I’ve written previously on the importance of rising above the fray on the issue of abortion. Not a middle ground, but a higher ground. This means affirming the fetus’s value as a sentient life form (i.e., the ground value, or its worth from the point of view of Spirit) as an absolutely beautiful, unique, and precious aspect of Spirit. From this absolute perspective, all sentient life is equally valuable.
But it’s not enough to stop there. At the same time, my STEAM-based perspective doesn’t lock anyone into a rigid belief that equates abortion with murder. There are also intrisic and relative perspectives that are important to take to gain a full appreciation of the value of life. From these perspectives, we can recognize that there is a hierarchy of value when it comes to sentient life (a human being is worth more than an ape, an ape is worth more than a snake, a snake is worth more than a bacterium, and so forth). These perspectives also lead us to consider the need to balance competing values, including respect for the autonomy of individuals as moral agents to make decisions related to their bodies with minimal interference from the state. (This balancing, by the way, leads me to advocate policies that permit safe and legal abortion only during the first trimester of pregnancy; under other circumstances, I would see abortion banned except to save the mother’s life or severe, permanent injury to her health.)
Although I’ve blogged on the topic of abortion previously, the issue rarely catches my notice. In contrast, many conservative religion bloggers talk about abortion constantly. To them, it’s an issue with the moral weight of genocide. And progressive bloggers are generally in a reactive stance. Their concern is mostly with beating back legal efforts to re-criminalize abortion or with the fate of the Supreme Court. I’ve been wondering lately if perhaps I’m not talking enough about abortion and similar issues as a legitimate ethical concern. Perhaps my lack of volume on this issue has led some readers to wrongly assume that I am unequivocally “pro choice,” (actually I resist both the “pro choice” and “pro life” labels as meaningless propaganda).
If I were to make new year’s resolutions related to my blogging, perhaps “talk more about abortion” should be one of them. For starters, I would resist the temptation to snicker at the “Insane Religious Fanatic [Who] Subverts Dominant Paragdigm” (to quote a Mark Shea headline). When I read headlines that say the pope is preaching that “God loves every embryo,” I can’t help but wince. I think of a classic Monty Python skit (you know the one). It’s true that the pope’s rhetoric badly obscures the distinctions between ground, intrinsic, and relative perspectives on value. It’s also true that the pope talks about God’s love for every “creature,” but when’s the last time you heard the Vatican calling the killing of animals equivalent to the crime of murder or genocide? Still, the pope’s basic moral intuition that life has dignity that must ultimately be grounded on a transcendent basis is a sound one.
One of the most important things to say about abortion, it seems to me, is that to reduce abortions we need to address the relevant issues of the interior dimension (the subjective, personal angle and the objective, cultural angle). We need to talk about how to best develop the individual psychological structures that are able to perceive a transcendental value of life and are capable of exercising the sort of responsibility necessary to avoid the dilemmas the result in abortions. But above all, we must find ways to grow an awareness that all sentient life forms should be respected, nurtured, and valued as part of an interconnected whole. That includes unborn children, but it also includes greater respect for animals and the environment.
In this report, Evelyn Nieves of The Washington Post describes how South Dakota has made abortion rare: doctors there are too afraid of social stigma to actually offer abortions (Even though abortion is legal, South Dakotans have to travel outside the state to get one.) This is an excellent example of the key role that both personal and collective interiority can play in reducing abortions. The personal interior dimension: even doctors who support abortion rights are choosing that when it comes to their career, the costs of performing abortions are greater than the costs of not performing them. The collective interior dimension: stigma in the form of backlash against “baby killers” has contributed to a cultural environment hostile to abortion.
Of course, there will be those on the left who will decry the situation in South Dakota. And others who could raise the legitimate question of whether South Dakota has really reduced abortion demand or simply burdened women with the need to travel to neighboring states. But for the purposes of keeping this blog post reasonably concise, let me just say that the article highlights often neglected aspects of the abortion debate. Individual choices and our collective cultural mores often have a far greater impact on how we value life than the votes we cast in our elections or the judges on our courts.