I first heard about RU-486 a decade ago, at a national pro-life rally in Washington, D.C. There I saw a man wearing a white T-shirt with large black letters that read “RU-486,” followed by a question mark. The answer was on the back. It read, “RU Crazy?”
Apparently the Food and Drug Administration is crazy, because last month they approved RU-486 for use in the United States. The drug is designed to induce an abortion. It is commonly called “the morning after pill” because it is primarily designed to deal with the consequences of sexual promiscuity. Actually, it is a series of pills taken over a period of several days, followed by another visit to the doctor two weeks later.
The new drug is almost certain to revolutionize abortion in America. For one thing, it will make abortion much more widely available. According to FDA regulations, virtually any family doctor will be able to prescribe RU-486. Recent surveys show that as many as 1/3 of doctors who presently do not perform abortions will be willing to prescribe the new drug. This means that women will be able to have an abortion almost anywhere in the United States, hidden from public stigma in the privacy of their own homes.
Another difference is that RU-486 can be taken very early in pregnancy, when Americans generally have fewer reservations about taking a life. This undoubtedly will have a dramatic effect on the politics of abortion. At present, a majority of Americans still oppose abortion. But those who oppose it simply because they are repulsed by current procedures for causing it are likely to change their view. In the words of Dr. Thomas Purdon, who is president-elect of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, RU-486 makes “The emotional and ethical barriers… easier to cross.”
Crossing ethical barriers is precisely the issue. Christians have opposed bringing RU-486 to the United States since the 1980s, when the drug first became available in France. This opposition has tended to focus on medical issues rather than on ethical ones. Opponents of RU-486 have spoken of the painful and unpleasant side-effects suffered by mothers who use it: nausea, cramping, bleeding, infection, depression, and in some rare cases death. These practical considerations have undoubtedly had some influence in delaying the introduction of RU-486 to America. However, the pharmaceutical industry has been effective at minimizing the drug’s side effects, and the FDA now has no reservation about making it available to the general public. They have ruled that RU-486 is “safe and effective” (unless, of course, you happen to be an unborn person).
This shows the inherent limitations of defending a moral position with pragmatic arguments. Pragmatic arguments have their place in the abortion debate. On occasion they may even persuade some women not to have an abortion. However, Christians will not win the fight for life without persuading the conscience of the nation, and the conscience can only be moved by fundamental considerations of right and wrong. Abortion has always been a spiritual issue. One thinks of Margaret Sangster’s famous declaration that “No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her own body. ” Since it is a spiritual issue, the question to ask about RU-486, or about any other method of abortion, is whether it is part of God’s best plan for the people that he has made in his image.
The moral argument against abortion begins with the recognition that life begins at conception. And since life does begin at conception, taking RU-486 is nothing less than the deliberate taking of a human life. Abortion advocates say that in the early days of a pregnancy, a fetus is just a clump of cells. In one sense that is true; however, they are cells that have been clumped together by God himself to form a new human person. From the very moment of conception, a child enters life’s two most important relationships: a relationship with God as Creator, and a relationship with another human being-the mother who is supposed to give the child nourishment and protection.
In order to provide biblical support for the conviction that personhood begins at conception, Christians often appeal to Psalm 139, where David writes, “You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Ps. 139:13). What this verse teaches is that the formation of a human life requires an act of God in a mother’s womb. The verb that David uses to describe this divine act is significant. He says that the fetus is raqam, or “woven, ” almost like fine fabric. What is interesting about this word is that it is used almost exclusively in the Bible to describe the veils and curtains of the tabernacle in the wilderness. For example, the screen that stretched across the doorway of that holy tent was the work of a roqem, a weaver (Exod. 26:36).
What this seems to suggest is that a mother’s womb is sacred space. Just as the tabernacle was God’s holy dwelling place, so also the womb is consecrated by God’s work in weaving together a human person. And in the same way that the tabernacle was off-limits to any unholy intrusion, it is forbidden to disturb the inner sanctum of a mother’s womb. Every abortion is a kind of sacrilege. When a mother and her doctor conspire to administer poison to an unborn child, they are violating a person that God has woven to be his dwelling-place. To see how dangerous this is, consider this warning from Scripture: “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple” (1 Cor. 3:17).
[Most of the information in this essay comes from Nancy Gibbs, “The Abortion Pill,” Time (October 9, 2000), pp. 40-49. The linguistic argument that the womb is sacred space comes from Peter J. Leithart, “Attacking the Tabernacle,” First Things, November, 1999, 15-16.]
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