The Roe v. Wade (1973) decision by the US Supreme Court changed the moral presumption of the law by legalizing abortion. In Roe the Court ruled that state legislatures could not restrict a woman’s right to choose an abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy. A state could, however, restrict abortion in the second trimester to protect the health of the woman. The Court also held that states could limit abortion in the final trimester of pregnancy to procedures deemed necessary in order to preserve the health of a woman.

Since the Roe decision state legislatures and Congress have tried to modify the public moral standards for allowing abortions. Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) overturned a state law requiring a married woman to notify her husband of her intention to have an abortion. Casey also held that a state’s regulations concerning abortion may not impose an "undue burden" on a pregnant woman by placing a "substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion before the fetus attains viability.

Roe and Casey represent the current ethical presumption of public morality embodied in federal law, yet is fiercely opposed by many Christians. 

Catholic teaching argues that ethical decisions must involve fulfilling our purpose as human beings created in the image of the God we know in Jesus Christ. Our purpose is not to take life, but to create and preserve life. God’s purpose for a fetus is to be born. Therefore, intervening in a woman’s pregnancy to abort a fetus is wrong.

Catholics recognize that there may be a conflict between the right of a woman to live and the right to life of the fetus within her uterus. From 1450 to 1895 when a pregnancy threatened the life of a woman, Catholic theologians gave preference to her life. Since 1895, however, Catholic teaching has only given priority to the life of a pregnant woman when the lives of both the woman and the fetus are threatened, as with cancer of the uterus. Surgery that involves removing a woman’s cancerous uterus is held to be ethical, because the purpose of the act (the intention) is preserving the woman’s life. In such surgery the death of a fetus is an unintended and tragic consequence of a good intention and the proper use of medical technology.

The major argument against Catholic teaching asserts that a fetus early in its development does not have a right to life — at least not a right to life that outweighs the right of privacy of a woman, a right giving her the freedom to choose an abortion. This is the implied position of Roe for the first trimester of pregnancy. The Catholic response is that there is no rational basis in science or ethics for assigning the beginning of the right to life sometime after conception.

Historically, both Jews and Christians have identified the right to life of a fetus with viability, and most Jews and many Protestants continue to maintain this position, at least implicitly.

Arguing as a Christian for Roe involves explicit support for a woman’s right of privacy, at least in the first trimester of a pregnancy, and an implicit assumption that the fetus, at least in the first trimester of pregnancy, is not a "person" with a right to life. Priority is given to personal freedom, or what today is often described as the fundamental human right of liberty and privacy. This position seems to be a variation of the old saw: "Let conscience be your guide." At least in the first trimester of a woman’s pregnancy, Roe and Casey leave the ethical issue of whether or not to abort the fetus up to the conscience of the pregnant woman.

Therefore, Christian support for Roe and Casey would rely on evidence for the importance of conscience in the Bible, in Christian teaching, and in the life of the church. Such an argument might be made in terms of four ethical categories: duty, character, relationships, and rights.

Immanuel Kant, a Protestant as well as a prominent philosopher, taught that doing our duty, properly understood, would mean acting on the basis of our conscience. Aware that modern philosophy would reject any claim to divine authority, Kant argued that reason alone would both make clear our duty and prevent an act of conscience from being self-serving or arbitrary. For Kant, our conscience reflects (through the nature of reason) the good purposes of God.

The New Testament gospels are rich in stories illustrating the character traits that should mark the lives of faithful Christians. The parable of the Good Samaritan is merely the most obvious example. Moreover, the letters in the New Testament and the teachings of the historical church emphasize the virtues of faith, hope and love. In addition, the Christian doctrine of incarnation makes a human life the center of God’s creative love. In the popular approach to Christian ethics this means, when confronting a dilemma, one might simply ask: "What would Jesus do?

There is an individualistic danger in this approach, which may be corrected by emphasizing our relationships. Paul makes this argument by describing the church as "the body of Christ" and by urging Christians to exercise their freedom "in Christ" with self-restraint, to avoid undermining the faith of other members in the church. Paul is not remembered as a feminist, although he often praises women who are his missionary colleagues. But his attack on allowing rules to dictate what is best for the church is consistent with the feminist critique of traditional forms of ethics.

Finally, we should not expect to find contemporary rights affirmed in the New Testament, as this ethical discourse arises in recent history with democratic governing structures that provide greater protection for the exercise of individual freedom. Nonetheless, an increased emphasis on autonomy is not unrelated to the Protestant Reformation and its call to ground ethics on the New Testament witness. A Christian reading of scripture may readily discern the presence of the Spirit of God not only in history, but also in culture and government as well as in our personal lives.

Therefore, a Christian position supporting Roe and Casey need not be seen as contradicting Catholic ethical instructions to act so as to fulfill God’s purpose. The difference is in how God’s purpose is understood. In the Catholic Church the clerical hierarchy claims the authority to discern God’s purpose. In the Protestant tradition discernment of God’s purpose is informed by the life of Christians in their church, but fundamentally is a matter of conscience.

Christians who support the right of conscience protected by Roe and Casey need not argue that abortion is right rather than wrong, or good rather than bad, but only that the right of privacy of a pregnant woman, as limited by Roe and Casey, should be respected. Believing that freedom is central to God’s purpose, Christians may affirm that in the circumstances described by Roe and Casey the profound moral choices confronting a woman are between her and God.

January 6, 2006

 bob@rtraer.com © Robert Traer 2016