Sunday, August 4, 2013


[NOTE: My first posting of this blog had a title which unfortunately suggested personal attack on anti-abortionists--not my style of argument.  Still, I believe that they are getting credit for a position which, I believe, reflects ignorance, arrogance, and intolerance.  As I wrote in the cover of the version which I distributed to my email list, "The anti-intellectual intransigence, dogma-based demagoguery, and coercive legislation of the anti-abortionists have had the covering of their presumed concern with human life.  I no longer am willing to grant them honorable or decent intentions; I do not think that they care about human life because of their indifference to the life-impairing consequences of their cause.  At some point, intentions must take account of, and be accountable for, consequences; anti-abortionists are unwilling to explain or justify themselves--which tells me as much as I need to know now, after all these years."  This judgment is harsh, but it is certainly less harsh than the hardships and miseries which anti-abortionists would or do impose on women denied the freedom of choice in the private lives.]

Diverse people have diverse moral and religious attitudes, beliefs, practices, and principles.  Most people give credit to those who sincerely hold or strictly observe them, whatever they are.  I do not.  For people of a democratic mindset, the sincerity with which convictions are held or the strictness with which conduct is observed is no proof of their reasonableness or legitimacy, and no justification for imposing them on others.  I start with a belief that American democracy is a civil society which leaves matters of morals and religion to the unfettered and unforced choices of its citizens.

Those who do not start with that belief are basically of a dogmatic theocratic mindset which places moral or religious rule over democratic rule.  If so, they are little different from theocrats throughout the world.  Ironically, if they are fundamentalist Christians, they are not much different from fundamentalist Muslims whose Sharia law they decry.  Indeed, such a dogmatic mindset is almost invariably supported by ignorance, arrogance, or intolerance—or some combination of these three.

The untenable position, usually hypocritical or duplicitous, is the claim that one can be committed to American democracy, individual freedom, and religious freedom; and that one can support anti-abortion legislation and regulation based on a definition of life.  For moral and religious opinions differ on this critical definition, so legalizing one definition means “illegalizing” another—and violating someone’s rights.

No society influenced by any of the three Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, Islam—has encouraged abortion; indeed, all discourage it.  All seek to protect the unborn and accord pregnant women special protections and privileges.  However, to employ an Aristotelian distinction, all three faiths have traditionally distinguished the potential for life of the unborn from the actuality of life of the born.  The moment at which all three faiths have traditionally recognized that potentiality was the moment of “quickening,” the first detectible movements on the unborn.  Aristotle declared that the moment of quickening was the moment at which the soul entered the unborn and gave it the potentiality of life.  What existed before quickening, or ensoulment, was morally and religiously insignificant; what existed after was significant, but, depending on the faith, to varying degrees.

Obviously, the definition of life is critical, for it distinguishes a mere organic growth like a tumor from a human being.  As we define life, so we define personhood.  The ignorance, willful or not, of anti-abortionists is to deny or ignore that these definitions are cultural stipulations, not facts, much less scientific facts, for they have changed over time as culture has changed.

For centuries, the three Abrahamic faiths did not much change their definitions of life or personhood.  Judaism has never regarded quickening as a boundary between pre-personhood and personhood; although recognizing the potential of the unborn after quickening, it has always defined life as beginning at breach.  Under the influence of Aristotle’s idea of ensoulment, Christianity and Islam have accepted quickening as a boundary between pre-personhood and personhood.  Until recently, such has been the position of the Catholic Church as articulated by St. Thomas Aquinas, since the 13th century.

The recent adoption of a definition of life as beginning at the moment of conception thus amounts to a radical rejection of previous Christian doctrine on the subject.  Whatever the reasons for this change—and they seem more political than theological—, the fact of the change reveals that the definition of life is a matter of culturally influenced revision, not a discovery of some new and eternal truth.  To think so is to disclose ignorance of, or indifference to, the actual truth of the matter.

Then to act as if this new definition is an immutable moral or religious principle, in ways affecting the moral or religious convictions or conduct of others, is to compound ignorance with arrogance.  Even the trimester approach of the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade (1973) implicitly adopts an essentially Christian definition of life.  However, its decision allows for abortion in the second and third trimesters for rape, incest, or the health of the mother; and thereby relaxes the definition in the direction of Jewish priorities, which regard the potential life of the unborn as less important than the actual life of the born.

In this context, the more recent revision of the definition of life is a move in the direction, not of moral and religious enlightenment, but of barbarism.  If life is defined as a occurring at the moment of conception and the zygote is defined as a person, then, of course, the causes of conception are irrelevant and, in effect, legitimize a pregnancy by rape or incest regardless of the woman’s wishes.  Ant-abortionists will not say so, but the extension of their thinking is that no harm is done, so no crime is committed, and rape and incest atrophy as criminal offenses.

The same moral and religious insensitivity applies in the case of the woman’s life or health.  Prohibiting abortion which threatens a woman’s life or health—who defines what and how severe the threat is, if not the woman in consultation with her doctor?—declares pregnancy an entirely different kind of medical condition and denies a woman the right to address that condition.  Indeed, if the zygote-embryo-fetus is a person, and if its continued growth threatens the life or health of the woman, anti-abortionists deny the woman the universally recognized right to defend herself.  In no other circumstance does the law deny a person that basic right.

This barbaric thinking overrides any regard for the moral and religious traditions, not only of Jews and Muslims, but also of most Christians.  But the override is most apparent in the case of Judaism.  In earlier blogs or columns, I have noted that some politicians (locally, Republican Congressman Steve Pearce) have issued statements about the importance of religious freedom in the relatively minor case of certain standard provisions for abortion insurance in the case of medical facilities operated by religious organizations, serving the public, and receiving public funds.  Their objections were plainly fueled by their loathing of the Affordable Care Act, since they had never before objected to previous provisions of a similar kind.  In those same blogs or columns, I have noted that anti-abortion legislation, proposed or enacted, would contravene Jewish religious freedom.  From them, not a word about the right of Jews to religious freedom.

It follows that their anti-abortion positions, now rooted in novel redefinitions of life and personhood, are contrary to Jewish convictions and conduct, and disregard the religious rights of Jews.  If not, I would challenge them or other anti-abortionists to explain how, in this American democracy and under the First Amendment’s provision for religious freedom, anti-abortion legislation is not an establishment of religion contrary to Jewish convictions and conduct, and an infringement upon the rights of Jews to religious freedom.  In the absence of a response consistent with Jewish, not Christian, thinking, I believe that anti-abortionists are intolerant in at least one very specific way; they are anti-Semitic.

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