Sunday, 19 February 2017

A Liberal Lutheran Christian Pro Choice Approach To The Issue of Abortion

I've been lucky enough to study Religious Studies and Philosophy throughout my educational career. Thanks to having a variety of different tutors, each with their own contrasting, sometimes controversial viewpoints I've been able to learn how to apply an essence of Critical Thinking to my understanding of my own Christian faith. Now one interesting offshoot that has resulted from engaging in a Critical thinking approach is that I've noticed that liberal Christians often get accused of having a "vague conception" of their faith by conservative evangelical Christians. For example, in a recent discussion on the need for all Christians to apply the virtue of Compassion towards trans young people by allowing them to freely choose their gender identity and to decide how they wish to be perceived/labelled by others, a conservative Christian commentator said that I as a liberal Christian did not understand the virtue of compassion because my version of compassion (which is that we should be sympathetic towards those who may lead different lives but do so as to not harm others) was "too vague to stand up to critique" because it would mean that I would end up "approving" of anything anyone ever did...e.g. I'd have to approve of child rape or murder. Now, I believe that our ability to discern compassion is a mixture between following the dictates of one's own personal conscience and interpreting aspects of the Bible that discuss compassionate acts, especially those carry out by Jesus..e.g. his feeding of the Five Thousand (Matthew 14: 13-21) or his healing of the blind (Matthew 20:14).

Since the Bible was written 2,000 years ago I can see that it could be quite difficult to discern what Jesus/God/Christians thought specifically about gender identity. However, if you do a bit of digging, you can find Biblical passages that inform a view that as Christians we should show love and respect towards trans young people unconditionally . Such Christians can follow the dictates of their conscience in accordance with an understanding of gender identity as interpreted from the Bible and experiences they've had with trans young people themselves. I've already done the blogpost on Transgender Identity and Bible verses, which you can read here: I do understand liberal Biblical interpretation can lead to the age old charge that any Christian cherrypicks passages of the Bible to suit their own agendas but as I know conservative evangelical Christians do that as much as us liberal ones, that argument's kinda mooted for me. I prefer an interpretation of the Bible which places emphasis on progress towards true equality, not interpretations that want to root us back in a paternalistic, misogynistic, restrictive past. Christians have to embrace change!  Remember when Jesus threw the moneylenders out of the Temple (Matthew 21:12)? That was seen by followers of Christ as a positive progressive act 2,000 years ago!

Anyways, whilst having aforementioned debate with the conservative Christian commentator, I decided to mention the topic of abortion as an example of where Christians should demonstrate unlimited compassion. I understand that abortion can be an extremely controversial topic for some and I must say that I've wrestled with my view on abortion over the years. At first glance, abortion might seem a "barbaric" practice, against any Christian conception of compassion and certainly not an act to be encouraged. An early Christian text, the Didache written around 150 AD decrees :"do not murder a child by abortion or kill a new born infant". Notice the emphasis on "child" here. Most people would believe it would be wrong to smother an infant in their cot or forcibly remove a foetus from a mother against her will. But is a foetus automatically a child? Is abortion always an act of murder? Can abortion be seen as any part of God's plan in that it could help save the life of the mother or may be appropriate in cases of foetal abnormalities? Can abortion be seen as a positive freely chosen act in any case? I'm going to try and give my answer to these questions below.

Abortion and the Bible:
Firstly it is important to note that abortion has been part of our human experience for thousands of years, even before the birth of Jesus or the writing of the books that make up the Bible.  In early cultures, abortion was brought on through non-surgical methods such as bloodletting, weightlifting, diving or eating irritant leaves. In Ancient Greece, midwives were performing early-term abortions (evidenced in Plato's Theaetetus,) using the herbs silphium or birthwort. Soranus, a 2nd century Greek physician, gave examples of inducing an abortion as enemas, diuretics and jumping so that a woman's heels touched her buttocks-the so-called "Lacedaemonian Leap".

Clearly some of those who were helping to write the Bible would have been aware that abortion existed at least in some form. However, the Bible is vague when it comes to abortion. Abortion practices are not specifically mentioned but there is a passage in Exodus (21:22-24) that describes an incident where two men are fighting and one accidentally punches a pregnant woman in her stomach which makes her give birth prematurely. Such an act is said to be a "non capital offence" unless it results in murder. In the end it's decided that the man who punched the pregnant woman should only be "required to pay a fine" as reparation for the incident. Now we have to be careful and distinguish between a deliberate miscarriage, an accident that causes a miscarriage, an abortion that has to take place to protect the health of the mother and an abortion for reasons other than medical emergency. Someone deliberately causing a miscarriage is deserving of punishment but someone accidentally causing a miscarriage cannot be said to have murdered a foetus because they had no intention of causing harm. A woman who has to make a heart retching decision to prioritise her own health has no intention of causing her baby harm and is therefore not causing an offence punishable by God. In fact, she is deserving of our compassion. I'd also argue that any woman who has to make the decision to have a termination in the first place would be deserving of our understanding and perhaps even our sympathy...i.e. compassion.

Let's go one step further: is there any mention in the Bible about the process of conception, pregnancy or birth? Is it explained in detail so that an alien lifeform who had no knowledge of the human species would only be able to pick up the Bible and gleam from it how life comes into being? The answer is no. Genesis 2:7 for example explains the specific, unique event in which God gave life to Adam- "God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living being" but there's no mention of how Adam and Eve procreated and produced their children afterwards. As there's no mention of an abortion event in the Bible, how can conservative Christians definitively claim to know how we should treat those women who have been through one?

Foetuses and the Sanctity of Life Argument:
A common argument that's used against Liberal Christians who defend the practice of abortion (on most levels) is that the foetus has a guaranteed right to life because they become human at the point they are conceived in the womb- i.e. when the sperm meets the egg. The mainstream adherents of the Roman Catholic Church teach that each fertilised sperm life is individual, unique and independent of the father and mother with different features determined by a special genetic code. There are a number of Biblical quotes that refer to the sanctity of life, including Isaiah 44:24: "Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, who formed you from the womb: "I am the Lord, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread" and Jeremiah 1:5: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations." These quotes do not distinguish between a fertilised sperm or foetus which means that any deliberate attempt to end the life of a fertilised sperm or foetus would be considered a "grave moral wrong". In fact Pope John Paul II called abortion "the deliberate killing of an innocent human being" in his Evangelium Vitae, 1995. Now I don't disagree with the idea that all life should be seen as sacred. How could I as a Christian? Genesis 1:27-28 tells us that we humans are all made in God's image but that means we have a responsibility for "every living thing that moves upon the earth".  When I was a teenager studying GCSE and A Level Religious Studies, I really did believe that life began at conception and that abortion was always wrong. However, as I began reading differing interpretations of the sanctity of life argument, I began to ask the questions: "is a foetus a person at the moment of conception?" and "is abortion always a morally grave wrong?"

Bruce Waltke, a reformed evangelical professor, argues that the Exodus passage mentioned above shows that God doesn't believe a foetus has a soul because its death hasn't been regarded as murder.  Now I'd argue such a conclusions is tenuous but it does raise questions over whether conservative Christians are right to assert the Bible defines all abortions as murderous acts that have to be harshly condemned.

Arguments over whether a foetus has a soul at conception or whether the soul develops as the foetus develops are age old. If you look at the view of the Ancient Greek Philosopher Aristotle, for example, you notice that he believed that abortion was acceptable when the foetus was less than 40 days old if male or 90 days if female, because foetuses didn't have human souls prior to these dates. Interestingly, the early Christian theologian Saint Augustine believed in this sort of distinction but he couldn't definitively say whether partially formed foetuses would be resurrected at the Second Coming of Christ (i.e. the Day of Judgement). However, Saint Augustine did restate the fact that he believed fully formed foetuses could not be aborted as they are fetus animalus - they've developed human limbs and have a human soul. I guess in the Early Dark Ages, if they saw what they thought was an almost fully formed dead foetus being delivered from an mother, they may have automatically assumed they had a soul and they needed to make sure the foetus was baptised, so that he/she could ascend to Heaven. When an earlier stage foetus had been delivered from the mother, they'd have assumed it was a miscarriage unless they saw the woman in question attempting abortion techniques. Nevertheless such incidences are not recorded because many monastic officials in the Roman Catholic Church had little to no experience of every day life, having been educated away from the poorer folk so they could be interpreted as fairly judgemental in their writing whilst not really exercising a reasonable level of compassion.

I don't believe legal personhood begins at conception (the moment the sperm meets the egg) or agree with a kind of Christian Aristotelian approach (minus the inappropriate sexism). Instead, I follow the legal guidance provided to me by the Government that has been created following advice given by scientific consensus. In the UK, this means that any woman can legally have an abortion up to the 24th week of her pregnancy as defined by the Human Embryology and Human Fertilisation Act 1990 (which lowered the limit from 28 weeks that had been set by the Abortion Act, 1967). The limit is set at 24 weeks because this is soon after the common diagnostic sonogram has been conducted (between 18 and 20 weeks) which can detect foetal abnormalities....e.g. if the mother realises the baby will never be able to breathe unaided, she can choose to have an abortion to help prevent emotional distress. After 24 weeks, the foetus is deemed capable of surviving outside the womb, which is why a woman is expected to carry her foetus to full term after this date.
Abortions can be given those aged 12 or older with treatment provided by organisations such as Marie Stopes International but those between the age of 12 and 16 are encouraged to have counselling so they can talk through their decision (this is because the age of consent for sexual activity is currently set in the UK at 16). The law also allows for under 16s to keep the abortion process secret and GPs don't usually need to tell parents about the procedure. GPs are required to ask a woman her reasons for having an abortion and 2 doctors must consent to providing the treatment, usually the GP and a doctor who works at the hospital or clinic where the abortion will take place with a certificate being produced to validate the abortion. Abortion information doesn't go on a patient's medical record either, meaning that the abortion will not be mentioned by any health professional unless the patient raises it herself. UK Legislation also allows for abortions at any time in cases where there is a substantial risk to a woman's life- e.g. if she has developed terminal cancer and requires chemotherapy treatment to prolong her own life, or when there are foetal abnormalities- e.g. anencephaly (lack of brain formation) where the baby dies within a few hours or days of birth. Such abnormalities only occur in 2% of pregnancies and in these circumstances I can perfectly accept a woman's right to choose to have a late term abortion and not to berate her or shame her for making that choice. When it comes to foetuses with Down's Syndrome or Spina Bifida it is up to the mother to decide whether to go through with an abortion but I do acknowledge there are disability groups who continue to be worried that screening may have led to women making a decision to have an abortion because they are too scared to bring up a baby with Down's Syndrome.

Tertullian, a 2nd century Christian theologian, did mention abortion specifically in his writings. He talked about surgical implements that were used to help with dilatation and evacuation-e.g. "a blunt hook" and a "copper needle or spike". Tertullian argued that surgical abortion could be performed in cases where the abnormal positioning of the foetus could endanger the life of a woman" which is similar to the view espoused by the Church of England. If you read the statement from the General Synod of 1983, the CofE argues "that in situations where the continuance of a pregnancy threatens the life of a mother a termination may be justified and that there must be adequate and safe provision in our society for such situations." That being said, the CofE did claim in 1997 that the number of abortions under the Abortion Act was "unacceptably high" whereas I'd argue that women have the right to decide under the law whether to have an abortion or not without being vilified for making that decision.

Then of course there are commentators who would disagree with foetuses having a right to life at all. Feminist Mary Anne Warren for example, contends that "birth marks the beginning of true moral status" and that if conservative Christians argue that "foetuses are persons, then sperm and eggs must be persons too who have a sacred right to life" which seems rather a slippery slope argument. I don't believe that every sperm and every egg is sacred and I don't believe that masturbation or contraception leads to the "murder" of potential persons. I rather take Jonathan Glover's line: if you say that foetuses are persons from the point of conception is to "stretch the term beyond normal boundaries" and that abiding by a legal understanding based on scientific evidence is sufficient. That being said, I'm 100% behind Warren stating that women should have access to medical treatment to ensure their abortion is carried out safely and agree with the UK's current practice which allows abortion to be freely available on the NHS. No woman should be forced to bear children in 2017, whether her sexual partner/husband wants her to. No woman should be forced to carry a foetus to full term that was a consequence of a traumatic rape, regardless of who raped her. If her husband raped her and she fell pregnant, she should not have to take his thoughts into consideration because the act of procreation was not borne out of love. Also, no woman should be forced to have a child soon after having given birth if she doesn't want to. Stating such sentiments doesn't automatically lead to me advocating "abortion on demand". Abortion is, after all, an extremely distressing decision for a woman to make and it really is not made "on the spur of the moment" as some conservatives may suggest. A young woman who finds out she's pregnant as a result of a one night stand doesn't routinely automatically go "oh I'm going to go down the clinic and get a termination" in the afternoon following the news. Hopefully she talks through the decision with friends, family or if they are not available, she talks through the decision herself, laying out the advantages and disadvantages of going ahead with her pregnancy- e.g. whether she'll be able to cope emotionally, physically and financially. She may even talk about adoption. When she hopefully makes that free choice to go to the abortion clinic, she makes it in accordance with the "dictates of her conscience", in a rational manner. Remember that Christians who support abortion aren't arguing that young women should be coerced into having an abortion by a partner, her parents or even health professionals.

What Conscience and Freedom of Choice mean to me:
It's rather interesting to note that the conservative Christian agreed that abortion, alongside sexuality or gender identity was a matter of "free choice". Our individual consciences help us to make key decisions such as whether to enter a same sex marriage, legally change ones gender identity or whether to have an abortion or not. As Joseph Butler posited in his 1726 collection of 15 Sermons, our conscience is the "final moral decision maker"-i.e." a natural guide, the guide assigned to us by the Author of our nature (God)." God gave us freedom of will to take responsibility for ourselves and I believe to choose to embrace the virtue of compassion, regardless of the consequence it may have on our own lives. The Bible mentions God as "the father of compassion" in 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 and Jesus talked about the need to be merciful in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:7: "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy").  Butler believed there were 2 basic principles governing humans: self-love and benevolence. These principles exist in our minds regardless of our religious faith and a conscience helps us to make decisions adhering to these 2 principles. Our conscience of course may be informed through religious instruction, parental instruction, reading literature or debating with our friends or peers but the Bible seems to tell us that good people make good decisions regardless of how much instruction they may have received if they follow their conscience. Look at the example of Job. God tested him by taking away his sense of security (his children, his home etc) but Job continued to place his faith in God without expecting a reward. Just because I'm a liberal Lutheran Christian and want to help those who need compassion even if they may not want it from someone such as myself, doesn't mean I expect any sanctimonious reward. We should do the right thing regardless of what awaits us in this life or the next. For me, following my conscience means allowing women to make an informed decision about abortion if they are having abortions for any reason within the legal limit.

It seems to me that conservative Christians now see abortion as "a morally grave evil" to be avoided at all costs. Although they may claim to love women who end up going through an abortion because of their essence of humanity, they are unwilling to accept that abortion itself may be carried out as an act of love or mercy. I do not believe that Christians could be so cruel as to force rape victims to carry a foetus to full term against their will, causing the mother untold mental stress and I do not believe that rape victims should be ashamed for asking for an abortion. If a rape victim wants to carry her child to full term, that is her own decision to make. She should never be coerced one way or the other.

I also believe that women have a free right to choose whether they have an abortion for reasons other than as a result of  preventing a risk to their own health, foetal abnormalities or as a result of rape/incest. Allowing women to access abortion services that are properly funded and properly staffed means that abortions can be carried out legally (in accordance with the Abortion Act in the UK) and safely so as to not unnecessarily endanger the life of the woman going through the abortion. There are risks, such as womb infections or some of the pregnancy remaining in the womb but such complications are relatively rare- e.g. an infection of the womb occurs in up to 1 in 10 abortions. (See the NHS choices page for more information about possible complications: As EG Raymond stated in The comparative safety of legal induced abortion and childbirth (2012): "a woman's risk of dying from having an abortion is 0.6 in 100,000, while the risk of dying from giving birth is around 14 times higher (8.8 in 100,000)". If a woman freely consents to an abortion having been informed of potential risks, she does not need to have her decision questioned by conservative Christian men who will never fully understand what it is like to be in that situation.

I can embrace scientific progress and that means being thankful that nearly all abortion procedures are safe and carried out by qualified practitioners in the UK. God developed abortion practices in the same way that he helped to develop contraception to make life safer for women. Imagine if we were as dismissive of Mr Fleming's discovery of penicillin in 1928 as some Christians are about contraception or abortion. We wouldn't have the range of antibiotics which now help to fight serious bacterial infections. I have to believe that God brought Mr Fleming into the world to help humanity to progress in the same way he brought midwives and GPs into the world to help make safe abortions accessible to all.

Being a Pro Choice liberal Lutheran Christian means understanding the true pluralistic nature of our society without choosing to pass unnecessary judgement. Instead, I accept free choice, I sympathise with how stressful the decision might have been for the women who chose to have an abortion or had to have one and I then continue to advocate for freedom of choice so that conservative Governments can't take the right to have a safe, accessible abortion taken away from women because they suddenly rule it to be illegal as it's against their own religious practices. Pro-Choice allows the individual woman to make her own decision, free from government control. That means the government should not attack national abortion programmes just because the leader or members of the cabinet happen to disagree with the act of abortion themselves. Remember the example of Romania. In 1966 the government ruled abortion illegal and over 15 years over 9,000 women died as a result of undergoing an unsafe abortion with countless other women ending up physically and emotionally scarred for life. When that policy was finally reversed in 1980, the maternal mortality rate was reduced to 1/8th of what it was whilst the no-abortion policy was in place. This shows that banning legal abortions does nothing to reduce abortion rates as some conservative Christians may like to claim.

In all likelihood, it'll take a long time to reform opinions within certain Christian denominations to accept a woman's free right to choose to have an abortion. For starters, it means challenging the idea that legal personhood begins at conception, ironic given the fact that early Christians didn't have this as a fundamental belief.  In any case, having more women bishops and clerics may help to change this mindset. As Gloria Feldt, former President of Planned Parenthood says: "If you think about the underlying misogyny in the history of most major religions, it’s not surprising we’ve been dealing with these issues (reproductive rights) in those terms...I do believe that the ascent of more women in the clergy, at least in the mainstream religions at this point, is going to make a huge difference. They simply see the world through a different lens." Maybe then abortion may be viewed through a more compassionate, Pro Choice Christian lens.