As the world watches on at the ongoing spectacle that is US politics, Texas Republicans have played a devastating trap card in the form of a new abortion bill that skirts national laws prohibiting states from prosecuting citizens for involvement in the termination of a pregnancy by enabling citizens to do so instead. In doing so, they have identified a pulse in a debate that was thought to be aborted. So, in the grand tradition of sucking the life out of every hot button issue that hits the papers, lets insert the coat hanger of curiosity into the womb of abortion law and see what oozes forth!
The big flag waved by the anti-choice brigade is that human embryos deserve human rights, specifically the right to live. This appears to be the strongest argument in the arsenal so it makes sense to address this claim first.
Firstly, it must be acknowledged that rights only exist to the degree they are agreed upon. Documents like the U.S. Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are human inventions. Declarations like this go back as far as the Cyrus Cylinder 538BC (which is really more of a brag about how Cyrus is a top bloke than claiming undeniable rights but it launches an idea), but what makes modern statements of rights like these stand out is they make the claim that people have rights simply by being human. This becomes a key component of the anti-abortion argument because the extension of these rights to an embryo relies on the premise that the embryo is a unique individual human.
To make this claim, those supporting this position use the argument that the embryo is a unique combination of parental DNA; if the DNA is human and unique then it is a separate life deserving of human rights. This interpretation of human life creates a few problems. Firstly, in the instance of identical twins, while DNA does change throughout the lifespan, their DNA when in embryonic form is identical. If the thing which makes the embryo deserving of human rights is that their DNA is unique then it would follow that half of all identical twins could be aborted without their rights being violated since that particular DNA pattern would still exist. Since the people claiming that abortion is murder don’t seem to support this idea, we must conclude that the uniquely human DNA argument is a justification for a decision which has already been made for other reasons. Reasons we will come back to later.
Let’s pretend for now though that we accept that unique human DNA is the basis for human rights and that oncologists are guilty of murder for the removal of unique human DNA when it results in the death of cancer cells, and that identical twins are only one person under the law. Does this then mean that abortion is a violation of human rights? Not quite.
In order to conclude that an abortion is a violation of the embryo’s human rights we must first establish that the mother is not entitled to human rights. Using the same measure by which the embryo’s humanity is established we can also conclude that the mother is also uniquely human (unless she has a living identical twin) and therefore is also protected by whatever statement of human rights is being applied.
In establishing that the mother and the embryo are both unique humans with human rights, we have now created a situation in which enforcing the rights of one human must necessarily harm the rights of another. Either the right of the embryo to live nullifies the mother’s right to bodily autonomy, or the mothers right to bodily autonomy nullifies the embryo’s right to live (until such time as it is able to survive outside of the womb). What is the right to bodily autonomy? In this instance, it is the right to refuse your organs being used for the benefit of another against your will. Consider a situation happening in China where practitioners of Falun Gong are arrested and killed, their organs being used in transplants. Often saving more than one recipient life per victim. In this example the right to life is also being denied but let’s alter the situation slightly. Let’s say you are a surgeon with four patients. One needs a new kidney or they will die; one needs a heart transplant or they will die, one needs a lung transplant or they will die, and the last is perfectly healthy and a genetic match for the other three. Would you kill one to save several? Would you take one lung and a kidney against the healthy patient’s will to save two lives while still giving the victim a reasonable chance of survival? What would be the moral thing to do?
Let’s consider some softer options. Would you say that it is fair to force every healthy adult to give blood regularly in order to save lives? Or what about making it illegal to refuse a vaccine for a virus that is killing thousands of people a day? Would you support a law that forcefully gives vaccines to people who refuse? If you deny a mother’s right to bodily autonomy on the basis of human rights you are either declaring that you don’t think humans should have a say in what happens to their body or you are saying that you don’t believe that women are human, or that you believe that the embryo which has a 50% chance of being male should have more rights than a woman. It is an uncontested violation of human rights to use the organs of a cadaver to save the life of another. If you oppose abortion but don’t also oppose laws preventing the use of a person’s organs in transplants without prior consent then you are declaring that a corpse should have more rights than a woman. In doing so, you would reveal that you in fact do not care about human rights at all.
At this point, you may well be thinking that the relationship between a mother and a child is different to a relationship with strangers. We are then no longer talking about rights but relationships. We are talking about responsibility or purpose. If we are talking about responsibility then the laws would need to allow children who are pregnant and also victims of rape to seek out legal abortions. These laws do not offer that exemption so we are instead talking about purpose. At this stage, if you support these laws, you are declaring that you believe that the purpose of women is to produce children. If this is what you believe, own it and say it plainly. At this point we are now talking about a religious or cultural issue and this is no longer a conversation about rights. The question now becomes this: Is forcing somebody else to adhere to your cultural or religious views consistent with your culture or religion?
In some cases, it is; but since the majority of people who have a say in this would consider themselves Christian it is now a fair point to examine whether this position of forcing people outside the faith to follow religious law is consistent with the foundational principles of the Christian faith. Let’s first consider what the Bible views as the value of a living human in comparison with an unborn embryo.
Numbers 5:11-31 outlines a ritual for chemical abortion in a case where a husband suspects his wife of infidelity.
Exodus 21:22-23 describes the difference in the mosaic law between the value of the life of an unborn embryo and the life of the mother.
Psalm 139:13 is a verse commonly used to refute the idea that is common through the rest of the Bible that life begins with the first breath. The problem with trying to make this verse contradict the rest of the Bible in this regard is that this is already addressed in Genesis 2:7. God knit David together in the womb? Okay. He also sculpted Adam from lifeless clay and THEN he breathed life into him with his first breath. There really isn’t any absence of clarity in the Bible about when a thing is alive and when it isn’t.
To confirm that this is not simply a modern interpretation of these verses, I direct you to the Jewish midrash indicating the correct amount of time to morn the death of a child (this is a ritual of mourning, not how long you are expected to be upset). These texts are written slightly after the New Testament and are based on long traditions of cultural and religious practice which extend back into the events described in what Christians call the Old Testament. The period of mourning is determined (in part) by whether nine months had passed since conception. Embryos which died prior to this point were not ritually mourned.
If a child passed away, and it has not been factually determined when the date of conception was, and consequently whether the child was born after the completion of the 9th month or before the end the 9th month, then if the child is 31 days old or more, the relatives are to mourn his/her passing. If, however, the child was less than 31 days of age when he passed away, then even if the child’s development looks as if he was carried to term the relatives are not to mourn his passing. This applies even if the child passed away on the 30th day.
Just to recap: We’ve now established that the reasons to be anti-abortion are religious and cultural rather than based on human rights, and that the Bible defines life as beginning after the first breath. I’m now going to explore how we got from a Bible which isn’t merely silent on the matter of abortion, but explicitly supportive of it in certain contexts, to a place where Christians seem comfortable to force extrabiblical cultural views onto non-believers.
During the time of the New Testament, there were many methods for abortion which would have been known to the authors of the New Testament. In his work Theaetetus (257BC), Plato describes a Midwife’s ability to induce miscarriage. The process would not have been unknown to the Gospel writers and to the early church. If the Bible and the culture it was written in states that life begins with the first breath and not in the womb, where does this idea that embryos must be protected come from? The Didache (around 100CE) is a Christian text which exhorts Christian to not kill that which is begotten. Tertullian’s Formation and State of the Embryo (around 200CE) indicate an evolving position and reinterpretation of the mosaic texts, stating that because there was a fine payable to a man for harming the embryo in his pregnant wife that this therefore amounted to an acknowledgement that this was in fact a human life. Even at this stage though, these limitations on abortion are being made with the recommendation that Christians should be abstaining from sex, if possible, in accordance with the apostle Paul’s recommendation rather than producing children or aborting embryos after the point of conception. At no point in any of these writings is there any suggestion that Christians should attempt to force this view onto non-Christian communities.
So where does this idea that Christians should force Christian practices onto non-Christians come from? Let’s see what the Bible says on the matter.
John 18:36 “My Kingdom is not of this world”
Romans 13:1 “let every person be subject to the governing authorities”
It seems that the idea that Christians should dictate moral behaviour to non-Christians does not seem to be found in the Bible. Rather, there are exhortations to support rulers and their laws and not place unnecessary barriers to people encountering Christ by acting in a way which give Christianity a bad name.
In relation to this particular bill (but not all abortion laws) it is clear that this bill has been written and passed in a clever way to undermine the intended meaning of the federal law preventing states from prosecuting people involved in aborting an embryo. As such, it is clear that anybody who support such a law is not in fact a follower of Christ. Matthew 7:21-32
A follower of Christ would not endorse the use of trickery to undermine the intention of laws passed by national leaders, even if this deception is done in the name of Christ. Rather, they would seek to be what Jesus describes as a “True Israelite” in John 1:47. A person in whose there is no deceit.
We have now established that methods which claim that embryos are entitled to human rights lack support in documents which define human rights.
Even if embryos are afforded full human rights this does not justify the violation of the mother’s human rights according to any document of human rights.
Arguments which claim that the rights of embryos should be prioritised over the rights of women are based on cultural assumptions and not supported by universally accepted definitions of human rights or ethical principles.
Arguments from religion which seek to enforce religious doctrines onto secular society undermine constitutional provisions for the separation of church and state which exist to protect Christians from persecution just as much as they exist to prevent Christians from persecuting those who do not share their faith.
The claim that life begins prior to birth does not exist in any canonical Christian holy text and is a later addition which was invented after the books of the Bible were written.
There is also no support in the Bible for forcing non-Christians to abide by Christian law outside of a theocracy.
There is however support for requiring Christians to uphold the rule of law in the communities they live in, and to not participate in bad faith actions such as this bill which use trickery to undermine just laws.