In his welcoming message, the host of the ‘Courageous Conversation: Abortion’ event I attended this past Tuesday requested the audience to operate along the value of ‘human dignity’ when interacting with the various speakers hosted on the night. The ‘conversation’ was hosted by the Stellenbosch Theology Faculty who aims to operate in a manner which affirms dignity to humans. I cannot confirm exactly what the Theology Department means when using the word ‘human’ in that phrase but fittingly, our understanding of what a human is will greatly influence our stance on the abortion issue which was about to be discussed. I provide below a summary of the discussion presented at this conversation with some of my own thoughts and questions (in cursive) added along the way. I hope to present what was discussed as accurately as possible and would ask any reader who was present at the event themselves to add or contradict what they feel necessary in the comments section below.
The idea of this conversation, as I understood it, was to put the ‘abortion debate’ or ‘abortion issue’ into perspective in order to provide the audience the opportunity to participate in discussions around this matter from a more informed position. (‘STUDY LOVE.’ image belongs to US Theology Faculty and was used for Courageous Conversation event)
First to share on what he calls ‘the three main arguments’ found when investigating opinions on abortion, and eventually also his own thoughts on the matter, was Prof. Anton van Niekerk who is chair of the Philosophy Department and Director of the Centre for Applied Ethics at Stellenbosch University. His research is mainly concentrated on the areas of bioethics, the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of the human sciences.
He opened with presenting the audience with a concise summary of how the practise of abortion is dealt with within the South African law. Up to 12 weeks after conception, a woman may request (so-called ‘abortion on demand’ according to my understanding) the abortion of her foetus and up to 20 weeks she may request an abortion should she be socio-economically impaired due to the birth of a child. Van Niekerk affirms that in effect that means that our law allows ‘abortions on demand’ up to 20 weeks seeing that socio-economical impairment is the typical outcome of having a baby. He also added that South African doctors are not forced by law to conduct abortions as long as they refer patients to a willing doctor or institution. He then states that he has never personally met a respectable medical practitioner, as he often interacts with them as a medical ethicist, who is willing to conduct abortions. This made me wonder where most women who go for abortions end up and into whose hands they entrust themselves.
He continued discussing what he considers the three main arguments, namely theological, human rights-based, and utilitarian.
The theological argument is the one typically but not exclusively associated with the Abrahamic or monotheistic faiths (although I am unable to confirm the exact stance of Islam on this matter?) which holds to the notion of human dignity or sanctity of human life. Basically, people are sacred beings as they are created in the image of God Almighty, or at least as higher and sacred life forms. From this perspective, abortion is no different to any other act of killing of an individual in a situation other than self-defence or war. Humans are sacred beings and therefore they ought to be treated from a position of reverence towards the God who’s image they bear.
The human rights-based stance holds a women’s choice and sovereignty over her own body (or that being which resides therein) as the point of departure and only thereafter the rights of any other parties involved are considered. The foetus has no rights in terms of the South African law. I’m not sure on which basis 20 weeks as cut-off date is supported by this stance.
The utilitarian approach took me back to the days I completed a few courses in economics at the university myself as it comes down to the notion that ‘the aim is to promote happiness and prevent suffering as far as possible for the most people involved’, basically optimisation of human resources in a scenario where all humans are equal while all humans have no intrinsic value other than that ascribed to them by any ‘more equal’ human in a position of greater power and influence. This view would for instance argue that a baby/foetus/human (choose your own definition) who cannot register pain and thus cannot suffer or experience happiness for that matter may be killed as only the mother (or do they also consider the father, extended family, society as a whole – for it is about the most people involved, remember – in which such practises occur) should be considered when measuring potential suffering and happiness. This view is said to further hold that it ought to be illegal to kill persons but not necessarily so for humans. Thus, whoever is able to ascribe personhood to a human holds that human’s dignity, value and fate in his hands. It is for this reason that abortion is often compared to slavery and even Apartheid or the Holocaust, as the stripping of personhood from certain human beings allows persons to legally treat them as lesser beings. When considering the arguments of those who take the human rights-based or pro-choice stance, it is to a large extent intertwined and operating along similar principles than the utilitarian approach. Utilitarians usually define a person as an entity which has developed an interest in its own survival but, adds Prof. Van Niekerk, certain animals have this ability as well, and he mentions higher primates, elephants, and other mammals amongst possible others. Could it be along similar inconsistent reasoning that Spain granted ‘human rights’ to great apes such as chimps, gorillas and orangutans a few years ago while allowing people to abort their children?
Into play comes the ‘potential person’ argument which members of the pro-life groups use to argue that even if we kill ‘potential persons’ (this assumes the utilitarian view is accurate in its definition of persons as opposed to mere humans) we kill actual persons in effect. Apparently, this argument is not very popular (considered weak) among ethicists and philosophers, seeing that they are of the opinion that not all potential things must (or ought to) be developed. Two examples are mentioned: an acorn is a potential oak tree but we ought not fight to see all acorns developed into trees while it is good to fight for the protection of the beautiful oak trees lining the streets of Stellenbosch (which adds to the town’s reputation and living standard of its inhabitants); further, if we recognise our child’s superb hand-eye co-ordination we ought not develop his ability to become a brilliant pick-pocket.
If ethicists and philosophers truly use this as a counter argument they should perhaps re-evaluate their definition of what a ‘weak argument’ truly looks like. They immediately operate from the assumption that an acorn and a foetus, or a human and a tree ought to be considered equally – which I guess from a utilitarian perspective is fair, seeing that a human is not necessarily of any more value than a tree, or a piece of rubber for that matter, depending on the purpose and use of that tree or piece of rubber. Secondly, I believe they operate in an inconsistent manner, appealing to moral laws consistent with theological views in using words such as ‘ought’, ‘must’, etc. If they are willing to define exact end goals, it would be fine for them to use such words but I would still pose the ‘why?’ question and expect of them to communicate the broader moral framework within which they believe we are functioning, and with whom the decision of what true and greater happiness and suffering is, lies? They condemn pick-pocketing but on what basis? Also, if pick-pocketing is found to be ‘wrong’ for whichever reason, can they consistently argue from that basis that it is better not to let a ‘potential’ human become an ‘actual’ human person? It is as if they make their argument in a vacuum, not looking at the complete influence their reasoning will have on society while borrowing a moral framework from a position which they oppose to justify what they propose?
After sharing these main three arguments, Prof. van Niekerk continued to share his personal stance. He believes a debate on whether the embryo deserves ‘rights’ is perhaps redundant or unnecessary but prefer to argue that the embryo ought to be viewed with respect – as it is human in nature. Should all persons be viewed as such or does he too distinguish between mere human entities and actual persons? Do we only respect foetuses as the ‘offspring of persons’ or are they themselves persons? He believes respecting human life is a mark of and necessary for the maintenance of civilised communities. He does thus acknowledge the way we go about this issue has wider reaching consequences and does not only involve the mother or baby involved, it sets a standard for how we view and treat one another. He states further that he believes human life to be valuable but not absolutely valuable, referring to the example of war and his non-pacifist position, that taking the life of another may at times be a just act, eg. a soldier killing a terrorist or an opposition soldier threatening the lives of others. The institution of the death penalty may be another example? He is in favour of abortion in instances where the mother would otherwise ‘probably’ die. He did not say so but is it necessary to ‘legalise abortion’ or is adherence to standard and proper medical practise, which has as its end goal to save endangered lives, not sufficient in itself? He is also open to the idea of aborting in cases where ‘congenital defects’ are detected in foetuses, more specifically in cases where scientific methods are able to detect it earlier and earlier nowadays. I am unsure whether he mentioned any such disorders in particular but he did mention that there are ‘tragic’ cases. Tragic for the person-to-be or tragic for those whose responsibility that person will become? Or does he mean any and all such potential disorders, if it is detected at a certain stage that is? He does mention hereafter that abortion on demand ought to be discouraged as strongly as possible and also that he must always remain open to the fact that he might be wrong, expecting then of others to logically convince him of his erroneous ways.
I agree with Prof. Van Niekerk to a great extent but believe his willingness to make the exceptions he does has a high probability of undermining all the grounds on which he does oppose abortion. As already mentioned, as soon as one does legalise the practise of abortion (as opposed to trusting and monitoring current medical practises) under special circumstances, human dignity and the sanctity of life is no longer the point of departure from which one argues. It sets the stage for a culture where those who have reached their potential and developed into persons, decide on behalf of those who haven’t what is best for them and how ‘livable’ their lives could possibly be. The ‘healthy’ decide on behalf of the ‘sick’ that it is better not to enter life but to have its life ended. The alternative is a culture which celebrates the weak, where the strong considers it a virtue to serve the weak and to honour their existence. And where and how would we draw the line in deciding who will have a ‘tragic’ life or not? This notion should also be considered within the broader culture in which outward ‘perfection’ is worshipped and strived towards as opposed to one celebrating great character. A consumerist culture which desires convenience before self-sacrifice. This proposes a culture where aborting one’s potentially ‘congenitally disordered’ child is considered a compassionate act while footage of a dad or a brother giving themselves for the joy of their congenitally disordered son or brother could be demeaned to a ‘good on you for taking that strain on yourself or choosing that road’ act.
After Prof. Van Niekerk a psychologist shared on the reality faced by women who find themselves before the decision to abort their babies and the intense emotional ride it is for them and also how they are often condemned rather than supported during this dramatic time of decision-making, followed by another lady from Seasons Pregnancy Centre sharing a bit more on the reality they also encounter on a regular basis. The question asked here is basically, while our national laws do allow the killing of foetuses, how will we deal with those people who see abortion as their most viable option? I believe it is possible and necessary to draw a distinction between valuing human life and opposing all that which demeans it, and dealing respectfully with those pressured or tempted into demeaning it. One can argue against inhumane laws while supporting those who opt to operate within those laws from a place of desperation, and many organisations do assist women in that way. Abortion can be discouraged and argued against while respecting such a mother’s decision and valuing her as a human being too. In saying that, I believe as respecters of persons who esteem human dignity we must also acknowledge one another as morally responsible beings and hold one another accountable to act in a moral manner.
I would argue that it is ultimately one’s view on personhood and moral responsibility which will determine your stance on this. It is therefore necessary to test the worldviews people operate from when engaging these matters and see if they posses consistency, coherency and logical continuity. To paraphrase philosopher Ravi Zacharias, a good worldview should be able to answer the particular questions surrounding the issues of origin, meaning, morality and destiny of all things, and do so in a consistent, coherent and logical manner. Otherwise we easily find ourselves in the situation of the utilitarians and likewise the humanists who selectively borrow concepts from other worldviews in order to properly answer these four questions. If a worldview is found to be all that, it would be good for those who adhere to it to properly engage the issue through that view.
I have found the biblical worldview to be the most consistent one, which does not need alternative views in order to express itself and answer these fundamental questions. But how then must I, as someone who believes Christ Jesus to be the source of Truth respond to abortion?
I believe a person is any being which form part of and is the offspring of members of humankind and therefore deserve the right to life. I believe it is wrong to actively take the life of such a person for the mere sake of convenience of another person. I believe I ought to oppose any law which deprives certain humans of their human dignity. I believe that expecting people to act in a responsible manner is ascribing dignity to them. I believe that second to the actual babies aborted, women are more often than not the victims of the practise of abortion and therefore we ought to communicate the dangers of abortion to them and encourage them to choose against this procedure, as we ought to with any other destructive practises people engage in. We ought to offer viable alternatives to abortion to them. We ought to comfort those who choose abortion and suffer from that choice. We ought to oppose cultural behavioural patterns and norms which causes women to end up in a position where they choose abortion above other alternatives. We need to take care of widows and orphans despite the fact that their own foolishness or the wickedness of others may have brought about the desperate position they find themselves in. I believe this view to be consistent with that of the so-called ‘abolitionists‘ who lived in the first to fourth century in the Roman Empire, who were dissidents of their own culture of death where it was legal or normal to abandon unwanted children to the elements, practise infanticide and also herbal and surgical abortions. Christians opposed these practises on the basis that all men were created in the image of God, as they did in the eighteenth and nineteenth century when the opposition to the human slave trade was opposed primarily from a theological perspective, asking on behalf of the slaves “Am I not a man and a brother?“. Am I not a man (a fellow human being made in the image of God?) and a brother (Jesus Christ died for the African just as He did for the European) – thus, the image of God and the incarnation of Christ guided their reasoning.
I am aware that there are non-Christians and non-theists engaging in the fight against abortion as well on the basis of conscience and conviction. I am also aware that many who oppose abortion from the theological perspective do not necessarily oppose root causes which ushers women towards opting for abortion, and that Christians do not readily offer alternatives to abortion to those willing to consider alternatives. That is an inconsistency which does exist in the theological approach.
An initiative I’m involved with which aims to operate along the principles I mentioned above – opposing abortion and assisting women, or being “pro-life and pro-women” as one lady put it – is ProLife Generation which you’re welcome to learn more about.
“…Did not He who made me in the womb make him/And the same one fashion us in the womb?…” -Job 31:15
“The Biblical word for justice means “making things right.” If all we do is take care if symptoms, we’re not making things right.” -tweeted by Jim Wallis