by John M. Frame
Associate Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology,
Westminster Theological Seminary, Escondido, California
Our Right to Choose: Toward a New Ethic of Abortion
By Beverly Wildung Harrison
Beacon Press (l983)
334 pp., $9.95
This book is an learned and eloquent presentation of a radical feminist position on abortion. If in the final analysis her positions and even arguments are predictable and sharply at odds with evangelical Christianity, nevertheless there is much that we can learn along the way.
The book contains both historical and ethical analysis. The historical material argues the feminist positions about the oppression of women- familiar enough-, but also presents some interesting points about the history of the abortion debate. The author points out that not all the condemnations of abortion in the history of Christian theology can be proven to have arisen chiefly out of respect for fetal life. Other, considerations,too, played a role, notably a correlation between abortion and sexual looseness. Pro-life writers now will have to respond to Harrison’s challenge. It will not be as easy as before to prove that the positions of the church fathers are identical with the modern pro-life view. She also discusses the theological debates over when the soul enters the body and the distinctions between “formed” and “unformed” fetuses.
The heart of the book, however, is the ethical analysis. Harrison argues well the case that abortion is a moral issue and cannot, therefore, be settled (as some pro-lifers have tried to settle it) by historical and scientific observation alone. That the fetus has a unique set of chromosomes from conception is an important scientific fact; but the issue is how we value that fact. Harrison says that such judgments take not only scientific expertise, but also ethical sensitivity, and I agree.
Harrison’s own ethical sensitivities, however, are not governed by biblical authority. Where they do come from is left rather unclear. Most often, she merely asserts her values without argument, though she does buttress them from time to time by appeals to other thinkers, especially to liberation and process theologians. The bottom line, for her, is that in a world where women are oppressed and denied control of their bodies, themother’s right to choose must be the decisive consideration. Although the fetus has some value, especially after viability, abortion can never be excluded if the woman involved can somehow construe it to be in her best interest.