Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Talk With Me about Abortion

As I mentioned in a post last week, I will be a member of a ten-clergyperson panel participating in a forum on Religious Perspectives on Women’s Health Issues (with a focus on abortion and contraception) at the Medical College of Georgia on Tuesday, March 6. I hope that many of you will dialogue with me on this blog this week while I try to think through the issues. We might keep in mind that the audience will be made up of medical students. Many of those folks are going to have the responsibility of dealing with women who may need (for reasons of health, for example) or feel that they need (for any number of reasons) an abortion. My real challenge, as I see it, is to offer those medical students something to think about as they try to arrive at their own ethical position.

Let me voice one of my reservations right up front. I’m a man. Now, I’m not usually particularly troubled by that reality, but in this case it makes me kind of sensitive. I have a feeling of “Who am I to say what a woman should do with her body or with the fetus that her body carries?” Because I am not a woman I will never have to make the decision of whether or not to have an abortion. Therefore I am by definition removed by one step from any possible direct involvement in the issue. That does not mean that I can or should try to avoid the issue; it’s just something that makes my throat tighten a bit when I try to talk about the subject.

One of my tasks at the forum is to represent the teaching of my faith tradition on the subject. As those of you who share my Baptist background know, that’s not easy. It is very difficult, the apparent ease with which some Baptist mouthpieces do it notwithstanding, to speak for all Baptists on anything. Still, I think that I can safely affirm that the vast majority of Baptists are opposed to abortion on demand.

I have two questions about that last statement. First, is it really accurate to speak of the status of abortion in this country as “abortion on demand”? Second, am I right to think that most Baptists are opposed to abortion on demand?

The real struggle is of course clarifying and articulating my own position.

It seems to me that one’s stance on abortion really must come down to one’s answer to the question “When does life begin?” I guess that the main options are that it begins either at conception or at birth. Obviously a baby is a life once it draws its first independent breath, so the question really comes down to whether or not the baby is a life before that. I think that it is. But the Bible can be used to argue that, even if the fetus is a life, it is not to be seen as having personhood in the same way that someone already born has personhood. In the Old Testament laws, for example, the life of a fetus was not valued as highly as that of a walking and breathing person: “When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life…” (Exodus 21:22-23). In other words, the penalty for causing a miscarriage was a fine while the penalty for harm to the life of the mother was parallel retribution.

As an aside, I would note that here the tenuous relationship between religion and science crops up again. Many people of faith fight against most advances of science that seem to them to treat the pre-born as less than a life (embryonic stem cell research, for example). But, if science could somehow prove that an embryo or a fetus is a life, those same people of faith would probably be ready to embrace that scientific conclusion. It seems to me that some of us tend to want to accept or use the conclusions of science when they fit our agendas but not to accept them when they don’t.

Even though I’m a man, I can’t separate my personal experience from this issue. My wife and I have two children for whom we have much love and in whom we have much pride. I remember how I felt when Debra was pregnant. In both instances, from the time that we learned that she was expecting, I thought of what was in her as our child. I didn’t think of it as a fetus; I thought of it as our child. And it would have hurt us deeply had Debra suffered a miscarriage and thus lost one of them.

Yet we are inconsistent. Families sometimes request funeral services for a stillborn child but they do not request them (not in my experience, anyway) for a miscarried fetus. I’m not saying that they should; I’m just saying that if we really believe that fetus to be a life, should not its passing be acknowledged in some way? I have been a ministerial presence in the lives of enough women who have miscarried to know that what they feel is definitely a kind of grief that results from their loss.

That brings up another question: I wonder what the grief experience is like for a woman who has had an abortion as compared to that of a woman who has had a miscarriage. When I first pondered that question it occurred to me that a woman who had chosen an abortion might have her experience complicated by feelings of guilt, but I have dealt with women who have suffered miscarriages who dealt with guilt. They had not chosen to end their pregnancy but they sometimes wonder what they might have done or not done to cause the miscarriage. One difference in those experiences is that the woman who had the abortion made the conscious decision to do so.

Well, these are some of my early thoughts. Please help to clarify them by questioning me, challenging me, and even affirming me.

I’ll be posting on this subject again this Wednesday and Friday.


Scott Hughes said...

I am afraid of the abortion debate. It takes up to much effort from people, but never gets anywhere.

johnj said...


Conception produces a genetically unique organism. I feel the biggest problem in the abortion debate is defining a time when the newly conceived organism can be called human. Any chosen time for this transition is completely arbitrary and for any such definition moving the time earlier or later by a small amount does not change the definition in any practical way. Development of an individual is a continual process lasting much longer than gestation. I would include the actual birth in these definitions. The only thing that changes at birth is the number of individuals who can care for the infant goes up. Thus I believe that preconception is the only logically defensible time for abortion. Preconception abortion is normally called contraception. Anything later is killing an unique human.

Mike Ruffin said...


I think you may be right.

Somewhere else I read that the question is when does the life that is the fetus become a person? Pro-choice folks would tend to say, I think, that that happens when the child is outside the mother's body, breathing on its own. There may be some logic to that but it is indeed arbitrary, as is picking any other date on the development calendar.

There do seem to me to be degrees of "potential personhood or humanness." This ties in to your closing words about contraception. Most forms of contraception prevent the creation of the "genetically unique organism." That is a far different thing than choosing to remove that organism once it has been formed.

Thanks for you comments.