Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Abortion: A Rational Look at an Emotional Issue (chapter 5) by R.C. Sproul, published by Reformation Trust.
Though the two camps, the pro-abortion and pro-life positions, are adamant and have a high level of certainty in their views, multitudes of people are still seeking their own conclusions in the abortion matter. Even among those who have reached a conclusion, it is frequently tentative at best. There remains an openness to be persuaded of a different view.
The fact that opinions on this issue do change can be seen in the astonishing movement in public opinion regarding abortion since 1973. I think it is safe to assume that prior to Roe v. Wade public opinion ran overwhelmingly against abortion. Through the 1970s and ‘80s, societal attitudes shifted to a much more tolerant position. From 1990 to the present, the trend has shifted back slightly, so that a slim majority of Americans now oppose unrestricted abortion on demand. Why is this?
Surely the issue has been discussed more frequently and more deeply than at any time in history. This factor might bode pessimism for the pro-life position. If increased discussion has not served to stem the tide of public opinion substantially, could it be that the case against abortion is weak and that the more we argue the pro-life position, the more ground we lose? I doubt it. Another factor may be a backlash against violence perpetrated by zealous pro-life activists. Yet another reason may be that as the discussions continue and the complexities of the issue become more apparent, more and more people seek the "safe" pro-choice position because they lack sufficient certainty to decide for either the pro-abortion or pro-life position.
Although all of these may be contributing factors, I submit that the greatest cause of the change of public opinion is the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade. There is a strong tendency among people of any nation to take their direction as to what is ethically right from what the law allows or what the society condones. The unspoken assumption is that if it is legal, it is therefore moral. Sadly, this conclusion does not reflect much sober thinking or ethical analysis, yet the syndrome is repeated in culture after culture. We still wonder how the people of Germany could have been duped into supporting the programs of Adolf Hitler, but it is a fact of history that they were. Once a decision has been reached in a nation's highest court, that decision's subsequent influence on the shaping of public opinion is enormous. We learned this painful fact in the years that followed the Supreme Court's infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford decision (1857), which perpetuated slavery in the United States.
United States has reversed itself on slavery, prohibition, racial discrimination, conscientious objection to wars, capital punishment, and other issues of ethics and justice. Some people regard these shifts in public policy as reflective of the dynamic character of social mores and ethics. Those who are skeptical about the possibility of discovering absolutes in the areas of justice and ethics view these shifts as part of the process of sociological evolution. Thus, contemporary community standards become the highest court of appeal, the ultimate norm of justice and ethics.
Assuming that what is legal is therefore right leads to some serious traps. The first pitfall involves a fallacy. It is identified as the argumentum ad populum, a fancy way of saying that truth is determined by counting noses (or ballots). This fallacy assumes that if a majority agrees that something is true, then it must be true. This is the type of argument that ancient astronomers forgot to tell Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo.
Even though people ought not to uncritically accept whatever the government declares is legal, the fact remains that many people do. We cannot, therefore, ignore this as a powerful factor in explaining the massive shift in public opinion on abortion in the past decades.
Ethics, Conscience and Abortion
Earlier in United States history, a folk hero who became a congressman wrestled with the problem of making ethical choices. Davy Crockett once declared, "Be sure you're right; then go ahead." This adage is both prudent and dangerous. It is prudent in that it echoes a biblical principle that gives guidance when we lack moral certainty. In his epistle to the Romans, the apostle Paul gave extensive counsel to Christians regarding such matters. The issue was the legality of Christians eating meat that had been offered to idols in pagan rituals. Some believers were convinced such dining was wrong, while others were persuaded it was acceptable. Paul gave this counsel:
I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. (Romans 14:14)
Eating meat offered to idols in itself is not that crucial. It is a matter of ethical indifference, and Christians are free to exercise their Christian liberty in the matter. But it becomes an ethical issue when a person believes it is wrong.
What happens if someone performs an action he believes to be wrong, even though it is not in fact wrong? In such a case, Paul judges the action to be wrong. Why? It is wrong because it involves acting in bad faith or against one's conscience. This cardinal principle is found in verse 23: "Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin."
For example, suppose God does not consider dancing a sin, yet I am reared in a subculture that teaches that it is a sin to dance. As a result, I am convinced that dancing is a sin. If I dance while thus convinced, I sin. I am deliberately doing something that I think is contrary to the law of God.
In this case, I am sure I am wrong. On the other hand, if I am sure I am right before I proceed to do something, I am not acting in bad faith. I am doing what I believe is the right thing.
The question remains: If I am not sure I am right, should I go ahead? Davy Crockett seems to say no. Paul's advice is even stronger: If it is not of faith, it is sin.
To be sure, there are occasions when, after careful consideration of ethical principles, we are still not certain what is the proper action. We are out of time or have exhausted our ability for reflection, but we must make a decision and act. Either option before us may be sinful or just — we simply cannot discern which. It is in these excruciating circumstances that we remember the advice of Martin Luther to "sin boldly." Luther meant that if we have done all we can to discern what is right and the time has come to act, then, even if our actions are sinful, we should act with boldness.
How does this concept relate to the question of abortion? If a woman is sure abortion is evil, and it is evil, if she engages in it, she sins. If she is sure that abortion is evil, and it is not evil, if she engages in it, she still sins. Suppose, however, she is not sure that abortion is evil. Suppose she is uncertain about whether it is a legitimate moral option. Now what does she do? She must first consider her options: abort the fetus or allow it to continue developing.
Suppose she sees that there is possible evil in the first option (abortion) and no evil in the second option (proceeding with the pregnancy). Then she has only one legitimate ethical option: to abstain from abortion. Here the uncertainty is in only one direction — abortion. In such cases, the biblical mandate requires us to say no to the uncertain option.
To summarize: If we face two options, one of which clearly is legitimate and one that is possibly but not certainly evil, we must refrain from the second or we inadvertently become guilty of evil. The practical impact of this is clear: Before an abortion is sought, a person must have compelling ethical justification to back it up. Personal preferences, the desire to avoid inconvenience, and the social or legal acceptance of such practices are not biblical warrants for acting without faith. This means that the burden of proof in the abortion debate rests with those who insist that abortion is something God allows. If there is evidence that God might disallow it, we must have strong evidence to the contrary if we are to act in good faith.
In this instance, Crockett's advice is sound: "Be sure you're right; then go ahead." But we must not overlook the expanded application of this maxim: "If you don't know what's right, then don't go ahead, especially if you have another option that is right."
Should Conscience be Your Guide?
What is dangerous about Crockett's advice? If a person is sure he is right, that is no guarantee that he is right. We can sin mightily while thinking we are acting in perfect virtue.
Though it is perilous to act against conscience, we must remember that our consciences are not the final norm by which our ethics are judged. A conscience may be uninformed, seared, dulled, or distorted.
How our consciences are informed is crucial. At the Diet of Worms, Luther was called on by church and state to renounce his views. He declared, "Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason — I do not accept the authority of popes and councils... my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot... recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe." Luther was saying, "Show me by the teaching of the Bible, or by clear and sound reasoning, or I will not change my position." He was not willing to follow a certain path merely because it was the conventional or socially acceptable path. He sought a clear and certain basis for his conduct.
In every ethical crisis, people argue passionately and eloquently for both sides of the issue. Sometimes the arguments on both sides are more emotional than rational. I went through a major ethical struggle early in my career, when I was a college professor of philosophy. Many of my students were wrestling with their consciences over the rightness or wrongness of serving in the armed forces during the Vietnam War. Some of them turned to me for advice. I was uncertain whether the United States' involvement in Vietnam was just or unjust. I was not a pacifist, but neither was I a warmonger. I believed in the classical just-war theory, which declares that though all wars are evil, not everyone's involvement in war is evil.
Because of my uncertainty about the Vietnam conflict, I read everything I could find and listened to debates to form my conclusions. The debates were emotional and strident, as the nation was divided between hawks and doves. What alarmed me most were the weak and often sloppy arguments used by both sides. The issue was complex, but the public debates were simplistic. I heard hawks say, "My country, right or wrong." This was a ghastly justification for an armed conflict. The doves shouted, "Better Red than dead," a feeble argument for avoiding participation in a just military struggle.
At one symposium, a professor of ethics made an observation that sounded a bit like Crockett's maxim: "Before we ever pick up a weapon to kill another human being, we must be quite sure that we are acting justly." This professor understood that war is a life-and-death matter and is not to be entered into without clear moral justification.
The analogy to the abortion debate is clear. Before we ever pick up any surgical instrument to destroy a developing human fetus, we must be certain we are acting justly.
What Does Your Conscience Say About Abortion?
At this point I must ask: "What is your conscience telling you on abortion? Why do you hold the position you hold? How did you arrive at your conclusions?" Too much is at stake in this issue to approach it without sober thinking and deep reflection.
Luther declared that to act against conscience is neither right nor safe. We have seen why acting against conscience is not right. Why did Luther add that it was not safe? Surely he had a theological consideration in mind. He was a man who harbored a strong fear of divine judgment. Luther believed in God and was persuaded that God would hold him accountable for all of his actions in this life.
The fear of divine judgment governs my actions regarding abortion. As a theologian, I am firmly convinced that God hates abortion and will judge it thoroughly. I also recognize that not everyone shares my view of God's opinions and intentions.
If there is a God, and if we are convinced that the evidence for His existence is compelling, then without question we are accountable to Him for our actions. Before we choose to participate in abortion, we must give serious consideration to what God's views in the matter might be. To ignore this is to ignore the call of conscience and to place ourselves in a perilous position. If an act against conscience is an act against God, then we can easily see how dangerous such an action is.
My book, Abortion: A Rational Look at an Emotional Issue, is addressed primarily to those who are not sure about the ethics of abortion. If you remain uncertain, I urge you again not to engage in abortion unless you are absolutely certain for clear and sound reasons (which I'm not aware of) that abortion is an ethically justifiable action. The simple adage of common wisdom applies to you: "When in doubt, don't."
• Public opinion on the abortion issue has changed in the direction of the pro-choice or pro-abortion positions. The main reason for this is that abortion was legitimized by the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision.
• The New Testament teaches that conscience must not be violated in making ethical choices.
• Good advice for any ethical choice, but in particular when making a decision about abortion, is this: "When in doubt, don't."
The above was an excerpt from Abortion: A Rational Look at an Emotional Issue (chapter 5) by R.C. Sproul, published by Reformation Trust.
Dr. R.C. Sproul is founder and president of Ligonier Ministries and the author of The Truth of the Cross. For more than thirty years, Dr. R.C. Sproul has thoroughly and concisely analyzed weighty theological, philosophical, and biblical topics in books, seminars and "Right Now Counts Forever," his monthly column in Ligonier Ministries' Table Talk magazine.
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