The concept of personhood in moral philosophy
World Faith: Ethics
Christian attitudes to abortion (Part 1): Introduction, Roman Catholic and Church of England teaching
Christians believe that life is special and sacred. For instance, all major Christian denominations (or groups) teach that we have a soul (a part of us that lives on after death), and that we have an opportunity to have a relationship with God. The Bible also says that humans have been created in God's image (Genesis 1:27), which means that humans have certain qualities and characteristics that God has (E.g. They can make things, they have the ability to reason, they were created good etc.). Christians also believe that God values human life greatly, and that God has shown this by sending Jesus to die for us:
'But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.' (Romans 5:8)
Many Christians also believe that as God has given us life, so only God has the right to take it away:
'The Lord brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up.' (1 Samuel 2:6)
Other passages in the Bible seem to imply that God has in mind the life someone will live, before they are born:
'Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.' (Jeremiah 1:5)
All these things suggest that each individual person is to be treated with respect and dignity.
However, although Christians seek to follow and apply the teachings of the Bible in their daily life, in practice this is not an easy thing to do. For instance, it is often unclear whether all the commandments in the Bible are still applicable today (E.g. 'If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son... all the men of his town shall stone him to death' - (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)). There is also no specific instruction given about the matter of abortion in the Bible, so what Christians believe about it must be based on interpreting passages which appear to speak about the sanctity of life. Naturally, this has lead to a variety of viewpoints concerning the rightness or wrongness of abortion.
Generally the Church condemns abortion, with most Christians believing it violates the sixth command - 'You shall not murder' (Exodus 20:13). Where there are differences of opinion amongst Christians about the matter of abortion, these tend to focus on the value of the mother's life verses that of any unborn child, and when exactly an embryo/fetus can be said to be fully human.
The Roman Catholic Church
The Roman Catholic Church is totally and utterly opposed to abortion. In fact, anyone found to have had an abortion, or aiding someone to do so, will be excommunicated from the Church (made to leave it). Direct involvement in abortions is also considered to be a mortal sin. Unlike venial sins, these are sins committed in the full knowledge that they are wrong, and unless forgiveness is sought, will result in eternal separation from God.
'Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person - among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.' (Catechism of the Catholic Church: The fifth commandment)
One of the main reasons why the Church is so against abortion, is because it believes that life begins at conception. The Church also believes that abortions can have serious physical and emotional side-effects, for women who have them.
Central to Roman Catholic ethics is the idea of Natural Law. This is the belief that God has set the world up in a certain way, and that it is wrong for humans to interfere with this. In the case of abortion, this is considered to be morally wrong because it interferes (and ultimately stops) the natural process of bringing new life into the world. When nothing prevents it, the sexual act should naturally lead to pregnancy. If this act is interfered with in any way, then the chances of becoming pregnant are lessened (or will not happen). This would be deemed to be stopping the natural cycle of events, God intended to occur.
On the basis of Natural Law, The Roman Catholic Church also prohibits the use of artificial forms of contraception (such as condoms, the pill etc.). Instead, the Church teaches that there are times in a woman's monthly cycle when she is naturally infertile, so any tampering with this upsets the natural order of things.
Although the Church does not allow abortions for any reason, it does accept that there are times when an abortion may occur. For example, if a woman becomes sick and requires an operation, but in the process of operating on her she loses her baby, this is not something she or the doctors intended. Although the act is still morally wrong, it was not done intentionally.
The idea of someone doing something to achieve one effect, but not being blamed for the second effect occurring, is known as the Doctrine of Double Effect.
Something to think about: Do you think doctors should allow their religious beliefs to affect the way they practice medicine? Do you believe a Catholic doctor has the right to refuse to give a woman an abortion, even though she may not be a Catholic herself? What if he was the only doctor able to perform abortions in the region where this woman lived?
The Church of England (Anglican Church)
The Church of England generally condemns abortion. However, unlike the Roman Catholic Church who admits to no exceptions, the Church of England does. Although never a good thing, abortions are said to be morally acceptable in situations where the mother's life is in danger due to the pregnancy. Abortions are also permitted at a late stage if, and only if, 'serious foetal handicap' will result in the child surviving only a short time after being born.
'The Church of England rejects the oversimplification of the debate into 'pro choice' and 'pro life'.' (Abortion - A briefing paper, www.cofe.anglican.org)
The Church of England believes when an abortion is necessary, then it should be carried out as early as possible in the pregnancy.
'In the light of our conviction that the fetus has the right to live and develop as a member of the human family, we see abortion, the termination of that life by the act of man, as a great moral evil. We do not believe that the right to life, as a right pertaining to persons, admits of no exceptions whatever; but the right of the innocent to life admits surely of few exceptions indeed.' (Abortion - A briefing paper, www.cofe.anglican.org)
'The fetus is God given life, with the potential to develop relationships, think, pray, choose and love... "All human life, including life developing in the womb, is created by God in his own image and is, therefore, to be nurtured, supported and protected".' (Abortion - A briefing paper, www.cofe.anglican.org (with supporting quote from the 1983 Synod Resolution))
In how it deals with women who wish to have an abortion, the Church believes compassion and understanding needs to be shown. The Church accepts that often the issues leading a woman to want an abortion are complex, and cannot be side-lined as incidental to the debate. Fathers too should also be acknowledged as having an input into what cannot be an easy decision. As such, the Church should be there to help, support and guide people facing these decisions:
'Every possible support, especially by church members, needs to be given to those who are pregnant in difficult circumstances.' (Abortion - A briefing paper, www.cofe.anglican.org)
That being said, the Church laments that currently women in the UK can easily have an abortion, and as a result it feels that too many are being performed:
'This Synod, being gravely concerned with the fact that in England there are currently 500 abortions every day of the year, call upon Her Majesty’s Government to bring in urgent legislation to restrict the abuses of the Abortion Act.' (Abortion - A briefing paper, www.cofe.anglican.org)
In general, the Church of England considers abortion to be the lesser of two evils.
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