Abortion and the Gift of Grace

By Brian Edgar

Public debate about abortion generally ends up polarising into pro-life and pro-choice perspectives.  These two views operate on different and apparently incommensurable principles.  One stresses the inviolability or sanctity of life and the importance of love for those unable to defend themselves.  The other focuses on freedom of choice, and the difficult position which conception can bring to women.  Those fully committed to one side or another do not necessarily deny the element of truth in what the other side says, yet are usually unable to integrate them and so resolve to focus on the one which seems to be of greater importance.  Moderates are more likely to try and hold the different dimensions together in tension, using personal judgment as to what the right balance is, but still with no logical convergence of principles.

Is it possible for pro-life and pro-choice to converge?   Helen Oppenheimer (b. 1926), philosophical and moral theologian; Anglican; author of ten books and numerous articles on ethics, contributor to public moral discussions in general and to various Church of England reports on divorce, marriage and abortion, believes that it is possible.  ‘Properly considered, ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ ought to converge. Their difference ought to be a respectable difference of emphasis, not a bitter difference of stance.’[i] This article uses Oppenheimer’s discussion of abortion to outline ways of bringing these two very different perspectives closer together.

For Oppenheimer, in order to find that which can be used as a bridge it is essential to get behind the question-begging ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ terminology which makes ‘slogans a substitute for persuasion’[ii] What is needed is some principle or principles which directly relate life and choice, love and freedom.  Oppenheimer discusses two principles which have the potential to do that. They are able to relate pro-choice and pro-life perspectives precisely because elements of both ‘life’ and ‘choice’ are intrinsic to them.

The first integrating principle relates the ‘life’ and ‘choice’ values via a ‘principle of presumption for life’. This is a principle which allows for choice but which begins from the point of accepting that there has to be ‘a presumption for choosing life’.

The second is ‘the principle of grace’ which mediates between ‘love’ for the unborn and ‘freedom of choice’ for the mother.  Grace requires both love and freedom in order for it to be genuine grace and thus has the potential to link the two.

The principle of presumption for life

For Oppenheimer, the first step in bringing ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ nearer together involves advocates for both sides making concessions about the earliest stage of human life.  The pro-choice proponents ‘ought to grant that as soon as there is an entity there at all, even when it is still just a cluster of cells, the life of that entity is a human life. It is a living creature made of human stuff. It ought to be treated with respect.’ In return pro-life advocates ought to admit that even a conviction about the ‘sacredness’ of life ‘does not exclude the belief that there are dire circumstances in which human life may be taken.’  This, after all, is reckoned to be appropriate in circumstances where self-defence is required and in some situations of war.  Consequently, ‘the sacredness of life cannot mean the inviolability of fetal life in absolutely all circumstances’.[iii]

The next step is to come together and operate on ‘the principle of presumption for life’, a presumption ‘that is truly pro-life with the flexibility not to forbid responsible choice.’[iv] This principle presumes that the life of the unborn child ought not to be taken.  It is a presumption which is ‘never to be ignored but may sometimes be rebutted.’[v] The obvious examples which illustrate this are situations where the life or the health of the mother is seriously endangered by the pregnancy.  This presents the strongest case for over-riding the presumption for life.  At the far end of the spectrum are the cases where abortion is sought for ‘mere convenience’, such as where termination of a pregnancy is used as a substitute for efficient contraception.  The principle of presumption for life would suggest at least that ‘choice’ ought to involve more than the mother’s wish for convenience.

For Oppenheimer, choice is free and real but has to be constrained by the reality of the value of the life of the fetus.  This principle does not absolutise life, but nor does it allow choice to begin from a completely neutral position.  Life is to be respected and the principle calls for a choice for life wherever possible. In reality, this is the kind of balance which many people make intuitively as they seek to do justice to the competing demands which surround questions of abortion, but there are both theoretical and practical advantages in formulating the principle as one of ‘presumption for life’. The theoretical advantage is that it becomes clear that choice and life are linked in principle, and are not completely divorced from each other. The practical advantage is the way that it makes an initial presumption in favour of life.

This convergence may be judged to be positive and yet incomplete, for two reasons. Firstly, although it brings together choice and life it does so without the intrinsic ability to adjudicate on more difficult, complex situations. Secondly, it lacks the power to empower the making of these difficult choices, for it is one thing to be aware of a desirable course of action and it is quite another to be able to undertake it.  Marriage, family life, parenting and, at times, bringing a child to birth can involve the most painful and difficult decisions which require not only great wisdom but also great strength. Hence the need for the principle of grace.

The principle of grace

Marriage and parenthood may exist but cannot flourish without mutual help, care and nurture which sometimes goes beyond what might be reasonably required as part of everyday life. Sometimes the demands of life are such that a love is required which cannot be enforced.  It has to be offered freely.  Oppenheimer says, ‘neither marriage nor parenthood can be properly understood without a concept of transcendence: that is, of going beyond what can fairly be demanded. The idea of transcendence is promisingly paradoxical: it cuts through the distinction between the optional and the compulsory.’[vi]

In order to grasp this ‘needful but not compellable generosity’ one requires a concept of grace and it is here that we find even stronger material for building a bridge between ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’.  This is so because grace has two essential dimensions. If either is absent then grace disappears. Grace involves, on one the one hand, power and strength, and on the other it is a gift which is given according to a completely free choice. Grace is both strength and gift.

The Greek speaking Jews who translated the Old Testament some time before the birth of Christ thought charis (grace) was an appropriate word to translate the help given by one who comes to the aid of a weaker person. This is the kind of life-saving help given to starving people by Pharaoh’s prime-minister Joseph, the generous and undeserved honour offered by King Saul to the shepherd boy David and the rescue sought by widowed Ruth in her time of need.[vii] In the New Testament the word is used in a distinctive way to describe very specifically that power or favour which flows from God to people to enable them to believe and be saved. Grace is the totally undeserved and yet freely given gift from God by which we are saved.  This grace is personal, it comes from Jesus and flows through his disciples, transforming people and lives. It is grace which can transform seemingly impossible situations, as when the prodigal son is welcomed, the latest-coming workers are given a full day’s pay and which forgives not seven times but seventy times seven.[viii] Grace transcends fairness. It is strength freely given.

In the normal course of events a pregnancy engenders an attitude of grace and love. When the fetus has become a visible baby it is more natural to speak of parental ‘love’ rather than ‘grace’ and yet from the very beginning it is grace that enables the life of the fetus and the child to be sustained.  The fetus, in particular, is sustained by the grace of the mother upon whom it is wholly dependent.  ‘But sometimes this human grace is absent, not just slow to develop but replaced by its opposite, by actual repudiation.’  This can occur in the most difficult of situations, even where grace is needed for life to continue. The absence of grace may mean death.  In such situations the offer of grace, despite wishes and desires to the contrary, is something to be greatly praised. But, as Oppenheimer points out, it can hardly be praised unless refusal were a possibility.’[ix]

Pro-choice advocates should not shy away from the principle of grace, but should welcome the strength it gives and see that it is neither a theoretical principle nor a personal power which is opposed to the choice for which they argue. It is a power which can use and transform choice.  Pro-life advocates need to understand that, unlike God’s grace, human grace can fail, and because it is essentially free, it cannot be compelled.  To try to compel life and prevent abortion is to try and make grace compulsory.  Of course, at times grace can, as it were, ‘overflow’ into a situation from elsewhere: expectant mothers can be supported, and people can adopt babies. ‘But sometimes in human affairs the absence of grace must simply be allowed whether in desperation or in cool self-understanding.  A mother may make it plain that she has not the resources, physical or moral or both, to be ‘grace-giver’, to support the life of this growing human being… the life of the fetus is in the gift of its mother, in a way in which the life of a baby is not.  The corollary is that if she is unequal to this vocation, then that is a fact. Grace cannot be compelled, though it can be asked in God’s name.’[x]

Conclusion

Oppenheimer’s principles obviously do not resolve all the issues associated with abortion.  But they do point towards the possibility of dialogue between two apparently opposing principles. And at the personal level they speak of the possibility of empowerment.  Many questions, including the issue of legislation, remain to be resolved.  The principle of the presumption for life ought, in some way be reflected in the way that society seeks to resolve questions of abortion. But so too should the principle of grace as both strength and gift.  Yet that presents us with a great difficulty, for law can implement choice more easily than it can implement grace.  Because we should not try to make the law do what it cannot do it cannot, is clear that questions of abortion require a community response which has greater breadth and depth than that which can be achieved through law alone.  Grace comes apart from law, through personal involvement and active love.

This first appeared as “Abortion and the Grace of God” in BriefCACE: Public Morality Monthly, No. 31, (June 2006) 3-5


[i] Helen Oppenheimer, ‘Abortion: a sketch for a Christian view’ in Studies in Christian Ethics, Vol 5, No.2, (1992), p.55.

[ii] Oppenheimer, Abortion, p.48.

[iii] Oppenheimer, Abortion, p.56.

[iv] Oppenheimer, Abortion, p. 54.

[v] Oppenheimer, Abortion, p. 54.

[vi] Oppenheimer, Abortion, p. 58.

[vii] Gen. 47:25; 1 Sam. 16:22; Ruth 2:2.

[viii] Luke 15:11-32; Matt. 20:1-16; Matt. 18:22.

[ix] Oppenheimer, Abortion, p. 60.

[x] Oppenheimer, Abortion, p. 59-60.

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