In my house growing up, the dinner table was the closest thing we had to sacred space. At the dinner table (and often only at the dinner table) there were firm rules guarding our civility. We had, for reasons I have still not figured out, to keep our elbows off the table. We had to chew with our mouths closed. We had to ask for someone to "please pass me" whatever it was that we wanted, rather than just reaching across the table and grabbing it. But most importantly, we had to talk calmly and quietly, using our inside voices.
Dinner table conversation was, at least in retrospect, the highlight of my days. It was the one moment during the day that I got to talk about what I wanted to talk about, to a captive audience that had to treat me with respect. My parents orchestrated the dinner table conversation such that we hit on many topics of global, local, and personal import. If we acted according to the firm but never overtly stated rules that governed our civility, no topic was taboo. Well, almost no topic.
There were two things which my father would almost never allow us to discuss over dinner: religion, and abortion. He said that there was no point in discussing subjects on which no one would ever change their mind, and which elicited such profound emotional responses. I suspect he also knew that we children, who had grown up in a religiously conservative church environment, would probably vehemently disagree with him and our mother, who were more secularist liberals.
I have long since overcome the household taboo against talking about religion, though I have to say that, by and large my father was right. When I get into religious discussions I find that either the other person already agrees with me, in which case we are both just preaching to the choir, or they do not agree with me. When we disagree, usually the disagreement provokes us both to become even more firmly entrenched in our views, and to see the other person as "the enemy," that unspeakable evil force which is leading the world straight to hell.
But abortion is still, for me, a touchy subject. And for good reason. Nothing is more personal than the reproductive process, and nothing is more precious than the lives produced by that process. Because of this abortion is a highly charged issue which causes otherwise reasonable people to become, when facing off with someone who disagrees with their position on abortion, real assholes.
Nothing served to mobilize conservative and fundamentalist Christians in America like the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in 1973, Roe v. Wade. Fundamentalists had by and large withdrawn from the American mainstream after the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, which pitted the ACLU's famous Clarence Darrow against the populist former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, a conservative if not fundamentalist Christian. During the trial Bryan mistakenly allowed himself to be put on the stand by Darrow as a so-called "Biblical expert." He was ruthlessly cross examined, and his views, which were broadcast across the nation via the radio, were held up to public ridicule. He won the trial in the courtroom, but lost in the much more important court of public opinion. This defeat caused those who shared Bryan's literalist views of the Bible to withdraw from public life, sensing that the nation was not yet ready to accept them and their view of God and the Bible.
But Roe v. Wade, which effectively legalized abortion by ruling the existing state laws prohibiting it unconstitutional, sounded a battle cry for fundamentalists who had become emboldened by their retreat from public life. Yes, fundamentalism had mobilized somewhat before then, but Roe v. Wade reminded both fundamentalists and conservatives of what was at stake, and pressed them into much more aggressive action.
Since Roe v. Wade we have seen an exponential increase in fundamentalism to the point that much of what had been labeled fundamentalist now carries the much more innocuous label "conservative." Conservative Christianity, particularly within the Protestant tradition, is growing rapidly.
The Pro-Life/ Anti-Abortion movement has grown and mobilized as religious America has shifted to the right. Emboldened by this, many people I come into contact with through religious organizations assume that everyone they know who claims the name of Christ agrees with their views on abortion. While I was in professional ministry, first as a Youth Minister and then as the pastor of my own church, it was not wise for me to encourage people to look seriously at abortion as a complex moral situation which is not always morally wrong. To do so would have been career suicide. But now that I have left professional ministry, and now that my family's ability to eat is not so closely tied to people thinking that I always agree with them, I can finally approach abortion as the morally complicated situation which it really is.
Pro-Life/ Anti-Abortion activists often use a simple slogan which I think best sums up their position: Abortion is Murder. In fact, to them abortion is murder of the worst kind, because it is the murder of an innocent, helpless baby. Because they assume abortion is murder, and because they assume that all morally reasonable people will grant them that assumption, they do not feel the need to argue for their assumption. They do not explain why it is that abortion is murder, because to them it is so obviously the case that it ought to be intuitive. If others are incapable of or unwilling to arrive at the same conclusion, then it represents a failure of their reason, their morality, or more likely, both.
But it is obviously the case that abortion is murder? I think not. I hope that abortion is not obviously murder since the majority of our nation still favors a woman's right to choose to have an abortion. I hope that I do not live in a nation whose collective moral reasoning is so out of whack that they favor an act which is obviously murder. But as someone who opposed a war which at the time was favored by the majority, I know that we cannot always trust the moral reasoning of the majority.
Murder has best been defined as "the unjustified killing of a person." If this is a good definition of murder, then in order to demonstrate that an act is murder you have to demonstrate three things:
1. That something has been killed.
2. That the something which has been killed is "a person."
3. That that killing of a person was "unjustified."
So for abortion to be murder, per this definition of murder, it has to involve the killing of a person, and that killing must not count as a justified killing.
The first question this raises in my mind is: What do we mean by a "person?" What constitutes "personhood?"
This might seem like an easy question to answer, but as we try to answer it reasonably it gets very complicated very quickly. We might want to say that "person" and "human" are interchangeable terms; that a person is a human and a human is a person. But (not to sound like Bill Clinton pondering the meaning of "is"!) what do we mean by human?
We might mean biologically human, containing human DNA. But does this help us to understand the morality of abortion? A human fetus is, at the very least, a biologically human mass contained within a biological human. If personhood is granted to that fetus by virtue of it containing human DNA and therefore being biologically human, then it would be a very serious thing to remove that biologically human mass, thereby "killing" it. But a tumor may be described by the same language we just used to describe the fetus. Would it be a morally similar act to remove the tumor from the biological human? I certainly doubt it, which means we need to clean up our definition of person.
In utilitarian ethics a person (by which we mean here that which has moral standing) is defined as a sentient being - a being capable of experiencing pleasure and pain and expressing preference. This understanding has been particularly beneficial when discussing the rights of animals, but for those who don't want to extend rights to other animals similar to the ones we enjoy as human animals it isn't particularly helpful. It is, for those who wish to argue that abortion is wrong, a particularly unhelpful framework, because the extent to which an unborn child is sentient is not obvious to us. A fetus is certainly less sentient than, say, the cow which became the hamburger you just had for lunch. If sentience is our ground for personhood, why would it be less wrong to kill the cow than it is to kill the fetus?
This question concerning personhood, because it is central to our understanding of the moral and legal implications of abortion, had to be seriously considered by Justice Harry B. Blackmun, who wrote the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade. While I was an undergraduate Philosophy student I took an Ethics class in which I had to write a paper on how Blackmun dealt with personhood in his decision. For that paper I wrote this:
"In writing the majority opinion for the U.S. Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade, Justice Harry B. Blackmun outlines several historical perspectives on what it means to be a person. Some have held that life begins at conception, and therefore one has personhood, by virtue of the potential to be human, at birth. Others have claimed that a fetus is only a person once it has 'quickened', or moved. Still others have claimed that a person is only a person when it is 'viable', capable of surviving on its own. And finally, some have claimed that personhood begins only upon being born.
"Justice Blackmun himself seems mute on personhood, leaving, for the most part, his opinions outside the argument. In fact, he goes out of his way to maintain that it is not necessary that he, or any other justice in the court, pin down exactly when life, or personhood occurs. He argues that if the great doctors, philosophers, and theologians of all time have been unable to reach a consensus, then certainly one will not be reached by lawyers in a courtroom. However, what he can determine is what, constitutionally speaking, the laws of the United States of America can and cannot regulate.
"Although he does not come up with a firm definition of personhood, Justice Blackmun notes that both sides of the argument on abortion appeal to the protection of 'persons' in Section 1 of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which states:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and the State wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
"If a fetus is considered a person, then, clearly, according to the 14th Amendment, it has the right to life, which supersedes any claim the mother may make to rights, unless the mother's own life is in jeopardy. However, neither the internal evidence of the text, nor the evidence of history seems to indicate that this Amendment considers unborn fetuses to be 'persons.' Rather, it seems that only those who have been 'born' are considered here persons, therefore, legally, constitutionally speaking, the issue of potential personhood of a fetus is not to be respected."
To say exactly what we mean by the term "person" and exactly who counts as a person is a difficult thing. Any reasonable account of personhood, and any ethical theory which takes personhood seriously is necessarily complex. Because personhood is the foundation of moral standing, we need to have a very broad understanding of who counts as a person. The dangers of placing limits on personhood should be obvious. In early American history blacks were not considered persons, and they are still fighting to regain that lost personhood. But I can see no reason to consider fetuses to be persons in the same sense that those who have been born are considered persons. This is not to say that fetuses have no moral consideration whatsoever, but just that killing a fetus, morally and legally, is not the same thing as killing a person.
But even if we do consider a fetus to be a person, and many reasonable people do, it does not necessarily follow from that that abortion in all cases is murder. After all, we have defined murder as the unjustified killing of a person, so we still have to consider the question of justification.
As such, the next question is: Is killing a person ever justified?
This is, remarkably enough, a much more difficult question to answer than the first one. It is also a question which cuts to the moral heart of a great deal more than just abortion. If the answer to this question is no, then there should be no state sanctioned killing, whether it be war or the death penalty or whatever.
It is on this point that many Catholics do not consider Protestants (and particularly American Protestants) to be sufficiently Pro Life. For American Protestant activists Pro Life really means merely anti-abortion. For Catholics, however, life does not (as my father likes to say) end at birth. To be Pro Life means to fight not just against abortion but against all state sanctioned killings, particularly the death penalty.
I would love to here get into arguments concerning war and the death penalty, but as you may have already noticed it is far too easy for me to get off on a tangent. Suffice it to say that war and the death penalty will be dealt with at some point before this blog (Sandalstrap's Sanctuary itself, rather than this particular never-ending post) has finally run its course. For now the more relevant argument concerns self-defense.
As a society we grant that a person has the right to defend themselves against the threat of attack. It might come as some surprise to Christians that Jesus did not always seem to grant that right. In telling his followers to "turn the other cheek" when struck, was Jesus giving pastoral advice or laying down a moral imperative? How you answer that question, if you take the role of Jesus as the Christ seriously, should inform how you view claims about a right to self-defense.
But what does self-defense have to do with abortion? Simply this: if you grant that a person has the right to defend themselves then not all killings of persons are murder. To kill another person in order to preserve your own life (or even health) may be a justified killing. If that is the case, then even if fetuses count as persons not all abortions are murder, because some abortions are performed in order to preserve the life or health of the mother. In that instance, at least, the abortion would be a justified killing.
Delving into the ethics of abortion gets a great deal more complicated than this, but I will stop muddying the water for now because, believe it or not, it is not the ethics of abortion which I wish to consider here. While I do not believe that abortion is murder or that abortion in all cases is morally wrong, I do believe that abortion in many if not most cases is morally wrong. At the very least an abortion represents a tragedy which should have been avoided. So, while I am not a Pro Lifer (in the sense that the term is usually used, though of course, as a living being, I am quite in favor of life) I share the Pro Life goal of limiting abortions as much as possible.
The issue of abortion, for me, is not primarily a moral issue. Rather it is a pastoral issue. I am interested in the pastoral care of people who have had abortions, who are thinking about having abortions, or who may eventually have or need abortions. I do not desire that people have an abortion unless it is absolutely necessary (and I know that some of you Pro Lifers will argue that it is never necessary, but we'll have that argument later, I'm sure). As such I would love to be able to reduce the number of abortions performed in this country.
But that is not my only consideration. I also must consider the well being of the woman who may or may not have the abortion. It is through this lens that I will consider the question of whether or not it should be legal to obtain an abortion in the United States. And, of course, like a good allegedly brain-washed liberal, I believe that abortion should remain legal.
Laws against abortion do not prevent abortions from happening. There were, in fact, more abortions performed in the years immediately before Roe v. Wade effectively legalized abortion than in the years immediately after that landmark ruling. Laws against abortion do, however, make abortions unsafe by denying proper medical care to the women seeking abortions. A doctor's office, hospital or clinic is a much safer environment than a black-market basement. A surgical procedure is much safer than a coat hanger.
Now I know that many people are unmoved by that kind of arguing because they reason that if you are willing to kill your own baby (a very unfair characterization of abortion, in my mind) then you deserve whatever you get. Such callousness has no place in the body of Christ. Christianity is ultimately about the grace of God, a grace which, by the way, tells us that we have all sinned. It is God's grace which keeps us all from falling under judgment. Those who wish to judge others should be reminded of these words from the Epistle of James:
... speak and act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has not shown mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:12-13, NRSV)
Women have for too long been left by selfish men to fend for themselves when they become unwantedly pregnant. These women should be the objects of Christian love, not self-righteous, hypocritical scorn. They are in a difficult situation, and need real options. Abortion should remain legal because to outlaw it only creates more criminals, and provides unnaturally harsh consequences for actions performed by women who think that they are out of options. Abortion should remain legal because to outlaw it would make it difficult for women with serious medical problems to have access to tragic but life saving procedures.
If you think that abortion is a tragic thing, and a morally serious thing, you'll get no argument from me. But stop looking for the easy answers, because they only make the problem worse.
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