The “No” to Abortion Which Must Be Said – Karl Barth (1886 – 1968)

Beginning in the 1930s, and working into the late 1960s, Swiss theologian Karl Barth wrote his 13-volume Church Dogmatics, six million words in all. In the eighth book (Doctrine of Creation, Part IV), he brought theology to bear on the practical issues of moral life in society. In this selection, he takes on the question of abortion, declaring it to be the “monstrous” killing of a human being.[1] In the broader passage, he expresses appreciation to the Catholics for holding the line on this issue, and he urges fellow Protestants to take the lead in defense of the unborn since they excel at proclaiming the mercy and grace of the gospel, which should prime them for extending mercy and grace to children at all stages of development, however inconvenient their existence might seem.

Our first contention must be that no pretext can alter the fact that the whole circle of those concerned is in the strict sense engaged in the killing of human life. For the unborn child is from the very first a child. It is still developing and has no independent life. But it is a man and not a thing, nor a mere part of the mother’s body…Whatever arguments may be brought against the birth and existence of the child, is it his fault that he is here? What has he done to his mother or any of the others that they wish to deprive him of his germinating life and punish him with death? Does not his utter defencelessness and helplessness, or the question whom they are destroying, to whom they are denying a future even before he has breathed and seen the light of the world, wrest the weapon from the hand of his mother first, and then from all the others, thwarting their will to use it?

Karl Barth endorses the Swiss law, whose only “valid reason for abortion [is] an emergency affecting the life or body of the pregnant woman,” and which does not grant exceptions for “an emergency affecting her freedom, honour or capacity.”[2] But he argues that the fundamental answer to social blight of abortion is a change in the human heart.

The fact that a definite No must be the presupposition of all further discussion cannot be contested, least of all to-day. The question arises, however, how this No is to be established and stated if it is to be a truly effective No. In the face of the wicked violation of the sanctity of human life which is always seriously at issue in abortion, and which is always present when it is carried out thoughtlessly and callously, the only thing which can help is the power of a wholly new and radical feeling of awe at the mystery of all human life and this is commanded by God as its Creator, Giver and Lord. Legal prohibitions and restrictions of a civil, moral and supposedly spiritual kind are obviously inadequate to instil this awe into man. Nor does mere churchmanship, whether Romanist or Protestant, provide the atmosphere in which this awe can thrive. The command of God is based on His grace.

And as terrible as abortion is, Barth insists that there is divine mercy available to those who repent of this sin.

At this point, it may be interjected that, when this No is established as a divine No, namely, when it is in virtue of the liberating grace of God that deliberated abortion is irrefutably seen to be sin, murder and transgression, it cannot possibly be maintained that there is no forgiveness for this sin. However dangerous it might sound in relation to all that has been said thus far, it must also be said that in faith and in a vicariously intercessory faith for others too, there is a forgiveness which can be appropriated even for this sin, even for the great modern sin of abortion.


[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 3, part 4 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1961), 415-417. In other editions see 3.4.55.

[2] Ibid., 422. In this passage, he opens the door slightly for occasional socio-economic justification by saying there are times when a proper law cannot track perfectly with moral nuances. Still, he insists that “Genuine exceptions will…be rare,” a perspective at odds with the abortion-on-demand policy at work lethally in America.