Justice for the unborn

A sermon by Rod Benson, 8 June 2014

Job 31:13-15

According to new Family Planning data, NSW teenagers have the highest abortion rates in the country, with more teens ending pregnancies than choosing to become parents.  Estimates suggest there were 4053 abortions among NSW teens aged 15-19 in 2009, roughly double the number in Victoria, Tasmania and Queensland.

Family Planning NSW Chief Executive Ann Brassil said a parent’s ability to give their child the “birds and bees” talk could be the key to combating “unwanted” pregnancy.

For many of us, this information raises more questions than it answers:

  • Why are abortion rates seemingly so high in NSW?
  • In what sense can a pregnancy be defined as “unwanted”?
  • Why are precise data not available for the number of abortions performed in Australia?
  • Surely there’s more to good sex education than a parent’s ability to explain copulation?

Those are important questions for another day, but they do get us thinking. Today I want to talk about abortion and social justice and God.  And I want to frame my sermon by taking some words out of the mouth of that great Old Testament patriarch Job, who suffered so terribly, and learned so painfully, and lived so faithfully, and in doing so discovered that God is transcendent but also trustworthy; he can be perplexing but he is always patient; he is great but he is good.

In Job 31:13-15, toward the end of his last speech, Job says to his companions, the well-meaning clowns who have tried their best to comfort him in his affliction and failed:

If I have denied justice to any of my servants, whether male or female,
when they had a grievance against me,what will I do when God confronts me?  

What will I answer when called to account?

Did not he who made me in the womb make them? Did not the same one form us both within our mothers?

Job lived in a traditional community where a slave was regarded as a chattel, as property. Job is a very rich man who has wielded enormous power and influence, but he recognises that claims to justice override ownership rights.  And he believes that if he withholds justice from anyone, God may well withhold mercy from him when he appears before God to be judged in the afterlife.

The reason for this conviction is clear: both he and the slave – any slave – started out as absolute equals in their respective wombs.  Social class and status do not matter. Nor do place of birth, or religious adherence, or cultural identity, or skin colour or other physical attributes. All are equal in conception and birth from the perspective of social justice.  Even a slave in the time of Job had rights at law, guaranteed by God, including the right to initiate a lawsuit against his or her master.

Our common humanity levels all, and elevates all, to a position of intrinsic worth as persons made in the image of God and therefore precious to God and deserving of justice and mercy and compassion (see Job 10:8-13; Eph 6:9).[1]

So too the unborn child.

This is the principle underlying the so-called Zoe Bill currently before the NSW Parliament. The bill was introduced by Member for The Entrance, Chris Spence, in 2013 to amend the Crimes Act to allow criminal liability for the death of a foetus at least 20 weeks old.

The bill was prompted after a baby was delivered stillborn when her mother was struck by a car in Mr Spence’s electorate in 2009. Under current law, the destruction of an unborn child constitutes grievous bodily harm to the mother only and does not recognise the unborn child in its own right.

Legal and medical experts have expressed concern that the bill might limit women’s access to late-term abortions, while others have questioned giving personhood to a foetus. But this is arguably a case of the law catching up with informed public sentiment, and I believe politicians should support the bill.

Let me be clear: the Zoe bill specifically excludes abortion from its reach. But the principle of protection and justice on the basis of intrinsic worth also applies to unborn children at risk of abortion.

If our society has denied justice to any child, whether male or female, when they were at risk of being killed by medical or chemical abortion,what will we do when God confronts us?  

What will we answer when called to account?

Did not he who made us in the womb make them? Did not the same one form us all within our mothers?

In what ways do we routinely deny justice to those not yet born?

In what ways do we deny justice to persons for whom God declares we have both a theological responsibility and a social obligation to uphold their rights, administer justice, and provide adequate care and protection?

We are all priceless gifts from God. Each of us is of equal value, possesses equal rights, and should have equal freedom to take their first breath, and to be loved, and to flourish and in time give back to the community that has nurtured them.

As Job recognised, each of us has ultimate and personal accountability to God, and to divine justice, the serious business of living before a holy and Almighty God, at once both blissful and terrifying if we care to think deeply about it.

Why do we believe all human life is sacred? Because God created us all in his image; because of the emphasis in Scripture on the serious consequences of murder; and because God in his wisdom and grace ordained for his eternal Son to be incarnated in Mary’s womb and be born in Bethlehem, just as you and I were born to our mothers.

God profoundly values the unborn child. The Bible speaks of God’s intimate knowledge of, and relation to, the person-yet-to-be-born.  The church follows God’s lead in affirming this intrinsic worth, and in defending the defenceless, the vulnerable, the least influential members of our community, one life and one breath and one heartbeat at a time.

In his commentary on the book of Job, and in particular what it was that made Job’s reputation as a just person, Mike Mason suggests that

what makes an act truly great is not its bigness, but the purity of heart of the one who performs it. Practically speaking, purity of heart is difficult to achieve on a grand scale. Rather it springs from one pure thought, one pure act, one thing done in perfect purity. Purity begins when our whole lives are narrowed to one fine focus, when the whole world falls away except for the one thing that stands before us needing to be done.

When the one thing that stands before us has to do with another person’s welfare, then we have the makings of social justice … The essence of social justice is the assumption of personal responsibility for the quality of others’ lives.[2]

So don’t let anyone silence your opposition to the practice of abortion by arguing that abortion is about the exercise of free personal choices and not a matter of social justice. It is.

And don’t let anyone pressure you into letting go of what the Bible teaches about the nature of personhood, and the responsibility of female and male parents, and the sheer joy of bringing a child into the world and raising him or her with the support of a vibrant community of faith and care and unconditional love.

And if you have had an abortion, or someone close to you has had an abortion, don’t let anyone convince you that you (or your friend) are evil, or worthless, or second-rate, or beyond forgiveness.

You too are made in God’s image, precious to him, and worthy of all his love and mercy and grace. God knows your heart, and he is gracious, and he is faithful – as Job discovered long ago in a similarly overwhelming and lonely context.

Sermon 619 copyright © 2014 Rod Benson. Preached at Christ Church Blacktown, Sydney, Australia, on Sunday 8 Jun 2014. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


[1] Francis I. Andersen, Job (Leicester: IVP, 1976), p. 241.

[2] Mike Mason, The Gospel According to Job (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1994), p. 322.

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