06 February 2014

Abortion and Our Cultural Conscience Concerning the Unborn

Currently KY HB 184 (a.k.a. the ultrasound bill) is making its way through the Kentucky legislature.  The bill would amend previous legislation concerning the practice of abortion and the issue of appropriate information given to a woman seeking an abortion.  The added features of this bill is to add the requirement of a face-to-face consultation with physician who will perform the abortion at least 24 hours before the procedure.  Additionally, the bill would require the physician to give the woman an opportunity to view "an active ultrasound image of her fetus, hear the heartbeat of the fetus if the heartbeat is audible, and receive a physical picture of the ultrasound image of the fetus."

Abortion rights activists certainly view this bill as unfair and manipulative.  They see it as a means by which to dissuade women seeking an abortion form getting the abortion.  Well, I hope so!  All human beings are designed with a conscience, including scared, pregnant women and fathers.  If an ultrasound image and a little more time to reflect on the decision can help clear the head and prompt a more conscientious decision, then I'm all for it. 

Two items have prompted me to write about abortion here.  First, is this ongoing moral/political battle in our culture, evidence by HB 184 in my own state of Kentucky.  I think it is important for the church to wrestle with the issue and apply consistently and faithfully the Bible to the issue.  Second, a recent conversation I had with a high school senior boy reminded me that we have a generation of young people, even in the church, that do not think logically about ethical issues.  They are captive to the individualist and pragmatic driven culture.

First, a little history of the path of the legalization of abortion in the United States:

The movement for a right to birth control preceded the push for abortion rights.  In Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) the Supreme Court applied the concept of a constitutional "right to privacy" to birth control.  This case legalized all forms of birth control for married couples. 

Before 1973 states had made laws that made abortion illegal.  However, the women's rights movement in conjunction with the loosening of restrictions on contraceptives eventually led to abortion rights activists pushing a case in Texas all the way to the Supreme Court.  The suit claimed that Texas state law violated a woman's constitutional right.  Of course, the big question was exactly which constitutional right was being denied to women by the Texas law that made abortion illegal.

The Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade relied on the earlier Griswold v. Connecticut in which the court upheld a person's right to privacy in contexts in which the state had no compelling interest.  The specific part of the constitution that the Texas state law violated was the due process clause of the 14th Amendment.  The court reasoned that a woman's right to privacy in regards to getting an abortion was protected by the due process clause, therefore the Texas law was a violation of her constitutional rights.  The precedent laid down in regards to access to birth control was applied to abortion.  In other words, it seems the Supreme Court essentially viewed abortion as a form of birth control, at least in legal application.  However, the obvious difference between preventing pregnancy and terminating pregnancy brought up serious ethical concerns.

From beginning to end the discussion and legal arguments centered on the rights of the pregnant woman and how the constitution might be applied to her decision to terminate her pregnancy.  Absent from the courtroom drama was any serious discussion about the unborn themselves.  The question of whether an unborn fetus constituted human life was not addressed, which would seem to be the most pertinent question.  Ironically, this was not the issue for the court.

However, the moral debate rages on.  And it seems that in the moral discussion there are two key questions that must be posed and answered.  First, is human life valuable and worth protecting?  Second, when does human life most logically begin?  The answers to these questions should determine how you feel about the issue of abortion and consequently the legality of the practice.  I think anyone, regardless of religious views, must answer these questions.  However, for the Bible-believing Christian, another layer is added.  What principles does the Bible present as guidance on this hot political issue which is also a huge moral issue?

In regards to the first question, I believe it is safe to assume that the vast majority of people believe that human life is valuable and worth protecting. Our laws aimed at protecting ourselves and others and the consequences for violating those laws clearly evidence this.  However, there are some who might conclude that some human life is more valuable than other human life.  I'll come back to this at the end.

In regards to the second question, logic alone would seem to dictate that the most reasonable time on which to place the beginning of an individual human life is at the moment of conception.  We can talk about heartbeats, viability and other items, but these are all related to development not origin.  If I were to ask you, when did your physical existence logically begin, I think you would be hard pressed not to concede that all that went into making you was present at conception.  After that moment you simply developed.  Declaring any other place on the continuum of in utero human development as the beginning of an individual's life seems arbitrary.

The Bible doesn't address abortion directly.  However, it certainly underscores the value of human life.  The Christian worldview holds that humans are a special creation of God, created in God's image.  We read about God's love for humanity.  We read about God's condemnation of murder and the exploitation of the poor.  We are told to love others and do them good, not harm.  You get the idea.  All throughout the Scripture is the grand implication that human life is special and valuable.  In addition, there are many implications that God considers the unborn human. The Psalmist wrote, "Thou didst weave me in my mother's womb.  I will give thanks to Thee, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made...(Ps. 139).  There is biblical evidence that God in His omniscience knew of our existence even before our physical conception.  The Lord told Jeremiah, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you."  The Bible speaks to God's children being chosen "before the foundations of the earth"(Eph. 1).  From a divine point of view, my existence was foreknown by God.  What does all this mean?  For the Christian, the debate about abortion should gravitate toward the work and character of God.  In other words, forget political party allegiance and legal arguments.  The Bible clearly tells us that God created humans special with value and that in the mind of God our life is in Him even before conception.  But since we live in this finite, physical existence maybe we should just stick to physical life, which again logically begins at conception.

Most people who want to support "reproductive rights" or "choice" want to squirm around the issue of when life begins.  It's easy to see why that would be unsettling.  Because even those who argue for abortion rights value human life.  This is a vexing contradiction.  So, to sooth the conscience we need to rationalize that real life begins at viability or even birth.  Now I can feel better about the unborn who are terminated at 8 weeks or 12 weeks - they're not real humans yet.  But wait, now there are those who boldly declare that human life does indeed begin at conception, but so what.  Some human life is more valuable than other human life.  You might think I'm making this up, but I'm not.  Check out an article by Mary Elizabeth Williams in the online news site Salon from January 2013 entitled, "So What if Abortion Ends Life?"  I won't spoil the whole disgusting read for you, but I'll quote you her concluding words: "I would put the life of the mother over the life of the fetus every single time - even if I still need to acknowledge my conviction that the fetus is indeed a life.  A life worth sacrificing."  And when she refers to the life of the mother, she means the choice of the mother.  All I can say is about Mrs. Williams, is thank you for your honesty as ghastly as it is.

I'm wondering if our American collective conscience is gravitating towards Mrs. Williams' combination of brutal honesty and callousness.  Are we moving now into a culture in which we finally acknowledge that the unborn are indeed human, but we view them now as the expendable humans.  Since the abortion-rights crowd is tiring of the absurd verbal gymnastics that nobody really buys, have they decided it's time to just speak the truth - that what they want is the right to kill in utero human life at their own discretion?  As much as Mrs. Williams disgusts me, at least she is logically consistent. 

Church, we need to be on the right side of this moral argument.  If you are a Christian, you need to use your brain on this one and your heart.  You need to seek God and the counsel of His Word.  You need to sweep aside the cultural and political pressures and consider deeply where our country is headed on this issue.  I can remember the passion in people in the wake of Roe v. Wade when I was a teenager.  For teenagers today, abortion is a normal part of their existence.  As far as they are concerned, that's just the way it is and always has been.  To them, 1973 is ancient history!

Church, we have to teach our young people to think biblically and logically on ethical issues.  America is collectively developing a frightening callous conscience in regards to the worth of the unborn.  Don't be so foolish to think it will end there.  Don't be ashamed to stand boldly and defend the lives of those who cannot defend themselves.                     

6 comments:

  1. I like how you pose the two key questions that must be asked in this debate. Too often the arguments between people on this issue stray away from the crux of the matter. A person that calls themselves pro-choice and one that calls themselves pro-life typically differ on the second question that you asked, but it doesn't always come up in debate. Both sides may present valid arguments, in which they have reasoned correctly from their starting premises, and then quibble with each other over esoteric details while wondering why the other person doesn't see the “obvious” point, when in reality the conflict is at a more fundamental level that hasn't been addressed.

    I think most people do fall into a general agreement to your first question, so it's not as often the point of conflict. Regardless, it still needs to be asked and established, else the second question becomes pointless.

    With all that being said, however, I'm do not exactly agree with your answer to the second question. First off, “logic alone” does not answer this question. After the moment of conception, you have a zygote. To me, logic alone would seem to dictate that a single cell that has no (and has never had) consciousness, self-awareness, sentience, perception, thoughts, and no nervous system (much less a functional one) is not the same thing as a human being as we think of it. A better description is that a zygote is a blueprint for a human being, rather than a human being in and of itself. There is nothing intrinsically human about a zygote other than DNA. But 46 chromosomes encased in cytoplasm is not the same thing as your or I, or a baby for that matter. Therefore, I don't see defining conception as our starting point for what we're calling human as any less arbitrary than any other point of development.

    I will say that conception would be the EARLIEST feasible point we could even start the discussion, with the latest possible time being birth itself. These two points establish the limits of where we ought to look. Yes, I understand you may occasional find somebody who would suggest abortion for a one-year old, or somebody that holds to a “every sperm is sacred” stance similar to the Monty Python skit, but we would probably agree that both of those positions are ludicrous and beyond extreme (although a position of sacred sperm probably made more sense in earlier times when mankind only saw the woman as a carrier of a man's seed as it grew, and didn't understand her active role in fertilization).

    So the true point occurs somewhere between conception and birth. I'm not going to say I perfectly know the answer. However, in the early stages of development I have a hard time understanding how something that has yet to develop the slightest hint of consciousness, self-awareness, sentience, perception, thoughts, or a sensory functions would count. Once we start reaching these points, however, things begin to change, and by the time you've neared the end of pregnancy you have something very different. I've even read where a fetus that was exposed to a song in the latter parts of development could somehow recognize that song after birth (http://news.sciencemag.org/brain-behavior/2013/08/babies-learn-recognize-words-womb). So at the very least, I do think an abortion ban during the final trimester, or perhaps even the final half or final two trimesters of pregnancy, may be a good thing to have (save for rare cases of rape, incest, or the life/health of the mother is jeopardized). However, though, I do think it would be ludicrous to equate something like contraception, morning after pills, or whatever so called “abortion pills” taken in the first few weeks of pregnancy with murder as some do.

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    1. Well said in regards to the difficulty of pinpointing the moment of "humanization" of a person in utero. This is why I think that conception is the only logical place to locate this. Even if we are only talking about a zygote, we still have the beginning of a person. Even consciousness I would include as simply a matter of development. I think what you suggest would at least be a good start, but still beg the question of what about the life just before your line of demarcation.

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  2. If I were to go to the Bible alone, and momentarily forget what I know about biology, my answer may change slightly, but the basic premise still holds. You already listed some of the common verses Christians list when defending a pro-life position, such as those in Jeremiah and the Psalms. Like you, I would agree that these verses speak of the foreknowledge of God, and that God created humans with special value and He knew of us even before our conception. However, it says nothing as to when “human life” or humanity actually begins. The assumption of making conception the critical moment is an invention of man, and not one spelled out by God or the bible.

    The closest biblical passage I'm aware of that can shed light on our question is Exodus 21:22-23, and I don't find it to be perfectly clear or definitive. Interestingly enough, I've heard people make both pro-life and pro-choice arguments from this verse, and such interpretations are very dependent upon the translation. I'll quote the KJV first, just because it's one of the vague translations: “If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman's husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine but if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life”. What primarily matters here is the meaning of “her fruit depart from her”, and to what parties the “mischief” refers. The pro-life position argues this implies labor is induced (and that the harm done, or “mischief”, includes the baby as well as the mother), and thus, God cares about harm done to the fetus before birth. The pro-choice argument is that this is referring to a miscarriage, and that any talk of harm/mischief/death is related to the mother, not the fetus. If so, there is obviously harm done to the fetus during a miscarriage, but that's not the determining factor. Therefore, the fetus before birth was not given the same regard as the mother.

    Let's first just assume the pro-life argument is indeed the correct translation of Exodus 21:22, and that we're taking about inducing labor. Even if this is the case, then we're only talking about a woman who is later in her pregnancy. While this could be used for support for bans on abortions past a certain point of development, it says nothing about women who are earlier in their pregnancy (I'm being deliberately vague on “later” and “earlier”, so don't read any specific times into that), and still nothing about when a person's humanity actually begins.

    However, if the pro-choice interpretation is correct, then things change a bit. Interestingly enough from my experience, the strongest proponent of a pro-choice interpretation of Exodus has been from Jewish people. Here's one such argument: http://tmcdaniel.palmerseminary.edu/LXX_EXO_%2021_22-23.pdf. Here, the author claims the Septuagint has the correct translation, which is one generally consistent with a pro-choice conclusion (with the possible exception of a very late-term developed fetus). He also states that individuals such as Josephus and Philo took such an interpretation, seeing the fetus as essentially property until it was fully formed, which explained assigning a fine for the offense in the event the woman survived). The only question in this situation is at what point is the fetus considered “fully formed”. While this argument may not be as pro-choice to the point that abortion is morally justifiable until the point of birth, it still implies that humanity begins at some point during development and not at conception. This seems the most logical explanation based on biology and logic, and from reading multiple interpretations of Exodus 21:22-23, the above link seemed to be the most insightful of what I've read. The fact that the bible and basic logic and biology seem to coalesce to the conclusion I've reached (even if it remains a little vague at points) seems to speak volumes.

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  3. As a final point, I read your earlier post about biblical versus cultural Christianity. While I agree with what you're saying, we need to be sure that we don't just assume that the standard “right wing” theological positions are the biblical ones, and that the “left-wing” positions are the cultural ones (you never explicitly stated that, but I can see a lot of people making such an argument). In this response, as in my response on homosexuality, we see the standard right-wing fundamentalist arguments aren't as biblical as we may initially assume. In our area of the country, there definitely is a culture that leans toward pro-life and anti-homosexual beliefs. Many people take these beliefs because that's what they were taught growing up, but have no way to biblically defend such positions. I've even asked people why they believe abortion or homosexuality are wrong, and have gotten answers saying, “it's what I was always told”, but can't defend them. Our culture is very religious, but lacks in biblical literacy. I'm not saying I'm an expert by any means, but so many people who have went to church their whole life have barely read any of the bible. Many haven't even read a single book of the bible. I know we sometimes like to criticize others for cherry-picking from the bible to get the theology they want, but I think many people's cherry picking is just the result that they aren't aware of the rest of the bible. They don't deliberately ignore it, but are genuinely ignorant of it.

    That being said, I think we need to make sure the message of the gospel is not being lost as we spend a disproportionate amount of time on political hot-button issues (granted, if you believe humanity begins at conception and that abortion is murder, then I do at least understand why it would be such a big deal for a person, even if I don't agree with their logic to get there). Are we being distracted by things such as gay marriage, mandatory ultrasounds (or whatever other unnecessary medical procedures we may force upon people), and arguing over evolution that we've missed the heart of the gospel? Does the world only see us bickering over these trite issues, and miss the hope and power of the gospel and what Jesus accomplished in His life, death, and resurrection? Are we overlooking bigger issues in our churches, communities, and world at large?

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    1. Good points. Hopefully it's not a choice between the Gospel and moral issues; I believe both are important. Certainly, the church is about the Good News of Jesus. However, I think the church must also strive to teach followers of Christ to think biblically about moral issues. I primarily do not delve into these political/moral issues in the pulpit unless the biblical text has an immediate application. I reserve this blog for attempting to bring a coherent, consistent Christian (biblical) outlook to bear on these issues. I primarily see this as a tool to further shepherd the flock God's entrusted to me. If others are simulated by it, then that's great too. I very much enjoy the conversation, especially those who may challenge my thinking. It helps me dig deeper and think even more carefully about these matters.

      By the way, the legislation in Ky, "the ultrasound bill" is not asking to impose a mandatory ultrasound on a woman seeking an abortion. The bill simply wants to mandate that the woman be offered the opportunity to have one.

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    2. Thanks for the correction regarding the ultrasound bill. That seems to be a very reasonable law now that I understand it better.

      Hopefully my comments on your page don't come across as too critical. I've actually never met you or attended your church, but I stumbled upon the blog and I've enjoyed reading your posts. Perhaps I should spend more time working on other forms of more positive feedback. :) I do like how your thoughts and responses do foster a more pastoral attitude that I could stand to emulate a bit better (not that I'm a pastor, but it would still be something good to strive for).

      Although I do think my comments probably are a larger reflection of what I see in media, along with my own personal bias. 10 years ago, I was probably a person who spent more time trying to convert people to certain political and theological ideologies than the gospel itself. That's not to say my intentions weren't good, but after some time I realized I was often missing the big picture (and probably still do from time to time). And perhaps in society, the media may also work to shape perceptions and give spotlights to certain things over others.

      Keep up the good work.

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