Monday, March 12, 2012

Pro-Life: Death and Control (IDMWYTIM, pt. 3)

This is third in a series on Evangelicals and abortion

About four years back, "America's pastor," Rick Warren, asked America's President, Barack Obama, at what point he believes that life should be protected.

His non-answer went down in infamy in some quarters.

"That answer is above my pay grade."

By this, he meant that only God really knows when we can say that human life actually begins - when what many would consider the soul would enter in through the uterus and into the embryo to grant it humanity - so only God can grade when life should be protected by government intervention. .

Despite the drubbing from the "pro-life" lobby, and perhaps despite his own (genuine) interest in deflecting the question, Obama was right. Ask most evangelicals and conservative Catholics and they'd most likely tell you, "Life begins at conception."

And they wouldn't flinch in saying that.

Here I think I should clarify a bit: I have trouble with abortion. As a parent, as an oldest brother, as a (admittedly male) human, I've tried to go over the option of abortion and wrestled with it for a very, very long time. But even during the darkest periods of my deepest depression (largely set off by major life changes that occurred during a relatively short span), even when I was angriest and most despondent at my dissolving marriage, and despite her various and chronic health complications, I've never regretted my daughter's birth.

I have, however, been constantly cognizant of the fact that it would have been much easier if the situations were different. I am also pretty darned aware that I'm a male, and thus incapable of giving her birth in the first place. Alas, from my perspective, waiting for the right time would have given me a completely different child. Too many variables and all that.

Now, however, these are my beliefs. And they influence how I live and act. They, for better or worse, influence and help make me which I am. But in this scheme, I also find it hard to believe that life begins the moment a seed enters into an egg.

Perhaps life begins in the first trimester. I am willing to go along with that. Maybe it begins when the egg is planted in the womb. Maybe after the ears fully form. Maybe at the moment the fetus is able to function outside of the womb. Maybe at birth, and not before. I have to acknowledge that for some cultures, life isn't fully recognized until the age of five or so.

The point being that there has never been a universally understood standard for when human life begins. And until the 1980's, there was no consensus even amongst Evangelicals.

There certainly wasn't in the bible.

So when the anti-abortion forces mandate that abortion a) is murder and, b) should be outlawed at any stage, they (we) are being presumptuous, to say the least. Coupled with our track record on women's rights, we are being downright cynical and controlling.

To attempt to legislate our views on abortion upon the populace is akin to trying to legislate religion*. And we all know how that ends, right?

Spanish Inquisition poster photo by Ben Sutherland on Flickr

We have every right to hold the view that all life is sacred. I believe that this is consistent with the Christian view of Creation and humanity. But then we need to follow through with that. That includes all life. That includes female life. Which includes the acknowledgment that they are fully-developed human beings and that they are to be guaranteed full access to all their rights. To do otherwise is to control - which is a form of active death.

As long as the Contemporary "Pro-Life" movement continues to fight a woman's right to self-determine, we deliver a message of death and control. As long as the CPL continues to allow victim-blaming, we deliver a message of death and control. As long as the CPL continues to shame and ignore the voices of women, we deliver a message of death and control. As long as the CPL continues to be silent while the US continues atrocious wars against Middle Easterners, we deliver a message of death and control. As long as the CPL continues to lobby for laws limiting abortion - and through deceptive, backdoor practices - we deliver a message of death and destruction.

There are better ways, and we'll discuss them next time.


* I would suggest a much more anarchist view, which I think is also the answer to most of our other societal issues, including access to healthy, whole and affordable food and shelter.


  1. You are missing part of the equation. If you believe life is sacred, you also believe we are compelled to support the preservation of life over the autonomy of personal choice, which thereby ends a life.

    Further, all of the logic you introduce here could easily apply to the single mother of a one-year old. If we have to draw a line in the sand as to when life begins, you are compelling a woman to make a choice.

    It also makes little sense to compare control to active death, while also advocating governmental control of a portion of our paychecks. If you believe ANY control is death, then you are an anarchist, but that is not something you can apply selectively.

    1. I am a bit of an anarchist. But I prefer some level of democratic/republic control (taxes go towards superstructure) to complete corporate/property-owner control.

      But I'm not so sure where you get the idea that I missed that part of the equation. When life begins is questionable. Was that not clear? If it's questionable (and I get from your blog that you don't believe in nuances of that sort), then we cannot enforce one - completely religious - view of when that life begins.

      And trying to enforce it only makes it worse. You want to drastically reduce abortion? Be less hostile.

  2. As a pro-life feminist Christian who is really disturbed by a lot of what passes for pro-life ideology these days-- I agree that it's largely about controlling women and not about babies-- I found this post very interesting.

    1. Thank you, Aydan. That means a lot.

  3. I'll leave it to the anarchists to defend anarchism, but that's neither here nor there.

    "But I'm not so sure where you get the idea that I missed that part of the equation. When life begins is questionable. Was that not clear?"

    That was clear, but irrelevant to my point about all life being sacred. You said we need to follow this ethic through, and then set autonomy against life. That's what I was addressing.

    "If it's questionable (and I get from your blog that you don't believe in nuances of that sort), then we cannot enforce one - completely religious - view of when that life begins."

    Nuances of what sort? The biological beginning of life occurs at conception. It is absurd to argue, from a biological perspective, a baby is only alive the moment it exits a vagina. Why is your definition of the beginning of life more nuanced than mine?

    "And trying to enforce it only makes it worse."

    Makes what worse? What evidence would you use to support your claim?

    1. The biological beginning of life occurs at conception.

      Doctors and scientists don't agree with that assessment, Kevin. And neither do I. Because it's not true. Just because you want to believe it's true because that's what your particular Christian views say is true.

      Do I seriously need to prove to you things that are evident? You want me to prove that the pro-life movement has been largely anti-woman and that trying to enforce anti-abortion measures makes things worse. I would, if maybe you weren't a troll. I've got other things to do and other people to talk to.

  4. I believe it's true because, when sperm joins an egg, that makes a human. It has nothing to do with my "particular Christian views". That is simply the most sensible starting point, given that it is, in fact, the starting point.

    It would be great if you backed up your assertions, as opposed to declaring them "self-evident". That's what thinking people usually do when they take the time to write thousands of words on a topic.

    This exchange is about what I expected, having read the content of this series. But you linked to this blog from another discussion, and host an open comments section on your blog. I fail to see how it is trolling to engage you, but rest assured I'll never make the mistake again. Sheesh.

    1. For those who are actually inquisitive about such matters, here's a simple outline on various views of when human life begins (and the denominations that hold to each of those):

      Biologist Scott Gilbert, an expert in human development, tells us that there are at least four distinct moments that can be thought of as the beginning of human life. Each can be said to be biologically accurate.

      The genetic view (the position held by the Roman Catholic Church and many religious conservatives) holds that life begins with the acquisition of a novel genome; it is a kind of genetic determinism.

      Those who hold the embryologic view think life begins when the embryo undergoes gastrulation, and twinning is no longer possible; this occurs about 14 days into development. (Some mainline Protestant religions espouse a similar view.)

      Proponents of the neurological view adhere to brainwave criteria; life begins when a distinct EEG pattern can be detected, about 24 to 27 weeks. (Some Protestant churches affirm this.) Interestingly, life is also thought to end when the EEG pattern is no longer present.

      Finally, one can say that life begins at or near birth, measured by fetal viability outside the mother’s body. (Judaism affirms something close to this position.) After all, somewhere between 50 and 60 percent of all embryos conceived miscarry.

      I don't agree nor disagree with any of those views, necessarily. Justshowing tthat there's wide variety amongst well-meaning pro-lifers and religious people. Just because the pope or JeffthePreacher is absolutely sure tthat "life begins at conception" doesn't make it so.

  5. A scientific perspective about when human life begins:

    Hint: It's a metaphysical question.

    1. Jasdye,

      If it's a metaphysical question, then why bother with what scientists say at all? Their disagreements are irrelevant if their discipline cannot get at the truth of the matter. The only thing that scientists seem to be in agreement on is that the zygote is genetically distinct from the mother and father.

      With this mind consider an argument (not original to me) I posed a few weeks ago on the First Thing's Evangel blog:

      1. An adult human being is the end result of the continuous growth of the organism from conception.
      2. At no point, from conception to adulthood, is there a change in the essential nature of the fetus from non-person to person.
      3. Therefore, one is a person from the point of conception onward.

      Now if two is false, then at the very least the detractor should be able to point to something at some point in human development that makes a human life worthy of moral protection, particularly from actions that would kill it. And I think its fair to require that that "something" be less arbitrary and less vague (meaning less vulnerable to sororities paradoxes) than the point of conception (which I am inclined to think is neither).But even if this can't be done, moral choices that could possibly result in the taking of innocent human life should not be made if we are so ignorant.

      I can respect the intuition that a zygote doesn't resemble a person, because it doesn't display any personal features. But I think there are good reasons for questioning this intuition. The argument assumes that adult human beings are persons in premise one (which is unstated) and that functional criteria like self-awareness, consciousness, and the ability to make plans for the future are insufficient to ground personhood. This is because it seems to be true that one who is under anesthesia remains a person, and therefore personhood is bound up with something else that is capable of grounding functional capacity and psychological history during those anesthesia-like states. In all likelihood, this rests on a substance ontology that resists essential changes by virtue of the addition or subtraction of properties through time.

      All this, as you correctly say, is bound up with metaphysics and certain requirements for a good explanation. Those are debatable, of course. But getting rid of the "zygotes are a people too" for the sake of alleviating problems with our intuitions will come with a price. We have to ask: Are there different accounts of makes a human, human, or a person, a person? Sure. Are they better? Only if they produce less problems than we already have. I don't think its likely they will (see the so-called "after-birth" abortion article in the Journal of Medidcal Ethics), but these are the real issue we have to face.

    2. Adam, thanks for your response. You'll have to give me a minute to respond as I'm in the middle of trying to promote this book. But I appreciate the response.

      I will say, though, that I used the example of a scientist because the issue is often framed as a biological one, as Kevin did above there. I'm arguing that it's not quite so clear.

    3. But you also said "Hint: it's a metaphysical question". To do so on the heels of linking to the musings of a scientist is incoherent.

      I think, frankly, you're out of your depth as it pertains to the philosophical dilemma posed by abortion. Your defense mechanism is to glean talking points from other sources, assume the worst of those with whom you disagree, and resort to condescension and blunt dismissals when challenged. You have successfully navigated the sea of internet discourse. Congrats.

      I think you have little to offer in response to Adam's coherent philosophical argument. He called your bluff, and gave what you have written here more dignity than it deserves. If you were serious about mounting an intellectual defense of your position, you would endeavor to respond, if only to wave the white flag.

    4. Are you still trolling, Kevin? Forgive me for having a life and not being able to get back to Adam right away. But I respect the fact that he didn't come swinging out of the gates in attack mode, and that he seems to take the position that we can disagree on such matters.

    5. You seem to have no problem finding the time to level ad hominems. But yes, he has more respect for your intellectual capacity than I do. Instead of tossing more insults my way, as is your wont, address his arguments. I'll pop some popcorn.

    6. I thought you were going to stop trolling, Kevin.

      Now, sir. I'm a grown up. When I'm a little less exhausted, I'll address the man's issues. But if you're itching for a response, maybe you can check out Jon Trott's below us. Jon is a fine fellow from the Jesus People movement, and a bona-fide Pro-Lifer, in the classic sense. He was protesting with Randall Terry before the pro-life movement became a political powerhouse (and, in my estimation, lost most of its moorings).

    7. Adam,

      I guess where I'd fundamentally disagree with your argument is revealed in how you frame your second point. It's not an issue of semantics, but of philosophy.

      Particularly, essential nature of the fetus from non-person to person.

      "Essential nature" is not something we can agree upon. I'm not a Platonist. I don't agree with the idea of an objective essence. Reality and truth are much more concrete than such nebulous terms.

      There is no one period in where one changes from one to another. Which is kind of the whole point, right? There isn't a specific point. It's messy and I don't really like it, but it's left to each person (hopefully with communal and familial and spiritual guidance and support) to decide when is the appropriate time, when that fetus is, for want of a better term, probably,.a human life.

      You say non-person to person, but that is another false dichotomy. In fact, the argument is based on such false duchotomies. And maybe it makes sense to you and to most pro-lifers. It's nice and clear-cut, to be sure. But it should not ever be used as a weapon to shame another.


    8. *finishes popcorn, clears bowl, cracks beer*

      Exquisite. My favorite part of that response was that, after demonstrating you are clearly at sea in this discussion, you finish by condescending to Adam the way you did to me and, presumably, pretty much everyone who disagrees with you. Well played sir. You are an ass.

    9. So far, no other pro-lifer/anti-abortionist that I've talked with during this journey has been quite as stereotypical of the loudness and rudeness of the anti-abortion machine as you have been, Kevin. Not Adam, who I actually engaged with - but disagreed with. Not Jon. Not Marla (both of whom are great people whom I have tremendous respect for). Not any number of other anti-abortionist/pro-lifers. Just you. Only you. As I said in the beginning, Kevin, you came here trolling for a fight and you never let up. And now you're calling me an ass because I disagreed with Adam? On my own site?

      I was thinking about removing your comment. I don't need that type of abuse. But then I thought I should leave it so people can judge for themselves what we don't want to become.

  6. So instead of answering my questions, you call me a troll, fire off a bunch of links and condescendingly claim the intellectual high ground. That's an interesting way to behave when you are certain of your position.

  7. Well

    1) You are a troll. In that you have no interest in actually discussing the issues at hand, just arguing from your bag of tricks about your certainty.

    2) I really don't want to engage with you. Because cf. 1

    3) I answered your questions, but in a matter that you don't like. I apologize if I have a life. Bye.

  8. Re life, human life, and this very difficult set of issues....

    The formulation posited by Adam is a good starting point to ponder our difficulties:

    1. An adult human being is the end result of the continuous growth of the organism from conception.
    2. At no point, from conception to adulthood, is there a change in the essential nature of the fetus from non-person to person.
    3. Therefore, one is a person from the point of conception onward.

    I think Adam's points are helpful, but flawed.

    How flawed? Well, for one thing, the definition of "person" is not a biological definition. And Adam has helped me there, because this is an important issue.

    A human life... the fetus is that. But a person? That's a bit more mysterious. Is a fetus a person when there isn't even a brain stem yet? When the few cells have not even implanted into the wall of the uterine lining yet? I don't think so. It is a human life. But I don't think it is a human person. Not yet.

    Now, let's face the trouble with my line of reasoning. Because it is very very easy to begin to move personhood along the continuum all the way up to birth (which in fact is how abortion on demand currently pretty much does it). And that is manifestly bogus ("bogus" being a very useful word in pseudo-philosophers' handbooks). A partial birth abortion of a living person -- as manifestly the unborn is at that point -- illustrates how easily this mystery of just when a person becomes a person can be misused.

    That said, however, we still are stuck with the problem of when a person becomes a person. And I for one think that very early on, it is not evident that the zygote is a person, or that the fetus pre-implantation into the uterine wall is a person. I speak as a non-authority, but rather as a fellow seeker and struggler in this most Gordian Knot of all American social issues.


Be kind. Rewind.