Another tragic milestone in our country’s history was put in place on Thursday night as the New South Wales Legislative Assembly, by a vote of 59 to 31, passed legislation to decriminalise the late-term abortion of unborn children. The tragedy lies not just in the vote, but in the arguments put forward in support of the Bill and the reaction of politicians and other advocates once it had been passed.
Of course, this was simply one more step along a road that Australia and the Western world have been travelling for some time. (The reality, though, is just as alarming in the non-Western world.)
The landmark case internationally was the US Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Roe v Wade in 1973. That decision recognised that “a person may choose to have an abortion until a foetus becomes viable”, and defined viability as “the ability to live outside the womb, which usually happens between 24 and 28 weeks after conception”. Various other pieces of legislation around the world, and throughout Australia, have allowed abortion under certain circumstances, with specific safeguards, and limited to the early stages of a pregnancy. The decision of Thursday night (when it receives concurrence by the Legislative Council) removes a number of previously existing restrictions and so in effect extends an already existing practice in New South Wales.
Yet given the scale of that extension enacted by this Bill, we are justified in seeing this not simply as a minor adjustment of existing legislative provisions, but a genuine milestone.
According to the text of the Reproductive Health Care Reform Act 2019, an abortion may be performed on request where the person is not more than 22 weeks pregnant, the only condition being the informed consent of the person where there is no emergency which would make such consent impracticable. An abortion after 22 weeks may be performed if, in the opinion of two specialist medical practitioners, considering all the circumstances (relevant medical circumstances together with the person’s current and future physical, psychological and social circumstances), it should be performed. The Bill also requires medical practitioners with a conscientious objection to abortion to provide information on, and transfer the person’s care to, “another registered health practitioner, who, in the first practitioner’s reasonable belief can provide the requested service and does not have a conscientious objection”.
There are many reasons why this is a tragedy. Even apart from the Christian objections to the practice of abortion (to which we will turn in a moment), the arguments that have led to this point raise significant concerns. The framing of the abortion debate over the past five decades in terms of a woman’s right to choose versus the unborn child’s right to life has involved a number of linguistic, legal and philosophical decisions which have rarely been examined or debated in any detail. Chief among these is the refusal of the descriptor ‘unborn child’ and an insistence upon using the word ‘foetus’ for this living entity. Yet just as significant is the grounding of these respective ‘rights’. On what basis can we determine that a right of self-determination extends to the right to terminate a pregnancy or that the right to life extends to one who is not yet able to survive outside the womb?
How do we speak of the living reality growing inside the womb of its mother? Here, as in so many cases, the language we use is a critical part of the debate. Should we see this as a human being or merely a potential human being? May we use the language of ‘unborn child’ or ‘baby’, language that is almost instinctively used by excited, expectant parents when they view the earliest ultrasounds which reveal they are pregnant? Or is this too emotive and a way of smuggling a conclusion into the building blocks of an argument? Should we prefer the term ‘foetus’ with its appearance of greater clinical precision, or is that tantamount to a de-humanization of the unborn child which serves the interests of the other side of the argument? After all, terminating a foetus sounds far less grisly than terminating an unborn child. If both terms have legitimacy, is there a point at which one is more appropriate than the other and how is that point to be determined?
It must be acknowledged that there has been aggressive and inappropriate rhetoric on both sides of the debate and that people on both sides have been harmed by it. Understandably, emotions run away with advocates and protesters on both sides. However, there is a growing body of evidence that public censorship has been disproportionately applied to one side. In public debates, spokeswomen have been shouted down for using the terms ‘baby’ or ‘unborn child’. The Emily’s Voice poster which simply stated, “A heart beats at four weeks” (a statement of fact accepted by most of the medical profession) was ordered to be removed from buses in New South Wales and billboards in Tasmania. No reference to abortion or the right to life was necessary for this to be labelled “a guilt driven directive [to women] on what to do with their body”. The use of all ultrasound pictures in the context of these debates has been decried as inappropriate and manipulative. Any mention of what is actually involved in the process of abortion, especially late-term abortion, is strictly forbidden.
In the course of the debate there have been various attempts to identify a point other than fertilization at which human life can be said to begin. Suggestions have included implantation in the womb (8–10 days), first sign of a distinct heartbeat (4 weeks), first movement (10 weeks), ‘viability’ or capable of life outside the womb (22–24 weeks), and full brain development (33 weeks). There is little consensus on this, since each is part of a process which builds on what has come before. Only in the case of fertilization is there a dramatic ‘before and after’ moment in which the ovum is fertilized and begins its transformation into an embryo. Not every embryo will be born, even without human intervention, and not every embryo will proceed through each of these stages of development. Yet it is clear that it has been notoriously difficult to find any point other than fertilization at which we might say, “Now, and not before, we have a human life”.
It is clear from the earliest stages that the embryo has a genetic makeup which is closely related but distinct from that of the mother. This fact is an important part of the scientific argument that the foetus or unborn child is not simply a part of the woman’s body. The child’s DNA comprises genetic material from both the mother and the father and is a distinct (though at this stage not separate) life. This must complicate any argument that abortion is simply the choice of a woman about what to do with her body. At least one other is involved.
One unfortunate feature of the debate has been the argument from difficult cases to a general principle rather than the other way around. The real and horrendous tragedy of rape or incest, or the cases in which the mother’s life is threatened, or the child is unlikely to survive, are argued as the reasons why we must embrace legislation such as that which passed through the New South Wales parliament last week. No one should be in any doubt of how real and extensive is the trauma associated with circumstances such as these. Yet it is a matter of public record that the vast majority of the abortions performed in 2018 across the Western world did not arise in such a context. What is more, the New South Wales legislation does not provide any context other than the informed consent of the person which would make abortion acceptable. This is abortion on demand rather than abortion in the face of exceptional traumatic circumstances.
Yet even so, the question is rarely asked whether the circumstances of conception justify taking the life of the one who has been conceived. Were they complicit in the aggression or manipulation which brought about the conception? The rapist or the family predator ought to be held to account and bear the full weight of the law, but are there no other ways to protect the life of the innocent, and minimize the ongoing trauma for the victim, than abortion? I know of several couples who have had the crushing news that the baby they are joyfully expecting will not survive beyond birth (or perhaps even up to birth). Yet in those cases the parents have determined that their responsibility was to care for this child however long he or she might live. It was harrowing and heartbreaking but it was a decision borne of extraordinary other-person-centredness. They did not believe that abortion was the only option open to them.
All of this shows how far from simple sloganeering a real engagement with the issue of abortion must be. Even before we come to specifically Christian arguments for opposing abortion, it is clear that there is reason to pause and think hard before taking this step. Even in a world that is determined to distance itself from the Christian gospel and its influence on public and private life, there are grounds for holding back.
Yet there is something distinctively Christian to think through and to say to others in this debate. All human life has an extraordinary value given to it by the One who created each of us. Every human being has been created in the image of God (Gen 1:27; Jas 3:9) and for that reason every human life must be protected. The commandment against murder is the flipside of the responsibility we each have to respect and guard the lives of those around us, because they are created by God and bear his image. More than that, human life, like everything else God has created, has from the beginning had a purpose—and that purpose is found in Jesus Christ. “All things”, including each human person, “have been created through him and for him” (Col 1:16). We do not have the right to take the life of another, since their life belongs to Jesus. An assault on another human life is an assault upon the one for whom they were made.
Does this extend to life in the womb? It is clear in the Old Testament and the New that God values the life of the yet unborn. David wrote, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” (Ps 139:13-16 NIV)
Jeremiah wrote of the word of the Lord that came to him, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” (Jer 1:5 NIV)
In a fascinating incident in the Gospels, when the pregnant virgin woman, Mary, visits her cousin Elizabeth, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb (later known as John the Baptist) leapt. Elizabeth explained the baby had “leaped for joy” (Luke 1:39-45). Whatever else is made of that, it is clear that Elizabeth saw this as a testimony from the womb.
Even more significantly, though, the life of the unborn child is given a certain dignity because the incarnate Son was carried in the womb of the virgin. No doubt he could have simply arrived on the scene with a human nature fashioned uniquely and ready to embark upon his work immediately. Yet he chose to be born, and more than that, to be carried in his mother’s womb until he was born. He was made like us in every way, even in this (Heb 2:17). Through the overshadowing work of the Holy Spirit, he took his human nature from his mother and was born as we all are.
One of the things that marked out Christians in the early centuries after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension was their care of the vulnerable, those discarded by the Graeco-Roman culture of which they were a part. A trip to the catacombs reveals a surprising number of small graves dug into the walls in the caves under the city. The abandoned and exposed children of Rome were taken in by Christians and not all of them survived. The point is, though, that these lives mattered (as did the lives of the elderly and the infirm). Of all the vulnerable, those without a voice, in that world and in ours, those yet unborn need a special care. There is no difference in value or dignity between a life that is longed for and welcomed into this world and that which is not wanted for whatever reason. It is still a life. And ultimately it still belongs to Jesus.
There is, however, another note that must be sounded loudly and clearly whenever this subject is debated. There have been many abortions since 1973 (and, most certainly, before that too). Some with whom we speak about these things may well have had an abortion some time in their lives. Some are proud of the fact and trumpet it as part of their credentials to speak on the subject (as did a member of the New South Wales parliament last week). Others have deep regret and often, deeply buried but real and continuing, grief. Some have come to Christ after the event and, engaging some of the argument presented above, have their grief compounded by a sense of guilt and shame. To those people another part of the Bible’s teaching is especially addressed. Jesus came to deal with all guilt and shame, even guilt and shame in this area. In him we all have “redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:14). And he is able to bind up the brokenhearted (Isa 61:1; Ps 34:18, 147:3). “Come to me”, he said in the midst of a broken and traumatized world, “all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matt 11:28)
I believe it is a deep tragedy that we in New South Wales have gone further down the road to what Pope John Paul II once called “a culture of death” with this new legislation. It is entirely the opposite to the direction we need to be travelling. Jesus Christ is all about life—life to the full and life without end. And he welcomed the most vulnerable. He guarded and protected them. He bore the inconvenience, the deprivation and the abuse so that they might live in freedom and joy in the presence of their Father.
While there is still an opportunity we should petition those in the New South Wales Legislative Council not to give their concurrence to this Bill. Yet even more, we need to speak of life and hope in this context of death and fear and extraordinary self-righteousness in which we find ourselves.
This article was originally published on Mark’s blog, 12 August 2019 http://markdthompson.blogspot.com/
https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/410/113/(accessed 10/08/2019). The spelling of fetus (in the published version) has been altered to foetus.
This intensified after the misuse of ultrasound pictures by some opponents of abortion. See https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/01/ultrasound-woman-pregnancy/514109/(accessed 10/08/2019) but note the corrections posted at the end of the article which reveal bias and manipulation of the facts occur on both sides of the debate.
This timeline is taken from a journal article produced in the leadup to the Irish vote on abortion in 2018, with a slight amendment due to medical advice. https://www.thejournal.ie/pregnancy-timeline-3979399-May2018/(accessed 10/08/2019).