Abortion: A Theological Reflection

Updated: Sep 3

I will call her infant A. The result of an unwanted pregnancy, infant A was carried to term before being voluntarily handed over for adoption. She came to live with us before moving on to her profiled adoptive family. The sad truth, reflective of our current political climate, is that her story – her life – will soon be the exception to the rule, for shortly before her birth foetal terminations up to the age of 12 weeks made legal history in Northern Ireland. Terminations up to 24 weeks were granted when “continuing the pregnancy would involve risk to the woman’s physical or mental health,” while no time limit was set in cases of significant foetal abnormality.

How did we reach this position? Political manoeuvring aside, profound philosophical, biological and ethical considerations have shaped the current debate. Stripped to its core, ethical discussion coheres around the question of whether the developing foetus can rightly be considered alive, human and a person. Each of these components is deemed necessary in current ethical discussion: a beetle is alive, but clearly not human; a stem cell derived from embryonic testing is genetically Homo sapiens and alive, but few would consider it a person. A human infant, on the other hand, possesses all three: life, humanity and personhood.

While all three criteria provide important background content to current discussions concerning the morality of taking foetal life, it is the dilemma of personhood that has emerged as the central and most debated criterion. For many in society, the point at which a foetus can be said to have achieved true personhood is the point at which it can be said to have become a person in its own right, deserving of both moral status and protection under law. Only rarely in the abortion debate is the wrongness of killing a living person actually denied. Instead the debate sidesteps the issue of life-taking by preoccupation with the more nuanced question, “When can a human foetus be considered to have attained true personhood, at which point it would be morally wrong to terminate its existence?” [1]

By way of answer, differing biological milestones are suggested. Some suggest prenatal points of development: i) syngamy, the conjoining of maternal and paternal genetic material occurring 24 hours after conception; ii) implantation, when the pre-embryo embeds itself into the lining of the maternal womb; [2] iii) the formation of the primitive streak (eventual backbone) occurring about fourteen days following conception and at which point there is no further possibility of the fertilised egg splitting to form identical twins, or iv) the recognition of primitive foetal brain activity which might suggest the ability to feel pain. [3] Other ethicists reject prenatal criteria in preference of characteristics exhibited after birth: consciousness, rationality, self-awareness and volition being the primary considerations. Little consensus among ethicists exists. Personhood remains a much debated and ethically elusive quality.

When human personhood is restricted to those of our species to have successfully passed through certain developmental milestones, (whichever is allocated supremacy), a morally and medically significant dividing line is drawn between fertilised egg and live birth.[4] This sets a dangerous and slippery precedent. Historically, the Christian faith has been strong in its disavowal of any such dividing line, rejecting the link between biological schema and human personhood. [5] Instead it has insisted that human existence and personhood remain God’s gracious gift, activated immediately at the moment of conception. Creation in the image of God, Christians insist, bestows upon each developing foetus a sanctity of life that cannot be revoked, questioned or sidestepped. Logically therefore, in the eyes of the Christian Church, any attempt to terminate a pregnancy following conception constitutes grave immorality.[6]

One of the difficulties when wading into this issue of personhood is that the debate, like so many others in our society, necessarily seeks to negotiate the tricky interface between science and philosophy. Biology may confidently cast its verdict on medical issues - cells and sinews happily submit to empirical study - but when biologists begin to extend their reach to issues of personhood, they take a determined step into the unfamiliar. And when they do so, it is not long before they make the acquaintance of philosophers, an enigmatic breed practising their art with comparison, analogy and bizarre thought experiments that confounds the most well-intentioned empiricist – and most of the general public as well.

Over the years, philosophy has given rise to two dominant conceptions of personhood. The first, essentialism, holds that personhood is something all human beings have simply by virtue of being human; personhood cannot be lost nor does it diminish over time. Developmentalists, on the other hand, see personhood essentially as an achievement, “a set of properties that supervene or emerge from the human body”, and as such can be said to ebb and flow, or indeed be lost completely, as the human organism grows, declines and dies.[7] It is this second philosophical model that brings to the table the topic of potentiality.[8] While it may indeed be morally wrong to kill actual persons, developmentalists argue, foetuses are only potential persons. A potential person is “an entity that will naturally and in due course develop into a person”[9] yet cannot now be said to hold the same rights as actual persons. After all, plucking a stray oak seedling from the ground is not the same as terminating the life of a centuries-old towering oak, nor should boiling an egg be equated with cooking a live hen.[10] Intuitively, so the argument goes, we all seem to know and act on the basis that just because something holds potential doesn’t mean it must be accorded the same rights as something having successfully activated full potential.

Traditional theological arguments have sought to oppose abortion by affirming the foundational premise that human life is sacred solely because of its creation in the image of God (imago Dei). Precisely what this image entails, however, has itself been the subject of considerable theological interest. Concepts invoked include suggestions of constitutive biological capability such as rationality, communicative ability and relationality, alongside more spiritual orientations such as free will and the human capacity for worship.[11] Take, by way of example, Vladimir Lossky’s wide-ranging historical analysis of the imago Dei in which he presents a rich array of doctrinal applications ranging from “the higher faculties such as the intellect” […] “the faculty of inner determination”, to the immortality of the soul expressed in “the possibility of sharing the divine being”.[12]

It is noteworthy that some of the same biological markers purported by advocates of developmentalism are also claimed by certain theologians as representative of the imago Dei in humanity. Certainly, developmentalists look forward to the future acquisition of these traits while theologians retain them as innate to creation in the image of God, yet the list itself bears striking similarities: reason, volition, relationality, self-awareness and consciousness.

As Christians, we need to be extremely careful here. If philosophy and Western culture have defined personhood as a synthesis of rational individuality and psychological consciousness,[13] such that the person is seen as an “individual and/or personality… endowed with intellectual, psychological and moral qualities centred on the axis of consciousness”,[14] then such criteria quickly come to be seen as normative. These are then imported, however unintentionally, into current theological discussions of what creation in the image of God looks like. How often have we heard that human beings image their creator because they are rational, conscious, volitional, worshipping beings? Yet surely such criteria necessarily exclude as much as they include.[15] When reason, communication and volition are considered attributes of the image of God in humankind, we are in danger of erecting exactly the same arbitrary notions of value and worth as those that have gained currency in the personhood debate. If reason, consciousness and volition are seen to be reflective of the divine being in humankind, what of those who cannot reason, who fail to communicate or who have lapsed into indefinite unconsciousness? Have such people lost their status as humans created in the image of God? Surely not.

IF our traditional understanding of the imago Dei now appears less tangible, perhaps even insufficient to bear the weight of biblical anthropology, where should we go to maintain the uniqueness and sacredness of human life, including those who fail the tests of reason, consciousness and volition? Perhaps a helpful first response would be to note that the criteria commonly put forward as indicators of personhood all presuppose an irreducible western individualism. The individual alone stands before the bench of biological assessment: is he/she deemed sufficiently gestationally advanced, sufficiently rational, sufficiently self-aware or sufficiently volitional to warrant the badge of personhood and protection under law? Who is it that casts the deciding vote anyway?

The testimony of scripture, and that of the gospel it proclaims, is that human existence is not individualistic but gloriously communal. Following conversion, Christians no longer stand as individual entities before God but are brought as sons and daughters into the unified body of Christ. This divine-human synthesis provides a clue to unravelling the Church’s response to the contemporary question of abortion. When personhood is predicated not upon gestational milestones but upon the trinitarian nature of Godself, the individualism that so marks western culture is subtly replaced with a radically relational understanding of human nature and personhood. The church is “imago trinitatis”, an “ecclesial interweaving of divine and human communion” that calls forth a genuine understanding of persons as eternally communal beings predicated upon the nature of the triune God. [16]

Sadly, the way the church has often approached the abortion debate belies the cultural individualism to which it has unconsciously acquiesced. When conceptions of personhood are grounded primarily in selective developmental milestones, individualism becomes the lens through which we understand ourselves and our place in the world. We see our lives as our own, sole possessions over which we alone have rights and autonomy. Significantly, both sides in the abortion debate assume, nearly without question, the existence of just such an irresolvable tension, one that pits the rights of the woman against those of her developing foetus. The woman alone is seen as fully responsible for the baby she carries and the choices she makes, choices that will either further her own personal autonomy or that of her unborn child. [17] Framed thus, the debate not only absorbs but accepts the tension of individuality, asking, “Whose rights will be given precedence”?

The Christian gospel, however, presents us with a beautiful alternative to this all or nothing way of thinking. It tells us that at our core, we are not essentially individualistic but relational and interdependent beings, for God himself is a relational, interdependent being. Creation in the image of God makes sense primarily at this level of inter-connectedness. If I am who I am not because of the rights that I hold but because of the series of relationships that have formed and shaped me, all of which ultimately reflect the-three-in-one, trinitarian, life-giving God in whose image I have been formed, and if you are who you are for the same reason, then the question that needs to be asked in the abortion debate is not “Whose rights should gain precedence?” but “How do we as the body of Christ, knowing that we exist in and for relationship, support and uphold both mother and child in this pregnancy?”

When pregnancy is understood biblically as a relational event birthed in communion and community, then the call of the gospel rallies against the individualism that so polarises this debate. It is relationship, not rights, that constitute our membership in the human race. Our descent from other human beings only occurs through the interdependence of relationships that find their way back to, and are unbrokenly reflective of, the three persons of the Christian Godhead. [18]

When the Christian gospel makes the astounding claim that the Son of Man became flesh and dwelt in the womb of a virgin, it means us to understand that ‘becoming flesh’ necessitated taking on non-rationality, non-volition and non-consciousness, at least for a time. If personhood is deemed contingent upon the acquisition of reason, consciousness and volition (among other factors), then the personhood of Jesus must be said to have ceased at some point in his incarnational journey. Such a statement proports the unthinkable; it ruptures the trinitarian being of Godself. The converse must be true. The incarnated Christ was able to lay down his deity and enter into the vulnerability of gestation solely because his being, his personhood, was not constituted upon rational, conscious individually but was rather constituted by trinitarian community. Gestational incarnation brought to his deity no degree of disintegration, destruction or loss.

The church, then, as the body of Christ, must be what it ontologically is: a life-giving community that recognises its responsibility of interdependence and relationship. If I am part of the body and I hear of another member of the body pregnant and struggling, her pregnancy is my pregnancy and her struggles my struggles. If I am part of the body and I hear of another outside of the body of Christ pregnant and struggling, that pregnancy presents me with unique opportunities to sacrificially love and serve in the way Christ intended me to. Certainly, service may take many forms: emotional support, financial aid, practical help or the voluntary acceptance of a child into my home through existing social service networks. There is no blueprint, no manual to say, “thus far and no further”. The Christian confession is that life is a gift, both received and given. To say that life is a gift is to say that it is not ours to control.[19] However much I like to think otherwise, I am not autonomous over my life and as such God may ask me to do things that are not currently part of my life plan (but are part of his) simply because I live in the inter-connectedness of the body of Christ where all life matters.

The church will never ‘win’ the abortion debate by simply holding appropriate positions and lobbying politically, as necessary as political lobbying might be. It must set out to be what it redemptively is; the presence of Christ on earth. This presence draws its life blood from the reciprocal relationship that exists between the one and the many, the individual and the community, the strong and the struggling. Why must this be so? Simply because a body is who we are, a community imaging Christ where all life matters – that of the child and that of the mother – and is received as a precious gift to be upheld, supported and honoured within the fabric of the whole.

Rachel Shields is a Director of the Centre for Christianity in Society.

Opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Centre for Christianity in Society, its Directors or its Associates.

[1] Peter Singer, `Practical Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 135. “We have seen that ‘human’ is a term that straddles two distinct notions: being a member of the species Homo sapiens and being a person.” [2] Michael Wilcockson, Issues in Life and Death (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1999). Prior to implantation, there exists only a 30% chance of successful pregnancy, with the greatest number of spontaneous abortions occurring prior to implantation., After implantation, this rises to a 60% chance of successful pregnancy. [3] It is difficult to say with certainty when brain activity actually begins. Evidence of spasmodic brain activity has been found as early as the seventh week of pregnancy but it is not until 32 weeks gestation that continuous brain activity is maintained. This is a significant since brain function might indicate some degree of consciousness and the ability to feel pain. [4]Singer, Practical Ethics, 126-129. [5] It should be noted that Augustine and Aquinas, following the teaching of Aristotle, both taught that initial gestation involved a vegetative state, only after which ensoulment took place. Augustine did however condemn the killing of both formed and unformed foetuses. [6] Pope Pious XI refused to sanction abortion even when maternal life was at risk. Casti Connubii, 31 December, 1930 http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_xi/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_31121930_casti-connubii_en.html, accessed November 30, 2019. [7] Michael Robinson, “Divine Image, Human Dignity and Human Potentiality” Perspectives in Religious Studies, 41 (1), 2014, p 66. [8] Mary Anne Warren, “Do Potential People have Moral Rights?” in R. Sikora and B. Barry, eds, Obligations to Future Generations, eds. R. Sikora and B. Barry. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978). [9] Robert Wennberg, “The Right to Life: Three Theories” in Readings in Christian Ethics, 2:36-45, ed. David Clark and Robert Rakeshaw (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 38.