A new law in the state of Tennessee now requires a woman seeking an abortion to wait 48 hours after receiving in-person counseling from a doctor before she can return for the procedure. With that new law, Tennessee joins more than two dozen states that require similar waiting periods, ranging from 24-72 hours. Only 28 percent of Tennesseans opposed this new law, and with more than half the country now onboard, momentum is building in several other states for similar legislation. Public pushback to these waiting periods is usually framed around “this is another encroachment on a woman’s right to abortion.”
This got me thinking about the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not commit murder,” in the context of abortion legislation, and I’d like to share a thought about this.
Many Evangelical and Catholic Christians rely on the Sixth Commandment as the moral base supporting their pro-life activities to protect the unborn. For these believers themselves, the connection is straightforward. Since they believe in the authority of Scripture, there is no unreasonableness to the connection. Vexed questions arise, however, when Evangelicals and Catholics take this connection out of their own circles and into the public square to argue for the protection of the unborn.
It is the age-old problem of how do Christian address issues in America, a society in which a large percentage of the population does not believe in the authority of the Bible. But they want the best for their society, and they want to find ways of convincing society about how it can be run for everyone’s best interests. So the questions is, how should they engage convincingly in legislative processes alongside people who support abortion?
Many Christians have recognized the weakness of trying to impose the Sixth Commandment on the conscience of abortion supporters as a means of protecting the unborn. So they have appealed to other arguments. But weaknesses exist there too. One of those is the appeal to the “sacredness of human life.”
Although it is not heard much these days, the appeal to the sacredness, or sanctity, of human life stems from the biblical truth about human beings as having been made in the image of God, and this gives the Sixth Commandment its reasonableness. In other words, and in the context of the present discussion, to be a human being means to have an eternal dimension in which only God may correct our failures (when and how God sees fit). So don’t take the law into your own hands and commit murder.
And yet when it comes to our earthly life, there is another biblical truth. Apparently, our earthly life is only “sacred” insofar as God endorses it. So when God says a murderer should be put to death, God seems to regard the murderer’s earthly life as no longer inviolable, or sacred. Or, to put it in terms most familiar today, the person (the murderer) no longer has a right to life. It is not an individual, however, but a court of law that makes that decision, which the state then may execute, and if it does, it is not considered murder but justice.
Now this is where the appeal in public to the sanctity of human life gets complicated, and often weakened as a result. The “sanctity of life” argument in the abortion debate hasn’t gotten much traction with abortion supporters because it means talking about the murder of a baby in the womb to people, lobbies, and legislators who do not believe that’s a baby in the womb. So then you’ve got to try to overcome that obstacle. To try to do that, Christians have found themselves stuck into arguments with ethicists, philosophers, and scientists involving an elaborate casuistry about “when the fetus becomes a person,” or sufficiently human to have a “right to life.”
Must the fetus be treated as a person as early as conception, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, and as many believe? Or does personhood occur at some later stage in the womb, or even outside the womb? Long story short, there has been no agreement on this among ethicists, scientists, legislators, theologians, or philosophers, never mind among abortion activists. Nevertheless, personhood in the womb has been a key implication in drafting many abortion laws around the world.
A wiser way of arguing the case against abortion, and a biblical way at that, would, I think, be an argument from duty. This fundamentally different approach may help us to make a coherent, well-reasoned, and believable case that others can follow. The arguement, for instance, about when a fetus becomes a person has often been debated in categories of “the rights of the fetus” against “the mother’s right to choose.” The trouble with this kind of thinking is that it is not the way the Bible thinks about ethics. The primary concern in the Bible is duties, not rights. Duties toward things. And rights, in so far as they are spoken of at all in Scripture (there is no special word for them), are defined by duties.
The problem with the appeal to “rights” as a core for ethical treatment of the unborn is that it makes duty a self-centered affair. So the mother’s right to choose trumps the unborn’s right to life. In fact, if the fetus isn’t a person, then the issue is moot. And when has anyone ever heard of the father of the unborn getting his say in this? But the appeal to duty, which is biblical, opens up a fundamentally new approach to the abortion debate. For one thing, it takes the pressure off relying on the “sanctity of life” argument or on having to know when a fetus becomes a “person with an inalienable right to life.” This is significant because even if we cannot know when or if the fetus becomes a person, we know that we have a duty to the fetus, whatever it is at whatever stage of its development.
And there is this benefit. If someday the ground were shot out from under the “rights” argument – if it were someday shown by biologists that the fetus was not a person (thus not having a right in terms of the Constitution) – it would not mean that we therefore could disrespect the fetus. We still could not do with it as we liked, for we would still have a duty to it, whether it is a person or not.
You see, if it isn’t a person, then we can’t argue rights. And if it is a person, we’re currently stalled by an elaborate casuistry surrounding when the fetus becomes a person. But if we start talking about duties, then the question becomes: What is the mother’s duty to the fetus? What is the father’s duty to it? What is the doctor’s duty, the community’s duty, the government’s duty? My duty? Your duty? This biblical principle can be highlighted by taking the whole business back a step; that is, every young man before he is married has a duty even regarding his sperm.
Placing stress on “duty” would give us a solid way to argue for the baby’s birth in a mixed, a pluralist, society like ours. And it would not need to bang people over the head with: “This is in the Bible,” or some such thing. Duties, or call them responsibilities, are moral obligations that everyone understands need to be fulfilled if their lives are not going to end up in disaster. No one needs the Bible to tell them that. So they can’t blow off the argument from duty, as they do overt arguments from the Bible, such as when the Sixth Commandment is brought into the debate. (They may not like being challenged by a case based on duty, but that is a different story.)
Whether a fetus is a person or not, the duty we have to it can save the life of the unborn. This may not completely by-pass questions about rights and personhood, but at least it means that we can take an ethical argument about protection for the unborn to a point where rational people will listen and cannot just disengage themselves at the get-go.
If our moral and ethical thinking works the way the Bible’s does, it never lets us off the hook in the abortion debate just because we cannot say for certain when the fetus is a person or because the mother can say “I’ve a right to an abortion.” We’re never in a place where we can say, “I can’t do anything about it.” All of us have duties to the unborn. Legislation headed in this direction would liberate the love of those already born to protect the life of those as yet unborn.
©2015 by Charles Strohmer
Parts of this article were adapted from Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing Word, by John Peck and Charles Strohmer, Chapter 8 “Weaknesses in the Evangelical Attitude to Social Problems.”
Bottom image by Mandajuice (permission via Creative Commons).
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Fresh perspective on complexity of conversing on this subject.
Linda: Thank you for reading this article and taking time to comment on the responsibility we all have toward the unborn. Best, C.