Sunday 10 July 2022

Abortion is a specifically-Christian issue in The West - not about 'natural law'

A problem I have seen among US 'pro-life'/ anti-abortion Christians is a false assumption about the universality, the 'natural law' validity of their intuitive sense of abortion - and indeed infanticide - as evil. 

Christians talk as if it could be assumed - for instance - that non-Christians regard abortion as morally equivalent to murder. 

And when Christians argue that especially late abortion is equivalent to infanticide (i.e. killing of a newborn by his or her mother) - the assumption is that non-Christians regard infanticide as morally equivalent to murder. 

Yet I think it is a simple fact that the equivalence of abortion and infanticide with murder are not spontaneous human intuitions, but are rather specifically Christian convictions. 

It seems that these convictions and intuitions have not been shared by many or most people in history, as they are not shared by many people in the modern world. 

The 'pro-life' intuition and stance is distinctively (if not exclusively) Christian - and this insight ought to be the assumed basis for interactions between Christian and non-Christian regarding these matters. 

In The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark describes how the immortality of abortion and infanticide was part of a variety of pro-natalist doctrines that characterized the early Christians, and which operated within the burgeoning society of Christians - but distinctively in that sub-group of society.  

Thus, ancient Christianity grew rapidly by exponential natural increase (as well as by conversions), in a Roman society where women increasingly strove to avoid childbearing and families were kept small or absent. 

It is easy to find many other example of ancient civilizations that were also anti-natalist. But more pertinently, perhaps, records of pre-civilization, simple hunter gatherer societies also frequently practice infanticide - usually by 'exposure' (abandonment of the new born child by his or her mother); and therefore would presumably practice abortion if the technology was available.  

My factual point is that humans are not innately/ spontaneously/ naturally averse to abortion or infanticide - the wrongness of these activities is not a universal moral prohibition as with murder (although that prohibition of murder may not include strangers). Pro-life is not a human universal morality. 

What does seem to be a human universal is that abortion and infanticide are regarded as a 'bad thing' - although not as bad as murder: and therefore something that naturally makes the mother feel bad...

And therefore something to be avoided if possible, and done only when it is the lesser of evils. Abortion/ infanticide are certainly not something to celebrate or to advocate. 

My moral point is that Christians should not assume that non-Christians feel the same abhorrence at abortion or indeed infanticide. 

The strongly-motivated avoidance of such behaviour is part of being a Christian, but not part of being human. And the difference is one reason for the intransigent nature of these policy disputes.  

Another problem is that there is a difference between setting up and justifying laws - which must be clear and categorical, especially in alien, massive and bureaucratic societies such as ours - and the specific, distinctive moral realities of exact situations and circumstances. 

Real morality is about specific issues - each unique; not about absolute and generic prohibitions of broad categories of events. This is why all truly just systems of law have provision for the interpretation of categorical systems by the 'judgment' of a wise and good human judge. The ideal judge bridges between legal categories and the unique circumstance.

Failure to recognize this specificity of morality in religion leads to cold-hearted, anti-Christian 'legalism' or Pharisee-ism in Christianity. And this insight ought to apply to abortion and infanticide, just as it does to arson and murder. 

Our ultimate problem is that we almost-wholly lack wise and good judges, as we ourselves ("the masses") lack wisdom and goodness. 

And bad Men (wrongly-motivated, cowardly Men) cannot be made good by system, by imposing laws or regulations - nor by abolishing them. 

System can make us worse - which is why it is a major tool of Satan; but System cannot (here and now) make us better. 


WJT said...

I also feel (spontaneously, without any philosophical argument to back me up) that murder is worse than infanticide, which is worse than abortion — though of course all three are bad.

From what specifically Christian premise does it follow that they are all the same?

Bruce Charlton said...

@WJT - I am not making a philosophical argument, but I am assuming that Stark was broadly correct that in fact the prohibitions on abortion and infanticide came in with, and were sustained by, Christianity.

If I had to make an argument, I think it would be of a general kind that Christianity (as I understand it) should (ideally) be rooted in families; both on earth and in Heaven. This can be supported scripturally by the Fourth Gospel.

Its metaphysical basis is in the need to make creation from chaos, by love; with an extended familial love (including marriage) as the basis for harmony between Beings.

I think this was just taken for granted by early Christians, maybe rooted in intuitions that spontaneously arose with Christian faith - albeit pro-natalism clashed with the pre-existing Neo-Platonic (Gnostic) hostility to the body/ sex/ reproduction which pointed at the ideal of celibacy on earth and a de-sexed Heaven.

But the pro-natalism of Christianity only became doctrinally explicit with the Mormon revelations.

Dr. Mabuse said...

G.K. Chesterton wrote something similar in 'The Everlasting Man', saying that the idea, and even more, the picture of the Incarnation has resulted in a permanent division between Christian thinking and any other thinking:

"Any agnostic or atheist whose childhood has known a real Christmas has ever afterwards, whether he likes it or not, an association in his mind between two ideas that most of mankind must regard as remote from each other; the idea of a baby and the idea of unknown strength that sustains the stars. His instincts and imagination can still connect them, when his reason can no longer see the need of the connection; for him there will always be some savour of religion about the mere picture of a mother and a baby; some hint of mercy and softening about the mere mention of the dreadful name of God. But the two ideas are not naturally or necessarily combined. They would not be necessarily combined for an ancient Greek or a Chinaman, even for Aristotle or Confucius. It is no more inevitable to connect God with an infant than to connect gravitation with a kitten. It has been created in our minds by Christmas because we are Christians; because we are psychological Christians even when we are not theological ones. In other words, this combination of ideas has emphatically, in the much disputed phrase, altered human nature."

Rainforest Giant said...

Maybe I'm an outlier among Christians but I always assumed non-christians did not feel abortion or infanticide or even euthanasia was morally wrong. Thus their gleefully holding up signs supporting those positions. Kind of hard to miss their open fury when exposed on hidden camera discussing selling off freshly harvested baby parts like cuts of meat from the butcher. I'm certain some of those in the business of baby murder are vegan and see no problem with the contradiction.

Jonathan said...

I haven't read Rodney Stark's book, but just wanted to point out that The Natural Law is not defined by being universally present in all human cultures at all times. As Aristotle notes in the Nichomachean Ethics, even murder hasn't been universally considered as evil. In that case those societies just have failed to respond adequately etc.

Lucinda said...

Years ago I read something by Chesterton that spoke to me, as a mother in the deep end of child-bearing and rearing. He said something about looking into the deep and inviting a being to cross the chasm into life. That image has really stuck with me and helped me embrace motherhood, with its challenges. (I find the limitation of inculcated Mormonism is the tendency to strip the mystery and romance from pre-mortal life, so that it is mundane.)

My son is caring for the rabbits of vacationing neighbors, and recently found that the final kit had died by a negligent mother rabbit. My son is 12, and full of boyish passion for life. It's very touching to see his emotion on the occasion, feeling responsible and a sense of tragedy-if only he'd been able to save this baby from the negligence of the mother. It's a good experience for him to have, to understand such limits.

Christians should remember that reaching hearts and minds is better than coercing bodies.

Bruce Charlton said...

@J - However you define natural law, and with whatever exceptions; it is important for Christians to realize that Christian morality is not a human universal - but added or extra to that which is universally human.

An analogy would be that, traditionally, the ethics of a good doctor are the ethics required of any citizen - plus several extra rules distinctive to being a doctor.

@Lucinda - Good points.

Although that does not sound like a very Chestertonian idea to me, since I would be pretty sure he would have believed the traditional-orthodox Christian assumption that souls were created by God at conception; and therefore could not be called-across into incarnation. Maybe he wrote it before he became a Roman Catholic and fixed his beliefs within those bounds.

"Christians should remember that reaching hearts and minds is better than coercing bodies."

We have in our ex-civilization reached a point of such extreme corruption that the structure of law is itself a denial of God and Christ; such that evil-assuming laws operate to encourage evil; but good-encouraging laws are experienced as arbitrary coercions on behaviour.

Alexeyprofi said...

I came to the conclusion that the pro-life position has no rational basis and is rooted in religious beliefs, which they try to moralize by equating abortion with murder, and then this position is imposed on other people. A similar example is with meat - most people eat it and don't feel anxious about it, while in India meat-eating was considered immoral for a long time and there were cases of murders in retaliation for killing cows. I believe that abortion is not a routine thing and that it is normal for most pregnancies to end in childbearing, but in any case it is the choice of the mother.

Bruce Charlton said...

@A - You are arguing on a reductionist "why not" basis.

If one is a Christian, then the fact that many/ most non-Christians believe something else does not refute Christianity! But it is well to know what requires Christianity to believe.

Lucinda said...

I finally placed enough of my memory to find the actual quote. It is from a lecture called "The Superstition of Divorce":

"Now it is not at all hard to see why this small community, so specially free touching its cause, should yet be specially bound touching its effects. It is not hard to see why the vow made most freely is the vow kept most firmly. There are attached to it, by the nature of things, consequences so tremendous that no contract can offer any comparison. There is no contract, unless it be that said to be signed in blood, that can call spirits from the vasty deep; or bring cherubs (or goblins) to inhabit a small modern villa. There is no stroke of the pen which creates real bodies and souls, or makes the characters in a novel come to life. The institution that puzzles intellectuals so much can be explained by the mere material fact (perceptible even to intellectuals) that children are, generally speaking, younger than their parents. “Till death do us part” is not an irrational formula, for those will almost certainly die before they see more than half of the amazing (or alarming) thing they have done."