Abortion and the Laws of Nature, Part II

On abortion and other forms of infanticide, Nature gives us the sort of answer she always gives--general rules and statistical averages to which there are exceptions.  (The argument goes back to David Hume.)  From the Christian perspective Nature is the tarnished mirror in which we can only glimpse, obscurely, the true reality.  A face-to-face encounter with Nature's creator is possible only to those who study his word and participate in his sacraments. 

If there are sincere Christians who believe that the taking of innocent human life can be justified on any pragmatic grounds, they are mistaken, dreadfully mistaken, and while it is possible for opponents of abortion to respect those secular antagonists who build their arguments on ecological necessity and constitutional law, they can have nothing but contempt for religious leaders who either defend abortion or make the all-too familiar argument that, while they are opposed in principle, they would not want to impose their views on anyone else.  This is something new under the sun, the apostles of an evangelizing religion who do not wish to impose their views! 

This frivolous attitude among many Protestant theologians was condemned by the signers of the Durham statement as rebellion against God.  Since reverence for innocent life has marked the Christian faith from the very first, distinguishing it from all other religions of the ancient world, a surrender of the Christian position on life is apostasy of the worst sort.  

In a secular nation, the Christian position cannot be the basis of law, although individual Christians must recognize that, quite apart from the Old Testament's prohibition on murder, the whole spirit of the gospels is an affirmation of life.  If the church has sometimes been unclear on the biological and spiritual status of a fetus, it has never departed from the position that the natural and divine end of marriage is the procreation of children.  To frustrate that end is always (to put it as mildly as I can) less good than to fulfill it, and to destroy what we know to be a human life, no matter how "embryonic", can never be justified.

Activists in the pro-life movement do not hesitate to describe abortion as murder, but many Christians refuse to accept that equation.  This reluctance may have something to do with our perception that the moral attitude, in the case of a woman having an early abortion, is different from what her condition must be if she picks up a child and dashes it brains out.  To some ears, this distinction will sound like blasphemy.  Why not call it murder, which is what it was, until recently?  Is motivation the sole criterion by which a crime is to be judged?  No, not motivation but intent, which can be an important, although not sufficient criterion.  In the case of a brutal mass-murderer--a Jeffrey Dahmer or Richard Speck--a jury would bring in a verdict of innocent by reason of insanity, if they were persuaded that the murderer did not recognize the consequences of his actions, if, for example, he truly believed that his victims would reassemble themselves, as in a cartoon, and walk out the door.  

The jurors would bring in a similar verdict if the killer thought he was killing rats, not human beings.  In the opposite case of Sophocles' Ajax, the hero slaughtered sheep under the delusion that he was killing the Greek leaders who had dishonored him by awarding the arms of Achilles to his enemy Odysseus.  The intended victims, you may be sure, did not pardon their comrade because he had been tricked into butchering sheep.  It is generally accepted that "injuries... done in ignorance are mistakes when the person acted on...is other than the actor believed."  [Aristotle, Eth. Nic. V, 1135b]

But, it will be objected, this opens the door to a blanket pardon for all genocidal murderers who look upon their victims as less than human.  Depersonalization of victims is the hallmark of ideological dictatorships that shave the heads of their  victims, put them in uniforms, assign then numbers, and deny them their dignity.  The concentration camp is only the most grotesque form of bureaucracy, and it is all too easy for functionaries in such a system to grow indifferent to the needs and suffering of the beings they have  chosen to regard as less-than-human.  With all this said, a humiliated prisoner with a shaved head remains, for all that have eyes to see, a human being, and if a torturer chooses to believe propaganda, rather than to trust his own senses, he must bear the moral burden of that choice, and even if we assign much of their blame to the system that produced them, torturers are in a morally worse condition than the man who kills for revenge, for lust, or for greed.     

However, the moral condition of women who abort their children may be closer to that of Ajax than Eichman.  In the common Greek view of murder, of course, the fact of killing is the principal consideration.  In Aeschylus's Oresteia, the furies think that Orestes' confession is enough to establish his guilt.  There can be no mitigating circumstances.  At Athens they put animals on trial who had caused the death of a human being.  They even  threw "homicidal" rooftiles into the sea.  Yet even the Athenians recognized motive and intent in assigning punishment.  

Of course, in treating abortion as a "problem" rather than as homicide,  we are putting the mothers who have them on a moral level below animals and rooftiles.   In one sense, this is a reasonable position: the morally numb are scarcely human.  It is, no doubt, the duty of a good Christian (and of a morally responsible pagan) to make sure that women who kill their babies will some day realize, if only for their own good, what they have done.  However, it is probably not helpful, from a Christian perspective, to label women who have had abortions as murderers and baby-killers: passionate language may only stiffen the mothers into a self-righteousness from which there is no return.  What is important, though, is to bring them to a realization of the gravity of the sin they have committed, because the mere fact of killing is not nearly so deadly to the moral sense as the coldness and indifference to life that is inculcated by the public acceptance of prepartum infanticide. 

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

3 Responses

  1. Vince Cornell says:

    It seems there must be some sane middle ground between labeling mothers who aborted their children as murderers on the one hand and holding up mothers who carried their illegitimate babies to term as heroes on the other. Because so many Pro-Life movements have become monomaniacally fixated on this one issue, they seem to have lost the larger Christian or even civilized perspective and now praise lesser sins as virtues so long as the woman in question did not commit an even more heinous sin. But perhaps living on this side of an outrageously promiscuous culture, there’s no place left for social stigmas against lascivious conduct?

    I’m beginning to think that, so long as everything plays out on a national scale, and everyone’s attention is glued to the Mainstream presentations and fabrications, no action can be taken except in absurdist extremes. The last, unreasonable but violent twitches of a nervous system no longer ordered by any kind of brain.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Stigmas? Next you’ll be wanting unsliced bread!

    Abortion is worse than most murders, many of which are committed under extenuating or at least comprehensible circumstances. One spouse may kill the other because of ragging and nagging, and even a straightforward armed robbery of a complete stranger is less grave than the slaughter of one’s own baby. The pro-life propagandists entirely miss the boat by demonizing the doctor, who is a minor player just out to make money or bolster his liberal credentials: It is the mother who is genuinely evil, though on the Aesopian principle that the trumpeter is more guilty than the soldier, we might wish to put journalists at the pinnacle of moral evil.

  3. Curtis says:

    I do think it is an important point that abortion is both distinguishable from and worse than murder. To murder a stranger out of libido dominandi is human, all to human, but to destroy one’s own offspring is a kind of perfect rebellion against both God and one’s own nature, and to rebel against God and our nature properly understood is to necessarily embrace a total moral subjectivism and nihilism.

    Of course, the larger problem is that most people in the West today choose to live in a state of denial and incoherence. They embrace subjectivism because of the intoxicating freedom it provides but are in denial about the morally nihilistic conclusions that necessarily proceed from this subjectivism. Instead, they simultaneously continue to cling to objective moral concepts like God but only to the extent they provide them with reassurance that niceness wins out over meanness in the end, they will go somewhere nice when they die, etc. They incoherently deny the duties and burdens that God demands we bear in exchange for these metaphysical reassurances (which mean something quite different from what they imagine, anyway).

    The pagans, even at their most brutal, are instructive in their honesty. They had abortions but also had exposure of infants, because they were honest enough to know there was no meaningful difference. And they largely only engaged in such practices to preserve resources for other, healthy offspring in the face of potential extreme privations we no longer experience. Even in ancient times, however, such practices were always abhorred by Christians (and Jews – I recently had to listen to an explanation that Judaism does not prohibit abortion – that would be news to Josephus).