A sermon by Emily Hockly for St Michael’s Anglican Church,
24 November 2019
To conclude our Ethics around the BBQ series, I am going to talk to you about abortion. No pressure, not controversial at all.
The social context for this topic, as you almost certainly are aware, is the current Bill that is progressing through Parliament, which will reform abortion law. To quote from the blurb on the Parliament website, “the omnibus bill amends the law to decriminalise abortion, better align the regulation of abortion services with other health services, and modernise the legal framework for abortion currently set out in the Crimes Act 1961 and the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act 1977.”
The Bill and the policy discussion around it, has been framed by its proponents as a purely health issue.
But it’s not just a health issue. It’s also a moral issue. And as Christians, one that we should grapple with in order to contribute to the discussion. Or just to have something to say if it comes up around the BBQ.
In preparing for this sermon, I did some reading around on the biblical perspective on abortion. The consensus is that no biblical text speaks to abortion directly.
The rights arguments around abortion are sometimes argued based on when “life” begins. And there’s a lot of debate about when life begins.
Some claim the Bible consistently portrays a symbolic world in which God is active in unborn life. Richard Hays points to our reading in Psalm 139 as an example of this. And it’s easy to see why, looking at the language:
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
This was certainly my assumption in coming to this topic. But there is disagreement amongst bible readers on this point — others point to Genesis 2:7 to argue that life begins with the first breath “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” On this interpretation, there’s no moral issue with abortion because life has not yet begun.
Along similar lines, Exodus 21: 22–25, requires financial compensation to a man whose wife is injured causing miscarriage — here the miscarriage is treated as a property loss rather than loss of life.
The Rights Approach
As much as I — given my profession — would love to get into a nuanced argument about rights and hermeneutics, I don’t think this is a Christian way to approach this issue.
Just as I think Andrew Little is completely wrong in framing abortion as a purely health issue — it is clearly a moral issue also — my reading on this topic has led me to conclude that it is wrong, as Christians, to frame the debate as a rights issue. This shift in my thinking has taken place through my preparation for this sermon.
There are a couple of reasons why I think a rights based framing of the abortion issue isn’t a useful framework to use from a Christian perspective.
The first problem with it is that the rights debate pitches mother and foetus against each other — treating them as opponents in a war for supremacy in a debate dominated by men. The sacredness-of-life argument in favour of the foetus. A women’s right to decide what to do with her body on the other side.
But if we look at the gospel and Jesus approach, we see that the gospel favours women and children. And the gospel is feminist. In a time and place where women and children had no rights or status, Jesus gave them respect and showed them they had value.
Related to this, framing the abortion debate as a battle for rights between a woman and a foetus ignores the third person in the genesis of that foetus. I am not saying the male “genetic contributor” should also have rights — rather, abortion is connected with sex, because sex is (usually) how we make babies. Sex in its proper, Christian place as we understand it from the Bible, is within marriage — a public commitment to do life together — which is also a good place to have babies. And marriage means that men take equal responsibility for the consequences of sex.
And the evidence supports the man involved as sometimes being the reason for an abortion. According to a Dunedin longitudinal study, the main reasons women cited for having an abortion were: they weren’t ready, they felt they couldn’t afford to have a child, and they were not with the right partner.
I don’t want to labour this point, and I realise it might be an awkward on around the bbq, but I do think that it is a significant part of our Christian worldview that we should take ownership of. And I don’t mean we should get on our high horses either — we have all fallen short of the glory of God — and as my dad likes to put it, we have all declared our autonomy from God — but the Bible shows us how God intended us to live, including the proper place of sex.
So how do we frame abortion as Christians?
Stanley Hauerwas, in a very interesting and helpful talk on the topic, which I highly recommend you read, debunks the idea that Christians believe that life is sacred. He says that notion seems to have no reference at all to God. Christians believe there is much worth dying for. We do not believe that human life is an absolute good in and of itself. Of course our desire to protect human life is part of our seeing each human being as God’s creature. But that does not mean that we believe that life is an overriding good. Instead we believe that life is the gift of a gracious God. That is our primary Christian language regarding abortion: life is the gift of a gracious God. As part of the giftedness of life, we believe that we ought to live in profound awe of the other’s existence, knowing that in the other we find God.
And in a world of terrible injustice, in a world of such terrible misery, in a world where the actions of adults so often result in the killing of our children (e.g. climate change, war), having children is an extraordinary act of faith and hope. And as Christians we have a hope in God that urges us to welcome children and that is a testimony of faith.
With this framework of life as a gift and children symbolising hope, the Christian response to abortion must reframe the issue to focus on responsibility rather than rights. That is, the responsibility of the whole Christian community to care for ‘the least of these.’ And we see a beautiful picture of this at work in the our passage from Acts.
If we look at some of the reasons for abortion: not being ready, being with the wrong partner, lack of resources, the Christian response must be to say “be wise when it comes to sex, but if you find yourself pregnant, let us help you.”
Reverend Terry Hamilton sums it up well and I will finish with her words:
“We cannot simply throw the issue of abortion in the faces of women and say, ‘You decide and you bear the consequences of your decision.’ As the church, our response to the abortion issue must be to shoulder the responsibility to care for women and children. We cannot do otherwise and still be the church. If we close our doors in the faces of women and children, then we close our doors in the face of Christ.”