Posted on September 12, 2011 at 11:26 am,

Abortion is almost certainly the most emotive and divisive political issue of our era. If you express a pro-life view, you are branded as anti-women, but if you express a pro-choice view, you may be branded a baby killer. Furthermore, it’s not even possible to talk about the issue without choosing a side – if you talk about aborting an unborn child, you’re implicitly saying that abortion is wrong. If, on the other hand, you talk about aborting a foetus, then you’re implying that it isn’t fully human, and hence that abortion is morally acceptable. All of which makes me slightly relieved that this post is the latest in the series critiquing Wayne Grudem’s book Politics According to the Bible, rather than me laying out my own opinion. When it comes to terminology, I’m basically going to use the same terms Grudem uses.

What does the Bible say about abortion?

The first thing Grudem says is that the Bible considers human beings to be people from the moment of conception. He cites three different types of Bible passage.

The first are those with a specific reference to a preborn child exhibiting some kind of personhood. The passages in question are Luke 1:41-44 (where Elizabeth was in the sixth month of pregnancy), and Genesis 25:22-23 (where we do not know how far into the pregnancy Rebekah was, except that she knew that her preborn twins were struggling within the womb).

The second are more generic references to preborn children. Psalm 51:5 shows David considering himself to be sinful from the moment of conception, whilst Psalm 139:13 is a more generic reference to God playing an active part in creating us whilst we were in the womb.

The final passage is Exodus 21:22-25. This is from the law of Moses, which functioned as the God-given civil law for the people of Israel. It outlines the penalty to be paid when somebody accidentally causes a miscarriage or a premature birth. Grudem notes that the penalty to be paid by law if the child is harmed is equal to that if the mother is harmed, whilst there is still a fine to be paid if no harm is done to the child. He also notes that the penalty for accidentally causing harm to a preborn child is higher than that for accidentally causing harm to anybody else in society.

These passages leave very little wriggle room for a Christian who wants to conclude that a preborn child is not (at least theologically speaking) a person in his or her own right At most, you could conclude that a preborn child that is younger than the Biblical examples might possibly not count. But it would be a pretty tenuous conclusion.

Other arguments that preborn children are people

Grudem cites a lengthy passage by a scientist that concludes that the process of fertilisation is the creation of a human being. He rejects the pro-choice argument that preborn children are unable to interact and survive on their own, likening this to a person in a coma or a newborn infant.

He rejects the argument that abortion is justified in the case of birth defects, rape, or incest on the grounds that we would never kill such a child after it had been born. He also points out that sometimes the diagnosis of a birth defect is incorrect, and that cases of abortion or incest are only a tiny minority of abortions.

Grudem does, however, accept abortion in the extremely rare case that the life of the mother is at stake because in those cases the death of the mother means the death of both her and the child.

He also makes some arguments that are not strictly scientific or theological. These include the deaths of millions of people via abortion, and he says that it has claimed the lives of 50 million Americans. He also argues that a pregnant woman has an instinctive sense that a pregnancy is actually a baby, rather than a piece of tissue or a part of her body.

What should the law say?

Grudem argues that this should translate into several distinct policy stances. Firstly, he thinks that abortion should be illegal except to save the life of the mother – although he would accept a compromise law that also allows it in the case of rape and incest. He is flexible about the penalties for breaking this law, wanting to ensure that they are not so severe that the law would not gain public support.

Secondly, he says that no government policies should promote or fund abortions. He singles out foreign aid that is used on “population control” – saying that it involves paying for abortions.

Thirdly, he believes that no government policy should compel people to participate in abortions or to dispense drugs that cause abortions.

Fourthly he says that no funding should be given to the creation of human embryos for the purposes of medical research.

Fifthly, he praises the US ban on partial-birth abortions.

Finally, he believes that the most important legal goal is to overturn Roe vs Wade – the Supreme Court ruling that said that a ban on abortion would be unconstitutional. Grudem thinks that, should the case be brought, four of the nine current members of the Supreme Court would probably overturn it, four would vote to keep it, whilst one is in the middle. This leads him to believe that it is essential that the Republicans gain both the Presidency and control of the US Senate

Skipping ahead for a minute, Grudem finishes the section on abortion by citing Jeremiah 7:30-34, where God gives a very severe warning to a nation that had begun sacrificing their own children to the god Molech. He worries that, because his nation elected a President who is a strong supporter of abortion “rights” (his punctuation) and a sizable majority of Democrats in the Senate who hold similar views, that God will evaluate the USA in a similar light.

Arguments for keeping abortion legal

In this section, Grudem actually goes into some detail dealing with objections to his view. He rejects the idea that banning abortion would be a wrongful restriction of freedom, saying that the freedom in question is freedom to take your child’s life. He rejects the view that abortion should be allowed because “all children should be wanted”, because it implies that it’s perfectly fine to kill a child that you don’t want. He rejects the idea that you can be personally against abortion but not support laws against it because it’s equivalent to saying that you are against murder, but not to the extent of having laws against it.

Grudem also rejects the idea that abortion should be legal because Christians “shouldn’t try to impose their moral standards on other people”, pointing out that there are plenty of laws that are based on moral standards. He then looks at the specific moral standards involved in this issue: firstly that people should not be allowed to murder (a view which is held almost universally), and secondly that a preborn child counts as a human being – which he points out is the real point of contention. Grudem rejects the argument because he aims not to impose his views on society, but to persuade others to adopt that standard.

The more interesting alternative takes he mentions, however, are two views proposed by Jim Wallis in the book God’s Politics. My copy of Wallis’ book is currently on loan, but I took the time to re-read the chapter on Life Issues in the follow-up Seven Ways to Change the World.

The first of these ideas is that our aim should be to reduce the causes of abortion, rather than ban it. Grudem objects to this on the basis that it’s just changing the subject, and that the relevant social programs will not stop the crimes. He refers back to his outline of a Christian worldview, which he believes shows that the ultimate cause of abortion is people making evil choices (an approach I suggested was somewhat lopsided when we covered that section). He advocates a “both and” approach, of undertaking these programmes at the same time as banning abortion.

However, I think that he has misunderstood what Wallis is trying to say. Grudem is writing from the viewpoint of an academic trying to pin down the answer to a question. Wallis, however, is a political activist – his focus is on making as much of a difference as possible. As far as Wallis is concerned, the Religious Right’s 30 year campaign to overturn Roe vs Wade has failed. It hasn’t reduced the number of abortions, and the goal appears to be as far away as ever. Therefore, Wallace is concentrating his efforts on the things that will make a difference. Furthermore, his approach appears to be paying some dividends in moving pro-choice people to a more moderate position. Instead of Grudem’s partisan approach, Wallis is building bridges to the other side, and playing a part in moving many pro-choicers towards a position where they see abortion as something regrettable.

Grudem also disagrees with Wallis’s call for a “consistent ethic of life”, which involves opposition to capital punishment, opposition to nuclear weapons, and increased government help for the poor. Grudem complains that this is moving the goalposts – minimising the importance of the issue of abortion, and confusing it with a range of more controversial issues. He reiterates his view that a vote for a Democratic candidate for President or Congress is a vote for 1 million abortions per year.

But, again, Grudem doesn’t seem to understand Wallis’s activist perspective. By framing the debate in those terms, Wallis is trying to defuse liberal criticisms of the pro-life lobby. Because pro-lifers are frequently strong advocates of capital punishment, nuclear weapons, and hawkish foreign policy, we are thought of as hypocrites. Because of the way the pro-life movement is associated with right-wing economics – and hence reluctant, at best, to give additional support to parents for whom the aborted child would have been a burden, it is frequently portrayed as not giving a damn about the children that it hopes to save. By trying to counteract these perceptions Wallis is trying to be the “winsome, kind, thoughtful, loving, persuasive influence” that Grudem thinks should characterise Christian involvement in politics. Meanwhile, those who take Grudem’s stance on the issue are, rightly or wrongly, seen as the “angry, belligerent, intolerant, judgmental, red-faced, and hate-filled influence” that he rejects as a model for Christian politics.


Grudem’s case that abortion is wrong is, for a Christian, pretty much rock-solid. However, his analysis of the political consequences of this leaves much to be desired. He doesn’t even mention the argument that banning abortion would mean women simply resort to back-street abortions or cross a border to get one (and in some countries, pro-choice organisations pay the costs of doing just that). As that’s the strongest argument the pro-choice camp has, ignoring it is poor form.

My biggest concern, however is that, in tackling Jim Wallis’ position, Grudem clearly misses the points Wallis is trying to make. He ends up attacking the approach that is most likely to bring people around to a pro-life perspective. Without a cultural shift towards a pro-life view, it seems exceedingly unlikely that any significant progress can be made on the issue. Which means that, from where I’m standing, Grudem appears to have shot himself in the foot.

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