Without a doubt, abortion is one of the most divisive and controversial issues of our day. People have strong views about abortion because it is never merely an issue of social preferences. For some the abortion issue has to do with personal autonomy, while for others it has to do with the unconditional respect for the sanctity of human life. Before turning to the Christian response to abortion, it is good to begin with a definition. In his encyclical, The Gospel of Life (Evangelium vitae), Pope John Paul II defines abortion as ‘the deliberate and direct killing, by whatever means it is carried out, of a human being in the initial phase of his or her existence, extending from conception to birth.
Until 1969, the performance of an abortion was in general considered as a criminal act in Singapore. On 20 March 1970, the abortion law in Singapore was liberalized by a legislative act which permitted an abortion to be performed on broad medical, eugenic, juridical and socio-economical grounds. The Abortion Act of 1974 liberalized Singapore’s abortion law further by permitting ‘abortion on demand’ as long as it is performed by a registered physician. Before this time an abortion is permitted only if it is necessary to save the life or prevent serious injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman.
The rapid advances in biotechnology have again directed attention to abortion. The different forms of prenatal genetic diagnosis (PND) have made abortion a real option for the couple who discovered that their unborn child is predisposed to a serious genetic disorder. One example of PND is chrionic villus sampling which analyses the chrionic villi surrounding the amniotic sac and that containing the chromosomes and genes of the foetus. The procedure is performed between eight to nine weeks of pregnancy, enabling the woman to abort the baby even before her family and friends know that she was pregnant.
For the Christian the issue of abortion has to do with the status of the foetus. If the foetus is not regarded as a human person deserving of respect and protection then abortion poses no serious ethical problem. But if the foetus is from conception a human person who bears the image of its Creator, then abortion is wrong because it is the willful destruction of a human being. Although the Bible does not deal specifically with the issue of abortion it directly prohibits murder (Exodus 20:13). If the foetus is indeed a human being, abortion would be included in this prohibition.
But does the Bible teach that the unborn foetus should be regarded as a human person deserving of respect and protection?
Although there is no direct statement in the Bible that says that the human embryo is a human being from conception, a number of passages do point to that conclusion. The status of the human foetus can be gleaned from passages like Psalm 139 and Jeremiah 1:5. These passages indicate that God knows the foetus personally while it is in its mother’s womb. We may infer from this that the foetal life that God recognizes already possesses the moral and spiritual qualities of personhood. Regardless of its age, the foetus is a human being created by God in his own image. The Christian tradition maintains that the image of God and human personhood are not determined by age or physiology, but are conferred by God. In addition, the Old Testament uses the same Hebrew word yeled for the unborn and for young children. All children were children regardless of whether they lived inside or outside the womb. On this basis, abortion must be prohibited because it is willfully taking the life of a human being.
For this reason the Church’s attitude towards abortion throughout its history has been unambiguous. In a second-century document, the Didache (Teaching of the Twelve Apostles) abortion is condemned together with infanticide. The document strongly opposes abortion when it instructs its readers not to ‘murder a child by abortion’ (2.2). This exact prohibition is repeated in the Epistle of Barnabas, suggesting that this teaching was quite prevalent in early Christianity.
In addition, at least three of earliest Christianity’s theologians – Athenagoras, Tertullian and Clement – prohibited the practice of abortion. Women who induce abortion are murderers, according to Athenogoras. For Tertullian, abortion is murder regardless of whether the foetus is ‘formed’ or ‘unformed’. Another early church father, Clement of Alexandria could go so far as to say that ‘those who use abortifacient medicines to hide their fornication cause not only outright murder of the foetus, but of the whole human race as well’. In the seventh century, the Council of Trullo echoes this teaching when it states that ‘those who give drugs for procuring abortion, and those who receive poisons to kill the foetus, are subjected to the penalty for murder’ (i.e., ten years of excommunication).
Abortion is morally wrong because human life is sacred and inviolable at every moment of existence. But abortion is morally reprehensible also because it is the willful destruction of a human being at the very beginning of his or her life. This human being is weak and even more defenseless than a newborn baby. The unborn child is totally entrusted to the protection and care of the woman carrying him or her in her womb. The unborn child could not be considered an aggressor in any way, much less an unjust aggressor. In fact, it is not possible to imagine anyone more innocent than the unborn child. It is therefore impossible to ever justify the deliberate killing of such an innocent and weak human being.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of ETHOS Institute for Public Christianity. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.