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.