The bloody horrors of the Kermit Gosnell trial, and the allegations against Houston abortion doctor Douglas Karpen (1) raise an ugly specter that became even more ghoulish on the steps of the Texas State Capitol this week when the pro-abortion demonstrators began yelling, “Hail Satan!” The abortion issue has crawled out of the shadows and is going to have to be dealt with. How? Now, there’s the rub.
The difficulty in coming to an acceptable solution for unwanted pregnancies is that the issue is really a many-tentacled monster, a shape-shifting beast that’s been impossible to pin down and we can’t even ask the right questions, let alone come up with the answers.
It seems at first glance to be a question of when exactly the fetus morphs from being part of the mother to being its own entity, with its own set of rights. Does this happen at conception? Or not until the 21st week? Or birth? Or, as Peter Singer has suggested, not until the child is capable of self-awareness? (2) We don’t know, and we don’t know because we haven’t defined just what a human being is.
Pro-life proponents often point out the presence of fingers and toes in the early stages of pregnancy – some ultrasounds show adorable thumb-sucking going on. But is that what makes us human? Thumb-sucking – really? The fact that the brain begins development as early as the 4th week seems a more arguable breaking point. But is gray matter the difference? My dogs have brains, but that only makes them seem human. The fact that late term fetuses can survive outside the womb is a good point, but they can’t do that on their own and if the mother can’t care for them, then what? Tie their heels together and throw them up on Mt. Olympus the way the ancient Greeks did?
Do you see what I mean? We know in our guts that something is rotten in this abortion controversy, but we haven’t been good at explaining why.
And there is some biblical question about the total humanity of a fetus. In Exodus 21, as part of the legal-system known as the Mosaic Law, the 22nd and 23rd verses state, “If men fight, and hurt a woman with child, so that she gives birth prematurely, yet no harm follows, he shall surely be punished accordingly as the woman's husband imposes on him; and he shall pay as the judges [determine]. But if [any] harm follows, then you shall give life for life.” (NKJV) Some see this as implying that if only the fetus dies as a result of the altercation it is less serious than if the mother dies. The phrase translated “she gives birth prematurely” comes from the Hebrew word “yasta” which, more tightly translated means to “lose her offspring.”
Nothing, however, in the 613 laws in the Torah says a woman can end an unwanted pregnancy. If instructions exist about every other aspect of their lives, like what to do if an ox gores a maidservant, why wouldn’t the event of an inconvenient conception be covered? Why, when Mary told her parents of her premarital pregnancy, didn’t they suggest solving the problem with a tidy little medical procedure? It’s not a new idea. Pagan peoples had been practicing abortion and infanticide for millenia. Yet there is no record that anything like that was even considered.
Things really haven’t changed much. In those days pagan peoples did as they pleased with their offspring, sometimes even throwing them into the flames of an open furnace as part of ritual sex. And here we are – fully knowledgeable about how to prevent pregnancy, becoming just as nonchalant as the worshipers of Baal. What was done to those babies in those clinics wasn’t much better. Some were torn limb from limb, fully able to feel pain. We are no longer worshiping Baal or Moloch -- now we worship Darwin.
He plays a huge part in this fiasco. If adult human beings are nothing but an accidental conglomeration of simple cells, then a fetus is an even less impressive little lump of protoplasm, then what’s the problem, especially if the little lump is going to cause problems for its host organism? If a person has been trained to think that way – and millions of our compatriots have been – then abortion, at any stage, is a logical solution. Two organisms coexist in the same body – one little and defenseless, the other large and capable -- if survival of the fittest is the law of the land then the big one wins. Easy. It’s all about women’s health, you know.
Back to Kermit Gosnell and his ilk. Somewhere in our tainted national psyche we get more uncomfortable the more that protoplasm looks like a full-fledged baby. Most of us get more uncomfortable. The Kermit Gosnell’s don’t seem to mind more or less pulling a viable fetus out of a mother – in most unsanitary conditions – and then snipping the baby’s spinal cord. That can’t be healthy for either mother or child. In fact it wasn’t – one mother died and hundreds of babies did, their pickled feet kept as trophies.
The worst of this debacle is that Kermit Gosnell was killing black babies, for another tentacle of this horror is genocide. Almost 70% of black babies born in this country are born out of wedlock – that leaves blacks most likely to need the services of the Gosnells. In fact, in New York City 57% of black babies are aborted each year. That’s over half of the future black residents of NYC dead. Do a little research on Margaret Sanger and her intentions with her organization, Planned Parenthood, which started its life as “The Negro Project” (3).
I spent many years of my life ambivalent about the issue of abortion. I saw, in the high school where I taught, many young girls who weren’t fit to be mothers, whose mothers weren’t fit to be mothers. It was easy to think that maybe we should end those babies’ misery before it even got started. But something happened in our family 12 years ago that solidified my ideas in a way that set my thinking apart from other Christians and from the pro-choice folks too.
Our middle grandson was born around Thanksgiving; he died 18 days later. We knew he would die. Conner was a trisomy-13 baby. Either the male or the female cell carried a third copy of the 13th chromosome; there should only be two. In the chromosomal world the lower the number the more information is packed onto that chromosome. Number 13 was a doozy. It was only one infinitesimal bit of goo; it was accidental, and yet it destroyed this little boy. I could spend paragraphs expounding on all the vital structures that were affected by that extra chromosome, but what cost him his life was a heart with nearly no left ventricle. He could stay alive only as long as his heart didn’t need to run blood up through his lungs; when he was born he began to die.
We all learned enough from that event to write a book, but one of my lessons was this: the process of conception and gestation is so incredibly complicated and intricate and precarious that it’s a wonder any of us ever gets born. According to the Genetics Program, East Carolina University School of Medicine, Greenville, North Carolina, 73% of natural single conceptions have no real chance of surviving 6 weeks of gestation. Of the remainder, about 90% will survive to term (4). That’s a measly 24 live babies per 100 conceptions.
So very much can go wrong, so easily, that we have to realize that no conception happens apart from God’s will and God’s will is not something to second guess. I’ll admit that when we first got the news (2 months before his birth) that Conner would die, my first cowardly thought was abortion. Let’s end this now. My daughter-in-law was wiser. She stuck it out and we now have a memory of him, and all the blessings he brought us.
I’ve come to the conclusion that we can’t know when a fetus becomes human, but we can know that it becomes human because God wills it. Period. Something holy starts at conception – whether there’s a soul in there or not – that we shouldn’t mess with, if for no other reason than to recognize and respect what God has made.
John Chrysostrom (4th century A.D.) said in a homily on the book of Romans, “For you do not even let the harlot remain a mere harlot, but make her a murderer also. You see how drunkenness leads to whoredom, whoredom to adultery, adultery to murder; or rather something even worse than murder. “ Yes, in a way it may be worse – we snuff out 100% of a person’s potential in an abortion. Kill me now and I only lose about a fourth of mine.
Our national dilemma has been tangled because we’ve been asking the wrong questions. We’ve debated about when life begins and whether the mother’s rights or the baby’s rights are pre-iminent. We have not asked whether or not God wills that a child to be born. We’ve not paid much attention to the astronomical odds against conception producing a child. Nor have we taken the humble position of realizing that since we can’t know we should err on the side of serious caution. A thorough look at the intricate interplay in a successful conception demands the recognition of remarkable design, and design has purpose. It is, in fact, miraculous. The fact that it happens daily makes it no less holy.