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Abortion and Christian ethics

July 2015 | by Gerald Prater

March for life, Paris 2015Every year there is an anti-abortion ‘pro-life’ march in Zurich, mainly supported by Evangelicals and Roman Catholics. Liberal Protestants are noticeably absent and even the large buildings of Swiss Reformed churches in the city centre are refused to the marchers, who want a closing indoor rally.

In recent years this march has needed police protection, because of violent intimidation (stone-throwing and loud verbal abuse) by a group of left-wing extremists. Such marches have evoked the same responses in Germany and elsewhere.

Bleak outlook

The signs look bleak for those, especially Christians, opposing abortion. Not only is it practically impossible for midwives whose conscience is against it to train or practise, abortion advocates now want mandatory abortion training in the medical schools.

This way, a medical student would not be able to graduate unless he or she participates in an actual abortion — which would, of course, violate conscience.

Another growing problem in western multi-cultural societies is the increasing number of illegal abortions of unwanted girls (as is common in some Asian cultures). It seems the relevant authorities turn a blind eye to this.

After-birth abortion

But it doesn’t stop with abortion. For some time now, there have been advocates for killing disabled or unwanted children after birth, as shown by a recent article in the Journal of medical ethics, entitled ‘After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?’ (

The article proposes that newborn human babies are only potential, not ‘actual’, persons. As such they are ‘morally irrelevant’ and ‘have no right to life as an individual’. The journal’s editor claims these ethical views are acceptable in a liberal society.

The authors argue that, to be a person, the infant would have to be capable of attributing to its own existence some basic value, such that being deprived of it represents a loss. Handicapped children could be killed in the first few days.

For healthy babies, the authors ‘do not suggest any threshold, as it depends on the neurological development of newborns’, which would have to be ‘assessed by neurologists and psychologists’.

It is argued that ending the lives of newborns is no different to abortion, the assumption being, of course, that abortion is okay and legal.
So a healthy newborn baby could be killed for the same reasons a foetus is aborted (examples: the mother cannot cope psychologically; the parents cannot manage financially; the mother’s career would be interrupted).

Christian attitude

In contrast, Christians agree that there is no difference between what the authors call ‘after-birth abortion’ (a term they distinguish from ‘infanticide’) and abortion (as usually understood), but that both are against God’s moral law.

Of course, disabled children present difficult problems for parents to cope with. But what might legalising the killing of infants lead to? The killing of persons for being physically imperfect was a feature of the Nazi regime. Wouldn’t doctors become obliged to kill and not save life, something completely contradictory to the traditional Hippocratic Oath?

Of course, doctors have difficult decisions to make. In our own family we sadly witnessed twins lost in the 23rd week of pregnancy due to miscarriage. Born prematurely, they died because their lungs were not sufficiently developed to survive.

Development of more caring society

In Britain, society became more caring during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, largely due to Christian influence. Before that, many children born out of wedlock were simply starved to death, or worse.

One philanthropist worthy of mention is Thomas Coram. From about 1720, he devoted his life to saving unwanted babies in London. Such was the squalor of London slums that many children there died young, and even most taken to hospital died before the age of two years.

It was due to Coram’s efforts that, in October 1739, the king’s charter for the first Foundling Hospital was granted. Because of his efforts in influencing the rich of society, thousands of children were to survive. Are we in this post-Christian era going to reverse this noble humanitarian trend?

Where is it all going to end? Medicine has progressed much, but we cannot say the same for ethics. Many people are more concerned about saving threatened animal species than saving human lives.

Christian ethics in the early church

It is salutary to think that Christian ethics, based on the Sermon on the Mount and other New Testament passages, were developed and articulated as long ago as the first and second centuries. Here are two examples from the Church Fathers of the early second century that include a stance against infanticide.

The first is from the Didache (Greek, ‘teaching’): ‘Those who persecute good people, who hate truth, who love lies … love vanity, look for profit, have no pity for the poor, do not exert themselves for the oppressed, ignore their Maker, murder children, corrupt God’s image, turn their backs on the needy, oppress the afflicted, defend the rich … My children, may you be saved from all this’ (Section 5:2ff).

The second is from the Letter to Diognetus: ‘For Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language of customs. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life.

‘This doctrine of theirs has not been discovered by the ingenuity or deep thought of inquisitive men, nor do they put forward merely human teaching, as some people do. Yet, and though they live in Greek and barbarian cities alike, as each man’s lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth.

‘They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners … They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed.

Loving, but persecuted

‘It is true that they are in the flesh, but do not live according to the flesh. They busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, but in their own lives they go far beyond what the laws require. They love all men, and by all men are persecuted…

‘They are poor, and yet they make many rich; they are completely destitute, and yet they enjoy complete abundance. They are dishonoured, and in their very dishonour are glorified; they are defamed and are vindicated. They are reviled and yet they bless; when they are affronted they pay due respect.

‘When they do good, they are punished as evildoers … They are treated by the Jews as foreigners and enemies, and are hunted down by the Greeks; and all the time those who hate them find it impossible to justify their enmity’ (Section 5).

Increasingly today, Christians are marginalised and discriminated against by intolerant sections of society. But will we match up to the example of the early church, who were determined to maintained God’s high standards even in the face of severe persecution?

The author is a retired civil engineer, living in the canton of Zurich

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