Report of the Committee to Study the Matter of Abortion

Presented to the thirty-eighth General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (1971)

General Assembly reports are thoughtful and weighty treatises on important matters but they are not constitutional documents. Only the Confession of Faith and Catechisms, the Form of Government, the Book of Discipline, and the Directory for the Public Worship of God of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church express the church’s official understanding of what the Word of God teaches.


The Report

Each day it becomes more and more urgent for the Church to speak a word from God concerning the current drive for liberalized abortion laws. If abortion is sin in any sense, then we should be most concerned about the breadth and depth of the desire for it in our culture. And if abortion is murder, even in some cases, then the current pace of abortion liberalization could lead to a slaughter of defenseless human beings worse than the atrocities of Hitler, Stalin or Herod the Great.

Yet Christians have been reluctant to address this issue boldly and forthrightly. Apart from that carnal timidity which inhibits Christian witnessing on all issues, this reluctance may be ascribed largely to two difficulties: (1) the difficulty of demonstrating from Scripture that the unborn child is, from conception, a human person whose right to life is protected by the sixth commandment, and (2) the difficulty of reconciling the rights of the unborn (however they be construed) with other concerns for which we find Scriptural basis. Thus Christians have been tempted to back away from the abortion controversy, perhaps even to rest in the false consolation that our present ignorance concerning the matter will excuse us of blame for any evil resulting from our inaction. But God does not excuse slothful and wilful ignorance, nor does he excuse us of complicity in evil resulting from such ignorance. He calls us in this as in all matters to search out the whole counsel of God, to resolve our difficulties as much as Scripture allows, and to proclaim the truth with confidence. We pray that God will use this report to help Christians resolve their problems in this area and hence to purify and embolden their testimony.

In this report, "abortion" will be used to refer to any intentional killing of a human embryo or fetus. For the sake of simplicity, and to put the ethical issue at stake into sharper focus, this definition assigns to the term a broad meaning (instead of the narrower usage wherein abortion is distinguished from miscarriage and premature labor as an early termination of pregnancy). Further, the term will not be used to denote spontaneous abortion unless the adjective "spontaneous" accompanies it.

Concerning the "matter of abortion," then, Scripture compels us to make the following affirmations:

1. The greatest of the commandments is the law of love (Matt. 22:36–40 and parallels; John 13:34f.; Rom. 13:8–10; Gal. 5:14). Our first obligation, therefore, in any ethical decision, is to manifest genuine love for God and for other people. In this context we must ask: can a decision in favor of abortion (in general or in a particular situation) ever be an act of love? The question is a searching one; it forces us not only to dig deeply into Scripture but also to analyze the profoundest motives of our own hearts. Sometimes, however, decisions in favor of abortion are all too clear in their motivation. Sometimes the spirit of selfishness, of greed, of destruction, of hate is plain enough to be seen by all, except perhaps the one in whom that spirit dwells. When one decides in favor of abortion merely for convenience, or when a woman has an abortion simply to show that she can "do anything she wishes with her own body"—surely they are far from the spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ who humbled himself and even laid down his life for his friends. Here the motive is obvious to anyone with a basic understanding of Scripture. To such as these we need say no more before demanding repentance.

2. Yet sometimes the motives are not so obvious. Often, motives are mixed, and the dominant motive is hard to find. Such difficulties should direct us back to the law of God for more clarification; for it is the law that shows us what love does and what love does not do. Here of course we must beware of using exegesis as a means of rationalization: it is always tempting to read the law in a Pharisaic way—using it to justify our wicked hearts by pointing to the formal correctness of our actions. Yet to the Christian the law is indispensable; it is his final authority, the very Word of God Himself. Without the law we would have no knowledge of love whatever, for love is itself a command and is defined in the context of all God's commands.

3. What, then, is the unborn child, according to Scripture? He is, first of all, a creature of God. Does that point seem too obvious to mention? Yet this affirmation alone is a decisive rebuke to the spirit of human autonomy. The unborn, child belongs (in the most ultimate sense) not to his parents, nor to human society in general, nor to government, but to God. No created thing is man's simply to use as he pleases, disregarding God's will. Man has dominion over the earth, to be sure; but this dominion was intended to be a covenant stewardship under God, not a usurpation of God's authority. Our present environmental crisis shows vividly how sin corrupts man's rightful dominion into a lustful and destructive tyranny. To say that the unborn child is ours to treat as we please is to give less consideration to the child than God demands we give to rivers and rocks.

4. But the unborn child is more than a river or a rock, more than other creatures of God: he is a living creature, one possessing a divinely granted sovereignty over the inanimate creation (Gen. 1). Along with other living creatures, he stands under the protection of God's covenant with Noah (Gen. 9:9f.). The blood of even subhuman living creatures had a special preciousness in the Old Testament period: since the blood of an animal represented its divinely created life, such blood was not to be consumed by man (Lev. 17:14), and the shedding of it was the God-appointed means of prefiguring the atoning work of Christ (Lev. 17:11). In these ordinances, God required of his people a careful regard for the lives of all of his creatures, even those whose lives were to be sacrificed to meet the needs of man. Man's dominion over living creatures is even more explicitly limited in Scripture than is his dominion over the inanimate world.

5. But the unborn child is more even than a merely "living" creature: he is human life, and therefore a bearer of the image of God. Some indeed may wish to argue that he is not an independent human life because he functions as a part of his mother's body—this argument we shall discuss later. But even if the child is not an independent human life, there can be no doubt that he is human—just as human, at least, as his mother's arms or legs. It must not be supposed that at some point between conception and birth the child develops uniquely human characteristics in the place of uniquely subhuman ones. From the point of conception, he has a full complement of human chromosomes and is in that respect different from every subhuman embryo or fetus. From the very beginning, he is a human child, and his humanity is verifiable in every cell of his body.

Now even if the unborn child were merely a part of his mother's body, he would still be a bearer of the image of God. The image of God pertains to all aspects of man's being, the physical included. According to Scripture it is man himself, not merely some aspect of man, which is made in the image of God. This fact places the unborn child under a specific Scriptural protection, for the Biblical prohibition of murder is based upon the presence of the image of God in man (Gen. 9:6). And according to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the prohibition of murder forbids not only "the taking away of our own life or the life of our neighbor unjustly," but also "whatsoever tendeth thereunto" (Q. 69), which according to the Larger Catechism includes "striking" and "wounding" (Q. 136). Since man is made in the image of God, therefore, he has no unlimited sovereignty over his own body (cf. I Cor. 6:15–7:4). He may not harm or wound it without just cause. To say, then, that the unborn child is part of his mother's body is not to offer an excuse for destroying him, but rather to establish a presumption in favor of preserving him.

6. But still more must be said. The unborn child is not merely human life, significant though that fact may be. He is a product of the human reproductive system. Throughout Scripture, man's sexual life is a matter of particular divine concern. The Bible is nowhere more emphatic in its condemnation of pretended human autonomy than in its teaching concerning sex. The sacredness of the sexual relation is indicated often in Scripture: immediately following the statement that man was created in God's image, we learn of his sexual differentiation (Gen. 1:27). The first effect of sin noted in the account of the Fall is sexual shame (Gen. 3:7, 10). The Mosaic Law not only demanded marital fidelity, but also placed ceremonial sanctions upon various sexual functions: male emissions and female menstruation, as well as the event of childbirth itself, were causes for ceremonial uncleanness (Lev. 12, 15, 18:6–23, 20:10–21). The New Testament, too, demands that sexual activity be kept within certain bounds. Its condemnation of "sins against the body" and its teaching that neither husband nor wife has "power over his own body" both occur in a context dealing specifically with sexual conduct (I Cor. 6:15–7:7). The importance of this sexual purity is underscored by the fact that the marriage relation mirrors the relation between Christ and the church. If God is so jealous to maintain his Lordship in this area of human life, is it conceivable that the product of sexual intercourse—the unborn child—should be wholly consigned to the whims of his parents?

7. Our rhetorical question must indeed be answered in the negative: for God is concerned not only with human sexual activity as such, but also with the result of that activity in the conception of children. Man's reproductive function plays a crucial role both in man's cultural task (Gen. 1:28, the command to be fruitful and multiply) and in the promise of redemption (which is from the outset of redemptive history the promise of seed, Gen. 3:15). The faith of Eve is demonstrated particularly in connection with her childbearing (Gen. 4:1, 25). The Abrahamic (Gen. 15:1–5) and the Davidic (II Sam. 7:12–16) covenants contain explicit promises of seed, and the other Old Testament covenants presuppose such promises. The Old Testament abounds in genealogies, demonstrating the historical development of the "seed of the promise" through the birth of children, a development which reaches its culmination in the birth of Christ (Matt. 1:1–17, Luke 3:23–38). It is in this context that we should understand the Biblical regulation of sexual activity (above, section 6) and also the profound conviction of the Biblical saints that conception was a precious gift of God while barrenness was a curse (Gen. 4:1, 25; 21:1f.; 25:21; 29:31–35; 30:17–24; 33:5; Deut. 7:13; 28:4; Judges 13:2–7; I Sam. 1:1–20; Ruth 4:13; Psm. 113:9; 127:3–5; 128:1–6; Isa. 54:1; Luke 1:24; in more profound sense, cf. Matt. 1:20, Luke 1:31). Although the physical genealogy of the redemptive line ends in Christ, the New Testament continues to regard the children of believers as a spiritual as well as a temporal blessing. God still carries out his redemptive purposes through the drawing of households to himself (Acts 11:14, 16: 15, 16:31–34, 18:8), the children of which are "holy" (I Cor. 7:14). God has, therefore, a definite, personal, even redemptive concern with the event of conception, for by conception he has determined to bless his people and to build up his kingdom on earth. In this context the question of abortion becomes: In what cases, if ever, is it legitimate for us to destroy what God has created to bless his people and to build up his church? Also: In what cases, if ever, is the attitude of one planning abortion compatible with the Biblical "joy in conception"? These questions are not entirely rhetorical; we have not yet answered them as fully as they can be answered. Yet, asked in the right spirit, they provide an important context for our thinking on this issue.

8. But God is not only active in the event of conception itself. He is directly involved in all aspects of the child's development between conception and birth. In Psm. 139:13–16, David reflects on the amazing knowledge and wisdom by which God formed his body in the womb of his mother. (Note that verse 16 contains the only occurrence in Scripture of the Hebrew term golem, embryo or fetus.) In Jer. 1:5, the prophet is said to be "formed in the belly" of his mother by God. Cf. in this connection Job 31:15, Psm. 119:73, Eccl. 11:5. The gestation period is ruled throughout by God's providence and care. To those considering abortion, therefore, we must ask: When, if at all, does man have the right to interrupt this marvellous exhibition of God's wisdom and concern?

9. Still further: pre-natal death is in Scripture regarded as a particularly terrible form of that curse which rests upon man because of sin. God threatens Israel with precisely this curse because of their faithlessness (Hos. 9:14) and conversely promises to bless his people (not only with conceptions, but) with live births as a consequence of obedience (Ex. 23:26). Upon the wicked, God's judgment is that they shall be "as an untimely birth" (Psm. 58:8). One of the worst things that can be said of a man in Scripture is that he is no better than an untimely birth (Job 3:10–16, 10: 18f.; Eccl. 6:3; cf. Matt. 26:24; Mark 14:21; Jer. 20:14–18). In I Cor. 15:8, Paul uses the term ektroma, untimely birth (perhaps as it bad been used by his critics—it occurs only here in Scripture), to acknowledge dramatically the "unnaturalness," the "unexpectedness," the "inappropriateness" of his apostolic calling. Paul had not followed Jesus through His earthly ministry, nor had he witnessed the original Resurrection appearances, nor heard Jesus' teaching during the "forty days," nor witnessed the Ascension. Rather, after these great events Paul had set himself against Christ, persecuting the church. Thus God appeared to him, not as to one prepared by his faithful participation in this redemptive history to preach the gospel, but as to one spiritually dead, untimely born, "aborted." Here, as throughout Scripture, death before birth is an object of horror, a result of curse, a consequence of sin. In this context the abortion question becomes: When, if at all, does man have the right, not only to interrupt God's pre-natal care for the unborn, but to interrupt this process in order to impose upon the child that fate which is almost a paradigmatic emblem of divine curse?

10. Yet more: Scripture assumes a significant personal continuity between pre-natal and post-natal human life. In Psm. 139:13, David sees himself as existing in his mother's womb: "For thou didst form my inward parts: Thou didst cover me in my mother's womb." In Jer. 1:5, similar language is used, this time with God himself as the speaker: "Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee, and before thou camest out of the womb I sanctified thee...." [emphasis ours here and in all Scriptural citations]. It was Jeremiah himself in the womb that God was forming; and God was forming him with a view toward the carrying out of his adult responsibilities. In the New Testament we learn that John the Baptist, while still in his mother's womb (in the sixth month of her pregnancy or later—cf. Luke 1:24, 26) responded to the salutation of Mary in a way befitting the character of his later ministry (Luke 1:41, 44). This event should not, of course, be construed as the natural, usual course of events; clearly the incident is an extraordinary sign of Jesus' Lordship. Yet it presupposes the sort of continuity between pre-natal and post-natal life that we have noted above: John in the womb is called brephos, a babe, and is said to have leapt "for joy." Such is indeed the general pattern of Scriptural usage; for those in the womb are commonly referred to in Scripture by the same language used of persons already born: cf. Gen. 25:22, 38:27ff.; Job 1:21, 3:3, 11ff., 10:18f., 31:15; Isa. 44:2, 24, 49:5; Jer. 20:14–18; Hos. 12:3. See also references below. At the very least, this continuity indicates that God is not only forming and caring for the unborn child; he is forming him as a specific individual, to fit him specifically for his post-natal calling. This continuity is a warning against distinguishing with careless sharpness between fetal and infant life. And the abortion question now becomes: When, if at all, has man the right to destroy an unborn child, thereby cutting off the life of an individual who is being divinely prepared to play a particular role in God's world?

11. And: that personal continuity extends back in time to the point of conception. Psm. 51:5 clearly and strikingly presses this continuity back to the point of conception. In this passage David is reflecting on the sin in his heart that had recently taken the form of adultery and murder. He recognizes that the sin of his heart is not itself a recent phenomenon, but goes back to the point of his conception in the womb of his mother: "and in sin did my mother conceive me." The personal continuity between David's fetal life and his adult life goes back as far as conception, and extends even to his ethical relation to God!

12. Yet in order to present the matter as clearly as possible, it must also be said that there is also a personal continuity which extends from adult life backwards in time even before conception and into eternity. God knew Jeremiah, not only after his conception, but even before it: "Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee" (Jer. 1:5). The incarnate Son of God was given his name by the angel before his actual conception, that is, before his actual incarnation (Luke 2:21). Levi is said to have paid tithes to Melchizedek while still "in the loins of" his great-grandfather Abraham (Heb. 7:9f.). All of these assertions are true because of the sovereignty of God who works all things after the counsel of his own will (Eph. 1:11). Before anyone is actually conceived in the womb, God has planned the course of his life and his eternal destiny. Of God's elect it can be said that "he chose us in (Christ) before the foundation of the world" (Eph. 1:4). Even before their conception, therefore, Scripture speaks of people in the language used of persons already born. All of us, even before we "exist," have a kind of "personal existence" as ideas in the mind of God. We shall make a negative application of this principle at a later point (section 15a, below). At this point, however, let us note a positive implication: human life in the womb is a certain stage in the realization of an eternal plan. Even before conception, God sees as it were the "finished product"—the complete man with all his gifts and characteristics, in his belief or unbelief, fitted for blessing or destruction. Conception itself, as well as the gestation process, is in every aspect oriented to the fulfillment of that plan. If indeed the child should die before birth, then that is itself a result of God's plan. But such death is closely analogous to infant death (and for that matter to all human death)—for it is the death of one whom up until that point God had cared for, preserved and blessed; and it is the death of one who, had he not died, would have grown further toward mature humanity, toward the accomplishment of mature human goals. In this light the abortion question becomes: what human being will dare to take the responsibility for such death upon himself?

13. There is nothing in Scripture which even remotely suggests that the unborn child is anything less than a human person from the moment of conception. The only passage that has been alleged to make such a suggestion is Ex. 21:22–25, which we will now discuss in some detail. Those who use this passage to support the thesis that the unborn child is something less than a human person interpret it as follows: They see the 22nd verse as describing the destruction of an unborn child and find it significant that such destruction is punished only by a fine while harm done to the mother (23–25) merits more severe penalties, including the death penalty in the event of her death. On this account the passage may be paraphrased: "And if men fight together and hurt a pregnant woman so that her child dies, yet she herself is not harmed, he shall be surely fined, according as the woman's husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if the woman herself is harmed, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe." On this view the child is given a "lesser value" than the mother and is therefore regarded as something less than a human person.

This use of Ex. 21:22–25 raises questions in the following areas: (1) the normativity of this piece of Old Testament civil legislation for the New Testament church, (2) the adequacy of the interpretation of the passage used in this argument, (3) the legitimacy of the use of the passage so interpreted to prove the thesis that the unborn child is something less than a human person, and (4) the legitimacy of the use of this thesis to justify in at least some cases the practice of abortion. We shall take up these four questions in reverse order.

a. Even if the passage does prove the thesis in question, this fact does not prove that abortion is ever justified. Even if the unborn child is something less than a human person, this status does not justify his destruction under all, or some, or even any circumstances. In sections 1–12 above, we have presented considerations directed against the destruction of the unborn which do not presuppose his status as a human being in the fullest sense. To justify abortion, even if we regard the unborn child as less than a person, those considerations must be refuted, or at least they must be shown to be overridden by other principles in the case in question.

b. Also relevant to question (4) is the teaching of the passage under consideration (granting the adequacy of the proposed interpretation). For it must not be forgotten that on any interpretation, the passage regards the destruction of the unborn as an offense, a wrong, a sin. In the absence of any other Scriptural teaching which would establish exceptions to or modifications of the condemnation issued in this passage, it is perverse indeed to attempt to justify abortion by reference to a passage which condemns precisely the sort of destruction performed by the abortionist. The fact that there is, on the proposed interpretation in question, a lighter penalty attached to the destruction of the unborn than to harm done the mother must not be overestimated in its importance. The Christian cannot justify committing sin on the ground that his sin is less heinous than other kinds of sin.

c. Again, granting the normativity, the interpretation and the thesis asserted in the argument: This passage clearly deals with a case of accidental killing. If even such accidental killing of an unborn child is punished by a fine, we must surely assume that the intentional killing of an unborn child is at least as serious as (in all probability more serious than) the offense in view in verse 22. This fact makes it all the more perverse to defend abortion (on our definition, the intentional destruction of the unborn) on the basis of this passage. How can we defend the intentional destruction of the unborn on the basis of a passage which condemns even its accidental destruction?

d. One might object at this point that there are other Scriptural considerations which would require exceptions to the general rule given in this passage. In such an event, such consideration might be combined with the "thesis" (above, question 3) obtained from this passage to produce a justification for a particular abortion. We are not concerned to deny such a possibility now, only to make clear that this passage taken in itself does nothing to justify any practice of abortion, even if the other questions regarding this argument can be answered satisfactorily.

e. But we must now move on to question (3). Does the passage prove the thesis that the unborn child is less than a human person, granted the proposed interpretation? The argument is that since there is a lesser penalty for destruction of the child than for harm done to the mother, the child must have been regarded as "less than a human person." But this inference is not a sound one. The rationale for the various penalties assessed in the Mosaic Law is an interesting and complicated subject, one concerning which there is much room for debate. That the disparity in punishment must be due to a disparity between personhood and non-personhood is an interesting thesis but one which cannot be simply assumed without argument. And there are, in our view, no arguments which render necessary such a conclusion.

f. The lack of a death penalty for destruction of the unborn in verse 22 does nothing to support the thesis in question. The law of Moses did not as a rule impose a mandatory death penalty in cases of accidental killing (cf. Ex. 21:13f., 20f.). If indeed the law does impose such a penalty for the destruction of the mother's life (verse 23, "life for life"), then we have in this passage not a devaluation of the life of the child, but an extraordinary valuation upon the life of the mother, doubtless to give her (and her unborn child!) special protection throughout her pregnancy.

g. That there is no mention in verse 22 of an "avenger of blood" and of "cities of refuge" (after the pattern of other passages dealing with accidental killing, Num. 35:10–34; Deut. 19:1–13; cf. Ex. 21:13f.) does not demonstrate the thesis in question. No one doubts that the accidental killing of an unborn child is a unique case, one which might very well have failed to arouse the blood vengeance presupposed in the "cities of refuge" passages. The question however, is whether this uniqueness is due to the child's lack of personhood. And that is the question which cannot be answered by the presence or absence of the vengeance formulae.

h. But does not the very lightness of the penalty serve to establish the thesis in question? We think not. The immediate preceding passage (Ex. 21:20f.), in fact, presents a situation where a master who kills his slave unintentionally (the lack of intent being proved by the interval between the blow and the death) escapes with no penalty at all! To argue from this passage that slaves are regarded by God as less than human persons would be precarious indeed! To argue from Ex. 21:22–25 that the unborn child is not a person is even less plausible. Doubtless the unborn child, like the slave, had a lesser status in Israelite society than other persons. It cannot be demonstrated, however, that this lesser status was a status of non-personhood. And that is the point at issue.

i. If in spite of the above considerations, we choose to regard our passage as establishing the thesis in question, then some serious consequences must be faced. The passage makes no distinction between embryo and fetus, none between viable and non-viable fetuses. All unborn children are reckoned equally in its teaching. If this passage be taken to prove that the unborn child is less than a person, then this conclusion must be taken to hold for all unborn children, even those who have been in the womb a full nine months! Depending on the extent to which this principle is understood as a guide to the practice of abortion, this view could result in the killing of a child ten minutes before its expected birth on the ground that it is not "really a person." If we accept the thesis under discussion, then we may be forced to smother our natural repugnance to such a practice. It is of course true that our Scripture requires us to adopt viewpoints that are repugnant to our sensibilities, when those sensibilities are not themselves sanctified. But we should not adopt a position without facing squarely such consequences; and if they cannot be reconciled with other aspects of our sensibilities we should return to Scripture until the problem is resolved.

j. We now turn to question (2): Does the argument in question rest upon an adequate interpretation of Ex. 21:22–25? We answer in the negative. In the first place, the term yeled in verse 22 never refers elsewhere to a child lacking recognizable human form, or to one incapable of existing outside the womb. The possibility of such a usage here, as the interpretation in question requires, is still further reduced by the fact that if the writer had wanted to speak of an undeveloped embryo or fetus there may have been other terminology available to him. There was the term golem (Psm. 139:16) which means "embryo, fetus." But in cases of the death of an unborn child, Scripture regularly designates him, not by yeled, not even by golem, but by nefel (Job 3:16; Psm. 58:8; Eccl. 6:3), "one untimely born." The use of yeled in verse 22, therefore, indicates that the child in view is not the product of a miscarriage, as the interpretation in question supposes; at least this is the most natural interpretation in the absence of decisive considerations to the contrary. (The reason for the plural form is difficult to assess on any interpretation. If, as some have suggested, it refers to the woman's capacity for bearing, then the passage becomes quite irrelevant to the matter of abortion. If, as is more likely, it is a plural of indefiniteness, allowing for the possibility of more than one child in the mother's body, then the plurality of the term would fit as easily into our interpretation as into the interpretation under criticism.)

k. Further: the verb yatza' in verse 22 ("go out," translated "depart" in KJV) does not in itself suggest the death of the child in question, and is ordinarily used to describe normal births (Gen. 25:26, 38:28–30; Job 3:11, 10:18; Jer. 1:5, 20:18). With the possible exception of Num. 12:12, which almost certainly refers to a stillbirth, it never refers to a miscarriage. The Old Testament term normally used for miscarriage and spontaneous abortion, both in humans and in animals, is not yatza' but shakol (Ex. 23:26; Hos. 9:14; Gen. 31:38; Job 2:10; cf. II Kings 2:19, 21; Mal. 3:11). The most natural interpretation of the phrase weyatze'u yeladheyha, therefore, will find in it not an induced miscarriage, not the death of an unborn child, but an induced premature birth, wherein the child is born alive, but ahead of the anticipated time.

l. We should also note that the term ason ("harm"), found in both verse 22 and verse 23 is indefinite in its reference. The expression "lah" ("to her"), which would restrict the harm to the woman in distinction from the child, is missing. Thus the most natural interpretation would regard the "harm" as pertaining either to the woman or to the child. Verse 22 therefore describes a situation where neither mother or child is "harmed"—i.e. where the mother is uninjured and the child is born alive. Verse 23 describes a situation where some harm is done—either to mother or child or both. This point confirms the interpretation we are advocating (above, j–k). An induced miscarriage could hardly be described as a situation where there is "no harm." Verse 22, therefore, describes, not an induced miscarriage, but an induced premature birth. A further implication of this reading of ason: when punishments are assessed in verses 23–25, the unborn child is protected, as is his mother, by the law of retaliation. The passage does not, of course, demonstrate that the child is given the same protection as his mother under this law; but it is clear that he is protected, that harm done to him is punished by some sort of retaliation, and thus that even his accidental destruction is wrong in the sight of God. If indeed other Scriptural considerations require exceptions to this principle, then perhaps abortion might in some cases be justifiable; but this passage taken in itself offers no encouragement to any proposed abortion; on the contrary the bearing of the passage upon the question is quite otherwise.

m. The reason for the fine in verse 22 is difficult to assess, but no more difficult on our interpretation than on any other. It is true that verse 22 does ordain a fine ('anash) rather than vengeance (naqam, as in the preceding passage, verse 20). Fines are not often assessed in the Mosaic law. The only other occurrence of 'anash in the Pentateuch is in Deut. 22:19, where a fine is assessed upon one who had "brought up an evil name upon a virgin of Israel." Could it be that premature birth was somehow considered shameful and that the fine in Ex. 21:22, in analogy with Deut. 22:19, is a kind of damages for the harm done to the woman's reputation? Equally likely, the fine could be compensation for the trouble, expense and danger involved in premature delivery. But to understand the precise reason for it, we would doubtless have to have more thorough understanding of Israelite culture than we now have. On the interpretation we are opposing, the fine would be compensation for the loss of an unborn child—a rather lenient penalty, it would seem, in view of the importance given to heirs and descendants in that culture (see above, section 7), and in any case a penalty with no clear analogies elsewhere in Scripture. We are not dogmatic on this matter, but we think that the evidence available tends to confirm, rather than to disconfirm the interpretation which we have established on the basis of considerations j–l above.

n. To summarize the proper interpretation of this passage, we regard the following as an adequate paraphrase: "And if men fight together and hurt a pregnant woman so that her child is born prematurely, yet neither mother or child is harmed, he shall be surely fined, according as the woman's husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if either mother or child is harmed, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe."

o. One of our four questions remains, namely the question of the normativity of this passage for our present situation. Exodus 21:22–25 is part of the civil legislation given to Israel. Principles embedded in this legislation are not necessarily normative for New Testament believers. Consider Ex. 21:20f., the immediately preceding passage: there we read that a slave can be killed by his master without penalty if the slave remains alive a day or two after the blow. This practice hardly conforms to the New Testament ethic. Like Moses' bill of divorcement (Matt. 19:7f.), some of this civil legislation involves "sufferance for hardness of heart." No doubt this civil legislation also contains principles binding upon New Testament believers, but the question of what principles are binding requires argument of a biblico-theological nature. And concerning Ex. 21:22–25, no really decisive argument of this sort has been adduced so far. We maintain that the passage, on our interpretation, conforms to the general Scriptural pattern which we have already outlined (sections 1–12). If indeed unborn children are objects of God's special providential care, then it is not surprising to find in the Mosaic law a specific, explicit protection for them, and we should assume that no less protection than that should be required of New Testament believers. The interpretation we oppose, indeed, also provides a certain protection for the unborn (cf. above, section 13, b–c), and in this respect it too is in keeping with the general tone of Scriptural teaching on this subject. Yet to suggest, as proponents of this interpretation do, such minimal protection is the only protection that should be accorded the child is to argue unhistorically, to fail to understand the character of Israelite civil legislation as in part an accommodation to the hardness of heart of the people. Thus even if the interpretation we oppose be accepted, its relevance for the determination of our present conduct must be questioned.

p. We conclude, therefore, that Ex. 21:22–25 does not suggest that the unborn child is anything less than a human person from the point of conception. Any attempt to make the passage teach such a thesis results in insuperable difficulties of exegesis, logic and application. Since this is the only passage alleged to provide proof of such a thesis, we conclude that there is no Scriptural basis for such arguments and that unless better arguments are forthcoming we cannot regard Scripture as even remotely suggesting such a view.

14. There is no purely scientific proof that the unborn child is anything less than a human person from the point of conception. This fact is evident from the following considerations:

a. At the outset, it must be seriously asked whether any narrowly scientific argument could possibly, even in principle, establish whether the unborn child is or is not a human person. The question of whether the unborn child is a human person is essentially the question of whether, from God's point of view, the child has the ontological status entitling him to a full human right to life. The question is religious, metaphysical and ethical. What mere statement of scientifically verified empirical fact could answer such a question? Does genetic independence confer upon a piece of tissue the right to life? Does physical dependence of one organism upon another deprive the first organism of its right to life? These questions reveal a certain discrepancy between scientific and ethical predications such that no scientifically obtained proposition in itself would appear sufficient to establish ontological status and ethical rights. On the other hand, we must affirm that scientific propositions, taken together with the teaching of Scripture may indeed cast light upon our questions. Scientific information is always valuable in helping the believer to understand his situation and thereby to see the relevance of Scripture to that situation. If for example Scripture established quickening as the point at which personal existence begins, then the scientist's skills would be needed in order to determine whether in a given case quickening had actually taken place. But a purely scientific argument, an argument containing only scientific premises and no Scripture premises, must be regarded as in principle incapable of resolving this sort of question. Thus it is impossible to prove from scientific premises alone that the unborn child is less than a human person from the point of conception. For that matter, it should also be noted that the contrary proposition is also incapable of such proof (see below, section 15).

b. To be more specific: it cannot be argued on scientific grounds that, for example, "quickening" marks the dividing line between human personhood and lack of human personhood. "Quickening is the point (generally 18–20 weeks after conception, with some variation) at which the mother becomes conscious of gross movements of the fetus in the womb, and has generally been regarded as a significant turning point in the development of the child. The heartbeat of the child, however, is detectable at an earlier stage of development, and the onset of quickening is continuous with such earlier fetal motions." Quickening is not, therefore, the kind of drastic change that could plausibly be equated with the change from non-personhood to personhood. Further, it is difficult to see how the medical-scientific concept of "quickening" correlates with the metaphysical-religious concept of "personhood" and the ethical concept of "right to life." Such correlations themselves are not established by scientific evidence, but are rather the result of philosophizing which the Christian must dismiss as speculative unless confirmed by Scripture. And we have shown that such theories cannot be confirmed by Scripture (above, section 13).

c. Nor can "viability" be established as such a dividing line, though this is the point most often seized upon by those wishing to draw the line at some point between conception and birth. Viability is the point at which the fetus is capable of living outside the womb and is generally thought to occur at 28 weeks after conception. This point varies, however, and that variation makes it difficult in some cases to determine whether a fetus is viable or not. Further, the very definition of "viable" may very well change with the improvement of incubation technology. The concept, therefore, does not appear to be clear enough to be workable as a criterion of human personhood and human right to life. But even if the concept were perfectly clear, we would still have the problem of showing why it is viability that determines person-hood and right to life.

d. What of birth itself as the moment at which a fetus becomes a person? It may certainly be argued that birth is a more momentous event in the young life than either quickening or viability. At the moment of birth, the child ceases to be directly dependent upon his mother's body for its own life-support. At that moment he becomes independent in a sense in which he was not previously. This fact has led to the suggestion that before birth the child should be regarded as part of his mother's body, and that only after birth should he be regarded as a person in his own right. This suggestion, however, is not a sound one. To allege that life-support-dependence is inconsistent with personhood is to engage in speculation. For one thing it is possible for two persons (e.g. Siamese twins) to share the same life-support systems to some extent without either of them losing his personhood, and this fact would count against the allegation in question. Further, the dependence of the unborn child upon his mother's body is not a metaphysical or necessary dependence: that is to say, that with the advance of medical technology it is possible to conceive of an unborn child being transplanted from one womb to another, or to be raised in an incubator from shortly after conception, or even to be conceived in an artificial womb of some kind, being thus "independent" of his mother from the very beginning. To be sure, such a child could not survive without the care of someone, but the same is true of infants after birth. The unborn child's dependence upon his mother, therefore, is no good argument against his personhood, for it differs only in degree from the dependence of all children upon their adult guardians. Finally, the hypothesis that life-support dependence is inconsistent with personhood is essentially a philosophical supposition (like those mentioned above in 14 b–c) with no Scriptural basis.

e. Other suggestions that have been made as the dividing-line between nonpersonhood and personhood include: implantation of the fertilized egg in the uterus (about one week after conception), the point at which all organ systems are initiated (about four weeks). Some have even argued that personhood begins at some time after birth, on the ground that personhood presupposes some development of cultural consciousness and interpersonal relationships. These suggestions suffer the same basic defect as the others we have considered: they fail to show how their metaphysical and ethical conclusions arise out of their scientific premises; and they fail to do this because they fail to recognize the role which Scripture must play in this type of discussion. We therefore conclude that there is no scientific proof that the unborn child is anything less than a human person from the point of conception; and for that matter there is none to the contrary either.

15. There is no way to demonstrate, either from Scripture or from science or from some combination of the two, that the unborn child is a human person from the point of conception. In the case of attempted demonstrations from scientific premises alone, our present point is established by considerations already set forth (above, section 14a). Several arguments of other types have been suggested, however, and in the following paragraphs we shall have to call these attempted demonstrations into question.

a. We have noted above (section 10) that Scripture often speaks of unborn children in the same language used to refer to those already born. The most striking examples of this usage, perhaps, are Psm. 139:13; Jer. 1:5; and Psm. 51:5. As we have seen, in these passages personal pronouns are used to refer to life in the womb -- "me," "my," "thou," "thee." From this premise it has been argued that these passages regard the unborn children in question as human persons, and that personhood goes back to conception. Such an argument, however, reads too much into these passages. In the first place, if the fetus were not a person from conception, it is not clear that the writers would have avoided the personal pronouns. In Psm. 139:13 and in Psm. 51:5, David is reflecting on his origins. We have established (above, section 10) a "significant personal continuity" between the unborn child and his post-natal existence. Therefore, David, in considering his relation with God, traces it back to his fetal life, back even to his conception. Naturally, he uses the terms "me" and "my"; the use of "it," whether more precise or not, would be jarring, pedantic and pointless. These pronouns are quite natural even on the supposition that the unborn child is not a person from conception, and thus their use does not establish the person-from-conception thesis. In the second place, we have seen (above, section 12) that according to Jer. 1:5 and other passages the "personal continuity" of a man's life extends in a sense not only back to conception, but even before conception. Personal continuity in this sense extends into eternity, into God's eternal plan. The Lord in Jer. 1:5 uses the pronoun "thee" of Jeremiah even before his conception. Now no one would argue that Jeremiah was an existing person before his conception simply because such pronouns are used of him. Rather, before his conception, when he existed in God's mind, he was destined to become an existent person. Thus the use of these personal pronouns does not prove that those in the womb are, while in the womb, persons. That use proves only that in God's plan those particular fetuses were (at least) destined to become persons.

b. Psalm 51:5, however, requires special treatment, for it is sometimes used in a different argument from the one we have just considered. We have seen (above, section 11) that this verse traces back to conception, not only David's existence, but even his sin. Surely, it is argued, if David was a sinner from conception, he must have been a person—for you cannot have a person's sin without a person! This is perhaps the strongest Scriptural argument in favor of the person-from-conception thesis, and can be very persuasive. Yet a closer look reveals inadequacies similar to those noted above under argument a. David, after all, is not reflecting upon the origin of his humanity, but upon the origin of his sin. And all Reformed theologians have maintained (on the basis of this very verse, along with others!) that in some senses the origin of our sin antedates the origin of our existence as persons. Ultimately, sin has its mysterious origin in the eternal plan of God; proximately, our sin begins with Adam. Adam is the origin of our sin, not only in the sense that he was the first sinner in the human race, but also in the sense that the guilt and penalty of his sin is imputed immediately to every human being save Jesus of Nazareth. But we are not only guilty of Adam's first sin. For Adam's sinful nature is transmitted to his descendants by "natural generation" so that each of us enters the world with a totally depraved nature. Thus "my" sin, my personal sin, the sin for which I am guilty, exists before I do (1) in the sense that God planned eternally that I would be a sinner, (2) in the sense that Adam's first sin is credited by God to my personal account, and (3) in the sense that Adam's depravity is transmitted to me through natural generation. It is not obvious, therefore, that the origin of David's sin, according to Psm. 51:5, is coincident with the origin of his human personhood. It is quite fitting for us and would have been quite fitting for David, to trace his sinfulness back beyond his individual, personal existence to those events which determined that he would in fact be a sinner. We do not of course suppose that David was sophisticated enough at this stage of redemptive history to have analyzed this situation after the manner of Romans 5. But who can doubt that David may well have had a conviction of the individual's involvement in the depravity of the race? And if indeed David saw his sin as antedating his personal existence in any sense, if such a reading of the verse is even possible, then the verse cannot be used to prove that David was a person from conception.

c. Ex. 21:22–25, interpreted in the way we have urged (above, 13 j–n), has also been used to establish the thesis that the unborn child is a person from conception. We have ourselves argued (above, 13-l) that the passage places the unborn child under explicit, legal protection against accidental destruction. Since mother and child are under the same protection, some would argue, the child must be there regarded as a human person. We must, however, reject this inference. The passage does not specify how the law of retaliation is to be applied. Is the child to be regarded as a part of its mother, or as a person in his own right? Either way, the lex talionis could apply, but it would apply differently in either case. The passage simply does not specify how the unborn child is to be treated under the law, and thus does not prove either that he is, or that he is not, a human person.

d. We noted earlier (above, section 10) that in Luke 1:41, 44, John the Baptist, then still in his mother's womb, is said to have "leaped" in the womb "for joy." Some have regarded this incident as proof that the unborn child is a human person. Yet we are unable to regard this passage as proving that all unborn children are persons from conception. The fact that the child was at least six months past conception (Luke 1:24, 26) and the patently supernatural character of the event forbid us from drawing from this passage any conclusions about the personhood of unborn children in general.

e. Another argument deals with the nature of the incarnation. The eternal Son of God became incarnate in the event of his conception by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary, Surely, it is argued, he did not cease to be a person at any time during Mary's pregnancy. Therefore we have at least an analogy suggesting that personhood goes back to conception. This analogy, however, breaks down at a crucial point. The incarnation is a unique instance of conception in the sense that the one conceived was already a person before his conception. He was not, of course, a human person before conception, but he was a person, and his pre-existent personality continues into his incarnate state. (We should recall the Chalcedonian formula at this point: though Christ possessed two natures, he was only one person. The doctrine of the anhypostasia of Christ's human nature indicates that Jesus' incarnate personality is essentially that of his pre-incarnate state.) Since other persons do not antedate their physical existence, we do not have the same reason to suppose that they are persons from conception that we have in the case of Christ.

f. Another argument from analogy: In I John 3:9, the writer speaks of our spiritual "begetting" by God. (Gennao should be translated "beget" rather than "bear" in this verse because of the emphasis on the "seed" which remains in those begotten.) According to that verse, spiritual begetting is itself the explanation for good conduct. One who is begotten of God will not sin. Spiritual life, therefore, begins with spiritual begetting, i.e. with spiritual conception. By analogy, it therefore seems as though physical personhood begins with physical conception. This analogy between spiritual and physical conception, however, also breaks down at the most relevant point. For in the spiritual realm there is no temporal interval between conception and birth; there is no spiritual "gestation period." Thus the spiritual situation analogous to physical reproduction lacks precisely the problematic aspect that we are here concerned to analyze. The argument, therefore, does not furnish an adequate analogy to guide our thinking in this matter.

g. Finally let us consider an argument which utilizes premises from both science and Scripture: Scripture teaches that man is a psychophysical unity—that both soul and body are essential to human personhood. Science shows us that man's body begins at conception, because at conception each embryo is endowed with its own unique set of chromosomes. If man's body begins at conception, then man's soul, and hence his personhood, must begin at conception also. The weak link in this argument is the assumed correlation between "chromosomal uniqueness" and "human body." It is natural enough to want to link these two concepts and to suppose that they originate in the same event. Yet it is precisely this correlation that needs to be proved. Can there be human tissue which is chromosomally unique, which is nevertheless not a human body (and therefore not a human person)? This is the problem which the argument fails to answer. The difficulty here is, as in section 14, above, the difficulty of correlating a scientific concept (chromosomal uniqueness) with a metaphysical-religious concept (that demonstrably human body which implies human personhood).

16. Nevertheless, the Christian is under Scriptural obligation to act on the assumption that the unborn child is a person from conception. To clarify this statement, let us review a bit: our previous discussion seems to leave the Christian in an intolerable situation. On the one hand, there is no proof from Scripture (section 13) or from science (section 14) that the unborn child is not a person from conception. On the other hand, the contrary thesis, that the child is a person from conception, also lacks demonstrative argument. There being no demonstrative proof either way, what is the Christian to do? He must make decisions concerning abortion, and in those decisions he must assume either that the unborn child is a person or that he is not. Our position is that although Scripture furnishes no demonstrative proof in this matter, it does show us clearly what our assumptions in such situations must be.

a. If we begin our considerations from scratch, with no arguments in front of us, we are faced with the following alternatives: either the child is (1) a part of his mother's body, deserving the same protection accorded to other parts of her body, or he is (2) a human person in his own right, deserving the same protection as other persons, or he is (3) somewhere in between, deserving less protection than a human person, but more than a mere part of his mother's body. The first alternative can be dismissed rather easily on the basis of sections 6–12, above. This conclusion is confirmed by the fact that even before fertilization, the female egg is in the process of being rejected by the woman's body. If the egg is fertilized and becomes implanted in the womb, this rejection process is ordinarily suppressed for a nine month period; but this suppression is only temporary. The mother's body continues to treat the unborn child as a piece of "foreign tissue," as a parasitical organism. The event of birth may be seen as the final "rejection" of this foreign tissue by the mother's body. This relation between mother and fetus does not suggest that the child should be regarded as "part of the mother's body." Furthermore, the genetic uniqueness of the fetus (section 15 f, above) distinguishes the unborn child from all other tissues of his mother's body and determines that the course of his normal development will lead to eventual separation from his mother's body. Thus neither from a theological nor from a medical point of view are we entitled to regard the unborn child as a mere part of his mother's body.

b. The second alternative can neither be demonstrated nor disproved (above, sections (13–15). Yet its possibility (unlike the possibility of (1)) cannot be discounted. The third alternative cannot be demonstrated or disproved either (above, same sections), so we are faced with a wide range of possibilities, the "somewhere" of (3) being indefinite and covering a number of alternatives. In a situation of this sort, the most crucial question becomes the question of burden of proof. Should we treat the unborn child as a human person in the absence of arguments to the contrary, or should we adopt a position in the range of (3) in the absence of any demonstration of (2)? Should we afford the unborn child maximum protection in the absence of arguments for anything less? Or may we take it upon ourselves to give him less than maximum protection on the ground that (2) may not be the case? When the issue is placed in such terms, we believe that the Christian will perceive an obligation to adopt (2) as his working assumption, that he will choose to give maximum protection to the unborn child, that he will choose in favor of life, when the issue is a matter of life and death. If there is any genuine possibility that the unborn child is, at any point, a human person made in the image of God, then the Christian cannot assume otherwise, for to do so would be to risk breaking the sixth commandment. And the risk is of a special kind. It is not as if there were some evidence tending to legitimize the killing of unborn children (on the ground of their lack of personal human status) and equal evidence tending to call such killing in question. There is nothing in Scripture which even suggests the legitimacy of such killing (cf. above, section 13), and there is much in Scripture which calls it in question (sections 1–12, 13:1). Everything Scripture says on the matter has the force of protecting the child, and nothing in Scripture has the force of expressly limiting that protection. If indeed, as we maintain, Scripture does not say expressly how much protection the child deserves, must we not assume that the child should receive maximum protection until someone is able to demonstrate otherwise? Only unscriptural and arbitrary arguments have so far been offered in favor of limiting this protection below the maximum. Therefore we regard maximum protection for the unborn child as a Scriptural obligation; and by "maximum" we mean treating the unborn child as a human person.

c. The same point may be made from a somewhat different perspective. Christians have always opposed infanticide on the ground of the sixth commandment. A child, say, five minutes after birth, has always been recognized by Christians as a person in the image of God, deserving of utmost care for the preservation of his life. But what of a child five minutes before birth? The child is not drastically different from the child already born, except that he happens to be still in the womb. He might, in fact, already be living outside the womb if the physician had decided to remove him surgically. The fact that he is in the womb rather than outside seems to be a small matter on which to rest a decision between life and death. Surely this child deserves the same protection, the same respect as the first child we mentioned. But what of a child ten minutes before his birth? or twenty? or five days? or three months? or six months? At what point do we abandon our high regard for the child's status in the sight of God? At what point do we decide to give him less than maximum protection? Arguments have been offered, to be sure, to the effect that this maximizing of the child's status should begin at some point in the gestation period, but such arguments are far from convincing (see above, section 14). And some argument is surely needed. An arbitrary decision in a matter of life and death is an impossibility. If someone argues for the destruction of an organism on the premise that it is not a human person, surely he must be obligated to prove that premise; he may not claim the right to assume it arbitrarily. In the absence of such argument, that is, in our present situation, the Christian has no choice but to maintain his maximal concern for the young life from conception onward. The Christian, therefore, must act on the assumption that the unborn child is a person in the sight of God and therefore under the protection of the sixth commandment.

17. Does this assumption rule out abortion under all circumstances? Not automatically. The sixth commandment as interpreted by the rest of Scripture does not forbid all killing of human beings in all situations. Scripture in fact even authorizes the destruction of human life in cases of just war and lawful capital punishment. The question is still open, therefore, as to whether there are special circumstances that would ever justify the destruction of an unborn child, granted the presumption that the child has the same right to live as other human beings. A fetus could never, of course, be subject to capital punishment since he could never be legally convicted of a crime. In the wartime situation, the killing of unborn children must be seen in the same category as the killing of other civilians. But there are other circumstances which are sometimes claimed to make abortion necessary which require special discussions:

a. The first argument is that abortion is necessary as a form of population control, if we are to avert a crisis of overpopulation. But however great the crisis may appear, and however great may be the desirability of birth control procedures, it is still not clear why this situation ever justifies abortion. There are other methods of combating overpopulation (both through birth control and through economic reorganization), and it is not clear that such methods require abortion as a supplement in order to be effective. In any case, there is no more ground for abortion as a means of population control than there is for infanticide on the same grounds.

b. Similarly, we must reject the argument that abortion is sometimes necessitated purely by the economic situation of a family. The Christian is indeed under obligation to consider the needs of the poor, to sympathize with and help those in economic need. But this does not mean that Christians must accept any and every effort of the poor to improve their economic status. To destroy a child because one is unable to afford the costs of his upbringing would be a heinous sin indeed, and abortion for such reasons must be placed in the same category. The life of a poor child can be hard indeed, but many children of poor homes have, by God's grace, overcome their hardships; and who can say that life in poverty is worse than no life at all?

c. A somewhat stronger, or at least more plausible argument is that abortion is sometimes necessary to guard the psychological health of the mother. So-called "psychiatric indications" for abortion are used to justify 30–50% of legal abortions—up to 80% in ten states with relatively liberal abortion laws. "Psychiatric indications," however, appears to be a catch-all phrase with no clear meaning. Most of those receiving abortions on such grounds are not under the care of a psychiatrist and often have no psychiatrically definable ailment. Further, abortion may very well cause more psychological problems than it eases. Some psychiatrists state that an abortion can lead to more severe mental disturbance, especially if there is some genuine psychological illness present. In general it seems impossible to determine whether an abortion will help or hinder a genuine psychological condition, and many feel that with modern psychological therapies available it makes more medical sense to bring the pregnancy to term in such cases. But what if the situation is complicated by a threat of suicide? Studies show that such threats are not generally carried out and are often manipulative in character. In general, the suicide rate appears to be lower for pregnant women than for other women of childbearing age; the same is true for those who are pregnant out of wedlock. When "psychiatric indications" are weighed against the life of the unborn child, we conclude, the Christian will regard the certain death of the unborn as a greater tragedy than any of the consequences likely to result from rejecting a plea for abortion on such grounds. We would unhesitatingly deny to a mother the right to kill an already-born infant for such reasons; the case for abortion in this context is no stronger than the case for infanticide, and in some respects is even weaker.

d. Some maintain that abortion is sometimes necessary to prevent the birth of unwanted children. Evidence indicates, however, that the "wants" of expectant mothers vacillate considerably and offer little indication of whether the child will be truly wanted or appreciated after he is born. Further, a recent California study maintains that 90% of "battered" children resulted from planned pregnancies—pregnancies which, so far as anyone can tell, were "wanted" when they began. It even appears that since the introduction of the birth control pill, child beating has tripled. This study calls in question the view sometimes expressed that if abortion is made easier (thereby facilitating planned parenthood) all children will be "wanted" and child beatings will decrease. Further: even if a child is in some sense "unwanted" during his childhood, such background need not be an insuperable obstacle to his lifelong—and eternal—happiness. Nor does being "wanted" in childhood guarantee a good life. At any rate, is abortion, death before birth, preferable to an unhappy childhood? We think that this sort of consideration is insufficient to justify abortion. Children which are truly "unwanted" (in a serious sense of that word) at the time of their birth should be put up for adoption. And those concerned about battered children should consider the ugliness of the methods by which unborn children are destroyed in abortions despite their visible struggle for life.

e. What of the use of abortion to protect the physical health of the mother (generally called "therapeutic abortion")? Indications for therapeutic abortion vary greatly in their definition: at one hospital one therapeutic abortion per 30 pregnancies was performed, at another, one per 300,000. With such variation, one suspects that other than medical factors enter into some definitions. Yet many doctors maintain that the progress of medical science has made therapeutic abortion generally unnecessary. As long ago as 1951, R. J. Heffernan, M.D., of Tufts University was quoted as saying, "Anyone who performs a therapeutic abortion is either ignorant of modern medical methods of treating the complications of pregnancy or is unwilling to take time to use them." In this connection it should also be noted that there are certain dangers to the mother in the abortion process itself. Between July 1 and September 4, 1970, out of approximately 19,000 legal abortions performed under a liberalized abortion law, there were 8 deaths and 98 instances of complications arising from the operation. The maternal death rate from abortions in Sweden (where again legal abortions are easily obtainable) is 39 per 100,000; in Denmark, 41 per 100,000; in England 30 per 100,000. These figures from northern Europe are higher than the maternal death rate from all causes in those countries. Abortions performed after the 12th week of pregnancy are significantly more dangerous. In the light of the rarity of genuine indications for therapeutic abortion and the medical dangers inherent in the operation itself, it seems that there are few if any cases in which abortion might legitimately be recommended on such medical grounds. When we consider further that even in these rare cases the possible physical harm to the mother must be weighed against the certain death of the fetus, we can conceive of no justification for abortion on such grounds. As for the extremely rare case in which the very life of the woman is jeopardized by her pregnancy, we shall discuss that later.

f. An argument with considerable emotional force is the alleged necessity of abortion in cases where pregnancy has resulted from rape or incest. Some feel that it is cruel to require a woman to give birth to the child of a rapist. Actually there are extremely few cases of this kind: less than one in 5,000 abortions is performed on such grounds, and that figure includes pregnancies arising from statutory rape as well as, we assume, some cases where rape has been falsely alleged. In Washington, no documented rape cases resulted in pregnancy over a 20 year period. But what of the rare case where such a situation occurs? Until five days after the occurrence of rape, most hospitals will routinely perform a dilation and curettage operation on the woman to prevent any birth arising from the incident. We are unable to endorse this procedure, because it may very well prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg in the womb and thus be in effect the destruction of an unborn child. This result, of course, is most unlikely if the operation is performed within a few hours of intercourse: during that period, the operation is a form of contraception rather than a form of abortion. But in view of the uncertainty of timing, we regard another procedure, an oil douche to prevent fertilization, as preferable from a moral point of view. If, however, neither of these methods is used immediately for some reason and the woman finds out later that she is pregnant, should she seek an abortion? We must reply in the negative. We are here weighing the shame, pain, and inconvenience of the mother against the life of her child, and we have no choice but to decide in favor of the latter. The unborn child must not be put to death for the sin of a parent. A Christian must indeed sympathize with the plight of a woman in such a situation, and must be prepared to give counsel, prayer and other help. In spite of her suffering, she should be helped to see from God's Word what a privilege it is to bring a child into the world, and how the child, even from such an origin, may be one of God's elect—a blessing to God's church and to the world. In some cases, it may be best for the child to be put up for adoption, but in any case, his destruction is not the answer.

g. Abortion is also frequently recommended to prevent the birth of deformed children. Again, the frequency of such cases is sometimes overestimated. Among pregnancies complicated by rubella or German measles (notorious as a cause of birth defects), only one of four children is born with any deformity, and only 8% are born with deformities of a grave character. If a mother's rubella were regarded as adequate ground for abortion, three potentially healthy children would be killed to prevent the birth of each deformed child. From a Christian point of view, such procedures must be rejected decisively. Further: medical science has made great strides recently in diagnosing and treating deformities both before and after birth. We now have access to RH and measles vaccines, and fetal blood transfusions and intra-uterine surgery (even heart surgery) are also available. After a child has been born with a deformity, he has access to many forms of therapy; new training techniques for brain-injured and retarded children have been developed. This progress seems likely to continue, but the rate of progress will certainly be slowed if abortion to prevent deformity becomes the general procedure. And a still more important consideration is the following: what man has the right to say that life with a handicap— even a serious handicap—is not worth living? There has never been any evidence that people with birth defects are generally any less happy than other people, or less useful to society, let alone less precious in God's sight. The suicide rate among deformed persons is less than that of the general population. In some cases, handicapped workers have been shown to be more efficient and dependable than the non-handicapped. Many people have experienced great joy as well as challenge in the rearing of a retarded child. If, however, we insist in spite of these facts that death is better than a deformed life, what will prevent us from applying that principle to those who are born normally, but subsequently become deformed? And what will prevent us from enlarging our definition of "deformity" as a pretext for eliminating all "undesirables" from society? Eugenic euthanasia, infanticide, geronticide—such are the results of the master-race mentality which is only one or two logical steps from the proposal to kill off the deformed before birth. The decisive consideration, however, is that as Christians we must treat the unborn child as a human person, and that human personhood implies a right to life, even when the quality of that life is hampered by deformity.

h. The strongest argument in favor of abortion, however, is that it may sometimes be necessary to save the life of the mother. Here it seems to be a question of one life or the other. The sixth commandment requires not only that we refrain from killing, but that we make diligent efforts to preserve life. Thus, it is argued, to allow a mother to die without taking available measures to save her is at least as great a sin as killing an unborn child. The question then becomes whether we kill the child to save the mother, or whether we kill the mother (by our inaction) so as not to do harm to the child. This is indeed a difficult moral question, but (we should again point out) one which arises only with extreme rarity if at all. As we pointed out earlier (e, above) many physicians feel that generally it is far less dangerous today to allow a pregnant woman to deliver her baby at term than to perform an abortion, even in the comparative safety of a hospital. Yet no one is prepared to rule out the possibility that some situation may at some time arise wherein the continued existence of the unborn child is inconsistent with the continued life of the mother. From a Christian point of view, the main problem is somewhat as follows: Granted that the sixth commandment requires us to make diligent efforts to preserve a life, may those diligent efforts include the taking of another life? Surely we would not wish to argue that stealing or committing adultery or false worship are legitimate when done to preserve life in some sense. The situation we are discussing is not strictly analogous to the case of the father who, when his two children fall out of a boat, must abandon one in order to save the other. The father does not kill the child he abandons, but simply leaves him in the hands of God, and such is not the case where an abortion is performed to save a mother's life. Nor is the abortion case strictly analogous to a case in which a man, driving with all proper caution, comes unexpectedly upon a group of jaywalkers and finds that he must steer his car so as to hit the fewest number of them. In that case, the driver may kill, but he does not choose to kill; he chooses only to kill some rather than others. But in the abortion situation, an actual choice to kill is involved. The abortion case under discussion is more like the situation where a person trying to enter a crowded lifeboat must be killed to prevent him from hindering the survival of the others in the boat. This lifeboat case is, however, almost too close an analogy, for it raises the same problem as the abortion case, rather than helping us to resolve it.

Perhaps the closest helpful analogy is the following: A woman walking with her husband in a deserted area is suddenly attacked by an unknown assailant. The assailant is strong, and the husband cannot stop the attack. The husband realizes that merely to wound the assailant may not be sufficient to save the life of his wife, so he picks up a lead pipe, the only available weapon, and delivers a sharp blow to the skull of the attacker. Afterward, he discovers that the assailant had escaped from a mental institution, and thus was, perhaps, of diminished moral responsibility. The husband has intentionally killed a person who could not have been convicted of any crime in order to protect the life of his wife. The moral responsibility of the assailant, or lack of same, was not relevant to his decision. If we are prepared to endorse the husband's action in this situation, on the ground of his God-given responsibility for his wife's safety, then we might be prepared to endorse abortion in cases where the mother's life is jeopardized by pregnancy. Yet even this analogy breaks down at a crucial point, for in the abortion case the husband is under divinely imposed obligation not only to protect his wife, but to protect his child also. Is there reason to suppose that the former responsibility supersedes the latter? Does Ex. 21:15 speak to this issue? At present, we are not prepared to speak to these questions. Some Christians will be able to endorse abortions in such cases with good conscience, and others will not. We are not able at present either to condemn or to endorse the procedure. The question requires further careful study. In general, however, this is the only justification for abortion that we are unable to condemn on Christian grounds.

18. Granted that abortion in nearly all cases must be regarded as murder, does it follow that the Christian should endeavor to protect the unborn child through legislation? We answer in the affirmative.

a. We do not, of course, maintain that a fully Christian morality should be legally required of every citizen in our pluralistic society. Regeneration cannot be forced upon people by legal constraint. Protection of the lives of persons, however, has always been regarded as a legitimate function of government both in Scripture and in modern legal systems. In American law this protection is not compromised in the interest of freedom of religion. A Jehovah's Witness who refuses to allow a blood transfusion to preserve the life of his child can be compelled to do so. A Christian who holds that unborn children should be regarded as persons should exert his influence upon legislators (and law-enforcement officials!) to protect the lives of such persons, and should not turn away from this task for fear of infringing upon the freedom of religion of others.

b. One objection to strict abortion laws based on the above principles is that they discriminate against the poor; for the rich are able to obtain abortions whatever the law, either by traveling to other countries or by paying substantial sums for a competent, though illegal, abortion here. The fallacious premise of this reasoning, however, is that if rich people are able to do something wrong, the law should make it easy for poor people to do it too. This principle would make havoc out of all legal structures. If indeed the law prevents only poor people from doing wrong, then at least it has accomplished something worthwhile. In a more profound sense, such a law discriminates against the rich, not the poor, for it fails to protect the children of rich parents and fails adequately to encourage the rich to protect the lives of their children. However, a fair law should indeed be formulated and enforced so as to guard equally against abuse by the poor and by the rich.

c. Some argue also that strict abortion laws are bad because difficult to enforce, and because not supported by many in our society. The case of Prohibition is sometimes cited as an analogous law in this respect. Such a principle, however, would remove from our books laws opposing racial discrimination, drug addiction and robberies. Further, granting that Prohibition was as unenforceable as it is often claimed to have been, there is still very little analogy between a law against sipping wine and a law against killing people.

d. It is also argued that strict abortion laws cause people to turn to illegal and often incompetent abortionists and hence result in many deaths that liberalized laws would prevent. Actually it is very difficult to tell how many illegal abortions are performed and how many deaths result from them. Sometimes it is claimed that there are over a million illegal abortions in the United States every year and that 10,000 maternal deaths result from these in the same period. But most advocates of liberalized abortion laws leave quite a bit of leeway in these figures (e.g. "between 200,000 and 1,200,000 abortions")! As for the number of deaths, the figure 10,000 may be grossly inflated. The medical section of the First International Symposium on Abortion (Washington, D. C., 1967) could verify only 235 maternal deaths resulting from abortion in 1965, and felt that a realistic figure including those unreported would be around 500. The U. S. Public Health Service listed only 130 deaths from abortion, in 1968, both legal and illegal. Since only 45,000 women of childbearing age die each year from all causes, it would be incredible to imagine as many as 10,000 dying from any single cause. Of those deaths which have occurred, it is not clear that the illegality of the operations was the major factor. It has been estimated that 70% of all illegal abortions are performed by M.D.'s. The inherent dangers of the operation itself (cf. above, section 17 e) seem to be as large a factor in these deaths as is the incompetence of some of those performing it. Furthermore, there is evidence from countries with permissive abortion laws that such liberalization does not put an end to the business of incompetent abortionists. In such countries, many women still turn to unqualified abortionists to save money, to avoid red tape, and to maintain secrecy. It appears that in those countries as well as ours more diligent law enforcement, not greater permissiveness, will be needed to put the incompetents out of business.

19. We conclude, therefore, that the Christian should regard the unborn child as a human person made in the image of God. Such a regard for the unborn child will involve rejection of abortion, except possibly in order to save the life of the mother. On the basis of this concern, the Christian should use his influence to promote legislation which will protect unborn human life. Adoption of these general principles, however, does not excuse the Christian from a rigorous self-examination as to the motives of his heart in making decisions in these matters, nor does the adoption of these principles automatically justify any act allegedly performed in accord with them. Further, in counseling with those facing difficult decisions in these matters, the Christian must not use his general principles as a way to avoid wrestling with a particular case. The agonies of those contemplating abortion must be shared, entered into, understood, if truly loving counsel from the Word of God is to be given.


On the basis of the above conclusions, we recommend:

1. That the general assembly adopt the following resolution: Unborn children are living creatures in the image of God, given by God as a blessing to their parents. Between conception and birth they are the objects of God's particular providence and care as they are being prepared by God for the responsibilities and privileges of postnatal life. Scripture obligates us to treat unborn children as human persons in all decisions and actions involving them. They should not, therefore, be destroyed by voluntary abortion in the absence of valid medical grounds demonstrating the necessity of such abortion to save the mother's life.

2. That presbyteries, sessions and congregations be encouraged by the assembly to carry on further study of these matters, so that Christians may be better instructed concerning the Scriptural principles involved, and so that they might be motivated to take appropriate action relative to pending civil legislation or other pertinent situations in their communities.

3. That the stated clerk be instructed to prepare this report or a summary of this report in an acceptable pamphlet format, and that this publication be commended to Christians as a guide to their study and action, and for distribution by them to government officials and others.

John M. Frame
Robert L. Malarkey
Joseph Memmelaar

The Report of the Minority

The report of the Committee to Study the Matter of Abortion is a very ably prepared and a very useful document. The undersigned regrets that he cannot concur in it for the reasons shortly to be noted. He, therefore, feels it to be his duty to submit this minority report.

It would appear that there is no scriptural passage dealing directly with induced abortion. This is a fact of some significance, since the practice was known during part or all of the period during which the scriptural books were being written.

It has been thought that Exodus 21:22–25 sheds some light upon the matter. The proper exegesis of the passage is not firmly established. It seems probable, however, that the majority of the English translations of the passage are in error or, at least, misleading, and that it should be translated in such a way as to make it clear that it refers to the premature, induced birth of a viable child. The word translated "harm" then would have a potential reference to both mother and child. If this is correct, the bearing of the passage upon the subject of voluntary induced abortion is slight or non-existent.

It appears, then, that the major passage of Scripture throwing light upon the subject is the sixth commandment. Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17. Everyone is aware, of course, that the sixth commandment does not prohibit all killing. Vegetables were given by God for food (Gen. 1:29). Everything that moves was added in Genesis 9 (v. 3) with the exception of man (v. 6). It is not generally held that every part of man's body comes under this prohibition. Appendixes and gall bladders are often removed without objection from the church. It would appear, therefore, that the sixth commandment prohibits the taking of the life of a human person, with exceptions such as killing in capital punishment, war and other situations which are probably immaterial at this point.

A definition of "human person" in a sense appropriate to this context is, therefore, desirable. It is, however, very difficult to secure agreement upon such a definition. This is most ably set forth in sections 14 and 15 of the majority report with much of which sections the undersigned is in agreement.

However, the author finds himself compelled to differ with the proposition that a fertilized egg is, from the moment of fertilization, a human person. It may possess the potentiality of becoming a person. But to affirm that it is a person seems a piece of rationalistic folly. It is to be noted that the majority report is too wise to do this. But it affirms that the Christian is under scriptural obligation to act as though this were the case. This is even worse. It is at this point that the Christian is compelled to differ with the majority report. The Achilles' heel of that report, if I may use a Greek figure to make a scriptural point, is in section 16. The alternatives of section 16, a are not complete. Section 16, c is of Roman Catholic tendency in its emphasis on tradition and of dubious medical validity in its minimizing of the importance of birth.

But the major error here is the fact that we are told to act as though something quite contrary to our senses were true, in the context of complete disregard for the state of the other personalities involved such as the mother, the father, and the family in general.

A child should be born in a Christian family. Yet the committee is prepared to deny a potential child that vital privilege because it wants an entity treated as a person although it cannot demonstrate that it is one. This is giving abstraction too free a reign.

Charity is still a Christian virtue in spite of the low place that it holds in the minds of many Christians. To safeguard the rights of a fertilized egg at the expense of the welfare of adult men and women seems to the undersigned to betray a lack of Christian understanding of the moral law.

It, therefore, appears to the author of this minority report that the Church is on the verge of doing what it refused to do in 1937, on the verge of adding additional sins to the scriptural catalogue. That some instances of abortion are sinful is obvious. That they all are is not. Yet, with one minor possible exception, the report of the committee concludes that they are. This is quite illicit.

The report accompanies this by an encouragement of the enforcement of religious principles by state legislation. Setting the feet of the church upon this path may perhaps be expected of people who have not known what it is to live under a denial of religious freedom. But it is a very dangerous course, nevertheless, and the study of history provides plenty of supporting evidence.

The minority therefore recommends that the Orthodox Presbyterian Church refrain from advocating propositions which run counter to both scriptural and other evidence as is done by the first recommendation of the report of the committee.

It recommends that the pastors and members give special attention to the scriptural principles governing actions such as induced abortions and disseminate these principles as widely and effectively as possible. If God has not prohibited an action, the church may not do so.

Paul Woolley

Action by the Thirty-eighth (1971) General Assembly concerning the Report

The General Assembly determined that the report of the Committee to Study the Matter of Abortion and the report of the minority of that committee (including the recommendations) be reproduced as a printed booklet, that the members, sessions, and presbyteries be encouraged to study these reports, and carry on further study of these matters; and that the booklets be made available to the churches at not more than 15 cents per copy, and to individuals at cost if it be greater than 15 cents; and that the presbyteries be encouraged to present to the 39th General Assembly either a report of their findings or recommendations for advice to be given to the churches by the General Assembly.


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