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.)
I. A Personal Preface
This statement is a response to a request from the Rev. Walter R. Wietzke, executive director of the Division for Theological Education and Ministry of The American Lutheran Church. The request had its origin in the following action of the ALC Church Council:
That the Church Council request the Division for Theological Education and Ministry to develop a theological paper concerning abortion based on biblical exegesis, the history and doctrine of the church, and if possible to have this ready for presentation to the 1974 General Convention (CC74.6.199).
As it turned out, there was no possibility of producing this statement prior to the 1974 convention. Procedurally, the work was time-consuming because it required reading and interviewing as well as writing, and had to be done in the midst of many other responsibilities. Combined with that, however, was the intrinsic complexity of the issue. "Theology" and "biblical exegesis" and the "history and doctrine of the church" are in all cases, but certainly in the case of abortion, intertwined with one another. They are also at every point tied into medical, social, legal, and moral considerations. It may be possible to distinguish these elements for analytical purposes, but any responsible position on abortion will not isolate "theology" from its wider ethical contexts. The issue also carries a large emotional charge, which makes it difficult at times to clarify the actual content of differences of opinion. The result is that the statement now appears as an "exhibit" in relation to the "Value of Human Life" report to the 1976 General Convention.
The statement is a personal one. There is no attempt to get at or to gather up the majority opinion in The American Lutheran Church, nor of the ALC theological faculties. On the other hand, it is hoped that the statement is a responsible one that can at least be taken seriously by people with widely divergent views.
It was decided that the best way to respond to the request would be to sketch a brief statement without elaborate argumentation or extensive documentation. It would be entirely possible at this point to add a great deal of information. The assumption has been made, however, that it is basically a position paper which is desired at this time, and that a more lengthy or complicated statement would probably not receive the attention that this issue deserves.
A draft of this paper was presented to the spring 1976 meeting of the Board of the ALC Division for Theological Education and Ministry and was distributed to the ALC theological faculties. It was also sent to a number of friends with special competencies and concerns in fields relating to this issue. The many careful and considerate responses have been pondered and have influenced at a number of places the revision of that early draft. The statement, however, remains a personal one even though responsive to the suggestions of colleagues and sensitive to the specific request from the ALC Church Council. That the Church Council request the Division for Theological Education and Ministry to develop a theological paper concerning abortion based on biblical exegesis, the history and doctrine of the church, and if possible to have this ready for presentation to the 1974 General Convention (CC74.6.199).
2. A Lutheran Preface
Article VII of the Augsburg Confession states that "it is sufficient for the true unity of the Christian Church that the Gospel be preached in conformity with a pure understanding of it and that the sacraments be administered in accordance with the divine Word." This means that Christians find one another united in the Body of Christ not on the basis of their ethical decisions and actions but on the basis of the Good News which focuses in the forgiveness of sins (Augsburg Confession, Article IV). Because the Christian is always at the same time justified and sinner, and because the whole creation is at the same time "substantially good" and "accidentally evil," (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article I), nothing we decide and nothing we do is ever totally pure or good or right in any simple way. Original (that is, conditional and not only actual) sin remains after baptism and throughout life. We thus stand in need of forgiveness whatever our ethical decisions and actions, including those having to do with abortion.
But that does not mean that what we decide to do makes no difference. It makes a great deal of difference. Living in the gospel, the Christian is placed into a situation of awesome freedom, but also of awesome responsibility. The person who lives in the forgiveness of sins is free to risk mistakes because thereis the possibility of forgiveness, but is obliged to be concerned about consequences because the actuality of sin penetrates our social as well as our personal life. Luther says that the Christian is free, lord of all, and at the same time slave, servant of all. It is possible to do great damage to one's self and to society and even to nature by behaving inappropriately even though that behavior can and may be forgiven. Thus our decisions and actions regarding issues such as abortion, while ultimately not determinative for our personal salvation, are penultimately of great importance for the living out of our lives as God's servants in his world and for the health and survival of society.
There is no unbroken or straight line from the Bible or from the theology, and history, and doctrine of the church to any specific position on abortion. Although the Bible is for Lutheran Christians the final authority in all matters of life as well as of faith, it is always necessary to take into account the setting in which a particular text is contextualized, and then to recontextualize that text in our new place and time. Differences of opinion and interpretation will arise even among those who direct their appeal to the same Bible and to the same tradition. But that does not mean that every position is automatically as faithful to Scripture and tradition as every other, nor does it mean that the social consequences of all positions are equally harmful or helpful.
3. Dimensions of Ethical Decision Making
A. Personal-Moral. It should be obvious that many people do not make ethical decisions on the basis of gathered information and careful reflection, but rather of ethical intuition. This is not to say that such people necessarily behave inappropriately or immorally. Their intuition no doubt often serves them and society very well. It is rather to say that ethical reflection is hard and sophisticated work and many people are neither disposed nor equipped to do it.
Thus conversation about abortion is sometimes limited to a brief exchange of opinion embedded in a tangle of assumptions and prejudices so complex that it is almost impossible to isolate and unravel them. Or a single over-riding concern may settle the problem in a final way for an individual. One person may think it self-evident that a woman has an absolute right to control the use of her own body. Another may think it self-evident that every child, once conceived, has an absolute right to be born. One says, "Let's not go back to coat hanger abortions." Another asks, "What if the mother of Johann Sebastian Bach had decided to abort him?" Or an overwhelming experience may have shaped a person's attitude about this matter for life. The memory of a mother or a daughter with an unplanned pregnancy who did or did not choose to have an abortion, and the real or imagined consequences of that decision, may outweigh in an individual's mind all other factors that could possibly relate to this question. Or one's experience with, for instance, deformed or abnormal children may have moved one toward or away from abortion as a solution to such births, depending on the circumstances of one's experience and the response to it.
Positions on complex moral issues are changed by ethical reflection and moral argument only in some cases and then ordinarily only after a great deal of discussion. If the only task of the church in ethical matters were to affirm and support its members in whatever decisions they make, regardless of the consequences of those decisions, it would be sufficient to deal with the question of abortion in a purely personal-moral way. If, however, the church seeks to exercise its concern for society and for the world as well as for the individual seeking counsel, it must be willing to enter into wider dimensions of the ethical decision making process.
B. Pastoral-Educational. Christians (specifically Lutherans) attempting to relate to and minister to one another in difficult situations ought to remember that the unity of the church focuses in the proclamation of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments rather than in agreement on moral issues. This fact creates an atmosphere in which a sensitive and mature conscience can be encouraged to function with relative freedom.
On the other hand, it is important to recognize that no conscience is absolutely free. Prior to any specific decision, it has been influenced by every facet of genetic heritage and life experience, and has been powerfully shaped by the mass media and by entire configurations of signals received from the environment. And the counselor also does influence the person being counseled by the manner and also by the sounds and words with which the counselor responds to information and questions and comments. Non-directive counseling, if thought of in any absolute sense, is a myth that ought to be exploded. The counselor may be indirect and subtle in exerting influence, but there is no possibility of total neutrality. Even the way a person lists the options in a situation tends to prejudice the outcome. Thus for any Christian, but particularly for the person in a counseling responsibility, it is important to think through with care an issue such as abortion so that the influence which one does in fact have upon others can be expressed with awareness and integrity.
Further, it is not only inevitable but salutary that the church play an active role in the formation of Christian conscience. To refuse to do so is to abandon the conscience to all those other influences which do continually shape it. It would seem, then, to make sense to take with utmost seriousness the need for parish education on the abortion issue. There is no reason why people should wait for an unwanted pregnancy to begin formulating a position on abortion any more than they should wait for a fatal illness to begin thinking about death and dying. The woman with an unwanted pregnancy has already been massively influenced by a multitude of factors. It would be both naive and irresponsible if the church were to seek neutrality by restricting its involvement to after-the-fact crisis counseling. At the very least, distribution of study materials and the opportunity for discussion should be on the agenda of every congregation.
C. Social-Political. Although there is a long-standing distinction between personal ethics and social ethics, it should be clear that this distinction is useful for the purpose of analysis only. In fact, personal and social ethics interpenetrate one another at every point. On the one hand, the social mores of a people feed into the decision making process of the individual and, on the other hand, every decision of the individual contributes to the formation of social conscience. In a (relatively) free society, the environment is forged through political activity in which all, to some extent, can participate and for which all, to some extent, are responsible. Those who work in the "sociology of knowledge" have demonstrated that one's perception of the world and therefore of reality and of truth and of goodness are to a large extent "givens" about which people are generally unaware. So a great deal of an individual's decision making has already been done for that person by the society in which that person lives. Since the church does care about moral issues, and about the society which is influenced by and which influences the moral decisions of its members, it ought to seek to find appropriate ways in which to work in the political arena. Lutherans in this country have been very active and effective in influencing policy and practice regarding, for instance, immigration quotas. There is no reason to shrink from political activity regarding abortion. Although Lutherans especially have good reason to maintain the proper distinction between church and state, they have equally good reason to insist that church and state cannot, and must not, be separated.
Therefore, it is singularly inappropriate to reduce the church's involvement in the abortion issue to the context of a one-to-one counseling relationship. One-to-one counseling may be entirely appropriate in a given situation. But if that one-to-one situation is going to be such that the person involved can make a responsible decision, it will be necessary to pay attention to the unconscious assumptions of, and influences from, the society in which that person lives, and to the laws which play such a large part in molding the social conscience.
4. Parameters for Reflection
The history of doctrine in the church is the story of the church setting parameters for reflection upon the biblical witness to the good news in Jesus Christ. Doctrine is not formulated to set down for all time the true and simple and absolute truth. Doctrine is formulated rather to set parameters within which a variety of appropriate positions may be taken. The church's confession, for instance, that there is one God and three persons does not for all time settle all questions relating to the Triune God. What it does say is that both tritheism (three gods) and unitarianism (one person) are outside the parameters of appropriate Christian discourse. Or, when the creeds and confessions say that Jesus Christ is true God and true man, that does not settle in detail the Christological question. What it does do is to rule out both ebionitism (Jesus Christ as merely human) and docetism (Jesus Christ as merely divine).
In a similar way, ethical reflection within the church, in particular within the Lutheran tradition, is largely a history of the setting of parameters for appropriate action. Christians facing the issue of abortion may, for instance, be instructed by the history of Christians facing the issue of war. The Lutheran Confessions specifically state that Christians may "engage in just wars" (Augsburg Confession, Article XVI). But "Just War Theory" does not yield specific directives to the individual Christian concerning that person's involvement in or resistance to a particular armed conflict. What the "Just War Theory" does do is to set the parameters within which responsible decisions can be made. It rules out, on the one hand, the crusade or holy war and, on the other hand, the absolutizing of and universalizing of a pacifist position. That is, the robust doctrine of sin in Lutheran theology automatically excludes the naive notion that the will of God can be done in a simple way either by always going to war or by never going to war. It also provides a set of criteria by which a ruler or a government, an individual or a society, can arrive at a responsible decision in a specific case. (The criteria are stated in various ways, but include such things as "last resort," "just cause," "right intent," "proportionality" of good to be accomplished over evil brought on, etc.) In the context of a given armed conflict, the conscientious Christian will always see the situation as involving some kind of moral tragedy and will seek to affirm, rather than to condemn, those Christians operating within appropriate parameters who come to contrary conclusions.
One contribution that could be made by the Lutheran Church in the present highly charged atmosphere revolving around the issue of abortion is to point out the error of absolutizing positions on either side of the parameters of appropriateness. No right is absolute. The right of a woman to control the use of her own body is not an absolute right, especially if it involves the taking of another life which is (temporarily) dependent on her. The right of a child, once conceived, to be born is not an absolute right either, especially if it involves the taking of the life of its mother. Once it is established that no right is absolute, the stage is set for an examination of factors which might help to adjudicate claims in conflict situations. In similar fashion to the way in which "Just War Theory" points to the moral tragedy of any decision made in the context of an armed conflict between nations and provides some criteria for Christian decision making without assuming a simple "right" solution, a theory of justified abortion could point to the moral tragedy of an unwanted pregnancy (a conflict between two temporarily inseparable lives), and could provide criteria for Christian decision making within designated parameters for appropriate reflection and action.
5. Some Factors for Consideration
Everything in the universe is ultimately related to everything else. A thorough treatment of the issue of abortion could readily lead into almost every facet of contemporary life. At the very least, it ought to be recognized that abortion is this complex an issue. Accordingly the following are only some factors to be considered. The list is merely suggestive rather than exhaustive or even representative.
A. Biblical-Ecclesiological Factors. In the Mediterranean world into which Christianity was born, abortion was a very common practice. Roman law gave the father absolute rights over his offspring, and both infanticide and abortion were practiced with impunity. Both Plato and Aristotle had considered abortion as a way to curb excess population, and there is ample evidence that people of means practiced abortion in order not to have to divide their estate among too many children. It is not that abortion was practiced with no restraint whatsoever. The Hippocratic oath, with its pledge not to give to a woman an abortifacient pessary, was widely known. Aristotle said that abortion should be done before there is "sensation and life." Roman Law did prohibit abortion committed without the father's consent, and it did proscribe the giving of drugs for abortion. But it is nevertheless the case that the world into which Christianity came was a world in which abortion was very widely practiced. The right of the father to dispose of his offspring, either before or after birth, was taken for granted.
Early Christianity appeared on this scene and rigorously opposed this practice. It is true, of course, that there were some Christians in the early church, as there are today, who also opposed contraception, military service, the theater, and even marriage. But the evidence from the Church Fathers seems to be impressively coherent and consistent in support of the view that the early church saw its attitude toward abortion as a decisive mark of distinction between itself and non-Christian society.
There is little explicit material in the Old Testament on which the injunction against abortion could be based. Exodus 21:22 speaks of hurting "a woman with child, so that there is a miscarriage." The famous "life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth" passage follows a discussion of whether "harm" results from the "hurt." It is an extremely important passage for reflection on the abortion issue but the problems arising from differences in the Masoretic (Hebrew) and the Septuagint (Greek) texts of the verse are notorious. There is no problem, however, in establishing in the Old Testament the fact of God's creative involvement in a person's life prior to the time of birth. Psalm 139 (vv. 13-16) is a powerful statement to this effect:
For thou didst form my inward parts,
thou didst knit me together in my mother's womb.
I praise thee, for thou art fearful and wonderful.
Wonderful are thy works!
Thou knowest me right well;
my frame was not hidden from thee,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately wrought in the depths of the earth.
Thy eyes beheld my unformed substance;
in thy book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.
Job 10:l0f. and Job 31:15 could also be cited. The word of the Lord to Jeremiah, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you," would make little sense unless set in the context of God's creative involvement in a person's life prior to birth.
In the New Testament, the infancy narratives provide some useful material for reflection. The infanticide practiced by Herod along with its violent threat to the life of Jesus provides for Matthew (2:1-18) an introduction to the life of the Messiah. Mary is described as having in her womb that which is "of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 1:18). The creedal affirmation "conceived by the Holy Spirit" is the church's liturgical reminder that the story of the Messiah began there, at the time of conception. There is no indication that what has been "conceived by the Holy Spirit" is merely a piece of tissue or simply a part of Mary's own body. In Luke's Gospel Mary is greeted in pregnancy by Elizabeth "as the mother of my Lord." The "fruit of her womb" is talked about as "blessed" (Luke 1:42). The infant in Elizabeth's womb "leaps" when Elizabeth is greeted by Mary (Luke 1:41). It seems impossible not to recognize the very great interest in and valuation given to life from the time of conception by the community out of which the New Testament documents have come. It is obvious that the Herod who slaughtered infants for the sake of his own power was doing an evil thing. In a world where abortion was widely practiced it is taken for granted by the Christian community that Joseph does not consider abortion. His first reaction to the pregnancy of his betrothed is rather to set her aside.
The word pharmakeia, from which "pharmacy" comes, in Galatians 5:20 (translated "sorcery" by RSV) is sometimes translated "medicine." There is no certainty that Paul was talking specifically about abortion here, but the fact that various herbal preparations were used as abortifacients makes it possible, at least, that abortion was included in the proscriptions designated by that term. Pharmakeia appears again in the book of Revelation in 21:8 and 22:15, where the use of the word seems similar to that in Galatians. Although there is considerable ambiguity in the use of this term, it can be argued that pharmakeia did include abortion because in the second-century Didache it is used specifically in the context of the condemnation of abortion.
As everything in the universe is ultimately related to everything else, so every verse in the Bible is related to every other. It would certainly be possible but far beyond the scope of this statement to pursue, for instance, the intertwining of the "sanctity of life" and the "quality of life" in the Bible. Whatever the distinctions, however, between "biological life" and "eternal life" (no simple identification of this set of terms with the previous set is intended), it should be clear that the one who came that we might live abundantly (John 10:10) is also the one through whom everything is made that is made (John 1:3). In the Bible the God who redeems is always also the God who creates. Christians ought therefore to exercise great care before declaring any human life to be "merely biological" life.
A significant development in the church's reflection on abortion came with the formulation of the "law of double effect" in pre-reformation times. The formulation had to do originally with the problem of self-defence and exhibits interesting parallels to "Just War Theory." The argument was that a single act may have two effects. If a man defends his life by killing another person, one effect is that his own life is preserved, another is that the other's life is taken. Thomas Aquinas said that one effect could be by intention, the other beyond intention. If a person's intention is to defend his or her own life, and in order to do that another must be killed in the process, this is beyond intention and thus the one who kills is not guilty of murder. The conclusion is that killing in self-defence may on occasion be justified, although murder (killing another by intention) is never justified. The law of double effect was later applied to abortion. It was stated that if the intention is to save the life of the mother when threatened by, for instance, an ectopic pregnancy, the necessary killing of the fetus in the procedure would be beyond intention and therefore justified. Or, if the saving of the life of a pregnant woman requires the removal of a cancerous uterus, and a fetus is thus killed in the procedure, this killing is justified because it is beyond intention rather than by intention. This kind of reasoning is deeply embedded in Roman Catholic ethical reflection and ought to serve to remind Protestants that the Catholic tradition, though very conservative, has rarely held to an absolute prohibition of abortion under any and all circumstances. What it has done is to struggle with the serious question of when killing can be justified.
The history of Protestant thought about abortion is far too complex to attempt even a summary statement here. Luther, Melanchthon, and Calvin were all opposed to abortion at any stage of pregnancy but their reasons and their lines of argument varied. Seventeenth-century Anglicans and Puritans tended to distinguish between the "unformed" and the "formed" fetus, which led to some leniency toward the aborting of an "unformed" fetus. Perhaps it is possible to risk the general statement that the history of American Protestantism has exhibited gradual moves toward more liberal views, culminating in the last decade in active movements for abortion-on-request. The movement has not been in one direction only, and the viewpoint has certainly not been unanimous. But, particularly following the Supreme Court rulings of 1973 Protestants in America who are opposed to abortion-on-request have been placed on the defensive.
B. Legal-Moral Factors. It is customary to distinguish between legal and moral considerations. The law says what we may do; morality says what we ought to do. The church, it is said, must not try to legislate morality, although it is free to counsel its members regarding moral decision and action within the limits of the law.
That is an important distinction, but it ought not to be pushed too hard. The law must reflect some degree of moral consensus among the governed, or it cannot do its work. On the other hand, the law also plays a major role in the formation of conscience, which in turn directs individuals in moral decision and action. The interaction between the law and morality (private and public) may be extremely complex, but there is never a situation in which no interaction occurs.
In the case of abortion, it is clear that shifts in private and public morality and in the law have contributed to one of the most radical about-faces of social conscience in modern history. Throughout the Christian era, vast majorities of western populations have considered abortion to be a serious act that at the very least required careful regulation. Within two decades, vast numbers of the same people have come to consider abortion-on-request to be an inalienable right. It is not the case that the law simply protects the right of the individual to act according to conscience. The law also plays a major role in the formation and education of that conscience. The story of recent legal changes regarding abortion is well documented in many places. For United States citizens, however, the watershed decisions of the Supreme Court came on January 22, 1973 (Roe v. Wade; Doe v. Bolton).
The Supreme Court summarized its decision in this way:
(a) For the stage prior to approximately the end of the first trimester, the abortion decision and its effectuation must be left to the medical judgment of the pregnant womans attending physician.
(b) For the stage subsequent to approximately the end of the first trimester, the State, in promoting its interest in the health of the mother, may, if it chooses, regulate the abortion procedure in ways that are reasonably related to maternal health.
(c) For the stage subsequent to viability, the State, in promoting its interest in the potentiality of human life, may, if it chooses, regulate, and even proscribe, abortion except where it is necessary, in appropriate medical judgment, for the preservation of the life or health of the mother.
Mr. Justice Blackmun, explaining the court's decision, stated:
We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man's knowledge, is not in position to speculate as to the answer.
It is difficult to understand how Mr. Justice Blackmun's explanation can be taken seriously. It seems obvious that the court has resolved for itself the question of when life begins, namely at the time of birth. An argument could be advanced stating that the Supreme Court has opted for a "developmental" position on this question, since it does differentiate the three trimesters. But it is clear that abortion-on-request can be a legal procedure right up to the day of delivery. A state may, if it chooses, regulate abortion procedures in the second and third trimesters (specifically not in the first). But if a state chooses not to regulate it, that decision is clearly sanctioned by the Supreme Court. Either the court has decided that human life begins at the time of delivery, or it has decided that the arbitrary (totally unregulated) killing of human life may be, if a state so decides, perfectly legal. That it is actually the former is attested to by the fact that the court speaks specifically of the "potentiality of human life" even in the third trimester.
The unacknowledged decision of the Supreme Court that human life begins only at the time of birth has made possible-and-actual-an absurd and frightening situation in which a live fetus delivered prematurely by Caesarean section is placed in an incubator and treated as a human being because its mother "wants" it, and a live fetus at exactly the same stage of development aborted by hysterotomy (a procedure similar to Caesarean section) is placed in an incinerator, treated as a mere piece of tissue because its mother does not "want" it. A few states (Minnesota, for instance) have at this time passed legislation requiring that aborted live fetuses be treated as human beings. But most states have not, and the absurdity continues (in actuality, of course, in extremely few cases) with the full sanction of the United States Supreme Court.
For this reason, Senator James Buckley of New York has sponsored a proposed constitutional amendment which would define the word "person" in this way:
With respect to the right to life, the word "person," as used in this Article and in the Fifth and Fourteenth Articles of Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, applies to all human beings, including their unborn offspring at every stage of their biological development, irrespective of age, health, function or condition of dependency.
In September of 1976 the newspapers are reporting daily on the struggle between the Roman Catholic hierarchy and presidential candidate Jimmy Carter over such a constitutional amendment. It is an issue, if not a major one, in the presidential election.
It is difficult to imagine the legal complications of giving full personal rights to a one-day-old conceptus. Would such "persons" be counted by the census takers? Would the use of any post-intercourse contraceptive (intra-uterine device or douche) make the user guilty of murder? On the other hand, consistency has never been a necessary predicate of the law. At the present time there is no constitutional protection of personal rights until after birth. Yet birth and death certificates are regularly issued for spontaneously aborted (by "miscarriage") fetuses, and pregnant women may receive funds through Aid for Dependent Children for their yet unborn child (or fetus). At any rate, as a polar alternative to the decision of the Supreme Court, the Buckley amendment, or some similar proposal, does set in bold relief the issue which cannot be avoided, namely the decision as to when human life begins.
There are those who distinguish between human life and personal life, where personal life would require a capacity for reasoning, willing, desiring, relating to others, etc. In this way the fetus, or even the conceptus, can be acknowledged as human life, avoiding the "piece of tissue" syndrome, yet also avoiding the complexities of requiring legal protection. It is an intriguing and perhaps even necessary distinction. The problem arises in restricting the human family of persons to those human beings who meet certain requirements of self-determination. What happens, then, to those severely handicapped and mentally retarded people who will never be able to take care of themselves in even the most elementary way? And what happens to those aged and critically ill people who have lost precisely those factors of self-determination that some would require of a human in order to qualify as a person? Are all such people to be excluded from the human family and from legal protection? To allow terminally ill patients to "die with dignity" is one thing. To rob all those incapable of self-determination of their legal rights as persons is quite another. It is precisely on the grounds of this distinction between human and personal life that some people advocate defining birth as at least twenty-four hours after the fetus leaves the womb. This definition would allow for "postnatal abortion" or "neonaticide," or to use a more familiar term, infanticide, in cases where the newly born is not desirable or desired.
Lest anyone think that this is merely inflammatory language, Nobel Prize winner James D. Watson was quoted in Prism, a publication of the American Medical Association (May, 1973), as saying:
If a child were not declared alive until three days after birth, then all parents could be allowed the choice only a few are given under the present system. The doctor could allow the child to die if the parents so choose and save a lot of misery and suffering. I believe this view is the only rational, compassionate attitude to have.
The same suggestion is made by Paul and Anne Ehrlich in Human Ecology, Problems and Solutions-also a 1973 publication!-and a bill entitled "Death with Dignity" was introduced and defeated in the Florida state legislature the same year which included a provision for the killing of babies after birth.
It is not as though the problem of "when life begins" had not been thought of prior to the Supreme Court decision of 1973. Numerous medical and legal bodies had considered the question and decided that life begins at the time of conception. In September, 1948, for instance, the World Medical Association (of which the United States is a founding member), after discussing information gathered by the United Nations War Crimes Commission, adopted the Declaration of Geneva which said, "I will maintain the utmost respect for human life, from the time of conception; even under threat, I will not use my medical knowledge contrary to the laws of humanity." In October, 1949, the International Code of Medical Ethics stated that "A doctor must always bear in mind the importance of preserving human life from the time of conception until death." On November 20, 1959, the General Assembly of the United Nations unanimously adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, the preamble of which stated that the child, precisely because of his or her physical and mental immaturity, needs "special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth." The World Medical Association, in the 1970 Declaration of Oslo, stated that "the first moral imposed upon the doctor is respect for human life as expressed in the clause of the Declaration of Geneva, namely "I will maintain utmost respect for human life from the time of conception." The California Medical Association wrote as late as 1970 that "human life begins at conception and is continuous, whether intra- or extrauterine, until death."
All of which is to say that the January, 1973, decision of the Supreme Court is a radical reversal of what was for many years- and still is, even legally in many ways- a consensus that human life begins at the time of conception and that life is entitled to some legal protection. The implications and consequences of that radical reversal are far-reaching and have already begun to take effect. The moral factors are intrinsically linked to the legal ones. So although the Supreme Court claims to have avoided the question of when human life begins, the church must insist that this question be asked. And it has some stake in the answer.
Many other moral and legal factors are, of course, involved. Those who claim great concern for the unborn are frequently, and legitimately, reminded that they should demonstrate their concern for those born into difficult lives and difficult situations. The spectre of world hunger and overpopulation hovers over the issue. Attitudes toward sexual intercourse and contraception inevitably figure into one's attitude toward abortion. How ought a Christian, how ought the church, how ought society, to adjudicate conflicting claims between the sanctity of life and the quality of life? (Every society allows behavior which has a predictable, yet limited, mortality rate, i.e., automobile driving, mountain climbing, hang gliding. The sanctity of life is regularly qualified by the quality of life.) What about the opinion that laws regulating abortion discriminate against those who cannot afford an airplane ticket to a place where abortion-on-request is legal? What about the male/female issue? Ought all laws passed by predominantly male bodies to be considered sexist? Again, what about that troubled, unmarried teenager, or that forty-five-year-old woman with four grown children, who finds herself pregnant? And what about the right to privacy? And what about the question of the enforceability of the law?
The moral and legal problems that impinge on the question of abortion are endless. And they are all important. The question that cannot, however, and must not, be avoided is the question of when life begins. The answer will never be self-evident or obvious. It will always be a decision based on data which could be otherwise interpreted. But to formulate personal ethical decisions, and public policy on abortion without squarely facing that question is intolerable for common morality as well as for Christian ethics. Some attention to medical-biological factors is certainly in order.
C. Medical-Biological Factors. The medical and biological factors which contribute to opinion concerning the abortion issue are many. The safety factor in various abortion procedures, for instance, is going to influence a pregnant woman's decision about whether or not she should carry her baby to term. The long-range influence upon medical professionals of dealing with V.I.P. (voluntary interruption of pregnancy = abortion) in a routine (nontherapeutic) way is still to be determined. The biological development of the conceptus through the embryonic stages to the fetus and the infant is surely not insignificant as a factor in decision making about abortion. Any responsible position on abortion will at least have to acknowledge the importance of such matters. The following are simply representative items in the medical-biological configuration of data impinging upon the abortion question.
At the moment of conception, the fertilization of an ovum by a sperm, a new event occurs which is unrepeatable. A genotype, which has never before existed and which will never again exist, is brought into being. There is no way to predict with any precision what this genotype will be, although some probabilities can be determined, for instance, with respect to known genetic defects in the parent or parents.
Since "there are no uninterpreted facts," since "all data are theory-laden" (Ian Barbour), the Christian will bring even to this event a perspective which may not be shared by non-Christians. That is, the Christian perspective on nature is set in the context of the confession of God the creator and that implies creation and creature. Nature does not exist in and of itself apart from God (metaphysical dualism), nor does it emanate from God (metaphysical monism). The entire creation and every creature is totally dependent upon God. The Christian will be inclined, then, to speak of the origin of the genotype not as the "genetic lottery," but as procreation, a process in which the creature shares with the creator the transmission of life which is necessary for the continuation of the creation. Genital intercourse is not simply the expressing of affection and love, although it is that. It is designed to be set in the context of participation in God's creative work.
Three or four weeks after fertilization, a head is present, and rudimentary eyes, ears and brain, a body with a digestive tract, heart and bloodstream, simple kidney and liver, and bulges where arms and legs will grow. The conceptus is at this point called an embryo. By the end of six weeks all internal organs are present in rudimentary formation. After eight weeks, the embryo is called a fetus. At eight weeks it is possible to detect electrical activity from the brain. By the eleventh week thumb sucking has been observed. By twelve weeks it is possible to monitor heartbeat by EKG, and by the eighteenth to twentieth week by stethoscope.
The time of "viability," a modern medical equivalent to the old notion of "ensoulment," is gradually being pushed back. The dividing line between spontaneous abortion, or miscarriage, and premature delivery has been about twenty-eight weeks. Modern technology, however, may in the future make it possible to save fetuses separated from their mothers at a considerably earlier time. (The July 24, 1976 Minneapolis Tribune carried an item about Pepper Tamika Root, born 4 1/2 months prematurely at 1 pound and 6 ounces pronounced "clinically dead at birth," who developed into a normally healthy child after two months in a respirator.) Fetal medicine (fetology) is becoming sufficiently sophisticated that the line between the existence of the fetus and the existence of the infant is becoming even more flexible.
The fundamental question raised by medical and biological factors is whether it makes sense to define the beginning of life as the time of delivery and to allow for abortion right up to that time. By amniocentesis (medical examination of the fluid from the amniotic sac) it is possible to determine genetic defects of the fetus and to advise for or against abortion. (It ought to be clear from that procedure that the fetus is not just a part of the mother's body.) It is only one very short step, then, to simply wait until the infant is born, as James Watson and others have suggested, to see whether it has any grave genetic defects or bodily damage, and then to kill it if desired. It is clear that "viable" fetuses are now aborted with full legal sanction. It is also clear that premature babies are born (many via medically-induced labor) with a shorter gestation period than some fetuses which are aborted. Whether the fetus just prior to birth or abortion is a living human being or a disposable piece of tissue in this post-1973 situation has nothing whatever to do with medical or biological factors, but purely with the decision of the woman to abort the fetus (unborn child) or to give birth to it. Perhaps abortion should be referred to as fetal euthanasia or as fetacide, rather than cloaked by terms such as V.I.P. (voluntary interruption of pregnancy). And if there are no biological or medical reasons for distinguishing sharply between fetal life and infant life, are there any moral or theological reasons for distinguishing sharply between fetacide and infanticide? There are vocal and powerful people who are answering "No" to that question. The focus has been changed from that of the father to that of the mother. But other than that, are we so far now from the days of the Roman Empire when the father had absolute rights over the life of his prenatal or postnatal offspring?
6. Some Comments
"Conclusions" would be an inappropriate heading for this section. The reader will have to draw his or her own conclusions from the material presented. "Suggestions" would perhaps be presumptuous. So there will simply be some comments.
The Lutheran Church, with its emphasis on unity in the gospel, has a unique opportunity to provide an atmosphere for serious conversation about the abortion issue. Lutherans need not question one another's Christian faith on the basis of positions taken on this or other morally debatable issues. The church, then, should provide materials for discussion which will assist such serious conversation. In the same way that a local parish ought not to provide opportunity for talk about death and dying only to those people immediately involved in such crises, so also a parish should not restrict its interest in the abortion issue to crisis counseling. Very important questions for the future of our society are at stake and the parish ought to provide a context for serious talk about those questions. It is assumed that people will have various opinions. The important thing is to provide an atmosphere in which information can be dispensed and in which conversation (rather than shouting or name-calling) can take place.
The Lutheran Church also has a unique opportunity to explode the myth of the absolute freedom of the individual conscience. If the Lutheran doctrines of "The Orders of Creation," the "First Use of the Law," and the "Kingdom on the Left," tell us anything, they tell us that decisions are made in a moral nexus of a great many factors, all of which interpenetrate one another. Most decisions are already made long before an individual enters the counseling room, not only by that individual, but by the whole configuration of law and social mores and contemporary world views which contribute to the formation of social consciousness and individual conscience. The church does have a stake in the formation of law and cannot treat it as a matter of indifference.
Specifically, Christian people have a responsibility to raise objections and to argue convictions in the public policy arena on matters of moral and social consequence. This may take the form of direct action effort regarding legislation. It may involve the deploring of a practice without an accompanying attempt to change a law. It does, however, seem difficult to escape the conclusion that the current and widespread practice of totally unregulated abortion is morally intolerable. There are very few people who wish to prohibit all abortion in every situation. The most important question, then, for most thoughtful people is going to be how to effectively regulate abortion so that it will be perceived to be the very serious (and only occasionally necessary) moral tragedy that it is. State legislatures will be active in this area for some time to come. Christian people should make their voice heard.
Thirdly, the Lutheran Church has a unique opportunity to make clear that freedom, rightly understood in the context of sin and forgiveness, is not freedom to do as one pleases, but freedom to do the will of God. Although the will of God is never absolutely clear, it is absolutely clear that the will of God ought to be sought. The taking of life may in some instances be justified. It must never be a matter of indifference. The pursuit of justice must be relentless. The content of that justice-what justice means in a given situation-must be constantly struggled about. The seeking of the will of God must be by and for the Body of Christ, of which the individual Christian is a member. Thus the church must never be satisfied with handling an issue such as abortion as a matter of one-to-one counseling relationships, but must seek ways in which to know and to do the will of God in a sin-penetrated and morally ambiguous world. The corporate study of the Bible, the doing of Christian theology and ethics, and the sharing of experience and concern ought to be central in this task.