“If You See a Good Fight Get in It”—Abortion

Posted by Melvin Bray on November 3rd, 2004 filed in Home-Training

This essay is mainly for religious people—particularly in light of the re-election of President George W. Bush. This notion that religion or “family values” or “cultural conservatism” equals morality or that religious fervor automatically translates into just public policy or that the morality of self-interest and domination is morality at all is absolutely misbegotten.

In the political debate over abortion, I am neither exclusively pro-life nor pro-choice. I am what one might call “pro-choice for life” or if you prefer “pro-life thru choice”—a position I would bet that most people hold. They may not use the same terms to describe it. They may not have thought it through in the same way. But absent a strong, most likely religious conviction to be otherwise, pro-choice while an advocate for life may perhaps be the most moral position one can take.

You may ask, “What does it mean to be ‘pro-life thru choice’ or ‘pro-choice for life?'” Well, it’s a relatively simple concept. I believe in promoting life. I believe in it so strongly that I have always, even as a teenager, encouraged young women I knew who were considering terminating a pregnancy to have their children. I believe in life so much I have vowed that should an unwanted pregnancy arise in my home I would encourage that family member to have the child, and I have prayed that I would be able to treat the child as my own, regardless of the circumstances of conception. I believe life is sacred, and it is our responsibility as stewards of the life we’ve been given to do all we can to preserve, perpetuate and enrich it.

At the same time, I believe that the choice of whether or not to go through with a pregnancy can only be between a woman and her God. Abortion presents an almost unique moral conundrum in that it pits one set of generally and individually accepted moral principles against another. As a Christian, I do not believe we can violate one principle to preserve another. We cannot violate the freedom of choice and the dignity of personhood to preserve the sanctity of life. The three are too closely intertwined. If priority has to be given it must be given to the choice of the person most intimately involved. For those who may have a hard time with this, scripture teaches that she is the one who will have to stand in judgment and give an account of her life to her Creator.

At the risk of being offensive, I must confess that I struggle to understand how a thoughtful and reasonably humble person—particularly a person of faith—could take any other political position. As far as I can parse the issue, I just don’t understand how a woman’s right to choose can be anything but sacrosanct. Now don’t misunderstand; I believe the choice for an abortion is in many, if not most, instances self-centered and therefore wrong. I believe it’s that potential element of selfishness that would make abortion in most cases an act of murder by definition. However, by what delusion of omniscience could I discern the degree of selfishness in someone else’s decision and thereby preempt or punish the offender? My Christianity is the very thing that constrains me against such arrogance. I recognize the moral imperative to analyze the right and wrong of abortion, I just can’t imagine how we can in good conscience seek to enforce our conclusions. How could such egotism be of God?

As for the question of when does life begin, with no definitive empirical evidence we could argue that until time is no more. Perhaps a more useful question is, “When does a fetus become an individual (able to thrive on its own)?” There is a definite point at which this happens. Perhaps anti-abortionists should focus their efforts on securing legal protection for the unborn from that point on. In spite of all its potential to be more, prior to that point a fetus is nothing more than an extension of the mother’s body, and herein lies the rub.

At present, what anti-abortionists are really advocating is the right to impose their will on an undeniably legitimate individual (the pregnant woman) for the sake of one who has yet to become an individual (the fetus). Though I truly appreciate the nobility of wanting to protect the unborn, exercising that kind of control over another human being sounds just a little too reminiscent of chattel slavery to me. To force a woman to carry to term, yes, it brings into the world a new life, but it also serves to objectify women, and the question that it instantly raises is, “At what point do we stop?” How could such tyranny be of God?

In my humble opinion this is really the crux of the political debate over abortion. Even if you believe that abortion is plainly wrong, you cannot rule all abortions illegal without treating pregnant women as less than full persons. This is, I believe, the issue that anti-abortionists have yet to deal with. It is the reason I would bet that most people are like me: pro-choice yet in favor of life. Pro-choice does not mean pro-abortion. I have yet to meet someone who is actually pro-abortion. “Pro-abortion” is just a marketing term to demonize the opposition. I believe most of us simply recognize intuitively that we have no right to treat women as less than the autonomous, self-determining persons they are. Isn’t this the type of reverence that is of God?

The other issue that I believe anti-abortionists—surprisingly even religious ones—fail to contemplate is the issue of quality of life. Though it is definitely hard to say, and rightfully so, there is little virtue in existence for existence sake. I imagine most religious persons would agree. In fact, religion is predicated on the idea that life should and can be better based on the choices one makes. Yet in saying unequivocally that all babies should be carried to term, the anti-abortionist totally disregards the circumstances into which a child may be born or the conditions under which the child was conceived. Would such disregard be of God?

Let me use an extreme example to illustrate the point clearly. Who would be self-righteous enough to say that Negro mothers were wrong to jump overboard with their newborn babies in their arms during the Middle Passage as opposed to allowing their children to be subjected to the horrors of chattel slavery? Even the most pious person of faith would struggle to lift his or her voice in judgment of these courageous women.

Thank God, no one has to endure the horrors of chattel slavery in America today. Nonetheless, life for many today has its sufficient share of darkness. Using chattel slavery as our outside reference point and backing up from that point by degree, who amongst us thinks himself sufficient to determine the exact point at which the potential good of an unborn child’s life will outweigh the potential evil? I know I don’t. I don’t know how one would. There is probably no universal way to arrive at a decision, but such a deliberation can only conceivably be made between a person and her God—and for only herself. Even then such a decision is dubious at best.

One simply cannot make the decision against abortion for another person. That is the very reason why I believe that pro-life efforts are best focused on creating a moral and socio-economic environment in which all can thrive. Instead of trying to usurp a woman’s right to be an autonomous, self-determining human being, anti-abortionists could take some personal responsibility for making the choice for life the absolutely most appealing alternative. They could accomplish this by addressing poverty, social justice disparities, lack of adequate health care, living-wage concerns, education shortcomings, under-nutrition, inadequate housing, wealth distribution, etc.—all conditions that would impact the quality of life of the children they are trying to save. Aren’t these the concerns scripture teaches are of God?

In focusing our energies thus, society takes a big step away from a public discussion that is irreconcilably contentious to one, as Northwestern University professor and Jewish bio-ethicist Laurie Zoloth would suggest, that is infinitely more constructive. In her interview with Krista Tippett on the NPR program Speaking of Faith, “[Tippet speaking] Laurie Zoloth proposes a new framework for our common deliberations centered on religious values that might be shared more widely, such as duty and justice. ‘Rights,’ she says, ‘are not a religious starting point for discussion.’ . . . [Zoloth speaking] What’s of interest [to the normative Jewish tradition] is, “What are our duties to human persons? And when do the duties begin? And when do they end? . . . It’s a more useful way to think of it. I think pitting maternal rights against fetal rights is not only counter intuitive (ask anyone who’s pregnant about that), but going about it [the discussion] with duty . . . honors the reality of what pregnancy is (mostly, for most women it’s an act of extraordinary love and one in which the duty of being a mother begins). . . . A duty based system means that the community has responsibilities from the beginning too—to protect, to nurture, to shelter a women who is pregnant already. And then a different sort of duty once the child is born . . . including if she [the mother] does not desire to keep that child, the duty still attends upon the community.”

That doesn’t mean that dissenting voices should stop trying to show us a better way. We need that. I’ve been engaged in an ongoing dialogue with a friend of mine who has convinced me that the late-term procedure commonly known as Partial Birth Abortion (PBA) is barbaric, potentially exploitive and has never been found to be necessary according to the American Medical Association. Chalk one up for the pro-life cause; in regards to the need to outlaw PBA, I’m a believer. We just need to do it in a manner that respects women’s humanity as well. Humanity is enriched when such progressive synergies take place.

My mother taught me that you “always leave a place better than you found it.” That’s exactly what’s been missing from the whole abortion debate. Society would simply not be better off if women were to begin using abortion as an indiscriminate form of birth control. The psychological and sociological carnage would be staggering. On the other hand, society is no better off if women are treated as chattel, unable to make decisions concerning their own bodies. Instead of conservatives and liberals trying to push the issue as far right or left as they possibly can, society would be better off if we would, as President Bush suggests (in word if not in deed), work together to “promote a culture of life . . . a hospitable society . . . where every being counts and every person matters . . . one in which every child is protected in law and welcomed to life.” That’s just good home-training.

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2 Responses to ““If You See a Good Fight Get in It”—Abortion”

  1. Bud Says:

    I appreciate your thoughtful and sensitive remarks on an subject that is much inflamed. I have a bit of a different idea:

    It is true that the mother who choses abortion must stand before God because of her choice, but so does the man who decides to rob a liquor store. We protect the property of the store owner by laws that punish the crime.

    Is there no public responsibility to protect the life of the unborn? The question is whether the unborn is a human person, isn’t it? If we answer yes, then it would seem that the mother does not have absolute right to decide if the person lives or dies. If we answer no, then she can do as she pleases. There is no way out of this dilemma, I am afraid. It seems that each of us will have to stand before God on the basis of how we defend the poorest and weakest among us.

    Probably the ultimate solution will be a compromise that will be satisfactory to no one, but that might bring a measure of civil peace. I am not wise enough to know what that compromise is, but I suspect that it will be on the state level, and not imposed by courts.

    Just a few thoughts.

  2. Melvin Bray Says:

    Dear Bud,

    At the chance you will visit again. Thank you so much for your comments.

    Like you I don’t suppose there will be much more than a low satisfaction compromise on the politics of this issue. As you said, clearly the matter of whether or not the unborn is a human being should dictate whether it should be protected by force of law. What I am seeking to suggest was that at the point a fetus can thrive on its own it should be classified as an “individual”–a human being–and protected as such. Before that point the debate will undoubtedly wage on: though the political arena is probably not the best context in which to have that deeper moral debate.

    I appreciate your comments. Hope to hear from you again.

    Yours in service for families,
    Melvin

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