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.