As a result of the leaking of a Supreme Court draft opinion, it seems as though this is the time to look at the issue of abortion. In this first part, we want to look at the background to it all by recording a brief history of abortion up to the more recent event here in America. In the following issues of the Langstaff Letter, we will address the topic more fully.
ABORTION – A DEFINITION
Abortion is the expulsion of a fetus from the uterus before it has reached the state of viability (in human beings, about the 20th week of gestation). An abortion may occur spontaneously, in which case it is called a miscarriage. It may be brought on purposely, in which case it would be called an induced abortion. Induced abortions are generally performed for four reasons:
- To preserve the life of the mother
- In the case of rape or incest
- In the case of a deformity or genetic abnormality
- For personal reasons
ABORTION IN EARLY CIVILIZATIONS
Abortion, the termination of a pregnancy, is not just something for our times but has existed since ancient times. Many of the methods used in the earliest days did not involve surgery but included physical labor, such as strenuous activity.
Back in the days of Greece, abortion was approved in society. “The Stoics believed the fetus to be plantlike in nature, and not an animal until the moment of birth, when it finally breathed air. Aristotle wrote that, ‘[T]he line between lawful and unlawful abortion will be marked by the fact of having sensation and being alive.'”
“The Romans did not punish abortion as homicide… abortion was commonly accepted in Rome.” However, around 211 AD, abortion was banned. Despite this, abortion continued to be practiced with little or no sense of shame.
ABORTION IN THE BIBLE
There is no direct reference to abortion in the scriptures. One indirect reference is in Exodus 21:22-24, which describes two men fighting during which one of the men’s pregnant wife is struck. If the act leads to a miscarriage, then the one who caused it is fined. If she dies, then the offender would be put to death (i.e., a life for a life). Some have concluded that “God does not regard the fetus as a soul,” but others disagree with this conclusion.
ABORTION & THE EARLY CHURCH
The Didache (an early Christian work) states, “Do not murder a child by abortion or kill a new-born infant.” Tertullian, an early Christian theologian, “argued that abortion should be performed only in cases in which abnormal positioning of the fetus in the womb would endanger the life of the pregnant woman.” “Saint Augustine believed that abortion of a fetus animatus, a fetus with human limbs and shape, was murder.”
“Currently, the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Evangelical Protestant and some mainline Protestant churches oppose abortion in varying degrees, while other mainline Protestant churches favor it.”
THE MODERN ERA
“19th-century medicine saw tremendous advances in the fields of surgery, anesthesia, and sanitation. Social attitudes towards abortion shifted in the context of a backlash against the women’s rights movement. Abortion had previously been widely practiced and legal under common law in early pregnancy (until quickening), but the English-speaking world passed laws against abortion at all stages of pregnancy.
There were a number of factors that contributed to this shift in opinion about abortion in the early 19th century. In the United States, where physicians were the leading advocates of abortion criminalization laws, some of them argued that advances in medical knowledge showed that quickening was neither more nor less crucial in the process of gestation than any other step, and thus if one opposes abortion after quickening, one should oppose it before quickening as well.”
The English law on abortion was first codified legislation in 1803, clarifying the law relating to abortion, and was the first law to explicitly outlaw it.
“The movement to liberalize abortion laws emerged in the 1920s and ’30s as part of rising feminist activism that had already resulted in victories in the area of birth control.”
“In America an abortion reform movement emerged in the 1960s…In 1970, Hawaii became the first state to legalize abortions on the request of the woman.”
ROE VS. WADE
In 1973, “The landmark judicial ruling of the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade ruled that a Texas statute forbidding abortion except when necessary to save the life of the mother was unconstitutional. The immediate result was that all state laws to the contrary were null. The Court arrived at its decision by concluding that the issue of abortion and abortion rights falls under the right to privacy.” This has been the law of the land for almost fifty years now.
The origins of Planned Parenthood go back to October 16, 1916, when Margaret Sanger and two others started the first birth control clinic in America in Brooklyn, New York. There are questions about some of the radical views that Margaret Sanger held. Planned Parenthood has become the major abortion-providing organization in America today.
EVANGELICALS & ABORTION
It may come as a surprise to know that fifty years ago, evangelicals did not mobilize against Roe vs. Wade, which they considered a Catholic issue. For example, in 1968, it was reported that Christianity Today organized a conference with the Christian Medical Society to discuss the morality of abortion.
“The gathering attracted 26 heavyweight theologians from throughout the evangelical world, who debated the matter over several days and then issued a statement acknowledging the ambiguities surrounding the issue, which, they said, allowed for many different approaches.
‘Whether the performance of an induced abortion is sinful we are not agreed,’ the statement read, ‘but about the necessity of it and permissibility for it under certain circumstances we are in accord.’
Two successive editors of Christianity Today took equivocal stands on abortion. Carl F. H. Henry, the magazine’s editor, claimed that ‘a woman’s body is not the domain and property of others,’ and his successor, Harold Lindsell, allowed that, ‘if there are compelling psychiatric reasons from a Christian point of view, mercy and prudence may favor a therapeutic abortion.’
Meeting in St. Louis in 1971, the messengers (delegates) to the Southern Baptist Convention, hardly a redoubt of liberalism, passed a resolution calling for the legalization of abortion, a position they rea\rmed in 1974 — a year after Roe — and again in 1976.
When the Roe decision was handed down, W. A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas and sometime president of the Southern Baptist Convention, issued a statement praising the ruling. ‘I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person,’ Criswell declared, ‘and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.’
Even James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family who later became an implacable foe of abortion, acknowledged, in 1973, that the Bible was silent on the matter and, therefore it was plausible for an evangelical to believe that ‘a developing embryo or fetus was not regarded as a full human being'” (msn.com).
“Because evangelicals had considered abortion a Catholic issue until the late 1970s, they expressed little interest in the matter; Falwell, by his own admission, did not preach his first anti-abortion sermon until February 26, 1978, more than five years after Roe. During the midterm elections of 1978, however, anti-abortion activists — Roman Catholics — leafleted church parking lots in four Senate races during the final weekend of the campaign: New Hampshire, Iowa and two races in Minnesota, one for the unexpired term of Walter Mondale, Carter’s vice president. Two days later, in an election with a very low turnout, anti-abortion Republicans defeated the favored Democratic candidates” (msn.com).
However, the abortion issue did not take hold among Evangelicals until the eve of the 1980 presidential election.
CATHOLIC’S ANTI-ABORTION POSITION
Initally, opposition to abortion came predominantly from the Roman Catholic Church. One has only to read the list of Catholic organizations related to Pro-Life causes, and you realize how widespread it is.
“The official teachings of the Catholic Church oppose all forms of abortion… since it holds that ‘human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person – among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.'”
Credit must be given to the Catholics who have initially led the fight against abortion.
In the next issue of the Langstaff Letter, we will explore the issues that are caught up in the debate regarding abortion.
Unless otherwise noted, information stated above was mainly drawn from the following sources: