Confusion And Tragedy In America’s Ongoing Debate About Abortion

Feb 16th, 2019 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

Since the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision,  American civilization has been engaged in a “culture war” between those who seek to protect a woman’s right to have an abortion and those who seek to protect the rights of the fetus as a human being.  There are no signs of this “war” subsiding or ending soon.  Two developments at the state level indicate both the zealous emotion and the total confusion that reign supreme in our civilization over this issue.  As conservative states have sought ways to protect the personhood of infants in the womb, progressive states are weakening protection for infants outside it.


First, several state legislatures are debating or considering laws that would grant fetal personhood, meaning that a baby growing in the womb would have the same constitutional protection as the mother carrying the child.  As a dimension of this discussion at the state level, several states are considering “fetal heartbeat” bills that would ban abortion after detection of a heartbeat, which can be as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.  Examining the various state laws governing abortions indicate that the nation is intensely divided:

  • In 26 states abortion is prohibited in a pregnancy that goes beyond 20 or 24 weeks.
  • In 17 states, abortion is prohibited after the baby’s “viability” but these laws set no rigid time frame.

In trying to pass laws dealing with abortion that are in line with the 1973 Roe v. Wade precedent, there is no consensus and no clear path for the future.  With a conservative Supreme Court and with several important abortion cases that could potentially reach the Court, there is a possibility that Roe could be overturned or at least modified.  Those who defend the right of a woman to an abortion argue that “a pregnant woman would cease to exist as an autonomous person.  Her womb would become a legal battleground.”  Editorially, the New York Times recently wrote:  “To assert the government’s right to protect a fetus as early as fertilization, anti-abortion activists have won the passage of laws in Congress and in state capitals around the country.  That shifting of rights acknowledges a tension at the root of pregnancy, that both parents and society have a stake in successful human reproduction.  And it reflects a tragic reality:  There are circumstances in which the interests of a fetus and those of a pregnant woman collide.”  This “collision” involves more that circumstances and “interests.”  The Roe v. Wade decision set the US on a course where the rights of the mother to have an abortion are protected to the total exclusion of recognizing any rights to the baby still growing in that mother’s womb.  American civilization is at a loss on how to resolve this “tension” and mounting confusion when it comes to the rights of a fetus.


Second is a growing acceptance in some states to even accept a form of infanticide.  On the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, video spread of New York’s legislature giving a standing ovation for a bill that, among other things, removed requirements that infants born during abortion procedures receive legal protection as persons.  Those concerns were stoked again last week, as video went viral of Virginia state legislator Kathy Tran saying a similar bill in her state—which was since voted down in committee—would permit the termination of an infant’s life even during labor. A similar bill has gone before state legislators in Vermont.  Even Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s attempt to clarify matters ended up conflating expanding abortion access with declining care for infants born in the process.  Defending Tran’s proposal, Northam stated that babies determined in the third trimester to have “severe deformities” or be “nonviable” would be delivered, “kept comfortable,” and “resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”  The emerging discussion about infanticide seems to represent a new stage in America’s struggle over abortion.


The passage of the New York’s Reproductive Health Act demonstrates how far some parts of American civilization have moved in the abortion debate:  This legislation permits “abortion in many cases up to the moment of birth.  It eliminates legal penalties on abortionists who allow an aborted baby, who somehow survives the scalpel, vacuum and dismemberment, to die.  It also permits these perilous procedures to take place without a physician present.”  The repugnance of this grisly legislation was further exacerbated by New York governor celebrating the morbid bill with a party.  He also ordered the Freedom Tower in lower Manhattan to be illuminated in pink!


In Christianity Today, Matthew Lee Anderson observes that, “When addressing infanticide, it is possible to oversimplify the argument and fail to acknowledge the complexities that arise for many women. But we can also remain clear-eyed about the stakes and ask: What do we owe “severely deformed” infants who may be viable outside the womb, when those infants are unwanted by their mothers and born against the will of the doctors?. . . Infanticide does not only include the direct killing of infants, through injecting toxins or other direct means of harm. It also means unjustly denying infants necessary life support. The key term is unjust: not every decision to decline life-sustaining treatment for those in our care is the equivalent of killing.  Neonatal ethics are exceedingly complex, but for infants whose death will follow immediately upon their birth and we have strong reason to believe attempts to prolong life would fail, comfort may be all that can be given . . . Excruciating as it is, we must sometimes allow those we love to go into the hands of God, even when they have just arrived to us.  But context matters, and we can let them go into God’s hands only by showing honor and respect for the life that God has entrusted to us. Killing or denying necessary treatment because of the burdens such a life might impose intrinsically fails to do so.  There must be an exceptionally high threshold to justify declining medical care for infants, as they are exceedingly vulnerable. But we should be even more skeptical about decisions to decline treatments when the people deciding are the ones who previously intended the infant’s death.  If third-term abortions are legal, it is difficult to say why doctors are morally obligated to provide life-sustaining care to infants who are at the same stage of development. Why should a doctor who was responsible one minute for terminating an infant’s life be obligated to save it the next? What forms the difference, really, between an infant at 28 weeks who is still inside the womb and one who is now outside? It is easy to see how the 21st-century equivalent of the Roman practice of “exposure” takes form through the dulcet, sonorous tones of ‘compassion.’”

It is likely that America’s abortion politics will become more fractured, not less, in the years to come. As a culture, confusion will continue to dominate both our laws and our conversation.   But in a world where the “possibilities of even an apparent neutrality are diminishing,” as C. S. Lewis once described it, “our Yes and Amen to the goodness of human life must be unambiguous and unhesitating—and our No to the darkness of infanticide equally clear.”  Human life, both inside the womb and outside the womb, is of infinite value and worth to our God.  That proposition is an absolute—and that is what is missing in our cultural discussions on abortion.  Without this ethical absolute, rooted in the image of God concept, as an infallible guide, confusion and disgusting legislation will continue.


Yet, as we engage the culture with the foundational truths of God’s Word, Anderson argues, we represent such a message as “one of grace: It must sound like good news, for the Christ who became flesh in Mary’s womb is not done with our world yet.”

See Matthew Lee Anderson, “Infanticide Debate Reflects a New Era for Abortion Politics,” in (5 February 2019); “The Future of Personhood Nation” editorial in the New York Times (20 January 2019); Timothy Dolan in the Wall Street Journal (8 February 2019); and Jacob Gershman in the Wall Street Journal (9-10 February 2019).

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