The abortion question

Well, I did say I had some nice safe subjects up my sleeve…

Abortion is rarely out of the news for long. This weekend BBC Radio 4’s Sunday programme ran an item about new proposals currently being considered by the UK government to change the way women receive counselling on whether or not to have an abortion. “Currently many women receive counselling from the very charities that provide the abortions in the first place,” the report began. “Under [the] new proposals, there’ll be a need to have a clear separation between the two services.”

The report also stated that almost 200,000 abortions are carried out in Britain each year – about a quarter of all pregnancies.

Now I don’t really want to discuss here the rights and wrongs of whether Marie Stopes or similar organisations should be offering abortion counselling; my personal view will probably be fairly clear after reading the rest of this article. But it does provide an opportunity to discuss the broader issues around this most emotive, divisive and difficult of issues, the question of abortion.

Confessions and apologies

Regular readers of this blog will have spotted that I’m liberally-inclined on social issues in general – gay marriage, the death penalty, the ordination of women etc. However, for as long as I can remember I’ve leant pretty strongly towards the pro-life side of the abortion debate, though I’ll readily admit that this may be primarily for emotional rather than rational reasons. But this blog is not a soapbox from which I intend to shout down those who take a different view on this complex and difficult subject. Rather I would like to explore the questions and issues involved in a little more depth, allowing space for differing interpretations.

I also realise that it’s all too easy for me as a man to theorise about matters which will never directly affect me – I will never have to decide whether or not to have an abortion; I will never have to go through the difficulties of pregnancy and the pains of childbirth, nor yet through the procedure of abortion. So I apologise if I seem at times to be callous or else self-righteous in treating somewhat theoretically what are for many deeply personal and painful issues.

For me the debate revolves around a number of questions. Let’s start with the one that to me seems most crucial:

Is an embryo a human being?

Or to put it another way, when does an embryo become a human being? To me this is the crux of the whole matter. At some point between sperm fertilising egg and birth at about 40 weeks, we’re dealing no longer with a clump of cells but a human being (assuming that we accept neonates to be humans, which I’m guessing most of us do, though some argue differently).

But at what point does this happen, and how do we decide? Is it when the embryo develops recognisable features, or when it is able to feel pain, or when its brain has reached a certain stage of development? Is it when it becomes ‘viable’, i.e. would have a chance of survival outside the womb, which of course depends largely on the current state of medical technology (and will therefore probably continue to get earlier as medicine advances)? Or is an embryo actually a developing human being from the moment of conception?

The trouble is, science cannot provide us with a definitive answer to the question, and probably never will be able to. How we define what is and is not a human being – a person – may not even be strictly a scientific question, but rather a sociological, cultural, or theological one. Yet we must decide, for surely the whole ethicality and morality of abortion centres on this point.

In most cultures and ethical systems, deliberately killing a human being (except in cases of war or capital punishment) is viewed as murder and therefore as wrong and unlawful. Therefore if an embryo is a human being at the time of an abortion, we have a problem, for it is then hard to see how termination is ethically distinct from infanticide – ‘killing a baby’, as pro-lifers emotively express it. However, if the embryo is not truly human, the situation is of course ethically entirely different; there is no crime or immorality involved in destroying a collection of cells that have no particular claim to humanity.

To pose it as a situational ethics question, to end the life of a baby after it has been born is, I think, seen by most as entirely unacceptable; but at what (if any) point before birth does it become acceptable, and on what scientific, moral or other grounds?

I think the answer to all these questions has to be that we honestly don’t know.

However, not knowing still has ethical implications. If we genuinely don’t know whether an embryo is human or not (or at what point it becomes human), then my own personal view is that – for our own sake if no-one else’s – we do well to err on the side of not taking the risk of destroying what might be a human life. And if an abortion is absolutely necessary under particular circumstances (as I accept that sometimes it may be), it is surely better for it to be as early as possible, when the embryo is still as non-human or pre-human as possible.

I personally find it hard to see a human embryo as no more than a clump of cells, a mere meaningless blob of organic matter. Even if a foetus is not yet fully human, it is at least partially or nearly human; the cells are not just any old cells, but the cells that will or would make a person. A foetus may or may not be properly definable as a person or a human being, but it surely has some meaning, importance and significance beyond a mere random collection of cells.

This then is perhaps the main difficulty for me – that even if an embryo is not yet a human being, not yet a person (which we don’t know for sure), if it survives it will certainly one day become one. What is only an embryo today will before long be a baby, a child, an adult – a person. And though there are many people I sometimes feel I could cheerfully murder, there aren’t many people who I would seriously say should never have been born. Yet to opt for an abortion is effectively to say this; to make the decision that this potential person who would otherwise one day be a you or a me, a sibling or a friend or acquaintance, should not – will not – be. And I’m just not convinced that I have, or that anyone else has, the right to make this decision.

So the central, crucial issue for me in the abortion debate is whether embryos are really human or not; all the other issues are contingent on our answer to this question. But still there are a number of other secondary questions that it’s important to think about.

Whose rights are more important?

Firstly then, do the embryo’s rights trump the mother’s or vice versa? Of course, if we have decided that an embryo isn’t a person, then it’s not a ‘who’ at all and clearly the mother’s rights must come first. It’s hard to argue that a tiny clump of cells that isn’t really a human has any rights at all. However, if an embryo is human, then of course the situation changes radically; all humans have human rights, including the right to life.

Those in favour of abortion argue that a woman always has the right to choose what she does with her body and whether she wishes to be a mother or not. And certainly, pregnancy is no easy ride for 9 months, giving birth is about the most physically painful and draining experience it’s possible for a person to go through, and becoming a mother has a tremendous impact on a woman’s whole life and career from that point onwards (I can testify that becoming a father also has a fairly large impact on one’s life). I do therefore have great sympathy with those who feel that a woman should be able to choose whether or not she is ready to become a mother, ready to go through all of that turmoil and upheaval and pain, that ongoing responsibility and change of life.

Those opposed to abortion generally start from the position that an embryo (or ‘unborn baby’ as they prefer to call it) is most definitely a human, and therefore argue that the rights of this developing human must be at least as important as those of the mother. Secondly they argue that the right to life (or the right not to be deprived of life) is a more important and fundamental right than the rights to quality of life, to pursue a career, not to go through the pain of pregnancy and childbirth and the trials of parenthood.

Thirdly they argue that the rights of a weaker person, one not able to speak for or defend themselves, must be upheld more strongly than those of the stronger; the rights of a child must be defended more strongly than those of an adult, and the rights of a baby (or in this case embryo) must be defended even more strongly still. I find I have great sympathy for these views as well.

Finally and more controversially, some pro-lifers argue that the woman’s right to choose (except of course in cases of rape) applies at the point of choosing to consent to unprotected sex (assuming that faulty contraceptives are not to blame). They argue that once a woman has become pregnant, she has already effectively made her choice; that her right to choose has already been played out. I don’t think I could go this far.

It does nonetheless feel unfair to me that the one who should pay for the adults’ mistake or fault (the man’s more often than the woman’s) should be the one who was totally innocent of any fault or choice in the matter – the embryo or unborn child. But then this of course applies both whether the embryo is aborted or ultimately born to parents who do not want or love it. And who can truly say which is the worse of those two options? 

What are the psychological and physical impacts of abortion?

I’m thinking primarily here of the mother, but of course there is also the potential impact on the father, the family and also perhaps the medical staff involved in the procedure.

I don’t have evidence at my fingertips to do more than raise this as a question. Pro-choicers argue that the physical and emotional impacts of abortion are minimal, and that abortion frees a woman to follow the path she really wants to. Pro-lifers argue that the effect of abortion can be traumatic both physically and emotionally, and also that some women feel pressured into abortions that they afterwards wish they had not had.

I suspect either position may be true depending on the person and the situation. A lot probably depends on the individual personality and beliefs of the person in question, and whether deep down they feel that abortion is wrong or not.

Again, the question of whether you see the foetus as human or not, as a baby or just a blob of cells, surely makes a crucial difference to how you feel about it. And given that humans are complex and paradoxical beings, it may well be possible to feel simultaneously (or by turns) both relief and regret, gladness and guilt about an abortion.

What are legitimate grounds for abortion?

The reasons why someone might consider having an abortion are of course many and highly varied:

  • Not feeling ready to become a parent, or not being able to support a child financially
  • Not wanting to be a parent – wishing to be free to pursue a career etc
  • Physical/medical danger to the mother (and/or child)
  • Risk of the child being seriously physically or mentally damaged or disabled
  • Pressure from parents or from the father
  • Threat of being ostracised or outcast by family or society (for sex out of wedlock in some cultures)
  • Having been made pregnant by rape or incest
  • Not wanting to have a child of a particular gender (in some cultures) or with a particular condition seen as undesirable e.g. Down’s Syndrome.

And I’m sure there are many others. Of these, I personally would consider some to be more ethically legitimate than others as grounds for abortion, and some seem to me not to be good reasons at all. However, this is ultimately a matter for individual conscience, all the while bearing in mind the original key question as to whether we believe an embryo to be human or not.

Are there other options?

I said earlier that giving birth and becoming a parent is no easy option, and abortion may well feel like the only way out of a frightening, difficult, uncertain and unchosen future. Those who still choose to go ahead with becoming parents despite the difficulties need and deserve support, help and encouragement. Those who do not also need our compassion and support.

There is of course one other option, at least in many cases, and that is to put the baby up for adoption. Of course, pregnancy and childbirth still have to be got through, which no-one can pretend is easy, even with the help of epidurals and elective caesarians for the birth. And some would argue that the psychological impact of giving up your baby to other parents may be almost as great as those related to having an abortion – again, I don’t have evidence either way, and again I suspect that the impact differs from person to person.

Nonetheless, adoption does at least give the child the chance of a life while allowing the birth mother to return fairly quickly to her chosen life and career.

There but for the grace of God

I’ve raised and explored a number of questions which I think are crucial to the abortion debate, but I can only answer them for myself, not for anyone else.

My own view then is still that a human embryo is – and certainly would ultimately be – a human being, a person, and therefore that under most circumstances it is not anyone’s right to decide that it will not be. Contingent on this, I also more tentatively feel that in the majority of cases an embryo’s right to life does trump the mother’s right to choose; and I suspect (but lack evidence to prove) that the psychological impacts of abortion are generally worse than those of other options, such as putting the baby up for adoption. I’m not asking others to agree; I’m simply saying that this is my considered view at this point.

However, I do acknowledge that there are of course many exceptional cases – particularly where the mother’s life is in danger – and that sometimes an abortion may be necessary, or may be the least worst option.

Also, despite my broadly pro-life views I do very strongly believe that criminalisation – particularly of the mother – is entirely unhelpful and counter-productive. Instead I would ask for full and fair presentation of all available options, better education and understanding of both the scientific and ethical issues and of the full impacts and implications of the various options, and above all better support for adoption.

I would appeal to those who oppose abortion to do so gently, graciously, intelligently and compassionately rather than with condemnation or violence. We should also put our money where our mouths are and be ready to offer practical support – including considering becoming adoptive parents if we’re really serious about it.

I would also appeal to those who support abortion to do so with respect and understanding for those who are convinced that embryos are human beings, and who therefore cannot in conscience condone what they view as killing a person. I would also ask them just to consider again whether they can really be so sure that an embryo is not a human being, and what scientific or other grounds they have for this confidence.

Please don’t think that I’m writing this to judge or condemn those who view things differently to me, and in particular those who have chosen differently, often under incredibly difficult circumstances. There but for the grace of God go I, or you, or any one of us.

We each have to act according to our current beliefs and consciences and then to live with the consequences. And grace is available to every one of us when – as we all will in one way or another – we mess up.

By the way, the BBC Ethics website has a comprehensive and fascinating set of articles on abortion which are well worth a read:

Right, time for a nice safe topic – the theology of flower-arranging or bird-watching or something…

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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4 Responses to The abortion question

  1. Terry says:

    I marked an essay a few weeks ago in which the essayist pointed out that speaking about the rights of either the mother or the unborn child/foetus is pointless, as both are connected as a single unit (or something to that effect) and so language about rights is null and void. That insight made quite an impression on me.


  2. David Holland says:

    Ouch! – I think that ultimately de-humanizes the unborn child/fetus. While it may be true that my arm has no “rights” in an amputation, it is also true that my arm could never be viable as a distinct entity in the natural process of its existence. I see that as something akin to logical slight of hand. It ignores a lot of fact – such as after a certain point either entity can be destroyed while preserving the other.

    It comes down to choice. God has granted us a measure of choice in what we will do. We get to make that choice and live with the result. Even when abortion was illegal the mother had a right to choose. The result was less certain but the choice remained.

    We may make the choice easier one way or another by reducing the risk to the mother. The morality of that societal choice can be argued, but arguing the unborn child/fetus is the same as an appendix? That must be recognized as a logical construct used to justify a choice that might otherwise be morally and emotionally more difficult.

    One (as you point out) I am grateful not to have to make.


    • Hi David, I agree with you – I do personally believe that the unborn child/foetus is human, but I acknowledge that not everyone does and that science can’t really help us out here.

      I think I overstated the case for non-humanity though – even if an embryo in early development is not yet fully human, it still has aspects of humanity as well as inherent potential humanity, and I certainly would find it very hard to justify viewing it as a merely neutral clump of cells.


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