Is Abortion Murder? Rhetoric in the Abortion Debate

December 7, 2015

A recent article in Christianity Today online, cautioning Christians to resist inflammatory rhetoric in their opposition to abortion, drew sharp criticism from some fellow pro-lifers. The article, “Loving Our Pro-Choice Neighbors in Word and Deed,” written by Karen Swallow Prior, urges Christians to speak the truth in love.[1]

Prior does not encourage backing down from opposition to abortion. Indeed, she believes that to speak the truth includes and requires such opposition. Why, then, the strong criticism from some Christians who also oppose abortion? A primary point of contention concerns not the main point of the article, but whether abortion ought to be called murder, and whether women who have abortions should be called murderers.

Prior’s article exhorts Christians to engage in civil discourse and avoid inflammatory rhetoric, and asserts that referring to “women who obtain abortions as ‘murderers’ is worse than inflammatory: it is unchristlike.” Some have responded that abortion is murder, and thus the woman who has an abortion is a murderer, so to speak the truth requires calling abortion murder.

It seems that the criticism misses the target here. First, Prior doesn’t deny, in fact she affirms that, “according to God’s law, abortion is murder” in a parenthetical comment. Second, it misses her primary concern, which is how Christians ought to engage our pro-choice neighbors, including abortion-minded women, in a way that both reveals truth and changes lives and minds.

To this end, Prior makes at least two main points. One is that, in the wake of the recent Planned Parenthood shooting, we ought not to do evil to achieve good. A second point is that our words may soften or harden hearts, win people over or drive them away.  Those who volunteer at Crisis Pregnancy Centers and do sidewalk counseling at abortion clinics—as Prior has for many years—desire that the women they counsel will choose life. To call abortion murder in that context, she suggests, is counter-productive and inappropriate. It might be added that many women who have had an abortion have come to the sobering conclusion that they have killed their own child and are guilty of bloodshed.

The article and the controversy surrounding it, raise some important issues for discussion.

First, words matter. Prior’s article is an important reminder of this, as we seek to engage our neighbors and advocate on behalf of unborn human beings. What we say communicates not only our convictions but also our concern for people. We should seek to win opponents with persuasive words of truth spoken in love. Further, we should be gracious with those who are on the same side of the abortion issue, together seeking clarity and understanding. Prior certainly has pro-life credentials, in words and practice, over a considerable number of years. I appreciate her reflection on language, her desire to get to the truth that is sometimes clouded by inflammatory rhetoric, and her care for women in a crisis pregnancy who feel hopeless and helpless.

Second, context matters. This is an underlying point in Prior’s article. As indicated, in the context of counseling an abortion-minded woman, the language of murder for abortion is not the most appropriate. There is a difference between how we ought to speak about Kermit Gosnell and others who show grotesque indifference to unborn children, and how we ought to speak to a woman who is in a crisis, confused, and misled.

In a related sense, in the broader legal and cultural context, Prior suggests, it can be confusing, unproductive and polarizing to call abortion murder. She recognizes that there is a difference between the legal declaration of what constitutes murder and the moral reality of what is murder, and that the legal status of abortion affects how it is perceived. This is the context in which perhaps her most contested statement should be understood: “Calling legal abortion ‘murder’ when it isn’t (it is, to our shame, lawful) is to say what isn’t true, at least in a civil (not church) context.” Her quotation marks, underlining, parenthetical comments, and the fact that she has in mind women in crisis pregnancies, all qualify the notion that we should not call abortion murder.

Nevertheless, her statement lends itself to confusion and concedes too much. If abortion is, morally speaking, a case of murder (as the deliberate killing of an innocent human being), as Prior affirms, then how should we best reflect that moral truth in our speech? In the broader debate at least, we ought to assert that it is the law that says what isn’t true, since (by making abortion legal) it declares that abortion is not murder when it is. If it seems preferable to substitute other terms for murder (“unjustifiable killing”; “clinical manslaughter”; or even “fetal homicide”), it must be noted that they convey the same point, that abortion is the intentional killing of innocent human life. None of these terms will be accepted by those who defend abortion.

In the 1980’s, CNN’s Crossfire featured debates between conservative host Pat Buchanan and liberal host Michael Kinsley, with guests on both sides of the aisle. When the issue of abortion came up, Kinsley sometimes asked pro-life advocates if they thought abortion was murder, trying to get them to admit that the logical conclusion of their position. Kinsley clearly thought that this was a way to back pro-lifers into a corner, believing they would lose credibility. When there is only time for soundbites, he is probably right. But he was also acknowledging a crucial point: if you argue that the unborn are living human beings, then you must think that abortion is murder.

Perhaps, in the right context, we should not shy away from that point. Dietrich Bonhoeffer sought to articulate a balanced perspective when he declared, “To kill the fruit in the mother’s womb is to injure the right to life that God has bestowed on the developing life. Discussion of the question whether a human being is already present confuses the simple fact that, in any case, God wills to create a human being and that the life of this developing human being has been deliberately taken.  And this is nothing but murder… It may be a deed of despair from the depths of human desolation or financial need, in which case guilt falls often more on the community than on the individual… Without doubt, all this decisively affects one’s personal, pastoral attitude toward the person concerned; but it cannot change the fact of murder. The mother, for whom this decision would be desperately hard because it goes against her own nature, would certainly be the last to deny the weight of guilt.”[2]

[1] http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2015/december/loving-our-pro-choice-neighbors-in-word-and-deed.html.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 6 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 206. Remarkably, in this critical edition, the editors seek to soften Bonhoeffer’s words by suggesting that he has in mind compulsory abortion of the “genetically unfit” under the Nazis, which ignores the specific reasons Bonhoeffer actually gives in his

Kenneth Magnuson
Kenneth Magnuson is a Professor of Christian Ethics at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Kenneth Magnuson

Magnuson joined the faculty of Southern Seminary in 1999. Magnuson teaches on a wide range of topics in Christian ethics and theology, and has presented conference papers and published articles on topics such as sexual morality, marriage, infertility and reproductive technologies, contraception, capital punishment, and war and pacifism. In addition … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24