The Issue of Abortion
The topic of abortion has become a hot potato in American politics. The word abortion comes from abortus, the Latin word for “to disappear, to miscarry.” It refers to the procedure that involves the premature expulsion of the fetus with the intent of bringing about its death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than half a million abortions take place every year in the U.S.,1 and more than 70 million per year worldwide.2
Abortions have been a problem since ancient times. The first documented abortion-inducing drugs in China date back to the 2nd millennium B.C.3 The Greek physician Hippocrates (460-370 B.C.) included the following statement in his oath for physicians: “I will not give a woman a pessary [vaginal suppository] to cause abortion.”4
Early Christianity resolutely opposed abortion. The Didache or “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” a manual of Christian morals and church affairs from the first or second century, stated, “You shall not murder a child by abortion, or kill one when born.”5 By the fourth century, Christian condemnation of abortion was reflected in canon law.
In Anglo-Saxon law, prohibitions against abortions date back to the Middle Ages. In 1803, as part of a general revision of British criminal law, abortion was made illegal before as well as after the mother could feel the first movement in the womb.
The British reform became the model for similar legislation in the U.S. By the time of the Civil War, a number of states had begun to revise their statutes in order to prohibit abortion at all stages of gestation, with various exceptions for therapeutic abortions.
Until 1967, abortion was illegal in the U.S. Between 1967 and 1973, approximately one-third of the states had adopted, either in whole or in part, the Model Penal Code’s provisions allowing abortion in instances other than when only the mother’s life was in danger, including social circumstances such as the number of children and financial needs.
January 22, 1973, dramatically altered the legal situation and effectively gave the United States abortion on demand. The case Roe v. Wade was a 7 to 2 landmark decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution of the United States generally protects a pregnant individual’s liberty to have an abortion.
By adopting a very broad definition of “health,” which includes social and psychological, as well as purely medical conditions, the Court in effect allowed abortion up to the very moment of birth, if the woman desired it, and the physician was agreeable.
On Friday, June 24, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, which guaranteed a constitutional right to abortion. Some state constitutions, however, independently protect abortion rights.
Abortion in Scripture
Apart from Exodus 20:13, “‘You shall not murder’” (NIV), the key text on this topic is Exodus 21:22 to 25, “If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman's husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (KJV, italics supplied.)
The RSV translates Exodus 21:22 as “When men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no harm follows . . .” However, the linguistic evidence of the text itself does not support the “miscarriage” translation. The verb yatza generally portrays a normal birth, i. e., a live birth, not a miscarriage: “‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you were born [yatza] I sanctified you’” (Jer. 1:5, NKJV).6 Yatza is used of a stillbirth only when accompanied by some form of muth, “to die,” as in Numbers 12:12, “‘Please do not let her be as one dead [muth], whose flesh is half consumed when he comes out of his mother's womb!’” Thus, Exodus 21:22 to 25 refers to a premature live birth, not a miscarriage. The text treats the life of the mother and that of the unborn child as equally valuable.
When Does Life Begin?
At the heart of the abortion issues is the question of exactly when human life begins. Before we look at the various options that have been put forward, we need to define the growth stages of the unborn human being:
Zygote—the cell produced by the union of egg and sperm before it undergoes cleavage.
Embryo—child up to the second month.
Fetus—child after the second month when the body structure is in the recognizable form of a human being.
1. Life begins at conception. This view states that God forms the child in the womb, therefore life begins at conception and termination of the embryo for any reason thereafter is murder. This is the position of the Catholic Church and most pro-life groups. Yet life is present even before conception. The unfertilized egg is alive; the sperm is alive. The issue is not life per se but what kind of life. We are concerned with life that leads to personhood.
2. Life begins at birth. At the other end of the spectrum, we have abortion proponents who claim the Bible teaches that life begins at birth. If life begins at birth, Exodus 21:22 must be interpreted as a miscarriage. The Hebrew, however, does not support this. Furthermore, texts like Isaiah 49:1 seem to ascribe personhood to the fetus, “‘The Lord called me from the womb; from the body of My mother He named Me’” (NASB).
3. Life begins at implantation. This position argues that life does not start until a week or so after conception, when the fertilized egg has traveled through the fallopian tube and implanted itself in the wall of the uterus.
4. Life begins when blood begins to flow. This view pinpoints the beginning of human life when the heart of the embryo begins beating, around the fourth week of pregnancy. This is based on the Bible texts that connect life with blood (which carries the oxygen necessary for life). “‘For the life of the flesh is in the blood’” (Lev. 17:11, NKJV). From this text it is concluded that as soon as the embryo receives oxygen through the blood (the mother’s or through its own active circulatory system), then human life as an individual has begun, This view seems to have the best biblical support.
5. Personhood (not life) is formed late in the second month of pregnancy. This is based on the so-called Harvard Criteria for death. The Harvard Criteria, established by a committee at the Harvard Medical School in 1968 to define death, would, if applied to the fetus, reveal a living human being. The Harvard Criteria, now widely used and accepted in medical schools and hospitals, state that death is determined by four things: “lack of response to external stimuli, lack of deep reflex action, lack of spontaneous movement and respiratory effort, and lack of brain activity. . . . Movement of the fetus has been recorded on film as early as day 36, reflex mechanisms are definitely intact by day 42. The embryo responds to touch in the sixth week and sometimes earlier . . . . EEG tracings have been detected as early as the fifth week.”7
The embryo, it is argued, does not achieve human life until sometime in the second month of pregnancy. The heart begins to beat around the fourth week, the beginning of the central nervous system is in place by the sixth week, and by the eighth week the embryo becomes a fetus with recognizable human features. During the first month, although the organism is alive in the same sense as an amoeba or a tree, it is nevertheless dead, according to the Harvard criteria.
6. Life begins at the viability stage. Many pro-choice people believe that human life does not begin until the fetus becomes viable, i.e., until the fetus can survive outside the womb. In 1973 when the Supreme Court gave women the legal right to have abortions up to the moment of viability, that age was placed between the 24th and the 28th week. Today doctors are able to keep fetuses alive as young as 20 weeks.
In summary, it seems difficult to determine biologically the moment when human life begins.
The Adventist Position
In the March 1971 issue of Ministry, the officers of the General Conference published the following guidelines on abortion: “It is believed that therapeutic abortions may be performed for the following established indications: 1. When continuation of the pregnancy may threaten the life of the woman or seriously impair her health. 2. When continuation of the pregnancy is likely to result in the birth of a child with grave physical deformities or mental retardation. 3. When conception has occurred as a result of rape or incest. When indicated therapeutic abortions are done, they should be performed during the first trimester of pregnancy.”8
On October 12, 1992, the Executive Committee of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists at the Annual Council Session approved and voted guideline on abortion that “are based on broad biblical principles.” Under point one it noted that “Abortion is never an action of little moral consequences. Thus, prenatal life must not be thoughtlessly destroyed. Abortions should be performed only for the most serious reasons.”9 The reasons given are the same as those in the 1971 statement: (1) significant threats to the woman’s life, (2) severe congenital defects in the fetus, (3) rape and incest. The final decision is to be made by the pregnant woman after appropriate consultation. Not condoned are abortions for reasons of birth control and convenience.10
The 1971 and 1992 guidelines led to a number of elective abortions being performed in certain Adventist hospitals. For example, between 1975 and 1982, 1,494 abortions were performed at Washington Adventist Hospital in Maryland.11
The issue was taken up again in 2019. At the Annual Council Session on October 16, 2019, the Executive Committee of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists issued a “Statement on the Biblical View of Unborn Life and Its Implications for Abortion.” Under the “Biblical Principles and Teachings Relating to Abortion,” it mentions six principles such as “The Bible teaches care for the weak and the vulnerable,” which includes the unborn, and “God’s grace promotes life in a world marred by sin and death.” Under the latter it says, “Consequently, in rare and extreme cases, human conception may produce pregnancies with fatal prospects and/or acute, life-threatening birth anomalies that present individuals and couples with exceptional dilemmas. Decisions in such cases may be left to the conscience of the individuals involved and their families.”12
The last section deals with implications. But apart from the statement that “the Seventh-day Adventist Church considers abortion out of harmony with God’s plan for human life,” and some counsels on how “to follow the example of Jesus in loving and supporting those facing difficult decisions regarding abortion,” no guidelines are given for hospitals and doctors as in the previous 1971 and 1991 statements. Now it is left to the conscience of the individuals involved and their families.
The Bible nowhere speaks of voluntary or induced abortion, even though it was well known in the ancient world. Exodus 21:22 indicates that the fetus was considered a person. The sixth commandment (Ex. 20:13), therefore, should apply to the unborn as it does to the born child. Nevertheless, the 1971 and 1992 reasons for exceptions to a ban on abortion (significant threats to the woman’s life, severe congenital defects in the fetus, and rape or incest), deserve serious consideration.
NOTES AND REFERENCES