A furious assault is taking place on a woman’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy through abortion. This is not restricted to playing fast and loose with fairness in Supreme Court appointments, but it is playing out in the state legislatures, many of whom have passed laws which are clearly unconstitutional under Roe v. Wade, in the hope that the new court will move the goalposts. And it just might. In reaction, liberal states like ours are passing laws to ensure that the right to choose is honored as a mater of state law and that access to abortion will be available to those who need it. Our state legislature has under consideration what is called the Roe Act.
That Act allows physicians to perform abortions for any reason up to twenty-four weeks into a pregnancy, and after that time limit in certain cases. It also allows minors to get abortions without the consent fo a parent or guardian.
I want to talk today about the position of the Roman Catholic church which is so important in the struggle over abortion rights. But I want to start by saying that I respect that church for trying to work out difficult issues and come to a coherent point.
I have worked alongside Roman Catholic activists on a host of issues. Their respect for the sanctity of life makes them allies on issues such as opposition to the death penalty, and humane immigration policies. We have many more areas of agreement with our Roman Catholic neighbors than we have disagreements.
The Roman Catholic Church, speaking through a series of modern Popes, maintains that abortion is wrong because a human life begins at conception. It also, somewhat contrarily, condemns most forms of birth control. These two positions amount to saying that women (and men, for that matter)cannot exercise control over their reproductive functions. For the church, it is as if the twentieth century’s great gains in reproductive technology – the birth control pill, IUDs, etc. had not happened. To top it off, they are also opposed to in vitro fertilization.
All of this in the midst of a population growing at a rate that it will soon outstrip food supply and put ever more carbon into the atmosphere.
Let’s start with one point about language: the abortion debate is not about who’s more in favor of life. The abortion debate is about personhood.
Last month, Dr. Kerry Pound of Beverly, a board member of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, wrote an op ed piece in the Cape Cod Times complaining that the proposed ROE act at the state level does not allow for the concept that a physician performing an abortion has “two patients” – the woman having the procedure and the zygote or fetus. This is a rhetorical hat trick. I have read the act in question, and it is not surprising that it does not contain this theory of Dr. Pound, because the reason for enacting legislation at the state level is to assure Massachusetts women of access to abortion as part of their fundamental right to privacy and bodily autonomy, regardless of the fate of that right in the US Supreme Court. The Act defines abortion as an obstetrical procedure whose goal is other than a live birth. Yes, an obstetrician has a duty to care for the woman and the fetus up to the point where the woman makes a choice to terminate the pregnancy.
To say that after that decision is made, the physician has to continue to treat the fetus as a person is to stand the ordinary meaning of words on its head.
To be a “patient” of a doctor, an entity must first be a “person.” Doctors deal with clumps of living human tissue all the time, but you would not say that the wart the doctor has just cut off, the tumor removed from an organ, the section of the esophagus or stomach or colon cut out of the patient was a separate patient. These bits of tissue are disposed of as medical waste because no one would consider them a living person, though they came from a living person.
What the fetus is is a potential person. Certainly for a woman who wants to carry the fetus to term, that decision implies that every measure will be taken for the well-being of that bit of tissue.
The world abounds in potential people. Every human being of reproductive age carries around in his or her body potential sons and daughters. Men carry around hundred of thousands of sperm, women carry around dozens of eggs. Only a tiny fraction of these potential people will ever be constituted as persons. Yet the Roman Catholic position on both abortion and birth control amounts to saying that it is God’s will that all these possibilities must have a chance of being realized.
Where is there any evidence of God’s intention to promote such fecundity? At the end of the first creation story in Genesis, the seven-day story, God tells the man and woman to “be fruitful and multiply.” One can imagine this advice would be helpful it you’re trying to populate an empty world, but that hasn’t been the case for a long time now.
At the same time, the Bible has plenty of evidence of God’s callous disregard for human life. He wiped out all life on earth in a flood because he was disappointed in the morality of the race he had created. Later, he wiped out two cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, because he did not like their evil ways. He commanded Abraham to kill his only son, and killed all the first-born sons of the Egyptians to pressure Pharaoh to let the Jewish slaves leave.
Yet Pope John Paul II said in Humanae Vitae fifty years ago that birth control by married people is contrary to God’s will: Married Love
“… is fecund. It is not confined wholly to the loving interchange of husband and wife; it also contrives to go beyond this to bring new life into being. “Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the procreation and education of children. Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute in the highest degree to their parents’ welfare.”
As to abortion, what is key is not whether the fetus is living human tissue but whether it is a person. And when it attains the status of a person. So we can say “life begins at conception” and everyone would agree as long as “life” does not equate to “person.”
What is the difference? The law and our moral codes recognize rights and respect the freedoms of persons. Our First Principle commits us to “affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”
I have preached many times about what constitutes a “person,” because it keeps coming up. A riddle which was reported to be Abraham Lincoln’s favorite is “If you call a tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have?” The answer? “Four, because calling a tail a leg does not make it one.” Calling any entity a “person” in our society does not make it one, though calling it that has tremendous ethical, religious and legal consequences. Are corporations “persons”? The Supreme Court has given them rights of free speech which have allowed them to exercise tremendous influence on elections. If Artificial Intelligence achieved some sort of consciousness, would a robot be a person? Would it be murder to turn it off? Are patients with no discernable brain activity still “people” so that life support must be continued indefinitely?
Our laboratories can now produce meat from human consumption that was never part of a living animal. Science is rapidly bending the moral categories of our thought beyond all recognition.
Personhood. What makes a person a person? What is it about an entity which makes us need to treat it with ethical concern, to apply the Golden Rule to it? We have two terms today which are both very vague and are used interchangeably by modern speakers, but their lineage is very different: “soul” and “spirit.“
”Soul” is the English term which translates the Greek psyche, from which we get our scientific disciplines such as psychology and psychiatry. It is an abstract mystical essence of a person, and some people believe it is what may survive immortally. It is very much discussed in Plato’s philosophy, Christian thinkers imported it from Plato.
Plato’s reputation took something of a beating in the last half of the twentieth century, for postmodern thinkers were skeptical that there were such things as essences in things or souls in people.
“Spirit,” on the other hand, is cognate with “breath.” Our English word is derived from Latin Spiritus, which means breath, the Greek is pneuma and the Hebrew is ruach.
Breath is the most obvious physical distinction between a living person and a dead one. If you came to a human form lying on the ground, your first reaction might be to bend down and try to detect breathing to determine whether the person was living or dead.
Thus “soul” is an essentialist term, “spirit” is a vitalist one. This contrast may seem an arcane distinction, but when we start to look at religious attitudes towards a fetus, this distinction takes on importance.
I met an interesting person named Dr. Lisa Fullam at the IRAS conference on Star Island last month. Dr. Fullam is a specialist on Roman Catholic social ethics and feminism.
She told us that the Roman Catholic position that life begins at conception was a relatively recent development. She pointed out that Judaism seems to take a vitalist approach to personhood. In the Garden of Eden story, God forms the first man, Adam, out of the dust, which is Adamah in Aramaic. If God had just formed Adam and left him there, Adam would have been a pile of dust, a non-living entity which no one wold have called a person. To make Adam a living person, God breathed his own breath into the pile of dust. That is what is happening on the front of your Order of service.
Why does this matter? If we say that God’s breath is what makes the difference between a pile of dust and a person, it would follow that the fetus is not a person until she takes her first breath.
What does Jewish law say about abortion? There is a passage in the book of Exodus which reads as follows:
[Exodus 21] 22 When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman's husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. 23 If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”
That latter language is what is called the lex taliones, the law of retaliation which I have discussed before under retribution. The purpose of the law, which is also found in the Code of Hammurabi, is not to encourage retribution but to limit its extent. But the interesting thing in the present connection is the first sentence: if the fight involving the pregnant woman results in miscarriage and there is no further harm done, there shall be a fine. It is clear that the death of the fetus is not to be treated as the killing of a human being. We had a criminal case of this sort in Alabama recently.
Christianity considers itself to be an extension of Judaism, though the religion is changed insofar as Jesus preached different approaches. One would search in vain in the written Gospels for any word of Jesus for or against the Jewish view of abortion I have sketched here.
It should be kept in mind that compared with what we know today, all the ancient peoples had only the vaguest notion of how babies came to be. What they knew is what could be felt with the senses. There comes a time in a pregnancy when the fetus starts moving around and the mother can feel this. This is known as the quickening.
That’s the physical evidence of the fetus. But is the fetus who kicks a “person?” That would depend on the philosophical question of whether it had a soul. Aristotle believed that ensoulment of a fetus did not occur at conception, but weeks later. In fact, a boy baby had a soul 30 days after conception, but a girl baby 60 days.
Some in the early Christian church held that all abortions, whether before ensoulment or quickening or after, were forbidden. However, when Constantine converted the Roman Empire to Christianity, he relaxed the church’s disapproval of abortions. St. Augustine followed Aristotle and believed that abortion before quickening was not wrong, and the same position was taken by St. Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages.
Augustine and Aquinas are two of the pillars of Western Christian thought. How did the Roman Catholic church move from this tolerance of early abortion to the position that the fetus was a person from the moment of conception?
Interestingly, it has to do with another central doctrine of Christianity which I have preached about often: Original Sin. Original sin, the brainchild of Augustine, holds that all humans are awash in sin from the primeval parents’ act of disobedience in eating the fruit of the forbidden tree. This guilt of Adam and Eve is passed on to their descendants because the very act of reproducing involves sex and lust. No one born human can escape this original sin.
But where does Jesus fit in? He was supposed, under the doctrine of the trinity, to have a dual nature, both fully God and fully human. In one of those capacities, wouldn’t he have been tainted with original sin? Some might say, yes, that’s what we mean by incarnation, he becomes flesh. But the writer of Luke’s gospel developed a different solution: Jesus was born of a virgin. So there was no sexual intercourse which produced Jesus, and he therefore got an exception to Original Sin.
But it took more than a millennium to realize that the Virgin Birth of Jesus only pushed the problem back one generation. If Jesus’s physical father was God, there is no taint of sin there, but his mother was human, so wouldn’t original sin have crept in anyhow?
This objection was finally met with the creation of the doctrine of immaculate conception. Under that doctrine, Mary’s own conception took place without sexual union.
There was an interesting 2006 article by the religion reporter for the Irish Times which lays out the chronology of punishment of abortion.
In 1211, Pope Innocent III’s decree Sicut ex, consistent with St. Thomas Aquinas, held that the only abortions punishable were those which took place after “quickening.” In 1588, a Pope decreed that all abortions at whatever stage were forbidden, but only three years later, in 1591 the church went back to the “quickening” threshold.
Things stood that way for 278 years until, in 1869, Pope Pius IX issued Apostolicae Sedis, which provided the penalty of excommunication for abortion performed at any stage during the pregnancy.
So for most of the second millennium, the Roman Catholic church did not teach that life begins at conception. What changed in 1869?
According to this Irish Times article, the change “was dictated, not so much by a decision on when human life began, as by the dogma of the Immaculate Conception promulgated by Pius IX in 1854. It teaches that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was conceived without original sin.”
From my point of view, this is compounding error upon error. First, I don’t think sex is inherently sinful and there is no taint to be born of a sexual union of your parents. Second, I think original sin is a cruel and gloomy doctrine.
Third, I don’t buy an image of God who is in favor of completion or maturity of all possible forms of life. If all plants are allowed to grow to maturity, they will choke the garden. If all animals and all people realize their full reproductive capacity, we will be overrun. We have to weed, we have to cut back and yes we have to kill life forms in order to have a quality of life.
A fetus is not a person, it is a potential person. Before the egg and sperm get together, there are millions of potential people. Let’s say I have just seen a Meryl Streep film, and she has done her wonderful skillful act of making everyone fall in love with her. I go to sleep and dream that I married Meryl Streep and we had three kids. Those are potential persons, but I don’t think that they are close to be actual persons nor does any God I can imagine desire them to be. Only in one corner of my mind do they have even a fleeting imaginary existence.
What is the takeaway here? It is a great irony that the Roman Catholic Church developed the doctrine of Immaculate Conception to rescue the purity of the Virgin Mary from the Augustinian sin of being born of lust and sweat, then, in an attempt to be consistent, applied this timetable of personhood beginning at conception to the problem of abortion so as to render all abortions wrong. Then, a century later, it held that artificial means of birth control were forbidden because God actually approves of the fact that humans engage in lust and sweat to produce babies, and the more babies, the more God likes it. This recruits God into a position of cheerleader for mindless fecundity, and not incidentally deprives women of control of their bodies, which means their lives, their health, their careers. It is little wonder that the Church’s teaching on birth control is ignored in practice by a great majority of Roman Catholics. Instead, they practice what we might call immaculate contraception.
Reading for Immaculate Contraception
Two Patients? Not according to the proposed ROE Act
CC Times June 15, 2019
“Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
– Elie Wiesel
When I began my medical school rotation in obstetrics, I was surprised when the lecturing obstetrician stated, “We are the only specialists who deal simultaneously with two patients.” I was sensitive to any remotely pro-life words during my medical studies. In my early days of higher education, I’d conscientiously tucked my pro-life leanings into a neat, silent, “do not open” box in order to remain well-liked and respected. I remained strongly pro-life ... in silence.
I had to bite my tongue a few times when the inconvenient truth reared its head during medical studies. In embryology class, as we learned the mechanics and timeline of the formation of each organ system in the body, I waited for the lecturer to mention any system that developed beyond 10 weeks of gestation. It never happened. At the conclusion, I wanted to shout, “Ten weeks?! How can any of us be in favor of abortion after learning this?!” But, of course, I didn’t. I did not want to offend the political leanings or sensitivities of my friends. Truth faded into silence.
So, when the obstetrician acknowledged treating two patients, I was relieved to hear it spoken aloud. The message – reiterated numerous times during the rotation – was that the goal of prenatal and labor care was a healthy mother AND baby.
The proposed ROE Act of Massachusetts should shock even ardent pro-choicers,,,
the legal language of S.1209 eliminates any acknowledgment of the second patient – the baby. In fact, so foreign is this way of thinking to most doctors, that as I read the bill I was forced to remind myself that the term “patient” only referred to the woman.
Dr. Kerry Pound of Beverly is a board director of Massachusetts Citizens for Life.
Wikipedia, “Abortion and Christianity”