The Hebrew prophet Jeremiah cried out on behalf of his people and nation. It was wracked by rampant greed and deceit, and the lives of the poor were being trampled upon. “Is there no balm in Gilead, is there no physician there?” the prophet cried (Jeremiah 8:22).
We may cry out the same words today.
In Margaret Atwood’s horrifyingly prescient novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, Gilead is the fictional land where women live under the subjugation of men. In a time when many women have become sterile, fertile young women, called “handmaids,” are forced to bear the children of men whose wives cannot conceive.
As the Supreme Court has reversed Roe v. Wade, handing the lives of women and girls over to the states, women are crying out in righteous rage as their bodies have become the property of the state. The men who love them should join in their rage. A woman’s most personal moral choices are being taken away. Forced birth is becoming the law of the land.
The question debated for centuries is being revisited: When does the life begun in a woman’s body become a human person? It is a moral, legal, medical and philosophical question.
“Medicine and philosophy have not determined a ‘magic moment’ when human personhood begins.”
We begin by saying that medicine and philosophy have not determined a “magic moment” when human personhood begins. Some points in the gestation continuum which have been argued are:
- At conception when the genotype is set.
- At the post-twinning moment when twinning happens or not — 4 days.
- At implantation, when the fertilized egg is implanted in the womb —14 days.
- At eight weeks when the cerebral cortex begins to form and all internal organs are formed. (Aristotle, reflecting the major position of Greek philosophy, said the male fetus received a soul, or “ensoulment,” at 40 days and a female fetus at 90 days, which informed the legality of abortion.
- At “quickening,” when the mother feels the child move in her womb — 16 to 18 weeks.
- At viability, when an unborn child can survive outside the mother’s body. Today, with the advances of modern medical science, this point is at 20 to 21 weeks.
- At birth, when the infant draws its first breath.
There has been and is now no consensus in answering this question. Those seeking to make abortion laws through the years have focused on one or more of these moments of development in their decisions.
Contraceptive laws also have been based on this question: condoms, the “morning after pill,” IUDs. New contraception laws now will become the arena of a fierce public and legal debate based on the question of when human personhood begins.
The second point to consider is that there is no Christian or religious consensus on the question. The main Jewish position, shared by some Christians, is that human personhood begins at birth, when the child draws its first breath, following the passage in Genesis 2:7: “Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”
“The only passage that speaks directly to the issue of the value of the mother’s life in relation the life of the unborn life is Exodus 21:22-25.”
Other biblical passages have been cited to support one position or another. The only passage that speaks directly to the issue of the value of the mother’s life in relation to the unborn life is Exodus 21:22-25. It prescribes that if there is a fight and a pregnant woman miscarries because of the injury, the one who injures her is fined. If, however, the pregnant woman dies of injuries, a capital punishment is exacted. Many religious traditions say if one must choose between the life of the mother and the life of the unborn child, the mother’s life takes priority.
Those in the “right to life” or “pro-life” movement generally use three passages of Scripture to support their position:
- Jeremiah 1:4-5 — “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.”
- Job 10:8 — “Thy hands fashioned me and made me.”
- Psalm 139:13 — “For thou didst form my inmost parts, thou knit me together in my mother’s womb.”
The Christian New Testament is silent on the abortion issue.
For those searching the Bible for guidance or prooftexts, the humble wisdom of Ecclesiastes may serve us all well: “As you do not know how the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a mother with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything” (Ecclesiastes 11:5).
The church as a whole has taken a number of differing opinions as to when abortion should be allowed, for example in cases of rape or incest or to preserve the life, health and well-being of the mother. Notably, the Southern Baptist Convention in the early 1970s took a moderate position, supporting abortion in circumstances such as these. Now under the sway of the religious and political right, they take the most extreme position on abortion.
States are now passing legislation that forbids abortion from as early as the detection of fetal heartbeat (six weeks), with few if any exceptions. The Texas “Fetal Heartbeat Law” passed in 2021 is a sign of things to come. A religious doctrine that human personhood begins at conception is now being enacted into law.
“Should we as a nation enact into laws the biblical interpretation of one set of Christians?”
But what if you are a citizen of the United States and the Bible is not your sole moral authority?
What if your individual conscience leads you to another conclusion? What if you do not belong to a religious community? Should we as a nation enact into laws the biblical interpretation of one set of Christians?
So now we come to the final issue — the separation of church and state. It is inscribed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The “freedom clause” maintains that the religious life of its citizens must be free from state control. Our nation was founded with the principle of freedom of religion. In a modern liberal democracy, as our nation, the freedom of conscience is protected for all people.
The “establishment clause” says the state cannot favor, or establish, one religion above others or religion over non-religion. In its new ruling, the Supreme Court has favored or established one kind of religious belief over others. Women are being forced to obey laws derived from the religious beliefs of a few.
The founders of our nation feared theocracy because they had experienced the long years of religious wars in Europe, where church and state were bound together. Today, the rise of Christian supremacy is heading the nation toward theocracy. Because of the ruling of the Supreme Court, women and teenage girls will be losing their lives. The civil strife has only begun. A new civil rights movement is on the horizon.
Stephen Shoemaker serves as pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Statesville, N.C. He served previously as pastor of Myers Park Baptist in Charlotte, N.C.; Broadway Baptist in Fort Worth, Texas, and Crescent Hill Baptist in Louisville, Ky.
Why I’ve never written about abortion before now | Opinion by Mark Wingfield
Welcome to Gilead | Opinion by Susan Shaw
Why men should be concerned about the abortion ruling | Opinion by Darrell Hamilton III
Christianity: Where the end justifies the means | Opinion by Phillip Thomas