The principle of the sanctity of life is clearly established in Genesis 9 and in the Ten Commandments. The Old Testament does picture God as permitting and requiring the taking of human life in terms of warfare and the death penalty for specific crimes. Some see this as justifying the killing only of the guilty and not of the innocent; of the sanctity of life in every situation. The Bible as a whole clearly states that life comes from God as his gift and that we are answerable to him for what we do with our own and other people’s lives. Such responsibility means that we shall all answer before the judgment seat for our actions and failures to act. Thus, any and every taking of life is a most serious business and requires justification to God. Some suggest that in a fallen world there may be situations where no matter what we do it will be evil. Thus, in extreme settings, the taking of life may be the ‘lesser of two evils’, remaining an evil which needs confession and repentance.
This may be reflected in Exodus 21:22-23, where a distinction is drawn between the loss of a woman’s life and a baby’s as a result of an accident. In the one case, the legal requirement is a life for a life, but in the case of foetal life, a fine is required. Though exegetically ambiguous, at most this shows a distinction between foetal and fully developed human life, but does not in itself justify abortion. Indeed, it is clearly seen as a wrongdoing requiring recompense, even though this is in the setting of accidental death and not, as in modern abortion, where death is the intention.
The calling of the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah while in the womb, and the detailed description of foetal life as portrayed in Psalms 139, offer a clear picture of God’s concern for and intimate involvement with human beings from before conception. While there is no doubt about God’s role in the creation of life, these passages are all written from the perspective of psalmist and prophets looking backwards. All of their life has been in God’s hand, and they testify to that. Whether we are able to look forwards from every embryo to the person they would be, if other things were equal and nothing else happened, is less certain.
In the New Testament, after the annunciation by Gabriel to Mary, the now newly pregnant Mary goes to visit the six- months-pregnant Elizabeth. She describes how the child in the womb (John the Baptist) leapt at the coming of the Saviour’s mother (Luke 1:39-45). This seems to point to foetal awareness in John and the foetal identity of both Jesus and John. The same note of backwards-looking reflection matters here, for the physician Luke records what happened to those who were known as John the Baptist and as Jesus. Whether the forwards projection or the generalisation from such a unique, doubly miraculous event can in itself justify a high view of foetal life is more debatable.
The early church and its successors firmly held to the need to defend the unborn and the inviolability of the foetus, once it was ensouled. The modern debate has moved on, and Christians may disagree, but not about the central need to preserve the principle of the sanctity of life, and limit the idea that people are free to please themselves with regard to their own bodies regardless of the impact on others. This is not a patriarchal imposition, but a recognition that the vulnerable need to be protected. If the aim of an operation (e.g. an abortion) is to save the life of the mother, then that primary effect and intention are morally acceptable; the second or double effect is the death of the child. While still ultimately responsible, if the doctor’s primary intention was to preserve the woman’s life and there was no alternative, then a doctor may be considered to be morally justified in ending foetal life.
In the name of ‘progress’
With increasing technological and genetic advances, the problems will continue to grow in this area. Selective reduction, where healthy implanted embryos are destroyed to avoid multiple births in infertility treatment, is now common. The use of foetal tissue from aborted foetuses raises moral questions about the integrity of the foetus and who should give permission for such work, if it should be permitted. Some regard this as a means of bringing some good result out of an evil situation, while others regard this as ‘playing at God’ and reducing the value and integrity of human life. As our capacity to measure and manipulate foetal and embryonic life grows, so will the moral dilemmas.
Christians must remember that behind the dilemmas are real people facing unwanted pregnancies, bringing up handicapped children, or coping with the long-term results of rape and incest. The need to offer genuine assistance to the unmarried mother, to the mother who already has a large family and no proper means of support. We are loving care may well decrease the number of abortions. Likewise, Christians must reflect on their responsibility in a society where human life is regarded cheaply. It is proper to ask what kind of society we become when human life is regarded as disposable; all of us may then be vulnerable.
The prophetic proclamation of the principle of the sanctity of life must be matched by concern for those who do not and cannot accept that standard. Practical help with practical alternatives must be produced. In political terms, Christians are free in a democracy to work for a change in the abortion laws and to persuade society of the evil of abortion on demand. They do not have the right to inflict their morality on society. This creates a tension for politicians and law-makers who are Christians. Do they refuse to accept anything but the ideal they believe in, or are they willing to work by a process of compromise at reducing the conditions and time-scale for abortions, thus killing the abortion law by a series of reductions? As part of restraining evil in a pluralist society, many will feel that saving the few is better than saving none, and that, in time, science will show the integrity of human life from its earliest stages.