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pro-life?

Over at Sojourners.net, Eugene Cho wrote about a way to reframe the whole abortion issue. I wasn't completely convinced, though I do think it is an aspect that needs to be brought to the table more often. (Not to the elimination of all other aspects of this issue; I just think we don't talk about it enough, sometimes.) But Mr. Cho used a turn of phrase that touches on my personal pet peeve when it comes to this issue. I already commented there, but wanted to expand on it a little bit and open up the topic for anyone else who had thoughts on it.

Mr. Cho wrote:

While I believe that abortion is wrong, we as Christians should graciously hold and believe in everything that upholds the sanctity of life — which includes protecting the lives of the unborn. But how?


He then goes on to talk about the limits of laws, the church's relation to a secular government, and so on. But it was that phrase "the sanctity of life" that grabbed my attention. He's certainly not the only person to use it; in fact, it becomes a bit of a cliche at times. But it's one I always find frustrating. Not because, as progressives often point out, you can't be pro-life and anti-WIC or pro-choice and pro-death penalty, or whatever. It's this uncritical use of the word life.

A few minutes ago I swatted at a fly. It was annoying me, and I have no moral compunctions about killing an insect. Most pro-life people I know gladly kill non-human animals for meat, and the people I know who are vegetarians often rebel against the way the animals are treated, not the idea of killing another living thing full-stop. And even the vegetarians draw the line at the kingdom Animalia. Is it because the head of lettuce doesn't scream when you cut into it?

That is dismissive and I am sorry for it. This is a very serious issue, perhaps one that people shouldn't joke about? Yet whenever I hear people talking about being pro-life or defending the sanctity of human life I can't help wondering: do they use antibiotics? Would they put an old cat or dog down? (We never think of doing that for humans.) Bottom line is, sanctity of life seems to usually mean "sanctity of human life."

But that gets tricky. What does human mean? Is it members of the species homo sapiens? That would mean that a single fertilized cell would count as sanctified life - and looking at the details of what that cell is at this point in time, I am hard-pressed to say that a human zygote has a right to life while a fully-grown eggplant does not. Another option would be to look at the potential to develop. Setting aside the fact that we have shifted from talking about what currently is to what might be, lots of things have the potential to become human. Our eggplant, through evolution or scientific manipulation in a lab, has the remote possibility of becoming a human. So does a human blood cell, but when I cut myself I throw away the bandages, I don't bury it or mourn it. Compare that to the fact that it is by no means certain that a zygote will become a human life (look at the number of early pregnancies that fail). So to make this kind of answer work you have to start talking about what level of probability necessary and just why a human zygote is special in this regard.

The last answer often given is that a human zygote, by virtue of being the product of human sex, is made in the image of God. Or that it has a soul. You could argue that this will not convince a non-religious person, or that it shouldn't be used as the basis of law. To be fair, Mr. Cho never claims either of those things. Still, such reasoning doesn't convince this religious person because it's hopelessly vague. Having a soul? imago dei? What exactly does that mean? If you mean it has the ability to be rational or to be a creative force in the world (as most people I talk to seem to think it does), that it has free will - well, a zygote can't claim any more a part of that than a non-human mammal - say, a house cat or a chimpanzee.

My point here is that talking about sanctity of life needs a lot of qualification to lay out just why this particular form of life should be sanctified. I suspect that if we did that we would find a lot more common ground, not to mention have some really interesting discussions. Personally, I think that late-term (as in, post-sentience) abortion is a moral decision - as it happens, too complex and personal to legislate, but a moral decision nonetheless - but I also think equating a morning-after pill with a murder is reprehensible. In fact, this is why I am all for easy access to early term abortion, and why I think a person who doesn't want to be pregnant has an obligation to act before the pregnancy goes too far.

But leaving aside the application here, as a philosopher this sloppy use of language always bothers me. And so I just felt pushed to lay out why.

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gardengirl6
Jun. 4th, 2011 12:42 am (UTC)
Well and compellingly argued, my friend. Morality aside, sloppy use of language is always annoying! And potentially hazardous to boot.

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