So abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland? If only it were as simple as that! Abortions are being carried out every week in hospitals and clinics throughout the province. While the 1967 Abortion Act only applies to the mainland, a lack of clarity in our laws, together with some spurious court rulings and an ever more permissive interpretation of existing legislation, means that the floodgates have already opened. Now we have the opening of a Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast.
There, abortions are carried out up until the ninth week of pregnancy. Because medication is prescribed, rather than the surgical option, there appears to be a view that it is not so serious, certainly not wrong. In addition, abortions have been carried out here for decades in cases where there are detected ‘foetal abnormalities’ like Down’s Syndrome and Spina Bifida.
Abortion is the sanitized name for the murder of the unborn child. Current figures put abortion rates in England, Scotland and Wales at around 200,000 per year. No one appears to know precisely how many happen in Northern Ireland. But is it too much to say that all these so-called ‘terminations’ are so many murders? If we are to justify the claim, we must first establish that the unborn child is alive; and then that it is morally wrong to take that life.
WHEN DOES LIFE BEGIN?
Medically speaking, every individual is unique. What makes us unique is the fact that our genes – the blueprint in DNA – differ from those possessed by every other person. This combination of genes is determined at conception. Such a combination did not exist prior to conception, but at this point, though only consisting of one cell, it contains all the unique information to determine the individual characteristics of the person concerned. Our uniqueness is thus determined at the moment of conception. The unborn child has a detectable heartbeat between the 18th and 25th day after conception, detectable brain cell activity at 40 days, and by 6-8 weeks is a perfect miniature baby albeit only about 10mm in length. At this time, by ultrasound scan, the baby may be seen moving in the womb.
A key portion of Scripture is Psalm 139: 14 –16. Here, David praises God for his own life and development, with special emphasis on the time before he was born. The word translated “wonderfully made” is not the term usually rendered ‘made’. It means ‘to be marked out’, or ‘to be set apart’. In addressing the matter of the origin of human life, and the unborn child, Scripture indicates that we are not simply ‘made’ – we are marked out, set apart by the Almighty as individuals, those who are special in the sight of God.
The word “works” (v14) means ‘a product’, or ‘a thing made’, so the Lord owns this unborn child as His product, something He has personally made. “Substance” (v15) may be translated ‘bones’ or ‘body’. So we can read verse 15, ‘My body was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth’. Notice that this body, though unborn, is not a non-entity, it has ownership: ‘my body’ (“substance”). It is not just a piece of human tissue with the potential for life; it is the body of the person David, though as yet unborn. Now we must notice the point at which the Lord is recognising this unborn child as an individual – as David. One Hebrew word is translated “my substance, yet being unperfect” (v16). This word can also be rendered ‘embryo’ or ‘foetus’. Literally, it means ‘wrapped’, or ‘unformed mass’. What a good description of an embryo!
So the Lord’s recognition of this individual as David, occurs at the embryo stage – at the latest, within hours of conception – and long before implantation in the womb which occurs several days later. The word “book” (v16) refers to ‘a register, a record book’ or ‘a legal document’. So the Lord has a book, or a blueprint, for every life, and in it details of the members (organs or body parts) making up that individual body. “Which in continuance were fashioned” (v16) may also be rendered ‘what days they should be fashioned’. So even the specific timing of the development of the organs within the embryo is contained in this book, and “when as yet there was none of them” (v16) – before conception has even taken place.
In Jeremiah 1:5 the Lord refers to the prophet at the point where his body is unformed, at the early embryo stage. “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.” Once again, therefore, the embryo, in God’s eyes, has both significance and identity.
DOES GOD SANCTION TAKING THE LIFE OF THE UNBORN?
We have established, both medically and scripturally, that life begins at conception. One question remains: is it morally wrong to take the life of the unborn for any reason? The 6th commandment is clear: “Thou shalt not kill.” That ought to be enough to settle the question, but there is particular reference to the killing of the unborn in Exodus 21:22-25, “If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” Simply put, if a woman is injured so that she miscarries (“her fruit depart from her”) even if the child is born alive with no injury (“yet no mischief follow”), the offender “shall be surely punished.” But if harm does come to the child (“if any mischief follow”), then the punishment will be in kind, “thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” Notice that the life of the unborn child has equal status with that of the adult in this scenario.
What about the ‘difficult cases’? What if pregnancy follows rape? Such instances will often be cited. While we must extend the greatest sympathy and support to those in such a situation, the facts remain, the unborn child is alive, and God forbids the killing of that child. Neither is it appropriate to build an argument around the case where life-saving treatment results in the death of the unborn child. No one is accusing the woman in this situation of unlawful killing – that would be insensitive and unscriptural – but it must be emphasized that such instances are exceedingly rare.
The truth is, abortion is just one of many crimes that man has legitimised and legalized. Christians must be prepared to hold to the teaching of God’s Word, our only rule of faith and practice; to speak out for those who have no voice; and to show compassion for those burdened with the guilt of past sin, pointing them to Christ.
Dr. Lindsay Wilson