Tuesday, May 03, 2022

The ethics of abortion

Abortion is in the news again, with the possibility that the landmark judgement in the USA which ensured the legality of abortion may soon be struck down.  Now, I preached Psalm 139 on Sunday as we celebrated new life, and with the affirmation that each baby is knit together in the womb by Almighty God very much ringing in my ears, it seems right to celebrate anything which might reduce the likelihood of this creative work of God being interrupted and thwarted by the destructive work of humanity.  It grieves me, frankly, that here in the UK abortion is hardly controversial; just a medical procedure, which we all tacitly agree to by funding it through our taxes and carrying it out through 'our NHS'.  It is not an ethical question in our society at large.  But it should be.

It is generally accepted that the newborn baby is a human being, fully deserving of all the protections which we typically accord to human beings and which we often bracket under the heading 'the sanctity of life' - a phrase which continues to be used even by people who don't really believe in sanctity as a concept at all.  Okay.  Let us take this as accepted.

So the question is this: what ethically significant change has there been in the baby?  He or she was in the womb, and now they are not; has that bestowed humanity on him or her?

Typically I don't think we would say so.  We talk about 'the baby' while she is still in the womb.  Sometimes we talk to the baby while she is still in the womb!  The baby is human, whether they have passed through the birth canal or not.  The onus is on the so-called 'pro-choice' advocate to show what the ethical difference is.

If not the birth canal, is it some other change earlier in pregnancy?  Is that why we typically limit the stage at which abortions can be carried out?  But what change is it that occurs, and why is it ethically significant?  Is it the ability to survive outside the womb?  If so, why is that ethically significant?

The logic of the 'pro-choice' position is that it is down to an expectant mother to decide whether the developing human being within her has value or not.  That is the logic.  You can try to wriggle out of it all you like, but there is no escaping the fact that what makes the difference between a foetus with no rights and a baby with rights rests in the will of another human being.

One human being gets to decide whether another human being has value or not.

There are lots of complicating factors, and I don't want to minimise them.  But I cannot see that any of those factors change the basic equation.  Is this an ethical position we're happy with?

Ah, but since abortions will happen anyway, shouldn't they be safe and regulated?  But there is no safe abortion for the baby involved.  And it matters what we as a society are prepared to sanction.  If we are talking about the taking of a powerless human life, then it matters that this be illegal even if it still happens.

I don't know how to make this a live issue again in British society.  Maybe, absent Christian presuppositions, it can't be done.  Maybe, as I've mused sadly before, we are past the point where ethical arguments can make headway against the 'sanctity of choice'.  But maybe it's just that this is another one of those areas where we believe things are important, but don't want to make things socially awkward by acting on our beliefs?

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