08 March 2009

Power and Abortion - the Politics and Religion of Choice

What is the quote? Good people will do good things and bad people will do bad things. In order to get good people to do bad things, you need religion.

A 9-year-old girl in Brazil was raped by her stepfather and became pregnant with twins. So, naturally, the local archbishop’s first response is to excommunicate the girl’s mother for opting for abortion, and her doctors, who believed the girl's life was at risk, for performing the procedure.

Abortion is an issue of power.

First of all, Christ clearly speaks out against wealth. He never spoke out against abortion. Ever. It would be much easier for Christian anti-abortion rights activists to speak out against wealth than abortion - assuming they were actually interested in Christ's teachings rather than politics. Why don't they speak out against wealth? You cannot anger the people with money and power and, yourself, retain power. Pregnant women, by contrast, have little power and are easy targets for expressions of self righteousness.

The only Biblical mention of the evil of taking an unborn life is in the Old Testament (where shell fish is forbidden and slavery encouraged). If someone injures a woman in a way that terminates her pregnancy, he is to be punished. Even in this case of ending a pregnancy against the woman's wishes, the punishment is not the same as for someone killing a person already born. The Bible does not equate the life of a fetus to that of a born infant, even though many religious activists do.

But there is another dimension of power here - the power to define when life begins. At one instant, egg and sperm are potential life that are no more deserving of rights than lost fingernails or expectorant from a sneeze. At the instant they come together, they are suddenly accorded the full rights of a human being. Or so people who believe that life begins at the instant of conception would have us believe.

I do not think that this is an unreasonable position. It is certainly clean. It gives us a clear instance in time for the beginning of life and I think that this - alone - accounts for a great deal of its appeal.

By contrast, saying that life begins sometime between the instant of conception and the instant of birth is fuzzier - harder to defend or define. Yet I think that choosing some point of time within that range is also reasonable.

The biggest difference between self proclaimed conservatives and liberals is their tolerance for ambiguity. Conservatives need a world more clearly painted black and white. It is no coincidence that conservatives tend to side with the position that life begins at the instant of conception. It is clean. It is black and white. And it has no basis in science or scripture. Again, there is nothing wrong with this position. Where I take issue is in the imposition of this view onto others.

In this way, abortion has to do with power at the most fundamental level: the power of a person to define when life begins.

Now you might say that we can't just let anyone define when life begins. I think that is reasonable and would agree. We don't want exasperated parents deciding to "abort" 14 year old children they've wearied of. But I cannot agree that it is unreasonable to give people a choice about when life starts as long as they are choosing some instance between the moment of conception and the end of the second trimester.

Let me repeat: you won't find a definition of when human life starts in scripture, philosophy or science. Why, then, not let individuals make a choice within reasonable boundaries? And, of course, it is absurd to make the argument for the right to abortion in the modern world. We have already reached this conclusion and it is reflected in our laws: most Americans believe that abortion ought to be an option through the first trimester and are more conflicted about it as an option through the second trimester.

Even the persistence of religious beliefs that have little or no basis in scripture is not the problem. I don't protest the bishop's choice to excommunicate this poor girl's mother. (I think it is absurd, but churches are free to define the basis for inclusion or exclusion of congregants.) My only protest is with the religious folks who feel compelled to make their personal beliefs the basis for laws that apply to everyone.

The abortion controversy is about power. The solution to power in early civilizations was to concentrate it with those who had unique insights to God's will. The solution to power in liberal societies of the West is to disperse power to the individual. It is no wonder that the solution within churches looks so different than the solution within countries. It seems best to keep it that way.

Addendum: a new poll indicates that in Massachusetts, the percentage of Catholics has dropped from 54% in 1990 to 39% last year. Meanwhile, the percentage of folks with no religious affiliation nearly tripled, from 8% to 22%. Once people get a taste of defining issues for themselves, it is hard to keep that impulse contained.


ben said...

My only protest is with the religious folks who feel compelled to make their personal beliefs the basis for laws that apply to everyone.

This is one personal belief I'd love to see a law enacted for.

your friend Paul in Canada said...

sorry, i couldn't finish reading your post... but at the beginning i had a couple thoughts. you said, "[Christ] never spoke out against abortion." Hmm, i thought one of the original 10 commandments is against murder? "but where does live begin you ask?" if i recall, one scripture says that the fetus of John Baptist leaped in the womb when the mother of his Lord approached. another scripture suggests that this same fetus had the Holy Spirit given to him WHEN HE WAS CONCEIVED.

then you said Jesus spoke against wealth. well... He spoke against the love of it, the greed of it, and the hording of it. wealth, like anything, is a gift from God that can be used for good or evil. wealth spent properly is a good thing, so why do you call upon Christians to speak against it???

Damon said...

if the issue of abortion were as light as, say, petty theft, you might have a point about not pushing the "when life begins" thing on other people who disagree...but the problem is...when you are talking about a large sector of people who honestly and truly believe it is murder, do you honestly expect people to just lay over and let it happen? At some point tolerance for others beliefs goes too far, and for anti-abortionists I suppose tolerating what they believe is murder is just too much to ask.