I must confess that I’ve become a regular follower of the new television series, ”The Newsroom”, and I was particularly touched by one aspect of episode 6 that was on here a couple weeks ago. In it a gay black man, working as a teacher, was coming out in support of a candidate who didn’t believe gay men should be allowed to work as teachers. His reason for supporting this candidate was that he believed that the most important political issue that he could possibly confront was abortion, and this anti-gay candidate happened to be, in his opinion, the best possible candidate to advance the agenda he saw as a priority. The anchorman, “Will” had a crisis of conscience after the fact for harassing this fellow about the seeming contradictions in his politics: supporting a candidate who wouldn’t respect him as a person because of his sexuality. To this the fellow replied, quite heatedly but eloquently, that he didn’t need any liberals to stand up for him, and that he refused to let anyone define his politics for him based on his race, his sexuality or anything else. He could choose for himself what he will stand for, and what he chose to stand for was to fight against abortion.
I in fact know many people from the US for whom abortion is THE political question, most commonly on the basis of a perception that this is the only possible “Christian” position on the subject. Most of them go on from there to look for ideological and religious justifications to agree with other aspects of their favorite candidates’ positions, provided that these candidates are sufficiently dogmatic in their opposition to abortion. I respect the moral character of these old friends of mine to stand up for a cause that they believe in and to make that a political priority even, but I don’t like what it does to their integrity when they find themselves drawn into supporting other positions which would seem to be fundamentally opposed to their basic identity in the process. But then again, I want to try to limit myself in terms of my rights to define what their basic identities are –– politically, socially, spiritually or in any other sense.
For many people abortion is a major emotional issue because the whole idea of babies tugs pretty hard at the heartstrings of pretty much all human beings. Toss around magnified images of second trimester fetuses which look even more baby-like than newborn babies themselves and we’re talking maximum emotional stimulation for women in particular. Telling someone thus stimulated that the subject causing this reaction in them is not actually a person is a fool’s errand at best. Toss in a few verses from the Psalms about God shaping us in the womb and you have a perfect emotional storm.
When I was still in Bible college in Massachusetts in the early 80s I was assigned this sort of suicide mission. It was an English class that I would have been exempted from, were it not for the fact that I naturally write rather slowly; thus I didn’t get enough of the essay questions on the proficiency exam done to get the points needed for exemption, but that’s rather beside the point. Suffice to say the basic course material was hardly challenging for me. The areas in which the course required effort was in speeding up my writing and keeping myself out of trouble regarding my attitude.
In any case, part of the course was oral and written debating skills –– areas in which I was already supremely over-confident at that point. Those who were less confident in the matter picked out propositions that they were quite confident they could defend, regardless of their limited rhetorical skills. Others were randomly assigned to argue against the propositions they came up with. Most of these were things that someone could present a counter argument on without being branded as a heretic: like whether “speaking in tongues” was the definitive evidence of “being filled with the Spirit,” or whether complete abstinence from alcohol should be a moral requirement for all Christian believers. All well and good until this one sweet and sensitive young lady stated that she was going to argue for the proposition, “All abortion is premeditated murder.” Guess who was assigned to be the opponent on that one.
Needless to say, I chose to lose that debate on purpose, with the potentially lower grade being far less of a risk than being labeled as the campus abortion advocate.
I still don’t feel particularly comfortable defending the whole idea of abortion. Sometimes this still puts me in a rather awkward position. Next month I’ll once again be coming to the part of the ninth grade religious education curriculum where I will have to conduct classroom discussions about the morality of abortion, and in over a decade of teaching this subject I have never been able to do so without feeling rather stressed over it. My basic approach has evolved into a method of introducing the subject by saying that there are four forms of ending human life that are legally permitted in various parts of the western world. In alphabetical order those would be abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia and warfare. All of these are morally problematic, but for various reasons some people find some of them more morally acceptable than others. I then take an in-class survey of which of these the ninth graders themselves find to be the most and least immoral. Almost without exception the vast majority within each such class finds warfare to be the most immoral and abortion to be the least immoral of these four ways of taking human life. From there I attempt to Socraticly question why they have chosen as they have, and if possible I try to organize a more formal panel debate over some of the issues raised, but rarely are there any students here (in Finland) who wish to take a public stand against abortion in such a context. I’m generally left in the position of stating a few distinct facts about the matter:
- Whatever else can be said about abortion, it is a physically and emotionally traumatic experience for the girl in question, and I would seriously hope that none of the young ladies before me there would ever have to go through such an experience.
- The risks inherent in sex should be taken seriously, and even if one does not believe in the traditional morality of only having sex after marriage it is important to be very careful, very selective and not at all in a hurry about finding sex partners.
- If they are not able to talk frankly and honestly with a potential partner about all aspects of sex, including birth control, intercourse should be quite out of the question, and there should never be an attitude of, “well, if you get pregnant there’s always abortion.”
- All that being said, in my experience it is more than likely each of these kids, prior to graduating high school, will have had a classmate or two who has had an abortion, though it would be unlikely that they would actually find out about it. Hopefully if they do find out about such matters they will be able to treat the girl in question with an appropriate level of tact, respect and if necessary, personal support.
I’m not legally or morally in a position to say much more than that. They have classes in health education which cover the physical side of things more thoroughly. Beyond that I believe that any attempt on my part to give heavy sermons on sexual abstinence would not only be hypocritical at this point in my life, but also rather counter-productive. And any attempts to further shock or traumatize them regarding the process of abortion itself could justifiably get me fired. So I leave it at that, hoping that if any of the students are in dire need of someone to talk to about such matters I am one of the people that they can trust. Fortunately very few have turned to me in that capacity over the years.
As to the moral arguments concerning abortion itself –– the arguments I intentionally chose to lose some 30 years ago –– there is very little worth my repeating here. The essential question remains, at what point along the way from sexual release to fertilized human ovum to embryo to fetus to healthy newborn baby, does “the soul” –– a fully functional expression of individualized human life, worthy of our protection and respect due to its own inherent value –– come into play? There is no obvious biblical teaching to clarify this matter, nor is there any clear medical consensus on the subject that I am aware of. Thus more often than not it comes down to a set of emotionally held dogmas that cannot be logically proven to be wrong and thus they are held to be foundational truths.
Over the centuries science has narrowed down the debate somewhat. During the Old Testament period it was somewhat axiomatic to say that knowing what happens in the womb as the baby takes shape in there is just one of those things that, like weather patterns, is beyond human understanding (Eccl. 11:5). All that could be said for sure was that once a man shot his seed into the woman there was potential for something miraculous to start happening in there, which in the best (or worst) case could result in a baby. When along the way this thing inside the mother became “a living soul” remained controversial. Some took Genesis 2:7 to mean that it was only in the process of actually breathing that a person becomes a living being. Some took Exodus 21:22-23 to mean that causing a miscarriage is the equivalent of manslaughter, and justifiably subject to brutal retribution, thereby indicating that the fetus is already a living being before it starts breathing at least.
The first “scientific” approach to the subject that the Church took seriously was that of Aristotle. St. Thomas Aquinas repeatedly quotes from Aristotle’s “On the Generation of Animals” in his Summa Theologica, accepting the basic idea that in distinguishing between “form” and “substance,” the baby’s form is determined by what the father shoots in, whereas the substance of the baby comes from what the mother contributes during the course of the pregnancy. As Aristotle put it, “While the body is from the female, it is the soul that is from the male, for the soul is the reality of a particular body.” This also provided a handy explanation for the Christological problem of how Jesus could be entirely divine and entirely human: his form/pattern/soul was perpetually being given by God, whereas his physical substance was contributed entirely by Mary. In fact it’s really rather difficult to make sense of the “eternally begotten” bit in the Nicene Creed outside of this paradigm.
But part of the implication of this teaching is that, as the Monty Python boys put it, “Every Sperm is Sacred.” The soul would already exist within the seed that the potential father ejaculates, and thus it is forbidden to masturbate, or practice oral sex, or (male) homosexual acts of any sort, or bestiality, or condom use, or even early withdraw; because all of these things would place the souls already present in the semen in someplace other than the sacred receptacle it was intended for. From there it was up to God to decide which of these souls he would provide bodies for.
The scientific basis for this traditional moral perspective was actually debunked by a monk, Gregor Mendel, less than 150 years ago. The idea that we each get 23 chromosomes from our moms and 23 from our dads, and the unique combination of those determines our forms (which was actually discovered less than 100 years ago) definitively proved Aristotle’s theory of where the soul comes from to be wrong. But at that point in history the church was so busy fighting against the Darwinist perspective that it hardly noticed the far deeper heretical implications of this monk’s discoveries. One can only imagine what Mendel would have had to endure had he tried to publish his findings 300 years earlier.
So the science of genetics has fundamentally changed the church’s understanding of where the pattern for individual humans comes from, but what it hasn’t done is provide a basis determining whether the sin of abortion is closer to the sin of masturbation or the sin of murder in terms of the old understanding. If we think of the “soul” in the terms in which it is used to translate Aristotle’s ideas, it takes shape whenever there is a pattern established according to which a new human being could be formed. The medieval understanding was that these souls existed at the moment of ejaculation, and they were thus unanimous in the understanding that most of those patterns would never be realized, and it was sort of up to God which ones got all the way to breathing “the breath of life”. The guilt associated with preventing an actual human life from being realized based on that pattern was variable, depending on how close it actually got.
We now recognize that those patterns take shape at the moment of conception, and that in the long trip from potential human being to actual human being conception is a more monumental step along the way than the actual first breath, in that it is at the moment of conception (rather than ejaculation) when the pattern becomes fully formed, but it is unclear whether either marks the definitive transition point from potential to actual. A more realistic transition point would be the point at which pre-natal consciousness has taken shape, but even that is somewhat problematic, both in terms of diagnostics and in terms of establishing a philosophically consistent standard on the matter.
But what all of this comes back to is a question of what we mean when we talk about the intrinsic value of human life. Are we saying that all humans are incredible treasures, and we should thus try to fill the world with as many of them as possible? Are we saying that intelligence as such is the highest value that evolution has produced, and the thing most worth saving and defending in the universe, in particular in the form in which it occurs within our own species (implying that the more intelligent one is, the more entitled one should be to survive)? Are we saying that there are certain things in terms of personal flourishing for each of us as humans that require contact with other humans, and we must thus consider (all of) them to be instrumentally important? Are we just saying that the moral tenants of empathy and reciprocity should be applicable first and foremost within our own species? Or are we saying that there is some other “spark of the divine” within every actual living, breathing human being that deserves to be protected purely on the basis of religious dogmas with no other explanation necessary? All of these positions have their champions even today; all of them have their problems in terms of fully consistent application.
All that uncertainty being on the table, I still believe that every actual human life has its own value, which can’t be applied to lives that might have been under other circumstances. I believe that, if anything, our moral responsibility at this point in history is to limit the number of children we bring into the world, not to maximize our reproductive potential. So when it comes to miscarriages I believe that they are tragic events for those who experience them, but not an indication of sinfulness or moral failure. I don’t believe that married ladies in their 40s who allow themselves to get pregnant in spite of the high risk of miscarriage at their age are guilty of reckless manslaughter when such miscarriages happen. Thus I don’t believe that fetuses and babies actually belong in the same category with each other as moral objects. And on that basis I don’t believe that the suffering of fetuses being aborted, or the loss of those potential contributors to our societies, really belong in the same category with the tragedy of actual children dying every few seconds from malnutrition and preventable diseases. Thus to me abortion is not the political issue.
If it is the issue for you I would hope that you first seriously consider why it bothers you so much compared to other causes of human suffering or loss of life. If this is a “back door” way of trying to evangelize and proclaim to the world the values of your own religious convictions, I would suggest that you prayerfully reconsider the implications and effectiveness of such a strategy. If you are honestly afraid that God will cause earthquakes and tornados and other forms of judgment on nations that practice such sins, I would strongly suggest that praying for mercy is a better safeguard than trying to legislate the morality you believe God wants. If it is the genuine human suffering and tragedy that bothers you, for consistency sake I hope you would also fight against other forms of human tragedy that I have mentioned above, particularly contributing to aid for girls and young children in Africa and the Indian subcontinent (even if taxes on the wealthy must be raised in the process). But most importantly, while I fully respect your right to believe as you do, I hope you realize that someone can still be a good Christian and a good person while believing differently than you do on these matters.
And when it comes to the current election cycle, may God have mercy on us all and protect us from each other’s stupidity.