Monday, January 23, 2012

Evaluating Haffner's Religious Case [Jay]

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.

Friday, January 20, 2012

EITHER Not Honest OR Not Informed [Jay]

I saw this article (here) written by Ms. Laura Bassett and Mr. Mike Sacks entitled Roe v Wade Still Under Siege, 39 Years Later. The first paragraph sets the tone:

On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court voted to protect a woman's right to have an abortion in the early stages of her pregnancy. Before the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, abortion was banned in two-thirds of states, and an estimated 1.2 million women a year resorted to illegal, often dangerous back-alley abortions.

There is so much wrong in so short a span that it literally hurt me to read it.

Line 1 Claim 1:

The Supreme court voted to protect a woman's right to have an abortion in the early stages of her pregnancy.

Well that is partially accurate. The Supreme Court voted to protect a woman's right to have an abortion through all 9 months of pregnancy when Doe v Bolton's ludicrously broad health exception is taken into consideration, so one can say that abortion rights in early pregnancy are protected as well. Varying stages of pregnancy are certainly not limiting factors as established in Roe/Doe so the phrasing is either deliberately misleading or accidentally ignorant.

Line 2 Claim 2:

Before the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, abortion was banned in two-thirds of states, and an estimated 1.2 million women a year resorted to illegal, often dangerous back-alley abortions.

Oh my. Lets unpack this one a little. The average total number of surgical abortions in the United States for the past several years has hovered at a number similar to 1.2 million. The writers claim an equal number of illegal and often dangerous abortions per year prior to 1973. This claim is all the more remarkable by acknowledging that women had some access to abortion in 1/3 of the states including fairly unfettered access in New York, Washington, Alaska, and Hawaii. Understand then that the 1.2 million illegal abortions must be in addition to all of the legally obtained abortions in the 1/3 of the states that the writers acknowledge. That should cause an eyebrow to raise.

Here are links to LTI Blog posts addressing this argument in greater detail. (Scott Klusendorf here, Josh Brahm here) They include 1960 testimony from Mary Calderone, former medical director of Planned Parenthood, that 90% of illegal abortions were performed by competent physicians in legitimate medical facilities. I don't know how the writers define the word "often", but it is clear that the overwhelming majority of illegal abortions defy the seedy back alley imagery fueled by pro-choice advocates. This is all well covered by these two links.

Instead, I want to play what I call The Minimal Interest in Accuracy game. When I am reading a claim like this I try to imagine that I am writing the post in question. Then I say, "If I had even a minimal interest in being accurate I would check out that data. It looks weird." Now since I only have a minimal interest I am not going to spend hours on this so I will just Google something like "Number of illegal abortion in 1972." I immediately find this article at The Guttmacher Institute entitled Lessons from Before Roe and lo' and behold just a few lines in I find the claim that in the 1950's and 60's the estimated number of illegal abortions ranged from 200,000 to 1.2 million. It even talks about a study that extrapolated data from North Carolina to reach a number of 829,000 illegal abortions nationally in 1967. There are no sources, but there are numbers.

Now in the minimal interest game I am pro-choice, so I am not likely to hunt down evidence like Josh Brahm did that acknowledges the inflated figures thrown around by those seeking to legalize abortion and to later protect Roe v Wade, but I am still a little thrown off by the disparity between 200,000 and 1.2 million. So I read a little further down and within a couple of dozen seconds I find this:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that in 1972 alone, 130,000 women obtained illegal or self-induced procedures, 39 of whom died.

In the year prior to Roe v Wade, when according to the authors of this article 1.2 million women a year were seeking illegal abortions the data indicates that 130,000 women obtained illegal abortions. According to a pro-choice Planned Parenthood professional 90% of those women obtained their services safely from licensed doctors. The 39 deaths are no less tragic simply because they are fewer than advertised, but it undermines your credibility from the outset when you deliberately mislead your readers as to the pre-Roe environment. In fact, the total number of all abortions in 1973 - after Roe - was 744,600 according to Guttmacher. Given that the number of women seeking illegal abortions must be added to the legal abortions for the total per this article's ridiculous claim, then they are asking us to accept that legalizing abortion dramatically decreased the number of abortions in the neighborhood of 40 - 50%!?

Dialogue is made more productive when those who seek it take a minimal interest in assuring they know what they are talking about. The first two lines of this article tell me all I need to know about these authors. They are either writing about a subject they know nothing about or are deliberately misleading their audience. Either way, I prefer honest informed dialogue.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Think Christianly Videos [Jay]

Last year I had the great pleasure of working with Jonathan Morrow of Think Christianly by doing a presentation at his worldview forum at Fellowship Bible Church in Murfreesboro, TN. They produced two short video excerpts from the 2 hour presentation that are now on his blog. The links are below.

Later this week I will begin my review of Jonathan's new book Think Christianly. The review will be more comprehensive but the short answer is that this book needs to be in the hands of ministers everywhere. It asks tough questions and provides insights from Jonathan and the many experts he interviews on how to engage our culture in an impacting manner. It is superb.

Here are the links:

The Central Issue in the Pro-Life versus Pro-Choice debate.

Do all human beings have a right to life?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Scrooge and the Pro-Choice Christians [Jay]

This post is for my brothers and sisters in Christ. In the context of a family discussion there are certain agreed upon principles that bind us. We agree that Jesus is the one and only Son of God resurrected to defeat the curse of death deserved by all men. He is the perfect sacrifice freely offered by God of God so that those who deserved eternal separation might enjoy the eternal presence of the Lord of all. We agree that as God's children we bear his image and that our lives are governed by the moral standards established through his immutable and maximally excellent nature. We agree on this and so much more yet some of us have reached different conclusions on the moral nature of abortion. As many of us following the dictates of our conscience have dedicated our energies to protecting unborn life from what we understand to be the immorality of abortion, others following their own conscience determined that same act of abortion to be a legitimately moral choice or necessary evil to look after the welfare of those facing undesired pregnancy.

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is part of my personal Christmas tradition, and every year I take something new from the reading. It reminds me of the bible in one sense in that the general story is so well known that few people take the time to actually read it. They assume they know it and as a result miss the richness of thoughts and dialogue that are absent from the voluminous television and movie versions.

I have yet to meet the defender of Scrooge against the charge that he is a bad man. His combination of greed and disregard for others is fully displayed when he answers the call to contribute to a special Christmas charitable fund by saying the poor ought to take advantage of the prisons and workhouses that Mr. Scrooge's tax dollars already support. When told that many cannot avail themselves of these institutions and others would rather die, he famously responds, “If they would rather die... they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Later in the company of the Ghost of Christmas Present, his heart is moved by the plight of Tiny Tim. He asks the spirit if Tiny Tim will survive to which the Spirit replies:

“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race... will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

That dialogue makes it into most every version, but the words of the Ghost immediately following are usually absent. As Scrooge grieves to recall the harshness of his earlier pronouncement the Ghost says:

“Man... if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, and what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child. Oh God! To hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”

There is no way to compare anyone to Scrooge without leaving yourself open to the charge of being uncharitable. Aren't abortion rights supporters acting with noble aspirations to limit the suffering of poor women and to protect the freedom and equality of a gender that has fought to earn respect and compensation on par with their male counterparts? Aren't they protecting people from the burden and pain of living an unwanted life? How are these thoughtful people in any way like Scrooge?

Another benefit to reading the book is further insight into the man being redeemed. In a seldom quoted passage earlier in the story, the woman that Scrooge intended to marry, Belle, explains the decline of Scrooge. What was it that hardened him? Why did he become what he was? The answer, the fear of being poor once again. He was once poor and happy to be so, but then she gently says:

“You fear the world too much... All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one...”

So it seems to be with those who agree about so much regarding God, Jesus, the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and the value of human life. So many of their concerns are driven by that same fear of the world and its sordid reproach.

A friend and I have both separately been asked by different pastors, “If we get rid of abortion, what are we supposed to do with all of the poor children?” A man on a mission trip with me told me that China was doing the best they could and that the one child policy – the policy that has led to uncountable abortions, many forced against the will of the parents - was a necessary evil to control the threat of overpopulation. Another minister said that as much as he hated abortion, he hated the idea of suffering unwanted and unloved children even more. These people claim to be uncertain of the identity of the unborn as fully human. As a result they assume that the best way to combat certain social ills is to champion full access to abortion.

But the argument “I don't know for certain what the identity of the unborn is so I must not force my beliefs on others” makes an elementary mistake. As Frank Beckwith points out, in an effort to remain neutral we are asked to support a policy that treats all unborn legally as if they were not human. In the face of a lack of consensus, we are told that neutrality demands the other side – the other beliefs - get every legal consideration and those who believe the unborn to be fully human can merely refrain from participating. Abortion is regrettable, unfortunate, but ultimately necessary to do good so anyone may kill them for any reason at any point in pregnancy. For those that are concerned that we are killing more than a million innocent human beings a year without proper moral justification, well that is the price of a pluralistic and secular society. After all, if we don't know for certain what they are then how can we ask others not to kill them assuming there is a “them” to kill. They may be nothing so we may have the right to do what we are doing. As Dr. William Lane Craig once told me, it would seem more appropriate that ignorance would lead us to err to the side of caution. Only in abortion do we decide it is virtue to kill what we claim to not fully understand or that we claim we cannot identify with confidence.

A friend and minister often tells me that what breaks his heart is that people cannot believe that God can handle what they failed to prevent or foresee. They are driven by fear. What about all the poor children? How will the mother support her child? What about her dreams and desires for herself? The world is a dark scary place and the more people that we add to our ranks the worse it will get especially if those children are unwanted or in some way impaired. People cannot change or modify their behavior and so by fighting abortion you consign us to a world of back alley abortions and overflowing orphanages. All fear, fear, fear.

The arguments for the humanity of the unborn and their value are well chronicled on this blog. In this post I wanted to reach out with a simple message from the pages of a ghost story. The unborn are unquestionably human life. For those that believe we have value because of what we are and not by virtue of what we can do, they must decide whether these human lives morally matter. If your answer is truly “I don't know” then I beg you to consider the advice of the Ghost of Christmas Present. Consider what the unborn life may be in the sight of heaven and how our Lord must feel about the ant on the leaf declaring there is too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust.