“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”1 Truths that are self-evident. Our Founding Fathers understood that our Creator established certain fundamental truths that are knowable to all mankind. He endowed humans with conscious existence, reason, free will, and moral law, making us special and unique. It is this last gift, moral law, that I will address in detail and apply to the subject of abortion. Just as we see the signature of our Creator in the complex workings of every living cell,2 so too we see His authorship in the moral law, which we find (just as the apostle Paul said in Romans 2:15) is “written” on our hearts.
What Is the Moral Law?
C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity,3 tells us that we all, every day and in numerous circumstances, appeal to a standard beyond ourselves that determines right behavior, what we “ought” to do. More recently, in his book What We Can’t Not Know, J. Budziszewski calls these moral principles “the universal common sense of the human race, as well as the foundation of its uncommon sense.”4
Examples help to clarify; genocide is evil, morally wrong. We say terrorist attacks killing innocent people are wrong. We all agree that killing children, as the Amorites did in ancient Canaan, is wrong. Fidelity, honesty, courage, and consideration for the welfare of others are moral duties on which we all agree. So, you see, moral absolutes do exist. They certainly existed for Hippocrates, who forbade abortion in his oath. In his book The Natural Moral Law: The Good after Modernity,5 Owen Anderson explains how philosophers through the ages have weighed in on this subject, how one’s belief about God affects one’s understanding of natural moral law, and how the true moral law can only be based on seeking the “highest good,” which is knowing God Himself.
Responsibility of Moral Law
When applied to abortion, we are faced with the argument that a woman has a right to choose, and what is implied is that she has the right to decide what happens to her own body, her own destiny. For this appeal not to be arbitrary and relative, it must be based on fundamental human dignity and on the premise that we are created in the image of God. We use the same reasoning to highlight the unborn babies’ right to life. But when we point to a right, what about the moral responsibility that comes with it? Yes, there is a right, but moral law would not stop there, would it? We should not consider the right without the responsibility. What duties and responsibilities come with pregnancy? If we see a woman’s pregnancy as part of a grand design, then conscience shows us that it also comes with responsibilities. What responsibilities apply to her? To her community? To the medical profession?
As I contemplate these questions, I see four aspects of moral law that may be applied to the question of abortion. I believe they are aspects of moral law because I think we all agree that they are fundamental moral truths:
- The Golden Rule.
- The responsibility to nurture children.
- The responsibility to protect innocent life when it is in one’s power to do so.
- Thou shalt not kill.
The Golden Rule. In Matthew 7:12, we find the words of Jesus: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (ESV). Researching the Golden Rule, I found that it exists in every religion. Here is an example from Confucianism: “Zi gong (a disciple of Confucius) asked: ‘Is there any one word that could guide a person throughout life?’ The Master replied: ‘How about “shu” [reciprocity]: never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself?’”6
Imagine that you are looking at an ultrasound image of a baby in the womb. Imagine that the baby you are seeing is you. Now as you are watching, an abortionist inserts a cannula into the womb and begins to hurt you. You die. At that moment, everything you are disappears. All your dreams, aspirations, successes and failures, your thoughts, feelings, loves and hates, everything vanishes, since your life was taken. You have been deprived of life. How awful! How unjust! You wouldn’t want that for yourself. You wouldn’t want that for anyone, would you?
The Responsibility to Nurture Children. A child must be nurtured, and this nurturing is a continuous process. It begins in the womb, when the fetus depends on his or her mother to take care of herself as she provides physiologic sustenance through the womb and placenta. After birth, the helpless infant continues to require love, care, nourishment, and protection. As the child grows, he or she needs encouragement, guidance, discipline, and protection, always protection. Even as adults, our children look to us for help and guidance in difficult times. I want to emphasize the continuum involved in nurturing. To say it does not begin until some point in pregnancy development or after birth is arbitrary and baseless. The responsibility begins at the beginning of pregnancy, if not before.
The Responsibility to Protect Innocent Life When It Is in Our Power to Do So. When I served with the Marine Corps First Medical Battalion in the Iraq War as a navy doctor, I helped care for a navy corpsman who lost both of his legs from a mine explosion. A marine had walked unknowingly into an Iraqi minefield and stepped on a mine. He was alive, but badly wounded and lying in pain, bleeding. To make things worse, their unit had come under enemy fire. The navy corpsman made his way into that minefield to save the marine. He reached him safely, but then when he knelt down to bandage his wounds, he knelt on a mine himself. The subsequent explosion caused grave injuries, but both men arrived in our surgical triage alive and encouraging one another. Both survived. Both are heroes in my book, but that navy corpsman risked his life to save that marine. Yes, he was brave, but the important point is he did not walk into that minefield under enemy fire for the sake of courage. He did it to save and protect another human being. This kind of courage has been applauded as a moral virtue, I believe, in every culture. When a woman chooses life, it may involve great sacrifice and much courage, but it is the application of a fundamental moral virtue.
Thou Shalt Not Kill. This command found in Exodus 20:13 is one of the Ten Commandments and is a fundamental moral value in Judeo-Christian belief. It has always existed as moral law, even prior to the Ten Commandments, as we see in God’s condemnation of Cain for murdering his brother Abel. This law is so well known to mankind, we also find it in other cultures. Take, for example, this quote from the Sumerian code of Ur-Nammu, the oldest known code of law: “If a man commits a murder, that man must be killed.”7
We all know that this law is true, but traditionally with this facet of the moral law, we find exceptions. Most of us understand that killing in self-defense, killing to protect an innocent person, or killing to protect your nation in wartime would be exceptions. Is abortion one of those exceptions? No. The reason it cannot be is that we see the murder of someone close to us, like a son or daughter, as more heinous than killing a stranger — say, someone who attacks you in a dark alleyway. Killing a foreign soldier in battle is very different from killing one’s mother or father. Murdering a family member or a member of a close-knit community is an intolerable crime because of the high degree of trust and love that occurs in these environments. Now what trusting, nurturing relationship could be more intimate than a baby growing in its mother’s womb? Modern feminists, having been convinced that abortion choice is the central issue for women of our time, talk as if abortion is done out of selfdefense. But really, killing a knife-wielding attacker who broke into your home cannot be compared with killing an innocent child in its mother’s womb, can it?
I’ve heard statements of misgiving so often from my patients that I’ve come to understand that they, too, are encountering these fundamental moral truths. Talking with a woman in a moment of crisis (when she is tearfully coming to grips with the fact that she has a baby in her womb that she did not expect, and she is thinking about all the reasons why she can’t continue the pregnancy), I often see something remarkable when I ask, “How do you feel about abortion?” I see the expression on her face change as her eyes moisten and her lips purse together, the corners of her mouth turning down as she answers, “Well, I don’t really believe in it, but…” or “I didn’t think I could ever do that, but….” Then follows some rationalization for why, in her case, she feels she might go ahead with it despite her beliefs. I think I am seeing something noteworthy here: an encounter with a truth of the moral law before it is rationalized away. I have come to the conclusion that having an abortion is a very difficult thing for a woman to do. One woman, seeing me weeks after an abortion, tearful and distressed, and taking Zoloft to help control her depression, confided, “I really wanted to keep the baby!”
As philosopher Owen Anderson points out, we have a choice in our search for meaning for our lives. As we seek for “the good,” we can use utilitarian presuppositions to arrive at the conclusion that what we should seek are the “goods” necessary for comfortable human existence, or we can seek the highest good, the “summum bonum,” which is God Himself.8 In knowing Him, we find that He is love.
The Ultimate Example of Morality
For the Christian, this applies to our issue, abortion, in a direct way: to really know God, we must examine the life and person of Jesus Christ. Here we see God’s love manifest in the flesh; God has become a man and walks among us. His is a compassionate, uncompromising love that is supremely sacrificial. Picture Jesus healing the blind, the sick, and the lame. Picture Him forgiving sins and traveling day after day with no place to lay His head, teaching the Beatitudes, calling out hypocrisy, and patiently explaining parables. Picture Him washing the feet of His disciples and then giving Himself up to be crucified. And this last He did on behalf of all mankind, a supreme act of sacrificial love.
Seeking to know God and follow Him, following Jesus, we find ourselves being transformed gradually to be more and more like Him. To think and reason like Jesus, to act toward others as He did, to reach out with His compassion and sacrificial love to those who are hurting or in need, these are desires we find rising up within us as we follow Him. This is the goal of every Christian: to be more like Jesus every day.
Applying this balm of love to an unexpected pregnancy changes one’s outlook quite considerably. One begins to consider the best interests of the innocent and vulnerable unborn child. One finds it more rational courageously to confront and lay aside one’s own problems, doubts, fears, and concerns and allow unbounded love to flow to that child. And so in this way, after careful consideration, a woman, a couple, a doctor, a family, a community, and perhaps a nation choose life.
Steven Braatz, MD, is a board certified Ob-Gyn physician living in California. Braatz served as chairman of the Ob-Gyn Department at the Naval Medical Center, San Diego, and served with the Marine Corps First Medical Battalion in Somalia and the Iraq War. He is a member of the American Association of Prolife Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
- The Declaration of Independence.
- Stephen Meyer, Signature in the Cell (New York: HarperCollins, 2009).
- S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2015), 1 –14.
- Budziszewski, What We Can’t Not Know (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), 16.
- Owen Anderson, The Natural Moral Law: The Good after Modernity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 266–67.
- Confucius, Analects 24, trans. David Hinton, in Henry Epps, The Universal Golden Rule, A Philosopher Perspective (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012), 61.
- Ur-Nammu Law Code, verse 1, available at https://www.realhistoryww.com/world_history/ancient/Misc/Sumer/ur_nammu_law.htm.
- Anderson, The Natural Moral Law, 287.