The meaning of ‘life:’ Confusing metaphysics with morality

Suppose the New Testament told the following story (a modern rendering).

   And Jesus said, “Woman, why do you weep?”

   “I mourn for my child—lost in the womb.”

   “Grieve not for a child. The spirit arrives only with breath.”

The assertion here--that the soul-body connection isn't made until a child breathes--is, I suspect, consistent with the accepted biblical text. Would this passage influence the position on abortion taken by the Catholic Church or a typical evangelical Christian? Might they be inclined not to adopt the strong anti-abortion view so prevalent today? For those who oppose abortion on religious grounds, what are the grounds of opposition?

When covering the abortion issue, media often describe the religion-based condemnation of abortion as a moral objection. Examples abound. In a recent piece on stem-cell research, a National Public Radio correspondent characterized the opponents of harvesting embryonic stem-cells as motivated by morality. The Editors of the Los Angeles Times (October 24) called the stem-cell controversy a “moral debate.” The unmentioned assumption or suggestion here is that the proponents of using embryonic material are acting amorally, if not immorally. But, framing the issue in terms of morality amounts to a case of mistaken categories. What moral concern is the opponent of abortion following? That, in general, a person should not harm another person? Surely most pro-choice advocates also accept this fundamental rule of intrinsic human dignity. Instead of having a moral disagreement, the point of conflict between pro-life and pro-choice advocates is whether an embryo or fetus is a person.

A religious believer might come down on the side of embryonic or fetal personhood due to an auxiliary belief in a soul that takes up a mystical residence in a body. Perhaps the body in question is an embryo or fetus. Regarding the embryo or fetus as a person—the meaning of ‘life’ in ‘pro-life’—would then result from a metaphysical position, not a moral one. Someone who balks at the metaphysics of a soul-inhabited fetus could endorse a woman’s right to choose without violating the moral rule against harming other persons.

The metaphysical nature of the abortion dispute could be the source of its seeming intractability as well as good reason for deciding the question on social considerations. Each side looks for evidence—pain sensibility, thought processes, emotions—that the fetus is or is not a person. Of course, profound physiological and philosophical difficulties arise when we attempt to define and discern the emblems of personhood and consciousness. Ultimately, the decision about when a person appears, whether pre or post-natally, is arbitrary.  Something like the classical difficulty involved in determining how many hairs someone has to lose in order to be bald.  Disagreement at this level provides little chance of resolution. This is not to say that we should dismiss the arguments on either side. They deserve examination for coherence and fallacious reasoning. However, the question here is of another sort: Why have many religious believers arbitrarily decided that the appearance of a person occurs at the moment of conception (a notion that is itself not clear-cut) rather than at some other time.

Accounting for individual or collective human behavior is a complex matter. Rarely is there a simple chain of events that explains what led a group of people to act as they have. In the case at hand, we ought to bear in mind that religious organizations often have authoritarian structures in which most or all participants adhere to the doctrinal teaching of a few leaders. So, how did the embryo-as-person claim become doctrine for the leaders of Catholics and evangelicals? The point of the opening hypothetical vignette is that it wasn't through Bible reading. Here's one explanation for the evangelical opposition to abortion; undoubtedly, there are others. (For Catholics, rejection of abortion follows from prohibition of contraception about which we can ask an analogous question.)

The current evangelical anti-abortion movement traces its roots to the teachings of the theologian Francis Shaeffer in the 1970s. Shortly after Shaeffer launched an attack on abortion, Reagan became president and provided evangelicals with a kindred spirit as well as a political champion for their newfound cause célèbre. With the subsequent rise of a “religious right,” the belief in an embryo-person reached the level of dogma.

Shaeffer's anti-abortion stance was a piece in a larger critical reaction to the secular humanism that flourished in the wake of the sixties. A supporting member of what evangelicals perceived as a godless world view was the feminist movement and its call for reproductive freedom. One way to damage the humanist edifice—among others that Shaeffer offered—was to strike at feminism by denouncing abortion as a violation of Christian ethical values. Although this strategy has achieved political success, it lacks intellectual merit. As posed by Christians, the abortion question does not turn on values or morals.