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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.



Jun. 4th, 2011 08:37 am (UTC)
Moral consiterations
Late abortion, I think medical standards is a much better way to deal with abortion decisions than laws. That's how it is in Canada. Medical standards set by doctors, not church officials.

If there's a delay because laws and social coercion are trying to block a woman's choice, I think the moral fault is on the people doing the blocking.

And I always wonder why the Big Moral Problem is a woman's actions and society or laws expectations concerning an unplanned pregnancy or contraception failure ... and yet the systemic sexism of nature (& sexism/classism of most societies) isn't a matter for much debate.

What evolution has done to human females: pregnancy is not so dangerous for other primates. Larger brain size gives so much of a survival enhancement that genes that result in a significant percentage of maternal death and crippling still get passed down. The danger and resources expenditure should count for more, but too often are disvalued by not being substantively disussed.
Jun. 5th, 2011 01:33 pm (UTC)
Re: Moral consiterations
What you said about where the moral fault lies (government regs vs. individual woman) reminded me of a situation I heard of somewhere out west. Utah? South Dakota? I forget where. But abortion is so unpopular none of the local docs will do it, and they basically have someone fly in once a week to the capital to do abortions. On top of that, they just instituted a 72-hour waiting period. Which means if you want an abortion there you have to

a) get off work, arrange transportation, etc. to go to the capital city.
b) be seen by a doc once, at self-pay cost (no insurance can cover this doc, I'm sure)
c) if you are lucky enough to get an appt the next week - which is hard if this doc has anywhere near a schedule as mine - you have to arrange another out-of-town trip and pay for it all out of pocket

So there is at least a week's delay. I am sure this state wants to prevent abortions (if we're being generous and not attributing it all on punishing sluts) but the upshot is you're unnecessarily delaying them. More time in utero ==> more time for the fetus to develop ==> the closer the abortion gets to murder (morally if not legally). That kind of hypocrisy just frustrates me.

I agree, too, on leaving the decision to the doctors rather than the clergymen and politicians. If a woman wants to go to one for guidance, that should be her decision. My cousin did - she had a late-term complication where there was an extremely high chance the baby was already dead but not absolute certainty (in the sense that medicine is never 100% certain), and as she was very religious she went to her priest for moral guidance. But that was one woman's decision of what factors to consider rather than clergymen dictating things in general, and involved a clergymen doing his pastoral duty rather than practicing theology - two very different things.
Jun. 5th, 2011 01:35 pm (UTC)
Re: Moral consiterations
That's me, btw.
Jun. 5th, 2011 04:53 pm (UTC)
Re: Moral consiterations
Yeah, I had all the TRAP laws. I can't remember which state, but something about the laws & time frames that something that should take two visits is increased to four. It's deliberate, Grr.

I'm sorry that happened to your cousin. I'm glad the clergyman that she went to was helpful not an authoriatarian.



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