Sunday, December 4, 2011

Should Abortion be Legal?

Roe v. Wade (1973) will surely go down in history as one of the most infamous decisions ever made by the U.S. Supreme Court. It was marked by a strained, if not to say tortured exegesis of the Constitution, and led to a morally outrageous conclusion.

In Roe the court took up the question of the constitutionality of state anti-abortion laws. The case basically involved two separate questions: 1) Is the life of an unborn child protected by the Fourteenth Amendment, and 2) Does the Constitution grant a woman the right of privacy which includes the right to have an abortion? On the surface one might have thought that the case would have been an easy one to decide. The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments explicitly forbid the taking of anyone's "life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." On the other hand there is no mention of abortion anywhere in the Constitution at all. If it can be demonstrated that an unborn child is a living human being, then surely its life must be protected by the law.                    

Surprisingly, the court arrived at the exact opposite conclusion. What made the decision so bizarre is that the court took two completely different approaches to answer the two questions. On the first question they took a very narrow, legalistic approach: an unborn child is not a legal "person," and therefore is not included in the Fourteenth Amendment protections. On the second question they took the exact opposite approach, interpreting the Constitution in a very broad, expansive manner: the right of privacy, which is not spelled out anywhere in the Constitution, supposedly includes the right to have an abortion. Mr. Justice Blackmun, writing for the majority, admitted that a generalized right of privacy was not explicitly mentioned anywhere in the document, but he thought it might be implied in any one of a number of different provisions. But whatever it was and wherever it was, he was sure that it included the right to have an abortion. One cannot help but wonder if the outcome was dogmatically contrived: the justices found in the Constitution what they wanted to find.    

    In a sense we do hope that the Constitution does at least imply a right to privacy, but the right to privacy does not include the right to commit a crime. You do not have the right to kill your mother-in-law, even if it is done in the privacy of your own home. The right of privacy merely protects you against unreasonable searches and seizures.

    Perhaps the most disturbing feature of Roe v. Wade is the tacit implication that there is no longer any sanctity to human life. Mr. Justice Blackmun asserted that "we need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins," and then went on to argue that the State of Texas may not, "by adopting one theory of life," override the rights of a pregnant woman. Thus he tacitly admitted the possibility that life might begin at conception, but argued that it does not matter if it does. The unborn child still does not have a right to life. The sanctity of human life perished on that cold, wintery day in January, 1973.

    Each year almost a million legal abortions are performed in the U.S.*

    What does God think about all of this? One clue is what He thought of the ancient Canaanites. One of the reasons He condemned them was because of a practice connected with the worship of a deity named Molech. The worship of Molech involved human sacrifice, specifically by making children pass through a fire. What God told Israel about this practice was instructive.

    First of all, the practice had the effect of polluting or defiling the land. When Cain slew Abel God said to him: "The voice of your brother's blood cries out to Me from the ground. So now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand" (Gen. 4:10,11; NKJV). And so it was with regard to the Canaanites. "For the land is defiled; therefore I visit the punishment of its iniquity upon it, and the land vomits out its inhabitants" (Lev. 18:25).

    Secondly, this and other like practices are called "abominations" (vv. 26,27,29,30). An "abomination" is something that God considers loathsome or detestable. Nowadays we might say that it is something that "grosses you out." It is an offense that is particularly flagrant and serious.

    Child sacrifice was a barbaric and inhumane practice, something that runs counter to the natural sympathy that should exist between parent and child. God made it clear that Israel was to live by a different standard. Leviticus 19, which falls right in the middle of God's indictment of the Canaanites, contains exhortations to regard the poor, the deaf, the blind, the elderly and the foreigner. In a word, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (v. 18).

    The fate of the Canaanites raises some disturbing questions about the possible fate of America. If God regards abortion as a moral outrage, and if our destiny is ultimately in His hands, it bodes ill for the future. All around are signs of impending doom: mired in foreign wars, sinking beneath a mountain of debt, a crumbling family structure, even erratic weather patterns and appearance of invasive species, we show every sign of a civilization in decline. Could it be that God is telling us something?


*estimated annual average for years 2001-2006=985,685


  1. If god is omnipotent and omnipresent, then he is the greatest of abortionists, with about a third of all human pregnancies spontaneously aborted. If abortion was an abomination to him, why allow this to continue? No doubt you will come up with what you think is an appropriate apology for god in this matter.

    Your line of thinking about abortion is very convoluted, assuming as you do that abortion is really a religious question about morality rather than a medical issue that involves human rights. I'm sure you would feel it's none of my business, for example, to proclaim that because some ancient writings claim god is concerned about the spilling of the male seed I therefore have the religiously sanctioned moral duty to make proclamations and legal restrictions about exactly how you use it.

    The sad fact of this matter is that there is no boundary religion will recognize - including the constraints of reality - to its proclamations and intentional interferences in the daily lives of real people. Your argument about Roe vs Wade is simply facile to serve your biased religious agenda.

  2. The question is, what are human rights? Where do they come from? How do we know what they are?
    In the final analysis human rights are a matter of morality. The Declaration of Independence says, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." But if there is no Creator, then are there still "unalienable rights"? Who bestows these rights? And what makes them "unalienable"?
    No less a person than President Obama made this observation: "To say that men and women should not inject their 'personal morality' into public-policy debates is a practical absurdity; our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition" (The Audacity of Hope, pb. ed., p.218).
    Since when does the taking of human life become a matter of personal choice?

  3. Well, you could look up descriptions of human rights if you are confused about what they are. You might even try Wikipedia.

    From the religious point of view there is simply nothing in existence that is not within its domain nor exempt from its moral pronouncements. I would be very surprised if you allowed a special exemption from this arrogance on behalf of human rights.

    The US Constitution - and we are talking about whether abortion should be legal, which means we're talking about the Constitution rather than the Declaration here - does not outlaw abortion. What the ruling does declare is that abortion bans are unconstitutional. The tricky part of the ruling is about one of personal rights versus legitimate government interests. The government has a legitimate interest in protecting the life of an embryo or fetus, but embryos and fetuses do not have rights themselves unless and until it can be determined that they are human persons. Women, in contrast, are known human persons. Human persons have rights that an embryo or fetus does not have until its personhood can be established. That's the real legal issue here, one that you gloss over in your zeal to make a fertilized egg an equivalent person. And if you honestly believed this, then you really would hold your god to be the greatest of all abortionists.

    Regarding what Obama has written here (assuming the quote is correct), each part of this statement is in need of justifiable withering criticism for its abject stupidity. But I keep in mind that he says what he needs to say to mitigate the exercise of religious stupidity against him.

    commonly understood as inalienable fundamental rights to which a person is inherently entitled simply because she or he is a human being

  4. Oops, sorry about that last part paragraph. I didn't see it when I commented. My bad.

  5. Your analysis of Roe v. Wade is very good, and accords very well with the Justice Blackmun's opinion. Not bad for a person from a British Commonwealth country! And you are right that the question hinges on whether or not the fetus is a human person.
    I am astonished, however, that you could accuse the former editor of the Harvard Law Review of "abject stupidity." I certainly am not an admirer of the man's policies, but he is quite intelligent, is a gifted writer, and has the capacity to look at both sides of the issue. The quote was taken from the chapter "Faith" in "The Audacity of Hope." In the chapter he shows a surprisingly good understanding of the "religious Right" in America.
    You are also basically correct in saying that "From the religious point of view there is simply nothing in existence that is not within its domain or exempt from its moral pronouncements." The obvious question is, does God exist? If he does, then everything is ultimately subject to His will and law. If, on the other hand, He does not exist, then we are looking at a radically different state of affairs. It is at this point that it becomes difficult to identify any universal values. As an atheist I assume that you are thoroughly versed in Nietzsche and are aware of the difficulties.
    I personally am convinced that there is ample proof for the existence of God and that Christianity rests on a solid foundation of objective fact. You may want to look at some of the articles I posted in October and early November to see where I'm coming from. I don't claim that they are the last word in science, philosophy, or religion -- blog posts are much too short for that. You will have to consult Aquinas and Nietzsche for that!
    As a Baptist let me hasten to assure you that I am a firm believer in the separation of church and state, and in freedom of conscience, principles for which our spiritual forebears fought long and hard. Most conservative Christians of my acquaintance are not interested in establishing a theocracy in America.
    This does not mean, however, that the law can be separated from morality. The issue of slavery is a case in point. Many churches in the American north actively supported the abolitionist movement. Many southern white slaveholders took your position - it was a matter of established law, morality had nothing to do with it, and the churches should stay out of politics. John Brown, who really was a religious fanatic, tried to incite a slave revolt and was hanged as a result. The U.S. Supreme Court weighed in with a ruling that the Negro had no rights that the white man was bound to respect (Dred Scott, 1857). Who was right? Who was wrong? Who decides? Does might make right? When it was all over the country had been torn apart by civil war, thousands lay dead and the South was in ruins. President Lincoln's final comment was to quote Scripture: "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether" (Psalm 19:9). American had gotten what it deserved.
    You seem a little more sane and rational when commenting on my blog than when you are writing on your own. It's easy for a preacher to get "wound up" when preaching to the faithful! I am sorry about calling your blog a "dark den" - it's just that Mr. Katesby has a habit of generating more heat than light. You seem very passionate about social issues - you may want to take a quick look at my "Letter to a Unitarian Minister" (11/11).

  6. I'm going to respond to this in two parts. I apologize in advance for the length, but I think it's necessary to address the central problem that faith presents in the public domain.

    Getting away from abortion here for a moment - a medical issue I very much see as pro-human rights and choice versus anti-human rights and anti-choice in practice - I think you've pointed out the central problem of trying to use religious belief to help guide or explain temporal affairs.

    You write, The obvious question is, does God exist? If he does, then everything is ultimately subject to His will and law. If, on the other hand, He does not exist, then we are looking at a radically different state of affairs. It is at this point that it becomes difficult to identify any universal values.

    The most sympathetic and intellectually honest mind-independent answer to the important question Does god exist? is "I don't know." That is as good as it gets given the available evidence that informs the tens of thousands of different, competing, and often incompatible religions - present and past - that answer that question with a positive response. (The fervor you have for your christian version is no different than the fervor of the jainist or muslim or scientologist all claiming to have insight into god's role in human affairs.) This general situation could be radically altered if the religious themselves could at the very least come up with a consistent and compatible model of god they agreed on, but even this - solely within the ranks of believers - is impossible. And it's impossible because the answer to the god hypothesis is mind-dependent. It is within the mind alone where the god hypothesis is answered, which is why faith (in the religious sense of the term, meaning belief that something is true without compelling evidence existing independent of mind) is a necessary component. (We have no need for faith in matters that have compelling and demonstrable evidence to sustain them.) In all other areas of our lives, such faith is considered a liability, a barrier, to interacting honestly with reality... but not in religious belief, you'll note. This is a very strong indication that anyone who accepts religious faith as a virtue does so for reasons other that the veracity of the truth claim from reality that god exists. In other words, the motivation to believe god exists and is real does not come from reality itself (where the evidence should be overwhelming) but from within the person who wishes to believe. Hence the vital importance of revelation for faith claims rejected in all other areas of human inquiry and knowledge.

    That said, it is little wonder that the person who wishes to believe attempts to overlay reality with their beliefs. The whole universe and everything it contains suddenly becomes subject to the beliefs rather than the other way around. Understandably, this way of perceiving reality - through faith that god exists and has causal effective agency - becomes an epistemological gong show.

    For example, you dip into your religious beliefs to make a case for moral concerns. You understand that to concede any ground to what is true in reality (in this case regarding biological morality) will undermine your religious authority to determine reality. This is why you will not pay serious attention to the results from honest inquiry into the role biology plays in your moral attitudes. You have already rejected based on the faith you hold for your religious beliefs any role for reality that threatens to relegate your god out of an authoritative position in regards to moral considerations. This is a problem that inserts itself right at the beginning of any inquiry into moral concerns, erecting from a weak hypothesis (god exists) this moral authority as if it were actual rather than simply believed.

  7. The flip side of this insertion is the attempt by all kinds of theists to suggest that their faith claims are a merely a balance to secular and temporal inquiries about morality... as if both were equally well informed from reality. This is patently untrue in the same way an astrophysicist's understanding of the universe is somehow balanced by Fred who believes the night sky is really a big blanket with some holes in it thrown up and over us by a Really Big Fellow.

    In other words, many believers will pay what amounts to lip service to honest inquiry and accept reality's contribution right up to the point where it threatens the fundamental belief in the god hypothesis. For example, many theists are quite willing to accept the fact of evolution right up to abiogenesis but then insist that any "I don't know" position from scientific inquiries is the green light to insert god, and we have a very long history of god having to be forcibly removed from every nook and cranny of our superstitious minds as we gain mind-independent knowledge.

    The throwback to using the Greek sense of 'natural philosophy' in the face of modern scientific inquiry by theists of all stripes is a good indication of trying to get around today's dominance of understanding reality as it is by using methodological naturalism. I read this all the time by religious apologists up and down the theistic line, bringing back the old ideas of mind/body dualism, first causes, moral imperatives, platonic forms, and all the various arguments from metaphysics and the big brained people from history who supported these approaches once upon a time to areas of reality where the honest answer was "I don't know". But our methodology - our epistemology - into our inquiries of nature have advanced tremendously and we know that metaphysics is simply insufficient to provide us with any equivalently applicable and practical knowledge about reality. Yet theists are stuck with what they've got: their faith and a broken epistemology of metaphysics upon which to support their faith over reality. Do you honestly think that Jefferson, for example, would still call on any Creator if he lived today for the basis of his notion of inalienable rights in the Declaration? But look how easily you fail to notice not a single shred of respect for any such agent to play any role at all in the Constitution. Simply compare and contrast similar state constitutions written at the time and you will quickly realize how radical a departure the US Constitution is dropping all god references. And this is no mystery: the bottom up political entity being created was a radical departure from the top down political norms... and that includes any supposed power derived from god! But theists don't want to see this as it is; they want to focus on the Founders having some kind of religious ties so that can pretend the nation should be a christian one.

  8. This is how you attempt to justify your religious interference in the public domain... by doing the two-step shuffle. First you believe that your god authorizes human morality, then pretend that any moral considerations in the public domain must naturally involve religion! (There's more to it, of course, involving values but I'm just cutting to the chase.) This is the way you then justify religion's role in law (in direct contrast to where political authority for law comes from in the Constitution), religion's role in medicine, religion's role in public policy, religion's role in governance, religion's role in scientific inquiry, religion's role in education, and so on.

    I can already hear you denying this, that you are in strong support of separation of church and state and freedom of conscience from any one particular religion. But as soon as we find out what your religious belief looks like in action, we do in fact find you hiding it under the disguise of moral concerns. Under this heading, you very much mean to insert your religious beliefs into the public domain and are, in fact, dedicated to promoting exactly this not on the basis that your moral concerns (derived you believe from your faith in the god that you believe exists) are better informed or carry any more authority than any other believed in position, but because you simply believe they are.

    What if they're not? What if, in reality, you're quite mistaken in your beliefs?

    One of the tests to see how honest one's position or opinion actually is in reality is to try to answer the following question honestly: "What would convince me that I'm wrong?"

    If your answer is "Nothing" then that's a pretty good indication that your beliefs dominate your intellectual honesty. The bad news is that any and all conclusions you've reached based on the presumption of truth to the belief claims you hold renders all to be equally closed to reality. The good news is that this intellectual position is reversible.

  9. I readily plead "guilty" to the charge of "trying to get around today's dominance of understanding reality as it is by using methodological naturalism" by "bringing back the old ideas of mind/body dualism, first causes, moral imperatives, platonic forms, and all the various arguments from metaphysics." That is, after all, what the whole debate is about. I will try to respond in detail in a separate blog post - or two, my rough draft is already quite long. It may be a couple of days before I can get them up on the blog. Stay tuned, and thanks for commenting (in a civil manner!).

  10. If the whole debate is about the use of metaphysics as 'another way of knowing', then it's already over because "we know that metaphysics is simply insufficient to provide us with any equivalently applicable and practical knowledge about reality." And the way to test this conclusion is to produce contrary evidence, that metaphysics produces knowledge of a similar kind to methodological naturalism, meaning insight into reality that works for everyone everywhere all the time.

    Once we get past this belief that metaphysics produces knowledge about reality and accept that it does not then we can get to the heart of the debate about what it is that informs our positions about issues like abortion.

    My hope is that I can help bring about a better understanding that your beliefs are insufficient to promote your metaphysical position beyond yourself. In other words, by all means use your beliefs to circumscribe your own actions and decisions about your life and how you live it but don't try to impose them on others who do not choose to subscribe to those same beliefs.

    As reasonable as this is, many believers simply cannot do this.

    This is where the tyranny of religious belief becomes obvious, when believers themselves fail to control the imposition of their beliefs on others but work tirelessly to accomplish exactly the opposite: to insert their beliefs into and upon the lives of others without any equal and due respect for another to enjoy the same right as the believer to exercise their own beliefs as they see fit, to circumscribe their lives as they see fit without the state somehow imposing privilege and favoritism on some religiously inspired faith-based beliefs.

    If believers would recognize and respect that separation of church and state MEANS controlling one's faith-based beliefs to apply only to one's private domain, we would get along just fine. It is because believers try to improperly and disrespectfully extend those faith-based beliefs into the public domain, that it becomes only right and proper to exert equal push-back from those willing to respect equal rights and equal freedoms, the very secular basis that allows you as a believer the personal dignity to believe and implement what you want over your own life without state interference.