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The Moral High Ground
October 22, 2008
Yesterday I received an interesting email from a reader of this site. He had a question about abortion and, specifically, about abortion in the case of incest and rape. Here is an excerpt of his question:
We’re not living in a theocratic nation like the Old Testament Israel. Whether we like it or not, we’re living in a democratic nation where people of varying beliefs, not God, make the laws. To what extent, then, can we impose Christian values by law? especially in case of abortion by incest and rape? I understand we can make a good argument against abortion in general without having to resort to biblical teaching. However, what about in cases of abortion by incest or rape? Are we supposed to work to ban those as well?
As a Christian, i believe abortion is wrong. And because it is based on the absolute truth of the Bible, there are no exceptions. I also reject the view that when it comes to morality one’s private views and public views must be distinguished. But i don’t know where to draw the line when it comes to abortion by incest or rape. To what extent do we ‘compromise’ (is that the right word?) or stop short when creating or voting for laws?
This is a good question and, strangely, one I had been discussing with my wife just hours before this email showed up. It is my conviction that some evangelicals and pro-lifers have given away the moral high ground by making a false and irrational distinction between children who are conceived by choice (or at least by the choice to engage in sexual intercourse) and children who are conceived by rape or incest (though, of course, most incest is also rape). If the argument against abortion was “You made a bad decision, now deal with it!” then this argument would make sense. Those who did not choose to have a child would be exonerated and could justly terminate their pregnancies. But this is not our argument. The argument from Scripture is simple: a fetus is a human being. A fetus has the same “humanness” as an adult and thus has the same right to life. A fetus is fully human. A fetus is as fully human if she is conceived by choice as if she is conceived by brutal force. Of course I affirm that rape is a horrific crime—undoubtedly one of the worst crimes a person could commit and one whose full spiritual, physical, mental and emotional impact I am sure I cannot adequately understand. But the brutality of the crime does not change the fact that is indisputable from Scripture—even a child conceived by rape is fully human.
I feel that another aspect of this reader’s question deserves a response. He asked “to what extent, then, can we impose Christian values by law?” Here I think we need to pause to distinguish between values and morals. It used to be that we spoke of morals—truths that were applicable to all people. Societal morals were built upon a Christian foundation so that society widely accepted that homosexuality was wrong, that abortion was forbidden, that truth was a virtue, and so on. These morals stood above society, giving structure and imposing themselves on all people. But in recent decades, coasting in alongside a naturalistic worldview, morals have been diminished and have been replaced by values. Where morals are absolute, values are inherently subjective. Each of us may have our own sets of values. Society dictates that you are required to respect my values while I am required to respect yours.
So to what extent can we impose Christian values? Well, in a sense we do not seek to impose Christian values at all. Instead, we seek to impose Christian morals. We affirm that the Scripture gives us absolute standards of right and wrong and we seek to live within these boundaries. Again, these morals stand over and above us and call us all to obedience. They are vertical rather than horizontal. So we do not face our society with an attitude implying that we both hold to values and I hope that you will accept mine. Instead, we face society with the conviction that God’s morals are good and absolute. We can impose these morals on others without fear. Were a national leader to find himself in a position of being able to eradicate abortion, he could do so from a moral standpoint and do it without regret or hesitation. In such a case he has no need to concern himself with another person’s subjective values.
However, it is unlikely that such a day will come. It is unlikely that a person will ever be in a position where he can take us directly from where we are today (the celebration of abortion) to where we would like to go (the abolition of abortion). And here we can draw inspiration from moral victories of days past. I think it is most helpful to turn to a man like William Wilberforce and his battle to end slavery. Slavery was essentially a value held in days past. Society may have frowned on slavery as somewhat less than savory, but it ultimately left it to the discretion of the individual. If one person’s sense of value allowed slavery, then it was acceptable to him. But Wilberforce and the abolitionists took the moral high ground and decreed rightly that slavery was abhorrent and immoral.
One of the lessons from Wilberforce’s fight and eventual victory is that incremental victories are still victories. To borrow a cliche, Rome wasn’t built in a day; neither was it destroyed in a day. The cultural and political climate that welcomed abortion was the culmination of many societal forces. There were gradual steps away from biblical truth, gradual relaxing of traditional gender roles and small but steady changes in the understanding of human rights. It was the confluence of many forces that legalized abortion. Similarly, it is likely that it will take many years and many small, incremental changes to effect the status quo. While we must always keep the end in mind and desire nothing less than the full and complete abolition of abortion, we do not compromise if and when we accept and rejoice in incremental changes. Thus if laws were changed to forbid abortion except in cases of rape and incest, I believe Christians could support such legislation. They might do so with heavy hearts, knowing that unjust abortions would continue, but they could do so with clear consciences rejoicing in the righting of many wrongs.
Of course even here we make one exception (and allow me this brief aside, if you will). If the life of a pregnant mother is in grave danger so that both she and the fetus will surely die should the pregnancy continue, we affirm that an abortion is permissible. This is no light decision, but one that is acceptable in the light of this sinful world we inhabit. I have known people who struggled and struggled to get pregnant and who rejoiced in finding that God had finally blessed them with a pregnancy. But they soon learned that this was an ectopic pregnancy and they were forced to abort the child lest both mom and baby die. This is a heart-rending decision but one I believe we can support from Scripture. It is a sad consequence of human sin.
Abortion is so awful, so despicable, so abhorrent that I have to think it will, indeed, be abolished some day. It is my hope and even my conviction that we will someday regard it as we now regard slavery. We will shake our heads and wonder how we could ever have lived in such a society. Children will learn in school of society’s ambivalence to so great an evil and express proper shock and disgust. And I hope and pray that Christians will lead this fight and ascribe all glory to God when the battle is finally won.