Routinely teaching Ethics, I revisit the main issues which we face, including abortion–labeled “the silent holocaust” a decade ago by John Powell. It’s an issue which polarizes people, one of the major issues in the “culture wars,” and neither side seems about to abandon its stance. So it’s important to discern and champion the truth as cogently as possible.
Francis J. Beckwith, a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, provides us one of the finest pro-life treatises available: Politically Correct Death: Answering Arguments for Abortion Rights (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, c, 1993). Part of the book’s strength is the logician’s care with which Beckwith defines terms using the more accurate label, “abortion rights,” to designate the “pro-choice” position.
After a short chapter showing why moral relativism lacks rational merit–certain ethical principles must remain firm if any moral discourse is to be possible–Beckwith explains “why abortion on demand is legal in America.” He meticulously explains the contents of important Supreme Court decisions (Roe v. Wade and Webster v. Reproductive Services), indicating why, as a result, “it is safe to say that in the first six months of pregnancy a woman can have an abortion for no reason, but in the last three months she can have it for any reason. This is abortion on demand” (p. 34).
To construct a case against it, Beckwith summarizes the most recent data concerning prenatal development, generally arguing, with Dr. Seuss, that “a person is a person, no matter how small.” At the moment of conception, for example, a radically different organism comes into being. The “zygote,” a one-celled entity, cannot be called a “fertilized ovum,” because “both ovum and sperm, which are genetically each a part of its owner (mother and father, respectively), cease to exist at the moment of conception” (p. 42). It’s a living, growing organism with its own identity.
The simple fact that a genetically Asian test-tube baby, conceived in a petri dish, would be clearly Asian at birth even if implanted and nurtured in the surrogate womb of a Swedish woman, shows that the “conceptus is not part of the woman’s body” (p. 43). In truth, there are few statements which are more demonstrably wrong than the oft-quoted refrain that a “woman has a right to do whatever she wants with her own body.” Abortion does not excise “tissue” from a woman–it ends the life of an unborn child who resides in the womb. If one refuses to assume that both human life and personhood begin with conception, it becomes difficult to establish exactly what moment or social context establishes such. Various abortion rights advocates, of course, have insisted “that although the unborn entity is human, insofar as belonging to the species homo sapiens, it is not a person and hence not fully human” (p. 91).
Such measures as “quickening” or “viability,” seem to be mere ledges on a slippery slope which leaves one unable to ever label someone “fully human.” Even more elusive are definitions of “personhood,” such as those enumerated by thinkers such as Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, who argue “the issue of personhood is one that must be addressed through religious reasoning,” arguing there is “‘a qualitative distinction’ between the claims of the fetus and ‘the rights of a responsible person made in God’s image who is in living relationships with God and other human beings.’ Except in the most materialistic of philosophies, human personhood has a great deal to do with feelings, awareness, and interactive experience'” (p. 105).
Mollenkott, early in her career, espoused Evangelicalism. But in her abortion rights stance she joins secularists such as Mary Anne Warren, a philosopher who insists persons share these traits: “consciousness,” “reasoning (the developed capacity to solve new and relatively complex problems),” “the capacity to communicate” and “the presence of self-concepts, and self-awareness, either individual or racial, or both” (p. 106).
Such definitions of “personhood,” of course, have such fuzzy edges that one could easily eliminate most of us, reasoning that only a select few pass the personhood test. The best test, the only scientifically certain test, Beckwith insists (and I agree), is conception, the moment when a new being leaps into being.
Assured that the conceived child is, genetically, fully human, Beckwith turns to arguments espoused by abortion rights’ advocates. First, he considers “arguments from pity,” those anecdotes which touch the heart, eliciting sympathy for deformed children or pregnant women who suffer various woes. That illegal abortions endangered women’s lives, that unwanted children might be abused or impoverished, that deformed children are a burden on families, that babies interrupt careers, easily elicits “pity.”
Such follow the form of a 1920 statement by the founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger: “The most merciful thing a large family can do for one of its infant members is to kill it” (p. 53). Basically, arguments for pity fail to address the real issue: is what’s killed in abortion in fact human? If so, our “pity” for the pregnant women facing difficulties should not move us to kill the child. We may pity the poor man who steals, but we rarely approve his theft–especially if he steals from us!
So too “arguments from tolerance and ad hominem” beg the question concerning the essence of the unborn child. They make sense if you assume the fetus is non-human, but they fail if the fetus is demonstrably human. Such arguments, basic to mainstream liberalism, insist that one may “personally oppose” abortion but refuse to impose his convictions on others. Thus appeals are made to “religious pluralism,” the right to privacy, and the practical impossibility of outlawing abortion.
Ad hominem appeals berate “pro-life” people for not caring for pregnant women or for not opposing war or the death penalty. Men opposing abortion are assailed as incompetent since they cannot bear children. Beckwith points out the factual errors and logical inconsistencies of many of these arguments, but their real flaws flow from their unproven assumption that the unborn child is somehow sub-human, lacking legal or moral standing.
I’ve only pointed to some of the many abortion rights arguments dissected. The strength of this book is its analysis of such arguments. Beckwith does however end his treatise with a summation of his own pro-life stance:
“1. The unborn entity, from the moment of conception, is fully human.
2. It is prima facie wrong to kill an entity that is fully human.
3. Almost every act of abortion is intended to kill the unborn, an entity that is fully human.
4. Therefore, almost every act of abortion is prima facie wrong” (p. 153).
The book ends with a series of helpful appendixes–court cases, quotations, notes, bibliography. It is a fine work. I share the judgment of Patricia Wesley, M.D., Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, School of Medicine, Yale University: “Lucid, comprehensive, and eminently readable, this book is a devastating critique of the biological, philosophical, and moral justifications for abortion. Appealing to our reason, and to our bedrock American values of equality and justice, this book belongs in everyone’s library, and especially in the hands of anyone–politicians and journalists included–who has ever said, I’m personally opposed to abortion, but . . . .”
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Of a very different genre in the anti-abortion library is Blood Money (Portland: Multnomah Press, c. 1992), by Carol Everett, with Jack Shaw. This is the very personal account of a woman who had an abortion, got involved in the business of “providing abortions,” and then rejected all she stood for to become one of its most impassioned opponents.
Everett grew up in west Texas, lost her virginity in high school, got pregnant with another boyfriend, whom she married at the age of 17; she then had a baby boy and girl. Her husband was still in college, but they seemed to have a good chance to make it as a young family. Immaturity and self-centeredness, however, destroyed the union and Carol divorced her first husband.
She remarried in 1970 and unexpectedly became pregnant two years later. Her husband didn’t want the child, so she followed his urging to get an abortion. Overcoming her own feelings, she found a surgeon who performed the operation. At that time she “bought the big lie: ‘It’s only a glob of tissue–not a baby'” (p. 69). The abortion, however, failed to keep her marriage intact, so she went through a second divorce soon thereafter. Needing to support herself and her children, she developed some shrewd business skills, and (fortuitously, it seemed) got involved in the now-legal abortion business, working with the physician who had performed her own abortion. Though she at times had reservations, particularly when they “botched abortions” (as they did on a regular basis), though she felt grief-stricken when one woman died, she enjoyed the big bucks, hoping ultimately to clear a million dollars in one year.
Retaining at least a veneer of religiosity, she regularly prayed, kept a Bible in her desk, and tithed her income! She assured herself she was helping women who desperately needed her help and that God wanted her to do so. What God actually wanted of her, however, became clear as she came under the influence of a minister, Jack Shaw. He loved her, refused to reject her, yet never allowed her to live at ease with her abortion activities.
In time, as she studied Scripture, prayed, and sought counsel, she resolved to leave the abortion business. She knew it would mean giving up the new cars, the fine clothes, all the “goodies” she enjoyed with her work. But she knew she had to do so to make peace with her soul–and with her God. She found that “for the first time in my life I was part of a purpose bigger than making money. I was involved in a goal, a worthy goal. Not my goal, but God’s goal” (p. 183).
First, she just spoke out against abortion in general, for she received many invitations to speak, as a former clinic director who had orchestrated 35,000 abortions. Then, one night in church, she confessed to her own abortion, and “my healing as a post-abortive mother started. I began to cry uncontrollably. Tears flowed non-stop for five months” (p. 187).
God then began to do marvelous work in her life and the life of her family. She feared her children would reject her, but they loved her even more. She even found reconciliation with her former husband, the one who’d pushed her to abort their child. Even better, she felt reconciled with the little one she’d aborted, allowing her self to grieve for her and accept her forgiveness. At last she felt at peace, loved by God and her loved ones.
The book reads easily and illustrates that the women who have abortions–as well as the children aborted–pay a heavy price for this nation’s permissive abortion policies.
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Similar in tone and treatment is Will I Cry Tomorrow? Healing Post-Abortion Trauma (Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell Company, c. 1986) by Susan Stanford-Rue. Reared in Montreal, the daughter of a medical doctor, educated in Catholic schools, including an undergraduate degree from Loyola College of Montreal and a master’s in counseling from Boston College, Susan never expected to face the issue, but she did.
In part, it all began when the lawyer she married found money and career more interesting than his wife; he didn’t want children, at least early in the marriage. As he said, “I just want our kids–and you–to have anything you want. Let’s wait until I have my own company. Things will be much more comfortable for us then” (p. 44). So, with time on her hands, hungry for purposeful activity, Susan enrolled in a graduate program in psychology at Northwestern University. Her husband disapproved of her career goals, but she persevered, trying to find in the academic world some of the affirmation and usefulness which she’d not found at home. She did well in her studies and received a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology, only to be invited to stay on at Northwestern as an instructor! From her husband, however, she received no affirmation or support, and they separated (she temporarily hoped) for a period.
It was, perhaps, understandable when she sought warmth and companionship elsewhere, and a brief week-end affair left her pregnant. She knew she couldn’t bring another man’s baby into the world and maintain her marriage! So she refused “to think of the ‘thing’ growing inside my body as a baby.” When tempted to envision a tiny person, she “slammed the lid down in my thoughts and feelings” and insisted it was only a “clump of cells. That’s all it was. Tissue” (p. 66).
Filled with such rationalizations, she resolved to get an abortion. And she did. Immediately thereafter she felt cold and numb, filled with pain she couldn’t allow herself to feel. She wanted to cry but couldn’t do so. She went about her daily activities, smiled cheerfully, taught her classes on counseling, and tried to believe her abortion was justifiable. Inside, however, she felt she was dying and even considered suicide.
Fortunately for her, some of her friends at the university were believers who assured her that God loved her unconditionally and would forgive her on one condition–if she asked Him. They took her to a week-end retreat, and one of them loaned her some tapes by Father John Powell. One Saturday night, while eating and doing the dishes, she listened to Father Powell, who assured her of God’s grace and love. She asked herself: “Is God’s love real–or isn’t it?”
To find out, she went to her bedroom, knelt beside her bed “for the first time in a long while,” and prayed: “God, I don’t know how to begin this . . . but I can’t go on with this emptiness, this desolation. My friends talk of You so personally. They tell me that You forgive all our sins. Do I dare to ask? I wish You could forgive me, too, Lord. I am sorry. So sorry for aborting my baby. . . .”
Then the tears flowed. “God,” she said, “I’m so, so sorry. I never meant to make such a mess of my life. But this is where I am now. I can no longer carry all this pain and guilt and heaviness and self-hatred. Can You help me?” (p. 103). With those words, she fell forward on the bed and sobbed out her sorrows. Tears and cries, “a wail of grief rose from the depths of me.”
Two hours later, “emptied at last” (p. 104), she felt at peace and went to bed, sleeping soundly at last. The next morning she awakened and wondered if the feeling would last. And it did! “Even before my eyes were clear I knew something was different. It was the strangest sensation, so unfamiliar. I felt light” (p. 104). She found the profound reality of full forgiveness!
Though her husband never took her back, her Christian friends helped her in Bible studies and prayer groups. She gained strength as she healed, succeeded in a series of academic appointments, ultimately remarried, and later established her own counseling clinic. Then she found herself increasingly involved helping women who, ten or fifteen years after the event, needed help with the trauma of abortion. With her psychological training and Christian convictions, she has found a unique ministry helping to heal one of the most traumatized segments of American society.
This book is well-written, compelling, revealing. It not only testifies to the damage done by spouses and abortions–it provides a moving witness to the redeeming work of God in the heart of anyone who comes by faith to Him.
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Though the Bible says little about abortion per se, the Early Church adamantly opposed it. This is made clear in Michael J. Gorman’s work, Abortion & the Early Church: Christian, Jewish, & Pagan Attitudes in the Greco-Roman World (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, c. 1982).
The world into which Christianity came easily tolerated abortion. A society which allowed infanticide could not be overly exercised by abortions! The satirist Juvenal noted that Rome’s wealthy women rarely got pregnant because money allowed them to purchase abortions. Some women apparently wanted to maintain their trim appearance and sought to avoid the swollen stomach and limited activities pregnancy involves.
The Hippocratic Oath, of course, called physicians to “not give to a woman a pessary to cause abortion,” and some of the great “natural law” thinkers, such as Cicero, opposed it. Nero’s tutor, the Stoic philosopher Seneca “lauded his own mother for not participating in unchastity, ‘the greatest evil of our time,’ and for never having ‘crushed the hope of children that were being nurtured in [her] body'” (p. 28).
Alone among ancient peoples, however, the Jews strongly condemned abortion. Though the Hebrew Bible does not clearly address it, by-and-large the Jews did not practice abortion. The only item at issue which divided the rabbis concerned the penalty necessary when “accidental or therapeutic abortion” occurred.
Early Christians sided with the pro-life Stoics and Jews. The New Testament does not specifically mention abortion, but second century documents, the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas directly denounce it. It is considered a form of murder, forbidden by the Law. The words of Athenagoras are typical: “What reason would we have to commit murder when we say that women who induce abortions are murderers, and will have to give account of it to God? For the same person would not regard the fetus in the womb as a living thing and therefore an object of God’s care [and then kill it]” (p. 54).
Early councils, the most influential of the Church Fathers (Tertullian, Origin, Basil of Caesarea, Ambrose, Augustine, John Chrysostom, Jerome) all adamantly condemned it. As penance, Church members who aborted a child were often barred from Communion for ten years. It was clearly considered one of the gravest of all sins.
Though Gorman’s work focuses on a world long gone, it reveals an issue which is quite contemporary! As paganism resurfaces, abortion becomes more acceptable. And if the Church today is to follow the example of the Church of antiquity, the church of the martyrs and saints, its position on abortion will likely be one of the indicators of its fidelity and integrity.