Archive for the ‘abortion’ Category

Is Lying Justified in the Effort to Stop Abortions?

A fascinating debate is taking place over at Mirror of Justice over the nature of the recent Live Action sting against Planned Parenthood in which two anti-abortion crusaders posed as underage sex traffickers in order to damage the credibility of Planned Parenthood. The debate first unfurled in the pro-life online journal Public Discourse between two pro-life philosophers—Christopher Tollefsen and Christopher Kaczor. Robert George summarizes:

Tollefsen and Kaczor agree that Planned Parenthood is a deeply malicious organization that should, by all legitimate means, be vigorously opposed by everyone who recognizes the humanity, dignity, and right to life of the child in the womb. The question in dispute between them is whether lying is a legitimate means. Tollefsen, in line with the teaching of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, argues that lying is always and everywhere wrong, and may never be resorted to, even as a means of preventing wrongful killing and other grave injustices. His account of the moral wrongness of lying focuses on its damage to the integrity of the liar and to the relationship (the communio) of the liar and the person to whom the lie is directed—damage that is unavoidably done whether one’s lying is in a good cause or a bad one. Kaczor appeals to a counter tradition, one associated with Cassian and St. John Chrysostom, that maintains that there are narrow circumstances in which lying (to those who have “no right to be told the truth”) is permissible as a means of frustrating the efforts of a grave wrongdoer to achieve his evil objectives.

Aquinas, it is true, categorizes lying as a vice against justice. However, he also recognizes that not all lies bear the same moral weight:

Lies may be divided with respect to their nature as sins, and with regard to those things that aggravate or diminish the sin of lying, on the part of the end intended. Now the sin of lying is aggravated, if by lying a person intends to injure another, and this is called a “mischievous” lie, while the sin of lying is diminished if it be directed to some good–either of pleasure and then it is a “jocose” lie, or of usefulness, and then we have the “officious” lie, whereby it is intended to help another person, or to save him from being injured.(II-II, Q. 110, art 2).

As such, we might characterize Live Action’s lie as an officious one, with the intent to discredit Planned Parenthood enough to pull public funding, and hopefully diminish the organization’s power to perform abortions. The greater the good intended in the lie, Aquinas says, the more the sin is diminished. So Live Action is off the hook, right?

Actually, no. In the very next article, Aquinas goes on to say that every lie is a sin, by nature of its genus. Remember, for an action to be good, it must be good in every respect (object, end, and circumstance). In the reply to obj. 4 of the same article, he hammers the point home even more:

Now it is not allowed to make use of anything inordinate in order to ward off injury or defects from another: as neither is it lawful to steal in order to give an alms, except perhaps in a case of necessity when all things are common. Therefore it is not lawful to tell a lie in order to deliver another from any danger whatever. Nevertheless it is lawful to hide the truth prudently, by keeping it back, as Augustine says (Contra Mend. x).

And then, to complicate the issue even more, in article five he says that although all lies are sins, joking lies and officious lies are not mortal sins. So if Live Action’s lies were indeed officious, then maybe they don’t have all that much to worry about in the grand scheme of things.

Here’s why I don’t think Live Action’s lies can be considered officious–although a remote cause of their actions may have been to decrease the number of abortions performed by Planned Parenthood, this finality of their actions was remote indeed. More immediately, Live Action was trying to trap a Planned Parenthood worker in order to undermine her (and the entire agency). Their motive was malice towards neighbor, not beneficence (at least as I see it). Sure, Planned Parenthood is guilty of performing abortions, perhaps one of the gravest evils of our day. But it is fundamentally antithetical to Christian charity to “repay evil with evil.” Thus Aquinas says,

If, however, the false signification be about something the knowledge of which affects a man’s good, for instance if it pertain to the perfection of science or to moral conduct, a lie of this description inflicts an injury on one’s neighbor, since it causes him to have a false opinion, wherefore it is contrary to charity, as regards the love of our neighbor, and consequently is a mortal sin.

On this matter, Robert George concludes the issue in the way I think is most appropriate. Christians should not accept evil tactics (lies included) in a “just” fight. In doing so, like in war, the fight is rendered unjust. Christian hope looks to the nature of truth and goodness in themselves as ultimately victorious, and aligns themselves only for causes that fall under their banner. Moreover, if pro-life advocates are to be consistent, they must target their life affirming actions not only to the innocent unborn but also the guilty ones who participate in killing them. It hurts the pro-life cause to be selectively for certain lives and against others. And this is why it is hard to be pro-life—because it is hard to love your enemies. And yet, that is what we must do if our cause is going to prevail. everydaythomist will just let Robert George say it in a much better way than she can:

Catholics certainly, but non-Catholic pro-lifers, too, should reject lying even in the greatest of good causes. What we fight for is just and true, and truth—in its unparalleled splendor and luminosity—is the most powerful weapon in our arsenal. It is the truth about the precious life of the child in the womb, and about the consequences of abortion for women and men, and the effects of abortion on families, on the medical profession, and on society more broadly, that will ultimately enable us to build a culture of life—a culture in which, as Fr. Richard John Neuhaus prayed, “every child will be protected by law and welcomed in life.”

Professor Tollefsen is, I believe, profoundly right that we must not permit our cause to be sullied by lying. We must not abandon faith in the power of truth to transform those who oppose us in the great struggle over the protection of human life in all stages and conditions. We must not forfeit our standing in the debate as the tellers of truth.

Does this place us at a disadvantage in the struggle? Someone will say: the entire edifice of abortion is built on a foundation of lies—lies about the the biological status of the human being developing in the womb (“a mere clump of undifferentiated tissue, no different than a mole or a fingernail”); lies about the number of maternal deaths from illegal abortions prior to Roe v. Wade; lies about the so-called “medical necessity” of partial-birth abortions; and on and on. Why should we deny ourselves the use of weapons that many on the other side wield freely? Do we not deeply disadvantage our cause and, in that way, sin against its unborn victims by refusing to lie? Are we “keeping our hands clean” at the price of putting off the day when outfits like Planned Parenthood will be dumped onto the ash heap of history?

I understand the impatience; indeed, I share it. The edifice of abortion is indeed built on a foundation of lies. And in working to protect the victims of abortion, it is frustrating to hold ourselves to standards that so many on the other side freely disregard. But there are no moral shortcuts to victory in this struggle. A culture of life can only be built on a foundation of truth. Lying may produce short term victories, but it will, in the end, frustrate our long term objective. Respect for life—like respect for every other great human good and every other high moral principle—depends on love of truth. Our efforts in the cause of life and every other worthy goal will, in the end, prove to be self-defeating if they undermine love of truth.

Amen.

Does Legalized Abortion Make Women More Free?

I receive weekly emails from an organization called Consistent Life, which opposes all threats to life from war, abortion, poverty, racism, capital punishment, and euthanasia. Each email always includes a relevant “quote of the week.” This week’s came from David Gushee’s reflection on the recent Princeton abortion conference, hosted in part by my friend Charlie Camosy as part of his overall “magenta” campaign. Gushee notes,

“I claimed that abortion places on women the burdens of the sexual revolution’s ‘liberation.’ But as a man I totally and viscerally understand that the availability of abortion and the leverage a man has to demand it of ‘his’ lover enables us to exploit our access to women’s bodies without having to pay the ultimate price if it results in an unwanted pregnancy. The pro-choice side can talk about women’s moral agency all day long, but moral decision making happens in contexts of power. To the extent that a man has power or leverage in a relationship with a woman, he can affect or sometimes even direct her decision to have an abortion.”

Inspired by the quote and the source (Consistent Life is a nice antidote to those who claim that “pro-life” people stop caring about life after birth), I decided to post the quote on Facebook. A firestorm of comments ensued (up to 37 now), which for the most part, I have not responded to. In order to provide a more thoughtful response than Facebook will allow, this blog post will attempt to give a response (names changed to protect the innocent).

The reason I liked Gushee’s original quote is that it lines up very well with my own experience. I teach in an urban community college. In my ethics class, which I have taught about eight times now, I ask my students on the first day of class to write about an ethical dilemma they have faced, and how they went about resolving that dilemma. My students, who are over 90% women, overwhelmingly write about abortion. What is interesting is that they also tend to focus on the different social forces that were at work in their decision.

Most recently, a student approached me (after I chided for texting in class) and apologized, telling me that her best friend was pregnant and her father had threatened her with physical violence if she refused an abortion (which she did not want to have). The girl was financially dependent on the father, with no job of her own, and no support from the father of the child. “What am I supposed to do for my friend?” my student asked.

Another student wrote that she lived with her boyfriend who threatened to kick her out of his house if she did not get an abortion. My student wrote about choosing to get the abortion because she had no place else to go, and could not imagine life without her boyfriend. While she regrets the abortion, she does not, in retrospect, feel that she had any other choice.

Another student wrote about a similar situation, but rather than getting an abortion, she chose not to. The relationship ended, and she struggles now to get the father to provide any financial support for her child while she tries to get through nursing school in order to get a stable job and become financially independent. She lives with her parents now and does not regret her decision.

There are a dozen more anecdotes that I could share, similar to these. Gushee’s point is that it is fallacious to call these women “liberated.” They have suffered, and the men who share the responsibility of their pregnancies have not. In a sense, it is true that these women at least have more options available post-Roe, even if those options are not ideal. But from a Thomistic perspective, more “options” does not necessarily equate with more “freedom.”

I have distinguished between the “freedom for indifference” and the “freedom for excellence” on other blog posts, but briefly, Thomistic theologian Servais Pinckaers emphasized in drawing this distinction that “freedom” is something far richer than simply “options.” True freedom is the power to choose wisely as a matter of habit those actions conducive to ultimate happiness (eudaimonia). Freedom of indifference reduces the concept of “freedom” to the ability to choose between alternatives, regardless of whether the alternatives are good or conducive to ultimate flourishing.

From this perspective, we can say that Roe made another “choice” available to women, but it did not make them any freer or any happier. In a recent study comparing post-abortion reactions of Russian and American women, researchers found that

29.4% of women received counseling beforehand and only 17.5% were counseled on alternatives
51.9% of women felt they needed more time to make a decision
64% of women felt pressured by others
50.7% of women felt abortion was morally wrong

Only 0.9% of women claimed that their relationship with their partner improved, 26.7% cited relationship problems, and 19.8% reported their relationship with their partner ended.
3.7% claimed to feel more in control of their lives.
53.9% of women reported feeling badly
36.4% reported thoughts of suicide
77.9% felt guilt

Supporters of Roe will often admit that abortion is not a “good” choice, as does this anonymous Roe supporter from the aforementioned Facebook conversation:

Anonymous G: “Suffice to say that NO WOMAN WANTS AN ABORTION, something is “forcing” her to make such a choice. Each woman’s story is “anecdotal”, because every situation is different, so we cannot discount anecdotal evidence. . . In the ideal world of every abortion provider, there is no abortion – and women are 1) educated enough about reproduction and contraception, and has access to contraception to prevent unwanted pregnancies, or 2) has the financial and emotional support to care for a child conceived in an unintended pregnancy. [T]he more concerning exertion of power over women would be to take away any possibility of choosing. More anecdotes, but ones that I’ve heard from honestly every gynecologist of a certain age who practiced before Roe, is that at any given time, there was at least one woman on the gyn units admitted for complications of back alley abortions, ranging from simple infection, to sepsis and death.

If women pre- and post-Roe are often pressured or coerced into getting abortions (as even Alan Guttmacher, the research agency of Planned Parenthood admits), and if abortion is not a good and desirable-in-itself option, then it seems odd that the solution would be the legalization of abortion.

According to a Thomistic concept of freedom as laid out by Pinckaers, the law is there to direct agents towards those things that will ultimately lead to their flourishing. The law is “coercive” in a way because it ultimately directs people to do certain things and avoid doing certain things that may not be consistent with their immediate desires. For example, the law “coerces” me to pay taxes, even if I do not really want to, because paying taxes leads to the sort of things (roads, public schools, libraries) that I really do want and really do ultimately make me happy.

This Thomistic attitude towards freedom and the implications for the abortion debate was expressed aptly on my FB wall by another Thomist:

Anonymous G: “It really is not that simple (more restrictions = less options). Yes, there is a certain truth to it. But there is another dynamic at work. Now that women are free to choose abortion, everyone from boyfriends to parents to taxpayers are increasingly free to see children as “her choice, her problem.” In the days before Roe (yes, many bad stories could be told), there were some pretty incredible networks of support that a woman in an unintended pregnancy could rely on. Funny, that was a world where more restrictions on women meant (oh, look!) MORE options for women who wanted to find a way to bring their children to term and/or keep them. Legalizing abortion added one option, and took away many.

As such, the appropriate legal reaction to the imbalanced power dynamics between women and men pre-Roe should not have been making another bad option available to women. Rather, it should have been stronger coercive measures that lead to the overall health and flourishing of women and men. Such measures might include stronger penalties for domestic abuse and back-alley abortion providers, increased availability of pregnancy resources like financial support, housing, counseling, education, and health care, easier access to adoption agencies and childcare, and better maternity leave options in both schools and colleges and the workplace.

Feminists for Life is a group focusing on exactly these issues. FFL works to provide real opportunities to college students, for example, who find themselves pregnant and want to both keep their baby and finish school (things like providing on-campus housing and healthcare for students and their babies, desks that can accommodate the bulging bellies of pregnant students, and on-site daycare). The FFL website effectively illustrates how its mission relies on a better concept of “freedom” and “choice than the pro-Roe crowd:

Most women do not want to have an abortion. Most women do not want to leave school. Pregnant and parenting students want, and deserve, other viable choices. Feminists for Life’s College Outreach Program is all about choices – the choices women truly want.

Still, Planned Parenthood refers to FFL’s College Outreach Program as “anti-choice:”

FFL’s College Outreach Program is “the newest and most challenging concept in anti-choice campus organizing” and “could have a profound impact” on college campuses “as well as Planned Parenthood’s public education and advocacy efforts.”

This brings us back to David Gushee’s original quote, in which he places “liberation” in quotes. The idea that I think he is appealing to is that Roe is necessary in a society where sex is normative and women and men are, at least on the surface, relatively equal. Pre-Roe, men could have sex with women, get them pregnant, and not suffer any financial, legal, or emotional consequences. The expectation with Roe was that women would now be able to do the same—have sex, get pregnant, but not suffer any financial, legal, or emotional consequences. This has not happened. The burden of both a pregnancy and an abortion still falls on women. Women are still suffering. And those gendered power dynamics have not really improved.

What about back-alley abortions? Well, according NOW (a pro-Roe organization), “during the 1950s and 60s, each year an estimated 160 to 260 women died from illegal abortions, while thousands more were seriously injured.” I am not denying that such deaths and injuries are not a tragedy (they are), but arguably, woman are suffering just as much as a whole post-Roe in light of all the other negative consequences associated with abortion (and a whole lot more abortions to boot—an average of 1.2 million a year now).

And rape and incest? According to a study cited by the NYTimes (by no means a “pro-life” establishment), just 1% of all abortions are due to rape or incest. Again, these are tragedies, but legalizing abortion is in no way a sufficient response to a woman who is pregnant because sex was forced on her against her will. In light of these tragedies, would it not be better to take economic and political steps to foster the true freedom of these and other women who have been victimized? Greater access to counseling and adoption resources, for example, so that women who are already victims do not also have to become victims of their own guilt? Giving a woman the opportunity to get an abortion after she was raped does not make the rape go away, but it may make it easier for a woman to hide the fact that she was raped or abused by a family member. The recent Planned Parenthood fiasco in which a woman was taped giving abortion advice to a man posing as a sex abuser just goes to illustrate this.

Now, I am not denying that Planned Parenthood and Roe supporters, both male and female, will still argue that the best way to empower women is to legalize abortion (my lengthy FB wall is a testimony to that). I am not arguing (and I do not think Gushee is either) that some women do benefit from easy and legal access to abortion. His point is that simply giving women another choice (and a bad one, at that, as so many pro-Roe people admit) in no way fixes the underlying root causes that women seek out abortion in the first place, and may even do more to exacerbate those root causes than to fix them. We can do better than abortion.

March for the Life of Unborn and Women

Tomorrow, around 200,000 people will march in the frigid DC temps to protest the ongoing cultural and legal support for abortion in this country. Those who march, and those who support them in spirit, will have in mind especially the recent discovery of a Philadelphia abortion clinic where not only late term abortions, but also infanticide, went on for years, unchecked by any government oversight. Kermit Gosnell, who is being charged with eight counts of murder in the deaths of seven infants and a Bhutanese refugee who died in his care after a late term abortion in 2009, had been sued 15 times for malpractice and had two women die in his clinic without raising any neighborhood eyebrows about the practices going on his clinic. What is most disturbing about the story is the following quote from the grand jury report:

“We think the reason no one acted is because the women in question were poor and of color,” the report said, “and because the victims were infants without identities, and because the subject was the political football of abortion.”

“The women in question were poor and of color.”

The late Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago advanced what he called “the seamless garment” of life, recognizing that the protection of life is threatened on many fronts in our society, not only by abortion, but also by war and capital punishment, euthanasia and suicide, poverty and racism. Bernadin recognized that whenever one area of life is attacked, others will follow.

This is the message of Guadium et Spes, confirmed by John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae:

“Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others like them are infamies indeed. They poison human society, and they do more harm to those who practice them than to those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonor to the Creator” (GS 27, EV 3).

The grand jury report on Gosnell confirms supporters of a consistent ethic of life that abortion is not an isolated issue. A society that is ready to sacrifice millions of nameless unborn in the name of expediency is also a society likely to sacrifice poor and colored women in the name of expediency. The unborn and the women who bear them are related. Considering the following interview from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

Q: If you were a lawyer again, what would you want to accomplish as a future feminist legal agenda?

JUSTICE GINSBURG: Reproductive choice has to be straightened out. There will never be a woman of means without choice anymore. That just seems to me so obvious. The states that had changed their abortion laws before Roe [to make abortion legal] are not going to change back. So we have a policy that affects only poor women, and it can never be otherwise, and I don’t know why this hasn’t been said more often.

Q: Are you talking about the distances women have to travel because in parts of the country, abortion is essentially unavailable, because there are so few doctors and clinics that do the procedure? And also, the lack of Medicaid for abortions for poor women?

JUSTICE GINSBURG: Yes, the ruling about that surprised me. [Harris v. McRae — in 1980 the court upheld the Hyde Amendment, which forbids the use of Medicaid for abortions.] Frankly I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of. So that Roe was going to be then set up for Medicaid funding for abortion. Which some people felt would risk coercing women into having abortions when they didn’t really want them. But when the court decided McRae, the case came out the other way. And then I realized that my perception of it had been altogether wrong (pgs. 3 and 4).

Note what Justice Ginsburg says: “I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of. So that Roe was going to be then set up for Medicaid funding for abortion.” Ginsburg is admitting that there was an association at the time of Roe with “reproductive rights” and what we might call “eugenics policies” (curbing the reproduction of poorer women).

As we remember the anniversary of Roe v. Wade tomorrow and the millions of victims of abortion that have resulted from that decision, we cannot forget the women that have also been victimized by abortion policies and attitudes. And we cannot pretend that by keeping abortion legal, we are also protecting women.

So as we march and pray and work for life, we will also remember the words of Sargent Shriver, who passed away this week, and others who work to promote a consistent ethic of life for all, especially the most vulnerable:

“The advocates of abortion on demand falsely assume two things: that women must suffer if the lives of unborn children are legally protected; and that women can only attain equality by having the legal option of destroying their innocent offspring in the womb. The cynicism of these assumptions reflects a terrible failure of moral imagination and social responsibility and an appalling lack of respect for women.”

Some New Years Articles of Note

If you are a regular follower of this blog, you have probably noted that the last few months have not been particularly fruitful. Defending a dissertation and traveling around the country for job interviews make blogging difficult. However, I hope to return to the blogosphere in a few days, but until then, here are some recent articles I have read that you may find of interest:

1. Can’t Kick Bad Habits? Blame the Brain. This is a short and easy to read piece exploring the neural underpinnings of habit formation, which all virtue ethicists should be attentive to. In brief, dopamine is the neurotransmitter which seems to play the biggest role in habit formation by conditioning the brain to seek out certain pleasurable activities again and again (like a glass of wine after work). Breaking a bad habit seems to be less about imposing rational control over one’s emotional reaction to a source of pleasure and more about putting oneself in the right situation where the cause of the bad habit is not readily available: “What you want to be thinking about is, ‘What is it in my environment that is triggering this behavior?’” says Nordgren. “You have to guard yourself against it.” Here’s a great quote from the article:

“People have this self-control hubris, this belief they can handle more than they can,” says Nordgren, who studies the tug-of-war between willpower and temptation. In one experiment, he measured whether heavy smokers could watch a film that romanticizes the habit — called “Coffee and Cigarettes” — without taking a puff. Upping the ante, they’d be paid according to their level of temptation: Could they hold an unlit cigarette while watching? Keep the pack on the table? Or did they need to leave the pack in another room?

Smokers who’d predicted they could resist a lot of temptation tended to hold the unlit cigarette — and were more likely to light up than those who knew better than to hang onto the pack, says Nordgren. He now is beginning to study how recovering drug addicts deal with real-world temptations.

2. Searching for the Source of Our Fountains of Courage. This New York Times article outlines research which will also be important for ethicists. One of the most interesting parts of the article describes a woman with a rare congenital syndrome leaving her completely fearless, “raising the question of whether it’s better to conquer one’s fears, or to never feel them in the first place.”

As Justin Feinstein, a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Iowa, and his colleagues describe in Current Biology, the otherwise normal SM is incapable of being spooked.

She claimed to fear snakes and spiders, and maybe she did in her pre-disease childhood, but when the researchers took her to an exotic pet store, they were astonished to see that not only did she not avoid the snakes and spiders, she was desperate to hold them close.

The researchers took SM to a haunted house, and she laughed at the scary parts and blithely made the monster-suited employees jump. She was shown clips from famous horror films like “The Silence of Lambs” and “Halloween,” and she showed no flickers of fright.

This fearlessness may be fine in the safety of one’s living room, but it turns out that SM makes her own horror films in real life. She walks through bad neighborhoods alone at night, approaches shady strangers without guile, and has been repeatedly threatened with death.

“We have an individual who’s constantly putting herself into harm’s way,” said Mr. Feinstein. “If we had a million SMs walking around, the world would be a total mess.”

Yet more scientific evidence for the importance of Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean.

3. The Unborn Paradox: “No life is so desperately sought after, so hungrily desired, so carefully nurtured. And yet no life is so legally unprotected, and so frequently destroyed.” 20% of pregnancies end in abortion. Yet millions of women will spend tens of thousands of dollars on reproductive therapies this year. In the meantime, only 1% of pregnancies will end in adoption. A great basis for making an ethical argument on the adoption imperative.

4. Philosophy Lives: Who hasn’t seen the following quote from esteemed physicist Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow (on yet another important topic I failed to blog about in the last few months) from their new book The Grand Design:

“[Just] as Darwin and Wallace explained how the apparently miraculous design of living forms could appear without intervention by a supreme being, the multiverse concept can explain the fine tuning of physical law without the need for a benevolent creator who made the Universe for our benefit. Because there is a law of gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist.”

While Hawking and Mlodinow argue that these newest developments in physics signal the final death knell for philosophy and natural theology, John Haldane argues that “at its most abstract, theoretical physics leaves ordinary empirical science behind and enters the sphere of philosophy, where it becomes vulnerable to refutation by reason.”

5. Changing Our Minds: An overview of the implications of digital technology for an ethic of virtue. Heavy attention is given to the vice of curiosity, which Paul Griffiths has brought back in vogue recently, but also an interesting treatment of the virtue of recollection. I love the conclusion:

The findings of science as to the effect of Internet use on the human brain should impel us to dust off some of these neglected ideas and see what they have to say about the problem, and maybe come up with some new ideas of our own in the process. As Lisa Fullam noted in these pages (“Thou Shalt,” April 24, 2009), long years of treating morality as a laundry list of mostly sexual shalt-nots has crippled authentic moral thinking, and moral thinking is exactly what is needed to navigate the dramatic transformations of the digital revolution without damaging our very selfhood. We need to identify and describe not only the shalt-nots of the age, but also the shalts: recollection, mindfulness, interiority, awareness. Whatever you prefer to call it, it’s what’s needed to keep Google from making us stupid. Not brain surgery, but virtue.

I hope to do a real blog soon but in the meantime, what articles have you been reading that everydaythomist should be attentive to?

An Evaluation of a Nun’s Excommunication in Response to Her Participation in Abortion

Sister of Mercy Margaret McBride, a member of a Phoenix Catholic hospital’s ethics committee, received an automatic excommunication in response to her role in allowing an abortion for a critically-ill pregnant woman to take place at the hospital. According to the Arizona Republic, McBride’s actions were in response to a “last-minute, life-or-death drama in late 2009. The patient had a rare and often fatal condition in which a pregnancy can cause the death of the mother.”

The hospital defended the ethics committee’s decision.

In a statement, Suzanne Pfister, a hospital vice president, said that the facility adheres to the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services but that the directives do not answer all questions.

“In this tragic case, the treatment necessary to save the mother’s life required the termination of an 11-week pregnancy,” Pfister said.

Pfister issued the four-paragraph statement on behalf of the hospital, its parent company Catholic Healthcare West, and the Sisters of Mercy, McBride’s religious order.

McBride was part of the discussion about the surgery, described as urgent. It involved a serious illness, pulmonary hypertension. The condition limits the ability of the heart and lungs to function and is made worse, possibly even fatal, by pregnancy.

What should be the appropriate response to McBride’s actions and subsequent excommunication? First, the surgical abortion in question cannot be defended according to the principle of double effect. The principle of double effect, which is often invoked to justify the permissibility of an action that causes harm or death to another human being as a foreseen but unintended consequence of some good end, requires that the object of the action in question be morally good or at least indifferent. The classic example is the case of an ectopic pregnancy in which an embryo implants in a woman’s fallopian tube, potentially causing the tube to rupture. In such cases, surgery may be required to remove the inflamed section of the tube, a surgical act whose object is morally indifferent (removing a section of the fallopian tube) but which has the unintended effect of terminating the life of the implanted embryo. In the case of the surgical abortion involving Sr. McBride, the object of the action was the termination of the pregnancy for the sake of saving the life of the mother. Because the object in question is itself immoral, that is, performing a surgical abortion, the principle of double effect cannot be utilized, even if the intended consequences were good.

However, just because we cannot turn to the principle of double effect to justify McBride’s decision, this does not automatically mean that she was morally unjustified. It simply means that the principle is irrelevant in this case.

From the perspective of virtue ethics, we might inquire about Sr. McBride’s character in order to determine if this particular decision reflected a habitual defense and protection of human life within a set of tragic circumstances or if this decision reflects a habitual disregard for the dignity of the unborn. That is, if Sr. McBride acted consistently out of respect and responsibility for the dignity of the unborn, one would be less likely to condemn her actions in this particular case as reflecting a disregard for the dignity of the unborn or a habitual tendency to treat a pregnancy “as a pathology.”

It is difficult to judge Sr. McBride’s character. We know very little about her, and she has declined to comment about the excommunication. However, there are some questions about the “character” of her order, the Sisters of Mercy. For example, Sister Elaine Stahl of the Americas Midwest Community has been accused of stealing and improperly administering morphine in order to euthanize up to six elderly Sisters of Mercy infirmary patients, although she has not been formally charged, and there is some question about the accuracy of the accusations.

Another Sister of Mercy, Agnes Mansour, who is head of Michigan’s department of social services, supervises the use of over $5 million a year on Medicaid-financed abortions. “Obedient to the teachings of her church, Sister Agnes Mary Mansour believes abortion is sinful. She also recognizes that others disagree, and feels that poor women are entitled to have publicly funded abortions so long as they are legal.” Sister Mansour has run into conflict before when she unsuccessfully ran in a Democratic congressional primary:

The Pope clearly indicated that priests and nuns should not hold public office, and those who do so should, according to current canon law, first get permission from their bishop. Mansour did not request permission, and says she did not know this was necessary. During the primary she tartly dismissed canon law as an “old set of rules that are invoked when somebody wants to invoke them, and ignored when someone wants to ignore them.”

Moreover, “Bitch Magazine” has expressed its support of the Sisters of Mercy for reasons that bring its charism of respecting and protecting the dignity of all life into question:

As a radical feminist, raging homo, and recovering Catholic, I’ve rarely, if ever, felt compelled to wax poetic about any organization affiliated with the Catholic Church. Then I met a Sister of Mercy, and my dogmatic belief in Catholicism’s all-encompassing evil was shot dead on the spot.

The Sisters of Mercy work internationally to promote social justice in ways that are often political and sometimes piss off the Vatican. In the United States, they are one of the groups of nuns currently being investigated by the Vatican, ostensibly because they don’t wear habits, live independently, and are committed to fixing societal problems even if it means occasionally pooh-poohing some of the Church’s archaic stances on things like abortion, condoms, and solutions to the AIDS crisis.

Descriptions like these do not support the conclusion that McBride is part of an order that habitually views abortion as a grave evil, nor do they readily lend themselves to the conclusion that McBride acted as a last resort in light of tragic circumstances.

On the other hand, in light of the recent canonization of Gianna Molla, a physician who chose to carry her pregnancy to term even though she knew it would result in her death (which it did), it is understandable why sisters committed to the protection and defense of women’s dignity might stray towards more leniency in cases of abortion when the safety of the mother is in question. By canonizing Gianna Molla, the Vatican communicated implicitly that when the life of the mother is in danger, the moral impetuous must be towards saving the life of the unborn child and not the mother. While I do not want to downplay Molla’s heroic sacrifice, I question the political implications of her canonization and the message it sends to Catholic women regarding the value and dignity of their lives.

What we need to remember in evaluating Sr. McBride’s actions and the response of the diocese is the existence of what we might call “moral tragedy.” In other words, a good character may not protect a person from falling into tragic or immoral actions due to the nature of life’s contingencies. Martha Nussbaum, in her tome The Fragility of Goodness, writes about the implications of such tragic circumstances for the study of ethics, but literature is also chock full of examples we might use to illustrate the concept. For example, Jean Valjean in Les Miserables is forced into stealing bread in order to save the life of his starving niece, and who can overlook the tragic circumstances of Sophie from the novel and movie Sophie’s Choice, in which a Nazi soldier forces her to choose between the life of her young son or infant daughter, or risk having both killed. Sophie chooses to save her son and hands her infant over to the Nazi. Does Sophie bear some of the blame for her daughter’s murder?

In a way, she does, and in a way, Sr. McBride too, even if her intentions were pure and her character was impeccable, bears some guilt for cooperating in the termination of an unborn child’s life. To fail to acknowledge the tragedy of the situation would be mistaken, and to fail to acknowledge McBride’s guilt, even if she acted in good conscience, would also be mistaken. But perhaps McBride is guilty in the same way Jean Valjean and Sophie were guilty: as agents in tragic circumstances forced to choose between morally unsavory choices. Perhaps in light of the recognition of the reality of moral tragedy, and the recognition that McBride’s participation in evil was largely a result of tragic circumstances, a more creative response than excommunication might have been more prudent.

The Problem With Scott Roeder’s Defense

In this article from Friday’s NYTimes, Scott Roeder, the man charged with the murder of George R. Tiller, one of the only doctors who performed late-term abortions in this country, took the stand in his own defense:

“I did what I thought was needed to be done to protect the children. I shot him,” he testified, adding at another point, “If I didn’t do it, the babies were going to die the next day.”

In other words, the circumstances justified an otherwise immoral action, because, the logic goes, if Mr. Roeder had not shot Tiller, more people would have died. This is what is called the “necessity defense.” The necessity defense must meet four requirements: First, there must be a threat to a third person. Second, the threat must be imminent. Third, the threat must be the result of an unlawful act. And fourth, the agent must be firm in his beliefs that he was acting out of necessity.

Criticism of the defense focused on whether or not the fetus counted as a third party. Regardless of whether you think that abortion involves taking the life of a human being (and EverydayThomist thinks it does), Mr. Roeder’s defense is unacceptable. He shot Dr. Tiller in front of his church. No pre-born children were in the process of being killed, nor were they going to be killed that day. The threat was not imminent.

Roeder’s move was a preemptive strike, one which assumed that Tiller would go into work the next day and continue conducting late term abortions. But the problem with preemptive strikes is (1) you cannot predict the future and know what Tiller is going to do the next day and (2) they are hardly ever a last resort.

Roeder’s motive to protect innocent lives could have been carried out in a way that did not involve taking the life of another, at least not at that moment. When Roeder acted, he was not defending the pre-born; he was simply shooting a man who had taken the lives of the pre-born in the past. He was shooting a man that he had planned to shoot for weeks.

The “imminent threat” requirement is an important one in cases like this. It rests on the assumption that life is precious, and should only be taken as a last resort, when there is no other possible way to achieve the intended goal of the protection of a third party. In EverydayThomist’s mind, this is why Scott Roeder’s defense fails.

It’s the March for Life, not the March for Scott Brown

I didn’t get to attend the March for Life in Washington, DC this year, much as I would have liked to. Like any large-scale witness, the March for Life is a time not to debate the nuances of abortion politics and the various ways in which one can be “pro-life,” but is rather a time to collectively say “NO” to abortion. The March is a time to say one thing, and one thing only–that abortion is a grave evil, and we here who are participating are marching on behalf of the millions of unborn who have become victims of abortion.

On every other day of the year, anti-abortion advocates can adopt a more nuanced approach to the issue of abortion. On every other day of the year, anti-abortion advocates can get into debates about making abortion illegal vs. other legal tactics to minimize the number of abortions that take place. On every other day of the year, anti-abortion advocates can tone down their rhetoric, make concessions, and explore the connections between issues like access to health care, racial and gender discrimination, living wages, and abortion. But not today. Today, there are two answers–yes, or no, and today, and today only, anti-abortion advocates get to simply say “NO.”

Which is why I am disturbed to see, at least in the very preliminary media coverage of the March, to see the rhetoric of the March turning to Scott Brown and healthcare reform. From the Washington Post, for example:

Many at the rally cited the election of Republican Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts as sign of a shifting momentum to conservative causes like their own.

“Any people from Massachusetts here today?” asked U.S. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), one of several members of congress who spoke a the rally on the Mall. “Thank you Massachusetts. Thank you for helping us kill the anti-life bill,” he said referring to the Democrats’ filibuster-proof majority in the Senate that will be broken once Brown is sworn in.

The issue of health care reform dominated the speeches and prayers blasted over loudspeakers at the protest. More than three decades since Roe v. Wade, the anti-abortion movement has been mobilized during the past year against the healthcare reform legislation.

Sure, I can see rallying speeches that reemphasize the point that any healthcare legislation that allocates federal funds for expanding abortion coverage is immoral. But Scott Brown, last I checked, wasn’t out there marching in the chilly mid-atlantic cold against abortion. In fact, the new junior senator from Massachusetts isn’t even pro-life. This is from his campaign website:

While this decision should ultimately be made by the woman in consultation with her doctor, I believe we need to reduce the number of abortions in America. I believe government has the responsibility to regulate in this area and I support parental consent and notification requirements and I oppose partial birth abortion. I also believe there are people of good will on both sides of the issue and we ought to work together to support and promote adoption as an alternative to abortion.

Scott Brown doesn’t oppose healthcare reform because it allocates federal funds for abortion; Scott Brown opposes healthcare reform because it is expensive:

I believe that all Americans deserve health care coverage, but I am opposed to the health care legislation that is under consideration in Congress and will vote against it. It will raise taxes, increase government spending and lower the quality of care, especially for elders on Medicare. I support strengthening the existing private market system with policies that will drive down costs and make it easier for people to purchase affordable insurance. In Massachusetts, I support the 2006 healthcare law that was successful in expanding coverage, but I also recognize that the state must now turn its attention to controlling costs.

The issue of healthcare reform and abortion is important, and it needs to be discussed. But giving speeches in support of Scott Brown complicates the simple message that the marchers should be trying to communicate, a message of simple opposition to abortion. It also opens them up to criticism from their opponents who can simply point to the fact that the man they support doesn’t actually support them. The March for Life shouldn’t be about Scott Brown, or about any congressional figure. It should be a march for the pre-born and those that remain unborn. The March for Life is supposed to be a simple, collective “NO,” to abortion; how about we keep it that way?

Neighbor Love, Natural Law, and Universal Moral Norms

Last Thursday, Barack Obama spoke at the Annual Prayer Breakfast about his faith and what he sees as the role of religion in public life. Judging from the fact that President Obama referred to unbelievers as “humanists,” it is pretty clear what Obama thinks religion is there to do: help us love one another.

“Whatever our differences, there is one law that binds all great religions together. Jesus told us to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself.’ The Torah commands, ‘That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.’

” In Islam, there is a hadith that reads ‘None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.’ And the same is true for Buddhists and Hindus; for followers of Confucius and for humanists.

“It is, of course, the Golden Rule -– the call to love one another; to understand one another; to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth.”

The interesting thing about this claim our president is making is that it rests on anthropological and metaphysical principles that we all do not actually agree on. Conservative Christians, for example, lost no time in pointing out the hypocrisy of President Obama’s insistence that there is no God who condones taking the life of an innocent human being when he has one of the most consistent pro-choice records of any politician around today. This is because Barack Obama does not think that the fetus is a full human being with full moral rights; Conservative Christians do.

Turns out, in the history of humanity, we have never been all that clear about what it means to be human or what counts as a full human being. Metaphysically, the question is “what is the essence of humanity?” Some people think we can resolve this question through practical reasoning and consensus. Jacques Maritain, for example, thought that natural law reasoning could provide the philosophical foundations for an anthropology that would support the drafting of the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Maritain thought we could get all nations together and agree on such rights even if we did not agree on their metaphysical presuppositions. But as post-1948 history has illustrated, we might like the rights when they apply to ourselves, but it still isn’t all that clear who counts as human and gets to benefit from them. Our progressive-minded president draws a line in the womb somewhere. Peter Singer draws the line at infants. Aristotle drew the line at barbarians, women, and natural slaves.

A lot of people, many of them Catholic but not all, think that natural law can provide a fixed understanding of human nature. The idea is basically that human beings can rationally derive what it means to be a human, and what is normative for human nature, based on rational discernment about what is “natural.” Some have described this as an unwritten law on the human heart, and it is normally not thought of a religious way of thinking about humanity and morality. The Founding Fathers in the United States were deists, and were very influenced by natural law reasoning from the Enlightenment that led them to the American Proposition that “all men are created equal.” Because of its characteristic “unreligious” nature, natural law reasoning has been dismissed by many Protestants like Karl Barth who claim that God’s will, not human reason, is up to the task of figuring out what human beings are and what they are supposed to do.

Natural law, as defined by Aquinas (though Aquinas’ definition in no way exhausts all the different ways natural law has been conceived from the time of the pre-Socratics to the present) is the rational creature’s participation in the Eternal Law (I-II, Q. 91, art. 2). The natural law is a capacity to distinguish between good and evil that rational creatures are endowed with. This capacity is expressed through moral precepts like the Golden Rule. The natural law can yield more specific precepts and includes a fundamental capacity for moral judgment, but there is considerably less certainty on the level of particular norms. Basically, the Golden Rule might be absolute and universal, but how to apply it is not. Rather than thinking of the natural law as a series of universal norms, it is better to think of it a rational principle of discernment–a built-in mechanism human beings have to discern between good and evil.

What the natural law does not give us, despite what some people think, is a fixed understanding of human nature. Natural law does not allow us to grasp absolute, fundamental, and universal aspects of human nature. Rational discernment gives us an idea of what is fundamental to human nature, but our ability both to know these elements and to express them is limited, not only by our inability as finite creatures to grasp the absolute and the universal, but also due to sin which clouds our intellect and veils the truth. Moreover, human nature is not something that exists in a fixed way prior to becoming embedded in a culture, but is rather a political or social thing. God may know the essence of human nature, and what should be normative for human beings to do in any given situation, but human beings do not have access to such knowledge. As Reinhold Niebuhr said, the one absolute is that human beings do not know the absolute.

What we get from natural law reasoning are a lot of different norms and a lot of different ideas about human nature. Aristotle, Aquinas, Peter Singer, and Barack Obama are all using the natural law to make judgments about what is good and what is evil, and I am betting that none of my readers agree with all of them. Although modern natural law theorists have attempted to provide a universal moral code based purely on practical reasoning, I think this is an impossibility. Natural law reasoning, rather, is always embedded in a particular belief system and a particular metaphysical conception of the good. You cannot separate the work of practical reasoning from the political, social, and religious environs in which such reasoning occurs, nor can you present a definition of human that is detached from such an environs. At least, not an absolute or universal definition.

So what are we to do in this global environment where we are desperate, as President Obama illustrates, to find commonalities, or the universal among all the particularities? Does natural law provide us with any way of generating universal norms or a universal definition of what it means to be human? Jean Porter has argued convincingly that people like Thomas Aquinas thought of natural law as a Scriptural concept, that his understanding of human nature was guided by scriptural and theological principles of interpretation. Consequently, Aquinas’ idea of human nature was not grounded in the conclusions of pure practical reasoning, but rather in the image of God in the person of Jesus Christ. For thinkers like Aquinas, natural law reasoning occurred at the locus where reason and revelation occurred, and this allowed him to construct an elaborate, virtue-based ethic delineating not only what was possible but also what was desirable for human nature under the aid of grace. What is normative for the human being under such specifically Christian natural law reasoning is not just the Decalogue and the two-fold command to love God and love your neighbor as yourself, but also the call to perfection in the Sermon on the Mount, the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians, and that ever-tricky love of enemy.

The consequence of this idea of natural law is that Barack Obama cannot just say that everybody across the globe knows to “love their neighbors as their selves.” I’m sure the Hutus bought into that as they were slaughtering the Tutsis. Good thing the Tutsis weren’t neighbors. The British probably bought into as well as they were legislating apartheid in South Africa to keep the non-neighbor Africans in their place. The German National Socialists, many of them good Lutherans in their free time, undoubtedly thought love of neighbor was important, but Jews and Communists and homosexuals were fair game. And Barack Obama can cite the universality of the command in front on the National Prayer Breakfast with a clear conscience, even though he thinks that partial birth abortion is okay, and has done all he can to make sure it stays legal in this country.

For Christians, who counts as the neighbor cannot be separated from what revelation through Scripture tells us. For the hard-core biologist, the neighbor will be defined differently, probably based on some scientific standard for who counts and who does not. For the philosophical humanist, we will get another definition. Barack Obama is right to point out the universal nature of the Golden Rule, but the Golden Rule tells us practically nothing. As the Gospel of Luke, chapter 10 indicates, the juicy part of that question is “who is my neighbor.”

Part Three of the Christian Response to Abortion: Christology

We have already addressed how God is the sovereign Lord of life and death. We have also addressed how human beings are fearfully and wonderfully made, and that the human condition is characterized by the same frail, mysterious vulnerability of the pre-born in the womb. In light of both of these realizations, we have seen that the proper Christian response should be one of awe and humility. Reflecting on both God and our own human condition should always turn our eyes upward.

What gives us the power to turn our eyes upward to the merciful heavenly Father is Jesus Christ, who reveals to us the Father, and reveals to us the salvation from this human condition that the Father has provided for us, and who pours out his Spirit on us so that we have strength for the journey. John Calvin writes,

Since we have fallen from life into death, the whole knowledge of God the Creator that we have discussed would be useless unless faith also followed, setting forth for us God our Father in Christ. The natural order was that the frame of the universe should be the school in which we were to learn piety, and from it pass over to eternal life and perfect felicity. . . [But after man’s rebellion] even if God wills to manifest his fatherly favor to us in many ways, we cannot by contemplating the universe infer that he is Father. . . As all our senses have become perverted, we wickedly defraud God of his Glory. We must, for this reason come to Paul’s statement: ‘Since in the wisdom of God the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of preaching to save those who believe’” (II, vi.1).

What Calvin is saying here is if we were to only reflect on God and the human condition, we would either despair that we are separated from God, or try and become God’s ourselves. Only the “foolishness” of Jesus, the God-man, reveals to us what it truly means to be both God and human.

This is why we turn to Christ, to attempt to construct a Christological understanding of abortion to complement the numerous arguments that already exist. It is because we cannot know God’s will apart from Christ. Moreover, we cannot fully know what it means to be human apart from Christ. Science and philosophy may lead us to some understanding, and reflecting on the magnificent achievements of mankind in history may lead us to some awareness of our creation in the image of divinity, but apart from Jesus Christ, we cannot know who we humans truly are and what we have been called to be. As Paul says, we are not to be “conformed to this world, but transformed by the renewing of our minds, to discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Scripture makes it clear that the life of Jesus Christ begins in the womb: The angel Gabriel tells Mary, “Behold, you shall conceive in you womb and bear a son.” When Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, the infant [John] leaps in her womb, and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, crying out to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” The sovereign God, who the Psalmist declares to have knit him together in his mother’s womb, saw it fit to take human flesh, not initially in the form of a man, but first, in the dark and formless void of the womb.

The mistake that we make as Christians is that we try and compare Christ’s humanity with whatever definition of humanity we have created through human means. A Christological argument does not say, “life begins at conception, therefore Jesus’ life as a human must have begun at conception.” A Christological argument starts rather with Christ himself. The life of Christ shows us that God does not conform Himself to our human definitions and our human expectations in that Jesus was conceived in the womb of a virgin. The virginity of Mary is important, not because sex is bad, but because it reveals to us that human beings do not know through science or philosophy or any other human discipline how God works. Science cannot make sense of the incarnation, and likewise, science cannot ever fully reveal to us the meaning of our humanity. Calvin, again, puts it nicely:

As philosophers have fixed limits of the right and the honorable, hence they derive individual duties and the whole company of virtues, so Scripture is not without its own order in this matter, but holds to a most beautiful dispensation, and one much more certain than all the philosophical ones. The only difference is that [the philosophers] as they were ambitious men, diligently strove to attain an exquisite clarity of order to show the nimbleness of their wit. But the Spirit of God, because he taught without affectation, did not adhere so exactly or continuously to a methodical plan; yet when he lays one down anywhere he hints enough that it is not to be neglected by us (III, vi, 1).

In the womb of a virgin, where God saw fit to take flesh, we see the life of Christ begin. We do not know the exact point that matter and form came together to form the person of Jesus. Conception is a mystery. But what we do see is the response we are called to have when we reflect on this mystery. Mary says, “here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’”

I see great potential for Christian unity on the issue of abortion. However, I do not think this unity will be founded on natural law arguments or scientific explanations or talk about human rights. Those arguments have a place, but that place is to reveal to the world what Christians already know in Christ. That God is sovereign Lord, and “nothing will be impossible with God;” that human beings are His creation, made in His image and likeness. And that Jesus Christ shows us what that image and likeness is. And like Mary, with each mysterious new life, we as Christians are called to say, “The Lord has looked with favor on his lowly servant” because we know that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor. 1:25).

Part 2 of the Christian Response to Abortion: We are Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

There is a human tendency to worship the works of our hands, to see moral and political and social progress as a human achievement. We worship our heritage, we worship human leaders, we worship our ideals. What we forget is how frail we human beings are, how readily we fall into selfish, hurtful, and wicked ways, and how frequently the good we do and the good we intend is mixed with evil motives and evil consequences. There is a song by Rich Mullins called “We are Not as Strong as We Think We Are” which beautifully captures the tragic beauty of our human condition:

We are frail
We are fearfully and wonderfully made.
Forged in the fires of human passion
Choking on the fumes of selfish rage.
And with these our hells and our heavens,
So few inches apart,
We must be awfully small,
And not as strong as we think we are.

The United States is celebrating the election of the first black president. Truly, this is something we can rejoice in, that in this country, the color of a man’s skin does not keep him from the nation’s highest office. What was wonderful about Barack Obama’s inauguration speech was that his triumph was a qualified by the fact that this nation still has so much work to do, and so much collective guilt that we have to atone for, both for what we have done domestically and abroad. As we welcome President Obama, our own rejoicing must be limited at this realization–that we, collectively, still bear the guilt of so much inhumanity, and that this human success, as with all our human success, is one which is interwoven with so much evil. The past racism of this country, and the racism that still exists, reveal something about humanity that is very much relevant to the Christian response to abortion.

13% of American women are black, yet 35% of abortions are procured by black women. The majority of Planned Parenthood clinics are still located in neighborhoods constituted by predominantly black and Hispanic populations. Alveda King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s niece and outspoken opponent of abortion, has argued that racism and abortion are connected.

Abortion and racism are both symptoms of a fundamental human error. The error is thinking that when someone stands in the way of our wants, we can justify getting that person out of our lives. Abortion and racism stem from the same poisonous root, selfishness. We create the deceptions that the other person is less important, less worthy, less human. We are all fully human. When we face this truth, there is no justification for treating those who look different than us as lesser beings. If we simply treat other people the way we’d like to be treated, racism, abortion, and other forms of inhumanity will be things of the past.

The founder of Planned Parenthood herself was an outspoken advocate of eugenics, claiming that the sterilization of the ‘unfit’ would be the salvation of the American citizen. “The most serious charge that can be brought against modern ‘benevolence,’” Sanger argued in her work “The Function of Sterilization,” “is that it encourages the perpetuation of defectives, delinquents and dependents. These are the most dangerous elements in the world community, the most devastating curse on human progress and expression.”

Margaret Sanger thought that human beings could be divided into the fit and the unfit. This is the same mentality that exists behind racist agendas. What she and so many others fail to realize is that we are all unfit, that we are all frail, that we are all fearfully and wonderfully made, capable of amazing achievements and at the same time, terrifying horrors. We purchase peace with toilsome wars, we secure luxury by enslaving others, we expiate our sins by sending scapegoats out into the desert. Our triumphs and successes and victories never go without causalities.

One often hears the objection to the effort to outlaw abortion, “what about pregnancies that result from incest or rape or spousal abuse?” The assumption it is somehow inhuman to force an innocent woman to carry a child she is not responsible for. We assume it is better to terminate the pregnancy than to bring a child conceived in sin into the world. But we are all conceived in sin indicated by the fact that we bear our morality with us. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians:

We hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being given up to death for the sake of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you (4:7-12)

Rich Mullins puts it simpler: our heavens and our hells are always only inches apart.

What must keep in mind when we debate abortion is that we are always feeble and vulnerable and utterly dependent creatures. The child we see in the womb is our own reflection. To say that the child in the womb is liable to death is to condemn us all to death. No amount of inconvenience should lead us to treat any part of God’s creation, especially His frail, feeble image, with murderous contempt. And likewise, no amount of human mercy can change what abortion fundamentally is–a rebellious assertion of our will over God’s will. We, who are “dust and ashes,” cannot rely on our own plans, our own good intentions, and our own solutions. As Stanley Hauerwas writes, “We are able to have children because our hope is in God, who makes it possible to do the absurd thing of having children. In a world of such terrible injustice, in a world of such terrible misery, in a world that may well be about the killing of our children, having children is an extraordinary act of faith and hope. But as Christians we can have a hope in God that urges us to welcome children. When that happens, it is an extraordinary testimony of faith.”

Augustine writes in his Confessions, “Aware of our own infirmity we are moved to compassion to help the indigent, assisting them in the same ways as we would wish to be helped if we were in the same distress-and not only in easy ways, like ‘the grass bearing seed’ but with the protection and aid given with a resolute determination like ‘the tree bearing fruit.’ This means such kindness as rescuing a person suffering injustice from the hand of the powerful and providing the shelter of protection by the mighty force of just judgment” (285). Our acts of mercies, in other words, are always grounded in the realization that we need mercy, and the realization that “we are awfully small, and not as strong as we think we are.”

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