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.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

I have been thinking about Guantanamo Bay and the "human rights" violations there. Do terrorists have a "right to trial", before being punished? Obviously, Bush did not think so. Even though terrorists have distortions about "God's will and God's means", they are human. And being human means certain rights should be allowed, such as being innocent until proven guilty and then the guilt must be pretty certain. That is the basis of our government's standards and humans rights in general...

Violations of human rights for terrorists only intensify their terrorists attacks...In the meantime, we must seek to shore up our nation's defenses to these types of attacks, which is what Wim has been involved....

Angie Van De Merwe said...

BTW. It seems that evangelicalism uses the "greater good" argument for "discipleship" measures. This is wrong headed to use a historical person's life as a universal. Disconnecting history, the real political and social situation in historical time, and theologizing about it, is bringing a universal to a particular. This is wrong-headed, as only God can be absolutized. And the Jews knew that he was above their understanding. The manifestation of the Logos in Christ was one form in human time, but not the universal form. As "All truth is God's truth", wisdom was personified within the "message of Jesus' life". Universalizing this 'wisdom" is misguided. "Wisdom" is understood within context. Jesus' context was within a political, spiritual and social "world" that doesn't quite match ours today...

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I probably didn't connect the dots, in my entries and yours.
Jesus life did signify that all humans deserve respect, dignity and value, no matter what the religious thought their "sin" was.

The question arises, is there a moral absolute in regards to life? And your entry made it clear that different people evaluate it on different premises.
Human rights activists would suggest that the baby has a right to life. The Catholic and fundamentalistt evangelical, do not make a distinction as to when life begins and if that life has priority over any other life.

Terroists have the purpose of taking life without recourse or regret, as they understand an absolute moral order as demanding obedience in a certain form under death penalty. This is "Christian duty" as Kant (?) would understand. But,it is no different than Islamic Law.

Human rights advocates believe that no matter the life, it has "rights". But the law courts discriminate based on ethical concerns about moral value. These values are proritized according to "just principles". Citizens have more prority than terrorists for instance, if it were a case that were between the parties.

Duty as to one's country is an allegiance to the values of that country. The military in our country are "duty bound" to honor one's country, which is respecting liberty and justice for all, and are also bound to not "lie, cheat or steal" and not tolerate those who do. Our country's law courts are truth detectors where it concerns breaking of contractual agreements and one testifies under oath.Therefore, the moral order of contract is similar to the suzarain (sp?) in ancient history. The disagreement happens in religious circles over whether the "contract" is entered into equally or if it is entered into by God solely...This was what Hebrews could possible be alluding to in 8-10...but you know more about it than I do...

I do believe that contracts are really about the people, as image bearers of "God". It is not about ancient understandings of reality.

Anonymous said...

Angie, there are many innocent people, not terrorists, held at Guantanamo Bay. Some don't even know what they have been taken there for.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Steph, I had watched a news program that stated that these people were alleged terrorists. They were Muslim, but had not had proper treatment according to international law. Atrocious acts were done that were in Muslim eyes very offensive...and to us, would be repulsive. I was arguing or thinking on paper about terrorist and human rights as a subject.

To further complicate matters, Bush acted unilaterally usurping the judicial branch of government in ordering military intervention. It was surreal and seemed that America had beomc a military State. Perhaps, the program was misguided, but I did go to hear about it at the CATO Institute while in D.C. last December.

Anonymous said...

"For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb..."
Psalm 139: 13 (NRSV)

If one is to take the Bible as a literal depiction of science, doesn't this OT passage indicate that a person becomes a person in the womb? That would be distinctly AFTER conception, because the ovum is fertilized before it enters the uterus and attaches to the woman.

Isn't this a lovely piece of imagery? Crafting something wonderful with tender care. Yet who would say that a ball of yarn is a sweater? Or even the first few loops on the knitting needles?