“In truth, there are only two kinds of people; those who accept dogma and know it, and those who accept dogma and don’t know it.” ~G.K. Chesterton
Scene: Sociology 101 at a local community college.
Professor: Today, we will continue our discussion of religion and politics in America. I’m going to make an assertion that might offend some of you, but I will open the floor for discussion. Here it is: the Christian majority in this country has routinely sought to tear down the sacred dividing wall that separates Church and State and impose their religious views on others through the passage of laws. Perhaps the most egregious instance of this is the case of the so-called Pro-life voter and their desire to control women’s bodies.
Student, raising her hand: Professor, may I provide a rebuttal?
Professor: Of course.
Student: Shouldn’t every vote reflect the moral beliefs of the person voting?
Professor, hesitating: Well, yes, I suppose so.
Student: And for a Christian, their moral beliefs are usually informed by their religious beliefs, aren’t they?
Professor, after a short pause: Yes.
Student: Then how can a Christian voter refrain from voting in accordance with their religious beliefs when it comes to important matters – especially a matter of life and death like abortion? Those that support abortion rights do so on moral grounds, don’t they?
Professor: Abortion rights supporters do make a moral case for abortion: They don’t think they have the right to tell a woman what she can do with her body. They take a stance of neutrality and let the woman decide. The religious case is not neutral but based in Christian morality – all its advocates want to do is exert control over people’s sexual lives. They just want to force their outdated biblical sexual ethics on non-Christians – ethics that have no basis in science.
Student: I must respectfully disagree. First and foremost, it’s basic biology that exerts control over our sexual lives. Second, the pro-life position is science-based, not the pro-choice. Indeed, the pro-choice position relies on highly disputed and potentially dangerous metaphysics – far more insidious and unproven than any Christian doctrine, historically speaking – the idea that some human beings are not persons, therefore, can be treated any way we like with impunity. May I have the opportunity to demonstrate to you why this is so?
Professor, with a smile: Well, of course. This is what the discussion today is about – truth finding. Tell me, how is it that the pro-life position is not religious while the pro-choice one is not only religious but dangerously so if I am understanding you correctly? The floor is yours. Defend this charge!
Student, smiling: Thank you. First of all, according to the pro-choice view, we were all once human beings that were not persons and our value was no different from that of everyday matter – we could have been killed and our cells and body parts sold to companies for research or even used to heat hospitals. Then, at some magical moment, we became persons such that if any of these things were done to us, they would be viewed as heinous crimes.
Notice how the category of human beings has been split into two, from something that can be killed, sold, and used to someone with moral value. This is a dualistic approach to understanding what it is to be a human being and it is not based in science, but philosophy! It’s a metaphysical commitment that is not scientifically obvious. Science says nothing about personhood.
So, it’s the pro-choice case that imports metaphysics in the abortion debate with its concept of personhood, not the pro-life. From the moment of conception, when a sperm and egg combine, a human being is present – primed and already developing. And the human created at that moment is incredibly unique and unrepeatable given what we know about the process of genetic recombination. What is aborted is not merely a clump of cells with some random future, but a highly specialized, living human that is, biologically speaking, already in the act of reaching an explicit endpoint. That endpoint will be completely unrepeatable in incalculable ways, too, by the way.
Professor: Yes, that’s what is called a potential person. Abortion rights supporters care more about fully-developed people, not potential people.
Student: We can all be what you call “potential people,” Professor, depending on how one defines what a person is. For pro-lifers, what science recognizes as a human being – the organism that formed at the moment of conception – is the only characteristic required to be a person. Humans don’t have to jump through any more hoops than that. Our definition of personhood is inclusive. Tell me, how do pro-choicers define personhood?
Professor: Well, usually based on sentience and sapience. If the fetus does not display certain cognitive functions, like self-awareness or being able to feel pain, then it is not a person that is granted legal protections. There is much literature out there about this. You can look it up.
Student: Yes, there is a lot of literature and a lot of disagreement in it, too. Setting the literature aside if I may, I’d like to point out two things about what you just said. First, notice how personhood and moral value is based on the human being having certain abilities or characteristics – these are hoops! Do you know that this way of defining personhood has been used in the past to oppress? History is rife with examples, including in our own country.
Second, you used the qualifier usually – “usually personhood is defined by sentience and sapience,” you say, but this definition is highly disputed in the literature, and these characteristics exist on a sliding scale in all human beings and at various stages of their lives. This is a performance-based, hoop-jumping approach to defining moral value and it’s a very dangerous path for a society to go down.
Most importantly, see how you are importing a metaphysical concept, “personhood,” into the debate and elevating it above the science? This is exactly what you accused pro-life Christians of doing. I hope you can see how this dualism, the splitting of human beings into two, is not science-based.
At the moment, personhood is defined as a set of cognitive functions that I’m not entirely sure I display before my first cup of coffee for the day. According to some bioethicists, I’m pretty much a nonperson when I wake up in the morning! I wouldn’t pass the personhood test for many of them.
Professor, laughing: Yes. I think you have made your case. Still, the bottom line is this: Abortion supporters don’t necessarily like abortion. Instead, they don’t think that they have the right to tell a woman what she can and cannot do with her body. It’s up to her to decide if she wants to carry the fetus to term; we can’t force her. That’s a violation of her bodily autonomy and her belief that the fetus is not a person.
Student: But what if she is using her bodily autonomy and beliefs to hurt another human being? Do we then have the moral imperative to stop her? Do you see how something subjective – someone’s choice or views on when personhood begins – is being raised above something objective – the fact that a human life is extinguished during an abortion? This is the danger of such uncritically accepted dualistic thinking. Personhood ultimately splits the human being in two and favors cognitive abilities over all other aspects of their humanity. It is ultimately denigrating to the material body.
For the Christian, a human person’s value is not based on what they can or cannot do, but by the fact that they were created by a personal and loving God who imbued the material realm with meaning, purpose, and value. To go against these is like going against the basic facts of science – He created the facts of science after all!
Professor: But what about when her life is at stake? Do you Christians really care about the mother then? It’s hard to be pregnant! It’s hard to care for a child! All pro-life supporters seem to care about is the baby in the womb. To hell with mother and child after that!
Student: This is another false dilemma put up by abortion supporters to paint pro-life advocates as evil and shout them down (and not engage their arguments). Notice, not once have I impugned the motives of pro-choice advocates. Bringing another human life into this uncertain world of ours is extremely scary. No one is downplaying that.
But notice your logic – because another human life can be a burden to us, we can then depersonalize them and do whatever we want with their body. This is a dangerous calculation.
Of course, if the life of the mother is in imminent danger as determined by a doctor – that is, she will die if the pregnancy continues – then she truly has a choice then. It’s truly a choice to live or die. Her choice. But it is clear it is a precious life for a precious life. Do you know how often this actually happens today? Hardly ever.
The vast number of abortions do not happen in life-threatening situations. They are entirely elective.
Also, suffering is defined so broadly as to include anything and everything. To think that someone can abort a baby because they can’t afford him/her. As if a monetary value can be placed on human life – the bottom line – like what companies do with employees when laying them off! And when there are thousands of couples waiting to adopt!
So you see, for the pro-life supporter, it all boils down to the value of all human life – the baby’s as well as the mother’s. It’s the pro-choice advocate that has pitted mother and child against each other in their unexamined, radical dualistic thinking.
Professor: Fair enough. If materialism is true – if materialistic naturalism gives us the most accurate picture of the universe, then the ethics of abortion really are culture dependent. The upper realm, as you call it, is ultimately subjective, arbitrary, and nonbinding. Personhood really is just a social construct. The concept of “human rights” truly is meaningless – a Christian myth.
Student: And this reveals the genius of the men that founded our country. They understood that human rights had to originate from a transcendent source or they’d ultimately be meaningless and up the whims of those in power (like kings). Honestly, of all the transcendent sources out there to choose from, the Judeo-Christian God is the best. No other worldview has the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. But that’s another discussion for another day.
Professor: Indeed, and we are out of time! Good job giving us all something to think about and articulating the pro-life position clearly. Abortion is a difficult and divisive issue in our culture at the moment. Even if we might not agree in the end, clarity is better than agreement and certainly better than the shouting matches these discussions often devolve into.
Student: Thank you, for giving me the floor on this, Professor. It is indeed an honor to be given a chance to articulate the pro-life position.