This article originally appeared in the July 15, 1983 issue of Christianity Today.

Sometimes I like to list the strongest arguments I can find to support a point of view I think is wrong. When I have them before me, I am up against a real opponent rather than a hypothetical one that is an easy target for me to hit.

I tried my hand recently at listing the best arguments I have heard for freedom of abortion in a democratic society. They have been offered as reasons for keeping abortion a wholly private matter, out of the reach of law. Each of them embodies a general principle most of us support. The question is whether any of them, or all to them together, makes a clear case for freedom of abortion. Here they are for the reader to evaluate.

1. A pluralistic society should not prevent individuals from doing what their religious principles allow.

Our society is pluralistic. We who accept the privilege of membership in that society agree to respect the people's right to live by their own religious precepts. Some people believe in their hearts that abortion is morally permissible, and they also believe that God gives each woman the responsibility of controlling her own pregnancies. So, in the name of pluralism, people who believe abortion is wrong should not force their beliefs on others.

2. A free society should not invade the privacy of a woman's body.

The right to personal privacy is precious. Without it we are all potential victims for a prying secret police. Nothing is more private than a woman's body; it is her physical, emotional, and moral citadel. She cannot be free at all if she is not free to decide for herself, in private, what to do with her body. No law can be good that sends the tentacles of a prying bureaucracy into the holy of holies of a woman's womb.

3. A just society should not pass laws whose execution inevitably creates unfairness.

Laws against abortion are always unfair to poor people. Rich women who want abortions can always find a clean clinic to break the law for them. Poor women have to depend upon amateur "doctors" for abortions or bear children they cannot afford to care for. God, the Bible says, is on the side of the poor; antiabortionists are on the side of the rich.

4. A merciful society should not make laws that force terrible handicaps on children.

Blanket prohibition of abortion coerces children to exist and bear burdens no child should be forced to carry. Some will have to live with a mother who does not want them. Others will have to endure enormous physical or grievous mental handicaps. It is not righteousness, but brutality, that forces women to bear children whose life will be a misery.

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5. A wise society will not pass laws that it cannot, and perhaps does not have the will to, enforce.

Nothing erodes the self-respect of a society like making laws it does not have the stomach to enforce or the will to punish offenders for breaking. Few people believe we have the will to add a detail of abortion detectives to already shrunken police forces. Fewer still believe we have the will to prosecute for murder a doctor who aborts a fetus he knows has Tay Sachs disease, or to arrest a teen-age girl for murder because she aborted a fetus she knew she could not care for.

One important assumption

Good arguments? Of course as long as you accept one all-important assumption. The assumption is that a fetus is definitely not a human being and therefore not entitled to protection against an assault on its life. If, however, you believe a fetus is a human being, or at least deserves to be given the legal status of a human being, none of the arguments is convincing.

A pluralist society does not allow people to follow their consciences if their consciences lead them to kill an innocent human being. A free society will invade a person's privacy if it is certain that she is privately about to kill an innocent human being. A just society may well pass laws whose execution leads to unfairness to some people if not to pass them causes a greater unfairness, the killing of innocent human beings. A mercifulsociety may well make laws that burden children if not to make them encourages the killing of innocent, unborn children. A wise society may well make laws it does not have the will to enforce if not to pass them makes killing human beings legal. In sum, all of the arguments that are based on what a good society will or will not do fail at the frontier of the rights of a fetus to live.

I have here only tried to show that the best arguments for freedom of abortion run aground on one crucial question: What is a fetus and what rights does it have? Every argument assumes that the fetus's life is at best an issue secondary to every other issue, but it is precisely here that the final decision rests. And it is here that our society is at agonizing odds with itself. Does human fetal life have a value only secondary to every other social value? It is with this question that the conscience of our society must ultimately come to terms.

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This article originally appeared in the July 15, 1983 issue of Christianity Today.

Related Elsewhere

Other stories appearing on our site today include:

Hurt, Hate, and Healing | A 1985 interview with Lewis Smedes.
Forgiveness—The Power to Change the Past | To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.
Controlling the Unpredictable—The Power of Promising | When you make a promise you have created a small sanctuary of trust within the jungle of unpredictability.

Books written by Lewis Smedes are available at

Additional Christianity Today articles written by Lewis B. Smedes include:

How to Deal With Criminals | Is there a biblical principle behind the punishment of those who break the law? (July 8, 2002)
Keys to Forgiving | How do you know that you have truly forgiven someone? (Dec. 3, 2001)
Who Are We to Judge? | Did Jesus forbid us from judging others? (Oct. 8, 2001)
Can God Reach the Mentally Disabled? | Are mentally challenged adults whose intellectual age is probably that of a 1-year-old sheltered under God's salvation? (March 21, 2001)
Is Suicide Unforgivable? | What is the biblical hope and comfort we can offer a suicide victim's family and friends? (July 6, 2000)