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Abortion in Perspective

Part III

A Report of the
Commission on Theology and Church Relations
of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod
as prepared by its Social Concerns Committee

May 1984

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The Theological Perspective

Christians in this country have been blessed with a political heritage and system which acknowledges their need and right to shape their lives in accordance with their religious convictions. Such a blessing is not without its dangers, however, one of which is the tendency to regard religious belief as restricted to the private realm. A proper theological perspective will never acquiesce in the notion that Christian faith can be that narrow. Christian love shapes our understanding of what care and concern, justice and equity, for the neighbor must mean. Christian love moves us to serve the needs of neighbors, and sometimes those needs can be served only in the public sphere. Moreover, the properties protected under the First Amendment, sometimes called the preferred freedoms, are an invitation to speak out in exercise of the privileges these freedoms confer. Thus, the expression of Christian judgment is not only countenanced but invited in a society which believes that public policy should emerge from the clash of opposing views in the public sphere. The framework of this service to the neighbor in society must, of course, be the distinction between the two kingdoms (AC and Ap. XVI), which reflects the distinction between Law and Gospel.

The Bible is not a code book which enables us to dispense with theological and ethical reflection, but Christian belief and action are decisively shaped and governed by Scriptural teaching and narrative. The great Christian truths of creation and redemption, and the dark shadow cast by sin, inform everything Christians say and believe about God's will for human life and the meaning of human personhood. Naturally, these truths remain somewhat abstract as they are stated below in the form of theological principles. They become more concrete as they lead, also below, to ethical reflection. And when they influence the values we share in our families and use in the nurturing of our children, the policies we espouse in the public sphere, and our common life within a worshipping congregation, they cease to be abstract and begin to form Christian character. We offer here four Scriptural principles, with accompanying brief discussion, to assist in the shaping of Christian belief, character, and action.

A. Theological Principles

    1. Human life, at every stage of its development, is valued by God.

    The Scriptures do not specify the moment at which a new individual human being comes into existence--we have already indicated what science and medicine have taught us, namely, that the development of a new individual begins at fertilization--but the Scriptures do make clear that every human being is valuable because of the value placed by God. It is truly an act of procreation when a man and woman, participating in the blessing of God spoken to the creation, conceive a child. This unborn child, like all human beings at every stage of their development, is made in God's image--made for life with God, made to respond in love and obedience to the mercy and grace of God. [17]

    The God in whose continuing creative activity parents are given a share is no respecter of persons. He values the weak and the lowly, and with Him achievement does not count for more than potential. Human dignity is therefore bestowed by God, not achieved or earned. The psalmist's poetic language witnesses to God's marvelous creativity, but also to God's concern for the weak and still-developing: "Thou didst knit me together in my mother's womb" (Ps. 139:13). The God who from all the mighty peoples of the ancient world could set His hand on Israel is not likely to judge worth in the comparative terms of our world (cf. Deut. 7:6-8). Indeed, the God of Israel was identified as One who had shown steadfast love to a weak and enslaved people. Hence, Israel could say:

      Who is like the Lord our God . . . ?
      He raises the poor from the dust,
      and lifts the needy from the ash heap
      (Ps. 113:5, 7).

    From the conviction that God has vindicated Israel in her weakness an ethical imperative arose:

      Open your mouth for the dumb,
      for the rights of all who are left desolate
      Open your mouth, judge righteously
      maintain the rights of the poor and needy
      (Prov. 31:8-9).

    Christians, belonging to the new Israel, reason in precisely the same way. They confess that Christ has died for the weak and the ungodly (Rom. 5:6) and that God has chosen what is weak in this world (1 Cor. 1:27). Such knowledge gives content to Christ's command that we are to love as He has loved us (John 15:12). We too must value the poor and the weak, those too powerless to speak for themselves, those easily disposed of because they seem to contribute little. This suggests a second principle.

    2. Human lives are entrusted by God to our care.

    The Christian belief that human life is not to be taken rests not only on our conviction that human lives are valuable (because valued by God) but also on the truth that life is not ours to take. In the Decalog is a command which calls upon us to respect the lives of our fellow human beings: "You shall not kill" (Ex. 20:13). As Luther's explanation of this commandment in his Small Catechism makes clear, the command requires not only respect for the neighbor's life ("that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbor in his body") but also care and concern that the neighbor's life be preserved ("help and befriend him in every bodily need"). Similarly, in his Large Catechism Luther explains that this commandment means that God

      wishes to have all people defended, delivered, and protected from the wickedness and violence of others, and he has set up this commandment as a wall, fortress, and refuge about our neighbor so that no one may do him bodily harm or injury
      (LC 1, 185).

    To this Luther adds:

      Not only is murder forbidden, but also everything that may lead to murder....we should neither use nor sanction any means or methods whereby anyone may be harmed ...
      (LC I, 186, 188).

    To be sure, the mainstream of Christian tradition has, in its understanding of just war and justice in war, permitted the soldier in service to legitimate government to harm and even kill an enemy soldier. This has been understood as a permitted exercise of govemment's God-given right to use force to preserve ordered peace and justice within human society. (Also given to government is the right to take the life of the evildoer as retributive justice; cf.Rom. 13:4. [18]) The received Christian tradition has, however, placed limits upon what may be done even in a just war. Most important, it has insisted that the enemy, when he lays down his arms and surrenders--when, that is, he ceases any longer to threaten other human lives--cannot be harmed. Ceasing to be an aggressor, he can be neither harmed nor killed. Of course, throughout the church's history some Christians have felt that only a pacifist stance and witness was compatible with Christian teaching and Christian love--a feeling which is again present within our own day. These Christians will refuse to take human lives under any circumstances. But granted the legitimacy of warfare in certain situations, the use of force is w arranted only by a threat to life or some value equal to life. In all other circumstances the strict prohibition of the Fifth Commandment applies.

    It has become increasingly common in our society to speak as if taking life--whether of the unborn through abortion, of the handicapped or retarded child through benign neglect or infanticide, or of the suffering and the senile through euthanasia--were a way of serving the well-being of those whose lives we take. Against all such misuse of language Christians insist that the task entrusted us by God is to help and befriend our neighbor in every bodily need, not to rush the neighbor out of existence and beyond the realm of bodily need. This leads quite naturally to a third principle.

    3. There are limits to human freedom.

    It is the same apostle Paul who exhorts us that "as we have opportunity let us do good to all men" (Gal. 6:10) who in another context indignantly rejects the suggestion that he might have taught that we should do evil that good may come of it (Rom. 3:8). The juxtaposition of these two passages sets before us a perennial difficulty of the moral life. We ought to serve the well-being of our neighbors--as often as possible, as many neighbors as possible. But we are also forbidden to engage in certain activities (as when, for example, the Fifth Commandment forbids unjustified killing). Yet, there may be occasions in life when it seems that serving the greater good of our neighbors requires the use of a forbidden means to that good.

    It is important, when contemplating such possibilities, to retain a firm grasp on our creatureliness. Ours is not the role of a deity, but the limited role of a creature. We are indeed to do all the good we can for as many neighbors as possible, but this means all the good we morally can do within the limits set by God's law. We are not, even if our motives are praiseworthy, to do evil that good may come of it.

    This means, we recognize, that some good and desirable ends cannot be achieved, because the means to those ends are forbidden us. It may also mean on some occasions that a good end must be achieved more slowly and less directly in order to remain within the limits set by God's will. Certainly the prohibition of unjustified killing constitutes a strict limit on the ways in which we may attempt to do good. Recognizing that our capacity to accomplish the good we desire is limited not only by our abilities but also by moral precept, we are driven to be and become a people of hope, who trust that God can bring good out of evil and may accomplish what we are unable to do. This suggests a final theological principle.

    4. Moved by their hope in God, Christians must be a people glad to receive children into the human family.

    It may be through our children--and sometimes only through our children-- that God finds a way to teach us how to love those who are not what we wish them to be and whose presence is neither convenient nor timely. In our society, however, a different attitude has become commonplace. The child is often perceived as a burden, as a threat to our plans and purposes, a danger to our chances for self-fulfillment. We can, of course, understand the experiences which may underlie that perception. The presence of children may sap our energy, deplete our resources, and tax our patience.

    Nevertheless, as Christians we understand the presence of children among us in a special way. The divine blessing--"be fruitful and multiply"-- spoken at the creation continues to be effective in our world (Gen. 1:28). And the presence of children is a sign of God's continuing "yes" to His creation, a manifestation of God's unwillingness to abandon us or to withdraw from the time and history in which we live (1 Sam. 1:1-2:11). Moreover, this God who through our sexual powers continues to create new human beings is One who has demonstrated in Jesus Christ His indefectible love toward us. In Him, as St. Paul writes, God's Word to us is always "yes" (2 Cor.1:19). We welcome children into our midst, therefore, as a renewed act of trust in the God who has taken the dangers and problems of human life upon Himself and shared our suffering (Mark 10:13-16).

    This means that our willingness to welcome children--to help and befriend these small neighbors in their every bodily need--is one way in which we express our confidence in God's goodness and mercy, and our hope that in the future His promises will continue to find their "yes" in Jesus. In welcoming a child we testify that our hope for fulfillment rests in God, and we express our trust that He is not powerless in the face of life's difficulties and dangers. We value the lives of children because God values them; we refrain from harming them because God forbids such harm; but more important still,we seek to become people who receive them with joy and thanksgiving (Ps.127).

    The Scriptural principles offered here compel us to regard abortion on demand not only as a sin against the Fifth Commandment forbidding the destruction of human life, but also as a grievous offense against the First--that we worship the one true God and cling to Him alone. The act of abortion clearly manifests a refusal to honor God as the Creator and to seek Him above all else in time of need. It, too, belongs in the list of those offenses that frustrate man's rebellion against the Creator (Rom. 1:26-32), summoning wrath from which only God Himself can--and does--deliver us. [19]


Though it cannot deal in advance with every imaginable case, ethical reflection seeks to bridge the gap between general statements of Biblical principle and particular actions. As such, it performs a vital and necessary role in Christian theology. The attempt to make precise judgments about right and wrong behavior will always be regarded by some as an unwarranted limiting of Christian freedom. But it is, in fact, the necessary charting of the course of the Christian life, within which course Christians are free to serve their neighbors in the countless ways which love discerns but law can never specify. In that spirit we offer the following ethical reflections with respect to abortion.

    1. The unborn child developing within the mother's body [20] is clearly a human being entitled to our care and protection. We now know so much about this developmental process that a refusal to grant that the child is an individual human being must amount almost to willful self-deception.When we consider that with in eight weeks of gestational development electrical activity of the brain can be detected and that within the first twelve weeks of pregnancy all major organ systems have begun to develop, we should be at least as awestruck as was the psalmist who marveled that God knit us together in our mother's womb. This young human being may be weak and unable to speak in his own behalf. He may as yet have achieved nothing as we ordinarily measure achievement. But the lives of these small human beings are valued by God and entrusted to our care. This moral judgment gains in precision when we consider the following related points:

      a. We know too much about the unique identity of the unborn child to imagine that he can properly be called "a part" of his mother's body. He has his own genotype, his own developing body. The unborn child can and does respond to stimuli and is already beginning to relate to his mother. He is simply an unborn human being undergoing a period of development in the environment natural to him at this stage of his life. He is neither an aggressor nor an usurper.

      b. Naturally, the unborn child's life is dependent upon his mother. But so is the newborn baby dependent upon others for care; so are we all dependent on each other; so may we all be dependent upon others for care when we are ill and dying. Moreover, the ideal of "independent" life is one which ought to be seriously questioned by us. Our society has seen and experienced some of the dangers which an ideology of isolated individualism can bring. It is mistaken, therefore, to regard viability (the time at which the unborn child is able to live outside the uterus) as a morally significant dividing line.Aside from the fact that the time of viability is relative to the present state of medical science and will change as medical progress continues, the supposed importance of viability depends on imagining that only the lives of human beings who can live independently of others' help are entitled to protection. That is, we think, a supposition which will be rejected by those who think through its possible consequences, and it is surely no part of a Christian ideal for human existence.

      c. The unborn child does not become entitled to our care and protection only if he is "wanted." His dignity rests in his creation for life with God. That dignity does not come into or fade out of existence according to the wants of others. Moreover, we cannot be a people who welcome children into our midst if they must always be "wanted." The ethical task is not to welcome only those children whom we want, but to discipline and shape our wants so that we care for those given us. And finally, it must simply be said with candor: A willingness to abort the unborn on the grounds that they are "unwanted" by adult society is a raw exercise of power by the strong over the weak. Both the requirements of justice and the claims of Christian love compel such a judgment.

      d. The fact that a child will be born retarded and/or disabled cannot justify withdrawing our protection for his life. To hold otherwise would require that we also justify infanticide of retarded and disabled newborns--a conclusion from which some at least will still shrink. The glaring weaknesses of this justification for abortion will become increasingly apparent as our ability increases to operate on the unborn within the womb to correct some defects. It will then be apparent that, if we choose to abort some and provide therapy for others, we consider the value of their lives to depend entirely on our own choosing. If, however, instead of looking for value in the lives of such children by comparing them with others who are "normal," we will instead learn to value the lives they have-- even as God values them--we will be renewed in our commitment to care for them.

      e. There are circumstances in life in which an abortion might be considered a means toward achieving some good end. For example, abortions are often sought to assist family planning goals, to minimize instances in which children may suffer abuse, to control the costs of caring for an increasing poor population, to make it possible for women to continue pursuing careers, to ease the burden on women or families with problems--all, quite probably, desirable goals. But however desirable such goals may be, they cannot justify killing a human being in order to attain them. These are instances in which the means to an admittedly good end is prohibited us. Naturally, we can and should try to achieve these goals by other means. Certainly there are other ways to try to deal with family planning, with poverty and unwanted children, with opportunities for women to pursue vocations--if only we have the will to seek those other ways. Our long-term aim should be to move toward a society in which the choice for abortion is a choice no one feels compelled or drawn to make.

    2. We have emphasized as strongly as possible the protection to which the unborn child is entitled. We do not overlook, however, the fact that in the gestation and birth of children mothers bear by far the greatest burdens. The child's life is dependent upon his mother in a unique manner, a manner which calls for an act of self-spending on her part. Indeed, we may even say that in the manner of human gestation and birth we see a deeper truth than our attachment to independence and individualism can reach. The life-giving burden carried by mothers, and only by mothers, must be kept clearly in view throughout our ethical reflection. This fact alone gives the mother's claims a certain preeminence in those cases where the life of the unborn child and the equal life of the mother come into conflict.

    In the rare situations of conflict we must recognize the permissibility of abortion. Despite the progress of medical science, there are still unusual circumstances in which a mother will die if an abortion is not performed. There are also cases (e.g., some instances of chronic heart or kidney disease in which pregnancy increases the strain on heart or kidneys) in which the danger to the mother's life is greatly increased if no abortion is performed. Even in such circumstances a mother may choose to risk her own life as an act of love, but such an act of self- giving cannot be required. It must be freely given, not imposed.

    Very difficult and painful situations arise in cases of pregnancies which result from rape or incest. Even if such wrongful acts do not result in pregnancy, the most sensitive kind of pastoral counseling is required. Christian love manifests itself in deep compassion for those who are the unwilling victims of exploitation and violation. Guilt, fear, anger, hatred, self-loathing, and other emotional and spiritual upheavals must be dealt with wisely and mercifully. Although conception almost never occurs as a result of forcible intercourse, when it does, the life of the new human being is as valuable and as worthy of protection as any other newly begun life. Thus, the evil and violent circumstances in which a child is conceived do not in and of themselves constitute valid grounds for recommending or approving an abortion. There is a necessity for a concentrated and sustained ministry to the woman who finds herself in such tragic circumstances. There must be concern for her physical, spiritual. and emotional needs as well as for the life and future of the child. Comfort can be taken from St. Paul's exhortation that God promises to bring good out of even the greatest evils that befall us (Rom. 8:28).

    3. Ethical reflection must always pay attention to the possible consequences of actions we endorse. One possible result of permissive abortion becomes evident when we set out in simple syllogistic form the argument which underlies opposition to abortion.

      Major premise: The lives of human beings--whatever their stage of development or achievement--are entitled to equal care and protection.

      Minor premise: The unborn child is a human being.

      Conclusion: The life of the unborn child is entitled to equal care and protection.

    It is a commonplace of logic that, if we change the conclusion, one of the premises of an argument must also be changed. If, as is certainly the case in our society, the conclusion is no longer affirmed, our commitment to one of the premises is likely to erode. However much some may at present deny the minor premise, it is difficult to believe that it will in the long run be rejected. The more we know of fetal development, and the greater the possibilities become for fetal therapy, the more difficult it will be to deny the persuasive force of the minor premise. We are more likely to see an erosion of our commitment to the major premise. In short, we might predict that our society would begin to abandon the view that entitles all human beings to equal care and protection of their lives--that we would abandon this and replace it with judgments of comparative worth. When we consider decisions presently being made about infants born with defects and decisions made about care for the retarded and senile, it is hard not to believe that some of those consequences are already upon us. People who are untroubled by permissive abortion are not likely forever to resist other judgments of the comparative worth of lives.

    4. Finally, we must emphasize the proper use of these ethical reflections within the theological task, the life of the church, and the life of the individual Christian. In the delicate administration of Law and Gospel to those troubled by decisions related to abortion, the Christian pastor in particular should realize that his task does not consist in the mere articulation of moral judgments. Nor ought he to announce God's forgiveness to those who are impenitent. The Law in all its severity and the Gospel in all its sweetness are to be applied with sensitivity to all those who are crying for help through a personal crisis. It is important to understand that a request for an abortion is, in a sense, the mother's serious plea for her life. A Christian woman may wish to be freed from a burden she feels she cannot bear and still live. However, the means by which she seeks to affirm her own life is wrong. The Christian pastor must try to help her see and face this painful contradiction in her feelings and affirmations, and finally lead her, under the blessing of God, to accept her burden in the faith that all things work together for good with those who love God and who are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28-30).


This text was converted to ASCII text for Project Wittenberg by Mark A. French, reformatted by Cindy A. Beesley and is in the public domain. You may freely distribute, copy or print this text. Please direct any comments or suggestions to:

Rev. Robert E. Smith
Walther Library
Concordia Theological Seminary.

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