Questions of life and death—abortion, contraception, in vitro fertilization, stem cell research, euthanasia, and suicide—form a fissure in the American political geography, dividing (typically) left from right, but also moral from immoral, and—all too often—sane from insane.
In this discussion there will have to a few rules. Since the goal is to discover principles of consensus on which conclusions can be based, we cannot, once a level of consensus has been reached, permit the conversation to be sidetracked or highjacked by commentators who wish to back and reargue more basic points. People who find themselves left out of a consensus have the choice of either watching from the sidelines or accepting the consensus for the sake of argument. Because of the seriousness of the matter, a civility and decency of language will be required. This eliminates not only name-calling but also the kind of irreverent language that pretends to reduce very serious human concerns to triviality and degrade the human condition to a mere object of study for scientists.
In this discussion, we shall be looking at the question from three points of view: the natural, the moral, and the legal. Although these three categories are inter-related, we can begin at least by keeping them separate. In each of them, too, we shall also have to distinguish between Christian and non-Christian perspectives and occasionally, where pre-Christian and Christian attitudes converge with each other but diverge from modern thought, we shall be obliged to notice in what ways post-Christian thought is distinctive.
Christians have always regarded abortion as morally wrong, an action deserving of punishment. It is thus in that realm of actions we ordinarily describe as immoral, sinful, or criminal. Let us for shorthand sum this view up as: Abortion is evil. In any consideration of evil actions, we have to know what harm the action does, and to understand that, we have to find out what good thing or property or action is being damaged or destroyed. For example, if we say that stealing is wrong, we would have to know what is meant by property and what property is good for. We might even have to make some distinctions, for example, between picking up beer cans on state-owned property as opposed to lifting silverware from a private home. In some cases, stealing is more morally complicated than the mere theft of property. I might steal out of envy instead of mere greed, or I might seriously and correctly think that if I do not steal my children will starve. Or I might steal evidence that could be used to convict or acquit someone accused of a felony.
In the case of abortion, the evil is thought to lie in the taking of a human life, whether completely actual or only potential, without any of the usual moral justifications, such as acts of self-defense, executions, or homicides committed during wars. Then our first area to investigate is this life that is at stake.
Abortion from the Natural Perspective
The heart of the matter is sex. Reptiles, birds, and mammals (to name just three classes of animals reproduce sexually, that is, the genetic materials of the male and female combine to form a new and usually unique genetic fusion that develops into an organism hereinafter known as the child. The last time I looked at the question, biologists still adhered to the view that the genetic diversity encouraged by sexual reproduction is a good thing. So then, the natural purpose of sex is reproduction but also reproduction of a type that is not mere replication but results in a genetic diversity that can preserve valuable traits that might some day be called upon, for example, endurance or higher intelligence.
Although in nature we cannot say that something is morally wrong or right, we can and ought to view behavior as conducive or not conducive to the survival of individuals, their offspring, their genetic lineage, and the species. If chimpanzees (whose numbers are already dwindling) learned to have sex without producing children, they would quickly die out. Now, chimpanzees will not make this discovery, first because they are too stupid and secondly because the female’s cycle is quite different from the human. Chimps are most interested in sex precisely when the female is in oestrus, that is, is ready to breed.
Humans are different and we can have sex most of the time. Whatever the ultimate natural or divine purpose of mankind’s greater sexuality, it does have the effect of binding male and female more tightly together in a longer-lasting relationship. This is quite important to a species whose hallmark is a prolonged period of development. Humans take considerably more years to reach sexual maturity than our closest cousins and males take still longer to reach the point at which they cane take their place in the tribe. Ironically, in modern societies males take forever to become men, and in the case of my own generation they never seem to reach maturity.
The purpose of sex in primates, then, is to ensure the propagation of the parents’ genes; children are thus, as I have frequently said, a form of natural immortality. There are several actions not conducive to reproductive success in human primates. Let me just list a few: marital infidelity in women that limits a man’s interest in children that may or may not be his; divorce that deprives children of one parent’s attention and may expose the child to predatory humans to which he is not related; incest of closely related individuals (parents and children, siblings) that defeats one of the purposes sex (diversity) and may disrupt the stability of the home; contraception, or at least systematically practiced contraception, which limits the number of offspring (though some limitation on family size may increase the chances for success of the children who are born), and–most fundamentally–abortion and infanticide that eliminate the purpose of sex.
From the natural perspective, a woman who has a series of abortions is like the teenage anorexic girl who is forever gorging herself on fastfood and then sticking her finger down her throat. In the end, the girl dies from her non-nuutritive eating habits, and in the end the aborting mother dies–that is, she eliminates her genes from the gene pool–from her non-reproductive sex. Obviously, some anorexic girls eat enough to survive and some aborting women have a child or two, but the general effects of their actions goes in the same direction. (I am not, obviously, talking about an obese girl who needs to lose weight in order to survive or the very rare case of a woman who will not survive unless her baby is surgically removed.)
I am happy to discuss this further, but perhaps this is enough to make a consensus on the point that in natural terms abortion in most cases is counter-productive because it is counter-reproductive and reduces the fitness of people or groups who routinely permit abortion.
But there is another natural aspect to the question, one that leads into the moral aspect, and that is a mother’s natural affection for her child. Whatever the reason(s)–the way their brains are wired, the hormonal bath in which a pregnant woman or new mother’s brain is washed, an inborn and/or acquired moral sense–most women love their child either from the moment he is born or shortly afterwards. Many conceive this love fairly early on in the pregnancy. This affection is vital to the child, who will depend exclusively on his mother for the first several yeas and until adulthood will still rely on her for nurture, affection, and support. Abortion, in hardening (at least in some cases) a woman against her offspring is not conducive to effective mothering, but then the same can be said of jobs and feminist ideology.
Abortion from the Pre-Christian Moral Perspective
Human morality is not so much in conflict with human nature as it is the fulfillment of our nature. In nature, the killer is often killed and the thief often loses more than he stole. Our moral prohibitions on murder and theft universalize the principles and the penalties. So, if it maternal affection and parental care are conducive to fitness, they are also the basis of moral imperatives to care for our children. Now, there are societies in which parents routinely kill children, born or unborn, and are generally indifferent to their welfare. Colin Turnbull, in The Mountain People, describes a tribe so near to extinction that the simply do not care what happens. (Or, is that one of the reasons they are so near to extinction?)
But prisons, robber bands, and dying races are not useful as examples. For us, our moral traditions are inherited from Greeks, Romans, the Old and New Testaments, and the barbarians who invaded and overthrew the empire. While it would be foolish to attempt to frame universal statements about moral attitudes toward children, I can say, after studying just this question for 25 years (and more) that pre-modern parents generally loved their children and looked upon infanticide as quite wrong. Greeks and Romans viewed abortion as particularly dirty.
Ah but, someone will say, the ancients exposed unwanted children. Some did. We have little idea of numbers. Some attempt has been made to indicate that skewed sex ratios, where we have such information, indicate high rates of female infanticide, but, as has been pointed out repeatedly, girls were undercounted even within upperclass families. There were two kinds of exposures. Non-viable or seriously deformed babies were left to die, as indeed many would die even with the best care. From a pre-Christian perspective, a seriously deformed baby (I am not talking about club foot) if it survived would be a drain on family resources that would injure the other children. The other case is that of a family under economic stress. In this case, unless the whole community was undergoing a prolonged famine, the child was picked up almost immediately either by a childless family or someone who wanted to rear a slave.
Abortions were quite dangerous, and it was certainly safer to bear than abort. Nonetheless, the ancients certainly knew how to procure abortions. The Hippocratic Oath explicitly forbids the administration of the pessary, a sort of abortifacient pebble, though Hippocrates and some other physicians recommended exercises to induce miscarriage. I don’t know whether such exercises actually worked, and scholars have puzzled over the apparent discrepancy. One thing we might say is that an exercise is not the same as an insertion or a surgical intervention. Some ancient discussions of abortion techniques are aimed exclusively at cases where the mother’s life is threatened–far more common in the days before modern medicine–or the baby had actually died.
There is little or no evidence of abortion as something socially acceptable by normal people. Juvenal, in a famous passage, talks about the degeneracy of Roman women in his day and accuses them of getting abortions. Now, Juvenal as a satirist goes over the top on every subject, but his testimony is valuable, because he reveals clearly that normal people viewed abortions–but not exposure–as shameful. Christian writers are not always to be relied upon as witnesses because they quite naturally liked to paint the pagans in the blackest colors. Non-scholars will say that we just don’t know enough about the ancient world. In fact, we know more than many think. We have important witnesses in comedy to everyday attitudes; we have gossipy historians like Herodotus; and, best of all, we have the letters of Cicero on everything under the sun, the elder Pliny’s encyclopediac Natural History, and his nephew’s letters, and what we do not find is moral approbation of infanticide or abortion.
Certain classes of women would have had incentives, particularly prostitutes and concubines who would lose business or status by carrying a baby to term. These women also had no husbands to complain, if they were robbed of offspring. Abortions were not illegal because ancient law rarely intruded itself into private and domestic life; there was little regulation of marriage and divorce, except where property and citizenship were involved, and even the prosecution of homicide in classical Athens was treated as a kind of civil action that had to be brought by the murder victim’s next of kin. Modern “scholars” who equate lack of legislation with moral indifference are either not doing their homework or lying. A good case in point is a Roman law on abortion. A couple could decide on an abortion without being subject to criminal charges, but a wife who had an abortion without her husband’s permission might be put to death. We’ll come back to this point.
I am not going to produce a survey of ancient or Medieval texts on infanticide and/or abortion, but I shall confine myself to one point. Parents–mothers especially–are supposed to love their own children. To kill what we are supposed to love is to overturn the moral order. If we set aside the extreme cases–to save a mother’s life, to eliminate an unfit child that is a threat to the survival of his siblings–then we can join the ancients (apart from rich degenerates) in viewing child-rearing as a blessing and a duty and in ascribing at least as much authority over infanticide to the father as to the mother. What we shall see that just as morality completes our nature, so Christianity completes our morality.
Abortion from the Christian Moral Perspective
There is really no good Scriptural text on abortion, and the common pro-life bumper sticker “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” assumes a knowledge of embryology on Jeremiah’s part (and an intention) that is quite out of the question. The various fundamentalist/evangelical attempts to find a secure Scriptural basis for outlawing abortion are as futile as most of their theology. Exodus 21, the most frequently cited text, merely states the penalty for causing the death of the fetus, though it is quite true that rabbinical commentators used this to support their condemnation of abortion.
Despite rabbinical prohibitions, there is no reason to believe that Jews did not behave more or less like other Mediterranean peoples. This has no bearing on the undoubted fact that Christians were early on distinguished for their rejection of infanticide and abortion.
There is no need for Scriptural authority in this case. Man is made in the image of the God who sent his Son in human form to take upon Himself the sins of the world, to die for us, and in rising from the dead to give us the promise of life everlasting. The Christian vision, then, could give no support to infanticide or abortion, except in the difficult case where a mother’s life is at stake. (I do not intend to take any position on this since it is of almost no significance today. We shall stick to the main road.)
Like other ancient texts, the Old Testament says nothing nothing about the rights of children and very little about parental duties: What matters most is the child’s duty to the parent and not the reverse. Nonetheless, the OT texts, like the literatures of the Greeks and Romans, gives a very positive portrayal, generally, of parents. There is no need, I think, to speak of Abraham and Isaac, or Jacob and Joseph, when we have the portrait of Mary and Joseph’s very tender regard for Jesus. Mary’s outburst, on finding her son teaching in the temple, is almost amusing, it is so like what any normal mother would say when realizing that her son is safe–and not through any effort of his own! I can hear my own mother’s “Where have you been? Do you realize your father and and I have been waiting up all night long…?”
In the Christian tradition, then, there is no talk of a child’s universal human life to be guaranteed by a government or legal system, only the parents’ duty to love and care for their children. This is not a universal or convertible obligation: I have to take care of my children but not your children much less everybody’s children. Of course, a Christian society will want to enforce up to a point Christian moral law and might even institutionalize some forms of charity, but in an anti-Christian society it is incumbent upon us to return to a more traditional Christian way of thinking about matters such as abortion, divorce, and charity, lest we find ourselves sacrificing the moral authority of family’s to the power of an anti-Christian state that makes war upon the family
To be continued.