A senior English pediatrician, charged with the attempted murder of a three-day-old baby born with Down’s Syndrome (Mongolism), was acquitted by a unanimous jury verdict after an 18-day trial. The verdict prompted applause and cries of “Thank God!” from the public gallery.

Not everyone, however, was happy about making God party to such a decision. The essential facts were not in dispute. Last July in the Derby city hospital, John Pearson’s life ended after three days. His mother had rejected him at birth because of his affliction. He had been given dihydrocodeine, an analgesic (sensation-killing) drug, on the instructions of Dr. Leonard Arthur, a highly qualified and experienced physician. The effect of the drug, with accompanying pneumonia, had reportedly caused his death.

A national newspaper estimated that 300 severely handicapped British babies a year are left to die without treatment that would prolong their lives. American figures for infanticide (that is the word we have always used for “uncivilized” people who carried on this practice) are proportionately much larger.

The British trial raised a nest of wide-ranging issues of deep concern to all evangelicals. Sir Douglas Black, president of the Royal College of Physicians, defended the doctor’s action and hoped there would be no McCarthy-style watch hunt in the medical profession. Former medical professor and eminent pediatrician Hobert Zachary, on the other hand, commented: “If you sedate a new-born baby so heavily that it does not feed, it will die from starvation; and that is as positive a way of killing it as if you cut its throat.”

Evangelicals recognize there is no simple answer to the dilemma faced by Dr. Arthur and the parents of the deformed baby. They understand the anguish felt by doctors when confronted by such appalling and irreversible deformities. The burden placed on society and especially on parents can be excruciating. For both the newly born and the terminally ill, therefore, evangelicals tacitly accept the dictum of Arthur Hugh Clough:

Thou shalt not kill; but needs’t not strive

Officiously to keep alive.

In response to the murder trial concerning the Pearson baby, Anglican Bishop John Habgood argued that we must take all “ordinary” means to support life; but there is a limit. An example of “extraordinary” means—means beyond that limit—would be “a long series of operations when his chance of survival to live a decent life is minimal.”

Cardinal Basil Hume, however, asserted that it is morally wrong to end or shorten life, whether by action or neglect. “If people have a basic right to life,” he declared, “then they have also a basic right to all the normal things, including simple nourishment, which are necessary to sustain that life.”

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Two recent trends, however, make evangelicals profoundly uneasy. First, they are disturbed by the rapid shift away from extraordinary measures to preserve life to ordinary measures, to no measures at all, to positive action to destroy unwanted human life. No doubt what constitutes extraordinary measures will vary from culture to culture. We can appreciate the fact of inevitable differences of opinion about the boundary between extraordinary and ordinary. But there is a wide and easily discernible gap between a long series of involved operations that have little or no possibility of success, and the deliberate administration of a drug that will cause starvation. Clearly the latter falls under the command, “Thou shalt not commit murder.”

A second cause of evangelical unease relates to the increasing, and increasingly more trivial, grounds for “mercy killing”: the effect of “defective” children on a marriage, the cost of keeping them alive, the psychological damage to brothers and sisters, the quality of life of the disabled or of the parents of the disabled. More and more, human life may be terminated when convenient. The sacredness of human life becomes a myth of the past.

Why Evangelicals Oppose Abortion

Mercy killing and abortion are closely related. Just as evangelicals have resisted mercy killing, so do they stand against abortion—and for the same reason. Here again they recognize that the issue is not always simple. Most of them will permit an abortion to save the life of the mother. Many will add an exception in case of rape: the rights of the mother must be considered, too. In such a case they may question if a mother must be forced to sustain at great personal cost a life that has been forced on her. A few evangelicals are loath even to condemn a mother who chooses at an early stage to abort a fetus after the testing of the amniotic fluid shows that the child would be radically incapable of functioning as a live baby.

But in spite of hesitation on this or that exception, evangelicals are clear on the central issue: they are opposed to abortions.

Those who favor easy abortion cannot understand this. They do not object to evangelicals refusing to abort their offspring. They may deem evangelicals stupid and misguided or even inconsiderate of others—of the handicapped offspring or society that will have to stand the burden.

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Usually, however, they will agree that evangelicals have a right to choose for themselves. They grant us liberty. But why, they ask (always in puzzlement and sometimes in outrage), must you impose your standard on me? Why do you seek to destroy everyone else’s freedom? You do what you want, but stay out of my affairs. Let me at least have the freedom to choose as you do.

Why Laws Against Abortion Are Necessary

Episcopal Bishop George Hunt even argues that it is basically unchristian to “legislate” anyone’s moral standards for others. Religious people, he asserts, must “affirm the necessity for maintaining the human freedom without which moral and ethical decisions cannot be made,” and they may not use the government to coerce a minority into particular obedience to their precepts. “I am convinced that each of us has a God-given responsibility to exercise that freedom we have been given by Him by struggling with moral and ethical choices.” He adds, “If we allow someone else to legislate a moral posture for us, we have given up our God-given duty to make responsible choices.”

But the good bishop has the matter all mixed up. Evangelicals do not seek to legislate moral convictions. They agree that moral character is built through exercising “our God-given duty to make moral decisions.” We do not put in jail those who think it is right to steal, but those who actually steal property from another.

Why, then, are evangelicals so adamant on this point? They do not oppose abortion simply because they believe the Bible prohibits abortions. To be sure, the Bible seems abundantly clear on this matter—thou shall not murder; and evangelicals, by definition, settle ethical decisions on the basis of biblical teaching. But the Bible teaches many things, and evangelicals are not trying to make every biblical teaching into the law of the land.

Biblical teaching about abortion, however, touches on a matter basic to the structure of society as a whole. To take a human life made in the image of God is to take what belongs to God. All society has a stake in the preservation of human life, including the rights of the unborn child.

The evangelical is not indifferent to the rights and freedom of a mother who considers an abortion. But the freedom of one person always ends where the freedom of the next person begins. The freedom to take the life of an unborn child is not, therefore, simply a private matter: it is the concern of all. The evangelical seeks to protect the unborn child’s freedom to live. Society has the special duty to protect the freedom of those who cannot protect themselves.

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Beyond defending the freedom to live, most evangelicals believe it is right to make laws against abortions for a second reason. They hold that the welfare of humankind depends on the value we set on human life. Evangelicals oppose abortions out of a basic regard for humankind. They wish to protect society against a policy that would deny the importance of human life and lead people to take it cheaply.

No doubt abortions spring from mixed motives. But the will to abort invariably involves an attitude toward life. Abortions are accepted because life is cheap: if it is inconvenient to bear a child to full term, destroy it; if the child will not be what we would desire, kill it. Most abortions take place because humans do not choose to be inconvenienced. Or to be deprived. Or to permit a handicapped child to live. And this, so evangelicals affirm, is a dangerous attitude that society for its own protection does not dare permit a person to act upon. Society has the duty to protect itself against actions that would destroy it. Human life is sacred, since every man, woman, and child is made in God’s image.

Along with freedom of thought, freedom of speech and press, freedom of religion, and freedom to pursue one’s own calling, freedom to live is a fundamental right of mankind. For its own good, society must stand against any attempt to destroy this fundamental human right to life, and protect it at every possible point.

Others Say

Women in the Church: More than Mothers?

For too long, women’s work in the church has been nothing more than a strenuous extension of the same things they do at home. They run the church socials and cook the church suppers. They conduct the nursery departments. They do most of the charity work. They teach most of the Sunday school classes. They drive the kids to and from Sunday school. They are the backbone of the choir. And, of course, they outnumber the men in church every Sunday.

Men are glad to commit to women the responsibility of forming the child’s first ideas of what life is all about. Christians believe the teachings of the church are necessary in shaping youthful minds. Who usually prevails upon children to go to Sunday school and later to church? No expensive survey is required to establish the fact that mothers, for the most part, also accept this responsibility. In this sense, the future of the church is in the capable hands of today’s Christian women. The male-dominated church should listen to them.


Mr. Beiger is a retired industrial engineer living in Elmhurst, Illinois.

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