Abortion: The Value of Human Life
A Statement of The American Lutheran Church, 1976
(A statement received as information by the Eighth General Convention of The American Lutheran Church by action GC76.9.34 and transmitted to the member congregations of The American Lutheran Church as a statement worthy of study by their members.)
We confess that God wills the creation, preservation, reconciliation, and redemption of human life. Such life derives its value from his loving purpose, and is held by us as a trust for which we must give account. God's creating, preserving, judging, reconciling, and redeeming activity is expressed in nature as well as in history, as new life is brought into existence and as men and women work to prevent the destruction of human life. This understanding of God's intentions for human life provides a perspective which informs us that it is better to give, share, and preserve life than to take it away.
In order to delineate the meaning of the will of God for human life, however, we are required to identify not merely the conditions for physical existence but those conditions which contribute to human fulfillment. We therefore include among the purposes of God the following: sustaining and improving physical and mental health; encouraging relationships that nurture hope, trust, and love; and providing sufficient material goods to enable individuals to develop more fully their capacities to initiate, to respond, and to achieve. Conditions transcending physical existence are necessary if human life is to be meaningful, though physical existence is a prerequisite for the realization of other values.
This perspective on human life has its foundation in the Bible. Throughout the Old Testament, human life is always viewed in terms of relationships. A person's identity is not developed in isolation but in relation to the family, the clan, and, most importantly, the covenant community. This is frequently expressed in the biblical concept of "corporate personality."
Thus an individual's righteousness builds up the covenant community and his or her disloyalty tears it down. Individuality and personal responsibility are closely linked to the welfare of the society as a whole. Within this context, human life is understood as a gift of God and a blessing. Human fulfillment is perceived as a state of existence in which each person lives in harmony with God and with the other members of the community. The wholeness of the "good life" can be summed up in the concept shalom, a word meaning "peace," "completeness," and "well being."
In the New Testament the dimension of "eternal life" comes to the fore. The meaning of "eternal" relates less to unending time than to the quality of life for those properly related to God and to the neighbor. An individual s life belongs not only to that person but also to Jesus Christ and God. Believers receive "eternal life" not only as a future possibility; it is a reality that is present here and now. To describe human life as "eternal," therefore, means to ascribe to it an extraordinarily high value, and we affirm this attitude in all of our suggestions for the direction of public policy which bear upon the value of human life.
This biblically informed perspective provides that vision of reality which shapes our understanding of ourselves, our neighbors, and our world. That vision compels our bold acknowledgment of God as the source and sustainer of life. Our lives, indeed, all of life, are radically dependent upon God and, as ordained by him, continue in radical interdependence with one another. These human communities mesh with one another in the simple family of humanity. The human family is bound to the world of nature as part of the total family of creation. Again we affirm our dependence upon God, the creator and preserver of all that exists, and we affirm our interdependent relationship with all forms of life and matter, both organic and inorganic.
This vision comes to clear focus in the person and work of Jesus Christ, for it is through him that we experience and understand most fully the love of God. Through him we become profoundly sensitive to those in our midst who are oppressed and weak and poor, to those whom the Old Testament identified as "the widow, the orphan, and the stranger." This far-reaching love is expressed in meeting the deepest needs of the neighbor, and while it gives direction to our moral decision making, it does not resolve in advance the ambiguities of particular situations. Christian love exhibits a persistent bias for the preservation rather than the destruction of life. In addition, it insists that the weak and the helpless receive special care and protection. It also suggests that moral values such as trust, hope, freedom, and justice must be taken into account if the purposes of God for human life are not to be denied. The evangelist John also reminds us that the voluntary giving of one's life for others may be the highest expression of that love which is a central concern of the New Testament witness.
It is with this biblical vision and this Christian perspective that we must approach every problem bearing upon the value of human life. In addition to maintaining this vision, however, we must attempt to elaborate an ethical stance which will allow us to deal more explicitly with moral issues in a variety of contexts. In providing this basic counsel to the church, we choose to emphasize the language of "values" rather than the language of "rights." Such a choice permits us to scrutinize the implications and possible consequences of alternative courses of action. We will be able to define problems in terms of conflicting moral claims, and we will be able to make moral judgments by appealing to one or another notion of individual, social, or cosmic well-being. This approach keeps us aware of the complexity of moral decision making, which not only requires choices between good and evil but a determination of what positive values we are willing to sacrifice for other values.
When we examine the current problems that require us to define what we mean by "the value of human life," we discover three major areas within which the issues may be grouped: 1. the relation of humanity to the world of nature; 2. the increasing gap between the rich and the poor; and 3. the ethical issues involved in human control over life and death.
I. Humanity and Its Relation to the World of Nature
For the foreseeable future the ecological facts of life are grim. The survival of human life is integrally tied to the complex web of biological processes that sustain all life. We are compelled to admit that, on balance, human beings have been doing precisely those things which are ecologically destructive, and that they have thus threatened the most fundamental requisite of human existence.
Although we are aware of the danger of isolating any single cultural influence as most important in the shaping of human attitudes and behavior toward the environment, we nevertheless acknowledge the special role of modern technology, a Western phenomenon supported by Judaeo-Christian religious beliefs. We further note the strong tendency in the history of Christian thought and piety to pit humanity against nature and to assert humanity's mastery over nature. Biblical support has frequently been claimed for this tendency, but it probably derives at least as much from modern secular thought. Whatever their sources, those dichotomies which assume an antagonistic relationship between humanity and nature are outmoded in their usefulness and should be replaced.
The Bible itself offers a corrective to this distorted emphasis. In the Genesis creation accounts, human beings are placed above the rest of creation, but their position entails a specific responsibility. They are set apart by God to be his representatives, mediators between God and the rest of creation. Their role is to be stewards. The "dominion" which is given humankind in the first chapter of Genesis is not domination but the obligation to care for and preserve the created order. Similarly the second chapter of Genesis suggests that God placed human beings in the garden to "till and keep it." The authority given over the animals of the earth carried with it responsibility. When humanity misuses its authority, the rest of creation suffers as well. Genesis chapters three through eleven remind us that the broken relationship between God and human beings inevitably affects the rest of the created order.
The biblical record goes on to speak of God's action in calling and redeeming a people and setting them apart as his "holy nation." Those making up this covenant community were summoned to live in close relationship to God and to each other (Exodus 19:3-6). Their manner of life was to serve as a "light to the nations," who in turn would become a blessing to others (Isaiah 42:5-9; Genesis 12:1-3). Various passages of Scripture (Isaiah 2:4; 11:6-9; Joel 3:18; Amos 9:13-15) set forth a vision of the new creation as a time when all will recognize the implications of their relationship to God: warfare will come to an end; harmony will be restored between human beings and other living creatures; and all of nature will be restored. This vision of the end time receives powerful expression in the New Testament as well (Romans 8:22-23; 1 Corinthians 15:21-28; Colossians 1:19-20; Revelation 21:1-4; 22:1-5) where the role of Christ in bringing in the future Kingdom of God is stressed.
From a biblical perspective, therefore, any exclusively anthropocentric view of life is inadequate. Such simple "human-centeredness" must be enlarged to include a "biocentric" and even a "cosmocentric" emphasis. Our perception of this reality is of crucial importance. As we seek to develop an ethic which will delineate the value of human life, we must be certain that our ethic includes a concern for the way people relate to nature as well as to each other, for God s purposes in creation and humanity encompass the universe as well as humanity.
II. The Gap Between the Rich and the Poor
The historical development of human societies has frequently been distinguished by the widening or the narrowing of the economic gaps between various social groups. Those societies which survived were those in which these gaps were narrowed; those societies in which these gaps widened were wrenched apart by internal contradictions. In recent years there has been an almost universal hope that the ending of the colonial period would bring about a drawing-together of people from the former colonizing and colonized nations. The high economic growth rate of the more developed countries was viewed by many as a kind of equalization process which would benefit the less developed countries and contribute to the desired reconciliation. These expectations have proved illusory. Continuing on our present course, we will have little chance to reduce these grave economic inequalities in the foreseeable future. During the past 20 years, for example, the average increase in per capita income in the underdeveloped countries has been less than $1 per year. In 1970 the gap between the average per capita income in developed and developing countries was approximately $2,200; by 1980, according to present estimates, that figure will be $3,220. Furthermore, even within countries where economic development has been relatively successful, it has often had no effect on the very poor of those societies.
Experience has shown us that economic growth does not inevitably promote social justice. It is true that an increase in economic production can make available a larger quantity of goods. A just distribution of those goods, however, requires an acceptance of basic egalitarian values which assumes concrete form in institutional reforms related to property rights, education availability, income distribution, and political power. The view that increased output will filter down to the poor is held by some to be out-dated laissez-faire economics and others to be deliberate deception by those in positions of power.
We are also much more aware now than we were a decade ago that we live in a world of scarcity. Simply stated, because our world is finite, growth of human population and industrialization as we have known it during the last century cannot continue indefinitely. We have consequently become aware of the important challenge now facing humankind, for we must now decide on the ethical basis for making the trade-offs which must be made in a limited world where it is not possible to maximize everything for everyone. The prophetic words addressed to ancient Israel have new application in our day. Faithfulness to God requires justice for the poor (Amos 2:6-8; 3:10; 4:1; 5:7-12; Isaiah 5:8-10; 10:1-3), and without such justice our worship is a mere mockery and unacceptable to God (Amos 5:21-24; Isaiah 1:10-17; Jeremiah 7:1-26). A faithful response to God's redemptive love directs us to meet our neighbor's most basic needs. The New Testament view is set forth sharply in the Letter of James:
If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled," without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead (James 2:15-17).
There is solid biblical foundation, therefore, for suggesting as a criterion for the distribution of basic resources a definition of social justice which incorporates the principle of "to each according to his or her need."
Considerations of equity as well as social justice compel us to examine seriously our present process of allocating global resources. We in the economically developed nations-some would say over-developed nations-must ask whether we do not need to slow down our per capita consumption of finite resources. This is required if essential resources for development are to be made available to the hungry billions who still must find a way out of poverty. A frequently quoted statistic is that the United States, having approximately 6 percent of the world's population, uses at least 40 percent of the nonrenewable resources produced in the world each year. In a lifetime each American uses enough resources to sustain 50 persons living in India, and it is estimated that if we continue our increasing standard of living, we shall require by 1980 (with about 5 percent of the world's population) upwards of 55 percent of the world's nonrenewable resources each year. If we take seriously the value of all human life, such a gap between rich and poor cannot be allowed to continue, and necessary change must begin now.
III. Human Control of Life and Death
Many of the moral dilemmas related to the control of life and death have emerged because of contemporary developments in the life sciences and technology. We are acquiring unprecedented power to control the capacities and activities of human beings by direct intervention or manipulation of bodies and minds. Organ transplantation, prenatal diagnosis of genetic defects, fertilization and fetal development outside the human body, experimentation on fetuses, genetic engineering, and electrical stimulation of the brain are only a few of the developing practices that raise profound social and moral questions. Sophisticated technological equipment allows us to prolong life and forestall death indeterminately. This capability has introduced new moral perplexities for physicians and families of dying patients concerning the proper definition of death and the care appropriate for the dying. The moral issues surrounding euthanasia and suicide are being raised in a new context; articulate spokespersons are asking whether it is possible to speak of the right of the dying to death, just as we speak of the right of the living to life. The practice of withholding or withdrawing medical treatment from defective newborn babies is another area which forces us to ask the question of whether and how consideration of "quality of life" should enter into decisions about sustaining human life.
Just as the biological revolution has increased our capabilities for medical modification of human beings, so also the social revolution has heightened our consciousness of the ethical dimensions of routine medical decisions in existing systems of health care. We cannot discuss the value of human life without considering as an issue of social justice the right of equal access to health care and the basic values at stake in defining health and illness. This growing sensitivity has resulted in an increasing concern for patients' rights and for informed consent in human experimentation. No longer can we ignore questions related to these and other scientific, technological, and social developments bearing upon health care in this country. We need a basic ethical framework within which the principles governing these seemingly diverse issues can be delineated in relationship to each other.
To understand the full scope of our task, however, we must not limit our focus to the effects of these developments in our country or even in western industrialized societies. Indeed, some of the most profound effects are worldwide, as the present crisis of population growth illustrates. There is little doubt that our increased capacity to forestall death has brought about this crisis. The crisis threatens the future of humankind, the whole structure of social life as we know it, and the survival of the delicate web of life we call the ecosystem. The population of the world is expected to double within the next 35 years. Moreover, the severe problems caused by population growth will be felt most keenly in the poorer nations, where that growth is most rapid and where two-thirds of the world's people live. It is in this connection that the presumptive right of individuals in procreation is being widely questioned. The moral issues involved in revising this traditional value are many and complex. How are we to adjudicate, for example, between the right of a married couple to privacy in their sexual relationships and to their choice of use of contraceptives, and the right of the community to limit the number of children they are permitted to procreate?
From a more comprehensive perspective, we can recognize that even a problem as massive as population growth is interrelated with other pressing global political, social, and economic problems. Attempts to solve any of these global crises in isolation have proven to be inadequate and often at the expense of the others. Because of the interdependence of these problems, our long range efforts must be oriented toward the emergence of a global human society which permits a systematic program of worldwide development.
No problem related to the treatment of human life in a diversity of contexts can be dealt with in isolation from other crucial problems. There are basic moral issues in common in every decision or policy that relates to human control over life and death. Our Christian bias for life does not mean that life may never be taken, but it does mean that our strong presumption must always be for life against death, and that any instance in which life is taken must be carefully scrutinized. Thus we state a clear moral preference for peace against war, for rehabilitation against capital punishment, for continuation of a pregnancy against abortion. We also recognize that each of these problems requires a more careful analysis than is possible in this general statement.
Our attempt to view all of these issues within one basic ethical framework, however, forces us to remain conscious of their necessary interrelatedness. A strong moral commitment opposing abortion, for example, cannot consistently be linked with a cavalier attitude toward killing in warfare or capital punishment. Every occasion in which human life is at stake requires thorough discussion of such questions as just cause, just attitude, just means, and just ends. We Christians dare not evade our role in that discussion.
A Final Comment: A Call to Commitment
Beyond the issues we have explored in this statement are other questions of a broader nature which we cannot even attempt to answer now. Many of them involve the choosing of priorities. We realize that our own future, as well as the future of human life on this planet, will be radically affected by the priorities we individually and collectively choose now and in the near future. We do not expect that our statement will have made such choices any easier, but we hope to have demonstrated the necessity of placing all of these choices within an ethical framework which emphasizes the value of human life within the larger community of life.
We are convinced that our failure to deal effectively with many of the compelling issues involving life and death today is not so much because we lack the ability but because we lack perspective, knowledge, motivation, and determination. If we have prompted Christians to ask not only what they should do, but why, we will regard our work as having been worthwhile.
In full realization of the difficult choices with which we are confronted, we affirm with new resolution our trust in God, our creator, judge, and redeemer. We commit ourselves to nurturing an awareness of our radical dependence upon God as the source and sustainer and renewer of life. We also commit ourselves to fostering an awareness of the necessary interdependence we have with one another and with all creation. We pledge ourselves to act in accord with this awareness and invite others to do the same.