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Is There a Moral Right to Abortion?

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Is There a Moral Right to Abortion?

The tragedy of an unwanted pregnancy that threatens a woman's life or health

existed in the ancient world as it does today. At the time the Bible was written,

abortion was widely practiced in spite of heavy penalties. The Hebrew

scriptures had no laws forbidding abortion. This was chiefly because the

Hebrews placed a higher value on women than did their neighbors. There are,

however, some references to the termination of pregnancy. Exod. 21:22-25

says that if a pregnant woman has a miscarriage as a result of injuries she

receives during a fight between two men, the penalty for the loss of the fetus is

a fine; if the woman is killed, the penalty is "life for life." It is obvious from this

passage that men whose fighting had caused a woman to miscarry were not

regarded as murderers because they had not killed the woman. The woman,

undeniably, had greater moral and religious worth than did the fetus. A

reference in the Mosaic law which is found in, Num. 5:11-31 indicates that if a

husband suspects his wife is pregnant by another man, the "husband shall bring

his wife to the priest," who shall mix a drink intended to make her confess or be

threatened with termination of her pregnancy if she has been unfaithful to her

husband. Aside from these passages, the Bible does not deal with the subject

of abortion. Although both Testaments generally criticize the practices of the

Hebrews' neighbors, such as idol worship and prostitution, as well as various

immoral acts committed in their own land, there is no condemnation or

prohibition of abortion anywhere in the Bible in spite of the fact that techniques

for inducing abortion had been developed and were widely used by the time of

the New Testament. A key question in the abortion controversy is, "When does

human life begin?' The Bible's clear answer is that human life begins at birth,

with the first breath. In Gen. 2:7, God "breathed into his nostrils the breath of

life and man became a living being" (in some translations, "a living soul"). The

Hebrew word for human being or living person is nephesh, which is also the

word for "breathing." Nephesh occurs hundreds of times in the Bible as the

identifying factor in human life. This is consistent with the opinion of modem

medical science. A group of 167 distinguished scientists and physicians told the

Supreme Court in 1989 that "the most important determinant of viability is lung

development," and that viability is not achieved significantly earlier than at

twenty-four weeks of gestation because critical organs, "particularly the lungs

and kidneys, do not mature before that time."(1) In the scriptures the

Incarnation, or "the Word made flesh," was celebrated at the time of Jesus'

birth, not at a speculative time of conception. We follow the biblical tradition

today by counting age from the date of birth rather than from conception, a

date people do not know or seek to estimate. The state issues birth certificates,

not conception certificates. Fifty-one percent of all abortions in the United

States occur before the 8th week of pregnancy; more than 91 percent occur

before the 12th week (in the first trimester); and more than 99 percent occur

before 20 weeks, which is about 4 weeks before the time of viability (when 10

to 15 percent of fetuses can be saved by intensive care). In such cases of early

abortion there is no fetal neocortex, and hence no pain. However, every

termination of potential human life presents a moral problem and can be

justified only by the damage to living persons that may result from an

unacceptable pregnancy. Contraception (birth control), the practice of which

can greatly reduce the number of abortions, involves the prevention of

conception, ovulation, or implantation in the uterus. The Vatican's position that

all sexual activity must allow the possibility of procreation has led the

antiabortion movement to be silent about contraception as a way to prevent the

need for abortion. Those who claim that a human being exists at conception are

guilty of prolepsis, a term defined in Webster's Dictionary as "an anticipating,

especially the describing of an event as if it had already happened."(2) This

type of anticipation is being practiced by those who speak of the few cells that

after conception, or a fetus in the early trimesters as "a baby" or "an unbom

child." Some years ago at a meeting of the American Society of Christian

Ethics, a workshop was confronted with the case of a 3-year-old

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