Most of us are familiar with the famous phrase no man is an island. What many might not know is that it was penned during a time of extreme illness and suffering. Staring at his own possible death, John Donne famously wrote that “no man is an island,” that all mankind are connected in God, bound to each other like a continent. The death of one person then, like a bit of land swept out to sea, affects us all. Bioethicist Gilbert Meilaender would agree with Donne, writing that “the lives of fellow citizens may be bound together in such a way that all are aggrieved by the death of one.” He goes on to note that such sentiments might seem strange to moderns, coming across like quaint relics from a time when religion was more than merely a set of opinions to be held in private. To think that what one does in private, especially if one dies, somehow has an effect on everyone? This seems to fly in the face of our experience today. This is because we live in an age that is preoccupied with autonomy.
On January 23, 2019, amidst cheers and applause, New York State passed legislation that added abortion rights to their state constitution. The crowd chanted “Free abortion on demand! We can do it! Yes, we can!” The World Trade Center joined the celebration by lighting its spire pink, the color of Planned Parenthood (ironically, while the memorial below bears the names of the unborn children who lost their lives in the attacks on 9/11). To those of us that oppose abortion, the jubilee cut right to the heart. Abortion is no longer regarded as a necessary evil, but something to be celebrated, even shouted from highest rooftops. What caused such a shift?
Sharran Sutherland: “I am hoping that by sharing these pictures of my precious little boy that it might just make one person who is contemplating abortion decide to let their child live.” Read more here.
“He has been with us in the darkness of the womb as He will be in the darkness of the tomb.” ~Gilbert Meilaender, “Bioethics: A Primer for Christians”
It is revealing to look at how metaphors change throughout history, for these most often reflect shifts in the ways we look at the world and ourselves. Consider how the expressions for “having children” have changed. Older metaphors contained in them a sense of reverence for the process: “begetting” in ancient Israel, “genesis” in ancient Greece, and “procreation” in premodern times here in the West. Today, we “employ a metaphor of the factory, ‘re-production,” perhaps “impressed with the machine and the gross national product (our own work of creation),” observes philosopher Leon Kass. A phenomenon so deeply rooted in our biology is spoken of in mechanical and impersonal terms that seem at odds with our humanity. This is just another hint that the two-story view of the human being – with its splitting of body and mind, biology and will – has insinuated itself into our discourse. This is another outworking of the two-story view of truth in our world today (see the footnote for an explanation). Nowhere is this bifurcation of the human person more apparent than in the case of abortion and the personhood theory used to justify it.
“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?
Amalie Mathilde Bauerle (12 November 1873 – 4 March 1916)
“When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world we have not made. In other words, when we step into the family we step into a fairy-tale.” ~ G.K. Chesterton
“When it comes to alleviating suffering, we must prioritize the needs of the thinking, feeling, actual person walking around on two legs over that of the potential person in the womb.” This statement represents a cogent summary of one of the most powerful arguments for abortion one will find today. Framed in both emotionally dense and philosophically loaded language, it puts the pro-life advocate into several difficult positions at once—first, to seem to not care about another’s suffering and second, to have to wade into the deep, philosophical waters of defining personhood. This argument reveals many things about the debate, not the least of which that it hinges upon the disputed concept of personhood and an impossible calculation of suffering. While the latter must be responded to delicately and with compassion for it is a species of the problem of evil, we often do not have to luxury of sidestepping the personhood aspect of the argument. This is primarily because the connection between personhood and abortion has been codified into our legal system and thus, it shapes the thinking of many in our culture (as the opening quote reveals). I propose that questions of personhood can indeed be engaged from practical, philosophical, and scientific standpoints and that the cumulative results of such an engagement form a powerful existential case against abortion.