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Public Theology: Abortion and the Definition of the Human
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Abortion and the Definition of the Human
Columnist Kathleen Parker ought not to be pronouncing absolutes for either science or the church.

By Ed Knudson

Newspaper columnists often say more than their competence can authorize. Everyone has a right to their opinion, we all agree, but we should also realize that not every opinion is right. Kathleen Parker in a column that appeared in my paper on August 27, 2008, does a little talk about science and church and announces that "human life begins at conception" and that on this matter "the church and science are in agreement." Well, what church and what science.

There is one big problem with what Parker is doing here. She is assuming that biology is all that's needed in the definition of what makes for a human being. She is therefore what I call a "biological fundamentalist" and shares that characterization with all those of the religious right and Catholicism who make the same claim.

The fact is that human life does not begin at conception, a biological process begins at conception. Whether that "life" is a human life is determined later through several quite important steps in both the biological and the social processes involved in the development of a full human person. For some years I served on the bio-ethics committee of a major metropolitan hospital. One case before us was of a situation where a baby was born without a brain, literaly nothing but fluid inside the brain cavity. There was no possibility of the brain developing after birth. So, is this a human being? Should this creature be legally defined as a human being and offered all the life support required for human life, along with the costs involved, costs which must be borne by the community which has to define priorities in relation to the lives of all who are members of that community? This case is a tragedy, the hope for a human life was not realized. There is no human life without a brain and a the development of a mind. So the product of this pregnancy was so much protoplasm, not a human being at all. That may sound cruel, and for the parents involved this is a most tragic matter, since they had developed a relationship with a biological reality that turned out not to be a full human reality. Biological fundamentalists are wrong in placing too much confidence in biology itself. The world is a broken place, it is not always perfect, it doesn't run like some kind of perfect machine according to absolute laws of nature, bad stuff happens, including in biology. Christians, at least, ought to realize that; it's how they were taught to understand a world of sin, but biological fundamentalist preachers don't preach from a thorough-going historic and orthodox theology. On the abortion issue they mistake science for theology.

Science cannot determine right and wrong, that's the other place Parker makes a mistake in her statement. Science itself cannot fully define what human means and how humans should act. Any scientist who tries to do so is going beyond his or her competence as a scientist. So when Parker says that science has proved human life begins at conception she is absolutely wrong. Science only demonstrates that a biological process continues at that point, a biological process that includes the generation of a sperm and an egg as earlier processes, by the way. When we read about this biological process we human beings can add a spiritual dimension to this and feel a sense of great awe and wonder at the whole complex process involved in this biology. But that awe comes from faith or beliefs, religious or not, not from science using the methods of science.

I have found it rather strange that when it comes to procreation the religious right suddenly becomes a champion of science. In most other areas they are fierce opponents of science, such as evolution and the use of science in public schools. But here they view science in the 19th century sense of mechanical science, the so-called "laws" of nature are absolute and science has discovered exactly when "life" begins. This, of course, is not biblical; people in biblical times had no idea about the science of procreation. For them life begins with the first breath when the baby is born. Without breath there is no human life. God creates in Genesis through speaking, and to speak one must breathe. So human life can be associated with learning how to speak, to communicate, to relate with others. All of this is as significant to human life than the biology. But the religious right has accented the biology as understood in 19th century science, the very science they otherwise protest against. What explains the development of this inconsistant and irrational orientation? What is the motivation for picking out this particular piece of the biological process, conception as known by science, and claim that now and forevermore this is the moment of the act of creation of human life as if nothing else in the biological and social process of creation is important?

The answer is politics, these leaders of the religious right and some Catholic leaders in this country have seen that the abortion issue works for them in their political involvements on a whole range of other issues as well. Abortion works for conservatives politically. That's why it has become so important, not because it's a legitimate moral issue, more than all the other important moral issues of our time. It has proved to be an issue by which these leaders can preach moral abomination and gather a constituency in their churches, urged on by conservative politicians. It has proved to be an issue that brings a lot of money into the offering plate. In this way these leaders represent total moral cycnicism and arrogance, using an important moral issue for political advantage. This is the truth of the abortion issue in our time.

It began in 1973 when the Supreme Court handed down the decision on Roe v. Wade giving women the freedom to chose whether to continue a pregnancy. Note the date, note the date very carefully. It was a few years after the victories of the civil rights movement. It was the time the federal government was going into the South to force changes in public accomodations and voting rights (which is why the South hates the federal government). It was after the years of efforts to integrate public schools (due to the 1954 Supreme Court decision) in the South and the huge resistance to such integration by white Christians who set up their own private schools. The South already had big reasons to hate the Supreme Court. Now comes the 1973 abortion decision which changes not only the law on abortion but also makes it possible for women to have greater choices in their vocation beyond the home. The women's movement was gathering steam in the 1970s and if social conservatism means anything it means opposition to the changing roles of women in society. Conservatism wants to maintain the traditional cultural role of the male over the female, the female staying at home to raise the children. This is what the anti-abortion movement is all about, against freedom for women, and the conservative churches have found that there are politicians out there who will listen to them and help them win elections.

Abortion is about politics first and foremost. Anyone who refuses to admit that is simply not reckoning with the plain facts of history. The entire religious right movement has emerged from the South as a backlash movement against the gains of black people in civil rights. All the primary leaders of this movement come out of the South. The Southern Baptist Convention is the primary religious group of the religious right. The Assembly of God is a pentecostal movement anchored in the South. The central energy of recent social conservatism is the presevation of white dominance over black people, it is racism. After the 1960s and the gains of civil rights the whole South turned Republican and remains "red" to this day. Abortion is the way the Southern backlash has gotten to the rest of the country. Thomas Frank's book What's the Matter with Kansas? documents how the politics of abortion was used in one state and this pattern occurred across the country. A Southern-motivated abortion politics was generated by the gut-level opposition of the South to the "activist" Supreme Court. All the other political elements of current conservatism, the foreign policy conservatives (neoconservatives) and the economic conservatives (the big corporations) have ridden on the power of this social conservatism. Without the racism of the South turning into the anti-abortion movement there would have been no successful conservative movement in this country.

In other words, calculating Republican politicians have used racism to get themselves elected. Everyone knows this and no one will admit it. They don't have to use racist language, they can use the self-rightousness of the anti-abortion language, and now the anti-gay language also. And this is why the country is in such bad shape. The politics of the country has been based on irrationality of the highest order; such a politics does not articulate the actual and real needs and desires and demands of the American people.

This also explains why politics has become so nasty in the last decades. When you read histories of the South, the attitudes of whites against blacks, you see the depth of the hate and the willingness to engage in whatever violence is needed to keep blacks in their place. When you read the political language of George Wallace, the Alabama governor opposed to civil rights in the 60s, he sounds just like conservatives today, minus the explicit racism, against the federal government, the Supreme Court, against taxes to pay for integrated schools, against "pointy-headed" intellectuals and elitists. Republican politics for the past decades has been the continuation of the racist politics of the South. That is a truth many don't want to face and the media will not touch. Too many liberals do not want to face the fact of this history.

The same is true with some elements within the Roman Catholic church. In her article Parker talks about an interview done by Tom Brokaw of Nancy Pelosi where Brokaw has asked about abortion (Brokaw has no substance himself, he always asks Democrats what are really Republican talking points, it's too bad he is back in a prominent role with Tim Russert gone.). Pelosi actually in the interview began to explain about the theological background of abortion in the Catholic Church. I missed that interview but would have liked to have seen it. I have never seen a politician before actually express themselves knowledgably about the issue. Pelosi referred to the views of St. Augustine and St. Thomas which pointed to a time during the pregnancy when there is an "ensoulment," when the soul enters the body of the fetus and the fetus becomes a person. That's the moment when "life" begins, not conception. Parker quotes contemporary Catholic authorities who condemned Pelosi's comments.

Although the pope teaches against abortion that teaching has not been placed in the category of infallibility. That leaves the issue still open to a measure of interpretation, which is what Pelosi, a Catholic, was doing. Good for her. She knows the history better than Parker, or Brokaw or any number of others, including many Catholics.

To indicate a little more background: It was Greek philosophers whose thinking informed both Augustine and Acquinas. That was the source for the idea that the soul entered the body at a certain point in the pregnancy. The early church itself had not had a clear philosophical determination of these matters. But it did have a strong attitude against disregard of the importance of infant life. The bible speaks against "nature religions" and fertility cults and practices of temple prostitution which disregarded the value of human life.

The Christians believed, indeed, that human beings are created by a loving God, that life comes from God, that life is sacred and worthwhile and should be treated with the utmost dignity at every step in the process. But it is that very belief that is trivialized when the biology itself is raised to the level of God's gracious action. There is nothing in those early beliefs that would suggest that a particular point in the biological process as later understood by science should be chosen as the absolute moment that life begins, the moment that God creates. To believe that such a moment exists is to confuse the absolute Creator with a particular biological process. When human beings confuse biology with the absolute God who is other than anything natural in this world they engage in an act called blashemy, they claim God to be other than what God is, they are making a false God out of the biology rather than realize that God is the source of all biology and all else in the world. When these human beings then use their false God to judge and evaluate and even hate other human beings with other views they are actually acting outside of the morality of the Christian community. They are heretics. The problem is that the church since the Reformation has not had an adequate authoritative process by which to determine what is heresy and what is not. Too many more liberal Christians don't like to consider the idea of heresy. But my own view is that zealous anti-abortionists who claim to know when God creates in an absolute manner are heretics and they end up opposing what they claim they support, human life in all its dignity and fullness.

Since the church itself in all its expressions has no institutional means by which to define these matters and teach them to their members, the religious right and also several Catholic leaders have made this a political issue, as if the politics of the United States should decide on a theological issue. As I said above, using politics in this way is actually motivated by a continuing cultural racism coming from the South, but it has been joined by some in the Catholic Church who have decided to use the issue also for their own political or professional purposes. I am thinking particularly of Richard John Neuhaus, who after being ordained Lutheran joined the Catholic Church. He has been active in politics for years and is one of those who can be called "neoconservative" these days. As Damon Linker has demonstrated in a book called The Theocons Neuhaus has a rather inflated view of himself and his purpose in life. Now, if a person sat down and asked how to become a famous intellectual in the climate of the last four decades, how to get foundation grants from right-wing foundations to promote centers and magazines of intellectual inquiry, then one would have to say that the only real big money and ideas around for such an enterprise would be the conservative movement of the past decades. Neuhaus has gotten a lot of that money, has been a big success, he is even invited into the White House as one of George W. Bush's most trusted religious advisors.

The way Neuhaus has gained his access is highly questionable in my mind. He has used his position to attack the Protestant mainline churches and agitate within Roman Catholicism for an extremist view on abortion. His is not the prevailing opinion among Catholic leaders in this country, in terms of the whole range of political issues, including social and economic justice and global peace, but he has been able on the basis of the abortion issue to gain a following larger than his worthiness as a thinker. Part of this is because the media itself give such people so much attention. The media likes conflict and thus uses the abortion debate to generate an audience. That's one reason the extremists on abortion, the biological fundamentalists, get a hearing, contrary to rational or full theological reflection.

Just think about this. The conditions today are completely different from the conditions of the early Christian church or from the conditions through most of its history. The conditions today are that science, through applications to health care and environmental or public health measures as well as technological innovation in economics, has created the possibility for the vast growth of the population of the globe. Human beings have been able to propagate themselves with so much success that we are overflowing the carrying-capacity of the planet. What we do not need, in general, is more and more human beings in this world. Ethics has to take facts into account. What was right in one period of history may be wrong in another. If God is a loving God would that God command again to be "fruitful and multiply" when the more humans we have in the world today the less support there is for human life in the first place? To be ethical is not just to follow rules but to ask what are the consequences of one's actions. Both types of morality are important in my own mind, both an ethics of the right (what are the rules from the experience of the past) and an ethics of the good (what will happen in the future as a result of my action today). We simply have to find ways by which to reduce the increase of the human population in the world, for the sake of human life itself. Not to take this consideration into account, and consider abortion within this context, is not to engage in serious moral reflection today.

We are at a point in history when we have to engage in a whole new conversation about what human life is all about, to define what it means today to be human and to live in human communities. Those who are biological fundamentalists place themselves outside the realm of what makes for helpful conversation about these most serious matters. They keep the rest of us from engaging these questions as much as we should and they keep politics focused on irrational matters threatening the survival of human life in the world today.

John McCain thinks he knows the right answer. At the civic forum at Saddleback Church in southern California that church's pastor, Rick Warren, asked McCain when human rights began for a human being. McCain answered, "At conception." He thereby is claiming that it is the political process which is appropriate for the answer to that question, a question which is inherently scientific and theological. McCain is not known to be a religious person, he probably doesn't know as much as Pelosi knows about the whole subject, he says he has a long "pro-life" record, but this is a political stance not necessarily a moral one. McCain is going along with the racist politics, against freedom for women, coming out of the South as we indicated above. However, the media and conservatives praise McCain for taking a strong moral stance, such is the confusion of what morality means in the culture of today. The non-religious presidential candidate who takes a position for purposes of partisan electoral victory is called "moral." This actually is a sign of the moral degradation of politics in this country by the so-called religious right. It is why so many are so cynical about all morality today.

Katheen Parker, of course, likes McCain's answer and that's no doubt why she wrote her opinion column against Pelosi and quotes Catholic and scientific writers to support her views. But she should have listened more closely to how Barack Obama answered the same question from Rick Warren. Obama said answering the question of when life begins is "beyond his pay-grade" as far as science and theology is concerned. Immediately many listeners would have thought he is avoiding the question, that's how the media has been covering the question for a very long time now, as the Tom Brokaw question to Pelosi indicates. But Obama's answer is exactly correct for a politician in a demcracy. Obama knows there are many different answers to the question. While some legal definition about these matters is necessary that definition cannot be on the side of any particular religious expression. McCain is wrong on this, he wants a kind of theocracy, when a particular theological doctrine (false from the Christian perspective in my opinion, to be clear) is forced on the whole population. Obama is right.

He also said a couple more things about abortion. He said that in his experience women who are facing this question take it very seriously indeed. It is never an easy or casual matter. That is my own experience as well. This view is one of respect for women faced with a difficult decision. I think this high regard for women is a good message to be presenting within the public context. Such a view will encourage women to, indeed, become more mature in their decisions. On the other side, the biological fundamentalist view of women is that they require an absolute law to force them to make the only choice these fundamentalists believe is correct. This lack of faith in women will only produce more women who are being taught by this attitude that they cannot be trusted to do what is right. And this thus encourages the very immorality they otherwise believe is what is wrong in society.

Obama also appealed to those opposing to abortion by saying that programs should be encouraged which have the effect of reducing the number of abortions in the country. While this seems obvious, the fact is that the type of programs which should be supported, such as information about contraception, are also opposed by the religious right. That is, it is not just the act of abortion which they think is wrong, but a whole host of other matters related to sexuality. In this way too abortion is just a wedge issue to open political space for a strong role for government in forcing a particular type of sexual morality upon the whole country. The more the American people see that this is the real purpose of the religious right the more they are rejecting it.

The idea that "human life begins at conception" is not simply wrong morally, it is irrational. In a conversation with a conservative friend a while back I asked what he proposed in a situation where a thirteen year old girl is impregnated through rape. Should the girl be forced to have the child? My friend say yes. I asked if he knew what having a child would mean for that young girl's body. He said it makes no difference. I told him he was immoral and further that he was being irrational. He was using his own absolute view of biology to deny what was obviously the best thing for this young girl. He was selfishly denying the value of this young girl based on his own self-righteous and absolute view.

My friend did not want to admit that there were any exceptions to the absolute rule that human life begins at conception. Every abortion is murder, no exceptions. As soon as he would admit to any exception then he is opening himself to consideration of other exceptions. That's the problem with biological fundamentalism, it doesn't make sense, rational or moral sense. It leads to grotesque advice to people in often desperate circumstances.

Take another case. A young mother of three children living in a small apartment in an urban setting with minimal income has just been offered a new job teaching children. She becomes pregnant and she and her husband agree she should have an abortion so that she can begin her new vocation as a teacher. This is not a case of the health of the mother biologically, but it may well have to do with her mental health and the family's capacity to care for all its children. And it certainly has to do with a vocational choice and the fulfillment this young woman can experience by giving back to her community as a teacher and the value of this for the children she will be teaching. Why should a biological fundamentalist have the right to come along and require that she have the child? Why is the biology so much more important than the vocation of this young woman? What rational purpose does it serve as long as the abortion procedure itself is medically safe? It is not because she has no respect for life that this young woman wants an abortion, but the precise opposite.

I think it is outrageous and morally obnoxious that small-minded biological absolutists have been allowed to create a moral context which would seek to force this young mother to feel guilty for such a decision. These people are a danger to the mental health of our country. If they want to force members of their community to have unwanted children then let them influence their own communities, they should not be allowed in any way to influence the larger public context, to terrorize the minds of women who have chosen for their own reasons to have an abortion. But that's what conservative Republicans have done, they have encouraged these ridiculous views for the purpose of getting elected to office. They have done so in order to achieve a conservative policy agenda on other issues, including opposing the full realization of civil rights for black people. This is the heighth of moral irresponsibility.

People like Kathleen Parker and John McCain who claim to stand for high moral purpose should be viewed actually as persons who are engendering moral depravity in the culture of the United States. When "moral" is associated with immoral politics to this degree, the true nature of morality is lost. This kind of politics is a real threat not only to democracy but to the possibility of defining what it means to live the fullness of a human life for all in this country. I am hoping the American people are waking up to this truth.


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Date Added: 2/10/2005 Date Revised: 8/28/2008

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