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It is clear that the Christian Tradition opposes abortion because it is the wilful killing of another human being. But are there no exceptions? What about pregnancies that result from rape? Should abortion be allowed in order to save the life of the pregnant woman?

WHILE the Christian faith opposes abortion for reasons spelt out in last month’s article (Abortion is ‘wilful destruction of a human being’: Methodist Message April 2007), the Christian anti-abortion position does not prohibit abortion under all circumstances.

The late Christian ethicist Paul Ramsay introduced the distinction between direct and indirect abortion in his attempt to show that under some very limited circumstances, abortion must be allowed. The difference between the two forms of abortion has to do with the primary thrust of the act, its main intention.

In direct abortion, the main intention is to kill the conceptus, while in indirect abortion it is to save the life of the pregnant woman. For this reason, direct abortion must always be prohibited. But indirect abortion may be allowed, but only when all other avenues of saving the life of the woman have been exhausted.

Indirect abortion restricts the circumstances in which abortion can be carried out. To repeat: only when the pregnant woman is in mortal danger, and when there is no other alternative, is abortion allowed. This means that all other reasons – quality of life, convenience, peace of mind, financial burden, etc – must be ruled out. Indirect abortion is one of those inevitable consequences of living in an imperfect world where in order to save a life physicians must take that of another.

But does this apply to pregnancy that results from rape? If a victim of rape were not allowed to abort, she would have to bear the responsibility of bringing the pregnancy to term and taking care of the child once he or she is born. The abortion option would relieve her of such responsibility, which is not the result of her own actions. In addition, some victims of rape may be under-aged or mentally ill and therefore unable to discharge their maternal responsibilities.

Christian ethicists have made several responses to this. The first is the statistically proven fact that very few women who are subjected to this violent attack become pregnant. Several reasons have been offered to explain why this is so. The woman may be infertile at the time because of either the menstrual cycle or the use of contraceptives. There may be lack of actual penetration, or her male attacker may be suffering from sexual deficiencies like impotence.

Secondly, if the victim were to present herself to the emergency department of a hospital within 24 hours, she will be subjected to certain protocols. Some of these protocols, such as flushing the reproductive tract and hormonal treatment, would prevent fertilisation. Thus, if proper steps are taken promptly, the chances that the violent sexual encounter would result in pregnancy can be greatly minimised.

Sometimes hospitals use abortifacient drugs like Ovral and RU 486 to prevent pregnancy in rape victims. There is some ambiguity in the description of such drugs and what they do. Are they contraceptives, abortion drugs or contragestation drugs? Drugs like Ovral have often been described as a contraceptive mainly because they “render the endometrium hostile to a possible fertilised egg”. In other words, these drugs cause a miscarriage. RU 486, however, prevents the implantation of the embryo on the wall of the uterus. The drug causes the uterus to react in a way similar to the end of a menstrual cycle.

Judging from what these drugs actually do, we must conclude that they primarily cause an abortion to take place. This means that it is misleading to call these drugs contraceptives. Their introduction has in fact already changed the entire course of the abortion debate, causing a shift from surgical to chemical abortions, and from abortion clinics to the physician’s office. Their introduction has made abortions easier, cheaper and much more private.

Even though the chances of a rape victim becoming pregnant are very slim, there is still a possibility that this might happen. Should the rape victim be allowed to abort the baby? To answer this question we must look beyond the individual and the crime that is committed against her, and set both the victim and the crime in the larger social context.

To put the matter plainly, although rape is a crime committed against an individual, it is never a private matter. This crime, like all other crimes, involves the entire community – the family, the church, the larger society. Thus it is the entire human community, not just the victim alone, that must bear the responsibility for the consequences of this violent act. Here the community must care for the victim and her child. It must provide her with the material, emotional and physical support she needs. It must care for her and the child she is carrying in every possible way.

Abortion is a convenient solution if society is unwilling to take up this responsibility. The abortion option is therefore welcomed by pragmatists. But such an attitude would surely erode the moral fibre of our society and drive it to embrace an ever more extreme form of individualism.


‘The late Christian ethicist Paul Ramsay introduced the distinction between direct and indirect abortion in his attempt to show that under some very limited circumstances, abortion must be allowed. The difference between the two forms of abortion has to do with the primary thrust of the act, its main intention.’

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.
This article was originally published in the Methodist Message.