Winter 2013

Forty Years After Roe, How Should We Think About Abortion?

By Scott Rae

This January marks the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, one of the most polarizing rulings in U.S. Supreme Court history. Handed down on Jan. 22, 1973, the 7-2 decision effectively made abortion legal across the United States, deeming it to be a private decision protected under the constitutional right to due process. In the four decades since the ruling, an estimated 55 million abortions have been performed nationwide, all while the fight over the legality and morality of abortion has continued to rage on.

Biola Magazine recently sat down with professor Scott Rae to discuss the impact of the ruling, the ethics of abortion and the biblical perspective on life. Rae has served as an ethics consultant for several hospitals over the past two decades and has written extensively on beginning-of-life issues and bioethics, including in his books Moral Choices and Outside the Womb: Moral Guidance for Assisted Reproduction.

Scott, Jan. 22 marks the 40th anniversary of the roe v. Wade ruling. What made this case so significant?

Actually, it was Roe v. Wade in conjunction with its companion case, Doe v. Bolton, that together essentially legalized abortion on demand at any point in pregnancy. Roe v. Wade divided pregnancy into three trimesters, somewhat arbitrarily, because nine is divisible by three. In the first trimester, it basically said abortion on demand is no problem. In the second trimester, it said the state could put some restrictions on the practice for the sake of safety for women. In the third trimester, they argued that the state has a compelling interest in the protection of life unless the mother’s life or health is threatened.

The Doe v. Bolton decision clarified what is meant by the threat to the mother’s health, and so broadened it that virtually anything qualifies, whether it is a threat to her physical, emotional, psychological or familial health — to be decided only by her and her physician. Essentially, it opened the door to abortion on demand for all nine months of pregnancy. People tend to include both of these cases under the same umbrella, but the impact of the Doe decision was just as great, if not more so.

How would you describe the long-term cultural impact of these rulings over the past four decades?

Well, the law has a significant educational value. And this one, no doubt, has brought more acceptability to the idea of abortion. At the time, the argument was that if abortion was not legalized, it would just take place in back alleys with unqualified people. But that was a red herring. The reality is that not much of that happened prior to 1973. So, the educational value of the law has been really substantial in making abortion more acceptable. In the last 10 years, it’s been countered by the educational value of technology — with the resolution and the sophistication of ultrasound. It’s becoming harder for the average person to look at an ultrasound and say, “It’s just a clump of cells” or “It’s just a blob of tissue.”

Abortion has had an impact on how we view the end of life, too. It came full circle in the late ’90s, when the Supreme Court heard two different challenges to laws prohibiting assisted suicide. The challengers basically made the autonomy argument from abortion — “my body, my choice” — and applied that to assisted suicide. Thankfully, the Supreme Court rejected that analogy. But that analogy — that the beginning of life and the end of life are both subject to the same sort of autonomy argument — was affirmed by three different appeals courts before the Supreme Court struck it down.

Biola’s official doctrinal position is that life begins at conception. What’s the biblical basis for this?

The clearest biblical texts tell us that the unborn child growing in the womb is the object of God’s creative, initiative, loving, caring handiwork. Abortion stops the handiwork of God in the womb. The parts of Scripture that speak to this are the passages that basically treat birth and conception interchangeably — a poetic synonymous parallel. (For example, Job 3:3, Jeremiah 1:5, Isaiah 49:1, Psalm 51:5 and Psalm 139:13-16.) And the account of the Incarnation speaks to the fact that you have an image-of-God-bearing person from the very, very earliest points of pregnancy — well before most women are even aware that they’re pregnant.

Beyond the biblical case, what philosophical case can be made that personhood begins at conception?

One is our common-sense idea of who we are as a person. We see ourselves as what philosophers call a substance, which is an entity with an immaterial essence that defines and governs its physical development. A person is a substance. And the way we view things like moral responsibility and criminal justice strongly suggest that we view a person as having a continuity of identity all the way through life. If that’s true, then obviously that continuity starts at conception. There’s really no place along that continuum from conception until birth that you have any non-ad hoc way of drawing any lines.

Some people would say that you are a person when you’re able to perform a certain set of baseline functions like self-awareness or self-consciousness. But if that’s the standard, then it doesn’t make any sense that we would view people in reversible comas or under general anesthesia as persons, which we obviously do. A person is something you are, not something you do. If being a person is something that you do, then it’s by definition degreed, which means it’s a more-or-less category, not an all-or-nothing category.

How would you convince someone who argues that personhood begins at some other point — such as implantation, or when there is a heartbeat or brain activity, or when the baby is viable to live outside the womb?

With each of those points, there is no morally relevant difference between the day before that point and the day after that point. Birth is just a change of location. So is implantation. The rest of those really have nothing to do with the essence of the person.

What I’ve found most effective in convincing people about the personhood of the unborn, though, is (1) somebody who cares about the woman giving her support and advice, and (2) something that gives visual effect to her intuitions. Hearing the heartbeat or seeing the ultrasound makes it a lot tougher to say this is just a piece of tissue, sort of like my liver. If we could get most women with unwanted pregnancies to just visit the doctor once, the instances of abortion would go down dramatically.

If personhood begins at conception, is there any circumstance under which abortion is morally acceptable?

I would say that it’s only acceptable when the life of the mother is at stake. In most cases — not all — if you lose the mother, you’re going to lose the baby also. And so it’s appropriate in those cases to treat the mother and let the chips fall where they will with the baby. If she has an aggressive form of cervical cancer, for example, you do the chemo, pray hard, hope for the best, but let the chips fall where they will. I don’t see anything wrong with that, because if the mother dies, the baby is going to die.

Some people accept the position that life begins at conception, but say they are not willing to impose that view on others through the political process. is that a valid distinction?

When fundamental human rights are involved, I don’t think that distinction holds. It’s almost like saying, “If you don’t like slavery, don’t own slaves.” Or “I don’t believe slavery is right, but I’m not going to impose my views on other people.” The reason we impose those views is because fundamental civil rights are at stake, which I think is true here.

The question of when personhood begins doesn’t just affect the abortion debate. it’s also central to the area of embryonic stem cell research and reproductive technologies. in your writings about reproductive technology, you’ve expressed significant ethical concerns about in vitro fertilization (IVF). in your view, what should couples know before considering IVF?

Two things: With IVF, there is a risk of embryos being left over. Unless IVF is a total failure, the likelihood is high that you’ll have embryos left over, frozen in the lab. I would argue that whether they are in the lab or in the body is irrelevant — it’s just a difference of location, and it’s irrelevant to their status. The other thing that you have to be aware of is that the process can be too successful, and you can end up with major multiples. You can end up with a litter of children in the womb. So that runs the risk of selective abortion.

Both of those — throwing away embryos and selectively aborting fetuses — are morally the same thing. So I would tell the couple: First, don’t implant more embryos than you can safely carry. Second, commit that every embryo you create in a lab gets to be implanted— preferably with you, but putting them up for adoption is also an appropriate thing to do. Couples who adopt these embryos get the benefit of adopting, but they also get the experience of pregnancy and childbirth, which is very important to lots of women.

To many, being “pro-life” tends to be synonymous with voting a certain way. But beyond advocating for political changes, how can churches be more active in caring for the cause of the unborn?

One is to acknowledge Sanctity of Human Life Sunday. [This year it’s Jan. 20, 2013.] Acknowledge and recognize that there are women in our churches who have had abortions, which for them can be very painful, but it’s also part of being healing and redemptive. If it’s not too painful, have a woman who has had an abortion tell her story. Or a woman who was tempted to go down that road and decided not to. That’s just as powerful — especially if she’s standing there holding the hand of her 6-year-old daughter.

Second, pastors should talk about this every once in a while. You could go to a lot of churches for a long time and never know that there’s anything morally problematic about abortion. It’s not that you have to preach on the specific subject of abortion — but there are regular topics where it can be mentioned. Plant seeds when you can.

Third, have a crisis pregnancy center in your phone where you can refer women with unwanted pregnancies. Better yet would be to have a handful of women who could serve as counselors and support for women with unwanted pregnancies. That’s a start.


Scott Rae is chair of the philosophy of religion and ethics department at Biola’s Talbot School of Theology. He holds a Ph.D. in social ethics from the University of Southern California. In November, Rae was elected vice president of the Evangelical Theological Society.

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  • Carleen January 23, 2013 at 6:24 AM

    Sorry Scott, but the basis of the whole argument should not be personhood or the question of when life begins. The basis of the argument is "nature". The question is–as the ancient philosophers put forth–"what is its Nature?" The answer of course is "Human". Regardless of the stage in its development, the nature of the species in the womb is Human. It does not become human, it IS HUMAN! And because it is human he/she holds a protected and sacred status, above every other species in the natural world.

  • AD September 11, 2013 at 5:55 AM

    Good point Carleen. One other thing: I believe "pray hard" should come first before "do the chemo"

  • XDG February 16, 2015 at 10:58 PM

    "But let the chips fall where they will" I love the sounds of statements such as this. It's almost as if rational thought alludes you completely. I recommend uprooting most, or all of whatever anchors you have before attempting to give an opinion to a real issue.

  • Alexander M. Calisher September 21, 2015 at 10:36 AM

    Carleen,

    I understand the point you are making (namely that the personhood should not be the determining factor in saving the preborn life but rather the nature of the preborn to live), but there is one main reason I believe that both positions are correct.

    He who denies the existence of God and His moral standard for life tends to side with molecules-to-man evolution as his answer for where he came from. He will most likely believe that he did evolve from an ape-like ancestor. Therefore, he should dismiss morals knowing that animals live by instinct (whether the decisions be good or bad vary) not rationale. Thus, personhood does not matter as animals typically do not distinguish whether or not another animal should live based on "animalhood;" neither does nature matter as the fact that another animal is an animal does not determine whether or not the one will kill the other. In conclusion to this concept, according to the humanistic evolutionary worldview that many in favor of abortion believe in, it makes no sense to value a human life as it is just another animal. Granted it may have more potential than the others, but when push comes to shove, and a mother does not want or cannot afford her child, the child can be killed for the sake of the more important mother.

    Now, I believe that most would disagree with this position as would I, not because it does not follow the logic but rather because it goes against all that one believes as a human. Intrinsically, we know we are worth more than an animal. Furthermore, we know we are created special. Most do not know this is what Genesis teaches- that God created man in His own image. (Note that Genesis does not say that animals were created in the image of God.) For this reason, as a Christian, we need to understand that we are not animals but a special creation created by God to love and serve Him. Therefore, we need to know what God says about the sanctity of human life.

    Referring to the obedience of Israel, God explicitly signifies life as important and something to be chosen in Deuteronomy 30:19. He says if you do not choose life you and your children will die for such a decision. Even though God was speaking to Israel in a specific moment, we can compare the truth that God cherishes life to other Scriptures and find that life is indeed precious. Since life is a gift from God beginning at conception (Ruth 4:13), both personhood and nature are quite relevant to the discussion as both are significant factors of human life! Quite frankly, to dismiss these truths as a Christian would be entirely self-destructive to the testimony one bears of Christ!

    Thank you, Carleen, for bringing your point to light, and I hope what I presented makes clear sense. May God bless you when you walk in His ways!


    "Crucified with Christ,"
    Alexander M. Calisher

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