the right to life

The fundamentalist religious tradition takes a very strong position on abortion, to put it mildly. In the mid 80s, we stood outside clinics, pickets waving, voices hoarse from shouting and chanting. We had signs up showing (we thought) how each unborn fetus was human—I mean, just look at it! They look too much like us not to be. And jeez, I thought, what else would a human fetus be but human?

Of course, the issue has never been whether the fetus is a human. Nor has it been whether the fetus is alive, easy sloganizing to the contrary.  Of course it is alive, and no advocate of pro choice who has any intellectual integrity will say otherwise (bacteria are alive, for crying out loud!). Rather, the issue has always been whether the fetus is a person. More carefully, the debate has hinged on when ‘personhood’ emerges (and indeed, what ‘personhood’ is). If it emerges at least by conception (a common position, advocated notably by the Vatican), then the willful destruction of the fetus is the destruction of a person. Then the question arises regarding whether such destruction can ever be moral (remembering, of course, that morality and legality do not necessarily map onto each other). But to say that personhood emerges at conception is to say that a person is defined by potential, not by anything actually present at any given moment (indeed, the Vatican would have to endorse something like this, considering its stance on contraception). But this seems odd to me, given the implications of such a politico-moral position on other equally substantial areas in the Christian worldview.

I’m going to spend this meditation looking at the assumptions and implications of the fundamentalist position on personhood as it regards an issue close to me, doing my best to follow the principle of charity in my presentation of the fundamentalist version of the pro-life position. Even so, there are some worrisome upshots for any fundamentalist Christian who wishes to remain rational, to be consistent with her faith, and to serve God with her whole mind.

Before I enter the discussion, I will offer a broad-brush definition of those I am herein calling fundamentalists. These are those who say they take the Bible literally, those who, as a general rule, accept dispensationalism (the doctrine that the history of the world is a gradual decline into depravity, at which time there will be a divine intervention of gigantic proportions), those who believe that every moral issue has been settled in the text of the Bible. Generally, they believe that any so-called ‘secular’ education risks at very least confusion, but most likely spiritual apostasy. And they believe that science, archeology, philosophy, history, and other academic pursuits are antagonistic to the ‘truth,’ which is defined according to their dispensationalist understanding of history (usually focusing heavily on American history) which is explained to them by their own leaders who are also usually unwilling to contaminate themselves with text other than the ones accepted by their own tradition. This may sound harsh, but it is unfortunately more often true than not. It is a weakness of fundamentalism that it is unwilling to analyze itself for weaknesses and inconsistencies, that it is unwilling to remember its own very short history (a little over 100 years). I hope that my meditations on my own religious heritage—my fundamentalist heritage—will be understood to be critical, but not in the sense of disgust or condemnation, rather in the sense of one whose heart is still attached to the tradition and seeks to find some avenue towards mental and spiritual health cut into the granite walls the fundamentalist movement has so carefully enclosed itself within.

I.

The justification of any position, if the position holders wish to be taken seriously, needs to be founded on rational principles. And so it is for the pro-life movement. But, like most political movements, the pro-life debate is complicated and convoluted—there is no one pro-life position. Some say abortion is okay until such-and-such a time in the gestation period, and that time is set differently for different groups. I never took such a position when I was a teenager; I was taught that abortion was always wrong—to the point where even the concept (now a reality) of a ‘morning after pill’ was seen as a murderous device.

Since this is the position I held (and everyone I associated with held), it is the position I will refer to in my discussion. I am unwilling to spend much time on the justifications and entanglements of more nuanced positions, since I have reason to believe that the vast majority of fundamentalists haven’t considered the issue in such a way to come to conclude other than what most of their leaders tell them, which is that abortion is always murder, that abortion is the unacknowledged Holocaust.

I am (eventually) going to posit an argument that I believe fundamentalists will endorse as consistent with (probably even perfectly representing) their position. But first, I need, I think, to emphasize that the general method was not rational discourse, but more on the lines of whipping up an emotional stockpile and encouraging people to react viscerally. The tools were images, music, chants, and anything that could carry a sufficient charge. To that end, as a budding poet, I wrote “auction” in 1985, a poem that was used by the pro-life movement and that (I am embarrassed now to say) equivocated on the distinction between being a life and being a person. If I were a tougher woman, I would include a portion of the poem here to demonstrate the way we were taught to act and the imagery associations we preferred, but I’m ashamed of the poem, now, and its images of a ‘laughing knife’ and of precious life being sold ‘for a mite.’

So I won’t at all deny that much of the pro-life ‘argument’ is no argument at all, but a shameless tugging at heart strings, an emotional appeal. But even this is founded on a tacit argument, for no one would think the appeal legitimate if they didn’t also believe that there was some legitimate ground that justifies such emotions as worth having and appeals to them as worth making.

And this leads me to the argument I believe fundamentalists would endorse. Let me be quick to say that I’ve never heard any fundamentalist minister or follower give this position in these words. But I am here trying to be charitable, to offer the best, most careful, valid argument in support of their ‘abortion is always immoral” claim.

II.

The Pro-Life Argument

  1. Personhood emerges at the moment of conception, if not before.

  2. No one but God has the authority to premeditatively take the life of a person.

  3. Having the authority to do something x is necessary for somebody S to do x morally.

  4. So no one but God can premeditatively take the life of a person morally.

  5. Abortion is the premeditative taking of a person’s life.

  6. So no one but God can morally practice abortion.

  7. So abortion is immoral.

I need now to explain how this argument (what I’ll now call the PLA) works, and what it’s saying.

(1) says just what you think it does: that whatever ‘personhood’ is, it is present at conception. But fundamentalists believe something stronger than this—they believe that in some undefined way, we ‘preexist’ our conception, somehow, in the mind of God. And they justify this belief via Jeremiah 1:5, which has God saying (of Jeremiah) “before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart.” It seems clear then that at very least Jeremiah was conferred personhood before birth. And it seems clear, then, that if personhood doesn’t pre-exist conception, it must at least emerge upon conception, given the repetition of statements in scripture about the unborn being anointed by or called by God (cf. Jdg. 13:5, Ps. 22:10, Lk. 1:31, Lk. 1:41).

Premise (2) is not merely taken for granted by fundamentalists; they hold a view common to anyone who owns things—consider an analogy. I once loaned a friend a CD, which he left on his dashboard in the hot summer sun. Needless to say, the CD melted beyond repair. My friend, accepting the fact that since the CD was mine, determined he had the responsibility of replacing it with a new one (which he did). The idea here is that only the owner of something x has the authority to destroy x, and if somebody other than the owner does, then restitution is owed. Fundamentalists hold that God owns us, that we belong to him. Indeed, children don’t belong to their parents, but are ‘loaned’ by God to them—no, not even loaned, but put under the care of, in the same way one might (to use a less-than-ideal analogy) put one’s prize horse in the stewardship of the owner of a stable. The stable owner cares for the horse, but doesn’t own the horse. Thus, the stable owner doesn’t have the right to haul off and kill such a horse, regardless the inconvenience it may cause. To bring it home, if a possession is deemed worth destroying, then only the owner has the right to destroy it. On a crude level, you don’t have the right to cut up my favorite old sweatshirt for rags, even though it might seem to you about time something like that is done. And you don’t have this right because you don’t have authority, not being the owner of the shirt.

Certainly the analogies are crude and limited, but the point is clear and easily generalizable: only owners have the right to destroy their possessions (indeed, to determine how to dispose of or best use them). In the realm of persons, then, only God has the right to destroy his possessions.

Further, the use of the word ‘premeditatively’ is deliberate. Fundamentalists in general (Jehovah’s Witnesses notwithstanding) hold that war can be justified sometimes, so that sometimes we might have the authority to take the life of a person. But war is a tricky situation where one is generally acting in self-defense, hence not acting in a premeditated sort of way analogous to, say, a serial killer does. I know, I know, this is a really sticky situation, and I should here supply very careful distinctions as to how one sort of premeditation is justifiable while another is not, but this would take me too far afield from the PLA, and besides, I have another meditation later on regarding this very issue. So consider this a teaser, and pretend I’ve given all the careful distinctions sufficient to the task at hand. The point is that abortion is significantly disanalogous to wartime killing, and that the latter does not fall under premise (2).

A general principle, (3) is something I think is intuitive to anyone, fundamentalist or not. Sometimes we have authority to do things that it might seem we don’t. Certainly those four guys who dared to sit at the Woolworth’s lunch counter and dared to request service were considered by the employees to be acting out of line. But perception is not always reality, and time has shown us that they absolutely had the authority to do what they did and the right to expect to be treated with dignity and basic human respect. It is clear now that what these men did was not only acceptable, but moral, indeed praiseworthy, and we rightly honor them for it, for setting things in American race relations a little closer to the standard of justice. And such is the principle for any moral action—we need to have the authority (whether recognized at the time or not) to do something in order for that something to be considered praiseworthy.  And if (2) and (3) are true, then (4) follows deductively .

Premise (5) is carefully worded to capture the sense of premeditation: it isn’t just taking a life, for then accidents would be immoral, and this is not something any fundamentalist is going to try to defend. Rather, a woman is counseled to consider options; she weighs out the consequences, and then chooses to have the abortion. And a doctor studies long and hard how to perform the procedures so that they adequately destroy the fetus while minimizing adverse health effects on the woman. Clearly both of these are thinking carefully about the activity before doing the activity—planning, preparing, premeditating. Note also that (5) follows from (1), that if personhood emerges at conception (if not before) then the taking of a human life after conception is the taking of a person’s life. Thus, (6) follows deductively from (4) and (5). And (7) simply applies the claim—when we say something x is immoral, we mean that x is immoral for us to do. (I will leave aside any discussion as to how moral laws apply to God, since this, again, takes me too far afield from the present discussion. Besides, I only need the weaker conclusion for this meditation’s worries.)

And that’s how the fundamentalist, were she philosophical and careful, would argue her case. Perhaps there would be other premises; certainly there are other arguments. And perhaps this argument can be improved upon, maybe even has been. And certainly premises have been contested—(1), for example, is hotly denied by many in the pro-choice camp, and (2) is equally worried over by just war theorists. And obviously, atheists are going to contest any premise that presupposes God exists. But my task here is not to refute the PLA, nor to try to improve it. My task is to look now to the consequences of this argument, which I believe is uncontroversial in fundamentalist circles (and who knows, maybe they’ll take it up, now—without credit or royalties—like they took up my poem back in the 80s).

 

III.

I said my meditation was on the assumptions and implications of the fundamentalist notion of personhood, especially regarding the problem of abortion. The horrified reaction people have towards abortion arises from a sense that whatever personhood is, it is invaluable, priceless, beyond our comprehension. To destroy it, even to threaten it with destruction, is far worse than taking a machete to the Mona Lisa, far worse than the destruction of the awe-inspiring giant Buddhas by the “any graven image of any human being is anathema” Taliban. To take a person’s life is a horrible thing, a horrifying thing, something we have been desensitized to by the proliferation of killing as entertainment. (Though I’m not so sure we’re actually desensitized, since I can’t help but cling to the hopeful belief that were the most avid fan of violent movies confronted by a gruesome death in real life, he’d be horrified and perhaps inflicted with PTSD—hopeful not because I wish PTSD on anyone, but hopeful in that I want to believe that we are still horrified by death, by ‘real’ death, even in a culture that, like Rome, finds death entertaining and diverting.)

Fundamentalists claim they find death horrifying. The life of a person is sacred. Thus, any deliberate taking away of such a life is put-your-hand-over-your-mouth awful. Add to it any extended pain, and the concept becomes unbearable. And the more unbearable the concept, the stronger the visceral reaction against the activity captured by the concept. We tend to put ourselves in the situation being considered—imagine if you were going to be sucked apart by a giant machine, and torn to shreds, says the pro-lifer.

Thus two points are important here: first, whatever a person is, it is sacred, not to be destroyed; and the taking of life from it is on some level its destruction. Second, the fact that we consider ourselves persons (and rightly so, I would say) lends us a tendency to compare ourselves to other persons when we judge the morality of their circumstances and what to do with them. Hold these points for a bit.

The fundamentalists of which I speak are—obviously—Christians. Thus, they believe in an afterlife. That is to say that (Jehovah’s Witnesses’ nuanced position notwithstanding) they believe that everyone has a soul that survives the death of the body. And I was always taught that there is a so-called “age of accountability”, that children are under the protection of their parents’ faith until they are old enough to make a decision for Christ for themselves. Further, regardless of one’s parental situation, no one is brought to a position of death until given the opportunity to consciously choose for or against salvation. (I’m not going to offer any argument for this claim. Suffice it to say, this is what I was taught, and I could, were it relevant, supply the doctrinal position.) But abortion seems to muddy the waters here. The fetus, not having a fully developed mind or any language ability, certainly cannot formulate any conscious decision for or against salvation, so she must die before the age of accountability. Thus, says my upbringing, the fetus is guaranteed to go to heaven to be eternally with Jesus. And this is the ‘hope of salvation’, the goal and dream of all fundamentalist Christians. To die is to be with Christ—glory be! And here is my first neo-apostate worry. How is it then so horrifying to send a child to be with Jesus? Consider a situation wherein nerve endings are not yet developed, so the fetus feels no pain. No pain, instant guaranteed salvation. Horrors.

I am not advocating abortion. I am saying that I find a worrisome contradiction here, on even the most basic level. How can it be immoral to guarantee salvation? This is certainly not what a fundamentalist wishes to imply, yet it is a consequence of the doctrines advocated.

Abortion is murder, they say, and murder is a sin. So be it. Again, assume this is correct, that abortion is murder. (And to be perfectly clear, I am personally ambivalent on the issue, thinking that it is correctly considered immoral to take the life of a person, but remaining unsure when personhood emerges.) By the fundamentalist’s lights, there is nothing more horrifying than the loss of so-called eternal life, than damnation—and rightly so. Whether or not you agree, on the supposition that there is such a thing as an afterlife, and that there are two options, eternal bliss (eternal life) or eternal torture (eternal death, though perhaps more accurately called ‘eternal dying’)—and no middle ground—the latter option is horrific. To lose eternal life is necessarily to be in extended pain, excruciating torment, screaming in agony, mind-boggling torture.

I had two points above: that persons are sacred, and that we relate to other persons, empathizing with them in their circumstances, and developing our intuitions about what is right and what is wrong partially in reference to such empathy. Now it seems that whatever a person is, it’s significantly attached to the soul thing (again, I’m not so sure what a soul is, but let’s pretend we know what I’m talking about). And it’s the soul thing that is either eternally blessed or eternally tormented. I think it’s quite safe to say that it’s the person that is either eternally blessed or eternally tormented in this story. Now since a person is sacred, and since we empathize with other persons, one would expect that the eternal torment of a person is something gut-wrenchingly painful for fundamentalists to consider.

Now I was taught to be horrified on two levels. First, the very concept of being so damned myself was supposed to motivate me to choose rightly—to confess my sins and be a good girl for Jesus. Salvation was not something that was supposed to be earned (it is a “gift of God, not by works, lest any man can boast” says Paul), but I distinctly remember being required to write a 300-word essay (tortuously long for an eleven-year-old!) on exactly what happened to liars and thieves in the Bible when I was caught stealing and lied to cover it up. (They were stoned, killed instantly by God, and so forth.) So damnation was a very real possibility for me, if I didn’t toe the line. I recall further watching this popular series of films (the “Left Behind” of the 70s, it was called the “Thief in the Night” series) that took the Revelation literally, and had a very strong “get right or get left” stance, scaring us all half to death. It was not uncommon (nor do I believe it is nowadays for fundamentalist children) to worry about whether they were left behind when they were alone in a house for any extended period of time, or in a place where they didn’t know of any other Christians present. I cannot express how relieved I’d feel to see, after a space of hours, the face of a known Christian. Oh, how I’d feverishly pray that I would be a part of the rapture. Now as I got older, I learned the doctrine that one cannot lose one’s salvation, but the thing was, I had given myself to Jesus at a very young age (repeatedly, in fact), and truly loved (still love) him. But the message was mixed: you can’t lose your salvation, salvation is not by works but by grace, but you better be good and not trample the grace given you, and besides—maybe you only thought you were saved. Mistakes are possible, after all.

The second level of horror was designed to motivate evangelism. Surely you don’t want your friends to be tortured eternally. And surely we didn’t. And we feverishly invited friends to church, witnessed to them, yearning to protect them from the horrors of damnation. We were terrified for them, lest they should, unsaved, get hit by a bus on the way home from school. And adult fundamentalists likewise bear this worry about unsaved mothers, coworkers, in-laws, friends.

 

IV.

Eternal death, I think it is safe to conclude, is the worst possible thing that could happen. Now consider the possibility of somebody F who has the power to abort another’s spiritual (as opposed to physical) life. That is to say, suppose somebody can premeditatively take the eternal life of a person. I think such a scenario would look something like this. F cuts the person off from whatever is necessary for that person to enter into salvation. How could such a scenario be possible? Does F have the authority to treat another person thus?

I think it is interestingly analogous to the physical abortion. Somebody S can abort a fetus, though it turns out that said fetus winds up eternally with God. So strictly speaking, no life was taken. The horror is in the failure of S in allowing the fetus to live in this life, this physical life, says the fundamentalist. That’s the thing that makes abortion immoral—it is immoral of S to deny the fetus what God has given. Now F, I think, can spiritually abort a person by refusing to allow that person to live in salvation in this life. I think this happens when F denies somebody is saved, has chosen grace, is created ad imaginem Dei (in, or for the purpose of, God’s image, as per scripture, the creeds, and the tradition of the Church), simply because it is inconvenient, uncomfortable, or awkward for F to allow this somebody to exist in F’s world.

And fundamentalists do this all the time—they, in fact, premeditatively take the spiritual life of persons every day. I grew up singing “Just As I Am” at revival meetings, but the truth was that certain kinds of people were unacceptable unless they were quickly and completely changed into something more in line with the social norms of the day. If you were gay, you were wicked, wicked, wicked, damned to hell forever and ever amen—unless, of course, you were either exorcised or went through some ‘ex-gay’ counseling, repressing yourself into celibacy (still not quite good enough) or entering a marriage with somebody of the opposite sex (even if dysfunctional). Celibate, a gay’s still a threat (might convert our daughters, so keep them away from her), but married—well, we can all pretend (even to ourselves) that this person was never really gay, that it was a spirit or some such. And the real person is denied entry. Only if one wholly rejects herself as a lesbian is she worthy to enter eternal life. But then, it isn’t her but something else that’s been saved, since she’s lying to God and herself.

About a year ago, a US soldier who had died in Iraq was being given a funeral at the church across the street from my home. The Hillsboro church sent a delegation of their most devoted members, who stood on my lawn waving colorful signs declaring “God Hates Fags” and “Don’t Pray for America” because the death of soldiers abroad was God’s judgment upon our apostate nation. Where has the horror gone? Why is the horror for the threatening of physical death not translated into a horror of damnation? When did it become acceptable for people to take the name of God in vain, by wearing “Christian” on their sleeve defiantly, even as they no longer love, even enough to offer the grace whereby they have been saved? By what authority do they withhold life, if not in actuality, at least in their own cherished belief system? They stand horrified that the physically unborn may endure torment, but gleefully display a graphic on their website that celebrates their belief that Matthew Shepherd is in eternal torment with a countdown of how many days he’s (they believe) suffered.

Not all fundamentalists are hate mongers. But they do bar us from eternal life as best they can, condemning us as ‘deformed’ or otherwise deviant. But in the very next breath, they claim no deformed fetus should be aborted from this life, that there is always somebody who will love and adopt that child. So it is for us. We are loved, too, and it is immoral to abort us, taking from us a chance of eternal life with the One who wishes to adopt us. We are thus denied our potential, that which defines us as persons and image-bearers of Christ.

And that’s the crux of my meditation. Fundamentalists believe we choose to be gay, as if my twenty-odd years in the closet, filled with self-loathing and many a night of desperate crying out to God to change me was by choice. No, I was made this way. It’s me. And the sooner I accept it, the sooner I quit trying to abort myself. And whether or not any fundamentalist accepts the fact that I was born gay, they cannot deny I am a person. Yet for all that, if I ever come out to my many fundamentalist friends (and family), I will be damned to hell. I will be aborted from eternal life, regardless of what God has done for me.

And I just don’t quite get how this is not horrifyingly immoral, given the fundamentalists’ clear position on the matter.

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