by John M. Frame
[This review is published here by permission of the Banner of Truth, in which it is also to appear.]
[The version below was published in Westminster Theological Journal 35:2 (Winter, 1973), 234-237. Used by Permission.]
R. F. R. Gardner: Abortion: The Personal Dilemma. Exeter: The Paternoster Press, 1972. 288. £. 1.25 (paper).
This might have been the ideal Christian book on the difficult question of abortion. For one thing, it would be hard to imagine anyone better qualified to write such a book. The author is not only a consultant obstetrician and gynecologist, but also an ordained minister of the United Free Church of Scotland. (The back cover states that the combination of minister and gynecologist is “possibly unique”!)
And the man is quite a scholar! His reading, as indicated by the footnoted quotations and references, has been amazingly comprehensive. Mr. Gardner has a quotation for every occasion…not only to substantiate facts, but to express opinions he agrees with, opinions he disagrees with, opinions in-between, humorous asides, common wisdom, etc., etc. One wishes at times that there were fewer quotations and more critical analysis of the quotations chosen; but one can be grateful that here is a virtually exhaustive survey of the best things that have been said on all sides of the issue.
And the book is loaded with information too; is it ever! The author believes that “facts are the scarcest commodity in the abortion debate” (p. 16), and, well, they are certainly not scarce in his book! We learn, for instance, that “In Taiwan despite the illegality of all abortion, a questionnaire to obstetricians suggest [sic] that for every thousand births there are 180 abortions, usually to ‘correct’ contraceptive failure” (p. 34). We learn the number of bed-days spent in Chilean hospitals by patients with illegal terminations (p. 35), the recent change in the Rumanian abortion law (p. 38), the percentage of atheists and agnostics in the British Abortion Law Reform Association (p. 54), the Salvation Army’s view of the British 1967 abortion act (p. 104), and, well, it seems like hundreds and hundreds of other pieces of information.
Now maybe you don’t want to learn all those facts, even granting the relative scarcity of that commodity! But don’t let me give you the wrong impression. This is not merely a compendium of unrelated “items of interest.” Mr. Gardner has done a lot of thinking as well as a lot of reading. The closing bibliography, for instance, is, considering the huge number of references in the body of the book, remarkably concise and carefully selected. And if indeed the quotations of various opinions are at times annoyingly superfluous (and perhaps my American bias shows at this
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point!) the information is really not; for Mr. Gardner subjects that information to very careful analysis indeed and does a masterful job of giving shape to it. This book takes the history of the abortion debate, the contemporary situation throughout the world, and the prognosis, and efficiently focuses on what is most important. The various reasons for aborting and not aborting in every conceivable situation are dissected with remarkable scrutiny. In this respect, the very multiplicity of cited facts has a point: the author wants us to see how complicated these issues are. A former missionary doctor and teacher in Africa, he wants us to transcend our cultural provincialism (hence the information on Taiwan, Chile, Rumania—even Zanzibar! [p. 34]), and our ideological simple-mindedness as well. He incisively debunks the oversimplifications of pro-abortionists, anti-abortionists, and middle-roaders alike.
So: the author is a gynecologist, a minister, a scholar—and also a Christian! He is indeed an evangelical Christian, unashamed to express the most unqualified views of biblical inspiration and authority (pp. 114f), notably inhospitable to modern “situation ethics” (pp. 103ff), affirming fully biblical views of sex and marriage (pp. 248ff). Further, he maintains that Christianity is fully relevant to the practice of gynecology.1 Gardner is at his best when he lambastes those who wish to discuss the abortion issue without mention of religion or morality (pp. 15ff, 89ff). Many evangelicals, especially in America, will, I think, however, find Mr. Gardner a bit too ecumenical in his choice of theological “authorities”: he quotes Francis Schaeffer and John A. T. Robinson, Hudson Taylor and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Harvey Cox, Carl F. H. Henry and the Jesuit G. Baum, with apparently equal approval and enthusiasm. Yet one cannot read the whole book without seeing clearly where his heart is.
Mr. Gardner’s heart-commitment is particularly obvious in the profound Christian compassion which permeates this volume. That compassion is most infectious: it is hard to read this book without at some point being convicted of one’s own lack of love. Many will come to this book with neat, precise ideas on how people requesting abortion should be “handled.” But Gardner will lead them through case after case after case—laboring with, agonizing with, each sad woman. What will happen to the woman if abortion is refused? if it is granted? What of her other children? What of her husband? What of the economic situation? the psychological? the
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medical? What of the morale of the doctors and nurses? For the reader this can be an exhausting business. It is hard work to do so much thinking; but then love is hard work. The aforementioned comprehensiveness of Gardner’s scholarship is in a sense a measure of his love, and of the love he wishes to arouse in his readers. The reader of this book can expect to experience a certain amount of agony, if he reads with any seriousness; and in God’s providence such agony can yield spiritual fruit.
Scholarly, evangelical, compassionate. One would expect, therefore, this book to be ideal as a Christian study of abortion. I must, however, sadly decline to recommend it as such. The tragic flaw in this otherwise heroic volume is its inadequate treatment of the biblical teaching. It is hard to imagine why a scholarly evangelical with access to such biblical scholars as James Barr and Donald Wiseman (p. 11) and with such a passion for scripturality would include in his book such a superficial treatment of the biblical texts. For example, in discussing the crucial passage in Exodus 21:22–25, Gardner explains that there have been three basic interpretations of the passage, the second one being “that the fine is payable for the blow, providing that no harm follow to mother or child” (pp. 118f). After merely listing the three interpretations, with no analysis or discussion, he concludes: “It would seem fairly obvious that in any case the text implies a difference in the eyes of the law between the fetus and a person” (p. 118). But that conclusion is precisely what the “second view” denies. Gardner’s treatments of other texts are equally cursory. Further, there is no mention in this book of what in my opinion is the most crucial Scriptural consideration, namely, the obligation of the believer to avoid even the probable taking of human life.2
On such a slender biblical foundation, Gardner declares his view that “while the fetus is to be cherished increasingly as it develops, we should regard its first breath at birth as the moment when God gives it not only life, but the offer of Life” (p. 126). He therefore advocates abortion in a great many situations, though he is not an advocate of “abortion on demand.” Just where he draws the line is a bit difficult to explain, but there are some cases where he clearly advocates refusal of abortion. In fact, he closes the book, rather strangely, with a strong endorsement of the Birthright organization. the creed of which is that “it is the right of every pregnant woman to give birth, and the right of every child to be born” (p. 275). On the next page he does hint that there may be some
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slight difference between his approach and that of Birthright, but it is indeed strange that he should quote the creed of that organization with no criticism; for surely that creed is not his creed. Still, be seems to have a sort of emotional attachment to the “anti-abortion” side of the debate, and he evidently wants to leave the reader with a kind of anti-abortionist thrust even though that thrust is undercut frequently in other parts of the book.
Thus the book as a whole leaves one somewhat confused, and the weakness of the exegetical discussion undermines the authority of much that is said. We are still waiting for that “ideal” book on abortion. But for the present anyway, Gardner’s book is indispensable. Weak as it is at the crucial point, it still says a great many things that need saying, and it says them very well. In dramatizing the problems, there is nothing better: this book actually makes you feel them. And the answers, though incomplete, are often laden with a most uncommon Christian wisdom.
John M. Frame
Westminster Theological Seminary,
1 And, interestingly, psychology too. Gardner quotes with approval the advice from a letter of C. S. Lewis: “Keep clear of psychiatrists unless you know that they are also Christians…” (p. 233).
2 Cf. my article, “Abortion—and some Christian Assumptions,” Banner of Truth 100 (January, 1972), 29–31.