IS ABORTION ACCEPTABLE IN
CASES OF RAPE, INCEST, AND DEFORMITY?
A Paper Presented
to Dr. Kenneth Magnuson
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
In Partial Fulfillment
of the Requirements for
29250 A Survey of Christian Ethics
Charles Neil Blaicher
April 28, 2008
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Technical Definition of Human Life…………………………………………………… 1
Does Twinning Undermine the
Argument for Singularity of an Embryo ………………………………………………... 2
An embryo is a single human…………………………………………………………… 3
How Does Sentience Relate to Abortion………………………………………………... 3
Is Abortion Justified In Cases of Deformity…………………………………………….. 5
The Dangers of Adopting a Naturalistic Philosophy…………………………………….. 6
The Intrinsic Value of Life Is Central To The Debate …………………………………... 7
A misconstrued theology………………………………………………………………… 7
Concluding Thoughts Concerning Abortion……………………………………………... 8
Are There Implications For Abortion In Forced Conceptions…………………………… 9
Biblical theology is the only way to answer the questions about abortion………………10
IS ABORTION ACCEPTABLE IN
CASES OF RAPE, INCEST, AND DEFORMITY?
Two women were raped. One decided to keep the child and raise it as if conceived
under normal circumstances. The other woman decided to have an abortion. The pain and
memory was too much for her to handle. Did both women make a good decision? When is it
okay to end life through a deliberate act? In my estimation those questions have divided people
for a very long time. They are perplexing, controversial and have polarized our nation. It is an
emotionally charged debate, and real life experience can certainly sway the decisions of people
from principle to practice. Although there is division, a proper understanding of life and truth
can answer the question, ‘Is ending an unwanted pregnancy acceptable in such cases as rape,
incest, or deformity?’
Technical Definition of Human Life
Can science demonstrate the beginning of life? A great deal of information is readily
available. Many books and publications detail the progression up to, during, and after
conception. For the sake of space, a summary will suffice in establishing a medically agreed
upon definition of conception i.e. the beginning of human life. Information dealing with
conception is derived from The Developing Human by Keith L. Moore and T. V. N. Persaud.1
Keith L. Moore and T. V. N. Persaud, The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented
Embryology, 7th ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Saunders, An Imprint of Elsevier, 2003).
The female oocyte [egg] is produced in the ovaries, which contains half of the forty
six total chromosomes necessary to form a single unit. The other half of the forty six
chromosomes is contained in the male sperm. The first stage of human life begins with a single
cell which results from the union of an oocyte and a sperm during fertilization. Pretty simple.
It spends the next few days traveling down the Fallopian tube dividing several times to
form a ball of cells called a morula. The continued cellular division results in a blastocyst. Up to
this point there is no growth in the overall size of the embryo, so each division produces
successively smaller cells. The blastocyst then implants to the uterus and continues growing in
cellular numbers and size. Once the blastocyst moves down the fallopian tubes and implants in
the uterus it grows into a fetus that develops until birth or disruption. The result is, ideally, a
healthy newborn child.
Does Twinning Undermine the Argument for Singularity of an Embryo
Given the preceding definition, it seems clear that a genetically unique human forms
and matures to birth. However, the argument that human life begins at the moment
chromosomes of the sperm meet chromosomes of the egg to form a genetically unique individual
might be endangered by the twinning argument. Why bring this up first? Well, in most cases
genetic uniqueness is a requirement for an individual human life. Genetic uniqueness cannot be
shared by multiple individuals, particularly identical twins. Thus, the argument continues, the
moment at which a unique individual human forms is not the moment when its genetic code is
determined, but rather the moment when the zygote can no longer split into multiple individuals.
Since a single cell can split from the others and develop into another organism it is clear that the
first stages of development are not unified. The idea is that if a group of cells can split at some
point and become two different fetuses, then how can we attribute personhood or uniqueness to
them before specialization of cells? 2 A fair question.
In response to that position, Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen rightly
contend that “these allegedly independent, noncommunicating cells regularly function together
to develop into a single, more mature member of the human species. This fact shows that
interaction is taking place between the cells from the very beginning…restraining them from
individually developing as whole organisms.”3 In short, if the organism did not operate as a
singular unit, then every cell would develop into another embryo. It begs the questions of how
that is demonstrated two embryos emerge? It is a valid question and must be answered.
Twinning demonstrates that even before specialization of cells takes place, they are
still performing in unity to mature into a single embryo. Forgive the reiteration, but the point
cannot be clear enough. My contention is that they are unique individuals in spite of genetic
similarities. Again, some people think twinning undermines the argument because of uniqueness
i.e. “no one else can be like me.” If they are split for some reason [such as trauma] the cells are
still growing towards being a single entity, which demonstrates that instead of undermining the
teleology of cells, it proves that even when the earliest cells are split, they still have an intrinsic
purpose. While they are genetically similar, they are still moving towards being a single person.
No matter how many times cells spilt and form other embryos the fact remains that there is a
constraint in place due to the nature of design that was present before the split occurred.
An embryo is a single human.
Remember, specialization of cells is the notion that cells serve a specific role. One cell is designed to become a
blood cell while another is designed to become a foot. Before specialization occurs the cells can form anything.
Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen, Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, 1st ed. (New York: Doubleday, a
division of Random House Inc., Random House 2008) 156-57.
Viewing this subject online and in person, one of the most common [if not the most
common] claims made is that the fetus is simply a part of the woman’s body. A primary reason is
because it does not demonstrate human qualities and is still dependant on the mother for
sustenance. If you look at text books, online resources, or speak with doctors or geneticists, they
largely agree on this point. Although the unborn entity is attached to its mother, it is not part of
her. With a distinct genetic code a “human embryo is not something different in kind from a
human being, like a rock, or a potato, or a rhinoceros. A human embryo is a whole living
member of the species Homo sapiens in the earliest stage of his or her development.”4
Uniqueness and humanness are undeniable – undergirded by the fact that the womb must protect
the embryo from the mother’s defensive system, as it is foreign to the biological host. Basically,
it means the fetus is not a part of the mother’s body.
Of course, the former is a weak basis for determining humanness. A three-month-old
infant relies on the mother for nourishment, yet it is an individual. The reality that humanness is
identifiable at a certain stage does not necessitate that humanness begins at that point.
Recognizable features that emerge later only confirm the original state of the embryo, which is
human. The accidentals are not intrinsically linked to the nature of a human. Not many people
would argue that a hairless, skinny, half formed monkey is not a monkey if ripped out of the
womb by a poacher. If a man loses his ears, does he become less human than a man who has
two perfectly functioning ears? Clearly the answer is no! Logically, the presence or absence of
features does not determine the nature of the embryo any more or less than an adult. Just like the
lack of cognitive ability or awareness of their environment does not determine what they are by
nature. If a man is brain-dead, he is still a brain-dead man. While the argument that a person
who loses his brain is no longer alive in the truest sense, he is still a human, although lifeless.
Why are embryos less than human because their features or motor functions are not fully
developed or observable? It leads us to the next point - sentience.
What is Sentience, and How Does it Relate to Abortion
In the broadest sense, sentience refers to an organism’s responsiveness to or
consciousness of sense impressions. Can it touch, feel, hear, understand etc? The inability of an
underdeveloped fetus to respond to external stimuli is the basis on which some deny moral
status. In her book Life before Birth: The Moral and Legal Status of Embryos and Fetuses,
Bonnie Steinbock declared that preconscious fetuses do not qualify for moral status as they
cannot perceive nor have concerns in the experiences of life.5 “The failure to bring them into
existence does not thwart their plans, end their relationships, or destroy their hopes of
achievement and happiness…that is a tragedy for no one. There is literally no one to feel sorry
for, or guilty about, when people who might have existed are not brought into existence.”6
The argument has categorically confused two issues. The first is interest verses
affection. Interest is not merely a preference for a specific state of existence, as desire for a
certain lifestyle does not determine a person’s moral status. The instinctive ability to survive
was present when the child was forming in the womb. She failed to demonstrate how the
inherent design of life was not sufficient to warrant moral status to the same individual at varying
stages. Since the embryo is not capable of possessing conscious interest, it cannot receive the
same status as a mature human. However, an infant cannot formulate ideas, philosophize, or
describe a desire to live and experience a specific type of existence. Why afford moral status to
Bonnie Steinbock, Life Before Birth: The Moral and Legal Status of Embryos and Fetuses (New York,
New York: Oxford University Press, 1992) 70.
one and not the other if they are both operating on the same instinctive level? The argument that
a being only has value when it can consciously react to the environment is undermined by the
reality that, at the point of conception, the zygote has responded to the environment and is
moving towards maturity. While the fetus may not be conscious at that point in development,
the design and purpose of life is inherent. The interest of the fetus is exemplified in the intrinsic
volition to grow and live, which manifests in adulthood. Deeming when a fetus or infant has
attained personhood based on preferential experience is both arbitrary and intellectually
dishonest – it denies the natural order of life and creates a subjective standard by which to
measure personhood and moral value.
Second, there is confusion between potential life and actual life. As demonstrated, life
begins at conception. At that point, the mother and father have entered into a social relationship
that involves a third party. The significance of such actions in preparation for a new child
demonstrates that, in normal circumstances, people recognize that life has begun and they must
prepare for the arrival of another human being, which needs attention and a proper environment
to flourish. Preventing something that does not exist from ever existing is far different than
ending the internal volition of something already known to exist.
If a person is not aware of life, and cannot yet perceive the general experiences of life,
is that person afforded moral status?
Is Abortion Justified In Cases of Deformity
Some abortion advocates propose that ending life on the basis of suffering is humane.
They point out that deformed people must adjust to and face the ridicule of a “normal” society.
As well, the parents do not desire to endure the heartaches and practical difficulties of raising
deformed children. The suggestion of ending or preventing life on the order of a utopian society
is not a new consideration, as people have used the argument for centuries. Plato and Aristotle
each proposed a solution for dealing with the unwanted children of society through abortion or
infanticide. The idea is to create a perfect society by weeding out the unproductive or
handicapped, which will only drain the resources and prevent progress. It begs the question,
what constitutes normality? And, does such normality justify ending the lives of children who
must adjust to a normal environment? Where is the line drawn? Consider the life of Louisville,
Kentucky native Patrick Henry Hughes. He was featured on the popular television show
Extreme Makeover Home Edition. “Patrick is a remarkable young man who was born without
eyes and without the ability to fully straighten his arms and legs, making him unable to walk.
Additionally, two steel rods were surgically attached to Patrick's spine to correct scoliosis.”7 In
spite of tremendous obstacles, Patrick is a successful musician and academian. He has produced
an album, been featured on many television shows, played in a college band, and leads a
productive life that benefits many other people through inspiration and example.
At best, the idea of abortion in a case like his protects fully functioning citizens from
the inconvenience of assisting others in need. It eliminates an integral part of societal formation,
namely, the ability of individuals and groups to overcome obstacles and turn weaknesses into
assets. At worst, it creates an anemic society based on misconstrued ideas of perfection. Basing
the value of life on the normal functioning of a specific group is highly subjective. People can
draw the line for normal anywhere they desire. The normative can become prejudiced enough as
to see the elimination of entire ethnicities. Where would we draw the line? Do we kill children
Patrick Henry Hughes, Personal Biography [on-line], Accessed 26, April 2008 from
with asthma because they can’t run long distances as well as other children? Good thing we
don’t do that. If we did, you would not know me!
The Dangers of Adopting a Naturalistic Philosophy
The paradigm that justifies abortion on the argument of deformity or sentience does
not offer a definitive resolution. There is something missing. To argue for the right to life,
principles which supersede nationalistic and philosophical impetus must be introduced. In short,
the right to life is a greater claim than what a nation says or what philosophy deems as life. The
ideas of society can change, and with that change, the morality of society can crumble.
Obviously, without objective criteria, the value of life is subjective. Without such a
presupposition, parents are able to ascribe arbitrary value to the fetus. Abortion becomes an
individualistic act that concerns only the health or convenience of the parent/s. Society will
partake in sententious speech and policy making devoid of truth. The resulting relativism will
support the idea that “only community grants or withdraws personhood.”8 There will be nothing
greater than the opinion of man, as man’s opinion is the highest thought. When society is made
up of people who think truth is relative to self, then the ideas and laws of society will support the
individual as opposed to the whole. When that happens, life is not intrinsically valuable but
becomes more of an object of desire or appreciation. When someone does not desire to have a
child, or sees no value in having children until they feel like it, then abortion becomes common
place. Judy and Harvey Martz demonstrate the consequence of removing the intrinsic nature of
man from the discussion:
Virginia Abernathy, “Children, Personhood, and a Pluralistic Society.” in Abortion: Understanding
Differences (New York, NY: Plenum Publishing Corporation, 1984), 132.
“For instance, we believe that a fetus is not just a mass of tissue but instead is a
potential human being. However, a fetus at twenty two weeks is, in our theology, a
potential human being and does not have the same importance as born persons.”9
The Intrinsic Value of Life is Central to the Debate
Many philosophies teach that the right to dignity, respect and life is earned. In my
opinion, it is a danger that George and Tollefsen overlooked when they chose to make the
majority of their argument without religious support:
“Human beings are perfectly capable of understanding that it is morally wrong and
unjust to treat embryonic human beings as less than fully human. We need religion to
support such claims in this domain no more than we need religion to support claims of
racial injustice or the rights of the disabled.”10
In contrast, Steinbock’s position encapsulates a naturalistic worldview that reduces
value of life to little more than existentialism. Subsequently, when a position loses widespread
support or no longer meets the needs of society, then an entire social construct is dismantled i.e.
the rules change. Positions outside of religious influence do not adopt an integrated view of the
entire human life at all levels, and such a premise is not sufficient to determine whether abortion
is ultimately good or bad. People may have the capacity to understand right and wrong, but that
does not guarantee people will do the right thing. Without objective principles guiding behavior,
people will interpret information any way they please.
Judy C. Martz and Harvey C. Martz, “Is Aborting A Problematic Fetus Ethically Acceptable?” in The
Befuddled Stork: Helping Persons of Faith Debate Beginnings-of-Life Issues (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000),
A misconstrued theology. Biblical hermeneutics change when influenced by
unreligious presuppositions. It is a dangerous thing to presume on the unknown will of God by
ignoring biblical revelation. When an objective view of scripture is not considered, then the
result is eisegesis or incomplete doctrine. “It is not our belief that God wills children to have
cystic fibrosis or spina bifida or Hunter Syndrome or other disabilities.”11 In reality, God is the
author of the healthy and the unhealthy people of all nations. When God confronted Moses for
the first time, He declared, “"Who has made man's mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or
seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?”12 When the disciples inquired of Jesus about a man’s
blindness, He replied, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God
might be displayed in him.”13 God purposefully controls the development of humanity. Biblical
understanding places each case of suffering into a larger context of God’s glory. Hence, not only
is abortion an affront against the image of God, but it is also an affront on the intentions of God
in each life. Let me state that again: Abortion is an affront on the sovereignty of God in each
person’s life! An incomplete theology misses the larger context of the discussion. It is
anthropocentric and relegates sacred beliefs to an historical context – with no real application in
the contemporary setting. The Bible and morality based on it are considered archaic. The
consequences of such thought are apparent in modern society. Truth is no longer truth and value
is determined not by the nature of a thing but by its relationship to the user. How sad to think
that many people view the unborn in much the same way.
“Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: English Standard
Version (Wheaton Illinois: Crossway Bibles, 2002), Exodus 4:11.
Concluding Thoughts Concerning Abortion
It is true that there are serious implications to consider when dealing with the decision
of children in hard cases like incest or rape. When the issue of abortion enters the equation, the
problem becomes far more complex. The debate raises the question – ‘Is a person’s right to
personal autonomy greater than another person’s basic right to life?’ At the heart of the issue is
the value of life and the right to experience the same freedom denied in death. R.C. Sproul
suggests that abortion in cases of rape and incest “should be dealt with separately from the
broader question of legalized abortion.”14 The term exceptional is often used to describe
pregnancies as a result of violence or abuse. Perhaps that very notion constrains him to treat the
issue separately. Is it true that life of children are determined based on the conditions of their
Are There Implications for Abortion In Forced Conceptions
It is a difficult idea to contemplate, but even children conceived in cases like rape or
incest were formed by God. He is the giver and taker of life. He forms the child in the womb.
“When the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.”15 “"Did
not he who made me in the womb make him? And did not one fashion us in the womb?”16 The
manner in which it happened is drastic and has many ramifications, but the child is still an image
bearer of God. As John Wyatt pointed out, “God has chosen no other image bearer, animate or
R. C. Sproul, Abortion: A Rational Look At An Emotional Issue (Colorado Springs, Colorado:
Navpress, 1990), 132.
inanimate, on planet earth.”17 Humanity deserves the respect and sanctity afforded it by God.
The child has the potential to be a wonderful son or daughter. “Behold, children are a heritage
from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.”18 To rob them of that opportunity is a dreadful
act. To destroy something made in the image of God is grievous.
Biblical theology is the only way to answer the questions about abortion. The
Christian is granted a unique perspective. The special revelation of God through scripture offers
a definitive principle on the matters of life and death. While it is true the acts of rape and incest
are exceptions to normal conceptions, the exception cannot and must not apply to the child. If
abortion is unjustifiable in hard cases, how much less under normal conditions? Circumstances,
no matter how immoral or violent, do not change the nature and value of another human.
Continuing the cycle of violence does not change the circumstances in which the child was
conceived, nor does it alleviate the pain of the mother.19 Abortion is a conscious act of violence
from which there is no option of recovery for the victim. As Sproul rightly said, “the child is a
co victim.”20 Unborn children are not guilty for the crimes committed by other people. The
proper ethic for determining the value of a child is not a naturalistic or atheistic ideology. There
is a quality that goes beyond self. Only by properly understanding the origins and nature of
humanity can people make the right decisions. Through grace and the good news of Christ may
the proper view permeate society, and the landscape of abortion change for the better.
John Wyatt, Matters of Life and Death: Today’s healthcare dilemmas in the light of Christian faith
(Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1998), 51.
For a more detailed examination of the aftereffects of abortion on women see Denise Winn,
Experiences of Abortion (London, NW: Macdonald & Co, 1988).
Callahan, Sidney and Daniel Callahan, eds. Abortion: Understanding Differences. New
York and London: Plenum Publishing Corporation, 1984.
Geis, Sally B. and Donald E. Messer eds. The Befuddled Stork: Helping Persons of Faith
Debate Beginnings-of-Life Issues. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000.
George, Robert P. and Christopher Tollefsen. Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, 1st ed.
New York: Doubleday, Random House, 2008.
Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Bibles, 2002.
Moore, Keith L. and T.V.N. Persaud. The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented
Embryology, 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders, An Imprint of Elsevier, 2003.
Sproul, R. C. Abortion: A Rational Look At An Emotional Issue. Colorado Springs,
Colorado: Navpress, 1990.
Steinbock, Bonnie. Life Before Birth: The Moral and Legal Status of Embryos and
Fetuses. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Winn, Denise. Experiences of Abortion. London, NW: Macdonald & Co., 1988.
Wyatt, John. Matters of Life and Death: Today’s healthcare dilemmas in the light of
Christian faith. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1998.
Henry Hughes, Patrick. Personal Biography [on-line]. Accessed 26, April 2008.
Available from http://www.patrickhenryhughes.com/index.html; Internet.