When ethicist Andrew Sloane’s ‘At Home in a Strange Land’ discusses the sixth commandment ‘do not murder’, he argues that abortion ought not to be considered murder. I hadn’t heard this argument before; at the very least it once again calls Christians away from emotive labels and towards nuance in what is already a very heated debate.
We must recognise that [the sixth commandment] is a prohibition of murder, not just of killing (the Hebrew word has roughly the same meaning as our English word and is generally used in contexts that speak of ‘malice aforethought‘). It does not prohibit warfare or the death penalty, nor does it prohibit what we call ‘manslaughter’ — causing the death of another person by accident or neglect…
This is not to say however that we have automatic answers to a range of puzzling questions relating to the beginning and end of life. For instance, I have often heard Christians opposed to the practice of abortion or euthanasia talk about them as instances of murder. I think not. Don’t get me wrong: abortion and (so-called active) euthanasia are generally wrong, in part because they are claiming the kind of sovereignty over human life and its beginning and end that properly belongs to God alone. But these actions are not murder. Euthanasia doesn’t count as murder, because it is not a killing with malice aforethought but rather is done out of misguided compassion. Abortion doesn’t count as murder, because neither those who perform it nor those who choose to go through the procedure believe that what they are killing is a human person. They may be wrong about that, although the wrongness in general of abortion doesn’t depend on saying that an embryo counts as a full-fledged human being from conception. But given that they do not count the fetus as a human person, their intention is not to kill a human being, with or without malice thus although what they do is, in general, wrong, it does not count as murder. Furthermore, there are instances — say, where the mother’s life is at risk — when abortion, while deeply regrettable, may not be wrong…. Given that in the OT and modern law malice aforethought consciously directed against another human being so as to will their death (or serious harm) is a key criterion for identifying a particular wrongful death as murder, the absence of malice aforethought makes abortion and euthanasia, generally speaking, wrongful death rather than murder.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.