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The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity

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The Supreme Court and the Whole-Life Ethic

The Supreme Court of the United States last week delivered two controversial – and seemingly contradictory – judgements.

On Thursday the court struck down a New York state law restricting gun-carrying rights. The court found that the law requiring residents to prove ‘proper cause’ or good reason to carry concealed firearms in public violated the Constitution.

The following day the court overturned its 1973 ruling in the case of Roe v Wade that a woman’s right to abortion was protected by the Constitution. This judgement doesn’t make abortion illegal but hands this decision to individual states.

One judgement appears to put life at risk. The other appears to protect it. The intense and contrasting reactions to the Supreme Court rulings – euphoria and rage about each in different quarters – have further demonstrated how polarised the United States is across a wide range of issues.

What’s an appropriate Christian response?

The example of the early Christians should help us. In his book The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark argues that, in the ancient world, ‘central doctrines of Christianity prompted and sustained attractive, liberating, and effective social relations and organisations’. The early Christians were not only pro-birth but consistently and authentically pro-life in all of life. They embraced those whom the Greeks and Romans considered useless to society – orphans, widows, beggars, the elderly, and the disabled. They nursed the sick during times of plague, and, in rejecting abortion and infanticide, they were pro-women, pro-education, pro-children, pro-family, truly pro-choice. Christianity grew exponentially as a result.

This whole-life ethic remains revolutionary. A whole-life ethic will help us decide how best to organise our political arrangements. A whole-life ethic will help us see that the law, although significant, is limited in its ability to restrain evil and promote human flourishing.

A whole-life ethic will lead us to oppose the lie that anyone has the absolute right to autonomy. It’s increasingly accepted that there are moral (and legal) limits on our use of the planet. Why should the use of our bodies be any different? Danny Kruger MP sparked fury in the House of Commons on Tuesday when he made exactly this point: ‘[Some] think that women have an absolute right to bodily autonomy in this matter,’ he said, ‘whereas I think in the case of abortion that right is qualified by the fact that another body is involved.’ The same point could be made about the ‘absolute right’ to carry concealed firearms.

A whole-life ethic will lead us to ‘translate’ Christian doctrines into everyday life and, therefore, be characterised by compassion for others. We will work for a future where we do better to protect the lives of women and girls, increase choice, address social deprivation and exclusion, the climate and ecological crisis, gun violence, abortion, and domestic violence – everything, in fact, that impacts the quality of life.

Jesus came that people might have life in all its fullness. If we embrace his whole-life ethic, we will not only contribute to the flourishing of others but could change the conversation around contested issues for good.

Paul Woolley


  1. A lot of waffle here without a meaningful conclusion. However, there is a straw man argument: virtually no one is suggesting that a women has an absolute right to an abortion for the entire nine months of a pregnancy. There is also an error: some abortion laws explicitly place the health of the mother at risk by prioritising the life of the foetus (which may not even be viable) over the life of the mother.

    So far as I can see, the bible says nothing relevant for the current debate about life of embryos in utero. At the point of conception there is no meaningful human life; after nine months there is human life. A legal definition of when abortion should be allowed sets an arbitrary definition (not necessarily any more abitrary than observed definitions of murder or theft, both of which are discussed in the bible and even in the ten commandments). When someone fails to understand this conceptual point, I wish that they would step outside the bible and learn about the Sorites problem (I am not hopeful). But banning abortion after twenty weeks is clearly better than banning abortion after six weeks.

    Christians need to be open about this: many of the sorts laws which will soon come into effect in the USA are unChristian and show a disgraceful attitude towards women.

    By Edmund Cannon  -  1 Jul 2022
    • “So far as I can see, the bible says nothing relevant for the current debate about life of embryos in utero.”

      You mean nothing like Genesis, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Galatians etc. ? All of which talk about God knowing us before we were formed in the womb? This points to the metaphysical God, the paper on which the lines of our lives are drawn (to borrow a C.S Lewis analogy) but when applied to the real world around us and in our concept of time, should give us pointers as to the sanctity of human life at any stage.

      By Axel Stone  -  1 Jul 2022
    • c. 1 million abortions in the UK in 5 years and roughly 4 million births. So 20% of pregnancies are aborted. Let’s say that 5% are result of rape / danger to mothers life / serious genetic issue. That leaves 950,000. Let’s say 10% of those are a failure in contraception. That leaves c. 855,000 abortions of conceptions that took place in an age of freely available contraception. The child bearer and partner both have rights…. and responsibilities… and valuing the life of dependant, vulnerable humans seems like a good move to me. I think the issue is the refusal to accept the grey 5% (referred to above) and the adult responsibility to use contraceptives…. and to protect, nurture and treasure vulnerable emerging human life.

      By Neville Hilton  -  1 Jul 2022
    • Sorry that you haven’t found this article helpful, Edmund. I don’t think there is a straw man or error here, at least not on my part. UK laws do not prioritise the life of the foetus over the life of the mother, but the law (either in the UK or elsewhere) was not the focus of the piece.

      The Bible has a great deal to say that is relevant to current debates. On what basis do you come to the conclusion that, at the point of conception, there is no “meaningful” human life? What’s your definition of “meaningful”, or “human” come to that? And I’m not sure the sorites paradox helps you any more than me.

      The main point I was seeking to make is that, unlike their contemporaries, the early Christians embraced a whole-life ethic. This emphasised human flourishing for all at all stages of life and our interdependence to one another.

      By Paul Woolley  -  4 Jul 2022
  2. “The same point could be made about the ‘absolute right’ to carry concealed firearms.”

    I’m not an American but I really don’t think it can, there is not a direct equivalence here. On one hand you have abortion laws which exist to permit the killing or murder of an unborn child. The ability to carry a firearm doesn’t permit murder, the law just says you can carry one. These two things are very different. Shooting someone with that gun for no reason would quite obviously be the crime of murder and punishable as such.

    By Axel Stone  -  1 Jul 2022
    • Thanks, Axel. The point I was seeking to make is that speaking of absolute rights is problematic. One person’s “rights” inevitably impact another person’s “rights”.

      By Paul Woolley  -  4 Jul 2022
  3. I am increasingly concerned about the number of issues are accepted which are clearly in oposition to God’s will

    By Gerald Farnell  -  1 Jul 2022
  4. I have just spent time puting my views and they appear to hve vanished.
    I stated that I am increasingly concerned that many issues are adopted which are clearly anti Christian

    By Gerald Farnell  -  1 Jul 2022
    • Sorry to hear that, Gerald. Do please feel free to try again!

      By Paul Woolley  -  4 Jul 2022
  5. If I’m not mistaken, the morality of abortion was already a question for philosophers before the time of Jesus. Yet I don’t remember ever reading about Jesus — or Paul — declaring whether or not abortion is morally acceptable. Jesus proclaimed on divorce which, like abortion, was legal at the time, so there was certainly scope for a pronouncement here.

    If neither Jesus nor Paul made a declaration, how can some Christians tell other Christians what is right in this area… never mind create rules for non-Christians? It feels pharisaic to me.

    By JR  -  2 Jul 2022
    • I disagree with you, JR. The implication of your argument is that where Jesus did not talk directly about a subject (e.gs., infanticide, euthanasia, abortion), his followers are free to take whatever line they like. It’s helpful to remember that, on the whole, Jesus was addressing people who subscribed to a Judeo worldview. The early Christians, like Jews in general, didn’t practice abortion or infanticide – both widespread practices, especially in relation to unwanted baby girls. That’s why there were more Christian women than pagan women in the third century.

      By Paul Woolley  -  4 Jul 2022
  6. Thank you Paul. I have found your comments really helpful. Abortion DOES involve another human life. As a nurse, I found it a huge conflict as I considered both the unborn child as well as the mother my patients. If the child is wanted, there is no question about doing all one can to keep it alive in utero. But if not, I am assisting one of my patients to take the life of my other patient? This can’t be right.

    By Sabine Burningham  -  3 Jul 2022
    • Thank you, Sabine.

      By Paul Woolley  -  4 Jul 2022
  7. There is so much wrong with your remarks on gun control and the Bible, it is hard to know where to start.

    How much in-depth or online research have you done about what the bible says about gun control?

    I was condemned by many for years because I chose to join the military. After extensive study I can offer a few salient points that can be fully backed up by a simple online search. For instance:

    * The Bible encourages the warrior spirit. There is never a condemnation of soldiers who do their job without harm to innocents.
    * The Bible condemns private revenge, but supports the right to self defense.
    * The state has the right for revenge.
    * Defense of self and property are personal responsibilities, not for the state. Armed home owners are recognized as the norm.
    * The reason Peter was carrying a sword in the Garden was because Jesus told him to.
    * Jesus’ response to Peter, and to Pilate several hours later were both the same – weapons are not allowed for defense of Jesus. His Father will take care of that.
    * … and so on … .

    I know some of you are having meltdown and sharpening your wits to argue with me. Please don’t argue with me. Do your own due diligence through detailed Bible study assisted by online resources, and take your arguments to God in prayer. I already have.

    By Frederic A Parker  -  15 Jul 2022
  8. Thank you, Paul. I found your article balanced and helpful.

    May I add one point? My understanding is that both the US Supreme Court decisions were about the scope of the US constitution and the individual rights conferred/restricted by it. The Court has rowed back from previous decisions which many on all sides of the arguments concede have stepped into areas which should properly be decided by elected representatives – that’s an unavoidable consequence of democratic federalism. In the UK the equivalent decision-making body is Parliament. We don’t expect our Courts to define the scope of individual rights in areas of contested social policies (although there are worrying signs that they have an increasing ambition to do so).

    On that basis, while Paul makes his point well, I find the two decisions of the US Supreme Court overall consistent. If there is any inconsistency in these highly contested areas it is for elected representatives to sort them out – and if they fail to do so the electorate can change them.

    In making these points I make no comment on the rights/wrongs of the current laws on abortion or gun-carrying. I am, however, in agreement with Paul’s article to the extent that it expresses so well the Christian vision, including from earliest history.

    By Mark Womersley  -  19 Jul 2022
  9. For an depth look at the Pro-life issues have a look at the Consistent Life website – https://www.consistentlifenetwork.org/
    A consultant’s view on Abortion https://www.cmf.org.uk/resources/publications/content/?context=article&id=886
    Euthanasia http://consistent-life.org/blog/index.php/2015/07/09/figuring-out-euthanasia/
    If we believe in the death penalty, as evidenced in the Old Testament, then we need to be consistent and follow all the Laws including stoning those who are caught in adultery. The Scriptures are a ‘progressive revelation’. God did not reveal all His commandments at once. By the time we come to the Cross, Jesus died for all our law breaking, thus the death penalty is null and void. That does not mean that punishment should not feature as a result of a law being broken. Rather we should seek to restore the person, wherever possible, to right relationships. That will, especially where there has been violence, prison. But even there restorative justice should be tried.
    Pacifism – this is a difficult one – I have not fully worked out in understanding what the Bible says, but we are commanded to love our enemies. Part of that is helping to create situations where evil can be prevented – seeing all peoples as equal in the eyes of God, seeking to see them all empowered to lead a useful and fulfilling life – whole life discipleship.

    By Greg Fletcher  -  18 Oct 2022

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