“Abortion” Article from the Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics

Given the recent renewed attention to abortion, this might be a significant moment to look for an approach that is different from the standard fare. My own views, expressed in two books and several articles, represent what is sometimes called the “consistent life ethic.” The following brief article focuses specifically on a way to look at abortion through the lens of Scripture. I am grateful to Baker Academic for permission to reprint this article online.

Abortion

From Joel B. Green, Jacqueline E. Lapsley, Rebekah Miles, and Allen Verhey, eds., Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics, Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2011, 35­–37. Used by permission. (http://www.bakerpublishinggroup.com)

 

Induced abortion (as opposed to spontaneous abortion, or miscarriage) is the deliberate termination of a pregnancy through the destruction and/or removal of the embryo or fetus.

Because recent discussion of abortion, even in the church, has almost universally considered it a political issue addressed within the framework of rights, the first task of Christian ethics is to make the question a truly theological and ecclesial one (Bauerschmidt; Hauerwas), reframing it within the fundamental scriptural framework of covenant faithfulness, or discipleship. How should being a baptized community of faith, hope, and love in Christ shape the way Christians approach abortion?

Recent theological approaches to abortion are parallel to the three traditional theological perspectives on war, though they are major areas on a spectrum, not precisely fixed points. (1) The position that sometimes designates itself “pro-life” or “right-to-life” is similar to the pacifist position, arguing that abortion is (perhaps with rare exceptions) unethical. Unlike pacifism, however, this position sometimes depends on asserting the innocence of the embryo/fetus. (2) The “justifiable abortion” position, existing in various forms (e.g., Steffen), resembles the just-war tradition: abortion is tragic but justified in certain circumstances. The criteria can relate to the status of the fetus/embryo (e.g., deformity, nonviability, threat to the woman’s health) or to the situation of the pregnant woman (e.g. forced pregnancy; economic, emotional, or physical distress). Unlike just-war theory, the just-abortion argument usually recognizes the satisfaction of one criterion as sufficient rather than requiring the satisfaction of multiple criteria. (3) A third position—“pro-choice,” “procreative choice,” or “abortion rights” (e.g., Harrison)—is similar to the holy-war tradition in seeing the agent as sacred and capable of making a free, responsible decision without providing formal justification.

One cause of these various views is Scripture’s apparent silence on the issue. This can lead to certain erroneous or misguided claims: that abortion was unknown in antiquity; that Scripture should have no role in the abortion debate; that Jews and Christians cannot formulate a robust position on the issue; or that Scripture’s silence necessarily implies divine neutrality or approval, and that the faith community should follow suit.

The silence also leads people to look for texts to support their position. Abortion opponents often quote “choose life” (Deut. 30:19). They also appeal to texts about God’s creation and call in the womb (Ps. 139:13–14a; Isa. 44:1–2; Jer. 1:5) and about fetal activity (Luke 1:41, 44) to argue that Scripture considers the embryo/fetus to be God’s direct creation and indeed a human being. Those who disagree respond that, biblically, the embryo/fetus is akin to property that can be damaged (Exod. 21:22–23) and that human life does not begin until the first breath (Gen. 2:7). Each side accuses the other of prooftexting.

Some interpreters, recognizing the impasse created by appeals to such texts, have looked to broader scriptural themes for an implicit position on abortion or a framework for considering it. Abortion opponents have argued that scriptural themes such as creation as divine gift, the summons to welcome children, and the vision of shalom (part of a “consistent ethic of life”) validate their position. Supporters of abortion/choice have argued for the voluntary and relational character of covenants in the Bible and stressed divine grace and forgiveness for poor decisions. They have also appealed to stewardship of creation and to choice (“choose life”), the former accenting human responsibility, the latter human freedom and liberation.

Critics of stewardship as justification for abortion have argued, however, that biblical stewardship does not include the deliberate destruction of creation, especially of human, or even potentially human, life. And critics of human freedom as justification for abortion point out that scriptural freedom is not absolute, that what is chosen is crucial. Moreover, they contend, liberation in Scripture is freedom from false deities, ideologies, and values, and freedom for joyful, bonded, covenantal service to God and others.

One significant aspect of the discussion is the witness of early Judaism (e.g., Sibylline Oracles, Philo, Josephus) and early Christianity against abortion, despite its absence from the Scriptures that have come down to us. (Rabbinic literature would permit abortion to save the woman’s life.) Certain scriptural images and themes, including some noted above, shaped the symbolic world of Jews and then Christians; opposition to abortion, exposure, and infanticide became an ethical boundary marker for both groups in their pagan cultures. In explaining the biblical summons to love of neighbor, both Did. 2.2 and Barn. 19.5 (ca. 95–135) say, ““Thou shalt not murder a child by abortion.” Subsequent Christian writers echo the prohibition and treat the unborn as “the object of God’s care” (Athenagoras, Plea 35) (See Bonner; Gorman, Abortion.)

This historical witness demonstrates that Scripture can have a key role in the abortion debate even if exegesis alone, still less prooftexting, is insufficient. A hermeneutic is needed that recognizes the difficulty of the issue, expresses pastoral sensitivity, and preserves the basic requirements of covenant faithfulness. Recent work on metathemes in the Bible’s moral vision, individual and corporate baptismal identity, virtue ethics, narrative, and analogy may provide a way forward.

Richard Hays suggests that the NT’s central themes of cross, community, and new creation compel us to reframe abortion so that a problem pregnancy is not merely about an individual’s decision. Rather, it is an occasion for the church to act together in generous, Christlike, sacrificial love to embrace the pregnant woman and her child in utero with spiritual and tangible support. Believers constitute one body (1 Cor. 12)—indeed, a family—and are called to bear one another’s burdens (Rom. 12:5; Gal. 6:2). Such a view does not, however, eliminate personal responsibility, for the believer’s body is not his or her own but God’s, the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19–20). It is the locus and means of self-giving love for God and others (Rom. 6; 12:1–2).

Related to the communal and familial images is the overarching biblical motif of care for the needy (e.g. Matt. 25), including the widow and the orphan (Ps. 82:3–4; Jas. 1:27). The call to protect and provide for the vulnerable may be applied, by analogy, to the situation of both the woman and the developing child. Thus a text that numerous ethicists (e.g., Bauerschmidt; O’Donovan; Hays) have seen as significant for the church’s response to abortion is the parable of the good Samaritan. The attempt to identify the status of the other (“Who is my neighbor?”) may imply that the inquirer desires to define certain others in such a way that they are incapable of placing a moral demand on the inquirer. Jesus transforms the question about the identity of the neighbor into a summons to actually be a neighbor. Analogously, the contemporary question of the personhood (“neighbor-hood”) of the embryo/fetus should perhaps be reconstituted first of all as a question about the meaning of being a neighbor to the other(s) in need, both those already born and those not yet born. Furthermore, the parable suggests that when the question of identity or status is transformed, the summons to “go and do likewise” requires Jesus’ disciples to be engaged in creative and potentially costly forms of community and ministry, and thus to recognize the neighbor by being a neighbor.

The result is an ethic of cruciform hospitality practiced by those baptized into the master story of Christ (Bauerschmidt; Hays; Stallsworth). Although this approach may not resolve every difficult case, it suggests that the relationship between Scripture and abortion is fundamentally about what kind of community of faith, hope, and love is needed for women and children, seen and unseen, to be welcomed into that community and into the world.

See also Adoption; Birth Control; Body; Children; Family Planning; Infanticide; Procreation; Sanctity of Human Life

 

Bauerschmidt, F.  “Being Baptized:  Bodies and Abortion.”  Pages 250–62 in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, ed. S. Hauerwas and S. Wells. Blackwell, 2004; Bonner, G. “Abortion and Early Christian Thought.” Pages 93–122 in Abortion and the Sanctity of Human Life, ed. J. Channer. Paternoster, 1985; Channer, J., ed. Abortion and the Sanctity of Human Life. Paternoster, 1985; Gorman, M. Abortion and the Early Church. Wipf and Stock, 1998; idem, “Scripture, History, and Authority in a Christian View of Abortion: A Response to Paul Simmons.” ChrBio 2 (1996): 83–96; Gorman, M., and A. Brooks. Holy Abortion? A Theological Critique of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. Wipf & Stock, 2003; Harrison, B. Our Right to Choose: Toward a New Ethic of Abortion. Beacon Press, 1983; Hauerwas, S. “Abortion: Why the Arguments Fail.” Pages 295–318 in Abortion: A Reader, ed. L. Steffen. Pilgrim Press, 1996; Hays, R. The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross and New Creation; A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics. HarperSanFrancisco, 1996, 444–61; John Paul II. The Gospel of Life. Random House, 1995; Johnston, G. Abortion from the Religious and Moral Perspective: An Annotated Bibliography. Prager, 2003; O’Donovan, O. “Again: Who Is a Person?” Pages 125–37 in Abortion and the Sanctity of Human Life, ed. J. Channer. Paternoster, 1985; Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. “Prayerfully Pro-Choice: Resources for Worship.” http://www.rcrc.org/pdf/Prayerfully.pdf; Schlossberg, T. and E. Achtemeier. Not My Own: Abortion and the Marks of the Church. Eerdmans, 1995; Simmons, P. “Biblical Authority and the Not-So Strange Silence of Scripture.” ChrBio 2 (1996): 66–82; Stallsworth, P., ed. The Church and Abortion. Abingdon, 1993; Steffen, L. Life/Choice: The Theory of Just Abortion. Wipf and Stock, 2000.

 

Michael J. Gorman

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