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Abortion Ethics in a Christ-Haunted Culture

Jul 20, 2010 / By: Michael Spielman
Category: Abortion Arguments

A few weeks ago, a friend suggested that I add a quote from Peter Singer to Abort73's Medical Testimony page. Singer is a renowned though controversial author and philosopher who has taught bioethics at Princeton University since 1999. He is an ardent public defender of abortion. Nevertheless, he openly admits that "from the first moments of its existence an embryo conceived from human sperm and eggs is a human being." Here is the full quote from his book, Practical Ethics:

It is possible to give ‘human being’ a precise meaning. We can use it as equivalent to ‘member of the species Homo sapiens’. Whether a being is a member of a given species is something that can be determined scientifically, by an examination of the nature of the chromosomes in the cells of living organisms. In this sense there is no doubt that from the first moments of its existence an embryo conceived from human sperm and eggs is a human being. (85-86)

The quote above has now been added to our Medical Testimony page. It sits alongside the remarks of numerous other public abortion advocates who all admit that abortion kills a human being. Before the quote went up, I took some time to read Practical Ethics for myself. From Abort73's inception, I've made a conscious effort to never quote something I don't have direct access to. This helps ensure that the quotes are real, that they're rendered correctly, and that they're being considered in their proper context.

Having now read Professor Singer's work, I must commend him for offering what is the most philosophically consistent defense of abortion I have yet encountered. Don't get me wrong, I could not be more opposed to the utilitarian conclusions he arrives at, but much of what he says is hard to argue with. For instance, he denies that ethics is "relative or subjective" (4). "No ethical line," he says, "that is arbitrarily drawn can be secure. It is better to find a line that can be defended openly and honestly" (77). He says that for a person to be living according to ethical standards, "a justification in terms of self-interest alone will not do" (10). He requires that "self-interested acts must be shown to be compatible with more broadly based ethical principles [because] the notion of ethics carries with it the idea of something bigger than the individual" (10). He rejects the premise that just because a certain behavior is natural it is right (71). "Ethics," he believes, "requires us to go beyond 'I' and 'you' to the universal law, the universalisable judgment, the standpoint of the impartial spectator or ideal observer" (12).

In regard to abortion, he goes to great lengths to demonstrate why "the standard liberal responses" in support of abortion are completely "inadequate" (137). He admits that "there is no obvious sharp line that divides the fertilized egg from the adult" (137). He states that "the location of a being – inside or outside the womb – should not make that much difference to the wrongness of killing it" (139). He further notes that "it is not plausible to suggest that the dependence of the nonviable fetus on its mother gives her the right to kill it" (141). Later, he points out that most of the arguments people make in support of abortion are "argument[s] against laws prohibiting abortion, and not an argument against the view that abortion is wrong" (143). He criticizes abortion advocates for assuming "the point that needs to be proven," namely that "abortion does not harm an 'other'" (146).

To this point, I agree with everything Professor Singer has said. In fact, you'll find virtually all of these arguments on the Abort73 website. But this is where the overlap ends. Despite all of the concessions above, Singer believes that abortion should remain legal throughout the entire pregnancy, for any reason at all (so long as the embryo or fetus does not suffer any pain during the abortion). How does he arrive here? By arguing that though the embryo and fetus are "indisputably members of the species Homo sapiens", they are not "self-aware", they do not have "a sense of the future", they are incapable of "[relating] to others" and are therefore, not persons in the proper sense of the word (86). He states that "on any fair comparison of morally relevant characteristics, like rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, autonomy, pleasure and pain, and so on, the calf, the pig and the much derided chicken come out well ahead of the fetus at any stage of pregnancy" (151). For these reasons, he says, "the fetus has no right to, nor strictly speaking even an interest in, life" (164), and he suggests that we "accord the life of a fetus no greater value than the life of a nonhuman animal at a similar level of rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, capacity to feel, etc." (151).

There is nothing particularly unusual in his argument so far. It is not uncommon for abortion advocates to appeal to similar, functionality-based rationales in an attempt to discredit the moral significance of embryos and fetuses. In so doing, they argue that the essence of humanity is not biological; it's functional. It's not what you are at the cellular level; it's what you can do at the cerebral level. It is a move from firm and measurable criterion to much more fuzzy and speculative fare. Generally, the best way to combat such thinking is to point out that if we withhold legal protection from human beings that lack the requisite characteristics Singer lists (rationality, self-consciousness, autonomy, etc), we will be withholding legal protection from all sorts of people who have already been born. This sends most abortion advocates reeling since they cannot adequately explain why it's OK to apply this criterion to human beings inside the womb, but not OK to apply the same criterion to human beings outside of the womb.

It is here where Peter Singer distinguishes himself, as you'll see in his remarks below:

The strength of the [anti-abortion] position lies in the difficulty liberals have in pointing to a morally significant line of demarcation between an embryo and a newborn baby. The standard liberal position needs to be able to point to some such line, because liberals usually hold that it is permissible to kill an embryo or fetus but not a baby. I have argued that the life of a fetus (and even more plainly, of an embryo) is of no greater value than the life of a nonhuman animal at a similar level of rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, capacity to feel, etc. and that since no fetus is a person, no fetus has the same claim to life a person. Now it must be admitted that these arguments apply to the newborn baby as much as to the fetus. A week-old baby is not a rational and self-conscious being, and there are many nonhuman animals whose rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, capacity to feel, and so on, exceed that of a human baby a week or a month old. If the fetus does not have the same claim to life as a person, it appears that the newborn baby does not either, and the life of a newborn baby is of less value to it than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee is to the nonhuman animals. Thus while my position on the status of fetal life may be acceptable to many, the implications of this position for the status of newborn life are at odds with the virtually unchallenged assumption that the life of a newborn baby is as sacrosanct as that of an adult. (169-170)

Killing a snail or a day-old infant [are morally comparable since] snails and newborn infants are incapable of having [future] desires. (90)

On purely ethical grounds, the killing of a newborn infant is not comparable with the killing of an older child or adult. (172)

If we can put aside these emotionally moving but strictly irrelevant aspects of the killing of a baby we can see that the grounds for not killing persons do not apply to newborn infants. (171)

My comparison of abortion and infanticide was prompted by the objection that the position I have taken on abortion also justifies infanticide. I have admitted this charge – without regarding the admission as fatal to my position. (173)

Once abortion is accepted, euthanasia lurks around the next corner... I do not deny that if one accepts abortion on the grounds [I've argued], the case for killing other human beings, in certain circumstances, is strong. (175)

Just when it seems Singer has painted himself into a corner, he frees himself by publicly advocating the moral legitimacy of infanticide and euthanasia. Unlike so many others, who refuse to go to the only logical place their principles can take them, Singer makes the leap. He says what almost no other abortion-advocates can bring themselves to say, namely that if their reasoning is correct, then it is no more wrong to kill a baby after it's born that it is to kill a baby before it's born. And instead of apologizing for this conclusion (or seeing it as a weakness to his position), Singer encourages other abortion-advocates to take the same plunge.

And this brings us to the title of the piece, "Abortion Ethics in a Christ-Haunted Culture." A few years ago, I heard Tim Keller speak at the Desiring God National Conference. His talk centered on evangelism in a post-modern culture, and he emphasized the unique and unprecedented challenge of sharing the gospel in what he called an "ex-Christian mission field" – a culture that used to be predominantly Christian, but now is not. He borrowed the term "Christ-haunted people" from Flannery O'Connor to describe this strange paradigm where we have people who have rejected the central tenets of Christianity but still cling to some of its foundations. These are people who do not generally believe the Bible, but "they have a cultural memory that is fairly long and they're still traditional… in their values" (Keller). Peter Singer recognizes this same reality and says the following:

In discussing the doctrine of the sanctity of human life I shall not take the term 'sanctity' in a spefically religious sense. The doctrine may well have a religious origin... but it is now part of a broadly secular ethic... The view that human life has unique value is deeply rooted in our society and is enshrined in our law. (84)

If we go back to the origins of Western civilisation, to Greek or Roman times, we find that membership of Homo sapiens was not sufficient to guarantee that one's life would be protected. There was no respect for the lives of slaves or other 'barbarians'; and even among the Greeks and Romans themselves, infants had no automatic right to life. (88)

Our present attitudes date from the coming of Christianity. There was a specific theological motivation for the Christian insistence on the importance of species membership: the belief that all born of human parents are immortal and destined to an eternity of bliss or for everlasting torment. With this belief, the killing of Homo sapiens took on a fearful significance, since it consigned a being to his or her eternal fate. A second Christian doctrine that led to the same conclusion was the belief that since we are created by God we are his property, and to kill a human being is to usurp God's right to decide when we shall live and when we shall die. (89)

During the centuries of Christian domination of European thought the ethical attitudes based on these doctrines became part of the unquestioned moral orthodoxy of European civilisation. Today the doctrines are no longer generally accepted, but the ethical attitudes to which they gave rise fit in with the deep-seated Western belief in the uniqueness and special privileges of our species, and have survived. (89)

If these conclusions (in support of infanticide) seem too shocking to take seriously, it may be worth remembering that our present absolute protection of the lives of infants is a distinctively Christian attitude rather than a universal ethical value." (172)

The change in Western attitudes to infanticide since Roman times is, like the doctrine of the sanctity of human life of which it is a part, a product of Christianity." (173)

Peter Singer here recognizes something that is foundational to the success of the Abort73 website. The secular arguments against abortion all assume one massive Christian tenet: the sanctity of human life. Abort73 doesn't need the Bible to prove that abortion is immoral and unjust, so long as the person visiting the website already believes that it is wrong to kill a baby. But once someone stops believing that it is wrong to kill a baby, the secular case against abortion ceases to exist. And so does the secular case against murder. It is extremely difficult to find a solid, ethical basis for submission to the rule of law when God is removed from the equation.

In his last chapter, Singer attempts to answer the question that threatens all of his moral directives. The question is this: Why Act Morally? In the absence of God, why should anyone feel compelled to act a certain way? Put differently, if human beings were not created for a specific purpose, then why should we be restrained by specific, moral expectations? I give Singer credit for addressing the question. As he notes, most of his ideological colleagues simply ignore it. His response goes like this:

Don't we have to accept, in the absence of religious belief, that life really is meaningless, not just for the psychopath but for all of us? (330)

If this world had been created by some divine being with a particular goal in mind, it could be said to have a meaning. (331)

When we reject belief in a god we must give up the idea that life on this planet has some preordained meaning. Life as a whole has no meaning. (331)

Now that it has resulted in the existence of beings who prefer some states of affairs to others, however, it may be possible for particular lives to be meaningful. (331)

If our life has no meaning other than our own happiness, we are likely to find that when we have obtained what we think we need to be happy, happiness itself still eludes us. (332)

I am now suggesting that rationality, in the broad sense that includes self-awareness and reflection on the nature and point of our own existence, may push us towards concerns broader than the quality of our own existence; but the process is not a necessary one and those who do not take part in it – or, who in taking part, do not follow it all the way to the ethical point of view – are neither irrational nor in error. Psychopaths, for all I know, may simply be unable to obtain as much happiness through caring about others as they obtain by antisocial acts. Other people find collecting stamps an entirely adequate way of giving purpose to their lives. There is nothing irrational about that; but others again grow out of stamp collecting as they become more aware of their situation in the world and more reflective about their purposes. To this third group the ethical point of view offers a meaning and purpose in life that one does not grow out of. (At least, one cannot grow out of the ethical point of view until all ethical tasks have been accomplished. If that utopia were ever achieved, our purposive nature might well leave us dissatisfied…) (335)

The reason that Peter Singer and I have arrived at such radically different positions (despite agreeing on so many points) is because we started at radically different places. He begins his book with the "conscious disavowal of any assumption that all members of our own species have, merely because they are members of our species, any distinctive worth or inherent value that puts them above members of other species" (ix). I began Abort73 with the conscious assumption that all members of the human species do have inherent value beyond all other species because God made us in his image and placed us in authority over other species.

When you start where Singer starts, it's hard to morally defend or condemn anything. Singer makes a valiant effort, but you can hear the uncertainty in his final remarks. It's as if he wants life to have meaning, believes it has meaning, but can't find a rational, evolutionary basis for giving it one. The only reason that more abortion advocates do not sound as extreme as Peter Singer does is because they're not being consistent. They're still Christ-haunted. They're eager to throw off the personal, moral demands of scripture, but averse to letting go of the notion that human life is sacred and meaningful. Even Peter Singer is reluctant to go this far. Nor should he.

People know intrinsically that life has meaning – that certain things are right and certain things are wrong. "For when [those] who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them" (ESV Romans 2.14,15). If you believe that it is morally acceptable to kill a human being inside the womb, but not morally acceptable to kill a human being outside the womb, you've got a problem. Peter Singer says the problem is you haven't gone far enough. I say the problem is you've already gone too far. There is freedom in suppressing a belief in God. Most profoundly it is freedom from hope, freedom from meaning, and freedom from ultimate joy. Don't embrace the notion that life is meaningless because you've bought into the notion that life is God-less. Fix your inconsistency the other way! No matter how many PhDs you have to your credit, it is only the fool who says there is no God (Psalm 14.1). Thankfully, God is in the business of rescuing fools, and let's face it, at one time or another, we've all acted the fool.

Keller, Tim. "The Supremacy of Christ and the Gospel in a Postmodern World." Minneapolis, MN: Desiring God National Conference, Sept. 20, 2006. MP3.

Singer, Peter. Practical Ethics. 2nd ed. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Print.

Michael Spielman is the founder and director of Abort73.com. His book, Love the Least (A Lot), is available as a free download. You can also find him on Facebook and Google+. Abort73 is part of Loxafamosity Ministries, a 501c3, Christian education corporation. If you have been helped by the information available at Abort73.com, please consider making a donation.

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