Professor of History
University of California Santa Barbara
A talk given at the UCSB Faculty/Staff Christian Forum on April 22, 1997.
Prayer: Let us not judge, lest we be judged; let us not condemn, lest we be condemned; let us forgive, lest we be unforgiven.
Many people make decisions whether to abort in wrenchingly painful personal situations, and it is the Christian's business to follow Christ in empathizing with people in distress. I do not speak to condemn anyone.
And I wish I were not here discussing this painful subject. But I feel that I cannot not be here. Our congressman says that he feels uncomfortable with old white men discussing abortion. I feel uncomfortable with leaving an important question of human life undiscussed, and I only wish that more people of every color and gender would discuss it more. To be honest, I feel more than uncomfortable; I feel, every day, on this campus, in a state of moral distress, even pain. I have always feared that had I been a professor in Germany in the 1930s I would have been intimidated by the Nazis and afraid to speak up for the Jews. And now I find myself in a similar situation. I would rather, much rather, not have to stand here and speak up for unborn children. But I cannot live with my conscience any longer if I do not.
Does abortion raise a serious moral question? Many say that does not, and if it is not a legitimate moral question, then it cannot be addressed, let alone resolved. If there are no common grounds, there may be no possibility of consensus; it that case all we can do here is consider a variety of angles of vision, including the Bible, the tradition of the Christian Community (or the authority of the church), and science.
The Bible issues no explicit condemnation of abortion, but condemnation is implied in a number of passages, including the following:
Psalm 139.13: You have known me in my mother's womb.
Psalm 14.1: I will praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Jeremiah 1.5: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you came forth out of the womb I sanctified you.
Luke 1.41: When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb.
2Kings 12.15,16; Hosea 13.16; Amos 1.13: references to ripping the child from the mother's womb as a terrible deed.
The consensus of the Christian community has always condemned abortion, although before the advent of modern science ideas about fetal development were vague, and the baby was often thought to be alive only from the moment of quickening. Modern biology has actually made scientific arguments for abortion more difficult by establishing the genetic continuity from conception to death.
Science and reason confirm that the embryo is alive. If that life is not human, what kind of life is it? Still, science and reason allow for a number of different points at which the entity might begin to be considered human:
1. The sperm and ovum before conception are both alive. But only genetically as part of the male and female; thus contraception and abortion are completely discrete moral questions.
2. From conception: the zygote is the cell formed from the union of sperm and egg, containing 46 chromosomes, derived from 23 each from mother and father. The zygote is not biologically part of the father or mother; the life thus formed remains the same genetically till death--and even in the grave. Sir Francis Crick observed that the information contained in one zygote equals that of a thousand encyclopedia volumes.
3. When the zygote is attached to the uterine wall.
4. When the embryo begins to look like a human person.
5. When the embryo becomes a fetus. (The distinction has always been scientifically, if variously, made. A recent suggestion is that the transition occurs when sufficient neural connections have been made to render consciousness possible.)
6. When the fetus quickens.
7. When it can survive outside the mother's body. (Viability has recently become feasible as early as the fifth month.)
8. When it attains self-awareness. (How is that defined; slippage into euthanasia.)
9. At birth; when the child has completely emerged from the birth canal.
10. When the woman carrying it decides that it is human.
The last argument denies that the question of when life begins is a meaningful question. This is the prevailing situation today. A woman can sue for the death of an embryo or fetus, if she feels at that point that it is a human life. Many states allow for prosecution for murder under such circumstances. Consider this bizarre case: a maniac kills the fetus of a pregnant woman on her way to an abortion clinic. Does the objective moral nature of what happened depend on the mother's attitude toward the fetus at the moment? If it ever comes to a legal choice between abolishing the right to abort and affirming the right of an injured mother to prosecute her attacker for killing her child, which is the more likely legal outcome?
The argument that a fetus is a person only if the mother says it is, is the logical equivalent of asserting that an abortion is justified if the mother wants an abortion. Many people feel comfortable with this state of affairs, especially women who have already had abortions.
Consider a letter published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 21 February 1997. The author sarcastically denies the logic of believing "the fertilized egg (zygote) becomes a human, soul-bearing person" at conception. But she concludes that "life in a spiritual not biological sense starts at birth." And her idea is at least equally a priori in logic as the idea that she mocks.
Consider an article in Harvard Today (March/April 1997), describing the views of a visiting scholar at Radcliffe named Eileen McDonagh, who "seeks to rewrite the `feminine' self-sacrificing language of pregnancy and replace it with `masculine' terms of self-defense in an effort both to strengthen a woman's right to abortion and to win universal government funding for the procedure. In her new book, Breaking the Abortion Deadlock (Oxford), McDonagh argues that doctors who perform abortion should be paid by taxpayers to stop unwanted fetuses from `kidnapping' women's bodies, just as the government pays police officers to prevent rapists from invading the bodies of women." Now, if the fetus is a criminal, surely it must be human, unless of course it is an alien species. McDonagh goes on to argue that women (existing life) must be protected against harm from "potential life." (Note the use of the term "potential life" as opposed to the "potential of the existing life.")
Our concern is primarily with the moral questions. The abortion dispute has too often centered on the legal questions. Though Christians have as much right to try to influence the law as any other group, it may be that the more Christlike way is to attempt to open people's minds and hearts by loving and gentle persuasion, however well or badly people respond to that attempt.
The comparison of abortion to the holocaust has been indignantly denounced, but rather than looking at the considerable differences, let us consider the considerable similarities:
1. A form of human life is pronounced non-human and expendable.
2. Society approves this view to the point that millions of such beings are killed yearly, without (of course) their consent.
3. Those opposed to the view are intimidated by propagandists in the media and the universities from objecting.
4. Society gradually becomes more callous, more weary with the question, accepting more and more violence as natural.
5. The killing spreads from one group (Jews to gypsies, socialist, the mentally incapable; fetuses to infants and the mentally incapable).
The definition of evil I put forward in 1977 holds: evil is the deliberate infliction of suffering on a sentient being. As the fetus's nervous system develops, it feels more and more pain. How much pain does a nine-month fetus feel?
A bumper sticker announces the fact that ABORTION IS LEGAL FOR ALL 9 MONTHS! What is to stop us from advancing the mother's right to ten or eleven months after conception? Or why not three years? Infanticide has been legal in other societies; why not in ours?
Senator Daniel Moynihan, otherwise pro-abortion, argues that partial-birth abortion is infanticide. What is the difference between killing a being five seconds before its head emerges and killing it five seconds later?
If the head were allowed out of the birth canal, the act would be infanticide and murder. Preventing the head from leaving the birth canal makes it a legal procedure. The baby is delivered feet first. When all is out except the head, the physician opens the head surgically, vacuums out the brain, and the skull collapses, allowing the collapsed head to evacuate the womb less painfully to the mother. (The argument--of questionable moral worth--that anesthesia given to the mother has an important numbing effect on the fetus has been refuted by anesthesiologists.)
Ron Fitzsimmons, head of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, by his own admission "lied through his teeth" about the numbers of partial-birth abortions: "I just went out and spouted the party line," he said. This is not surprising; spouting of the party line is extraordinarily common; the party line is that not even the slightest intrusion into the right of the mother to abort should be admitted; that's the only thing that is significant. Thus the argument is cast solely in terms of rights, not of morals or of responsibilities, or even of what constitutes a human being. The typical pro-abortion stance that the question is meaningless is a necessary strategy. Unless pro-abortionists dismiss the moral gravity of the issue completely--unless they dismiss the question of human life as irrelevant--they lose. Only this can explain staunch opposition to the ban on partial-birth abortions.
An observer recounts this episode: "One evening I naively remarked in a talk that those who favor the right to abort would likely change their minds if they could be convinced that a human being was being killed." The angry response was that "The issue has nothing to do with the humanity of the fetus but is entirely about the woman's freedom."
The quarrel--it cannot be called an argument, for argument implies the use of reason--about abortion comes down to a denial, by the pro-abortion side, that science, reason, religion, or morality can be used in the argument. By removing any common grounds for discussion, proponents of abortion remove all possibility of compromise. No ground for discussion can exist; there is only the use of political power. Because the most powerful win, moderates find that they have nowhere to stand and are forced into the trenches to try to stop the killing.
The pro-abortion side employs power in many ways, perhaps most successfully in the manipulation of terms. The abortion battle may have been decided from the moment that the media adopted and promoted the terms "pro-choice" and "anti-abortion." Americans always prefer to be "pro," and in the United States "choice" is at present a powerful buzzword. But we have come a long way from the classical free choice of the will: many Americans believe that choice is having a variety of cereals and car models to choose among.
But again, judge no one. Another bumper sticker announces, PRAYERFULLY PRO-CHOICE. Many honest and thoughtful people, including Christians, defend abortion, have had abortions. How may we speak with one another?
I propose a somewhat different way of looking at the problem. Since rationality seems currently out the window, I have little hope that this line of discussion will have any effect. Both sides may object to it--which may be its virtue; everyone would have to give something up.
Begin with the central principle: When in doubt, err on the side of life, on the assumption that what may be a human life is in fact a human life.
Suppose we say that abortion is taking human life but say that under some circumstances it is licit. Suppose we broaden the question to ask in general under what circumstances may we take human life? Then the question can be addressed so:
Is it licit to take human life in war?
Is it licit to take human life as punishment for crimes of violence?
Is it licit to take human life in euthanasia?
Is it licit to take human life in abortion?
Is it licit to take human life in self-defense?
I am not sure that the answer to any of these questions is "yes." But I am also not sure that the answer is "no, never." Each of these questions has to be posed again, separately, with sub-questions about the circumstances.
Under some circumstances, abortion may be justified. To declare abortion an evil is not to say that ALL cases of abortion are evil: it is a trap to say that you cannot judge something wrong unless it is wrong in every circumstance. Here are some of the most persuasive circumstances:
It is known that the fetus suffers from a terrible and incurable deformity.
Conception is the result of rape.
Conception is the result of incest.
There is definite danger to the mother's life.
Other less powerful, but scarcely irrelevant, circumstances include overpopulation and unwanted children. It is an easily forgotten duty of those who oppose abortion to support (morally, personally, and financially) women who choose to bring theur unwanted babies to term. Unless we do that, our Christianity is hollow.
If the answer to the question, "Is it licit to take human life in abortion" is "Yes, sometimes," then the conditions are up for discussion. But if partial-birth abortion is a legitimate condition, then clearly there are no limits so long as the baby's head has not emerged, and one must wonder how long such a technicality can survive before we pass into simple infanticide. "Yes, sometimes" appears, in current American practice, to mean "Virtually always."
Other issues, for example, the death penalty, might he discussed similarly. Suppose that under certain circumstances it is justified (I find it difficult to think what else to do with Richard Allen Davis, Polly Klaas's tormentor, or Charles Singleton, who hacked off the teenager's arms.) This hardly means that the death penalty is always justified. Or: war. Was it all right to try to assassinate Hitler? How about Castro? Nixon? But these questions go beyond the scope of the present question.
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