Abortion 102 – What’s God Got to Do With It?

In the first post on this topic, I pointed to some problems for religious approaches to the abortion question. Just saying that abortion is wrong because God forbids it depends on the Divine Command theory, and that’s an unfortunate view even for the religious. (As Bertrand Russell points out, it turns the claim that God is good into a triviality.) And talking about the soul is just an attempt to explain the contentious by appeal to the obscure. But there’s another way a believer might well think about it.

Let’s start with something more mundane.

The fact that someone you care about cares about something can be a reason for you to care too. At the very least, it might give you a reason to treat it with respect. Suppose your beloved is uncommonly fond of a particular teacup. This might well lead you to be careful with it — to make sure you don’t break it when you handle it, to put it away even if your loved one forgets to, to keep it out of reach of people who might be careless with it… All this could be true even if you wouldn’t otherwise have given this teacup much thought.

In this sort of case, your care is mostly a matter of deference to your beloved. But it might well go further. Suppose your beloved gets enormous pleasure from a work of art — say, a painting — that you had never had much interest in yourself. You might come to see the painting through your beloved’s eyes. You might come to see that it is worthy of being valued, but it might well go beyond that. Your beloved’s unfeigned delight in the painting might infect you, so to speak, until this painting that you would never have paid much attention to fills you with delight as well. You value it because your beloved does, but in a more interesting way: you see the thing in a new way.

We can also imagine that your lover’s affection for another person might overtake you in the same way. You might come to love someone — really love them — because your beloved loved them first. You might come to see them as he or she does.

Now consider a passage like this one from Psalm 139 (verses 13 through 17)

You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb. I praise you, so wonderfully you made me; wonderful are your works! My very self you knew; my bones were not hidden from you, When I was being made in secret, fashioned as in the depths of the earth. Your eyes foresaw my actions; in your book all are written down; my days were shaped, before one came to be. How precious to me are your designs, O God; how vast the sum of them!

Some people use this as a “proof text,” but that’s not what interests me. What interests me is the window that the passege (and there are others like it) give into a way of looking at the world. If you see the world as the gift of a loving God, and if you believe that God loved not just you but all of us from our very beginnings, then abortion may well seem very wrong. It might be partly a matter of deference to what God loves, but it could be more: it could be a sense that one has glimpsed God’s own view of life.

For some, the respose will be “So much the worse for religous fantasy.” I’ll have more to say on related matters in another post, but for now I’ll just register my disagreement. The view I’ve described isn’t mine, but I don’t hold it in anything like contempt. Interestingly, this is partly because there are people whom I respect and about whom I care see the world in something like this way, and because I can perfrom the act of imaginative empathy to get what I hope is a serious glimpse of their view. When I perform that act, contempt is very far from what I feel.

Put briefly, what I’m saying is that I have no trouble understanding why a sincere, thoughtful religious person might see abortion as a terrible wrong. But there is more to think about — even for the believer. People of equally deep religious commitment can and do disagree about abortion — even if they agree that it’s far from trivial.

How can that be?

One reason may seem “philosophical” and picky: even if God loves all of creation, it doesn’t follow that God loves all of it in the same way and without nuance. As has often been pointed out, a surprisingly large number of pregnancy end in spontaneous miscarriage. Suppose a sincere believer finds out somehow (imagine the science exists) that last month, she had a spontaneous miscarriage of a three-week-old embryo. Should see see this as a tragedy? Especially if she already has children and, though willing to have more, was not looking to do so? Must she see it as a failing to take God’s point of view seriously if her reaction is at most a moment of wistfulness?



Abortion 101 – What Matters When and How

The first post in this series gave thumbnail sketches of anti-abortion arguemnts that either have internal flaws or else aren’t the kind of thing we shold use for making law. That post closed with some vague handwaving about potential. Here I want to say some more about that and some related issues.

Start with what is surely an extreme view on the right end of the spectrum: that from the very moment of conception, an embryo (we’ll use that word, though it may not be the best one) is the moral equivalent of any full-fledged person, every bit as important, every bit as vaulable and every bit as wrong to kill. This isn’t just a hypothetical view; there are many people who actually hold it. For many other people, the idea that a newly-conceived embryo counts for as much as you or I is incomprehensible.

I fall in between these two views in this sense: I don’t see the extreme view as incomprehensible — for reasons I’ll explain below — but I don’t hold it, and in fact I suspect not very many people really do. I think someone could reasonably hold the view, but only with special assumptions that can very reasonably be doubted.


Thinking About Abortion – 101

Abortion politics have been in the news these a lot lately, and the level of the debate seems no higher than it ever was. I’ve long believed that any sensible discussion of abortion has to start with something that ought to be obvious: this isn’t an easy issue. The point applies to people on the left and on the right, but in this post I want to concentrate on anti-abortion arguments. The point I want to make ought to count as a modest one, but such is the state of the discussion that it seems to be anything but. It’s this: the usual reasons people have for thinking that abortion amounts to murder — even very early abortion — are either confused or depend on premises that have no place in the law.

Many religious believers oppose abortion either because they think God forbids out outright. However, the bald claim that God forbids abortion doesn’t get us anywhere. In spite of what most believers casually think, the idea that God’s commands make things right or wrong won’t wash. It’s the core of the so-called “Divine Command Theory,” and that theory has deep problems even from the believer’s point of view. In a nutshell, it confuses two ideas: that things are right because God commands them, and that God commands things because they’re right and S/He’s wise enough to know this.

Leave the logical point aside, however. The problem for lawmaking is that in a society where people differ deeply over what God commands or even whether there’s a God at all, treating debateable religious claims as the basis for making law is a dangerous idea. I’m guessing that the same people who want legislate their religious view on abortion would be outraged if religious moral codes from tradiitons they reject were forced on them by law.

There’s a subtler bit of metaphyics that sometimes gets thrown into the mix. It’s that the fetus has a soul from the moment of conception. The most obvious difficulty is that there’s no good way to settle the quesiton, and if the reasons for the view this are religious, we’re back with the problem we just saw. But there’s a deeper issue. Suppose fetuses have souls from the moment they’re conceived. What does that have to do with abortion?

Suppose a soul is some sort of immaterial thing, somehow attached to our bodies. Why does having a soul make a moral difference? Why is it any more relevant than having toenails? Even if a fetus has a soul, that doesn’t mean it can think or feel pain or joy or anything else. It doesn’t mean that it has a sense of self, cares about its future or has any inner life at all. If those things matter morally (and it’s not just crazy to think they do) then what if anything they have to do with having some obscure immaterial something-or-other is about as unclear as a thing could be.

In fact, my sense is that when people talk about the soul, they generally have no real idea what they mean. One bit of evidence: when you ask them to be more specific, what you get is the opposite: vague talk about “essences” or “being” or whatnot. Or else you get something with a different problem. Saying that a fetus has a soul is sometimes just another way of saying that it’s the kind of thing it would be wrong to kill. But if that’s what’s going on, talking about the soul doesn’t add anything to the bald claim itself. On this way of understanding things, saying “It’s wrong to kill a fetus because it has a soul” is like saying “It’s wrong to kill a fetus because it’s wrong to kill a fetus.”

But step back from heavy metaphysics. It’s common for people to say that the fetus is “human” from the moment of conception, or that it has the complete genetic code that you or I have. Unfortunately this doesn’t help much. Start with DNA. We all agree: a fetus has a complete set of DNA instructions from conception. I’ve never heard anyone on the pro-choice side so much as suggest anything to the contrary. But this isn’t what the argument is about. People who don’t think early abortion is murder also think that it takes more than genetic humanity to make an organism into a human being in the full moral sense. Genetic humanity may make for the potential to have the features like capacity for pain, ability to think, self-concept, etc. that go with the clear, unquestioned cases of full-blown humanity (though if the genes are defective, even that potential may not be there.) But the fact that something is potentially a full-fledged human being doesn’t get us to the conclusion that it should be treated in the same way as a full-fledged human being.

The real problem has been pointed out many times before: there’s an equivocation here. If “human” means “biologically or genetically human,” then everyone agrees that a fetus is human from conception. But from there to moral, let alone legal conclusions is a very long walk. If “human” means “deserving of the same consideration as you or I,” then that’s exactly what’s at issue, and it’s not a question that any amount of science can settle.

We could go on, but we won’t. Instead, I want to make clear what my point is and what it isn’t. My point isn’t that abortion is morally trivial, nor that “abortion on demand” is a reasonable demand. My point isn’t to offer a positive view of what the law ought to be, and I’ve said nothing about how federal funding should work in cases where there’s deep disagreement in the body politic. My point is more elementary: it’s that the typical simple-minded anti-abortion arguments don’t get off the ground. They’re either confused or question-begging or try to substitute theology for law. That’s why it’s deeply depressing, decade after decade, to hear them trotted out over and over again. And it’s equally depressing to think that people with real political power might use them to push laws through Congress.

A final few points: I said that abortion isn’t an easy issue, but I’ve spent all my time complaining about one side. That may leave the impression that I think it’s easy after all. Very briefly, here’s my reply. I don’t think that mere potential gets the same weight as potential realized. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think it gets any weight at all. What’s hard is to decide how to weight that potential and how to draw lines that can make reasonable law, where “reasonable law” is something that takes very seriously the idea that the pregnant woman has a momentous stake in all this. The fact that the post focused on the fetus rather than the mother was because that’s where I see the deepest confusions; not because I think questions about the fetus are the only ones that count. What disturbs me about the current political efforts is that they aim to impose laws with big consequences on the basis of what, about bottom, is old-fashioned sloppy thought.