Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Humanist Perspectives On The Abortion Debate

The abortion debate can and should be held without reference to Christian belief [which I think humanists would prefer] but it rarely is because most of the anti-abortion advocates base their argument in religion. So I will comment from the Christian Humanist perspective by reminding readers that not all religions or even all Christian churches and denominations are part of the anti-abortion movement. The religion-based anti-abortion crowd is pretty much limited to the Roman Catholic Church and various evangelical and fundamentalist Protestant groups that make common cause with them.

Among the various Christian denominations, churches and advocacy groups there are three fundamentally different approaches to the controversial issue of abortion and abortion right.

The anti-abortion Christians largely consist of the Roman Catholic Church and the extreme right of Protestant Christianity (the fundamentalists and the evangelicals), including Southern Baptists.

The middle group consists of some denominations that take a “nuanced” stance, neither supporting nor opposing abortion but stressing the duty of Christians to recognize that there are valid arguments on both sides of the issue and that each Christian must make his own decision on the specific facts and circumstances and in the light of his or her faith conviction. This middle group includes most Lutheran denominations, the American Baptist Association, and southern Presbyterians.

The third group supports abortion rights. This latter group consists of the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Lutheran Women’s Caucus.

A check with the web sites of these various denominations and groups will provide the specifics of each group’s position. However, individual Christians within each of these denominations often differ from their denomination’s position. For example, there are groups of pro-choice Catholics and anti-abortion Lutherans.

When I was a student in theological school in the late 1950s abortion was not an issue. Curiously until 1980 the Southern Baptists, a conservative evangelical denomination with a history of supporting individual rights, took the position that the right to abortion was a matter of individual freedom. Everything changed with the culture wars that began in the 1980s when the Republicans wanted a foothold among southern conservative Democrats and allied themselves with religious conservatives, using abortion as a wedge issue. It worked. The South is now largely Republican and anti-abortion rights.

The majority of Protestants do not accept the argument of the anti-abortion religionists that a fetus is a human being, or an “unborn baby.” Anti-abortionists have been trying to argue the point (unsuccessfully I think) that terminating a fetus is the same thing as killing a child. We beg to differ on that point for a number of common sense reasons and, for those whose beliefs are presumed to be Christian, for theological reasons as well. We affirm strongly that a fetus is not a child.

Some Christians (including your non-theistic writer!) hold that a human life comes into being at birth when the “breath of life” enters the child and it begins breathing. Traditionally it has been understood that a human being becomes such at birth when it is independent of the mother and breathing on its own and is then considered a child or a baby. Prior to birth it is a fetus, not a child. Consider that a fertilized egg is not a chicken, and we could extend that analogy to note that tadpoles are not frogs, larvae are not grasshoppers, and pine cones are not pine trees.

Traditionally the reason that a human being becomes recognized as such at birth goes back to the Genesis birth stories and is an element of Christian theology. In the Genesis story a human being was born when god breathed the “spirit of life” or “breath” into the new human being. Traditionally this is the point in theology that the “soul” (which is another name for the spirit of life, or ruach in Hebrew) enters the body and a new living human being is born. The issue of when a new human being comes into existence becomes complicated to the point of absurdity by the theological issue of the “soul” and whether the soul comes into being at the birth of a human child, or whether it is pre-existing and enters the body at birth, and how the “soul” relates to the fetus.

I do not understand why fundamentalist Christians, who say they believe quite literally in the Bible, seem to be unaware of this concept, which is a very traditional part of Christian theology. [This is not my belief, but is noted for those who hold that belief. I am a humanist, who happens to believe that the teachings of Jesus are worth taking seriously as an ethical guide, thus a Christian Humanist.]

Anti-abortion supporters have a right to their views, to abstain from abortion if they believe it is morally wrong, and to try to persuade others of the legitimacy of their position. They do not have a right to force their beliefs on the rest of us, to compel others to act or not act in accordance with their values, or to deprive the rest of us of our right to act in accordance with our beliefs. In a pluralistic society it has to be that way. Both the pro-choice and the anti-abortion positions are religious interpretations that have support from Christian believers, but they are religious beliefs and the secular laws of the land should not interfere with the religious rights of either side.

Those who believe that abortion is wrong and wish to abstain from abortion are free to refrain, and those who believe differently (for whom it is a private and often painful decision) should also be able to act on their beliefs without interference from the law. We live in a secular democracy. We do not believe, as do the Taliban whose views we are fighting, that religious views of one group should be written into law.

We should make the point here that because we support the right of women to have an abortion if their personal circumstances make that decision desirable or necessary, that does not mean we are “pro abortion” any more than we are “pro appendectomy” or “pro heart surgery.” Abortion is a medical procedure. Sometimes it is advisable. It needs to be available, as any other medical procedure is available.

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