Sunday, September 24, 2017

Book Review: Pro-Choice and Christian: Reconciling Faith, Politics, and Justice by Kira Shlesinger [Clinton Wilcox]

Kira Shlesinger's book is, unfortunately, the latest in a long line of books that don't add anything to the discussion on abortion, don't *really* interact with the pro-life position, and makes an argument that proves too much. If Shlesinger's argument succeeds, then we would have to allow a mother to kill her child of any age, not just while they're still in the womb. Her argument is just a rehash of the feminist argument you can find from other feminist authors, like Katha Pollitt. Even though she mentions reconciling her faith on the front cover, she concedes that arguing from Scripture for abortion is a very weak argument.

Let's first talk about a couple of good points. She talks about wanting to find common ground with pro-life people. This is great, since most abortion-choice writers don't seem very inclined to do that. This approach isn't novel -- it is an approach taken by many pro-life people, but it is a novel approach to see from an abortion-choice advocate who is not a philosopher, although some of the things she says in her book makes me think this is mere lip service and she's not being sincere.

Additionally, she is willing to concede the weakness of some abortion-choice arguments, such as arguments that try to appeal to prooftexts from Scripture.

However, despite the fact she can see the weakness in Biblical arguments, she doesn't see the weakness in the argument that pro-life people aren't *really* pro-life, they're just "pro-birth", only interested in birthing children or controlling womens' bodies: they are pro-capital punishment and they oppose government-funded healthcare and access to contraception. This is one of those things that leads me to believe she's not sincere about wanting to find common ground. For one thing, she doesn't understand the distinction between what pro-life people view as killing an innocent human child and putting to death a convicted murderer after being given due process. Second, many pro-life people (especially Libertarians) oppose government-funded healthcare and "access to contraception" (which usually just means "making the taxpayer pay for it") is that they oppose the government stealing money from taxpayers and giving it to someone who doesn't have a natural claim on it. For someone who is an Episcopal preacher and I would imagine takes the Ten Commandments seriously, I would wonder why she doesn't understand why some pro-life people think stealing is wrong, even if it's from the government.

On page 37, she also makes the tired argument that making abortion illegal won't stop them from happening. This is another argument in which she doesn't seem to be able to recognize the weakness of it -- making rape, theft, and murder illegal hasn't stopped them, either. But someone who commits those acts deserves to be punished for them.

Shlesinger's main argument for abortion can be found on pages eight and nine: we do not live in an ideal world, where men and women share equal responsibility for caring for a child, and there are diseases like the Zika virus, so women need contraception, including access to safe abortions (yes, she seems to believe abortion is a form of contraception). This is just the standard feminist argument, that regardless of whether or not the unborn are alive or persons, women need abortion because the world has "stacked the deck" against them. Unfortunately she doesn't seem to realize the weakness of this argument is that it justifies a woman taking the life of any child at any age.

Shlesinger takes two chapters to talk about the history of abortion, and while her history is more or less accurate, she does leave out some things which are detrimental to her case. For example, she tries to argue that the real reason abortion was made illegal in the United States (before quickening, in which it was already illegal) is because of reasons like doctors not wanting the competition from doctors without medical training who were doing abortions, so they formed the AMA. Requiring doctors to have a medical license to practice put these less educated practitioners out of business and they took a strict anti-abortion stance. Of course, this argument doesn't make sense to me, because why wouldn't these doctors continue to do abortions discretely, even while putting these other practitioners out of business? After all, according to Mary Calderone, 90% of illegal abortions prior to 1973 were still done by doctors in good standing in their communities. But Shlesinger leaves out the real reason abortion was made illegal before quickening -- in the 1800s, the science of embryology had discovered that life begins at fertilization. So abortion was made illegal before the point of quickening once when life began was discovered.

She also states, on p. 27, that abortion was illegal for 100 years, from 1873 Comstock Act to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, but the reality is that abortion was always illegal in the United States, even prior to 1873, past the point of quickening, because medical science had not yet made the discovery of when life begins. You can read more about refuting some myths about the history of abortion in Joseph Dellapenna's fine book, Dispelling the Myths of Abortion History.

She also consistently conflates the issues of life and personhood. Life can be a philosophical concept, but it is also a biological one -- the unborn are biologically alive from fertilization. She argues that there is no consistent position on when personhood begins, as if that means there is no wrong answer.

Shlesinger, also, appears to be quite ignorant of the literature on abortion. She doesn't have a discussion on personhood, only asserting that there is no consensus on it. And the one philosopher she does quote -- Joel Feinberg -- it is not a direct quote, but a quote of Katha Pollitt quoting Joel Feinberg. She does not interact with any of the pro-life thinkers' arguments for the personhood of the unborn (e.g. Frank Beckwith, Christopher Kaczor, Alex Pruss, or Russell DiSilvestro). She also doesn't seem to know what arguments abortion-choice philosophers make for their position. She also quotes another philosopher -- Sydney Callahan -- regarding a statement on feminism, but she refers to Callahan as "him" (Sydney Callahan is a woman, a pro-life feminist, and her husband, Daniel, is an abortion-choice philosopher).

So what pro-life arguments does Shlesinger interact with? Not the argument that abortion is wrong because it intentionally kills an innocent human being. Not the argument that the unborn are persons because they are individual substances of a rational nature. Not even the Biblical argument that abortion is wrong because the unborn are human beings, and God has commanded us not to murder Exodus 20:13, Deuteronomy 5:17), that God hates the shedding of innocent blood (Proverbs 6:16-19), and that child sacrifice had never even entered into God's mind to command (Jeremiah 19:5). These are the arguments that she does interact with:

-Ultrasound technology has made personhood arguments more persuasive to people. While this is true, this is certainly not the argument pro-life people make for why the unborn are persons. Personhood depends on what something is, not what it looks like.

-Psalm 139; while Shlesinger is right to criticize the use of this passage, what she fails to take into consideration is that the psalmist considers himself to have been himself while in the womb. In other words, this inspired psalmist taught a continuity of identity from the womb.

-Jeremiah 1:4-5; she is also right to criticize the use of these verses. After all, taken literally it would seem that God was saying we existed prior to our conception, which is not an orthodox Christian view. It would seem that the point of these verses is not to teach that unborn children are alive so much as to show God's foreknowledge.

-Amos 1:13; now we're getting a bit more murky. This verse says "Thus says the Lord, for three transgressions of the Ammonites, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they have ripped open pregnant women in Gilead in order to enlarge their territory." Shlesinger asserts that we need to look at the context, and the context is that God is proclaiming judgement and destruction of Israel's neighbors for their wickedness and brutality. The punishment is for war crimes, not for surgical abortions chosen by the woman and performed by a licensed professional. I haven't really looked into this, so I'll take her word for it. As I mentioned above, there are better verses to use, ones that Shlesinger doesn't respond to.

-Third trimester John the Baptist leaping in Elizabeth's womb at the approach of Mary with first trimester Jesus in her womb. Shlesinger's response here is that John the Baptist was past the point of quickening, and this was a special one, as the one chosen to herald the arrival of Christ, so using it to support fetal personhood is a stretch. At least for this passage, Shlesinger's response is less than persuasive.

That should suffice. So to quickly recap, this is a book to skip. Not only is her argument just a rehash of the feminist argument and she doesn't add anything new to the discussion, but she also doesn't have knowledge of the literature on abortion. There are better books out there.


  1. John the Baptist leapt in his mother's womb because either he was in the presence of Mary or he was in the presence of Jesus. Nowhere in the New Testament does Mary's presence affect anyone else. But Jesus's presence does seem to have this power. So, it makes most sense that unborn baby John's leap as a reaction to Jesus's presence. And Jesus was only a few days old embryo in Mary's womb.

    Also, John's mother, Elizabeth refers to Mary as the mother of her Savior -- not the future mother of her future Savior. Jesus, the embryo, was her current Savior and Mary was that Savior's current mother.


All comments are moderated. We reject all comments containing obscenity. We reserve the right to reject any and all comments that are considered inappropriate or off-topic without explanation.