the context of our love for our father and his love for us. Similarly, as children of God already in relationship with Him, we obey His commandments because we love Him.
The Hebraic understanding of כָּמוֹךָ (kāmôkā), “as/like yourself,” is understood “in the sense of ‘who is like you.'” It is understood in the following way, “And you shall love your neighbor, for he is like you, equal to you and similar to you, for he too has been created in God’s image, and behold, he is a man like you” (Neudecker, 505-506). God commands us to love one another because we are all similar—we are all created in God’s image. All are created in God’s image; therefore, God does not love some but all people. Furthermore, we are to love all who are created in His image just as He loves all whom He has created. Thus, He says at the end of Leviticus 19:18, “I am Yahweh.” Here, “God presents himself as the one who created both people who are to love each other” (507).
This ties directly with the Lutheran distinction between passive and active righteousness. Passive righteousness is what God has done for us—He makes and declares us righteous for Christ’s sake, which is received by faith. Active righteousness is the good works we do, which are brought about by the Holy Spirit in faith. Because God makes and declares us righteous, we respond in faith with righteous deeds not to add to our salvation, since we cannot, but for the benefit of our neighbour.
Through Christ’s death on the cross, God reconciles us to Himself (2 Corinthians 5:18). God adopts us as sons and daughters in Baptism. Therefore, as His justified children, we seek to please our God because we love Him. We know that to show our love for Him, we are to obey His commandments, which come from His Word. Thus, we know what God says about life in the womb and our duty to protect it.
In this discussion I will not be making an argument for how pro-life is the moral option over the immoral pro-choice option. My argument will be functioning within the framework of abortion being sinful as it commits murder—the unjust taking of a life. The abortion debate is perennial because it uses the language of rights for either argument—on who has more rights than the other. Rather, the focus for the debate should be on duty—that is, what is our duty to both the mother and the unborn child?
I am not the first to recognise the insufficiency of the “rights” argument. “The emergence of rights-based egalitarian ethos requires women themselves to act as responsible moral agents within the debate, which is not always the case with some feminist pro-choice arguments” (Beattie, 52). In other words, the language of rights inevitably becomes insufficient because the pro-choice argument assumes all women are morally responsible, yet not all women are morally responsible (the same can be said for men).
When a woman has sex with a man several times a week, for example, and she becomes pregnant, neither the woman nor the man were acting morally responsible, and their morally irresponsible decisions do not suddenly make abortion morally responsible. In fact, it is another morally irresponsible decision to the prior irresponsible decisions that led to the unwanted pregnancy.
Neither does abortion become a morally responsible action when a man, in his wretched evil heart, acts morally irresponsible by raping a woman. It is the rapist who needs to pay for his sin and his crime, not the infant who has done nothing. Our duty is to the mother for comfort and healthcare, not abandoning her to the consequences of a man’s sin; and our duty is to the infant to preserve his or her life.
Whatever the circumstances of an unwanted pregnancy may be, our duty is to be focused on both the mother and the unborn child. Jay Sappington asks similarly, “What is our responsibility, as Christians, as a church, as a society, to people in their circumstances”( Sappington, 183)? Sappington begins answering this question by changing the focus of the abortion debate from infants to women. He argues we all “should work to reduce the incidence of abortion and its harmful effects on women” (184). It’s not that we should stop our aim to end all abortions, but he recognises there is hardly any focus—at least on the pro-life side—to aid the mothers as well.
He begins first with showing statistics of how women are negatively affected by abortion. He lists the evidence for several pages, so I’ll keep it succinct to a few points. Every year, “ten thousand women are hospitalized in the United States… for abortion complications,” which such complications include but are not limited to “severe hemorrhaging, infection, [and] punctured uteruses” (185). In addition to this, women who get abortions are 2.3 to 2.9 times more likely to get cervical cancer than women who don’t get abortions (185).
These are only a few physical harms abortive women suffer. For psychological harms, research shows that “over 90 percent of abortive women may experience post-abortion trauma,” which include “guilt, depression, nightmares, self-hatred, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicidal thoughts and feelings” (186). For claiming to care about the well-being of women, it is disturbing how quick feminists are to ignore these terrifying facts that abortive women suffer. These and many other effects of abortions are far worse—and far more painful—than enduring a pregnancy and giving birth.
These are only a few problems abortive women suffer, so what do we do with this information? That is precisely the point. Sappington presents two solutions in our duty to women. The first is “the widespread dissemination of information” he has presented, which are also available to doctors. It is the doctor’s duty to relay this information to women, and many of them fail to do this either out of ignorance or intellectual dishonesty.
And the second is “to provide women with options—viable, realistic options—so that abortion isn’t their ‘only choice'” (195-196). Our duty to women is to educate them about both the physical and psychological harmful effects of abortion as well as other options they have that are more realistic than abortion, such as adoption. (I realise adoption is absurdly expensive, yet this is a failure of the adoption system, not adoption altogether. The adoption system certainly needs to be reconfigured. Using the foster care system as an argument for abortion is also insufficient reasoning since a life that is hard or suffering is much better than having no life at all. Children who live in the foster care system are not bound to suffer for all eternity; neither does it mean their life isn’t worth living.)
That is our duty to women, but what about our duty to unborn children? The anti-abortion agency, Abort73, presents the same solution Sappington does in regards to infants. Sappington is arguing from a pragmatic approach for our duty to women, whereas Abort73 argues from a moralistic approach for our duty to unborn children (although there is certainly science involved). The abortion debate is a pragmatic issue as much as it is also a moral one, yet it is a matter of education for both. It’s not that pro-choice proponents don’t believe child killing is wrong; it’s that they lack the knowledge that abortion is child killing:
We need not worry about preaching people into a “new” morality; we only need educating them towards a more consistent application of the morality they already have in place. Most Americans already believe that child-killing is wretched and immoral. They just haven’t been sufficiently convinced that abortion is child killing. The primary obstacle keeping people on the wrong side of this issue is not so much moral as educational. (Abort73.com)
The issue is not whether abortion is right or wrong. The issue is that pro-choice proponents do not view abortion as child killing, so they are just being consistent with their worldview. Instead of yelling and screaming at pro-choice people on the streets and pounding our keyboards with furrowed brows on the Internet, we ought to enter a dialogue with them and educate them with both scientific and moral evidence. We can safely assume they believe child killing is immoral, thus the abortion debate is not necessarily a moral one but an educational one. When it comes to child killing, the issue with them is not the sanctity of life, but geography—the location of the child.
As pro-life proponents seek to prevent abortion, we need to remember our duty to both the woman and the child. In our duty to protect the mother, we are responsible for providing her with the educational material that shows the harmful physical and psychological effects of abortion as well as better viable and realistic options—that abortion is not their only choice.
In our duty to protect unborn children, we are certainly responsible for taking good measures to stop any and every abortion, yet it does not end there. We are also responsible for educating our pro-choice neighbours and mothers who are either unaware or ignorant of the life in the womb. This can be done both scientifically and morally and begins first and foremost in developing loving relationships with people as we enter dialogues with them.
Abort73.com. “A Biblical Mandate to Do Something About Abortion.” Last modified August 30, 2016. Accessed March 9, 2017. http://abort73.com/end_abortion/a_biblical_mandate_to_do_something_about_abortion
Beattie, Tina. “Catholicism, Choice and Consciousness: A Feminist Theological Perspective on Abortion.” International Journal of Public Theology 4, no 1 (2010): 51-75.
Geisler, Norman L. Christian Ethics: Contemporary Issues & Options, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2010.
Kolb, Robert. The American Mind Meets the Mind of Christ. St. Louis: Concordia Seminary, 2010.
Neudecker, Reinhard. “‘And You Shall Love Your Neighbor as Yourself — I Am The Lord’ (Lev 19,18) in Jewish Interpretation.” Biblica 73, no 4 (1992): 496-517.
Sappington, R. Jay. “Abortion: A Non-Controversial Approach.” Trinity Journal 14, no 2 (Fall 1993): 183-199.