Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Dr. James Howell on the Divisive Issue of Abortion

James Howell is known for his thoughtful theological commentary on sensitive moral issues, and abortion is no different. While I do not agree with every last syllable in what follows, there are some very helpful insights here, especially in regard to how America has handled abortion differently, and in some ways less helpfully and humanely, than other Western nations. See what you think. BW3



No moral dilemma in our generation has spilled over into the political arena the way abortion has. Since Roe vs. Wade in 1973, mortified Christians have hurled themselves into political activism, and every candidate is compelled to say something on the matter. One-issue voters most often pinpoint abortion as their one issue – by far; whether a candidate is pro-life or pro-choice is the litmus test for countless American voters.

How might we think theologically about abortion? No one really “supports” abortion or thinks they should increase. The shrill rhetoric is a contest waged over “rights.” But Christians do not dwell on the very category of “rights”; we believe in gifts and responsibilities. There is no “right to life”; life is a gift from God – which is good enough reason not to take life. There is no “right to choose,” or a “right to control my own body”; my body belongs to God, so I am responsible to use it in holy ways, pleasing to God. From a Christian perspective, the pro-life side enjoys virtually every theological advantage.

Lots of people with whom I’ve spoken have a strong opinion on the subject, but yet are weary of the debate. Could it be that the conversation isn’t really a conversation, but a lot of shouting, shrill, with an all or nothing insistence that seems irresolvable? “Compromise” seems to be a dirty word to Christians – but should it be? We shy away from compromising, as we should, but then we might be humbler and wiser to embrace compromise now and then, especially when we try to transfer our moral zeal into the political process. We have to deal with other people in a democracy, and even as people of faith, we understand the inherently compromised nature of life in a fallen world.

Mary Ann Glendon, former professor of law at Harvard, a staunch conservative who is now the U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, wrote Abortion and Divorce in Western Law, a brilliant comparison of American law with that of European nations. Among the civilized nations she studies, only the U.S. features abortion on demand. In France, abortions after week ten are only permitted if the mother’s life is in peril; in Sweden, abortions are available only through week twelve, and generous financial support is provided for women who see their pregnancy through. In other countries, abortion law is decided in the legislature, not the courts – which Glendon believes allows for citizen input and some give and take in political deliberation. Not surprisingly, in our all-or-nothing “rights” society, where we provide less support for unwed mothers, we have significantly more abortions than other Western nations.

Thinking that most Americans do not support either the absolute pro-life or the absolute pro-choice positions, she argues that “compromise legislation” is less evil than the alternatives. If there are never any abortions ever, then what about ectopic pregnancies which threaten the mother? or horrific genetic disorders like Tay-Sachs in which a child that survives lives miserably and only briefly? or the rape of a twelve year old? If absolutely all abortions are legal, then late term abortions, and a casual mentality of after-the-fact birth control become acceptable.

Could it be that even the Christians, who love moral certitude and shun wishy-washy caving in, might lead the way in promoting reasonable compromise on an issue like abortion? or perhaps other issues as well?



masonbooth said...

Dr. Witherington,

you cannot leave us hanging. i just had this conversation with someone last week. there responds was something like.."well i am not having abortions therefore what other people and our laws say really does not bother me. i am not going to be judged by what my country allows." now doesn't God judge the nations for the action of a few? i mean will the US not be judged by God by how we treat the unborn, the widow and the orphan? we simply cannot get off the hook by saying i am not doing it therefore i am o.k....i would be interested in your response.



Patrick Lacaire said...

I do not think that "reasonable" and "compromise" go together at all in the discussion. I think that to discuss the terms in that way cannot but contribute to the relativistic mindset that had led to an understanding of abortion as a reproductive rights issue. One cannot compromise on the definition of life, and if the unborn is human there can be no deliberate taking without serious consequence to our collective moral compass.

But does that mean we Christians should oppose any effort to curb abortions that does not result in ending every abortion - of course not.

Slavery was really never condemned in scripture (setting aside the differences ans similarities of ancient slavery and early Western slavery). However, the force of the NT emphasis on love and restored humanity was such that the in time, people came to view slavery as inhumane. Paul never took on the establishment - but did use the rights of citizenship at times.

We can help shape thinking on the issue until (if possible) the law only affirms what rationality demands - the unborn is human. In the meantime, lets help pass whatever we can to cut down the number of abortions.


Ben Witherington said...

Hi Mason: Contrary to popular believe, America is not Israel, and we do not have an entity here that God is holding corporately responsible for individual sins. If we are talking about the sins of fellow American Christians, yes we have responsbility for them in some ways. But Ezekiel is pretty clear that God no longer visits the sins of the fathers on the sons, or the sins of the individuals on the nations. Israel is a different matter.



Mark Baker-Wright said...

The question I usually find myself asking (more on homosexuality than on abortion, but the "rights" dialogue brings this up) is, "What right do Christians have to dictate the behaviors of non-Christians?"

In abortion, the secular interest against murder provides an answer here. There are perfectly legitimate not-specifically-Christian reasons why abortion can/should be opposed.

The point being, I can agree with everything said here about Christians needing not to worry so much about "rights," but the question of what right we have to dictate the behaviors of non-Christians in a legislative way needs to be addressed. There are several things we (rightly) consider sin that are not, after all, illegal--nor should be.

Neil said...

Ectopic pregnancies should be a non-issue. I am on the board of a CareNet Pregnancy Center and teach classes in pro-life reasoning, and I have yet to encounter a pro-lifer who opposes those (or any abortions that would save the life of the mother). Our sponsoring physician performs roughly one of those per week. That is consistent with the pro-life ethic.

Re. rape: I find it ironic that those who oppose the death penalty for the rapist support the death penalty for the child.

If it risks the life of the 12 year old, then have the abortion. Otherwise, don't. Is that tragic for the 12 yr. old? Of course. But it was tragic already. The symptoms of post abortion trauma are similar to those of rape, so abortions solve little in those cases. Indeed, there are very few situations in life that are improved by the destruction of an innocent human being.

Having said that, I'm all for incrementalism in the pro-life movement. I know some disagree with me on that. But if we outlawed gender selection abortions that would be fine with me (even just for the message it would send, because I acknowledge that it would be difficult to enforce). Virtually all gender seleciton abortions are done to destroy unborn females, which is morbidly ironic considering a common ad homominem attack is that pro-lifers are anti-women.

I'd even support pre-emptive legislation that says you can't abort because the unborn was diagnosed in utero with a predisposition to be gay. I realize that is a hypothetical sitation that will probably never prove out, but it makes a point. When I query liberals on whether they'd oppose these abortions they always pick unrestricted abortions over the lives of the (hypothetical) unborn gay people. I point out that while I think homosexual behavior is a sin, I would fully support a ban on such abortions.



Jc_Freak: said...

One of the absolute principal questions that should be asked by the theologically sensitive Christian is: At what point is a fetus human? Though I strongly doubt this will ever be a central question within the political arena, it should be something that us as Christians ask.

Indeed, the Bible doesn't answer the question, making it even more difficult. If we consider the one text that if often considered, where it says that Jeremiah was known by God in the womb, we are still dealing with a nine month period, any point of which would still be consistant with the text.

What then is the quality described in Scripture which makes one a truly human person? A spirit. If we take this as literal breathing, then I think we go against the Jeremiah text. Then we are stuck with an unmeasureable quality.

Then by what quality to we determine the humanity of a fetus? I personally do not have an answer. I point to conception merely because that is simply the direction I prefer to err. But I am also not content with that answer, and I am open to other approaches as long as they approach the question with respect and careful theological consideration. I believe that rashness is the antithesis of Christian thinking.

Neil said...

"One of the absolute principal questions that should be asked by the theologically sensitive Christian is: At what point is a fetus human? . . . Then by what quality to we determine the humanity of a fetus? I personally do not have an answer."

JC Freak, I appreciate your thoughtful approach and I have good news for you. We have an answer.

As I frequently mention to pro-legalized abortionists, the question of when life begins can be addressed without even mentioning religion. Go see any secular embryology textbook and you'll find that we know scientifically when life begins: At conception.

The discussion of "personhood" is a philosphical argument that can be refuted as well.

This is an important argument because it disarms the pro-legalized abortionists of their pet "you're forcing your religion on me" argument. That reasoning fails on multiple levels, but the easiest way to show it is just to point to science - you know, the science that Christians are often said to be opposed to.

The term fetus is often used to dehumanize the unborn, but all we have to do is remind people that it is indeed a fetus, but that term just describes a stage of human development, i.e., human fetus, human infant, human toddler, human teen. We shouldn't destroy a human at any stage of development.

Abortion kills an innocent human being, so it is murder. Therefore, "do not murder" is the only Bible verse you really need to explain this to Christians. But there are countless other verses we can point to.

Re. the comment about Christians "dictating" the behavior of non-Christians: I would not characterize it that way. There is nothing wrong with having our religious views inform our political views. What should we do, vote the opposite of our religious views and be pro-murder and pro-stealing?

As Christians, we shouldn't withhold the good we can do and we should protect the weak. Those principles should steer us to the pro-life position every time.

James W Lung said...

Thanks for linking Dr. Dowell's piece. He needs a wider audience, and we should start with the General Board of Church and Society of the UMC.

The comment about judgment and abortion is 'private sin' is a rabbit that doesn't merit chasing, even though you are wrong on both counts.

The damage done by Roe v. Wade to this nation is horrible.

James W Lung said...


Actually, the question of when human life begins is not a problem for the pro abortion rights crowd. Honest proponents of the abortion right acknowledge that human life begins in the womb and that all abortions are a homicide -- the taking of human life. For them, the unfettered right to abortion is pre-eminent.

Science answers that question in the affirmative, also. You can locate somewhere on line the testimony of Dr. Jerome Lejeune, the physician who became the first human geneticist, to the effect that it is universal in the scientific community to assume that human life begins at conception.

Now, Harry Blackmun in his opinion in Roe v. Wade claimed to have doubts, and claimed that "uncertainty" in both scientific and religious communities rendered the court incompetent to opine on that issue. It was, so to speak, "above their pay grade." The obfuscation continues to have force for those evil politicians, pastors, and others who want to claim to be personally opposed and yet in favor of choice.

Justice Blackmun came up with what remains a joke. Technically, an oxymoron. For the judge, engaging in judicial balancing to come to a conclusion that he reached long before as a United Methodist layman and lawyer for the Mayo Clinic, it was sufficient to concede that the unborn were potentially human -- "potential life" was the charade he proclaimed.

If you can't find the answer in the Bible, then use common sense. Find a film of a live birth. The head emerges, the body follows, and, hopefully, the newborn cries. Now count backward, one day at a time, 270 days. At what point in the life of that little girl was she not human.

I appreciate your struggle with this question. For me, the biblical answer to the question goes something like this:

Genesis: Created in His Image; life is in the blood. When did you not have blood flowing in your veins? I'm not sure about it, but I am sure that at the time you grabbed on to the inner wall of your mother's womb, it was so your blood could be nourished by her blood. This occurs some time around 10 days after conception.

Deuteronomy: The only valid dualism in all of creation is life and death. Choose life.

Psalm 139: He formed us in our mother's womb. I suspect He intended to form a human being all along. I love the image of His knitting us: As a sexist pig, I can see my mother and grandmother sitting, knitting.

Jeremiah, Isaiah: Called even before they were formed in the womb.

New Testament: The H.S. caused the quickened John the Baptist to leap joy in Elizabeth's womb. No question here, at least after quickening. Jesus is the incarnate theanthropos. At what point in Jesus's gestation was Mary not the mother of God? Revelation: The devil awaits the issue of the Virgin's womb. The devil knows the answer to the question.

One freak to another: Love and Blessings.

Link648099 said...


This is a question that I've thought a lot about lately, and I've come to the conclusion that a Christian American does have a right to impose their beliefs on others.

Of course, by that I only mean moral beliefs, not actual religious belief.

I base this conclusion on several things. First, in as much as the responsibility is given to us, it is better for us to do what we can to hinder sin in the world than to do nothing, or God forbid, increase it.

Second, we live in a country that allows one vote to each eligible person. We are not asked what factors we use to determine that vote. By the Constitution we are given the ability to shape our laws, and in turn impose our beliefs upon the people. Everyone in America has that right, not just Christians. If you don't exercise that right, someone else will.

Finally, from scripture we learn that it is good to obey our government, as all governments originate from God. It is this democratic government that allows us to rule by majority, so it is good and right to take advantage of that. We also have the freedom of religion and the ability to live out that faith within the laws of America. There is no law which forbids us from voting according to that faith.

So based on this and in as much as it depends on me, I vote according to my Christian beliefs. If my vote is one among millions, or the one that decides the majority, there is no difference. In as much as I am following my faith and the laws of this nation, I am not doing any wrong.

I believe it is my responsibility as a Christian-American to vote according to the morals derived from my beliefs. To do otherwise would go against my conscience and my faith, effectively separating my religious life from my public life. That is unacceptable to me, and it should be for anyone else.

Terry Hamblin said...

From a medical point of view, the time at which a fetus becomes a unique human being is at the fusion of the gametes. The pro-choice party tends to speak of such an embryo as a potential human being since not all such embryos become people - some are never implanted, some implant in the tubes, some are expelled from the uterus. In some the process of fusion is so disordered that the resulting embryo cannot make it to birth. However, abortions are not performed to remedy any of these defects; abortions are performed to prevent the birth of a live baby. The point of abortion is not to kill poential humans, but to kill future humans.

Although incest, rape, malformed babies, and threat to the mother's health are often trotted out as reasons for abortion, in real life they are all rare reaasons. By far the commonest reason is inconvenience. Sometimes this is dressed up as a threat to the mother's mental health, but this is disingenuous.

I would accept that a threat to the mother's life is a reason for terminating the pregancy, but such cases are extremely rare and in such an event the hope would be to get the baby out alive if possible. Rape? I don't think, as a man I have any right to make a judgement of what a woman should do when made pregnant by rape. In trying to imagine a situation where I was the raped woman I would pray for the courage to sustain the pregnancy, but I make no judgement on those who could not go through with it. Handicap? Anencephaly - where the baby is born with no higher brain - is a clearcut case where there is no point in bringing the pregnancy to term, but babies are aborted for cleft palate and hare-lip - easily remediable conditions. Hard cases make bad laws and no general principle can be deduced from them.

Back-street abortions? Of course they occurred, but the numbers were greatly exagerated. In 1966 I was campaigning against the proposed change in the abortion law in England. I debated a jounalist from the pro-choice side. Afterwards he freely admitted that the back-street abortion message was played up as a ploy to gain public sympathy. he regarded any arguement as valid as a means of achieving his ends. But following the abortion Act of 1967 teh number of live births in England and Wales diminished by the same amount as the number of abortions. The number of back-street abortions aleviated made no impact on the overall numbers.

Besides the remedy for poverty is not abortion, and the remedy for too many children is education and contraception.

Brett R said...

How might we think theologically about abortion? No one really “supports” abortion or thinks they should increase.

I beg to differ. There is plenty of money being made on the slaughter of innocents in this practice. I doubt this is true at all.

There is no “right to life”; life is a gift from God – which is good enough reason not to take life.

This should give tyrants aid and comfort. The "right to life" is a right only in that no other person has the right to take a life without due process or just cause. The author is presenting a straw man of the case for rights. Its ridiculous in my view.

Enoch said...

B-W.....let me ask you a question, where do you think the majority of our laws originated from?

Ben Witherington said...

The majority of our laws? Are we talking city, state, or federal? If we are talking federal, they originated in the Congress of course, but I imagine you are trying to make another point. If its that the Bible is the source of most of our laws, this is historically false.



James W Lung said...

Ben: You shouldn't be so quick to dismiss Enoch's question. Especially when your answer is so wrong and uninformed.

With the exception of Louisiana and (I'm pretty sure) California, the laws of the several States are derived from the English common law. The common law was brought from England to the colonies. The common law is genetic material of virtually all Constitutional, Federal and State laws are birthed.

If the Common Law is the the DNA of our legal system, then the Bible provides the molecules of the DNA.

Once again your leftist leanings and nominalist presuppositions lead you to questionable judgments.

Love, Peace, and Blessings

The proposition that our laws, including our Constitution, are

Ben Witherington said...

Hi James:

English common law is indeed one of the sources of our laws, and they are a far cry from the Bible in most cases! Take for example the laws about debtors prison!!!

And frankly I grow weary of the left vs. right language. I don't have any leftist leanings at all, except for being favorably disposed towards left handed persons like myself :)

My concern is to have Biblical leanings. I care not how anyone caricatures such a view using modern political pigeon holes.



P.S. For the person who asked the question about OT texts being relevant to the discussion about war today, I would simply say, texts which refer to Israel as a theocracy have no relevance to the discussion of Christians in the miltary since: 1) we are not Israel; 2) we have a democracy not a theocracy; and 3) we are under the new covenant, not any form of the old one.


Ben Witherington said...

Hi James: Its interesting that Bonhoeffer himself had second thoughts about what he did, especially when the wrong folks got hurt or killed. I think that there are such a thing as lesser of two evils situations and genuine Christians can differ on what is the least sinful way to proceed. Whatever else you can say, since Bonhoeffer's efforts failed, some Christians will conclude that God did not honor that effort.


Ben W