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abortion and loving our neighbours as ourselves

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” — Luke 10:25-29

There’s an ad for a pregnancy vitamin that recommends taking the vitamins before you try to fall pregnant because otherwise there might be a small baby growing inside you before you know and you want that baby to be strong and healthy from conception.

The abortion bill

There’s an abortion bill before the Queensland parliament recommending the ‘full decriminalisation of abortion’ up to twenty-two weeks into a pregnancy. The ABC reports:

“Abortion would be allowed “on request” up to 22 weeks, although a doctor would be permitted to conscientiously object and refer the woman to a different practitioner.

After 22 weeks, a termination would require further discussion about the medical grounds, as well as consultation with another medical practitioner.”

There’s a strange contradiction at the heart of these two pieces of data.

The same ‘clump of cells’ is viewed radically differently not at the material level, but in terms of value. In the first instance the ‘clump of cells’ is valued as a human, a child, in the second it can simply be viewed as organic matter within the body of ‘the woman’, its existence subject to her ‘request’.

This bill represents a significant challenge to our society when it comes to how we understand the dignity and value of a person — not just the unborn child, but with implications flowing through to how we conceive of the value of the mother. We might not realise it, but we’re asking the same question that teacher of the law asked Jesus — ‘who is my neighbour’?

For Christians there’s no question that, when it comes to ‘the woman’ described in the bill, that she is our neighbour, and that we are called to love her. But are we also to see the unborn child as a neighbour, and should we then ponder, and perhaps take up, the call to love these neighbours as we love ourselves? Are we able to see that our love for the woman involved depends on affording her person a certain amount of value and dignity that flows from the value and dignity we afford all humans?

There’s a petition that people are being urged to sign if we recognise the unborn Queenslander child as our neighbour, but perhaps you might consider why we should enter this conversation at all?

The challenge in this conversation is that it has bigger implications than we might think.

It involves a shifting vision of who we grant personhood, or the status of ‘neighbour’ — who we love as we love ourselves in this equation actually has implications for our ability to ‘love ourselves’. How we view or define the humanity and dignity of an ‘other,’ who we see as a neighbour, either enhances or diminishes our love for self.

There is no significant ‘material’ organic difference between a fetus at 22 weeks and a newborn, or an adult. They have the same cells, same organs, same tissue… if you’ve followed the signs of a baby’s development in your wanted pregnancy closely you learn to marvel at the milestones that mark your child’s development — the heart that starts beating at three weeks… the things we assume are marks of life within a human body, they start ticking along pretty early in the piece. It’s very hard to draw a line at any point in the development of a baby to dismiss its humanity in ways that don’t reduce all of us, materially speaking, to ‘just a lump of cells’ — what we choose to value in order to establish the difference between matter and personhood is a risky business.

My wife and I required medical assistance to fall pregnant — we rode the emotional rollercoaster through months of treatment and when the test came back indicating we were pregnant with our first, second, and third children it was pretty clear to us when we thought of our children as human. Loved. Wanted. Nurtured. People. From the moment we knew — and back to the moment their little bodies started being ‘knit together in their mother’s womb’ — we believed our children were gifts of life from the author of life.

It’s hard to enter a conversation about abortion without playing emotive cards like this story, it’s a fraught space for a bloke to enter, it’s a conversation that often leaves women isolated and vulnerable and all too often involves people offering simple black and white solutions to what are often not black and white situations — solutions that rarely recognise the enormity of the circumstances behind the individual stories and decisions that account for the 14,000 abortions conducted in Queensland each year.

I hope it’s possible to acknowledge that difficulty, to listen to the people both arguing for abortions as a human right, and those individual women seeking abortions and still have significant reservations about the implications of a bill like this on our society and how we understand what it means to be human and what value a life has.

What the Church Gets Wrong but Jesus Makes Right

A few years ago we explored the topic of abortion in our series What the Church Makes Wrong, But Jesus Makes Right. There are a series of resources unpacking more about what it looks like to listen carefully before speaking into this issue on this page.

While this is a topic that involves a broken world, hard decisions, and often guilt and shame, God offers grace and forgiveness to those who have had abortions, and our churches are communities offer welcome and belonging on the basis of the love and grace of God found in Jesus not on upholding a particular moral code. We want to acknowledge that there are many people for whom this isn’t a ‘theoretical’ or abstract conversation but touches on real life decisions, and possibly brings up regret, guilt, shame, or anger that we might dare to speak at all.

As a church, we’re a community of followers of Jesus interested in the costly solutions required for life in a broken and messy world.

We’re also a community that believes Christians have a contribution to make to life in a democracy that involves humbly offering a vision for a flourishing society built on the foundation of God’s good design for life, especially life found in a relationship with the author of life, and so we’d like to humbly offer some reservations to the proposed change to Queensland’s laws not just to protect the lives of unborn children, but because of how these changes offer a diminished view of the value of human life across the board reducing being a person to being wanted by other people or being independent of other people.

We’re not seeking to ‘impose Christian morality’ on a world where different views on human dignity and personhood abound, but we are, as participants in our society, seeking to raise questions that are important for the flourishing of all that we have a stake in both as citizens now, and historically.

We’re not simply putting the rights of the unborn child against the rights of the mother, but asking how we, as a society, want to understand the value of human life before we make a series of decisions that will have implications for how we conceive not just of this issue but of health care (who deserves state subsidies — just productive people with good chances of recovery, or all humans?), of economics (why provide social security or pensions for people not contributing independently?), and of justice (why see a criminal as having human dignity, rather than understanding and treating them as sub-human — and why not then treat the death penalty the way it is currently treated in the Philippines?).

Affirming the fundamental dignity and value of women — and that they are worthy of love not condemnation or isolation in the sorts of circumstances that prompt abortions, and that their value is not based on some thing that pregnancy might threaten (like a career) — requires us to also affirm the fundamental dignity and value of the unborn person.

This isn’t simply about asserting the humanity, personhood, and dignity of an unborn child because their material reality — the ‘biological matter’ — is like ours from conception, but about asserting the ongoing humanity, personhood, and dignity of all human life by virtue of being a created union of body and soul.

The question that concerns us is what implications there might be when we stop loving a person as a neighbour because we stop defining them as a person; and what criteria we use for establishing personhood.

Twenty two weeks is close to the point that a fetus reaches ‘viability’ outside the mother’s womb; where we can’t avoid acknowledging the humanity of the collection of flesh, bone, and organs that feel and function because those functions can occur independent of the mother (in extreme circumstances, and with medical assistance). It’s hard to draw a clear line prior to this moment when the material substance of an embryo or fetus is ‘just a clump of cells’ and not a developing human life. This line is so arbitrary that the philosophical ethical conversation has moved away from trying to determine whether a fetus is ‘human’ and has instead started to question at what point a ‘human’ is a ‘person’. Ethicist Peter Singer wrote a piece in 2009, ‘The Sanctity of Life’ that argued (against the ‘traditional’ ethic in the west) for a concept of ‘person’ as distinct from the human:

“When the traditional ethic of the sanctity of human life is proven indefensible at both the beginning and end of life, a new ethic will replace it. It will recognize that the concept of a person is distinct from that of a member of the species Homo sapiens, and that it is personhood, not species membership, that is most significant in determining when it is wrong to end a life. We will understand that even if the life of a human organism begins at conception, the life of a person—that is, at a minimum, a being with some level of self-awareness—does not begin so early.”

For Singer, and others, personhood begins with ‘self-awareness’; humanity, at a material level, begins at conception.

The value judgment prior to the point of viability is one exposed by ads for pregnancy vitamins; and the journey every parent goes on from pregnancy test result to birth — we’re happy to see a human-in-development as a person when we want them. And that’s an awkward reality to confront — the idea that we might see a human as worthy of value only because we ourselves value them has shocking implications when we consider our own value and who in our lives (or society) might be prepared to de-personalise us because they do not want us as part of society.

If there’s a line to draw at some point in development where a body ‘gains a soul’ or its personhood (perhaps via a less ‘spiritual’ thing like ‘self-awareness’), then we have to start considering whether a loss of this faculty involves a loss of personhood.

At what point are we comfortable giving ourselves permission to see someone as ‘not a neighbour’ based on a faculty decided by humans? Who decides? Perhaps the best answer should be that dignity and personhood are fundamental to a living human being, not to some particular value we attribute — the sort of thinking that gave rise to human rights.

The Christian account of Personhood: how children and unborn children became neighbours

For Christians, there’s a reasonably clear case to make that life begins from conception, as God, the creator, works through the natural process of pregnancy to knit soul and body together into a human life — humanity is the pinnacle of creation, made in the image and likeness of God to reflect his life and presence in the world. There are a few Psalms from David that reflect this view of when humanity begins and the dignity of human life. David describes himself as existing ‘from the time my mother conceived me’ and suggests God desired ‘faithfulness even in the womb’ (Psalm 51:5-6), he praises God because he says ‘you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made’ (Psalm 139:13-14). Psalm 8 describes the dignity God gives us as being caught up with our humanity and his purpose for us; saying he ‘crowns’ each of us with ‘glory and honour’ — not because of our achievements or productivity, but because he values us (Psalm 8:3-6).

Christianity teaches that humanity — people — from conception to grave — have value to God. Christianity teaches that God sees us as worthy of love and redemption, even with our flaws and failures. Christianity teaches us that God’s love isn’t limited to some sort of abstract dignity, but a genuine value being placed on each head where not only does God ‘number the hairs on our head’ (Luke 12:7); Jesus becomes human, via a pregnancy that was a prime candidate for a first century abortion, to redeem us.

Christianity centres on the mystery that the infinite God, in whom we each ‘live and breathe and have our being’ entered the womb of a mother and took on human flesh; that Jesus himself started life in the world as a bunch of cells in his mother’s womb, and that he too was ‘knit together’ by the father of life, and that his life, death, and resurrection in the flesh affirms the love God has for humanity, and the invitation he puts to every loved life. God values humans so much that Jesus became one, in the flesh.

This understanding of personhood — valuing of the unborn child as a child — is fundamental to a Christian position on the issue, but has been influential in the construction of our shared understanding of humanity (and childhood) in the Western world. The risk is that these proposed laws unravel something good at the heart of the west — the belief that ‘all people created equal’ — if we legislate the belief that an individual can assert her rights over the rights of another on the basis of their dependence (the argument of ‘bodily autonomy’), then we start to get into murky territory on questions of what sort of life we choose to value and dignify, and what sort of ‘dependence’ de-personalises the dependant.

When the church has been at its best, for the sake of the world, it has upheld the dignity of human life. Very few Queenslanders (if any) would make the case that a newborn child is not a person, or that an adult is more valuable than a child, but such a view was common before the rise of Christianity. The Christian understanding of humanity leveled the playing field between kings and servants by asserting that all humans are made and valued by God, including children.

The early church opposed the Roman practice of infanticide, or exposure, where unwanted children would be left to the elements (a famous letter from a Roman patriarch to his wife encouraged her to abandon their unborn child if it was a girl, but keep it if a boy). It is clear from that letter that the father did not see his future child as a person of the sort who might receive human rights. This was true in the patriarchal structure of the Roman household — where the patriarch alone enjoyed full participation in society, the matriarch was less than equal, the children of little value until they reached adulthood, and the slaves the lowest of the low, and in the hierarchical society outside the household where value flowed from the emperor down.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus took a counter-cultural stance on the value of children. When Jesus was asked about greatness in the kingdom of heaven he called a little child over to himself and told his followers that they have to ‘become like little children’ to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3-5); in the course of making his point (where the child is a metaphor), Jesus said some things God’s concern for the childlike that radically altered the lot of children in the west. From this point through history there’s an upending of how societies influenced by Jesus viewed and treated children. Children became neighbours.

An early guide to Christian living — written around the same time as the Gospels — The Didache — spells out, amongst other things, how Christians should obey Jesus two great commands; to “love God with all your heart,” and “love your neighbour as yourself.” The list of ways to uphold the second command includes “you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born.” Christians in the early church, seeking to ‘love their neighbour’ even adopted those infants unwanted by their neighbours

Christians, building an understanding of personhood from the earliest pages of the Bible (where God makes humans ‘in his image’) saw a child as a person from conception, through birth, and into adult. This was revolutionary and far reaching in its implications, but we take it for granted.

Who is our neighbour without God? The challenge of giving people value without the Christian story.

Abortion isn’t a new issue or the result of new findings in medical science that tell us something new about when life begins; the reasons parents have for seeking abortions now are not novel. That abortion has not been legal in Queensland is a product of a Christian understanding of the inherent dignity of human life, including the life of a child… including even, the life of an unborn child. What has changed that has this legislation on the table (and has seen similar laws passed elsewhere in Australia) is the place of God in our understanding of what it means to be human — or how we order society.

In the western world our value as people has not been about being wanted, or being able to survive on our own, but on being created and valued by God. In our new ‘secular age,’ where it is largely held in our society that God is not in the picture, we’re left trying to find an account of personhood (and its value) linked to something ‘material’ or to other people.

When it comes to questions of abortion in a secular age, where God no longer has a place in framing legislation, we’re left trying to answer the question ‘when does life begin’ and ‘when is a human a person’ — when does the ‘material’ substance of a human have the value of a person? It’s not as straightforward answering these questions as we might think.

If independence or wantedness become fundamental to our understanding of what it means to be a person then we’re not so far from losing our own personhood at the whim of another more powerful than we are.

There are lots of tragic reasons for abortions — there are of course medical cases involving risks to the life of the mother, or where the pregnancy is unviable, or the extreme cases of rape and incest where much more complicated ethical frameworks might be brought to bear on those individual circumstances, but the legislation before the Queensland parliament is not legislation built for those extreme cases, but from a new, and problematic, understanding of a distinction between what it is to be ‘human’ and at what point a human is someone we value enough to recognise as a person.

There are lots of bad reasons for abortion too; the worst are those that diminish the value of the unborn person and so diminish the value of all people — reducing our value to being wanted or capable, including those circumstances where the parents-to-be see the child as a barrier to their own flourishing or aspirations and so the humanity of that child as disposable. There are lots of circumstances where particular individuals facing pregnancy and parenting feel overwhelmed by the prospect of bringing another person into the world, and the burden of responsibility that comes with that and the church has the opportunity to imaginatively practice what we preach about the value and dignity of those children. This seems a critical moment in our community to ask important questions about what it means to be a person and how valuable life is, and to consider the implications of our way forward beyond those extreme cases.

Robyn and I now have three children — three gifts from God — and were we to fall pregnant again I would be more than anxious. The burden of responsibility for the nurture of a little person in a world where communities and families are fragmented can easily seem too much to bear — there’s lots more to be done when it comes to the issue of abortion than simply speaking into the discussion around what the state legislates, and as a community-within-the-community with particular views about the value of human life the church has a role to play in doing more than just finger-wagging moral pronouncement; we must love our neighbours in such a way that we demonstrate our love not just for the unborn child, but for all people (including all those our society seeks to de-personalise, or marginalise, increasingly including the elderly).

The story at the heart of the Christian faith offers an account of personhood and our value that shaped our society in ways many still see as good. It says our value as people isn’t something that comes from ‘self-awareness’, or within, but that comes from God — the God who gives life and values humanity enough for his son to enter a womb, become human and lay down his life in exchange for our lives.

This story doesn’t just help us see our neighbour as lovable; but also provides the basis for the sort of ‘love of ourselves’ that gives us dignity and a sense of our own worth when others might seek to shame or dehumanize our circumstances, or have us finding our value in our achievement or productivity. Perhaps part of the solution behind those individual moments where a woman, or couple, are considering an abortion is not to assert the incredible value God places on the unborn child, but to remind the parents of their own value to God, whatever other circumstances or stories might be at play. Imagine what might happen if we were able to truly recognise our own personhood and value because we experience it reflected in the creator’s love for us; if we were able to truly know, love, and value our own humanity and then love our neighbours as we love ourselves as a reflection of God’s sacrificial love for us revealed in the death of Jesus for us…

That’s the challenge for us as the church — not just to speak out against these abortion laws by signing petitions like this one, or by writing to our local members of parliament (here’s a sample from a fellow Presbyterian Minister in Tasmania), but to speak the Gospel into a world that is forgetting what it means to be truly human; a world where we spend too much time trying to justify ourselves and not enough time loving our neighbours as we love ourselves because we first love God with all our soul, strength and mind.

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