Some ethical cases are clear cut, while others are more difficult. But the case of a six-week-old embryo (deceased) suing an Alabama abortion clinic probably deserves a category all of its own.
In case you have not seen the story, what's happening is explained succinctly by the Washington Post: 'An Alabama judge has recognised the legal rights of an aborted foetus, allowing a man whose girlfriend ended her pregnancy at six weeks to sue the manufacturer of the pill she used and the clinic that gave it to her.'
The news item goes on to explain that a decree permitting the lawsuit issued by a county judge 'explicitly states "Baby Roe" is a person and allows plaintiff Ryan Magers to name the foetus as a co-plaintiff in the suit for wrongful death.' Magers, it is reported, repeatedly pleaded with his then-girlfriend to give birth when the pregnancy was discovered in 2017, but she refused and had an abortion.
I mean, let's be honest, where do we even start to think about this from any perspective – let alone a Christian one? Well, it's probably wise to avoid jumping to conclusions. That trap is certainly one which a writer on the London-based Guardian newspaper fell right into. She declared that part of the issue with this case 'is the fundamental goal of the anti-abortion movement: to control what women can and cannot do, and to frame us primarily as incubators and vessels for the desires of others'. This kind of gross misrepresentation of those who are pro-life doesn't help anyone, and I have never heard anyone on that side of the debate articulate or even imply anything remotely like that.
So where do we start? Well, there are ethical, moral and legal issues involved. Let's try and start thinking some of them through – while recognising that there is undoubtedly much, much more to be said.
1. The ethical issue. When does an embryo or foetus become a human being? A paper published just a few weeks ago by the Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF) and written by a London GP has some helpful pointers. Author Dr Laurence Crutchlow writes: 'Most debate within CMF has been over whether conception or implantation [the stage when the embryo adheres to the wall of the uterus] should be regarded as the beginning of life'. But, as he makes clear, 'the Bible does not give an explicit and simple answer to this question'. However, he concludes that Scripture teaches 'God is intimately involved with our lives not only in utero, but before we are even conceived. This may not give an absolute answer to the question "when does life begin?" but surely places the burden of proof on those who argue for any point after conception.'
I've just Googled images of six-week-old embryos (an advantage we have over many generations before us) and, while small, at this stage the foetus looks like a developing human to me.
Moreover, the science of human development tells us that by this time, a baby's circulatory system has already formed and its nervous system is developing. The neural connections, endings of the nerves, and the brain are forming, and the embryo is slowly developing its lungs, intestines, oesophagus, and stomach. The intestine has three loops. I'm happy that this is a human being with potential – rather than a potential human being.
2. The legal issue. Legally, the situation is that late last year, Alabama voters approved changes to their state's constitution which gave a formal right to life for unborn children – something known as the 'personhood clause'. The measure was approved by 60 per cent of those who voted. And Alabama has statutes which define 'personhood' as beginning at conception. However, many experts believe that as long as the USA's landmark abortion case, Roe v Wade, is in place, a woman's right of privacy to have an abortion under that Supreme Court ruling will always trump state law, whatever it may be. Moreover, Ilyse Hogue, president of US 'pro-choice' group NARAL claims that the lawsuit could mean that a woman's rights are effectively 'third in line' after the rights of a man who impregnates her and the foetus or unborn child she aborts. If that were the case, this would surely raise some questions about an appropriate balance of competing rights.
3. The moral issue. Finally, there's the moral question. Is this a 'wise' case to be undertaking? The father of the 16-year-old girl who became pregnant is widely reported as claiming that the relationship Magers had with his girlfriend was far from healthy. So she's obviously had a lot to go through in life already. And she will still be a teenager. So it would seem unwise to pursue any 'pro-life' case which would heap more pressure on someone in that situation.
All in all, this unusual case seems a morally dubious one to pursue and legally highly uncertain to succeed, whatever one's sympathy with a pro-life view of the developing child in the womb. There are good and godly ways of taking action to explain and protect the rights of unborn boys and girls. This doesn't look like one of them to me.
David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister in Sussex, England. Find him on Twitter @Baker_David_A