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ss nucleus - spring 1998,  Deadly Questions - on Abortion

Deadly Questions - on Abortion

'Be prepared to give an answer... with gentleness and respect.' (1 Pet 3:15) Have you ever been stuck for words when quizzed on ethical issues? This new series, which replaces Dionysius Dialogues, looks at Christian answers to vexing problems. Given the recent 30th anniversary of the passing of the Abortion Act, we start with common questions on abortion.

Isn't the fetus only a potential human being?

This is the key issue. Biologically the fetus is undoubtedly human; it has human chromosomes derived from human gametes. It is also alive, exhibiting movement, respiration, sensitivity, growth, reproduction, excretion and nutrition. It is therefore more accurate to speak of it as a human being with potential, a human being in an early stage of development or a potential adult rather than a potential human being. Any biology text book tells us that human development is a continuous process beginning with fertilisation; essentially the only differences between zygote and full term baby are nutrition and time.

The Bible makes many specific references to life before birth. Psalm 139[1] affirms God's creation of and communion with the unborn child. It also implies the continuity between life before and after birth:

'For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb... My frame was not hidden from you when I was made...your eyes saw my unformed body.'

God called Isaiah and Jeremiah before birth[2] and formed Job 'in the womb' as well as bringing him out of it.[3] Furthermore we have the Holy Spirit's own testimony[4] that Christ was present in Mary's womb at about 14 days gestation.[5] Many other verses in the Bible reinforce these principles[6] and there are over 60 references that mention conception specifically.

Biologically and biblically, the fetus is a human being.

How can a non-sentient being have value?

Peter Singer, editor of the Bioethics Journal, puts the secular view of humanity in a nutshell: 'Once the religious mumbo-jumbo surrounding the term 'human' has been stripped away... we will not regard as sacrosanct the life of every member of our species, no matter how limited its capacity for intelligent or even conscious life may be'.[7] To Singer and many influential thinkers like him, man is nothing but the product of matter, chance and time in a godless universe; merely a highly specialised animal. The value of an individual human being is determined by his level of rationality, self-consciousness, physical attributes or capacity for relationships. Human life that has fewer of these qualities is of less value and can be disposed of. This Darwinian ethic with its aim of 'survival of the fittest' puts the demented, mentally handicapped, brain-injured and unborn in great danger.

By contrast, the Christian view is that all human beings are made in God's image.[8] If they lack the means to feel, think or form relationships as we do, they still have dignity by virtue of the fact that they are made and known by God. Biblical morality dictates that the weak deserve special protection.[9] In God's economy the strong lay down their lives for the weak.[10] After all, protecting the vulnerable is what 'knowing God' is all about.[11] Even if it could be established that fetuses feel nothing, should it really make a difference to the way we treat them? Does anaesthesia legitimise killing?

Having said this, we do not even know that the fetus is 'non-sentient'. We do know that brain function, as measured by EEG, is present in the fetus about six weeks after conception[12] and that responses to tactile sensation (skin tightening, bending, fist forming) can be observed at seven to eight weeks' gestation. At nine to ten weeks the fetus squints and swallows; breathing movements begin at eleven to twelve weeks. By 16 weeks he will respond violently to stimuli that you or I would find painful. Pain is a peculiarly personal and subjective experience: there is no biochemical or physiological test we can do to tell us if fetuses (or other people) experience it. By the same token we lack any proof that animals feel pain but judging by their responses, it seems charitable to assume that they do. No-one would dare suggest dismembering newborn kittens (which ironically are born blind, deaf and helpless at nine weeks' gestation!)

Don't women have a right to choose?

Any woman with an unplanned pregnancy will understandably feel under pressure, especially if the father of the child is not supportive. Whether she opts for abortion, adoption or keeping the baby, her decision will change her life forever. She needs to know that the fetus is not just 'part of her body'. It is a genetically distinct and vulnerable human being that has come into existence, almost always, because of choices she and her partner have made.

Some argue that only women can decide about abortion because only women understand what it is like to be pregnant. While this has a certain validity it also has shortcomings. It is rather like arguing that only drivers should be able to decide about road rules because only drivers understand the pressures of driving. However, the actions of motorists can have profound effects on passengers, bystanders and the drivers of other cars as well. In the same way there is a 'passenger' in the womb and other parties outside it to consider.

No man (or woman) is an island. We all value the opportunity of  living in  a free society  but  also  recognise that personal   autonomy  has  its limits. Rights need protection but they are not absolute. They must  be balanced against responsibilities. We are not free to do things which limit or violate the reasonable  freedoms  of others. In human community abortion is not simply a matter between a woman and her doctor. There are others to consider: the father, any other citizens who may be affected by the decision and, not least, the unborn child herself.

Although there are exceptions, most unwanted pregnancies result from a conscious decision to engage in sexual intercourse by people who are equipped neither for pregnancy nor parenthood (67% of women having abortions in Britain have never been married).[13] It is only natural to regret wrong decisions made in the heat of the moment; however, killing an innocent human being to avert the consequences of choices we have made is never morally justifiable. The right to life is the most fundamental right of all.

Solo mothers will need support, and adoption even with its difficulties is always an option to consider. There are many childless couples spending thousands of pounds on infertility treatments because babies they could have provided a home for have been among the 4.8 million terminated in Britain since 1968.

Won't refusing abortion simply mean that women suffer?

A common myth is that women will not change their minds about having an abortion when offered practical help and given the facts about fetal development. Many do, and pregnancy counselling organisations like CARE for Life[14] have made a substantial contribution in helping women whose turning to abortion is simply a cry for help. Even women refused abortions do not necessarily seek them. An early Swedish study[15] of 4274 women refused abortion showed that 85.6% completed their pregnancies and only 10% sought an abortion elsewhere.[16] Another similar study followed up 249 such women for 7 to 10 years finding that 73% were satisfied with the way things had turned out; 69% were taking care of the child.[17] Most unwanted pregnancies, if not aborted, result in wanted children. Conversely most abused children come from wanted pregnancies. Since the Abortion Act came into force in Britain in 1968 the incidence of child abuse has doubled.[18]

Many believe that women refused abortion are at risk of mental illness. However, representatives  of  the  Royal College  of  Psychiatry  giving evidence to the Rawlinson Commission[19] have stated that there are no  psychiatric grounds  for abortion. This is in spite of the  fact  that  most abortions  are carried out on alleged grounds of damage to  the mother's mental health. In fact, for suicidal pregnant women, abortion will increase depression and the risk of post-abortion psychosis.[20] What they really need is proper psychiatric treatment. As a general rule pregnancy enhances rather than damages mental health; the incidence of suicide in non-pregnant women of childbearing age is 18 times that in pregnant women.[21]

While first trimester abortions are usually physically safe (for the mother), complications do however occur: uterine perforation, haemorrhage, sepsis, cervical lacerations and retained placentae in the short term as well as chronic  pelvic inflammatory disease, subfertility, cervical incompetence, rhesus isoimmunisation and menstrual disturbances in the long term. A prospective  and joint  RCGP/RCOG study showed that  10%  of  women  had complications  within three weeks of the procedure.[22] As complications are required to be reported by one week, and most occur after this time, the rate may well be higher. Women damaged by abortion are unlikely to return to the institution that damaged them simply to be counted.

Early  psychiatric morbidity appears to be about 10%.[23] The long term sequelae are difficult to evaluate as follow up rates are low for a variety of reasons, not least that many do not wish to be reminded of their experience. In some patients post-abortion psychosis can be crippling and those who feel ambiguous about the decision are particularly vulnerable.[24]

More deadly questions on abortion are answered in the next issue.

  1. Ps 139:13-16
  2. Is 49:1; Je 1:5
  3. Jb 10:8-9, 18-19
  4. Lk 1:42
  5. Lk 1:36, 56-8
  6. Gn 25:22-23; Ps 22:9-10, 51:5, 71:6; Ec 11:5; Ho 12:3
  7. Singer P. Sanctity of Life or Quality of Life? Paediatrics 1983;72(1):128-9
  8. Gn 1:27, 9:6
  9. Pr 22:22-23; Ex 21:2-6, 22:21-24; Lv 19:14,32
  10. Phil 2:5-8; Rom 5:6-8
  11. Je 22:16,17
  12. NEJM 1982; p564 (26 August)
  13. Whelan R. Legal Abortion Examined. SPUC Ed Res Trust 1992
  14. Minnis S. GPs and Crisis Pregnancy Counselling Centres. Nucleus 1996; January:15-21
  15. Hultgren G. Refusal of Request for Legal Abortion. Nord Med 1957;62: 1182-85
  16. Sweden legalised abortion in the 1930s.
  17. Hook K. Refused abortion. Acta Psychiat Scand 1963;suppl 168:3-156
  18. Whelan R. op cit
  19. Rawlinson Report. The Physical & Psychosocial Effects of Abortion on Women. London,1994
  20. Psychiatric Journal of the University of Ottawa 1989;14:506-16
  21. BMJ 1991;302:126-7
  22. Frank P et al. J R Coll Gen Pract 1985;92:308-16
  23. Zolese G, Blacker CVR. The psychological complications of therapeutic abortion. Brit J Psych;1992;160:742-749
  24. Rawlinson Report. Op cit
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