ABORTION THEOLOGICALLY CONSIDERED (6): the Church as a Community of Life

Ireland and Abortion
Credit: RTE

This is the final post in a series on abortion, engaging with Richard Hays’ chapter on the topic in his The Moral Vision of the New Testament, in light of the upcoming Referendum on 25 May 2018.

This post will focus on the practical implications of the theology outlined in the previous posts.

What does it look like for the church to be a ‘community of life’ within a ‘culture of death’?

Hays argues that if the biblical paradigms (post 4) were put into practice within the church, then abortion would hardly ever be necessary within the Christian community.

There could be some exceptions. Can the Church act ‘in fear and trembling under the guidance of the Spirit’ to identify those extreme exceptions? Hays suggests such cases: pregnancy as a result of rape or incest [not allowed under Irish law]; and abortions performed to save the life of the mother [are allowed under current Irish legislation].

He also raises the issue of disability. Advances in prenatal testing have been significant since Hays wrote (1996). In the UK, non-invasive screening for Down Syndrome and other genetic conditions is becoming standard.

His position is that

the New Testament summons the community to eschew abortion and thus undertake the burden of assisting the parents raise the handicapped child.

Where abortion is practiced, he argues that

The tragedy is primarily the tragedy of a church that has abdicated its call to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ (Gal 6:2). The New Testament envisions a more excellent way.”

The Church in the World

But how then is this community of life to live and witness within the world?

This is a question that tends not to get asked when it comes to Christian campaigns against abortion.

I may be wrong and am happy to be corrected, but it seems as if there is little reflection on the distinction between the church and the world. This suggests to me that there are deep unexamined Christendom assumptions at play like Ireland is, or should be, a ‘Christian country’. This leads towards urgent calls to action that I saw somewhere recently that Christians have a few weeks to ‘save’ Irish society.

Hays calls for Christians to recognise some realities. He writes in an American context.

How does what he writes apply to contemporary Ireland do you think? What are your reactions to these points?

1) Christians “cannot coerce moral consensus in a post-Christian culture.”

2) Christians should “recognize the futility of seeking to compel the state to enforce Christian teaching against abortion.”

3) This is not to advocate withdrawal from society or to propose some sort of dualistic spirituality of the sacred and secular. It is to recognise that Christian rejection of abortion is dependent on the gospel of Jesus Christ and the teaching of his Word – and that the world will never share that rationale for terminating abortion.

4) Christians in post-Christian Ireland need to recognise that we stand as outsiders to our culture. Our primary task is to be a counter-cultural witness. In other words, a community of compassion and love that acts as a neighbour to the desperate, weak and vulnerable; which bears the burdens of others and imitates Jesus in his inclusion of the marginalised.

5) This means that the calling of the church in regard to abortion in Ireland is to show the world an alternative way of life to one in which abortion seems an ‘obvious’ choice. Hays proposes that

“The world needs to be shown another way, not forced by law to abandon something it perceives as a ‘right.’”

I think this is relevant when it comes to the 8th Amendment. From its inception it has been a controversial piece of legislation designed to enforce and copper-fasten Catholic morality on abortion on Irish society in perpetuity. That was the whole reason to add it to the Constitution. I’m not at all questioning the sincerity of those who supported that move – their motive was to protect the unborn from abortion ever arriving in Ireland. But I suspect part of the groundswell of opposition to the 8th today comes from its ethos of legal imposition on what is now a post-Catholic / post-Christian culture.

In contrast to using the power of the law, Hays proposes that the

“The first and most basic task is for the community to act in ways that embody its commitment to receiving life as a gift from God.”

And he closes the chapter giving several examples of the deep cost such a commitment would entail. Here is one, written by William Durland

We should not look to the state to compel women to complete, nor allow them to terminate, a pregnancy. Rather, God calls us to be our own people and our own community – to witness to the world’s scandal, to love and bind up those harmed by its values. If the energy now being poured into attempts to affect Supreme Court decisions were dedicated to establishing viable alternatives to abortion and substantive support and long-range care for victimized women, “unwanted” children and families struggling with poverty, mental illness and domestic violence, perhaps we would begin to see Christian community being born in our midst – a light to the nations and a sure refuge for these needy ones.

Young Irish Christians I talk to have been profoundly alienated from both pro-life and pro-choice politics. It is precisely this sort of voice that they say they have not heard in the Irish abortion debate. As a result, I suspect a surprising number of young Irish Christians may vote ‘Yes’ on 25 May. If so, I think this represents a tragic failure of the church to articulate – and embody – a loving and theologically informed response to the challenge of abortion.

The commitment Durland calls for cannot be made lightly. It calls Christians to inconvenient self-sacrifice, generosity and willingness to open up their lives and communities to those in need. As Hays says

“In other words, it would find itself living as the church envisioned by the New Testament.”

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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ABORTION THEOLOGICALLY CONSIDERED (5): tradition, reason, experience

Ireland and Abortion
Credit: RTE

Continuing a series of posts on abortion, engaging with Richard Hays’ chapter on the topic in his The Moral Vision of the New Testament, in light of the upcoming Referendum on 25 May 2018.

In the last post, in the light of how the Bible has pretty well nothing explicit to say to the modern practice of abortion, we discussed Richard Hays’ hermeneutical proposals around these themes

  • God the life-giver
  • Being a neighbour to the weak, vulnerable and helpless
  • Bearing one another’s economic and practical burdens like a crisis pregnancy
  • Imitating Jesus in looking after those in difficulty

But there are also other sources for thinking theologically about abortion – namely those of Tradition, Reason and Experience.

(1) TRADITION

Christian tradition against abortion is long-lived, strong and consistent. Early evidence points to Christian counter-cultural witness against pagan practices of infanticide and abortion.

The Didache (late 1st Cent or early 2nd Cent manual of Christian teaching) contrasts the ‘way of life’ against ‘the way of death’ (language that speaks eloquently into the reality of modern abortion practice as well).

“You shall not murder a child by abortion, nor shall you kill one who has been born.”

The entire historic Christian tradition has consistently rejected abortion. Any shift towards acceptance of abortion by some branches of modern liberal Protestantism is utterly out of step with the traditional teaching of the church catholic.

(2) REASON

It is in the area of reason that most contemporary secular arguments for abortion are based. ‘Pro-choice’ arguments on a leaflet dropped through our door and arguments made in general debate include the following:

  • A woman may not procure an abortion in Ireland on the grounds of rape or if she is carrying a child who will not survive after birth. Pro-Life arguments are “cruel” to such women (moral and philosophical arguments around women’s rights and well-being).
  • Over 150,000 women have travelled to Britain for an abortion since 1983 when the 8th Amendment was introduced (pragmatic arguments that since it is happening, it should be made legal in Ireland).
  • Many women take abortifacient pills unregulated in Ireland (medical arguments for abortion as safer for women who will have one anyway).
  • The 8th Amendment equates a woman’s life to that of an embryo (legal arguments on the status of a person).
  • Rejection of arguments that abortion increases risk of suicide and depression (psychological arguments on the health of the mother)
  • Abortion law as a misogynistic affront to a women’s right to have control over her own body (feminist liberation argument)
  • An embryo is not a person (scientific arguments about consciousness, personhood and when human life begins)

There are other arguments, but you get the picture.

Reason is the arena where the abortion referendum is being played out. It is primarily a political, cultural and legal debate, with competition for the moral high ground (defence of the rights of the unborn versus assertion of the rights of women to make autonomous choice regarding abortion).

Here’s the danger for Christians in this debate: all too easily Christians jump right into the middle of these arguments without much awareness that they represent a double-edged sword. Double edged in that these arguments inhabit the thought-world of secular rationalism.

If Christians choose to try to win the argument within these terms I think that they have already conceded defeat before they begin. They become just one more pressure group talking the language of law, reason, pragmatism, rights, psychology, medicine and individual choice. They have nothing particularly distinctive to say. They have (perhaps unconsciously) abandoned the thought world of the New Testament in favour of the thought world of secular rationalism.

To be honest, I am dismayed by how so much Christian activism against Repeal the 8th has taken the form of primarily secular rationalist arguments – whether legal, medical, rights based, pragmatic, or psychological. They have, as a result, had little to say to the Church in helping people frame a Christian response to the issue of abortion.

I’m not saying that a Christian rejection of abortion is irrational – far from it. It makes strong, consistent, moral and ethical sense – but it is an argument that is coherent and compelling within the thought world of the New Testament.

Ok, you may be wondering what I am talking about. Maybe some examples will help.

Richard Hays give 6 examples of “fundamentally inappropriate” ways for Christians to frame their opposition to abortion.

i).  It is inappropriate for Christians to set up the issue as one of competing ‘rights’ – the right of the pregnant woman versus the right of the unborn child. This is not the language of the Bible or Christian theology. No-one has a ‘right to life’ nor a ‘right’ to do what they will with their own bodies. All life is a gift from God, no one can claim ‘rights’ over it. A Christian’s body is not their own (1 Cor 6:19-20).

ii). It is inappropriate for Christians to see the issue as a ‘right to privacy’ or purely a matter of individual choice. No Christian is an unaccountable free-floating individual. She or he is called to be a faithful disciple within a community of faith.

iii). For Christians to appeal to the ‘sacredness of life’ is, Hays says, a ‘sacred cow that has no basis in the New Testament.’ God is the life-giver, this is why Christians respect life, not because of life itself.

iv). It is not a Christian argument to appeal to the question of ‘When does life begin?’ or ‘Is the foetus a person?’. There is no clear scientific or biblical answer to these questions. Usually they are asked with the agenda of defining certain conditions as outside human personhood in order to justify abortion. ‘Jesus’ persistent strategy was, on the contrary, to define marginal cases in.’

v). Deeply anti-Christian is the ‘quality of life’ argument – “no unwanted child ought ever to be born.” Christian witness from Jesus and the church has been to receive the marginalised, unwanted, and rejected – not to ‘put them out of their misery’. Such arguments rationally lead to infanticide and euthanasia of anyone deemed not to have a suitable ‘quality of life’.

vi). Christians should stay well away from feeble consequentialist arguments against abortion like ‘What if Mary had aborted Jesus?’ Such silly questions merely reinforce how the NT never engages in such consequentialist speculation. As Hays says, it never asks ‘What will happen if I do x?’ but it asks ‘What is the will of God?’.

(3) EXPERIENCE

The appeal to experience is probably the most significant factor in the Irish abortion debate.

Proponents of abortion appeal constantly to the experience of women forced to travel to Britain or forced to give birth to a child with a severe disability or forced to carry a child conceived by rape.

Opponents of abortion counter with arguments about the psychological and physical risks of abortion.

Such arguments are going to go back and forth and will be inconclusive one way or the other.

For Christians to base their support or rejection of abortion primarily on experience is to venture into a quagmire of competing claims.

 

Comments, as ever, welcome.

ABORTION THEOLOGICALLY CONSIDERED (2): Minding our Language

Ireland and Abortion
Credit: RTE

“The first task of normative reflection about New Testament ethics is to form the thought and practice of the Christian community.” (Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 445.)

What Hays argues here is crucial to the challenge of thinking about abortion. Where do we begin? In the last post I listed some possible jumping off points. But notice how none of them fulfil Hay’s primary task above.

Debates about whether the foetus is a person with inalienable human rights is language and thought foreign to the New Testament. Focusing on practical arguments against, and negative implications of, abortion fails to ‘think Christianly’ about the issue.

For example, arguments about the high level of safety for giving birth in Ireland, the negative impact on the life-saving ethos of the Irish health system, the traumatic impact on many women, how abortion favours men, possible gender selection and abortion as a form of euthanasia could be made (and are) by those with absolutely no Christian commitment.

Don’t get me wrong. Many of these are good arguments in their own right. But they are political and pragmatic arguments that fit the norms of secular pluralism. If this is the primary language Christians have for opposing abortion, then we are failing to be salt and light to the world.

For what is the church but a community of disciples called to witness to the good news of Jesus Christ, the risen Lord? Our thinking and practice for all of life is to be shaped by this story above all others. To use political and pragmatic arguments against abortion is to fail to articulate who we truly are and what we believe.

At the risk of getting side-tracked, there are, I think, at least three reasons Christian opposition to abortion tends to be framed in the language of secular pluralism. Feel welcome to add your thoughts on comments on others

i) We hope that we will get a better hearing from those in power if ‘religious’ ideas and language are avoided. In other words, we play the political game on its own terms.

ii) We have deep (perhaps explicit, perhaps unconscious) assumptions that society should and can be shaped by ‘Christian values’ and that it is our job to ‘save’ or ‘transform’ Irish society. Our focus is outward, on seeking to influence and shape the public sphere. There tends to be a blurring of distinction between the church and the world.

iii) A more negative one – we don’t actually believe what we say we believe. When push comes to shove, it is in politics and power that we trust to bring justice and hope, not the foolishness of a crucified Messiah. We put all our hopes and energy and money and time in the political process.

So, following Richard Hays and others, when it comes to abortion I’m suggesting that our language needs first and foremost to be that which is forming the thought and practice of the Christian church as an alternative kingdom community in the world.

Hays puts it this way

“Regardless of what others may do or think, regardless of what the law allows, how shall we as people who belong to Jesus Christ live faithfully under the gospel with regard to our treatment of the issues of pregnancy, abortion and childbearing?” (445)

To begin to answer those questions we need to think biblically and theologically for this is the language of the people of God (next post).

But notice how this also shifts the focus of the discussion.

Rather than ‘by-passing’ the Bible and theology and jumping straight to the politics of the world, we first must do business with what Scripture says – and does not say. And we need to listen hard what the issue of abortion says to us – to the Christian community. In other words, abortion is not an issue ‘out there’ which we sit ‘above’ in moral purity, it is one which will challenge our practice and priorities.

It is one thing to be against something, but a deeper challenge is how can the church embody a life-giving alternative vision of a world without abortion?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Abortion theologically considered (1) : what we are not going to talk about

Ireland and Abortion
Credit: RTE

CONTEXT

First, some context for the vast international readership of this blog.

On 25 May 2018 Ireland will hold a referendum on abortion. Or, to put it more precisely, a referendum on whether to repeal the 1983 8th Amendment to the Constitution which reads

The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.

The Supreme Court has recently made it clear that the unborn have no constitutional rights. Those rights begin at birth. If the 8th is repealed, this leaves the way clear for the Government to introduce proposed abortion legislation.

The new law, if subsequently passed in the Dáil, will include the following:

  • Abortion being allowed up to 12 weeks “without specific indication”. Effectively abortion on demand.
  • Abortions to be provided on the grounds of risk to the life or ‘serious harm’ to the health of the mother.
  • No distinction will be made between physical and mental health risks.
  • Abortions legalised in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities, including cases which will lead to the loss of life of the baby shortly after birth

The choice to include mental health on the same footing as physical threat is highly significant. In practice abortions for a physical threat to the mother account for about 0.2% of births. In the UK, 99.8% of abortions are carried out due to threat to the mental health of the mother.

There was some uncertainty about whether the legislation therefore would allow for full-term abortions on the basis of risk to the mental health of the mother. The Government proposals will theoretically prohibit abortion once the foetus is ‘viable’. This is roughly up to six months of gestation. (The bill cannot be formally tabled in the Dáil unless the 8th Amendment is repealed. Obviously, if it is not repealed, general abortion is off the table).

So, as I read it, the Government is effectively proposing abortion on demand up to around 6 months. This represents a dramatic shift from an extremely restrictive approach to abortion to an extremely liberal abortion regime.

How to ‘think Christianly’ about such an issue?

One option is silence, but that’s simply avoiding the issue. Abortion needs to be talked about. Individual Christians and churches need to be speaking and teaching and reflecting self-critically on the ethical and moral challenges posed by abortion and the upcoming Referendum.

WHAT WE ARE NOT GOING TO TALK ABOUT (apart from this post)

Now, at this point one route would be dive into all sorts of observations as well as various arguments against abortion. At the risk of self-contradiction, I’ll talk briefly about some below and then not talk about them any more in posts that follow. An explanation is at the end if you get that far.

Some potential leaping off points are:

(1) The obvious one that the Referendum itself is indicative of huge cultural, political and religious shifts within Ireland since the 1983 Abortion Referendum.

(2) There is the back story of the X case and subsequent 1992 Referendum on the right for a woman to travel overseas for an abortion without fear of prosecution.

(3) There is the fact that Ireland is one of the safest places on earth to give birth. To use fears about the mother’s safety to introduce abortion on demand is wildly disproportionate. Current legislation allows abortion if there is a life-threatening risk to the life of the mother. There could be a debate about legislation specifically to allow abortion for fatal foetal abnormality and / or cases of rape and incest without introducing general abortion on broad grounds.

(4) We could talk about the political reasons behind the campaign to introduce abortion in Ireland. These are not irrational and inconsistent: they make perfect sense within a certain understanding of political reality otherwise abortion would not be widely available globally. They include: a Western narrative of the liberated autonomous individual; freedom from ‘misogynistic law’ that ‘controls’ what women can do with their own bodies; and the belief that maximum choice equals maximum freedom equals the maximum good. In this sense abortion is a regrettable but necessary experience for a pregnant woman who for whatever reason does not want a child at that particular time in her life.

(5) Abortion could be framed as a human rights issue. Evangelical Alliance Ireland has taken this approach “rather than as a matter of religious dogma or of reproductive health.” If the baby is a human being, he or she has a right to life as much as any other human. (This approach does seem to have been dismissed in law by the recent Supreme Court decision mentioned above).

(6) Some talk about the essential ‘sacredness of all human life’ and try to oppose abortion that way. This tends to lead to all sorts of complicated medical discussions about when life begins and is the foetus a person?

(7) We could talk about how damaging abortion is for women; many of whom come deeply to regret past action.

(8) We could go the political activism line and examine where TDs and their parties stand and seek to influence their decision-making.

(9) We could begin by talking about abortion as a form of euthanasia, namely the deliberate eradication of people with disability. For example, in Iceland, there is now a 100% abortion rate for babies with Down Syndrome. This despite Down Syndrome not being an illness and Down Syndrome people being some of the most loving and fun people in existence (not that being loving and fun is required to be able to exist). New technology for non-invasive testing for Down and other disabilities will inevitably lead the UK (and Ireland if abortion is introduced) to follow Iceland’s trend.

(10) We could talk about the impact of introducing a culture of intentional and medically needless death into the Irish health system that was designed and intended to save life.

(11) We could talk about abortion being, far from a victory for feminism, a victory for patriarchy and men acting irresponsibly. Quite simply, men benefit significantly from abortion. Men do not have to bear the pain, trauma and memories of ending a life within their own bodies.  Men don’t face the possibility of subsequent long-term complications from an invasive medical procedure; men don’t face the threat, implicit or explicit, that their partner will leave them if they don’t have an abortion. Rather, abortion suits many men because they don’t have to face the long term consequences of their actions – financial, emotional and relational. They remain ‘free’ of such inconvenient ties.

(12) And we could talk of the implications of continually improving technology for earlier and earlier gender identification within pregnancy. If the current Irish legislation leaves open abortion up to viability, it would be naïve not to be aware that a proportion of abortions will be due to the baby having the ‘wrong’ gender. Globally, and ironically, the ‘wrong’ gender is female (think China and India for example).

But we are not going to talk more about any of these issues. Why? Because, quite simply I do not believe that they are the place to begin when thinking ‘Christianly’ and theologically about abortion.  We’ll try to do that in the next few posts.

(civil) Comments, as ever, welcome

Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (3)

9780567669964This is the second in a series of short excerpts from each chapter of Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas edited by Leixlip lad Kevin Hargaden.

The outline of the book is in this post. This excerpt is from Chapter Two on CONTINGENCY, VIRTUE, AND HOLINESS.

The exchange below is located within a complex discussion about Aristotle and virtue. It speaks, I think, right into our contemporary Western culture and its obsession with materialism, comfort, tolerance and equality. Brock’s question about a modern distaste for strong moral convictions evokes a classic Hauerwasian response about having children, abortion, faith, hope and a determination not to let suffering have the last word.

It also speaks to me of the adventure and challenge of being Christian.

BB: … Does it admit the debate or ought we to admit the debate, “Maybe I’d fare better if I didn’t have strong moral convictions?”

SH: Well, that’s one debate that would be well worth generating, if we could! I do think that people are afraid of having strong convictions today.

BB: Life certainly seems to go more smoothly in at least in the short and middle term with less strong convictions. How else would utilitarian and consequentialist modes of reasoning become our dominant modes?

SH: It’s clearly a bourgeois ethic! Or at least the way it works out most of the time. It’s a bourgeois ethic that asks how I can get through life with as little suffering as possible, given the fact that there is nothing that I  deeply care about. My problem with those kinds of lives is, “God, how do you stand the boredom of it!” If we weren’t Christians Brian, what would we end up doing? Drinking, screwing, and dying!

I think that you see the results of the attempt to avoid strong convictions in the avoidance of having children today. I’ve always regarded the debates around abortion as a failure to get at what’s really at stake. And what’s really at stake is people’s lack of confidence that they have lives worth passing on to future generations. So, abortion really is a nihilistic practice that says we’re not going to impose the meaninglessness of our lives onto future generations. That’s really a very sad result.

The supposed lesson of the Wars of Religion was that if we could just get people to not take themselves so seriously, then maybe they wouldn’t kill anyone. Well, they end up killing their children. I have a lecture I used to give on the yuppies as the monks of modernity, because the yuppies really have an ascetical discipline; they would rather have a boat than a child. So they discipline themselves not to have children exactly because why would you want children when you would rather have a boat? What strikes me about such a way of living is it is just so sad.

I regard one of the great moral witnesses of the last centuries as refusal of Jewish people to let Christian persecution stop them from having children. That they would have children in the face of Christian hatred was an extraordinary faith in God, because it’s not that you’ve got faith in your children turning out OK, it’s that you have faith in God, who would have the Jewish people be for the world a sign that God will not give up on us. (49)