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.


  1. Jay, I’m sorry that I did not see and did not respond to your essay earlier. In general, I agree with you that Rev. Haffner did not make a good religious case for abortion rights. However, I think that a good one can be made. For now, I’d like to make three criticisms of your essay.

    First, ten different times in your essay you use inaccurate and misleading language to argue your position. You use terms such as “the unborn,” “unborn female members of the human family,” “unborn children,” and “unborn human beings.” Every human zygote has the potential to be miscarried, born, or aborted during its development. In fact, more zygotes end up being miscarried than either born or aborted. You should not characterize a thing by only one of its possible outcomes, especially when a particular one that is not most likely. Please refer to the subjects of interest with the correct names; they are human zygotes, embryos, and fetuses.

    Secondly, you assume that a religious case against abortion may only be a biblical one. This is simply not the case. The bible is the scripture for only a single religion. And the bible may not be the only way to discern the will of God even for Christianity. This is particularly important since the bible is silent on abortion itself.

    Lastly, you oversimplify the situation when you say “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.” Part of the problem with this is related to my first two points, but I’d like to go beyond them. Simply because a zygote, embryo, or fetus is human doesn’t necessarily mean that it falls into the class of human organisms to which biblical prohibitions against killing apply. Also, the circumstances of abortion don’t necessarily meet the circumstances to which those same prohibitions apply. I challenge you to find a biblical prohibition against killing which applies to a woman voluntarily killing the zygote, embryo, or fetus inside of her. I think you are overgeneralizing from the biblical prohibitions.

  2. Anon,

    No need to apologize.

    There is nothing incorrect about referring to unborn human life as unborn. It is a general term to cover the full spectrum of developing human beings prior to birth in order to make it simpler than writing all human zygotes, human embryos, and human fetuses every time I mention them. The data on the number of spontaneous natural abortions is notoriously difficult to accurately claim with certainty that birth is less likely, but even if I accepted that statement on its face I reject the idea that I am misleading by referring to human beings who can be killed by virtue of not being born as unborn. We do not shy away from using terms like zygote or embryo, in fact, I previously wrote blog posts encouraging people to use the terms without concern that they are dehumanizing. That said, even though you ask nicely I will continue to use the term unborn without apology. It is accurate and germane by virtue of our current legal approach that separates those who can be killed without justification and those who cannot by the birth event.

    The Old Testament is recognized scripture by multiple religions. The New Testament is recognized by orthodox Christianity and Mormonism. I assume only that religious views are informed primarily by their particular canons. Other ways to discern the will of God may or may not support current abortion laws, but it would be impossible to speculate on what these views may be and how we correctly apprehend them with certainty without more than you conjecturing that such things may abstractly exist. The argument from silence has been well dealt with by Scott and others elsewhere.

    The bible offers a clear prohibition against our murdering innocent human beings. So if we use science and philosophy to determine the full humanity of the unborn, then they are included in that prohibition. Do you really need me to point to a specific text that says it is wrong to kill human embryos? As I said, Matt Flannegan has done some fantastic work on demonstrating that the Alexandrian Jews and subsequently Alexandrian Christians, those most likely to write and record the views of early people of faith, understood that the unbron were included in this prohibition as well. No reasonable person operates on the basis that if the bible does not directly prohibit every conceivable situation it must be implying consent from silence.

    If you want to make the case that the bible supports the view that such a thing as non-personal humans exist or that human beings that lack some essential expression of an accidental property exist that are excluded from biblical protection laws then it is you who bears the burden of proof.

    My schedule does not often allow me to answer comments, but I appreciate your willingness to engage. Have a great day

  3. Jay,

    You cannot excuse the use of inaccurate and misleading language by citing convenience (“to make it simpler”). Also, you cannot dismiss empirical data merely by citing the difficulty of collecting it. The data for higher frequency of miscarriage in comparison to abortions and births is accepted by advocates on both sides; look it up. Any fetus in the womb could be miscarried, born, or aborted. So, at that moment the fetus is unmiscarried, unborn, AND unaborted. For you to focus on one potential outcome is a political decision on your part which is not justified by philosophical or scientific considerations. Your legal approach should not use inaccurate and misleading language. If you want to be accurate, honest, and efficient in your use of language I suggest you use the acronym “ZEFs” to refer to “human zygotes, embryos, and/or fetuses.” Or you could use the acronym “ESLHOs” to refer to “early stage living human organisms.” Either of these terms is used to describe something as it is now without reference to potential outcomes.

    It is not impossible to speculate on the correct apprehension of the will of God through means other than consulting scripture; people do it all the time. Do you think that nobody has ever or could ever ascertain the will of God through direct communication with him or through the application of reason, his gift to humanity? Other avenues must be considered when scripture is silent on a particular issue.

    But ZEFs are not human beings; they are human organisms. And they are neither innocent nor guilty; such judgements do not apply to ZEFs since they are incapable of making moral decisions. ZEFs are human because they have a particular DNA. The prohibitions against killing in the bible refer to killing of human persons outside the womb under certain circumstances, not to the killing of ZEFs inside the womb under other circumstances. There is no biblical text referring specifically to abortion and your argument against abortion by inference from some texts suffers from a category error. The Alexandrian Jews and Christians were probably making the same error that you are making. I read somewhere that St. Augustine did not consider the fetus to be a person till after 90 days; so Christians opinions have differed, while using the same bible.

    No, if you want to make a biblical argument against abortion, the burden of proof is on you to show that biblical prohibitions against killing are applicable to the situation of a woman voluntarily killing a ZEF inside her under certain circumstances (like she can’t afford to support a child).


  4. Anon,

    After detecting pregnancy, which is relevant to the issue of abortion, there are studies that indicate normally healthy women carry to term 85% of the time (Grey/Wu 2000 as noted in Chrstopher Kaczor's Ehtics of Abortion for example). OB/GYN's tell me that after a heartbeat is detected - which we heard at 7 weeks with my children - the percentage of pregnancies that carry to term is around 90%. So in regards to identifying the preborn or unborn human lives that will be impacted by abortions as they are normally perfomed, their lives are no where near as perilously close to spontaneously ending as one reading your arguments may be led to believe.

    I have read arguments questioning the accuracy of the higher percentages based on the sources of the data which are often tied to fertility clinics. But even granting them, the presence of a high natural death rate of human life at a certain stage of development does not address the identification or nature of that life. It is no less human life because it may spontaneously abort anymore than newborns living in countries where the infant mortality rate is greater than 50% are less human as a result of being in the minority by surviving the first year of their lives. I have read the material and stipulated that the number of spontaneous abortions did not impact my language.

    Calling it unborn or preborn human life is not dependent upon potential outcomes. It is what it is, and in the case of detected pregnancies it appears more accurate than discounting the future birth event out of fear of humanizing them in some way that bothers you.

    A religious argument for abortion must have some sort of religious element central to it. The general uses of logic, science, and philosophy are not a religious arguments. If attempting to use logic to discern God's will in a specific belief system it will be necessary to have a base or understanding for comparison. If A cannot be both A and Not A at the same time and same respect and either "A" or "Not A" are based in religious doctrine it will require the use of some appeal to the respective religious sources of ethical commands and practices. I would think that direct communication from God to the individual would be difficult to apply as a general practice.

    Augustine based his arguments on beliefs that some level of development was needed to house the soul. There is no doubt that Augustine believed that once a human life was present it was morally objectionable to kill that life, so it is near impossible to speculate on what his ideas might have been given our current knowledge. We know that the zygote contains the full genetic structure and that given time and the proper environment we will see expressions of what is materially there already develop in the young life. That is important information.

    Christopher Kaczor, Francis Beckwith, JP Moreland, Robert George, and every defender of the value of unborn human life I have ever read do not base the value on simple genetic identity. They present a philosophical argument rooted in the nature of human life, intrinsic value, and objective moral duties. The term innocent applies to the unborn only inso far as it is clear that they have done nothing that justifies lethal action taken against them by virtue of being where they must be in lieu of their natural human development pattern. Considering statistics, more than 9 out of 10 of those lives are there as a result of foreseeable consequences of the actions of another. Given that more than one pro-choice philosopher characterizes the unborn human as an aggressor acting against the mother to justify killing them, innocent seems like an important distinction to me.

    This has been fun, but I am moving on.

  5. You say in this paragraph:
    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?

    By opposing abortion, your wife is trying to force her belief on other women that may not share her conviction. By keeping reproductive choice legal, their is no infringement on anybodys access to abortion, by keeping it legal, all we are asking is for the woman to make the choice herself without being coerced or prohibited to make that legal choice, that is what is at stake. Your position to ban abortion infringes on other women's right/choice that may not share your convictions. I'am lead by my conscience to allow women to make the choice herself. Isn't it better to allow women to make that choice themselves?


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