Saturday, May 4, 2013

On Abortion and Artificial Categories

I appreciated Rachel Held Evens thoughtful post regarding her evolving views regarding abortion. It continues to be a difficult and painful debate (it is rarely a conversation, and I appreciate Rachel’s attempts at civil discourse), especially with the recent discovery of the horrors inside Dr. Kermit Gosnell’s abortion clinic.

As the Gosnell case unfolded, I began thinking how the arguments for “ pro-choice” (which have actually devolved into arguments that are “pro-abortion”) have successfully altered the public perception of life by segmenting and depersonalizing the early stages of human life in order to turn the discussion to things abstract and legally categorical.

So, zygotes, embryos and fetuses end up having little or no relationship to the human beings that will emerge at birth. It’s a handy way to win the argument, and it has been fairly successful in the western world in altering people’s thinking about the acceptability of abortion.

How do we who follow Jesus respond to this? Christians are not unified on the subject. We easily fall into the same public categories of pro-life and pro-choice, the former being conservative, the latter progressive.

The securing of victory for pro-choice proponents has been found in the law. The law has offered legality to the practice of abortion even while setting boundaries to the timing of the procedure—boundaries that are often pushed.

Christians have faced off with both abortion and infanticide in the past. In the earliest years of the emerging Christian movement, one Christian writer highlighted the common cultural practice of abandoning unwanted infants outside the city limits where they would either die of exposure or be killed by wild animals. He indicated that neither Jews nor Christians discarded their children that way, and were even known to rescue abandoned babies and take them into their own families.

Until the late fourth century, infanticide was an accepted practice in both Greek and Roman societies. But there was a technicality: To avoid actually committing murder, the unwanted infant would be left out in the wilderness, where it would either die of exposure (a natural process) or be rescued by the gods or a kind traveler. One defender of the faith remarks:

“First of all, you [pagans] expose your children, so that they may be taken by any compassionate passer-by, to whom they are quite unknown!” Tertullian (c. 197, W) 3.26.

His response to his pagan detractor? We don’t do that.

We’ve created a lot of technicalities in our culture as well. We have legal lines that we think offer us protection and justification. That might work in the public square, but it shouldn’t work for we who follow Jesus. There’s an artificiality to that perceived safety zone that is proven every time the law is changed. The law of the land may be important, but it often speaks more about majority preference than it does ethics and morals (for example, in the mid-1800’s, the Supreme Court ruled that states were able to enslave human beings imported from the southern hemisphere. We’re all probably glad that there were people who claimed that the law didn’t speak for them).

Rather than thinking about human life (or any life, for that matter) as a series of disconnected phases, I prefer to think of life as a unified trajectory that starts with conception. There is an inevitability to the cellular creation that we call a zygote: It’s destiny is to emerge into the light of day and become present to the world.

And, for we who follow Jesus, we might also say that such a life is intended to affirm and nurture the life it encounters in the world. If we are going to use the term “pro-life,” then it ought to relate to more than the denial of the practice of abortion. It should relate to how we view war, capital punishment, and poverty for starters.

I’ve spoken of this before in relation to gay marriage. If we fall into the pre-created categories of discourse that come to us from the public square, then we stop short of thoughtful theological reflection on issues of tremendous importance. We in the church seem to be particularly short on that kind of reflection these days.

O Lord, make haste to help us.

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