For half a century, abortion has been proposed as a woman’s right. So, the public debate has mostly centered on whose rights should prevail and therefore be legislated. In these essays on ethics, we are orienting each discussion with the Scripture’s central question for every ethical action, “What does love for God and neighbor require?” (Mt. 22:37-39). Elsewhere, Jesus says specific actions of love for God and neighbor require the alignment of three attributes of God—justice, mercy, and faithfulness. First a brief review of those three “weightier matters of the law”—Justice is what is owed to every image bearer of God. Mercy is giving someone what is not required and is often surprising. And faithfulness is loyalty to God’s commands. How should our thinking about abortion, medically or pharmaceutically, be shaped by these three forms of love?
The most basic theological mandate for this discussion is to treat every human being created as an image bearer of God. Sometimes that can feel a little too philosophical. Jesus made the principle practical with the “Golden Rule,” “In everything, do to others what you would have them to do to you. . .” (Mt. 7:12). If you view yourself as an image bearer of God, then view others with the same dignity. One of the presuppositions of those who favor abortion is that the embryo in question is not yet human. This idea has been difficult to sustain from any perspective. Theologically, God regards the unborn as one fearfully and wonderfully “knitted together” in the womb (Ps. 139:13). Genetically, a zygote has inherited from the parents 23 pairs of chromosomes and about 50,000 genes, which will determine gender, size, skin tone, hair color and shade of eyes. Physiologically, a fetus’s heart starts beating 18 days after conception and begins pumping blood through a circulatory system three days later. Neurologically, an embryo has detectable brainwaves at six weeks. Unborn babies recognize their mother’s voice, taste, have dreams, exercise, and respond to pain. No rational person with the awareness of his or her own dignity can deny the embryo is a human being who demands to be treated as a person. An image bearer of God in utero or born, seen or unseen, helpless or able to defend herself, is due justice.
The Golden Rule demands we imagine ourselves in the place of the baby in the womb. “How would I want to be treated there? Would I want to be cut to pieces because I’m chromosomally imperfect, missing an ear, of mixed-race, an interruption to a college career, a third boy, a result of rape?” What difference does it make if we ask, “How would I want my child to be treated? Would I ever desire for her head and legs to be crushed so that her vital organs could safely pass through the birth canal and then sold to the highest bidder?” The Golden Rule demands we treat each child as we would be treated. Would you want your mother to preserve your life and deliver you? Then deliver your baby. Would you want your mother to rear you herself? Then bring up your child in love. Would you want your teenaged mother to place you with loving adoptive parents? Then do so. If you were in a foster home, would you want someone to provide a loving, stable environment for at least a few nights if not for a couple of years? Then open your home. If you were a child in a Chinese orphanage and someone who could not have children longed for a child, would you not want them to be your parents? Then become those parents.
There is one more merciful application of the Golden Rule to be made and it is to those who have chosen abortion. Sarah Moore Grimke, a champion for the equal dignity of women as well as an abolitionist once reached out to slave dealers and owners this way: “It is because I feel a deep and tender interest in your present and eternal welfare that I am willing thus publicly to address you.” How would I wish to be treated if I were abortionist, had pressured my wife to have an abortion, or had one as a woman? I would want someone to say to me, “Come to Christ and he will lift your burden.” I would want someone to say through tears, “If you walk in the light as he is in the light, you have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses you from all your sins.” With Jesus, today is always the day of salvation and always the first day of a new beginning. If you want to hear those words, approach a pastor, appeal to an elder, attend a post-abortion Bible study. Jesus’ arms are mercifully open wide to you.
Once personhood is established for the unborn baby, a universal standard should be agreed upon. No one who advocates for the crushing, burning, dismembering or harvesting of a baby’s body parts can rightfully object if someone were to decide to do the same to the abortion advocate. This is the realization that converted Elizabeth Foxe-Genovese, the founder of the women studies program at Emory and early outspoken advocate for abortion before Roe v. Wade. Professor Foxe-Genovese realized if a society succeeded in justifying a mother’s choice to kill her baby merely because she had the power to carry out her desire, then anyone more powerful than she could decide she should also be dead. No one would agree that anyone has rights to carry out violence against another person just because they are more powerful. It is understandable why Planned Parenthood’s founder, Margaret Sanger, would not want her agenda to be widely known: “We do not want the word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population.” She knew that every rational human being is born with at least this much ego strength, “I am important and want to be respected.”
A friend of mine, Joy Craun, once shared her insights from a sermon by a very young Jonathan Edwards on the Golden Rule as applied to slavery: “Preaching the Golden Rule alters theology. Imagining the Golden Rule breaks prejudices. Living the golden rule changes history.” Where the church is erring theologically regarding doctrine, race, social action, or personhood let us alter her by the preaching of the gospel. Where prejudice dehumanizes, let us imagine our roles reversed and break the pattern. And where heirs of the gospel are told we are on the wrong side of history, let us alter history.