Archive for September, 2008

A Religious Justification for the Prochoice Position

September 18, 2008

A Religious Justification for the Prochoice Position

It is frequently argued by the conservative Christian right that the prolife position is based on the Christian faith, and that the prochoice position cannot be defended from a Christian point of view.  In fact some Christian conservatives go so far as to say that the support of a woman’s right to choose rests on some secular values that exist independently of religion. 

Before addressing this basic contention it is important to point out that one does not have to be in favor of abortion to argue the pro-choice position.  Many defenders of the prochoice position believe that all things considered, abortion should be a solution of last resort to the problem of an unwanted pregnancy.   They believe further that in every case the decision to continue a pregnancy or to have an abortion should be a moral decision, a decision that involves weighing ones options in the context not only of ones personal values, but also values expressed by the communities of which one is a member, whether family, church, or the larger community.  Such persons do not accept the view that abortion is just one option among many that can be chosen with no regard for the value of life in particular,  or moral values, more generally.  Whether from a religious perspective, or a secular perspective, these persons believe that there are way too many abortions, and that ways should be found to reduce the number of abortions that occur.  The premise for this belief is not simply the biblical commandment against killing, but the affirmation common to biblical and secular thinkers alike that in all of its forms, the affirmation and promotion of life is preferable to its destruction.

But is there a religious basis for a prochoice position?  If one thinks within a religious framework is the option of abortion precluded in the context of a pregnancy?  Is there in fact no choice to be made?  In order to answer this question, it is necessary to consider what would have to be assumed in order to eliminate any possibility of choice.  What would have to be assumed is that life when viewed within a religious framework has absolute value, and that, consequently, there can never be any justification for an act which involves the destruction of a living creature.   But is the life of a creature viewed as having an absolute value within the context of what can be described as “conservative Christianity?”

Within the framework of conservative Christianity there are many evidences that the value of human lives is considered to be relative, rather than absolute.  The very fact that human beings are creatures sets them apart from their Creator.  While absolute value may be believed to reside in the Creator, creatures are creatures pecisely because they are not of absolute value.  Their value is always relative in relation to their creator.  They are good, but not good to the point of perfection.  Therefore, the possibility of sin is within them from the moment of their creation. 

The probationary command that is given to Adam and Eve also suggests that their lives are of relative, rather than absolute value.  The probationary command is the instruction that they may eat of the fruit of all of the trees of the garden except for the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  The penalty for failing to follow this instruction is death.  So, the lives of Adam and Even do not have an absolute value.  The value of their lives is contingent upon their obedience to the command of God which they are free both to obey and to disobey. 

Once humans are living east of Eden, they are living in anything but a culture of life.  Cain’s jealousy leads to the death of Abel.  Only a sign from God is sufficient to prevent he and his seed from facing certain death.  As sin becomes widespread, all living creatures with the exception of Noah and his family are destroyed in a flood.  Abraham is directed to sacrifice his son for no apparent reason other than to test his willingness to place obedience to God ahead of the preservation of the life of his son.   The lives of the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah are placed on the table when Abraham bargains with God in order to save these cities.  How many righteous lives must be found in these cities before they  will be spared from destruction? Initially, it is suggested that fifty righteous persons will justify sparing all of those living in these cities.  The number shifts down to forty-five, to forty, then, to thirty, and twenty, and, finally, ten.  Clearly, given God’s assent to these varying numbers of righteous persons, the lives of the residents of these two wicked cities are judged to be of relative value.

When the Israelites leave Egypt they do so only after the first born of every Egyptian family is killed by the angel of death.  In this case the freedom of Israel is what justifies this slaughter. Further death is experienced by Egypt when Pharoah and his hosts are drowned in the Red Sea after Irael has passed through the sea on dry ground.  Relative to Israel’s freedom the life of Egyptians is perceived to have a relative value.  An even more challenging evidence of the culture of death that is found in the Old Testament involves Israel’s conquest of Canaan.  Israel is ordered to slaughter the inhabitants of the land.  When it is not the military force of Israel that accomplishes this, it occurs as the direct result of divine intervention such as at Jericho.  What is clear is that the only condition on which Israel can occupy the land is if those already living there are destroyed.  Also within the Old Testament there is an affirmation of the lex talionis: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and a life for a life.  What is the justification of taking any life if all life is of infinite or absolute value.  The fact that one life is perceived to be the equivalent of any life that is taken is itself evidence that neither life is judged to be of absolute value. 

It may be argued that against the background of this culture of death, the New Testament affirms a culture of life.  Jesus himself said, “I came that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10)  This claim concerning the New Testament, however, overlooks the fundamental premise of conservative Christian religion.  This premise is that Jesus came into the world to save sinners by giving his life as a ransom for many.  If there ever was a living creature upon the face of the earth who would be a candidate for having a life of absolute value, it would be Jesus.  For however much he may have shared in the very existence of God, it is the belief of Christian conservatives that he was fully human.  For Christian conservatives, it was necessary that Jesus die in order for humans to receive salvation.  Looking at this necessity more closely, it does not arise from the very nature of humans.  As creatures of God, humans were made in such a way that when God looked upon them, he saw that they were very good.  For Christian conservatives the necessity of Christ’s death is rooted in the sin of human beings.  By any measure, the sin of any one human being is not of absolute value.  Specifically, there is nothing that comes into existence through sin that can be judged to be of absolute value.  Whatever deeds are performed sinfully, one can be sure, produce results the value of which is ony relative.  These finite acts of finite creatures producing results of limited perfection become, however, a barrier to humans entering into and maintaining a positive relationship with God.  So God decides that for these sins of mortals, of finite and limited value, it is needful to have his son Jesus, the righteous one, die on a cross.  If the life of Jesus is of absolute value, it is sacrificed in order to bring into harmony with God the lives of limited, finite, sinners.  For Conservative Christians, this is the good news of the gospel.  This once and for all sacrifice clearly relativizes the value of the life of all those who are redeemed through it, even as it makes relative the value of the life of Jesus himself.   One way of putting this is to say that once it is clear that Jesus the perfect man needs to die, all life, including his is affirmed as having finite, or limited value. 

 Evangelicals demonstrate that life is not an absolute value in other ways. They support war as a means of defending the nation’s freedom. In this case, national freedom, as well as personal freedom is assumed to be of greater worth than the lives of thousands of relatively innocent civilians on either side, not to mention, the lives of the military personal who participate in the conflict. Let their be no mistake about it, one can not affirm war as a national policy without at the same time accepting responsibility for the loss of thousands of lives. Secondly, most evangelicals support capital punishment. In some cases, capital punishment is thought to be appropriate because it is somehow appropriate to cause a person to die if that person in fact has killed another. How does taking one life justify a similar act on anyone else’s part if life is an absolute value? Somehow, the supporter of capital punishment believes that anytime a life is taken, even if that be the life of another human being, that is sufficient justification for taking the murderer’s life. We all like heroes who risk their lives for others. But no one believes that one should blindly throw oneself into a deep pool of water to save another if in fact the one who jumps in to save another can not do anything in water other than become another drowning victim. Becoming a hero is considered to be a matter of taking a calculated risk, and determining that one would risk ones own life because of the possibility of saving another. How is it that becoming a hero should be a matter of relative judgment, but the admiinistration of capital punishment is perceived to be a matter of exercising absolute judgment? Isn’t it possible that the judgement leading to the administration of capital punishment is itself a relative judgement? Surely within our judicial system capital punishment is not uniformly administered for the same crimes. Whenever it is administered, this action is not based upon absolute values, but upon a relative judgment. This is clear if it is kept in mind that capital punishment is not restricted to the actual taking of the life of another. Capital punishment may be administered in cases of violent rape, or in cases of treason, where no lives have been taken by the recipient of that punishment. This, too, suggests that the life of that person is of relative, rather than absolute value.

One further evidence that life is not regarded as an absolute value within our frame of reference is that we believe that there are many values other than life itself for which it is worthy to die. Thus, most Americans consider their national and personal freedom to be values for which they would put their lives at risk. Many Americans would put their ife at risk to defend their property.

So what relevance do all of these considerations pointing to the relative value of human life have to the discussion of whether it is appropriate to be prochoice as well as prolife?  If human life is of relative, rather than absolute value, any time one is faced with allowing a life to continue (as in the case of those who are comatose and require expensive life support systems to continue their life), or one is faced with discontinuing the development of a fetus at earlier stages of pregnancy, a moral choice or decision is necessary.  One cannot deal with these circumstances simply by appealing to the abolute value of living creatures.  One cannot do this, first, because ample evidence has been provided that in the context of the total set of beliefs of conservative Christians, life does not have an absolute value.  But, secondly, one cannot resolve the question of abortion by an appeal to life as having absolute value because the world into which that life may eventually be born is not the world that God contemplated and found to be very good.  It is a world into which sin has entered.  In a sinful world good is never all lined up on one side of any question.  Continuing a life in this present world may lead to a compounding of circumstances which are already evil, even as the life itself at birth is clearly good. 

Far be it from me to hypothesize circumstances in which aborting a fetus is better than letting the fetus to develop to full term and to be born into the particular set of circumstances that will greet the child upon its birth.  Suffice it to say that the consequences of bringing a child into the world are not all lined up on the side of good.  At birth when every child enters the world their are consequences which are both good and evil.  These consequences need to be faced long before the fetus develops to a point at which it is capable of independent life apart from the womb.  There are circumstances, however, in which the prospects of a fetus developing into a free independent person involve shadows in which evil, rather than good results.  One clear example to which most will agree is if the continued pregnancy and/or birth of the fetus poses a real threat to the life of the mother.  Another example is when the continued pregnancy and/or birth of the fetus involve threats to the life of the child.  And, then, there are threats to life that go beyond the threat of physical death.  The risks associated with these threats are, of course. far more difficult to weigh.  What is the consequences for both the life of the mother and the life of the child of having been conceived through a rape or through incest?  What are the consequences for all concerned of being born into a context in which poverty is so extreme that the necessities of life cannot be provided?  As a general rule, it may be that abortion should be avoided. But whether it should or should not be an option in a particular case can not rest only on the general consensus as to the value of the life of every creature or on the negative implications associated with halting the development of life or of allowing this development to continue. This act, deciding to end the development of  a fetus, or of allowing the development to continue, like every human act, will take place in a context marked by complexity.  In the end the judgment to allow the development of a life to continue, or to terminate that process, can only be made by the person that is most intimately joined to that new life. One cannot stand upon some absolute platform and dictate that decision for others. That is taking away not only the freedom, but also the responsibility which each of us has for the decisions that we make.   What is evident in suggesting the above examples where a decision to terminate or continue the development of a fetus may be needed is that from a religious as well as a secular perspective these circumstances confront the mother with the need to make a decision.  For her to make a decision she must have a choice.