Showing posts with label abortion. Show all posts
Showing posts with label abortion. Show all posts

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Roe v. Wade 41 years later

I'm buried this morning and don't have time to develop a post. Yesterday was the 41st anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Please keep any discussion civil--I won't have time today to interact much but here are some questions you might discuss:
  • What assumptions are involved in the positions Christians take on this issue on both sides? Are they good assumptions?
  • What Scriptures are used in this discussion on both sides?  How good is the exegesis?
  • What tactics are most effective in reaching the long term goals on this issue?  How effective is prohibition? How effective is addressing the causes?
  • What are the political implications for whom you support with your vote? Does this issue trump all others when you come to the polls? Why should it or why not?
  • To what extent might experiential and anecdotal inputs (e.g., Heaven is for Real) have an impact on our thinking, maybe even over the Bible itself? Are there dangers here?
  • Are we consistent in our positions? What would it mean to be pro-life in a thoroughgoing way?
  • What exactly did Roe v. Wade say? To what extent are Christian positions on abortion positions that involve religious assumptions? To what extent can they be argued in secular categories?
I don't have time to participate much in any discussion today. Please don't eat each other alive in your thoughts. Angry responses are often a sign of insecurity in your own position...

Friday, October 26, 2012

What God Intends

By now the passing comments of Richard Mourdock in an Indiana Senate debate have made their way around the nation and have become part of the presidential debate.  When asked his position on abortion, he said:

"I know that there are some who disagree and I respect their point of view but I believe that life begins at conception. The only exception I have to have an abortion is in that case of the life of the mother. I struggled with it myself for a long time but I came to realize that life is a gift from God, and I think that even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape that it is something God intended to happen."

The first part of his comment allows for abortion when there is a competing claim on life between the mother and the unborn child.  The second half relates to the question of making exceptions when there isn't a competing life claim.  For example, in the case of rape, is that an exceptional situation?  His answer was that it is not. Being consistent with his view that we have a human being, probably even from the point of the initial zygote where sperm and egg join, he cannot justify abortion in that case because it is taking a life.

There are all sorts of ethical and theological issues here.  For example, does a blastocyst hours or days after conception have the same moral status as a three month old or six month old fetus?  If so, then IUDs and the day after pill should be made illegal (so in Mourdock's position, a raped woman should not be given a day after pill to make sure she doesn't get pregnant from the rape).  Does a fertilized egg have a soul?  To what extent can the religious views of an individual be forced onto American citizens who do not share that view?

But those debates are very old.  Mourdock did not say, "I believe a life is a life and thus that even in the case of rape a woman can't have an abortion."  He went further to say that God intended her to get pregnant.  This is the Rick Warren, purpose-driven-life perspective.

It is not a Wesleyan perspective.  Wesleyans believe that God has given humanity free will in some measure. Accordingly, not everything that happens is God's perfect plan or directive will.

I would go further to say that God gives the creation some degree of freedom as well.  Let's call it "the laws of nature."  God does not decide every time whether I'm going to stick to the ground or fly off into space.  He made something called the law of gravity.

The result is that God doesn't micromanage the creation.  God allows everything that happens because he is sovereign, in control of everything.  But God does not direct everything that happens.  Otherwise, God becomes the direct author of evil, which James 1 disallows.  This is a potential inconsistency in Mourdock's position.  If God intends the pregnancy, he must explain why God did not intend the rape in the first place.

In the end, this is the age old problem of evil.  The best explanation--and even it is admittedly not perfect--is that God has allowed evil to exist in the world for a time.  Evil happens.  Some Christian thinkers, like John Piper and Wayne Grudem, prefer to think that God orchestrates and directs every single thing that happens.  There would thus be no difference between God and Satan, for God would make Satan do everything he does.

At least the "free will explanation" distances God from evil. It says that God, for some reason, has allowed evil and suffering to exist for the moment, but that he will eventually destroy it once and for all, for good.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Interesting piece on a shift in abortion strategy among some...

I thought this piece was interesting, since it relates to some things I pondered during the election season.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Monday Editorial: Palin, Biden, and Homosexual Unions

Since I have grown up with the evangelical political machine, last Thursday night's debate provided at least one really fascinating twist. First, we all know how this thing works for both sides. As soon as a candidate and running mate are "sanctified" by their party, from that point on they can do no wrong. It is one of the most amazing examples of irrationality I know. Suddenly the opposer becomes the antichrist and the candidate of your party becomes the messiah.

So normally, Biden provided a great antichrist moment last Thursday. He supported full rights for partners of committed gay couples. Normally this is the moment the machine waits for so that they can rend their clothes and say, "What further evidence do we need?"

The problem this time is that Palin completely agreed with him, and this is McCain's position as well. There was no difference between Palin and Biden on this issue. Both rejected a redefinition of marriage, but both supported full civil rights between homosexual partners.

You'll remember that in the 2004 election, part of Rove's strategy was to put referenda relating to gay marriage on several ballots (e.g., Ohio) to steer people away from Kerry. California has something like this on its ballot this year too. But it's hard for McCain to use it when Obama's position is exactly the same as his.

I have also thought that Palin's comments on Roe v. Wade have been very interesting. Has she come out against abortion, per se? She has supported sending the issue back to the States by repealing Roe v. Wade. And of course, there we know that most states will continue to allow for abortion. It's a clever way of fitting the rubric--I'm against Roe v. Wade--without coming out too specifically against the issue in question.

Nevertheless, in the great Bacchanalia that is election season, most won't notice that McCain and Obama really don't look that much different in their specific positions on this staple issue. The masses will largely assume that the messiah holds their views and the antichrist vigorously opposes them--on both sides.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Monday Editorial: Voting Morality

If someone asked me to design a state that would maximize (superficial) happiness, I might design a place where people were free to do anything they wanted, as long as it did not interfere with the happiness of others. This statement is not without its complications. What is happiness, truly? What are we to do with the fact that people often want things that don't really maximize their happiness?

In general, this is the way the United States is structured. The structuring is uneven, to be sure, but this is the general idea behind our "social contract."

The impact of this general approach is perhaps most visible when it comes to the Constitution's approach to religion. Although initially some states had official church connections--thus Maryland was Roman Catholic--the collection of states as a whole was not to have a state religion. To maximize happiness--and because many of the original settlers of America were fleeing religious persecution--individuals are free to choose whatever religion they wish here, as long as their practice of religion does not impinge on the freedoms and rights of others.

For this reason, it is difficult to see how someone could (technically) say that we were founded as a Christian nation, other than the fact that the original settlers were predominantly Christian in religion (at least nominally). Of course many of the "founding fathers" were Deists, which would not qualify them as Christians in the historic sense of the word.

Now, it was perhaps only in the late 20th century that the laws really began to reflect this basic principle of not having a state religion. And it is here that we see many Christians protesting a turning away from aspects of American law that had retained Christian influence. In my opinion, it is not that America was getting away from its Constitutional beginnings. It was rather that as the United States became more and more secular, those beginnings were finally making their way through the specifics of the legal system.

For example, it is difficult to see, on the basis of the Constitution, how homosexual practice could be illegal. On what non-religious basis would it be prohibited? But if Congress is not to pass laws that are based on specifically religious beliefs, how could such laws be constitutional?

The current conflict between political parties over issues like abortion or gay marriage are really a symptom of conflict over this constitutional principle. Can Congress pass laws that have a specifically religious basis but cannot be argued for on a purely secular basis? On what secular basis could Congress prohibit abortion in the first weeks of a pregnancy? Or on what secular basis could Congress deny gay couples the benefits of a civil union?

It is for this reason that we have heard talk in recent years of constitutional amendments on these sorts of issues. In this discussion is a tacit recognition that the Constitution provides no basis for prohibiting these things. Our drive to prohibit them comes from our Christian beliefs, beliefs that the Constitution does not afford status if we cannot demonstrate a concrete detriment to the happiness of others.

What we potentially find as Christians is thus that the Constitution is not nearly so Christian as we imagined. Indeed, we find that the Constitution may very well stand diametrically opposed to our Christian values. After all, do we not believe that our values are the right ones, and that true happiness would be for all of American society to follow them?

There is actually more than one model of Christian engagement with society when it comes to matters of this sort. Unfortunately, however, most Christians have no awareness either of the basis of their own position or how it relates to the others. They unthinkingly assume that their way of engaging culture is the right way and the Christian way.

For example, the Calvinist approach to society tends to follow the model set by Calvin himself, namely, to try to take over society. Puritan New England had no "non establishment" clause. The Calvinist assumption is naturally that Christians should take over the American government and make it our kind of Christian. After all, is this not how God relates to the world, manipulating those who will be saved and, by default, those who will be damned?

Of course this approach is the heart of why so many Christians fled to America in the first place, and why Quakers settled in Pennsylvania and others in Rhode Island--to get away from the Fascist Christian machines of Europe. Nevertheless, most of grass roots conservative Christianity has mindlessly absorbed this approach as well, even theological traditions like my own. The unthinking assumption is that, of course, we should try to make American law mirror our Christan understanding and force others to live the right way.

The inconsistency of this approach with my own theological tradition, coupled with how vigorously people in my church fight for it, is really ironic. For example, as Wesleyans we believe that God does not force anyone to choose him. We believe that God has sovereignly allowed humans to resist His will. Even in Romans 1, the language Paul uses in relation to homosexual sin is that God "gave them up." Certainly the presumption is that God will judge all at the judgment, but we believe that God does not force the world to obey Him for now.

In that sense, the American system is less in tension with the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition than it is the Calvinist system. Of course there are other approaches. Quakers and Anabaptists have tended to remove themselves from participation in the broader society altogether. The Lutherans tend to have a "two kingdoms" approach in which the government is the government and Christianity is Christianity and both just follow different rules. Probably the American system fits best with their approach to society.

But the question of how a Christian should vote in relation to these issues becomes a tricky one. On the issue of homosexuality, a Calvinist will vote against the American system and try to perpetuate specifically Christian laws. Indeed, Calvinists should probably plot to take over the Constitution and establish their form of Christianity as the state religion. I think Ariminians would vote in a way that they thought would most encourage movement toward God, which isn't always effectively done with a stick.

The issue of abortion is different because most Christians see it as murder. Concrete harm to others is a matter of the Constitution. I'm not sure that we will be able to make the secular case in the earliest weeks of pregnancy, but I think most states have become convinced that third trimester abortions should be severely limited. When people see what a second trimester unborn looks like, they are often convinced that it is murder as well.

Of course a vote for a president is not automatically a vote for or against abortion. Reagan and Bush were both in office for 8 years and abortion is still legal. If the Supreme Court were to overturn Roe vs. Wade, it would still be a matter of individual states whether abortion was legal or not. Most states would continue to allow it. It might require a little travel, but the vast majority of women would still be able to have an abortion if they wanted to.

Another serious question is what the side effects would be of appointing justices that are interested in overturning Roe vs. Wade. If we leave Roe vs. Wade out of the discussion for a moment, we should remember that it was the Clarence Thomas type justice that declared that the children of slaves--even if they were freed--could never be citizens and that Congress had no constitutional right to prohibit slavery (1857). And it was the Antonin Scalia type justice that upheld the Jim Crow laws that forced blacks to sit in the backs of buses in the South and would not allow them to go to the same schools as whites.

From a legalistic standpoint, these may very well have been the right decisions from a strict reading of the law. Part of me respects that. But true justice would have been to go the other way with the Dred Scott case, and true justice was done in the civil rights cases of the 60's and 70's. Those Christians who trumpet strict constructionism should pause to remember that, for the most part, they are championing an approach that most of the time rendered or would have rendered anti-Christian decisions. Roe vs. Wade is ironically far more likely to be the exception, than the rule.

A final thing to keep in mind here also is that the New Testament, and the roots of my own theological tradition, are far more interested in true change in a person than in making people follow the rules. To be sure, there was a 50 year period in my own church's history where we were rather shallow on the moral development scale and mostly just wanted people to look and act a certain way.

But this is not the true Wesleyan tradition that was interested in heart change. And it is certainly not the New Testament's "virtue based" approach to ethics, where it is from the heart that uncleanness comes and where the fruit of the Spirit comes not from the letter but from the Spirit within. From that perspective, the more Christian agenda is the one that aims to change people more than to make them follow the right rules.

How does this relate to the current election? I believe that McCain's position on abortion fits better with that of the majority of Christians. At the same time, we should not make light of Obama's goal of decreasing the number of unwanted pregnancies. I think McCain would support this goal too. These broader concerns represent a higher level of moral development than the lower "law" oriented approach that simply wants to make sure no one breaks a rule.

Saturday, September 13, 2008


We have already mentioned abortion as one of those issues where people sometimes argue past each other. Christians who oppose abortion typically make "duty based" arguments: a person should not have an abortion because it is wrong to have one. Those in favor of allowing abortion often make a duty based argument as well: a woman cannot be forced to do something with her own body that she does not want to do. Those in favor of allowing abortion may also use utilitarian arguments: sometimes a greater good will result in one way or another if a woman has an abortion than if she does not.

These are all quite different arguments and none of them in themselves addresses the others. So when a person responds to one with another, no real conversation has taken place. Your argument goes nowhere because you have not shown how your position relates to the others. In this section we want to tease out these sorts of arguments and explore the kinds of logic that lies behind them.

As we mentioned, most of the arguments against allowing abortion are duty based. They make the claim that it is one's duty not to have an abortion. The underlying logic goes something like the following:

1. You must not kill innocent human beings.
2. The unborn fully constitute innocent human beings.
3. Therefore, you must not kill the unborn.

Few of those engaged in debate over abortion would contest the first premise. The point of debate from the duty based perspective is almost always the second premise. In a moment we will discuss different perspectives on when the unborn might fully constitute "innocent human beings."

Meanwhile, the duty not to kill innocent human beings is almost always a very high priority on a person's value list. It usually trumps most other values. Indeed, many would consider it an absolute value, meaning that you cannot imagine any situation--even in a philosophy class--where it would be right to kill an innocent human being for some greater good.

For this reason, if we conclude that the unborn count as innocent human beings in the fullest sense, most utilitarian arguments would be inadequate to counter the duty not to kill the innocent. For example, let us suppose that testing seems to indicate a child will be born with some debilitating, even deadly physical or brain "defect." If the unborn are innocent human beings in the fullest sense, then the question of whether to abort that unborn "for the greater good" is tantamount to asking whether it would be permissible to euthanize a born child with such a condition, to give it a merciful death.

Again, if a person believes the unborn are innocent human beings in the fullest sense, allowing for abortion in the case of rape might be taken to imply that it is also allowed to kill an innocent adult under certain circumstances. The overriding values can be both duty based and utilitarian:

1. It would be wrong (duty based) to make a woman bear a child forced on her by such violence. The wrongness of the rape outweighs the wrongness of taking an innocent life.
2. The context of the child's birth would extend the pain of the rape for the mother indefinitely (utilitarian). The child's existence perpetuates the wrong.
3. The child might grow up in potentially less than ideal circumstances, either because of adoption or because the family cannot afford him or her full belonging (utilitarian).

If, however, the unborn are considered innocent humans in the fullest sense, then to be consistent we would have to allow for putting innocent born children to death if we could imagine analogous situations with similar consequences or wrongs.

The question of the mother's life being in danger is a slightly different situation, because in this case the focal act is not to kill the unborn but to save the mother. For example, those who reject murder but allow for war recognize that innocent civilians will inevitably be killed in the process of pursuing targets considered legitimate in war. The difference, however, is that one presumably is not targeting the innocent civilians.

One might at least argue that abortion is similar when the life of the mother is in danger because saving the mother's life is the target activity, not killing the unborn. Indeed, in some cases both mother and unborn might otherwise die. An absolutist, however, because he or she does not allow for exceptions, might consider it wrong to take the life of the unborn, even if it would mean the deaths of both.

What emerges from this discussion is that the primary point of debate is the question of whether the unborn have full status as human beings. Ironically, however, this issue is seldom the focus of debate. The argument, "Murder is wrong" has no impact on the issue of abortion if the unborn do not have full status as human beings.

Similarly, if they do, then the argument, "Someone cannot force a woman to do something with her own body that she does not want to do" does not have full force because the unborn within has status independent of her body. The argument, "A male has no right to tell a woman what to do with her body," would then be similar to saying "You cannot tell someone from another culture that they cannot throw deformed children to Hippopotami," a practice once done in parts of Africa. If the unborn have full status as innocent human beings, then they presumably have duties associated with them that impinge on the freedoms of those around them, just as adult humans do.

But do the unborn have full human status? On the one hand, it would seem somewhat peculiar to argue that the human status of the unborn changes dramatically from one moment to the next depending on whether the child is inside or outside the womb. Whether or not you can see the child seems a dubious measure of human status. Does it make sense to suggest that in twenty minutes, an unborn goes from having no status as a human whatsoever to having full status as a human? Indeed, many states in the United States place severe limitations on third trimester abortions (7-9 months along). If a child could survive outside the womb without unusual medical measures, many would consider it to have full human status.

However, the question becomes more ambiguous the earlier one goes in the pregnancy. On the one hand, modern medicine is often able to save the lives of those born prematurely, even in the second trimester (4-6 months along). But it requires significant medical measures only possible in recent years.

The status of the unborn is most ambiguous of all in the first trimester (0-3 months). During this period, the mother's body is absolutely essential to the unborn's survival, at least given the present state of medical research. Even most women who oppose abortion during this period would not have a funeral for that unborn if they miscarried. Indeed, many women miscarry in the early days of a pregnancy without even knowing they were pregnant. In other words, most people--whether they forbid or allow for abortion--do not treat the human status of the unborn the same, depending on how far along the pregnancy is.

For Christians, other factors come into play because we believe that God has revealed various things to His people. For Roman Catholics, God has revealed to the church that it is wrong to harm the process of life at any point. Birth control is prohibited for more than one reason, not least because it does not allow God to control the process of conception. The unborn also have full human status from conception to birth and are not to be harmed in any way. On the other end of life, Roman Catholics would forbid euthanasia as well, the inducement of a merciful death to shorten one's suffering. The Roman Catholic Church thus has a fairly consistent view from before birth to one's death, and it believes that God has revealed this point of view to it.

Other Christians believe that God has revealed His opposition to abortion in the Bible. These inferences are always more indirect than direct. In other words, no passage in the Bible explicitly prohibits abortion. [interestingly, a Christian writing from around AD100 does, the Didache] For example, the sixth commandment not to murder, in its original setting in ancient Israel, focused on the intentional killing of one innocent adult by another. Gradations in the punishments Israel's civil law set out for various deaths indicate that not all innocent deaths were considered equally offensive.

Thus a person was punished for beating a slave to death in Exodus 21:20-21. But the punishment was not as severe as killing a free individual and in fact there was no punishment at all if the slave recovered, "because the slave is his property." Similarly, if two fighting men accidentally strike a pregnant woman and cause her to miscarry, "but there is no serious injury," the man must compensate in some way (Exod. 21:22-25). The wording implies that the injury in view is to the woman rather than to the unborn child. The death of the child is a factor because of the loss to the parents, rather than because it is a consideration in itself.

To apply the sixth commandment to the unborn thus requires us to go beyond the issues it originally addressed. Certainly it is permissible to do so, since Christians regularly consider the "New" Testament to expand, supplement, and even modify "Old" Testament teaching. And it would seem highly problematic, from a Christian standpoint, to apply the civil laws of ancient Israel directly to our context without much more ado.

Other passages sometimes brought to bear on this issue are even more indirect. In a number of instances, for example, God is said to have plans for various significant individuals from the biblical story even before they are born. Thus God says of the prophet Jeremiah, "I knew you before I formed you in the womb, before you were born I set you apart and appointed you a prophet to the nations" (Jer. 1:4-5).

This verse obviously was not addressing the issue of abortion, nor is it in the form of any kind of command. It is a statement of God's purposes for a specific individual, purposes that, from a Christian standpoint, God had for Jeremiah even before conception. To apply it to the issue of abortion thus requires us to move beyond the original meaning of the Scripture, a process that we regularly must do when our questions are not the same questions the biblical text originally addressed. It is not illegitimate to use Scripture in this way, but we should acknowledge that we do so because we believe God has revealed to us an understanding that goes beyond the Bible itself.

The expression, "from the mother's womb" is sometimes also taken to imply human status to the unborn (e.g., Luke 1:15; Gal. 1:15), although the expression more generally has the sense of "from birth" rather than "from conception." Again, it may be entirely appropriate for Christians to find such resonances in such passages. At the same time, it is clear that the issue of abortion was not in view in the original contexts of such statements. Such statements are not commands and poetry is often involved. When the psalmist says, "With sin did my mother conceive me," it is parallel to "with wickedness I was born." The author is not making strict theological statements about the origins of his depravity or about when life begins, but was poetically expressing the extent of his need for God's forgiveness.

Modern science has and will continue to present us with issues like this one that the books of the Bible, because they were first inspired to ancient audiences, do not directly address. And what is more, since God wanted to be understood, even the biblical texts themselves are largely God's revelation within the categories of those audiences. The presuppositions of the texts often turn out to be the ancient clothing in which God clothed the ancient revelation that was the direct point.

Thus we probably should not infer from 2 Corinthians 12:2 that there are three layers of sky as you go up directly from the earth to the heaven where God dwells, nor should we probably conclude from Philippians 2:10 that the universe is three stories--under, on, and above a relatively flat earth. The inspired point in such cases would seem to be revealed within the categories of Paul's world. In other words, God often conveyed the inspired point by way of ancient presuppositions, but those presuppositions were not the point itself. The ancient clothing enabled Paul's audiences to understand what God was revealing, just as our categories help us.

So it is probably unhelpful to look for answers to the question of when the unborn gain full human status in verses like "The life is in the blood" (Lev. 17:11) or "God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a living person" (Gen. 2:7). One might argue from these that the unborn take on human status when they have blood or, alternatively, when they first breathe. But the inspired point of these verses was not to address this issue.

The common Christian sense that abortion at any time during a pregnancy is murder is thus a conviction of faith. It is a belief shared by perhaps even the majority of believers, a belief they find resonates with Scripture's approach to life, even if the Bible does not directly address the issue. The nature of this faith perspective, however, makes it difficult to engage a secular context in debate on the topic, for there the topic is approached with different presuppositions.

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