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Posted on Mon 19 July 2021

Abortion is a Bible Issue

This is not an apology for Bishops in the House of Lords, but you must know that when people do certain things there is a cost involved. I observed this in the House of Lords over many years. What is the cost in voting according to one’s conscience on, for instance, the lowering of the age of consent, on same-sex relationships, on civil partnerships, on same-sex marriage, on abortion, on assisted dying or on freedom of thought and speech? The cost can be too high, and some people, very often good people, prefer to keep their heads down, seeking to escape extensive abuse and traducing in the media and elsewhere. I was a member of the HFEA (Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority) and chair of its Ethics and Law Committee for six years, and when I was leaving the minister, who gives gongs to people as they leave, said to me, “Bishop, you have never been comfortable here, have you?” and I said, “No, I didn’t come here to be comfortable.” That is the point. You have to be prepared for discomfort if you are going to achieve anything. This is not going to happen in a safe way, with all your safety intact; sometimes even your sanity is at risk!

We have had some wonderful contributions today and I am so grateful that I have heard them all – a wonderful scientific and medical exposition from Professor Wyatt, together with many of the testimonies that have been so powerful, and I am grateful for them. I would just like to remind you of why we are pro-life, why we are pro-person, why we feel, as Christians, that God has made us in a certain way, and why, therefore, we should respect persons.

The Bible assumes that God begins His work in us and for us in the womb. Again and again the Bible tells us this. You will know all the more well-known examples: the example of Jeremiah, for instance, who was chosen from his mother’s womb to carry out a ministry – actually quite an unpopular ministry, and perhaps we are called to be Jeremiahs today. (That’s not a term of abuse; it’s a good thing, to be a Jeremiah.) Then the Apostle Paul, though he came to the Christian faith late in the day, you might think, says in Galatians Chapter 1 that God had already chosen him before he was born from his mother’s womb (verse 15). The writer of Psalm 139, David, is vividly aware of the intricacy of what goes on in the womb. Professor Wyatt was telling us how we now know what happens, but the Psalmist, when composing the Psalm, did not have the medical knowledge that we now have. Yet he was still able to say that God is already working in the womb as we are made, as we are created. Then there is Luke Chapter 1, which is actually cumulative: first the birth of John the Baptist is foretold (verses 8-20), then the birth of Jesus is foretold (verses 26-38), then comes the praise of Elizabeth (verses 42-45), and then the praise of Mary (verses 46-55). To Mary, the angel says, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called ‘holy’ – the Son of God.” (verse 35, ESV) The story of Elizabeth and Mary is intimately connected with the nativity of Christ himself because, as we hear every advent as Christmas approaches, “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God … to a virgin … [whose] name was Mary.” (verses 26-27, ESV) We hear that again and again. The sixth month of what? Elizabeth’s pregnancy. We don’t know how long Mary’s journey to the hill country may have been, but it would have been taken at an earlier stage of her pregnancy. We then find John the Baptist leaping in his mother’s womb: you might think that that characterised the rest of his ministry, leaping about and telling people to repent; it clearly started very early! “And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (verse 43, ESV), cries Elizabeth. Jesus has been in the womb for about three or four weeks. When Mary is called “the mother of God incarnate”, ”the mother of my Lord” or the “mother of the Lord Christ”, that is not so much about Mary, it is about Jesus – who Jesus is. I think we should of course keep that in mind.

So the Biblical evidence is very strong, and the early Church is shown to be equally strong about the identity of what is in the womb. Again and again, in an early book of Christian instruction called the Didache, probably written around the same time as the New Testament, we find the prohibition of abortion and of infanticide in the same sentence. That is also true of another very early document called the Letter of Barnabas (which is probably also first century); almost the same words are used. This suggests that these instructions are stylised, and that they were given to people being prepared for baptism in different settings. The early Church was known for rescuing mainly female children who had been exposed by their parents – that is to say, left to die. These parents did not have the guts to strangle them when they were born, so they left them in the streets, either to die or to be picked up by some generous person and brought up as their children. The early Church, particularly women, spent a lot of their time and money rescuing these children and making sure they had a good upbringing. For the early Church, abortion and infanticide were all of a piece. These early Christians did not make an arbitrary distinction between the unborn and the newly born. Now I say this because attempts are being made today to make that distinction, and from a Christian point of view that distinction is always illegitimate.

So why does the Bible, and why did the Church, regard abortion as unimaginable, as prohibited by God’s law and purposes? I think it comes back to that basic teaching about the human person: that every human person has an inalienable dignity which cannot be taken away from them by other human beings because they are made in God’s image. We do not determine who is made in God’s image and who is not – this is a given for us, that we are made, that all human beings are made, in God’s image. The only question that remains, therefore, is: when does a human person start to exist? If I may say so, we talk rather loosely about human life. My submission is that the question is not about human life. After all the human egg is human life and even human sperm is human life, but neither is a human person. So when does a human person come into being? That is the question.

Now in this I am bound to say that the Christian tradition has not always been as clear as it should have been, and one of the reasons for this is Exodus 21:22. This reads: “When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth …” (verses 22-24, ESV). The problem is this: the Greek translation of the Old Testament - the Septuagint - which was the Bible of the early Church, translates Exodus 21:22 to suggest that the miscarriage might be of what it calls an unformed foetus. Or it might be of a formed foetus. According to this translation, the passage prescribes different penalties, depending on whether the foetus is unformed or formed. So when a miscarriage occurs, caused by a fight between two men, and it leads to the death of an unformed foetus, a fine is imposed, but when the dead foetus is fully formed the harm calls for life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. This meant that some of our great thinkers, like St Augustine of Hippo and St Jerome, taught that abortion would be homicide if the foetus were fully formed. It would be a grievous sin if the foetus were not fully formed, but it would not be homicide. This was reflected in the teaching of St Thomas Aquinas. It was based on the idea that I think Professor Wyatt was hinting at earlier, that in the early Church - and in early medicine as well - there was a particular time when the embryo or the foetus became ‘ensouled’. I think ‘quickened’ was the term that was used. This kind of discussion persisted right down to the nineteenth century – for instance the Roman Catholic Church’s definition that the human person begins at conception goes back to the clarifying of the Church’s teaching in the nineteenth century, when much more was known medically and scientifically about what actually happens.

The question is, in the light of all this discussion, when is there a human person? Is there a human person at conception? All the genetic material that is needed for the human person is present at conception. That is true, but then the objection is made that you can have twinning after conception and sometimes even tripling. So should we say, then, that at conception there is at least one person present? And possibly two or even three? And that there is never a case when there is no person present? Implantation is a very significant event in the life of the embryo and indeed the life of the mother. The development of brain activity and the nerve net, and the quickening, are all very significant events, so when is there a human person?

Now in the HFEA, where of course there is no agreement whatsoever on these issues, what I used to say was, “We don’t need to agree in that context when there is a human person present.” Because even if we don’t know when exactly there is a human person, we should use the precautionary principle and always act as if there is a human person. I think the use of the precautionary principle is very widespread in science and I don’t see why it is not more widely used in this area. That would give us very much the same kind of result, in public life, as insisting on the sanctity of the person from conception, which the Bible and Christian tradition compel us to do.

One of the things that is often said - I’m sure it’s been said to you – is about the rights of the women being based on autonomy. Autonomy is a big word in medicine – that everyone has the right to do with their body whatever they like. Now what I want to suggest is that autonomy is actually a distortion of the Christian idea of dignity – dignity in personhood. The Christian view, the Biblical view, of the person is that we become persons in relationship. Whereas autonomy is about individuals in isolation. You see, you can’t actually be a person in isolation. I am who I am because of my original interaction with my mother in the womb – how complex that interaction is. But then with my father, my siblings, with friends and of course with Christians in the Christian Church – that is what makes me a person. However, there are some things to be said about the plea that women make about the expectations held by society – expectations that society has of them, and of motherhood. I think this is where the Church has to say something distinctive. I look forward to hearing what women have to say about this. But you can’t have a proper exercise of motherhood if the models that you establish for work in society are all male, into which women are simply co-opted. I was reading an article in the press recently about breast-feeding. It said that a very high percentage of women in this country breast-feed for a few weeks after the birth of their child, and then the incidence of breast-feeding falls off dramatically. You don’t need rocket science to work out why that is – it’s because the mothers have to go back to work and can’t continue to breast-feed. Unless we commend and work at models for women in productive employment, models that are not determined simply by men, we will have this issue raised again and again. Women have not been liberated. What has happened in the last century, generally speaking, is that they have been co-opted into a male world and made honorary men. Women will never be men because of their makeup - spiritually, physically, relationally, and in all sorts of ways. The challenge is how we produce a society which actually encourages women to be women, whether it’s in work or in the family or in society generally.

Though much of our discussion, rightly of course, has been about abortion as it is traditionally understood, there is something else I want to say in this context: there is actually another danger, a very important issue, which is creeping up on us. And that is the wilful destruction of the embryo, either with fertility treatment or in the cause (allegedly) of scientific research. Many Christian women (and men) have IVF treatment to have a child, and I have been amazed how few have seen the moral issues attached to this. It is of course theoretically possible for a woman to produce in the course of her usual cycle a single egg, which can then be fertilised by the sperm of her husband in vitro and replanted into her, which may result in a pregnancy. But in fact that is not what happens with conventional IVF. The woman is stimulated to produce a number of eggs, which are then fertilised, either by the husband’s sperm or somebody else’s. Now, the HFEA allows only two fertilised eggs to be implanted at any one time. So what happens to the other embryos? They can be stored possibly for future use, although the storage is not permanent. Or they can be donated for research, which means they will have to be destroyed very quickly after their use; I think there is a fourteen-day limit. Or they can simply be ‘disaggregated’. ‘Disaggregated’ means destroyed.

Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis was developed so that embryos could be created and then inspected to see whether they had a heritable disease, like Thalassemia or Huntington’s Chorea. If they had, they would not be implanted in the mother, but only the healthy embryos which were not carriers of the disease would be. Each case would come up for permission by the HFEA and its Ethics and Law Committee. So what do you do? In some cases it was clear that the embryo would not survive, or that any child that did manage to be born would not live very long or would not have a sustainable life. But the argument then came up, and this is a slippery slope, about non-heritable diseases – what do we do about them? There was a famous case where this line that had been drawn in the sand was moved, and so now in theory it is possible for Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis to be used for designer babies – babies that have the qualities you want them to have, and are free of susceptibility to disease and disability, which Robert was talking about earlier.

So I would hope that when we talk about abortion, we look very seriously at the fertility industry, which is hugely lucrative and works on the systematic destruction of embryos for one reason or another. Whether it’s because experimentation on them is deemed essential for scientific progress, or because they’re ‘inconvenient’ and unwanted, because of disability, or simply because they’ve been stored for what is deemed too long a period. These issues are ‘invisible’. The kinds of abortion stories we have heard this morning are very visible and graphic – we praise God that people have made these decisions – but there is something unseen going on which is also morally wrong, and many people are complicit in this because of the desire to have a child. In many cases, IVF proves to be unnecessary because natural conception and birth is still possible, but people don’t know that. They are bamboozled by the sales talk and are milked of resources, which they can sometimes ill afford, for a baby they might have had naturally anyway.

Finally, the question about support. I am glad that this morning the Good Counsel Network, and others who actually provide support for mothers who decide not to have an abortion, have been so prominently mentioned. I think this is hugely important. We cannot pontificate on this issue if we are not willing to have the facilities and resources that mothers need to bring up their children. If they can’t bring them up then the possibility of fostering and adoption should always be there. I was troubled to learn that the number of babies being adopted continues to fall year on year. Has this anything to do with artificial reproduction techniques and their popularity? I’m quite sure that it does. More and more people, who might otherwise have adopted a baby, are now bending over backwards - financially and in terms of the demands on their bodies and their time - to have a child that is biologically their own, even if there are then ‘spare’ embryos, some of which are destroyed in the process. So we’ve got to step forward. It was such a pity that the Catholic adoption agencies were closed down because they refused to compromise their position on adoption, that it should only be by a husband and wife. We do need to have arrangements for children to be adopted and looked after by people who care, if the mothers of these children, for whatever reason, cannot keep them.

Thank you very much indeed for what you have done this morning. I look forward to seeing how the work develops. One final point: it has been said here – and I think this is quite crucial – we need small groups of Christians in various localities who come together to pray and to work for the integrity of the human person as intended by God. This will apply of course to abortion, but also to assisted dying, and to many other moral questions that come up in hospitals and in homes. We need to uphold the person – as created by God and redeemed by the coming of Jesus and by His dying and rising. I know that Voice for Justice UK, Christian Concern and ParentPower all have databases. Don’t just sit on them! Use them to create local groups that can make a change in their own communities.

This article was first published as a chapter in the following book: Missing Millons: How abortion is harming us all (Voice for Justice, 2021)

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