Laying the Groundwork for a Discussion of Abortion (Part 3)

You Should be Tender-Hearted, Rather than Hard-Hearted

We continue our series on abortion, looking at some things, preliminary to a discussion of abortion, that both pro-life and pro-choice people should be able to agree on. (For earlier parts in this series, see Part 1 and Part 2.)

One principle that all of us should be able to agree on is this: you should be tender-hearted, rather than hard-hearted.

This is is not an appeal to sentimentality. It is not a suggestion that you should stop thinking and start feeling. It is an admission that our hearts are involved in all these questions, and that our general orientation to the world affects how we see the abortion debate.

I had the good fortune to have the brilliant Anglican theologian and ethicist Oliver O’Donovan as a teacher for one course many years ago. O’Donovan was fortunate in turn to study with the Protestant ethicist Paul Ramsay. The quotation that opened O’Donovan’s Grove Press booklet on abortion was from Ramsay, and, as I recall, went something like this: “As a formal matter, no argument for abortion should also justify infanticide for the same reasons, and under the same conditions.” Ramsay and O’Donovan both wrote in a time when people assumed that killing a newborn (by deliberate action or neglect) was reprehensible, beyond the pale. That has changed. In a Virginia state committee meeting examining the Repeal Act on January 28, 2019, the chief sponsor of the bill, Democrat Kathy Tran, stated that her legislation would allow a woman to receive an abortion even while she was going into labor. The Governor, Ralph Northam, was asked about this. He went further: “If a mother is in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen. The infant would be delivered. The infant would be kept comfortable. The infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.” Admittedly, Northam was talking about fetal deformity immediately before, so he may have had this in mind. If the resuscitation, however, depended on the decision of the mother and family, then we are not talking about a child who will die shortly anyway. We are talking about infanticide for those with handicaps. This is a new low, proof that the “slippery slope” is not imaginary.

Some people know all about fetal development and abortion, and know the social context and consequences of abortion, but are still supporters. They will say, “Yes, it’s a human being,” and “Yes, it’s killing.” They will refer to the refrigerator holding the aborted human beings as “the nursery.” Some will speak of the women who have abortions callously, and treat them with disdain. They kill human beings, they admit, but they see no need to defend their views or their actions. I hope that you see how inhumane, how wrong this is.

If you immediately think, “Of course it’s wrong!” – good! History is full of examples of people who have hardened their hearts for some cause, or some task. There have been some peoples in the past and some in the present who have never considered mass killing or cruelty to be wrong. A broad knowledge of history and other cultures should make you realize how much we in the West owe to the Christian religion. In the time of the New Testament, for example, the Romans crucified 6,000 men along one road, as a warning to others. In 1938, Chiang Kai-shek opened the dikes on the Yellow River to stop the Japanese in the Second Sino-Japanese War, and knowingly drowned 900,000 Chinese men, women and children. For some, life is cheap, and cruelty has always been a human problem; seeing it as a problem has never been universal.

The imagination plays a big role in the abortion debate. In the early stages of pregnancy, the individual human being does not look like a baby. That simple fact gives some people the idea that he or she is not one of us, but is “a clump of cells.” (This assertion is usually made to people who know next to nothing about embryology and fetology.) In this line of thinking, the human being becomes another one of us at some later stage, when some development or capacity is present. (There is no imaginative problem later on in pregnancy, as the pre-birth human being looks decidedly like a baby. State laws that protect the human being in those later stages reflect this easy recognition.)

There is a rational argument for the claim that the newly conceived individual human being does not become a person at some other point than conception: any other point is simply arbitrary. Any other demarcation point would not depend on the existence of the individual, but on the development of some capacity. (Various options are suggested: viability, individuated brain waves, and so forth. The arguments here are well-rehearsed.) The reality is that development is continuous from conception on. It also varies somewhat from one individual to another. The question with abortion would be, Would you kill this individual human being a day before it attained this development or capacity? A week?

The challenge to the imagination is to see that this human being, early in development, is another one of us, though he or she looks so different. I suggest this is the same imaginative difficulty white men from Europe had when they first encountered black men from Africa. This difficulty persisted for centuries, up until the recent past, in the denigration of the black or brown person as not “one of us.”

A man, “desiring to justify himself,” asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” We ask the question, “Is this individual human being early in pregnancy another one of us, that is, a neighbor?” Jesus’ response was the famous parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus turns his interlocutor’s question on its head: it is no longer, “Who is my neighbor?” but “Who proved neighbor to the man?” It is the Samaritan, despised by Jews generally, and in very few minds truly a “neighbor,” who in the parable acts as a neighbor towards the robbed and beaten Jew. There is no simple analogy here, but the story and its parable are instructive: the “good” Samaritan saw the estranged Jew as a neighbor because he was inclined to be merciful to him.

Hard thinking today may not be encouraged, when social media “memes” and “tweets,” and late-night comics’ reviews of the news, flatten thought down to slogans and punch-lines For the Christian, it is more important than ever not to forego thought, but to be informed, to think as deeply as one can, and with a tender heart, about controversial matters that have grave consequences. The divide between those who support (one might say, absolutize) sexual freedoms of one kind or another, and those who support traditional morality on sex and related matters, is probably greater now than it has been for decades. At one time, the challenge to thought came from those who pointed to the complexity of situations or to personal anguish to suggest that it was impossible to know (or, especially, to tell anyone) what was right, and what was wrong. Now it comes from those who, more often than not, simply refuse to think. Their relativism or antinomianism is reflexive and unchallenged. They seek refuge by surrounding themselves with those who hold the same articles of faith, so to speak. It is easy to assume that church people have always done this, holding the views they do because they have never ventured, intellectually, beyond the walls. This is probably true in some cases, but it is hardly the model. It was St. Paul who wrote, “We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). May you be among those who strive to do exactly this, and find in God that service which, as the collect says, “is perfect freedom.”

is the Co-Founder of Vision for Life, a non-profit that advertises pregnancy medical centers in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Their work has stabilized birth numbers in Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) from 2010 to 2019, while elsewhere in PA birth numbers declined by over 6 percent.

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