The desire to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, as abortion is often characterized, likely goes back as far as the first unwanted pregnancy. Unsurprisingly, practices of inducing abortion (and also infanticide) are evident in the historical records of many cultures from ancient times. The means of inducing abortion and public opinion on the subject have varied over time and place.
Expecting mothers have employed (or been subjected to) methods as diverse as strenuous exercises, high-risk activities, physical manipulations and brutalities, invasive procedures, and a variety of natural and artificial concoctions. Contemporary legalized practices are generally far more precise and sanitary than earlier practices or in places where abortion remains illegal. In many wealthy countries, the majority of abortions are now effected through pharmaceuticals.
However precise, sanitary, and convenient legalized abortion practices may now be, induced abortion remains an act whose intent is to kill a baby in utero (pre-embryo, embryo, or fetus). This is a critical point to the moral evaluation of this act. As many definitions of induced abortion recognize, the aim of an act of abortion is not just to terminate a pregnancy but to terminate a pregnancy so that the baby in utero does not survive.
Three observations make this point clear. First, acts aimed at ending a pregnancy early while trying to save the life of the baby are common medical interventions when problems develop in late-stage pregnancies. These acts of terminating a pregnancy do not count, morally, legally, or medically, as acts of abortion even though some may involve a method also used in some abortions, such as induced labor. This is because these acts, though they terminate a pregnancy early, are not intended to cause the baby’s death but rather its survival.
Second, a moral distinction exists between abortion and a medical intervention to save the life of the mother, even in cases where the loss of a baby is a predictable outcome of the intervention. If an expecting mother is diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, for example, she may need to undergo treatment that will undoubtedly result in the loss of her baby. Though this is the same outcome as an act of induced abortion, this cancer treatment does not count as an act of abortion precisely because the intervention is not administered for the purpose of preventing a live birth.
On the other hand, if an expecting mother pursued this treatment not because she had an aggressive form of cancer but because she knew it would be effective in terminating her pregnancy in such a way that her baby would not be able to survive, this would count as an act of induced abortion. The loss of her baby is no longer the tragic consequence of actions aimed at saving the mother’s life but is rather the intent of the procedure itself. Thus, what constitutes a particular act as an act of abortion is not the treatment itself but the intent to kill the baby in utero.
Third, sometimes late-term abortions proceed by inducing labor so that the expecting mother delivers her baby. In such cases, a separate and specific act of killing the baby in utero is generally deemed necessary by abortionists to avoid the possibility of a live birth. While induced labor abortions are considered legally risky in the United States due to protections for babies surviving an attempted abortion, such abortions are reportedly very common in Nordic countries. Either way, the practice of performing a special act to kill the baby in utero before labor is induced so that there is no possibility of a live birth demonstrates that the intent of induced abortion is not to terminate a pregnancy but to kill the baby developing in the womb.
Abortion can be defined, therefore, as any act that intends to terminate a pregnancy so that the baby in utero does not survive. It is an intentional act of killing.
Image of God
The recently deceased MIT philosophy professor Judith Jarvis Thomson is quite clear about this in her seminal essay “A Defense of Abortion” (published in Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1973, the year of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade). Morally, she argues, many abortions amount to little more than a woman’s declining to maintain an unwelcome intruder in her home. In this case, the unwelcome intruder is the unwanted child she is carrying, and the home is her womb. By declining to maintain her baby, she is removing necessary life support, and Thomson acknowledges that this is tantamount to killing the baby.
Strikingly, she argues that abortion in these cases is permissible even if we allow that the baby has an equal right to life as the mother or anyone else. While every human being has a right to life, she reasons, no human being has a right to demand such large sacrifices from another person as are often involved in pregnancy.
If [a set of parents] have taken all reasonable precautions against having a child, they do not simply by virtue of their biological relationship to the child who comes into existence have a special responsibility for it. They may wish to assume responsibility for it, or they may wish not to. And I am suggesting that if assuming responsibility for it would require large sacrifices, then they may refuse.
While a “Good Samaritan would not refuse,” she writes, a mother is not morally obligated to be a Good Samaritan, just a “Minimally Decent Samaritan.” When contraceptive precautions are taken but a pregnancy occurs anyway, then the child may be properly regarded as an unwanted and unwelcome intruder whose right to life does not equate with a right to demand from its mother the kinds of sacrifices pregnancy often entails.
Such is the dehumanizing moral order envisioned by Thomson and implied by every other attempt to justify the act of killing (or declining to maintain) an unborn child. Where Scripture asserts that all human life is to be protected because “God made man in his own image” (Gen. 9:6), arguments attempting to justify abortion assert that some human life does need not be protected. Some human life—unwanted and unwelcome human beings—can be regarded as intruders whose right to life need not move us to be Good Samaritans, not even to our own children.
Question 136 of the Westminster Larger Catechism asks, “What are the sins forbidden in the sixth commandment?” The answer that follows begins by asserting that “all taking away of the life of ourselves, or of others, except in case of public justice, lawful war, or necessary defense” are impermissible, and adds “the neglecting or withdrawing the lawful and necessary means of preservation of life.” Abortion, as defined by Thomson, is the intentional act of depriving another human being—a baby in utero—of the necessary means of the preservation of his or her life. It is an act of killing a human being in violation of the sixth commandment, and like every other form of injustice, it dehumanizes all people everywhere.
Scripture regards the unborn as fully and wonderfully human from conception (e.g., Ex. 21:22–25; Pss. 51:5; 139:13–16; Matt. 1:18–25; Luke 1:35–45). Nature also clearly attests that conception is the beginning of life of each individual human being. Yet even if the witness of Scripture and nature were ambiguous, it is difficult to see how we could be justified to pull the trigger that terminates a human life in the womb unless we can positively identify our target and be sure we are doing no harm. This is the first principle of medical ethics and hunter safety courses alike.
What, then, are we to do? We are to love others as we want to be loved. That is what it means to be pro-life in the way that Scripture is pro-life. Let me illustrate what I mean with two specific ways we can overcome abortion through acts of loving our neighbor just as the Good Samaritan loved the man left half-dead in the ditch.
The first way is to present a clear witness to the fact that abortion is sin. Here’s the kind of thing I have in mind: I had a friend who had gotten his girlfriend pregnant when they were seniors in high school. They had agreed that she would have an abortion, though he was less sure of the move than she was. Still, he paid for it, went with her to the clinic, and attended the post-abortion counseling session where they were told what she should expect and were assured that they had done nothing wrong.
As often happens, they soon broke up, and my friend, racked in his conscience but having no framework to make sense of his life, receded from society and became a drifter. One day he wandered into a church out West in flip-flops, cutoff jeans, and a tie-dye shirt and sat in the back. He didn’t know why he was there, but he was. The pastor invited him over for lunch, and my friend opened up to him about his life.
Once he had told his story, the pastor told him plainly that what he had done that was troubling him so much was a sin, and that you can be forgiven of your sins through faith in Jesus Christ alone. My friend would struggle with the forgiveness part for years to come—who doesn’t struggle with how much God loves us in Christ? But the simple moral clarity of the word sin spoken in firm gentleness gave him a foothold on hope and a spiritual frame that made sense of his conscience, his experience, and his life. No one had ever characterized his actions as sin; no one he had yet encountered was willing to do so. But that is what he needed to hear, and that made all the difference.
If abortion is sin, there is hope for those who have had abortions or sponsored abortions or performed abortions—and all the rest of us too. That is the kind of witness we need to be able to bring to our neighbors living in a post-Christian culture who need categories that make sense of the experience of being human. It falls to us to speak words of moral clarity, with firm gentleness, into a world that is morally upside down.
The second way is to serve your neighbor as you would want to be served. I know a couple—the wife has now passed—who came across an expecting mother in desperate straits. The couple was young, and the husband was just out of the Navy and trying to get established in a new job. They were living in a trailer and had two little ones at home and no money, space, or time to spare. But this expecting mother was living an altogether different experience—homeless and alone in the world—and had come to the place where the only way forward that she could see started with an abortion, which she was on her way to procure.
They convinced her to slow down, give it some time, and come live with them while she figured some things out. She did and stayed with them until her baby was born. Through their love and witness, she found her footing in a cruel and lonely world. They had the joy of seeing her become a mother and raise her child.
Many attempts to serve others do not have such happy endings, and many women seeking abortions do not appear to be outwardly in need. Sadly, the Guttmacher Institute reported in 2017 that 23.7 percent of American women will have an abortion by the time they are forty and that the annual abortion rate as of 2014 was 14.6 per one thousand women of child-bearing age. But abortion is not just a policy or ideological debate; it is a deeply personal and spiritual issue in our communities, congregations, and families. And the only way forward is to speak the truth in love and be the Good Samaritan Christ calls us to be to everyone we encounter, for we are all made in His image.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on January 19, 2022.