Monday, 5 November 2007

Sermon on Abortion

I wouldn't usually blog sermons (don't like long blog posts) but as a few people have asked, here is yesterday morning's on abortion.

[Biggest shock in my research was to discover Marie Stopes' horrific eugenic tendencies. Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised.]

Last Saturday, there was a march of 2000 people past Parliament to protest on the 40th anniversary of the 1967 legalisation of abortion in the UK. This week the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee issued two reports. One report, from the majority of the members, argued for the liberalisation of current abortion laws. The other, issued separately by two members of the committee, said the main report was misleading.

The issue of the sanctity of life needs little introduction. Many would say the right to life is the most basic human right. And the more it is discussed, the more issues it affects: abortion, euthanasia, infertility, contraception, murder and the death penalty, and so on.

These are also very emotive issues. This is about life and death. It is deeply affecting. Almost all of us will have been affected by one or more of these issues. What I hope to do this morning is to outline some principles from Psalm 139 with which we can approach these questions, and then to consider abortion, partly because it is the 40th anniversary of legalisation, partly because it is the great guilt of the church in this country that we have been silent for too long.

Inevitably, there will be things said this morning which will be difficult for some of us to hear, indeed which may be painful or make us angry. Please listen carefully, do question me afterwards. If you need to talk to someone, Matthew and I are available, but there are others here at Christ Church who can help, if you’d rather not talk to us. Do ask, and we’ll put you in contact with the right person.

Together, we want to work out what the Bible says is right and wrong. None of us is perfect, all of us, me included, have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God. God alone is the Judge of all. And he is also the Saviour who offers forgiveness.

Let’s look at Psalm 139. The important verses for our purposes are 13-16.

First we see that God is the Creator of all life, so all life belongs to Him.

Verse 13 speaks of both spiritual and physical life. The word for inmost being here is literally kidney. But in Hebrew thinking, the kidney, as an organ hidden away in the depths of your being, symbolises your life force, your drive, your instinct and will.

We see that in a newborn baby. There is a will to live – if he is hungry or cold, or too hot, or tired, he cries, as if to say, “somebody, do something about this please.” God doesn’t just create a body, he makes a soul, a person. Elsewhere the Bible also speaks of spiritual life even in the womb. Psalm 51:5 says that a baby in the womb is sinful. More positively, Psalm 22:10 says that a child in the womb can have a relationship with God.

God knits together this child in the womb. This is the language of clothing and covering. God physically forms and produces the baby. That union of flesh and spirit, body and soul, that we call a human being, a person, is made by God. Not just made, but, in v. 14, fearfully and wonderfully made. That is, when you look at a human being, whether a baby or an adult, you see something extraordinary.

The best adverts, on TV or in print, have great punchlines. A few years ago, BUPA, the healthcare company, ran a series of adverts. Each one would feature an element of the human body. For example, the human eye has a definition of 81 megapixels, where the most powerful digital camera on sale today would be just over 11 megapixels. The would come the killer line: “You’re amazing. At BUPA, we want you to stay that way.” The other even simpler one, for the ladies, is L’oreal: “Because you’re worth it.”

The human body is fearfully and wonderfully made. So, very obviously, life is precious, because God is the Creator. The existence of any life is not random or meaningless, as Richard Dawkins and others would have us believe. The existence of any life is God-given, God-planned, God-purposed. We are entirely dependent on God for our own life, and any other lives we desire, whether by ordinary reproduction, or through fertility treatment.

And so we must remember, no human life belongs ultimately to another human being. Yes, husbands and parents and pastors and civil governments all bear responsibility for aspects of others’ lives, but all life belongs to its creator. God is the owner of all human life.

As well as being the creator, God is the Director of all life, so our lives are in his hands.

He knows us. He knows every thought and emotion and instinct. That’s in v. 15 – nothing is hidden from God, but also the point of the whole psalm. V. 2, he perceives our thoughts; v. 4, he knows what we will say before we say it; v. 7-12, there is nowhere we can go to escape God, physically or mentally.

But it is more than just a comprehensive knowledge. In v. 16, it is direction and determination as well. In v. 16, we are told, your eyes saw my unformed body. That is a very specific word in Hebrew, the word for embryo. It is an unusual word, different from the word normally used for a child in the womb. It suggests an embryo at the earliest stage of development, when it is unformed, before it displays any recognisably human features. In modern scientific language, we could argue it is a fertilised embryo before it is even implanted in the lining of the womb. And God sees and knows this person. He is the Director of all life.

“All, the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” Job 14:5 makes the same point: “Man’s days are determined; you have decreed the number of his months and have set limits he cannot exceed.”

God directs all life. Before we are even born, he has determined how and when we will die. That should be immensely humbling for us. We cannot extend our life by one moment beyond what God has decreed. Equally, it is not up to us to shorten our lives artificially. It is not up to me when I die, whether sooner or later.

God is the creator of all life, so all life belongs to him. God is the director of all life, so our lives are in his hands.

There are so many things we could talk about today, but not enough time. If you want to think about contraception, there’s this excellent little pamphlet in the Christ Church lending library called Contraception: a pro-life guide.

I’m not going to talk about different types of fertility treatment. Do ask your doctor about pro-life options, and please talk to someone here.

I’m afraid I won’t talk about euthanasia either. It is agonising to watch a loved one suffer, particularly when there is little prospect of relief, or an end in sight. All I can say now is that ethically, there is a world of difference between withdrawing treatments and allowing someone to die naturally, and intervening actively to bring about death. Do talk to me afterwards, if this is an issue for you.

If you are interested in the death penalty, I have left some copies of a one-page summary of a Christian argument in favour of the death penalty at the back.

With all of these, please do not suffer in silence. Talk to someone you can trust. WE are here to talk and will respect your confidence.

Let us then think about abortion.

Abortion is the deliberate ending of the life of an embryo or foetus in the womb for a variety of reasons.

How should we view abortion?

First, we have seen that life, both physical and spiritual, begins at conception, not at birth, or at some indeterminate point between the two. We have seen already in Psalm 51:5 that David saw himself as a person with spiritual and moral value from the time he was conceived. That life is full human personhood, not a sub-human existence. Abortion is the ending of a human life.

Second, the child is made in the image of God. In Genesis 9:6 we read, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” The reason no man should kill another is because we are made in the image of God, and that image should not be assaulted. Abortion is an attack onone bearing the image of God.

Third, the child in the womb is not the property ultimately of the parents, or even of the mother. The child belongs to God. So, we must reject the argument of a woman’s right over her own body. It is not simply her own body, it is also the life of a child. Even if we viewed the child simply as part of the mother’s body, God still places limits on the individual’s rights over their own body. We are not to harm ourselves intentionally, except in purposeful self-sacrifice, to save the life or wellbeing of others.

Each of these suggests we should view abortion as nothing less than murder. I realise that is an emotive word, and I have thought long and hard about whether to use it, but it is important. The world around us has long made abortion sound acceptable by using words like termination, clean, clinical, neutral words. We must not collude with this veneer of acceptability. Abortion is murder, and since 1967, in Britain we have murdered 6.7 million children. That is more than the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust, and yet one is seen as the greatest crime of the 20th Century, while the other is hardly noticed. In the last 40 years, many British doctors have overseen a silent Holocaust. According to recent statistics, one in five pregnancies in England and Wales now ends in abortion.

But let us also remember the good news of Jesus Christ. Many women, and indeed men, carry through their lives unbearable guilt because of abortion. Often, after it has been done, they know it’s wrong, and it is inescapable. Perhaps, some sitting here this morning feel overwhelmed and angry. But listen to the good news of forgiveness in 1 Corinthians 6:9:

Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

Writing to a church, a group of Christians, forgiven people, the apostle Paul says wicked people will not come into the kingdom of God. But they used to be wicked people, they had been guilty. But Jesus has made them clean, has forgiven them. As with them then, so also for us now. Yes abortion is wrong, yes it is murder, but like every sin, it can be forgiven, our slate can be wiped clean, our guilt taken away, by Jesus Christ. Heaven will be full of people who have had abortions, just as it will be full of liars, murderers, thieves, people who have broken up marriages, bullies, the proud and arrogant, the greedy, those who exploit others. But all of whom have turned away from these things, and turned to Christ. There is nothing that Jesus cannot forgive.

Are there situations, though, in which abortion is morally acceptable? Let’s look at them in turn.

1. What if the child may be handicapped?

First there is the question of certainty. It is rare that doctors can be absolutely sure that a child will be handicapped. Surely we cannot take the life of a child who may end up perfectly healthy?

Second, even if it was certain, what are we saying about disability? Is a handicapped life not worth living? Is a handicapped person not fully human? Of course they are. It seems to me, followed to its logical conclusion, abortion because of possible, or even certain, disability in the child, says some pretty shocking things about our approach to other disabled people. In a culture which so rightly protects and promotes the rights of the disabled, it is astonishing that disability is still given as a reason to proceed with an abortion.

Third, who is to define disability? With recent advances in genetics, and some clinics offering the ability to select hair colour, intelligence, physical build, who is to say that things we do not currently consider disabilities will not be classed as disabilities in 20 years’ time?

Now, I am not denying that the care of physically, and mentally-handicapped children and adults is difficult. It entails physical, emotional and financial costs for parents and other family members. It can put enormous strains on marriages and siblings. It means, above all, sacrifice. As a church, and as individual Christians, we should do all we can to help, financially and in other ways. But abortion is not the answer. In any case, of the 6.7 million British abortions in the last 40 years, only 1.3% were because of possible fetal abnormality.

2. What if the mother’s life is at risk?

This is the most difficult question to answer. First, only 0.4% of those 6.7 million abortions were because of a risk to the mother’s life. This is agonising when it happens, but it is very rare.

Second, it is worth noting that a 13-year study from 1987-2000 found that the number of deaths caused by abortion is almost 3 times higher than the rate of death in childbirth in many developed Western countries. In many cases therefore, if the life of the mother is at risk in childbearing, abortion is unlikely to be a sensible answer.

Third, as with disability, there is the question of certainty. We are weighing up the possible risk to the mother with the certain death of the child. There is no easy answer. To take the most extreme case, an operation to deal with an ectopic pregnancy is technically an abortion – the termination of a fertilised embryo. However, no-one would dispute that this is the correct course of action. Where the child’s death is certain, and the mother’s likely, an abortion must be the only option. As the possibility of life for the child increases, and the possibility of physical harm to the mother decreases, the situation becomes much less clear.

I can only say that I remain uncertain, as do most Christian theologians, about the rightness or wrongness of abortion in these difficult cases. We must proceed with prayer, love, realism about our own motives, and a willingness to be taught anew from Scripture.

3. 98.1% of those abortions have been for what are described as social reasons: it’s not convenient now; we don’t want a baby; we can’t afford it. I hope the answer is obvious. Children are hard work. I know that now. They are also an enormous blessing from God. How can anyone take away a child’s life because it’s not convenient?

All this being said then, what can we as Christians do?

The church in Britain has been rightly criticised on two fronts in my opinion.

One, we have been largely silent. For 40 years, the church has failed to speak out over abortion. Occasionally, a church leader will speak out, from time to time there will be a march. But largely, we have tut-tutted in private, or even just gone along with it. Our brothers and sisters across the pond put us to shame. Abortion has remained a massive issue in American politics and life generally, because the church has spoken out and has not grown cold and tired. Unfortunately, some Americans have sinned terribly in this. Bombing the clinics, homes and cars of abortion practitioners is a disgrace. How can someone claim to defend the sanctity of life by murdering others? We must condemn such folly.

But we must make abortion an issue. We should be lobbying MPs, writing to them, ensuring that abortion will be one of the issues that determines our vote in elections. We should be talking to hospitals. Where I used to live in London, one of the local hospitals refused to carry out any abortions for social reasons, because the local community had spoken out and the hospital had listened. Within the next year, Parliament is likely to vote on a bill changing the abortion law. Are we ready?

Two, we have been criticised for not understanding the needs and pain of those considering abortion, for speaking the truth without any love. I think it is a fair criticism. British churches, on the whole, have not lifted a finger to help those who can see no other way out. We underestimate the difficulties people face. A young woman, whose partner isn’t interested and whose parents would refuse to help. Where can she turn? A poor family with too many mouths to feed, who don’t know where the next pay cheque is coming from. Some turn to abortion, not because they want one, but because there is nowhere else to go, and that is the advice of the clinic or doctor or helath authority.

What will we do about it? Will we offer practical and financial support to women and to couples who need it to go through with a pregnancy? Will we step forward to be foster and adoptive parents to unwanted children? It’s not easy. We have people in this church who could tell you how difficult dealing with social services can be. Will we lobby health authorities and doctors to give people information about the dangers and downsides of abortion, let alone the ethical problems, and to offer people other options?

In short, will we say abortion is wrong, and the welfare state should jolly well do something about it? Or will we say, abortion is wrong, and we’re ready to help you?

God is the Creator of all life, so life belongs to him.
God is the Director of all life, so our lives are in his hands.

Together, as forgiven sinners, let us offer help and hope to those facing this terrible decision.

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