Are the Lives of the Unborn of Less Importance than the Choice of the Mother?
Does autonomy and self-determination outweigh the life inside the womb? Do all children—both born and unborn—deserve the protections afforded to us as inalienable rights? This week, Jo and Vince answer a sensitive question about abortion, discussing their personal experience with their son’s earliest weeks of life, the philosophical issue of when “personhood” begins, the societal implications of denying personhood to certain classes of people, and the biblical understanding of a God who loves every person and was willing to go to great lengths to give life to his children.
Question Asked in This Episode:
“How would you respond to the claim that the lives of the unborn are of less importance than the choice of the mother?”
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Michael Davis: Hello and welcome to another episode of Ask Away with Vince and Jo Vitale. I am your host, Michael Davis. There are few things in Western culture that are more polarizing than that of abortion. On one side of the debate are those who believe that autonomy and self-determination trump the potential life in a mother's womb. On the other are those who believe that children both born and not are deserving, not only of protection, but are of the same infinite value. How are we to respond to those who say that a woman's right to choose is more valuable than that of the baby growing inside of her? What is the biblical position on abortion? But before we get started, Vince, can you tell our listeners a little bit about what is coming up at the Zacharias Institute?
Vince Vitale: Thanks Michael. There's so much going on, but let me just highlight one thing, which is we are just about to launch, this Friday, a new series called Face to Face, and it's going to be with Ravi Zacharias and Tim Tebow. The vision for these events are to bring together an RZIM apologist with a leader from a different sphere of influence. And we think just bringing people into good, critical, important conversation from different spheres of influence is going to be really dynamic. So excited for this event. It's going to be 7:30 PM this Friday. We're sold out in person, but it's going to be live streamed. You can watch it on YouTube, you can watch it on Ravi's Facebook page, and so wherever you are around the world, please join us this Friday, 7:30 PM.
Michael Davis: Okay. Let's get to this week's question, how would you respond to the claim that the lives of the unborn are of less importance than the choice of the mother?
Jo Vitale: Well, this a big question that we're going to be talking about, and I just want to start actually by acknowledging that I know for a lot of people listening, this is a very fueled, very emotional question. It's really not just an academic one at all, and people feel very strongly on both sides of this question actually. And for many, it's really seen as an issue of justice. Justice on the one hand for the unborn, and for many others seen as an issue with justice for women. I'm someone who actually is sensitive to both of those things and care passionately about both of those things. So I do understand that and feel that struggle that people will be having and say, listen, I also want to say that I know that when it comes to this topic, there'll be also people for whom this is actually very painful to talk about.
There'll be people who this has been a real area of tragedy or suffering in your life, it is deeply personal to you. I've met a good number of women, both those who are Christian and those who aren't who sometimes, not long afterwards, but often decades later actually having had an abortion and struggling deeply with feelings of shame about it and of guilt. And so to start with, I actually just want to say today that this episode is in no way about condemning anybody. And actually that we really just want to emphasize that there is grace for you whatever your experience has been in this area, that there is no condemnation when you come to Jesus, and that actually He says, "Anyone who believes in me will never be put to shame," and we don't want to shame anybody here today, that there is hope for everyone when it comes to this conversation.
So please do hear that before we go any further into it. The other thing, just to share about, I guess, in terms of my own thinking about this question, I guess it's an area where I've always had a strong personal conviction. But of course, it hits you so much more deeply, I think, when you have a child or when you're pregnant. And I think it was probably that moment for me when we went to the eight weeks scan after the first time and then saw this little guy on the screen who had just this...I mean, there wasn't much to him except this huge heart that looked way bigger than the rest of the body, but it was beating so fast. And then suddenly we heard this sound of it, it sounds like wings almost like flapping, and you're like, "Oh wow, that's the heartbeat."
It was so loud and it just hit me in this profound way that, "Wow, this is a life." I think along with that came this strange experience. I think up until then I'd had some anxiety about almost not wanting to get too excited because what if we had a miscarriage, knowing the statistics were high at that stage of pregnancy. But suddenly it hit me in that moment, actually, that whatever happens to this child, whether we were able to carry him to full term or not, that actually this was an eternal being, and therefore whatever happened, I was now a mother, and that wouldn't change with the outcome of the pregnancy. And so it was both seeing a life in him, but also a profound shift in me and what that meant for my life onwards. So I guess ever since then, I've sort of felt this in even deeper way than I ever thought the issues around this question and the struggles over it.
Vince Vitale: Yeah, that's a good point from the perspective of our experience. I mean, that moment when you hear the heartbeat, there's something about the sound of it for me, and you do just immediately feel that sense of responsibility of being a parent. Although at eight weeks you're primarily looking at the heart there and how it's functioning, I couldn't believe then by 20 weeks how much you see the level of detail there is. For our baby, Raphael, he had hair at 20 weeks, we were like, "What is that floating in there?" They're like, "That's his hair." We're like, "Oh, okay. He got some of the Italian genes, all right." It is amazing to see at that point. I mean, it's a blessing, I think, how much we now can see that for a lot of history we weren't able to see that really connects your heart, I think, rightly so with what's taking place in such a miraculous way.
Michael Davis: Yeah. My son was sucking his thumb on his 12-week ultrasound.
Vince Vitale: Wow.
Jo Vitale: Wow.
Michael Davis: We called him the dancing peanut because he was moving around. Looked like a peanut and he was dancing around.
Vince Vitale: That's great. I think this is a topic we need to be talking about. It's such a difficult topic, but we need to be talking about it because we're so conflicted about it, not only as a society, but even individuals, even people within themselves. I started thinking about this topic much more seriously when a good friend of mine was going through medical school. He's a Christian and he was experiencing the lectures that he was receiving on this topic and others at medical school, and he noticed some strange things taking place. So he had a class on the topic of saving babies in the womb with some extraordinary surgeries that can occur prior to 20 weeks. The lecturer always referred to the unborn as a baby in that lecture, and gave some spectacular video footage of what was taking place.
He said you could see the baby's head and face. It was actually 10 feet in HD on the screen in their medical school. And the whole class was oohing and aahing and just commenting on how cute the baby was. So thankful for the surgeries that could take place, but here's the remarkable thing, one week earlier than that, the same class of students had attended a different lecture with a different lecturer on pregnancy termination. And he told me that in that class the lecturer never referred to the unborn as a baby, but always as the product of conception. The lecturer didn't use any surgical illustrations for what was taking place. They were just abstract images and the baby was actually just a gray blob or shape, none of these HD images of what the baby actually looks like at this point.
It's just incredible that those lectures, my friend was just trying to understand this, trying to process this, reflecting on this, that those two lectures with the same class of his peers and students were only one week apart. And in the one week, they were oohing and aahing as they just naturally reacted to the value of the baby that they saw before them on this 10 foot screen, and one week prior, almost all of them thought they were not only willing but had an obligation in instances to sign the death warrant for a baby at the same point. So we're so conflicted about this as a society. But I think even within the medical profession and even for many individuals who are just trying to figure this out as they think about what does it mean to be a person who could potentially be a parent and potentially care for a child, and how do I deal with this in the context of my rights and the child's rights and my body and the child's body, we're really confused.
Jo Vitale: It's interesting, I mean, terminology is just an interesting question, isn't it? I mean, if you open a science textbook, it's quite clear to us where the origins of life begin. It talks about it at conception as the point at which that's when it all kicks off, that's when it starts. You can go anywhere in terms of reading and the science of it, and there's no disagreement on that point. Now, there is disagreement on what do you term it, are we talking about a fetus or a child? Where does life begin in the sense of considering it a human person? But what is interesting to me is when it comes to the question of parenthood, that's not really a question that we necessarily ask. I mean, we don't think about human life starting in the sense that it originates at birth, and therefore the person responsible for the child is solely the mother.
Actually, when we talk about parenthood, we are talking about a mother and a father. And the reason the father is included is because we consider conception to be the point at which life begins, and therefore there's a kind of joint sharing there. You both are considered to have responsibility because that's where, when it comes to parenthood, we think life begins. So I find that kind of an interesting point. That's a point actually made by Dr. Calum Miller who's a member of our team who has a whole blog on this topic that's really excellent. You can find it online. He's a medical doctor as well. It's very interesting. So I do encourage you to dig deeper into his resources.
Vince Vitale: So you're saying all that hard work that I put into the labor process, that doesn't count.
Jo Vitale: No, that doesn't count. That didn't count.
Michael Davis: Vince, I need you to be quiet.
Jo Vitale: If we're just talking about labor, then it's-
Vince Vitale: I have almost nothing to do-
Jo Vitale:...100% my child.
Vince Vitale: You're absolutely...
Jo Vitale: But that's not how we think, because-
Vince Vitale: It's a very insightful point, and I clearly concede it. Well, here's one way to think about the value and the rights of the unborn that I've been thinking about. We take it generally, most of us, almost all of us as a society, we take it to be self-evident that in general, human life has value and is endowed with inalienable rights such as the right to life. That's right at the bedrock of our commitments as a society. So one question to ask is, is there anything about the unborn that would make them different in this regard? The default is to have that value of life and therefore the right to life. Is there anything about the unborn that would disqualify them from that? That's one way to think about this. I started to think, well, what would those things be? What might someone think is the quality or feature or lack in the unborn that would disqualify them from the right to life that we generally take all other human beings to have?
Now someone might think, "Well, a fetus is just generally very different from a person outside the womb." But then you have to question that. A 23-week-old can exist in the womb but also can exist outside the womb and be very, very similar. The difference then is really just a difference of location. Is that baby in the ICU or is that baby in the womb? So maybe that's then the morally relevant distinction, maybe it's just location. Some might think the unborn are less valuable, specifically if they're located in the womb, they're just in a different environment. But when I think about that, I think, that's quite a dangerous thought to think that people are less valuable because they're not located where we are, they're located somewhere else. They live in a different environment.
I mean, a lot of xenophobia and negative forms of imperialism are based in just that type of thinking. Now, another option would be to say maybe the unborn are less valuable because they look different than us. You go back to that eight week scan and say, "Okay-
Jo Vitale: Dancing peanut.
Vince Vitale: The dancing peanut, so cute, but looks really different from us, but wow, okay, that's really concerning. If we're going to say that human beings are less valuable and have different rights if they look different than us. I mean, that's the intuitions and the reasoning that underlies racism. Could it be because the unborn are not very smart yet? The cognitive processes have not developed. Well, boy, we're really going to get ourselves in trouble as a society if we're going to start ranking people's values based on intelligence. What about physical capability? The unborn, they're not physically capable in the same way that many adult human persons are, but not all, what about those who are dealing with physical disabilities?
I mean, the implications of saying we're going to value people based on physical capability, again, would be devastating. In one way in which even the unborn from nine weeks, many estimate that they can feel pain, that's one way in which we're physically quite similar. Though it's interesting that in the procedures of abortion, generally the baby is not given any type of anesthetic, even though in the same medical school classes, the students will be taught that the baby can feel pain from that young age. Your last thought, is it simply that the baby is just unborn? I mean, is that the distinction? Just if you're born, you have value, you have the right to life, if you have not been born, then you don't. And I started to think about that.
And from my Christian perspective, I started thinking about that theologically. And I thought certainly as a Christian, I can't affirm that because God wasn't born, and there was a point before which Jesus was born, and He was as valuable as a person can be prior to that time.
Michael Davis: Amen.
Vince Vitale: And so that doesn't seem like the distinction you can make either. Whether you're born or unborn, you can have value in the full sense. That would be a challenge that I would put to people who are trying to think this through. We all agree that human life has value, and one of the rights that humans have is the right to life, is there something that's morally different about the unborn? I've tried to run through a few possibilities, and I don't think any of them hold up. And in fact, a lot of the ones that you might think of can be quite dangerous to consider.
Michael Davis: Vince, you actually bring up a really good point. I mean, from a Christian perspective, when Christ was in Mary's womb, if you hold to a position that people aren't fully human when they're in the womb, you're making a case that Jesus wasn't fully human before He was born but after the conception.
Jo Vitale: Yeah. That's a really good point Michael. But I think even the question of an unborn, when you think about what does it mean when we say, "Is the difference literally just born or unborn?" What does that actually mean practically? Well, one thing is simply it just mean you're not seen in the same way. And I was thinking, how different would this question be if the womb was transparent? If you could actually watch a baby developing, I think people's intuitions would be very different, because like you said, people won't watch. They don't want to see the pictures or the videos. They don't want to engage with it, because seeing it actually kind of forces you to think differently and acknowledge something there, and I think that's very telling.
Vince Vitale: I think that's definitely right. My medical student friend who's now a doctor said that in all the other classes, not only do they show the surgical images, but they really don't spare any of the gore and any of the details. And then you had this gray blob when you're talking about pregnancy termination. I think it would be really different if we could see what's taking place.
Jo Vitale: And then of course, the other distinction about whether you're born or unborn is yes, partly to do with location, but it's really a question of dependence, isn't it? Before you're born, you're dependent on the body of the mother, which is of course the heart of the question that we're kind of discussing today, but it's interesting to me to think that because you're dependent, therefore your life isn't of value in some way. I mean, that has some frightening implications for how we treat the elderly, for how we treat people who have disabilities. Actually, what's the difference then between an unborn child and a newborn? I mean, Raphael could not be more dependent on me at this stage.
And actually, some of the ethicists who are really thinking around this question, who are pro-abortion like Peter Singer for example, would say that very thing. He makes the case, there's really no difference between the unborn and the born in that sense, so why not kill newborns if they have some form of disability, and that we decide would therefore, on this measure, make their life not meaningful or not valuable, then there isn't really a moral difference between before and after in that sense, apart from you can't see them, that the location has moved. But human-wise, what is the distinction there?
Vince Vitale: Yeah, that's right. Peter Singer and others at Oxford as well have gone down this route, and they've asked basically that question that I was asking, what's the moral distinction between the unborn and the born? And they haven't been able to find one that's not arbitrary. The best they've come up with is the idea of consciousness. But if we're talking about consciousness, that comes at least months after birth. And so then you wind up in a situation where you try to find a non-arbitrary cutoff point between value and a lack of value. And if you don't put that at the point of conception, really the only place to put it is well after birth, and then you're talking not about abortion, but you're talking about infanticide.
Jo Vitale: Yeah. It's also an interesting question. When you think about the issue of dependence, the idea the child is dependent on the mother, and therefore because they're within the mother's body, the mother has autonomy or rights over her body. I understand the desire for that, and some of the people may think that way, but except for the cases which are extremely tragic of rape, which I understand is a very complex and very painful question when it comes to abortion and rape. But in the majority of cases, it's not the case that people who are having abortions are doing so because they have been raped, typically, it has been a consensual act. And so therefore, yes, there is a dependence of the child on the mother, but it's not as if that dependence came out of nowhere. It came out of a decision that was made and therefore there's a responsibility that comes with that dependence.
I know we live in an era where you can be on the pill, be on birth control, but there's still a sense in which you understand when you have sex with somebody, that one of the possible consequences of that could be having a child. Just as if I pick up a shotgun and I've never shot anything in my life, so odds are, even if I'm not intending to, I might accidentally shoot somebody, and that isn't my aim. I'm not trying to, but nevertheless, regardless of my intentions, if that's what I do, I bear responsibility for the consequences of that and the effects it has on the life of another person. And so I think this idea that just because someone is dependent on you, somehow that means that you don't bear any responsibility that might have consequences for the way you ought to behave from there on. I find that a very problematic sort of reasoning.
Vince Vitale: Yeah. That's an interesting example. And if that were the case where even if it was accidental, right? You didn't intend it, but you hurt someone precisely what you would be responsible for would be for their wellbeing and their health and their ongoing care. And in every case, when conception takes place, we need to ask that question of, what is the value of what comes to be? Even in those early stages. Earlier I said that we often assume the value of human life, rightfully so, is there anything which would disqualify the fetus, the unborn baby from that value? But there's another way to ask this question too, to sort of flip it around and to ask the question, what grounds the value of human life generally? And then to ask the question, does the unborn baby have that thing?
Well, what is it that grounds human value? This is something I've mentioned before, but we generally take it to be the case that we as human beings are equally valuable. Michael, Jo, myself, right? The value there is equal, right? It would be wrong to try to rank us or anyone else relative to our value, but if that's the case, there has to be something that's equally true of every one of us. Michael, Jo and me, we're quite different. There's lots of things that are different. We look different. If you took God out of the picture, it'd be very hard to find something that was equally true of all of us, right? We're different in so many respects, but there's one thing about us which is exactly the same and equally true of each of us and everyone else, and that is the love of God for us, and in particular, the fact that we're created in the image of God.
I think if you take God out of the picture, it is very hard to find something which is equally true and unchangeable about every person which can ground the human value that we all agree about. And so what is that thing? It's the love of God for every person, it's the image of God in every person, and so then that is our question about the unborn baby. Does the unborn also have the image of God? Also have the love of God? And Scripture explains to us that they do, that God's love, God's plans, God's purposes, God's intimate awareness and even knitting together of the unborn happens well before birth. Psalm 1:39, for you created my inmost being, you knit me together in my mother's womb, that picture of intimacy.
The beginning of Jeremiah, when Jeremiah is called and the word of the Lord came to him and says, "Before I formed you in the womb, even before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. Before you were born, I set you apart. I appointed you as a prophet to the nations." And so if that is the love of God and the image of God, what gives us value as human beings and allows us to be totally inclusive of that value to every single person, regardless of how we might differ in terms of intelligence and in terms of our physicality and in terms of our usefulness for society, all of these natural attributes. But if there is this supernatural attribute of the love of God and the image of God, which is common to all, then we ask the question, is that also common to the unborn? And biblically, the answer is yes, because God's commitment to, His purposes to, His plans for, His love of, and His image is in those beings, those babies, those persons, even before they're born, they can be set apart.
Jo Vitale: And it's interesting, isn't it? Because one of the very powerful things about being made in the image of God is the belief that unlike a sort of predetermined naturalist perspective, we actually have some form of freewill and some form of choice. And so then it comes to this question of the mother's choice, and how do you weigh that? But of course, in every other area of life we recognize that limitations should be put on our choices if they're going to harm somebody else, and not just harm, but actually, if we're believing a child is made in the image of God, is fully a human being, then why would autonomy have greater importance or priority than the life of another? And it's very interesting language to me because there's so much to celebrate about being female.
There are so many things that are wonderful about women's contribution to the world, their purpose, and I get very excited just thinking about these things. But it kind of breaks my heart that it has become like the central issue and the rallying cry of feminism almost as if to celebrate being a woman, what that means is to celebrate my body and my rights, that has become the ground upon which everything stands. I just think, oh, of all the things that are fantastic about women, you make that the very thing. To me, it's just so fundamentally selfish. It's like, "My body, my rights," and the language there is so interesting, because of course, there are two bodies in this question, right? It's not just my body and my rights, there's also the body of a human person involved.
And so why, as women, do we want to make the thing we celebrate about ourselves, the exercising of our autonomy over the valuing of another life. It's so ironic to me because women have felt oppressed for so long and yet we're using this new freedom to oppress someone even more vulnerable than us. I mean, I really, really struggle with that, particularly because we're talking about somebody...Consent is such an important word in our culture. We are talking about a human being who doesn't even have the ability to express consent in this situation, so shouldn't we be protecting them even more, because they cannot protect themselves. And I think that's especially important when you think about, what does it mean to celebrate?
If you want to be a feminist and celebrate women, what about protecting the most vulnerable females of all who are unborn females? What are we saying about the valuing of women? And that has big implications when you look at global statistics about abortion, and because one of the huge issues that have come out of abortion has been the shocking rate of gendercide across the world. So for example, if you look at China as one example, the typical ratio between male and female if things are just left to natural devices is 100 to 103, in China, it's 100 girls to 119 boys is the ratio. And so when you look at the statistics, there are basically 100 million women missing from the world population today, not just in China but across the world, because of this practice of selective abortion and killing females in the womb.
I just think if we're part of a culture that whether or not our culture endorses sex selection when it comes to abortion, if you're endorsing a culture of abortion, you're part of propagating a culture where it's encouraged and enabled. And therefore, I think we're part of this problem of gendercide as well.
Vince Vitale: Wow. That's powerful. As you were speaking, Jo, I was just imagining the cross in my mind and just that line of my body, my rights, and just thinking of how that was contrasted by Jesus, my body, your life, not my body, my rights. But here was someone who said my body, and yes, the burden that I bear is as great as it could possibly be, but not for my rights, but for your life.
Jo Vitale: And I think there's just something very sad about it, I mean, women do lots of things brilliantly, but one of the things women can uniquely do that actually men can't, and that we can really celebrate is we have the ability to carry a child and give birth. And in many ways when you look at history and tradition, that has been a kind of power and a gift that has been celebrated in women to have that life giving ability. I mean, hear me rightly, I'm not saying that whether you have a child or can have a child is where a woman's worth comes from, that's not what I'm saying at all. There are all sorts of ways in which women are valuable and important, and I wouldn't think that for a second, but I do think this is one thing that we can uniquely do.
And so the fact that you're taking that very life giving ability and turning it into a sort of celebration of our ability to cause death rather than life, to me strikes at the very heart of something essentially female. And so I think it's very ironic that feminism has kind of built itself around that issue. And somehow, feminism has moved in a direction where we're more interested in celebrating our power to bring about death than to bring about life, and I find that really warped and really sad actually. To my mind, far from pro-life being anti-women, I actually think to be pro-women is to be pro-life in that sense in numerous different ways. And of course, when we talk about pro-life, I also want to say of course as Christians we understand, it's a far bigger issue than just the unborn.
As Christians, we want to care for people from the womb to the tomb, all the way through. We're pro-life all the way, and so part of what it means to be pro-life is to care for women who may be in desperate circumstances and are struggling to know, "How am I going to function? How am I going to live? I don't even know how I can support having another child." I really feel deep empathy...Empathy or sympathy? Sympathy. I really feel deep sympathy for those in that situation. The more we've been learning what it means to parent, the more respect and concern I feel for single mothers, because I don't know how I would do it by myself. And so I think as Christians, we can't just care about the unborn, we also need, and I love that we do, there are so many programs to help support women who are struggling.
The Bible speaks a lot about that, about having concern for the least of these, having concern for the widow and the orphan for those who are not in a position to look after themselves. So of course when we advocate for pro-life, we also have deep concern for those who are finding themselves in a very difficult situation, and perhaps because they choose to keep a child, or they're carrying a child and they don't know how they're going to cope. So please hear us saying that this is a bigger issue, and it's one that actually we need to not just espouse slogans about and get angry about when it comes to the unborn, but also to live out that radical love in the way that we treat women and children and anyone who's struggling in this area.
Michael Davis: Well guys, unfortunately we are out of time. Vince, sum it up for us.
Vince Vitale: Well, we've just scratched the surface, but on a question that needs to be asked and needs to be considered, needs to be considered urgently. And we hope that this has at least begun some conversations for you with friends, with those you agree with and with those you disagree with. Have those conversations, try to see things from each other's perspective, keep love as the umbrella over those conversations, and trust that through that we can come to a place of truth as well. My worry is that if we treat people from the beginning of life as if they are potentially unworthy of life, then that possibility, the possibility of being unworthy of life will haunt people for the rest of their lives, and I think that is what we are largely seeing in society, drastic rises, anxiety, depression, loneliness, anger, suicide.
We are genuinely in a mental health crisis, and I don't think these things are unrelated. If we treat people as if they are potentially a burden from the start, then we can't be surprised when we continue to live with that fear throughout the rest of our lives. How sharply contrasted that is with a God for whom we were spiritually unborn. From God's perspective, we are the unborn. We were the unborn, that's why we had to be born again, but polar opposite to seeing us as a burden, unworthy of life. When we were unborn, there was no burden that Jesus was not willing to carry so that we could be born and so that we could have newness of life and the fullness of life. Let's live with that as our goal.
Michael Davis: Amen. Vince, Jo, thank you guys so much for joining me. Thank you all for listening, and we will catch you guys next week.
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