The Washington Post published a guest editorial (here) by Reverend Debra Haffner, a Unitarian Universalist minister, titled The religious case for legalized abortion. Obviously, a post like this draws my attention and given the serious nature in which Rev. Haffner offers her piece I decided to evaluate her article for the blog.
It is clear that Rev. Haffner is not neutral on this issue from the outset. She describes the current climate of state legislators attempting to place limits on abortion negatively and refers to pro-lifers as “anti-choice.” None of this in any way undermines the points that she is making, but it does help to get some understanding about from whom we are hearing.
The third paragraph begins with the following:
There is a religious case for safe, legal, and accessible abortion services.
This is her thesis. The evidence she offers to support this claim is (1) that religious traditions disagree on the value of fetal human life, (2) many religious people think that developmental levels impact value, and (3) that “many religious traditions teach that the health and life of the woman must take precedence over the life of the fetus.” Scripture neither directly condemns nor prohibits abortion, but it does “call us to act compassionately and justly when facing difficult moral decisions.” She does not offer any actual scriptural references to help us understand her interpretation.
Suppose I told you that my personal religious beliefs required I burn the widows of deceased men alive on the funeral pyre. When you rightly protest that this action is immoral and violates the basic rights of the woman, would you find my response that many religions think that women have less value than men and are functionally the property of their husbands convincing? I hope not. But this is exactly the type of argument we have been offered. The religious case is based on the presence of certain religious beliefs. This is not an argument; it is an observation that tells us nothing in regards to the value of unborn human life. The fact that they hold those beliefs is not an argument in support of those beliefs, and as Hadley Arkes says an absence of consensus does not indicate an absence of truth.
She mentions that science, medicine, law, and philosophy contribute to this shared religious understanding, but without anything more than that we are left with the claim that arguments exist elsewhere and one must trust her or guess what they might be.
As to the supposed silence of the bible on the issue of abortion, Scott has written on this (here, here, and here) and Dr. Matthew Flannagan of New Zealand has done some magnificent work in this area that I intend to review for the blog later this year. I will restrict my comments here to say the bible does expressly prohibit the unjust murder of innocent human life. This means the central question from the scriptural perspective is “what is the unborn?” That argument is best made through science (identification) and philosophy (value). (See here) Once we determine the identity of the unborn as full members of the human family we have all the scriptural support we need to prohibit abortion. Simply claiming that the bible says nothing about abortion so it must be morally permissible is also a great argument for endorsing slavery. Frederick Douglass, William Wilberforce, and William Lloyd Garrison didn't need to see the express scriptural prohibition of slavery to know that the system of slavery they opposed was unGodly. They just needed to know that the Africans were fully human and were able to extrapolate from that basic fact why we don't treat other human beings in that manner.
Her conclusion from her evidence is the following:
The scriptural commitment to the most marginalized means that pregnancy, childbearing, and abortion should be safe for all women, just as a scriptural commitment to truth-telling means that women must have accurate information as they make their decisions.
I fail to see how this conclusion is supported by her previous claims, but let's break out that first line. Suppose we make every individual item on the list its own statement.
1 - Pregnancy should be safe for all women.
2 – Childbearing should be safe for all women.
3 – Abortion should be safe for all women.
Statements 1 & 2 taken on their own are obviously noble aspirations but hardly scripturally mandated. Since without serious qualification those statements are unrealizable today – much less in the more medically primitive world of biblical times – it is hard to imagine a scriptural mandate to meet these objectives. In as much as it is reasonably possible we ought to work to promote the health of the people around us, but I am not sure how we can make pregnancy and childbearing safe for everyone. Do we forbid women facing high risks pregnancies from attempting to bear children? That would keep them safe and avoid complications from diabetics giving birth, for example. If we are to let women make their own decisions regarding pregnancy are we supposed to allow them to make choices that risk their own lives or their pregnancy? To declare safety the scriptural command doesn't clear anything up at all. It only further complicates our moral decision making.
Statement 3 is fraught with complication. We are biblically mandated to make abortion safe for all women? This obviously begs the question as to the identity of the unborn. What about all of the unborn female members of the human family that are aborted. We can assume their safety is not a consideration in statement 3. This doesn't even have the virtue of being a noble desire. Pregnancy and childbearing are procreative, communal, and familial. Dr. Francis Beckwith argues that these are natural goods. Surgical and medical abortion are the violent unnatural ends of pregnancy and the willful termination of a human life. It seems hard to believe that we have been given any argument prior to her conclusion that supports the idea that scripture mandates we allow women to destroy their unborn children without risk to themselves. What scripture does this? The Christian concern for widows and orphans? The command to take care of the least of these? This is a huge leap in logic that is hidden by placing it alongside more sympathetic – though mistaken – claims.
She offers anecdotal evidence that women struggle with this decision and that they prayerfull seek to do what is best for their family. Again, this is an observation and not an argument. How effective would this argument be if it were offered up as justification for the killing of toddlers? Every woman I know that had her toddler medically killed thought long and hard about it beforehand. It sounds a little ridiculous because we accept that toddlers are fully human. So if the unborn are human in the same way that toddlers are then it is equally empty as a defense of abortion.
She claims that many faith traditions teach that abortion is always a moral decision and links to a statement paper from which much of this article was cut and pasted. The ecumenical statement defines the moral nature of abortion as rooted in the idea that it impacts the woman, her partner, and her family. The moral considerations they acknowledge never mention the unborn so this concession of the moral nature of abortion is rhetorical. There is no shared moral foundation appealed to here.
Which leads to this point. If the unborn are morally insignificant what is with all the hand wringing? Why the deeply moral spiritual reflection? Why seek to reduce the number of abortions? If we are biblically mandated to supply abortions, why is it a difficult moral decision at all? The very empathy that gives Rev. Haffner the air of credibility is rooted in the idea that something profound is being lost in abortion.
She quotes this passage from the previously mentioned ecumenical statement: It is precisely because life and parenthood are so precious that no woman should be coerced to carry a pregnancy to term. I confess that I am at a loss to address that. Life and parenthood are so precious that we must be allowed to avoid the latter by destroying the former?
And finally she closes with this:
Women must be able to make their own moral decisions based on conscience and faith. It is time for us to recognize that as a country and end the attacks on reproductive justice.
But what if my wife makes the moral decision based on conscience and faith to oppose abortion and seek to prohibit it within our community? Why do the moral positions Rev. Haffner supports enjoy a privileged position in our society? By what objective moral authority does she demand we end our attacks on what she terms reproductive justice?
Ultimately this is the problem with the article offered. We are given a point of view without support and assertions without argument. We are assured that the bible demands we do things not addressed in the bible without consideration of the central question of abortion, “What is the unborn?” And finally we are told that the presence of disagreement obligates us to honor decisions to abort unborn human beings as moral and to cease seeking to end abortion. This particular religious case for legalized abortion appears hopelessly flawed.