Recent Op-Ed: Abortion Involves No Moral Debate

In a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post, Janet Harris takes issue with those who describe abortion as a “difficult decision.” Of the problems she associates with such language, she finds one to be especially troublesome:

It is a tacit acknowledgment that terminating a pregnancy is a moral issue requiring an ethical debate. To say that deciding to have an abortion is a “hard choice” implies a debate about whether the fetus should live, thereby endowing it with a status of being. It puts the focus on the fetus rather than the woman. As a result, the question “What kind of future would the woman have as a result of an unwanted pregnancy?” gets sacrificed. By implying that terminating a pregnancy is a moral issue, pro-choice advocates forfeit control of the discussion to anti-choice conservatives.

Contrary to numerous movies and “very special” television episodes portraying abortion as an agonizing, complex decision (“Obvious Child” notwithstanding), for many it is a simple choice and often the only practical option.

What to say in response?

1. First, note that Harris isn’t simply suggesting that the moral debate favors the pro-abortion camp. Instead, she appears to be saying that the debate shouldn’t even exist. However, one can find no argument in her piece to back up this incredibly bold claim. She simply asserts that terminating a pregnancy involves no moral issue. But asserting something doesn’t make it so. Even granting the space limitations of an opinion piece, the failure to substantiate her claim is a glaring omission. Harris also avoids the obvious fact that a spirited cultural debate has actually existed over this very issue for decades, right up to the present day. Why so much fuss from so many if her contention is so obvious?

2. It’s also instructive to note the language people use when discussing abortion. Think for a minute about how her piece would change if, contrary to her perspective, life actually begins at conception. Instead of talking about not wanting or terminating a pregnancy, we’d be forced to speak of an unwanted or terminated human being. We wouldn’t be asked to dismiss the debate over whether the fetus should live, but rather to dismiss a debate over whether a person should live. The act presented as “a simple choice” and “often the only practical option” would be the act of ending a human being’s life. And even as we’re asked to weigh the future of the pregnant woman, we would also need to weigh the future of the man or woman she bears. How would that change our thinking in these circumstances?

3. But are there good reasons to believe that life begins at conception? I very much believe so. From the biblical standpoint, passages like Psalm 139:13-16, Jeremiah 1:5, Luke 1:44, Job 31:13-15, and Psalm 51:5 all point to the personhood of unborn children. For a larger view of the biblical and historical context, see a sermon called “The Only Basis for Human Life” from Dave Cover found here. And for a carefully reasoned argument involving the biological realities, see chapters 16 and 17 in Princeton law professor Robert George’s Conscience and Its Enemies. Here’s a brief summary paragraph:

Your life began, as did the life of every other human being, when the fusion of egg and sperm produced a new, complete, living organism—an embryonic human being. You were never an ovum or a sperm cell; those were both functionally and genetically parts of other human beings—your parents. But you were once an embryo, just as you were once an adolescent, a child, an infant, and a fetus. By an internally directed process, you developed from the embryonic stage into and through the fetal, infant, child, and adolescent stages of development and ultimately into adulthood with your determinateness, unity, and identity fully intact. You are the same being—the same human being—who was once an embryo.

4. While there is much more to say both about the points above and other problems with Harris’s piece, I’ll end for now with this: neither individual Christians nor churches should be content with opposing abortion. We should also be fostering a culture of life, truth, and grace. That is, we need to dwell on the significance of human life as bearing the very image of God, regardless of age, sex, race, capacities, etc. We need to embrace the biblical teaching on the goodness and proper boundaries of sex. We need to cultivate a view of our lives as not our own, as focused on the needs of others before ourselves. We need to provide grace-driven support for the women and children involved in unplanned pregnancies, both before and after birth. And finally, we need to be a safe harbor for women who’ve had abortions, pointing them to the forgiveness and hope found in the gospel and walking forward with them in light of God’s grace.

We won’t do it perfectly—after all, we’re all deeply sinful people in profound need of the grace I just mentioned. But with that grace, the impact could be extraordinary.

One Comment

  1. Joan Huhn said:

    Well (written) put.

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