Monday, November 05, 2007

Dismantling a "religious" dismissal

On Sunday, the LA Times published a column by Garry Wills titled, "Abortion isn't a religious issue." The statement made by the title is true.

It is also just about the last true thing in the column, which was almost a laundry list of some of the pro-choice movement's most popular, most deceptive, and most deeply flawed arguments.

What makes opposition to abortion the issue it is for each of the GOP presidential candidates is the fact that it is the ultimate "wedge issue" -- it is nonnegotiable. The right-to-life people hold that it is as strong a point of religion as any can be. It is religious because the Sixth Commandment (or the Fifth by Catholic count) says, "Thou shalt not kill." For evangelical Christians, in general, abortion is murder. That is why what others think, what polls say, what looks practical does not matter for them. One must oppose murder, however much rancor or controversy may ensue.

I always get a good chuckle whenever I hear someone claim that opposition to abortion is and must be religious in nature. The most vehement pro-lifer I've ever encountered was an outspoken atheist--a transvestite, no less--whose vicious verbal assaults upon those who were pro-choice were matched only by his attacks against religion. (Now that I think on it, the split contempt reminds me a great deal of Christopher Hitchens, though with regards to Iraq rather than abortion.)

Of course, anecdotal evidence like this and a quarter won't even get me a phone call, if there are any phone booths left. So, for the moment, let's just point out that Wills is conflating the contention that abortion is murder with the religiously-fueled obligation to oppose that murder--the latter is the genuine article, and its role is virtually identical to that of religious involvement/leadership in the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s.

But is abortion murder? Most people think not. Evangelicals may argue that most people in Germany thought it was all right to kill Jews. But the parallel is not valid. Killing Jews was killing persons. It is not demonstrable that killing fetuses is killing persons. Not even evangelicals act as if it were. If so, a woman seeking an abortion would be the most culpable person. She is killing her own child. But the evangelical community does not call for her execution.

Actually, the parallel is not only valid, it's precise. People in Germany thought it was all right to kill a Jew because, in their opinion, they weren't killing a person--they were killing something less than a person, something inferior.

Note also the sly implication that the "evangelical community" would call for the mother's stoning execution. Leaving aside the heated controversy over capital punishment, where Wills mistakenly believes there to be monolithic consensus--it's widely recognized by the pro-life movement, religious and irreligious alike, that in an abortion, the mother is at least as much a victim as she is a perpetrator.

The central criminal in an abortion is the abortionist. There lies the brunt of the responsibility.

About 10% of evangelicals, according to polls, allow for abortion in the case of rape or incest. But the circumstances of conception should not change the nature of the thing conceived. If it is a human person, killing it is punishing it for something it had nothing to do with. We do not kill people because they had a criminal parent.

Wills is exactly right about the hard answer: there are no legitimate exceptions for rape or incest (one of the few things he's right about). But I have to say--only 10%? A higher percentage of evangelicals voted for John Kerry in 2004!

Nor did the Catholic Church treat abortion as murder in the past. If it had, late-term abortions and miscarriages would have called for treatment of the well-formed fetus as a person, which would require baptism and a Christian burial. That was never the practice. And no wonder.

This is ridiculous. Wills would seriously have you believe that the Catholic Church baptizes corpses?! What in the world does he think baptism is for?

The subject of abortion is not scriptural. For those who make it so central to religion, this seems an odd omission. Abortion is not treated in the Ten Commandments -- or anywhere in Jewish Scripture. It is not treated in the Sermon on the Mount -- or anywhere in the New Testament. It is not treated in the early creeds. It is not treated in the early ecumenical councils.

(emphasis mine) Chapter 2 of the Didache (circa AD 100) says "Hi."

Lacking scriptural guidance, St. Thomas Aquinas worked from Aristotle's view of the different kinds of animation -- the nutritive (vegetable) soul, the sensing (animal) soul and the intellectual soul. Some people used Aristotle to say that humans therefore have three souls. Others said that the intellectual soul is created by human semen.

Aquinas denied both positions. He said that a material cause (semen) cannot cause a spiritual product. The intellectual soul (personhood) is directly created by God "at the end of human generation." This intellectual soul supplants what had preceded it (nutritive and sensory animation). So Aquinas denied that personhood arose at fertilization by the semen. God directly infuses the soul at the completion of human formation.

Wills devotes considerable attention to Aquinas' musings--musings based on Aristotle, the best source Aquinas had to work with, but a source which has been almost completely replaced in the present--with the apparent sneering implication that this is the basis for pro-life opposition to abortion today.

Much of the debate over abortion is based on a misconception -- that it is a religious issue, that the pro-life advocates are acting out of religious conviction. It is not a theological matter at all. There is no theological basis for defending or condemning abortion.

A rehashing of Wills' false conflation of the two aspects of the pro-life case from the start of the column.

Even popes have said that the question of abortion is a matter of natural law, to be decided by natural reason. Well, the pope is not the arbiter of natural law. Natural reason is.

John Henry Newman, a 19th century Anglican priest who converted to Catholicism, once wrote that "the pope, who comes of revelation, has no jurisdiction over nature." The matter must be decided by individual conscience, not by religious fiat. As Newman said: "I shall drink to the pope, if you please -- still, to conscience first, and to the pope afterward."

If we are to decide the matter of abortion by natural law, that means we must turn to reason and science, the realm of Enlightened religion. But that is just what evangelicals want to avoid. Who are the relevant experts here? They are philosophers, neurobiologists, embryologists. Evangelicals want to exclude them because most give answers they do not want to hear. The experts have only secular expertise, not religious conviction. They, admittedly, do not give one answer -- they differ among themselves, they are tentative, they qualify. They do not have the certitude that the religious right accepts as the sign of truth.

Wills only wishes that the pro-life movement wants to avoid reason and science. By any objective, quantifiable, testable measurement, there is no difference between a human being before or after birth, save age and appearance.

It's only when you introduce subjective, unreliable, unverifiable, qualitative standards that you can find differences of opinion, that you can find any uncertainty on the question at all. And into whose province do these decidedly "non-Enlightened" prejudices fall?

Philosophers--whom Wills proclaims to be "relevant experts," alongside neurobiologists and embryologists.

"One of these things is not like the of these things just doesn't belong..."

So evangelicals take shortcuts. They pin everything on being pro-life. But one cannot be indiscriminately pro-life.

If one claimed, in the manner of Albert Schweitzer, that all life deserved moral respect, then plants have rights, and it might turn out that we would have little if anything to eat. And if one were consistently pro-life, one would have to show moral respect for paramecia, insects, tissue excised during a medical operation, cancer cells, asparagus and so on. Harvesting carrots, on a consistent pro-life hypothesis, would constitute something of a massacre.

Opponents of abortion will say that they are defending only human life. It is certainly true that the fetus is human life. But so is the semen before it fertilizes; so is the ovum before it is fertilized. They are both human products, and both are living things. But not even evangelicals say that the destruction of one or the other would be murder.

There are only two charitable interpretations of the above, an appallingly common pro-choice argument: Either Wills has forgotten everything he learned in Biology 101, or he flunked that class.

The semen and the ovum are haploid sex cells. They are recognizably part of their source organisms. They are incapable of growth or metabolism or adaptation. They have a single, specific function--to merge with their gender counterparts. If that function is not met within a very short timeframe, then the cells will die.

The newly fertilized human being, by contrast, is a diploid cell. He/she (and yes, he/she already has a gender at this point) possesses a unique genetic code, recognizably distinct from both father and mother, and a distinct genetic blueprint. He/she is capable of metabolism and growth--has in fact already begun to grow--and barring outside interference, will continue to grow and develop along the lines of that blueprint.

Equating these, as Wills and far too many pro-choicers do, is an exercise in pure ignorance. The only question is whether that ignorance is deliberate.

Defenders of the fetus say that life begins only after the semen fertilizes the egg, producing an embryo. But, in fact, two-thirds of the embryos produced this way fail to live on because they do not embed in the womb wall. Nature is like fertilization clinics -- it produces more embryos than are actually used. Are all the millions of embryos that fail to be embedded human persons?

Time for another hard answer: YES. They die in mass numbers, without anyone even knowing they were there--but in every quantifiable way, they differ from us only in age and appearance.

The universal mandate to preserve "human life" makes no sense. My hair is human life -- it is not canine hair, and it is living. It grows. When it grows too long, I have it cut. Is that aborting human life? The same with my growing human fingernails. An evangelical might respond that my hair does not have the potential to become a person. True. But semen has the potential to become a person, and we do not preserve every bit of semen that is ejaculated but never fertilizes an egg.

A rehashing of the idiotic "every sperm is a person" argument from above, with a little wrinkle added in: the "potential person," the all-purpose pro-choice fallback. Can't answer a pro-life argument? No worries. "It's only a potential person. Why? Because I said so!"

And even more insultingly, he puts "potential person" in the mouth of the pro-lifer!

The question is not whether the fetus is human life but whether it is a human person, and when it becomes one. Is it when it is capable of thought, of speech, of recognizing itself as a person, or of assuming the responsibilities of a person? Is it when it has a functioning brain? Aquinas said that the fetus did not become a person until God infused the intellectual soul.

Back to the philosophers, and their subjective standards--which, we are to understand, work for them, and so cannot be challenged in any way. Wills sneakily lumps Aquinas in with these, thus trying to imply that pro-lifers' standards are based on these same, "works-for-them" standards.

Note the line of thought here. Wills isn't looking for the beginning of personhood, with the idea that it's to be protected and cherished from there on out. He's looking for a beginning of personhood so that any human beings before that stage can be relegated to subhuman status, and killed freely.

A functioning brain is not present in the fetus until the end of the sixth month at the earliest.

Not surprisingly, that is the earliest point of viability, the time when a fetus can successfully survive outside the womb.

The fact that six months is currently the earliest point of viability has less to do with the development of the brain and more to do with current medical technology. As the science advances, that viability point is going to keep being pushed further and further back--and, conversely, in places where that medical technology is not available, the point of viability is much later than six months.

Whether through serendipity or through some sort of causal connection, it now seems that the onset of a functioning central nervous system with a functioning cerebral cortex and the onset of viability occur around the same time -- the end of the second trimester, a time by which 99% of all abortions have already occurred.

Opponents of abortion like to show sonograms of the fetus reacting to stimuli. But all living cells have electric and automatic reactions. These are like the reactions of Terri Schiavo when she was in a permanent vegetative state. Aquinas, following Aristotle, called the early stage of fetal development vegetative life. The fetus has a face long before it has a brain. It has animation before it has a command center to be aware of its movements or to experience any reaction as pain.

Wills invoking Schiavo is instructive, because it follows logically--if these things that the philosophers decide constitute personhood emerge at some point, then they also deteriorate at some point--and at that point, even if you're still alive, you're not a person anymore.

These are difficult matters, on which qualified people differ. It is not enough to say that whatever the woman wants should go. She has a responsibility to consider whether and when she may have a child inside her, not just a fetus. Certainly by the late stages of her pregnancy, a child is ready to respond with miraculous celerity to all the personal interchanges with the mother that show a brain in great working order.

Given these uncertainties, who is to make the individual decision to have an abortion? Religious leaders? They have no special authority in the matter, which is not subject to theological norms or guidance. The state? Its authority is given by the people it represents, and the people are divided on this. Doctors? They too differ. The woman is the one closest to the decision. Under Roe vs. Wade, no woman is forced to have an abortion. But those who have decided to have one are able to.

(emphasis mine) This is the pro-choice case in a nutshell: ABSOLUTE POWER.

The power for a person to bestow personhood upon another living human being--or to deny personhood to another living human being--and to act accordingly.

It's hardly surprising that "qualified people" differ over this; the last time the United States struggled with a question of absolute power, so many "qualified people" differed that it took a Civil War to finally settle the matter.

The answer we came to in 1865 was a resounding "NO." No one has absolute power over another human being.


That wasn't a religious issue, either.


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