Even though people ought not to uncritically accept whatever the government declares is legal, the fact remains that many people do. We cannot, therefore, ignore this as a powerful factor in explaining the massive shift in public opinion on abortion in the past decades.

Ethics, Conscience and Abortion

Earlier in United States history, a folk hero who became a congressman wrestled with the problem of making ethical choices. Davy Crockett once declared, "Be sure you're right; then go ahead." This adage is both prudent and dangerous. It is prudent in that it echoes a biblical principle that gives guidance when we lack moral certainty. In his epistle to the Romans, the apostle Paul gave extensive counsel to Christians regarding such matters. The issue was the legality of Christians eating meat that had been offered to idols in pagan rituals. Some believers were convinced such dining was wrong, while others were persuaded it was acceptable. Paul gave this counsel:

I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. (Romans 14:14)

Eating meat offered to idols in itself is not that crucial. It is a matter of ethical indifference, and Christians are free to exercise their Christian liberty in the matter. But it becomes an ethical issue when a person believes it is wrong.

What happens if someone performs an action he believes to be wrong, even though it is not in fact wrong? In such a case, Paul judges the action to be wrong. Why? It is wrong because it involves acting in bad faith or against one's conscience. This cardinal principle is found in verse 23: "Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin."

For example, suppose God does not consider dancing a sin, yet I am reared in a subculture that teaches that it is a sin to dance. As a result, I am convinced that dancing is a sin. If I dance while thus convinced, I sin. I am deliberately doing something that I think is contrary to the law of God.

In this case, I am sure I am wrong. On the other hand, if I am sure I am right before I proceed to do something, I am not acting in bad faith. I am doing what I believe is the right thing.

The question remains: If I am not sure I am right, should I go ahead? Davy Crockett seems to say no. Paul's advice is even stronger: If it is not of faith, it is sin.

To be sure, there are occasions when, after careful consideration of ethical principles, we are still not certain what is the proper action. We are out of time or have exhausted our ability for reflection, but we must make a decision and act. Either option before us may be sinful or just — we simply cannot discern which. It is in these excruciating circumstances that we remember the advice of Martin Luther to "sin boldly." Luther meant that if we have done all we can to discern what is right and the time has come to act, then, even if our actions are sinful, we should act with boldness.