Dr. James T. Naismith of Scarborough, Ontario, is a retired physician who devotes his full-time to a Bible teaching ministry in Canada, the U.S., and abroad.
We express sincere thanks to Dr. Naismith for his helpful articles dealing with current problems and issues, this being his fifth and last of this series.
Not too many years ago, the word would scarcely have been printed in a Christian magazine and the appearance of an article with this heading might have caused shock tremors over a wide area of the Christian world! However, we cannot, ostrich-like, bury our heads in the sand and ignore such problems as this, pretending they do not exist, or hoping they will disappear. It is reported that fifty to sixty million abortions are induced annually in the world — one and a half million in the United States; that there is one abortion for every two live births in North America and that, in some cities, abortions exceed live birth. As Christians, living in a goodless world, we must be as salt savouring the unsavoury, and as lights, shedding the light of Scripture in the darkness of this world and on problems of this nature.
What does the Bible say about “abortion”? Very little! But, as on every issue, it provides important, timeless principles that should guide us in our attitudes and actions. In particular, the Word of God does have clear guiding principles on two vital issues which are very much involved in the consideration of the subject of abortion.
1. The Sanctity of Human Life: Immediately after the flood, at the beginning the the “new world,” God gave to Noah — for all subsequent generations of mankind — very precise instruction on the sacredness of human life and the seriousness of taking it: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed” (Gen. 9:6). The basis of this was clearly stated by God: “For in the image of God made He man.” To take human life, therefore, is to commit an outrage against God, in Whose image man was made. But, in the case of abortion, is a human life being destroyed? When does human life begin? This is the second vital issue to be considered.
2. The Beginning of Human Life: Our attitude to abortion will be determined by our attitude to the unborn child. Is the developing child just a mass of cells, like a tumour or an abscess, ‘protoplasmic rubbish,’ as it has been crudely described, nonhuman tissue of no significance or value, or is it a real human life? If the latter, when does it become human life? There is very good reason to believe that human life begins at the moment of conception, of fertilization of the ovum by the sperm. Consider the following:
a. Naturally: The normal attitude to an unborn child is to regard it not merely as a potential person but as a real, living human being. An expectant mother speaks of her “baby” from a very early stage in pregnancy, usually from her first knowledge of it. Doctors caring for that mother are very concerned for the unborn child, elevating it to personhood - monitoring it, intervening when it appears ill, operating to save its life. Why should an unwanted child be considered any different so far as personality is concerned?
b. Medically: The distinct life of the “fetus” begins at conception: at that moment, 23 chromosomes from each parent are brought together into one cell, which now has 46 chromosomes, as do other human beings. Before that cell divides for the first time, it has all the DNA, the entire genetic code, which will determine the characteristics of the new human being. This genetic code is quite different from that of every other cell in the body of the mother in which it has been implanted. That single cell, therefore is a separate life, with the potential to develop into a special, unique person, with certain predetermined characteristics.
By the time the “fetus” is 18 to 25 days old, its heart is already beating. Within a month, although only an inch long, it already has a brain, eyes, ears, kidneys, liver, etc. By 45 days, electro-encephalographic waves can be detected from its brain. Before two months, every limb has begun to appear and fingers and toes are visible. At 9 to 10 weeks, the baby can grasp with its hands, move its tongue, swallow, and suck its thumb. Most abortions are performed after this stage. It is for reasons such as this, together with the destructive techniques used in performing abortion (and there is accumulating evidence that these are exceedingly painful to the child), that many gynecologists and nurses consider the procedure repugnant.
c. Scripturally: Our main concern is with what the Word of God states about the unborn child. It is perfectly clear that God has a very real concern for that child in its mother’s womb, and does not regard it as a mass of cells that can be disposed of at will. In the Bible, an expectant mother is frequently described as being “with child.” John the Baptist, while still unborn (probably six months after conception) “leaped” “for joy” in Elizabeth’s womb (Luke 1:41,44). The word for “babe” in these two verses is ‘brephos’ which is used of the newborn baby Jesus in Luke 2:12 and 16, of ‘infants’ in Luke 18:15, who were brought to the Lord for His blessing, and of `young children’ in Acts 7:19. God’s word for Jeremiah (1:5) declared His choice of Jeremiah before he was formed in the womb and His setting apart of His servant for a special task before he was born. Similarly, Paul was set apart from his mother’s womb (Gal. 1:15).
Perhaps the most significant passage of Scripture relating to the unborn child is Psalm 139:13-16, in which the psalmist unmistakably asserts God’s knowledge of him, interest in him, and purposes for him while he was in his mother’s womb. There, God “possessed his reins”—created his inmost being” (NIV), and “covered”—protected, controlled, and perhaps weaved him. His “substance”—frame—was clearly seen and fully known by God though hidden from all others “in the lowest parts of the earth,” a figurative expression for “in secret,” referring to the darkness of the womb. While he was still “unperfect”—not fully formed—God saw him and had planned his days (“members”) and recorded them in His book before one day had begun. The psalmist leaves no shadow of doubt that, for God, Who caused him to write, human life begins long before birth—at conception.
A passage that has been used to prove that the unborn child is not considered as of significant value compared with the mother is Exodus 21:22, 23. Instruction is given here for the punishment of a man who, while fighting with another man near a pregnant woman, injures the woman resulting in miscarriage. If “no mischief followed”—that is, no serious injury—the man was still to be punished, as the judges determined. “If any mischief followed,” punishment was to match the injury—life for life, eye for eye, etc. The critical word is “mischief”, many assume this is restricted to injury to the woman and conclude that injury to the child is of no consequence. There is, however, no reason or ground for so restricting it. Professor John Warwick Montgomery (in “Slaughter of the Innocents”) states that “all serious exegetes, classical and modern” interpret the passage as meaning that exactly the same penalty is required for injuring the mother as the child. He concludes that the original text places a value on fetal life equal to that accorded to adult life. A footnote in the NIV Study Bible reads: “serious injury” (the NIV translation for “mischief”) “either to mother or to child.”
Conclusion: In view of all this, it is clear that the Christian’s attitude to abortion must take into account the rights of two individuals—the mother and her unborn child—and must recognize that it is no more right to take the child’s life by abortion than the mother’s by murder. Very infrequently it is required to decide whether to save the child or the mother whose life may be threatened by the continuation of the pregnancy. In such rare cases it may be considered advisable to save the mother’s life at the expense of her unborn child. In other circumstance, the Christian must bear in mind that abortion—however it is done—is taking a God-given life which is sacred in His eyes.
To those who, for various reasons, may be considering abortion, and to those who have had abortion, the Christian should be compassionate rather than judgmental. We should be ready to state the teaching of Scripture and to give counsel based on the Word of God. We should seek at all times to understand the dilemmas of those who face such perplexing problems. We should certainly provide prayer and practical support wherever needed and should avoid malicious gossip. The compassion of our blessed Saviour, shown to people in all kinds of difficult circumstances, should characterize His followers.