When does life begin – abortion?

189,931. That was the number of abortions for Women Resident in England and Wales during 2011. That was a 7.7% increase in the decade since 2001. Until today that makes almost one million abortions since 2008.

In 2011 for every 1000 women aged between 15 and 44 there were 18 abortions. That was more than double the rate recorded back in 1970. For every 1000 women aged 20, 33 had abortions. For every 1000 teenage girls aged between 14 and 18 there were 15 abortions. More than a third of women who had an abortion in 2011 had also previously had one or more abortions.

If you also look at the number of children born during 2011 it works out that roughly a quarter of all conceptions lead to legal abortions. In other words, in recent years in the UK for every 3 children born, there is also one abortion. For girls aged 18 years of age and under, 45% of all conceptions lead to legal abortions. Let me say that again. For teenage girls 18 and under, there are nearly as many abortions as there are babies born.

Only around 1% of all those abortions took place on the grounds of risks to the woman’s health. Another 1% took place on the grounds of risk that the child will be born with severe handicap. 98% of the abortions took place because of the category of “risks of mental health to the mother”. In other words, the mother chose not to keep her baby.

An American magazine survey ranked different sins in order of seriousness – from “guilty to the max” down to “blameless”, they found murder, rape, incest and child abuse at the top, with the least serious sins of smoking, swearing, telling white lies, not voting and nude sunbathing. Abortion came around half way down the list, just above parking in a handicapped parking bay, cheating on your income tax and calling in sick when you are not. Abortion was seen as a less serious sin than industrial spying, misrepresenting something you are selling or, curiously, atheism!

Let’s begin with a definition – abortion means prematurely ending a pregnancy by surgical or chemical means. Abortion has been practised for thousands of years. Advocates of abortion can always find very convincing reasons why it is socially desirable or even necessary.

Would you consider abortion in the following 3 situations sometimes put before medical students?
(1) The father has syphillis, the mother has TB. They have four children. The first is blind, the second is dead, the third is deaf, and the fourth has TB. The wife finds she’s pregnant again. Given the extreme situation, would you consider recommending abortion?
(2) There’s a preacher and wife who are very, very, poor. They already have 14 kids. Now she finds out she’s pregnant with number 15. They’re living in tremendous poverty. Considering their poverty and the excessive world population, would you consider recommending she get an abortion?
(3) A teenage girl is pregnant. She’s not married. Her fiancé is not the father of the baby, and he’s very upset. Would you consider recommending abortion?
In the first case, you have just prevented the birth of Beethoven. In the second case, you have prevented the birth of John Wesley. If you said yes to the third case, you have just prevented the birth of Jesus Christ!!

Although abortion has generally been practised with varying degrees of approval over the centuries, from the earliest days the church has always been against abortion.

Tertullian (end of 2nd century) “For us murder is once for all forbidden; so even the child in the womb. . . is not lawful for us to destroy. To forbid birth is only quicker murder. . . . The fruit is always present in the seed.”

In the 20th century, any idea that abortion is murder was swept away by the women’s rights movement. The Modern argument in favour of abortion is based on the claim that a woman has the absolute right to choose what happens to her own body. If she doesn’t want to give birth to the child conceived and growing in her womb she doesn’t have to. She has the choice. Now there are major problems with this “pro-choice” view. The law does NOT give people any absolute right to do what they like with our own bodies. We have laws preventing harm about e.g. seat belts and crash helmets. Nor would anybody think it was morally acceptable for a person to mutilate themselves in order to increase income derived from begging.

Of course women should have choice. But the choice which ought to be exercised is the choice not to engage in sexual activity where pregnancy is a possible outcome. Once a woman has become pregnant she has an obligation to the completely foreseeable unborn baby in her womb! The greatest problem with the “Pro Choice” argument is the assumption that the growing baby, the foetus, is entirely part of the woman’s own body. If foetus is a separate person then woman does NOT have the choice to end its life. And in some respects at least the foetus obviously IS a separate person. Certainly the embryo is genetically different from the mother from conception onwards. The placenta, umbilical cord and amniotic fluid are formed by the developing embryo. And fertility programmes with surrogate mothers show that the embryo can grow in the womb of a woman who is not the genetic mother.

If the foetus is a separate person, as the “Pro Life” anti-abortion argument believes, then the foetus has a fundamental right to live which outweighs any rights the mother might have to choose. So key question in the ethics of abortion is “when does life begin”? At what stage does the foetus growing inside the mother turn from a potential person into a person with potential. When does life begin?

At birth? Obviously so – to kill a baby after birth is murder! Surely life begins earlier than that!

What about at the stage of “viability” – when the baby could be born and survive independently? Surely so! If the foetus is at a stage when a significant number of babies born prematurely would survive, then to prevent the live birth of the foetus later than that would surely be wrong. In UK at least, viability is seen as the dividing line and the law rightly prevents abortion later than 24 weeks except to save the mother’s life. A baby delivered as a still birth which has died in the womb is rightly mourned as if it had been born alive and then died. Such a baby is often given a proper funeral. Surely life has begun before then!

But what does the medical evidence actually say about when life begins?

Medical authorities determine a person to be “alive” if there is either a detectable heartbeat or brain-wave activity. Unborn children have detectable heartbeats at eighteen days (two and one-half weeks) after conception. Unborn babies have detectable brain-wave activity forty to 43 days (six weeks) after conception. Surely life has begun by then.

Almost a quarter (22%) of all the abortions in England in Wales in 2011 took place AFTER 9 weeks of pregnancy. EVEN THOUGH
o) heartbeat begins in the third week!
a) By 6 weeks: all vital organs are present; brain waves can be recorded.
b) By 8 weeks: baby responds to painful stimuli; can grasp objects.
c) By 10 weeks: fingerprints and footprints permanently engraved on the skin; foetus sucks its thumb.
d) By 11-12 weeks: foetus inhales and exhales amniotic fluid; shows distinct facial characteristics.

Yet around 10% of abortions in UK take place after 12 weeks. By 16 weeks: fingernails and eyelashes present; high activity level (e.g., kicking).
With medical advances an increasing proportion of premature babies are surviving, even some born as early as 23 weeks. But the law in UK says that abortion is legal up to 24 weeks!! The medical evidence seems very clear that the foetus has a life independent of the mother long, long before the 24 week legal limit!

When does life begin? – What does the Bible say?

The Bible makes NO distinction between a fetus and a child? “Consider the children of Isaac, Jacob and Esau. … Rebekah his wife conceived. But the children struggled together within her… And the Lord said to her:‘Two nations are in your womb, two peoples shall be separated from your body; one people shall be stronger than the other, and the older shall serve the younger…” (Genesis 25:21-26). Although these two children were still “unborn” they were “alive.” They were still given the name of “children”. The Bible makes no distinction between a child and a foetus; that distinction originated with man!

The Bible teaches us that God is involved in the development of every human being, even in the womb!

Jer 1:4 ¶ The word of the LORD came to me, saying, 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.”

Psa 139:13 For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. 15 My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, 16 your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.

So when does life begin? Long before 24 weeks! The Roman Catholic Church teaches that life begin at the fertilization of the egg by the sperm. Life begins at conception – the point at which that individual’s genetic makeup is determined forever – the point at which that individual is created. That would be a simple point to mark. But choosing conception as the point where life begins has its problems. Studies suggest that around 40% of fertilized eggs are lost in the normal monthly cycle without any implication that pregnancy has begun. Identical twins are formed by the fertilized egg dividing AFTER conception. So most Protestant thinkers judge that a new human life begins the moment the egg implants into the womb. After that point of implantation, pregnancies do sometimes sadly end spontaneously without human intervention, but miscarriage is seen as the exception and development to birth is the norm.

So when does life begin? Certainly before birth. Certainly long before viability at 23 weeks or less. It seems to me certainly before brainwaves at 6 weeks or even heartbeat in the third week. Very early on the foetus is no longer just a potential person – it has become a person with potential. In my judgement, we should regard the beginning of life as that point after which a pregnancy will normally and naturally lead on to birth if there is no medical problem or human intervention. So in my view, life begins at implantation.

One final Scripture seems very relevant at this point.
The Sixth Commandment. EXODUS 20 :13 You shall not murder!

When does life begin? At least at implantation, if not a few days before at conception! Various issues do hinge on whether you see life beginning at conception (as the Roman Catholics do) or at implantation (the view of many Protestants). This distinction is very important if you are considering the ethics of methods of contraception like the coil or the morning after pill which prevent implantation. It also matters when you talk about in vitro fertilization treatments, test tube babies, human cloning, designer babies and stem cell research. We can come back to these issues another time.

I know I haven’t talked yet about whether it could be ever be right to terminate a pregnancy if the mother’s life is in mortal danger. I haven’t talked about abortion following rape or child abuse. I haven’t talked about abortion of a foetus which is known to be severely disabled. These are very complex and sensitive questions about which Christians, theologians and even Christian doctors all hold a range of opinions. We will talk again about how we should make our moral decisions and how sometimes in this sin-spoiled world we may need to choose between the lesser of two evils. Such “lesser evil” ethics lead many Christians to conclude that removing a foetus may be the right course of action in medical situations where that is the only way to save the life of the mother and otherwise both mother and baby would certainly die. Some would also agree that the trauma of pregnancy after rape or child abuse would be so psychologically and emotionally damaging to a mother that abortion may be permissible in that situation.

But abortions where such sensitive reasons exist represent only around 1% of abortions today. 99% of perfectly legal abortions in UK are for “social reasons”, which normally means nothing more than the woman choosing not to have a baby! No threat of life to the mother, no complications with the foetus, just abortion as contraception after the event when other contraception has failed, or not even been used, and a baby would just be “inconvenient.” Woman’s choice – but no choice for the baby who will never be born!

Whether life begins at conception or at implantation, either way, abortion does not simply prevent the potential of a person. Abortion ends a life which has already begun, the life of a person with potential! And killing people is wrong!

So what should be the Church’s response to abortion?

1. Love not judgement or condemnation for women who have had abortions. GOD HATES ABORTION BUT STILL LOVES ANY WOMAN WHO HAS HAD AN ABORTION !!!! Many women who have had abortions look back with hindsight and feel great guilt. But help, support and counselling and forgiveness are at hand for any woman in that situation!

2. Support for women who choose to keep their baby to full term and give birth. I have the greatest of respect for any woman who finds herself pregnant and makes the difficult decision to keep her baby. The church should do everything we can to help! In India Mother Teresa of Calcutta said “We are fighting abortion by adoption. We have sent word to the clinics, to the hospitals, to the police stations. “Please do not destroy the child. We will take the child.”

3. The church should speak out with a prophetic voice – speak up for the unborn children! Joel Reiter said “I believe this society will one day look back at the horror of abortion, and critics will ask, “Where was the church?” Our society has indeed sacrificed its children on the altars of its false gods of convenience and “choice”.

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