Does ‘Sanctity-of-Life’ Rule Out Abortion?

The collision of theology with real-life crises

I was a teen-age Bible geek, way back in the 1950s, in rural northern Indiana. My devout mother was not a fundamentalist, however, so I escaped that infamy. Quite the contrary, even at that early age I developed as aversion to the letters of the apostle Paul. There was no one to tap me on the shoulder and warn me: if you don’t like Paul, Christianity probably isn’t for you. My dislike for Paul had not diminished years later when I selected my major in the PhD program at Boston University; I chose Old Testament to escape excessive study of Paul. I would realize my mistake many years later, since Paul’s theology plays a major role in the falsification of Christianity.

But there I was at one of the most liberal Methodist seminaries in the country and in the 1960s-1970s we were fully alert to political/social issues, including civil rights and opposition to the Vietnam War. As I progressed through the PhD program my belief in God was diminishing (I had hoped for a career in academia: I could teach Bible without being a believer, right?), I had to pick a dissertation topic. Any aspect of theology itself left me cold, but I found a solution: One of the big social issues was overpopulation; in 1968 Paul and Anne Ehrlich had published The Population Bomb, which included dire warnings about what the world faced.

So why not examine one of the Bible verses that seemingly encourages baby making, especially in conservative, orthodox circles? In Genesis 1:28 we read, “…God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it…’” Was this still binding?

My dissertation ended up being 230 pages, titled, Be Fruitful and Multiply: A History of the Interpretation of Genesis 1:28a and Related Texts in Selected Periods. I researched how this verse had been viewed in various eras of Christian history, and—this was a surprise—some Catholic theologians, who were certain that celibacy was a superior calling, declared that Genesis 1:28 had already been fulfilled! This kind of research is usually justified by saying that God speaks through scripture to every generation, and it turned out there were varieties of opinion. It wasn’t hard to make the case that this text no longer carried much weight.

Fast forward fifty years. Where are we today? The Ehrlichs were accused of being alarmists, but their basic premise has not failed. One especially sobering estimate of our current global crisis is Catherine Ingram’s essay (published earlier this year), Facing Extinction.

Here are four important excerpts:

• “In 1952, when I was born, there were approximately 2.6 billion people on earth. There are now 7.7 billion, a more than threefold increase in my lifetime. Our use rate of resources would allow for our planet to sustainably host only about one billion people. As William Catton explained in his 1980 book Overshoot, we are in ‘carrying capacity deficit.’ In other words, the load on resource use is far in excess of its carrying capacity. Of course, the only way we have been able to pull this off is by stealing from the future, just as we might have a garden of food that could last ten people through the winter and instead we have a wild party for a thousand and go through the entire supply in an evening.”

• “It is also troubling to realize that whatever reasonable measures we might attempt to mitigate our situation, and there are none known that can be done at scale, the addition of roughly 220,000 humans per day (births minus deaths) would curtail our efforts at mitigation.”

• “According to many scientific studies, some of the inevitable outcomes of overpopulation are severely polluted water, increased air pollution and lung diseases, proliferation of infectious diseases, overwhelmed hospitals, rising crime rates, deforestation, loss of wildlife leading to mass extinctions, widespread food shortages, vanishing fish in the oceans, superbugs and airborne diseases along with diminished capacity to treat them, proliferation of AIDS, less access to safe drinking water, new parasites, desertification, rising regional conflicts, and war. As astrobiology professor Peter Ward explained in a story on the BBC, ‘If you look at any biological system, when it overpopulates it begins to poison its home.’”

• “Understanding the ills of overpopulation and co-extinctions puts one in the difficult position of concern for people bringing babies into the world. For the first time in history, it is hard to celebrate the arrival of newborns when one is aware of the deadly pressures of overpopulation, climate chaos, and collapse of our life support systems. It is sad to think of what a new little being is likely to endure. And as his or her parents awaken to the global reality, they will likely face increasing anxiety and sorrow. Once you come to know a child, whether your own or anyone else’s, your love for the child makes for a heart-wrenching worry, especially if you are responsible for bringing that child into this world.”

Now, it’s a fair question: Since we’re in deep trouble, what role will Christians play in addressing this crisis? Genesis 1:28 was written well more than 2,000 years ago, and I doubt if many of the faithful even pay much attention to it. But there’s another factor very much in play here: the sanctity of life concept. God is evoked as a relevant factor.

Ingram’s essay should be read, studied, absorbed, pondered. If she’s right, we’re pretty much screwed, but why not do what we can to ease suffering on our way out? Among other things, the addition of 220,000 humans per day is a calamity. Hence we run head-on into the issue of abortion—and the stigma that Christians commonly attach to it. That just won’t work any more.

Ronald A. Lindsay’s essay, “The Christian Abuse of the Sanctity of Life,” in John Loftus’ 2014 anthology, Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails, is a reminder that theology may be far more of a hindrance than help. The last section of Lindsay’s essay is titled, “The Sanctity-of-Life Principle and the Status of Zygotes, Embryos, and Fetuses.” Sanctity of course means that God is involved in the game.

Lindsay points out that “…the Catholic Church and several other Christian denominations take the position that a zygote, a fertilized egg, has the same moral status as an adult human. On this view, from the moment of conception forward, it is impermissible to harm or destroy the zygote, embryo, or fetus. Accordingly, many Christians oppose embryonic stem cell research and abortion at any point in time.” (pp. 235-236)

But theologians have a problem figuring out what God wants. “The early church fathers,” Lindsay says, “did not consider abortion immoral until after ensoulment, and for them, ensoulment did not occur at the moment of conception. Instead, ensoulment occurred only after the body was formed, which was usually understood at three months after conception.” (p. 236)

“Aquinas refined this timeline and threw in a dose of sexism, declaring that abortion was impermissible after ‘quickening,’ which for boys was forty days and for girls eighty days. It was not until the nineteenth century that the Catholic Church officially stated that abortion at any point after conception is equivalent to homicide.” (p. 236)

Even though we now know the difference between a zygote, embryo, and a fetus, anti-abortion activists refer to the ‘killing of babies.’ Even if they acknowledge that this is not true, they insist that potential babies are the victims; a valuable life is cut short. Lindsay explains the fallacy:

“In arguing for the moral status of the zygote and embryo based on their potential, the proponent of the person-from-conception view is actually making a huge concession. The proponent is conceding that what really matters are the qualities and capacities of what the zygote or embryo might become, not their current qualities and capacities.

“But then the zygote and embryo, as they are now, lack the value we attribute to human persons. As the saying goes, an acorn is not an oak tree, nor for that matter is a lottery ticket an entitlement to a million dollars.” (p. 238)

However, for those who cherish that new life ignited at conception—and who go to great lengths to protect it—the unpredictability of the human body sabotages theology:

“…the path from conception to birth is one marked by uncertainty, not inevitability. One important fact about embryonic development that is often overlooked is that between two-thirds and four-fifths of all embryos that are generated through standard sexual reproduction are spontaneously aborted. So, in fact, the odds are very high that a zygote will not eventually develop into a child. The zygote has significantly less chance of becoming a child than a person has of winning a coin toss.” (p. 239)

I suppose this inconvenient truth can be finessed by claiming that spontaneous abortions are God’s will. In his Infinite Wisdom, pursuing his Mysterious Ways, he knows what he’s doing; this means that God tinkers at the cellular level in human bodies. And people seem to have little trouble believing this is the case, since they pray for God to cure cancers.

Aside from there being no evidence whatever that this happens, believers should be stunned by the overwhelming number of uncured cancers—a lot of prayers don’t work—as well as thousands of genetic diseases. Does God ignore these and just manage the spontaneous abortions? Why did God even allow all those conceptions in the first place? I await the theological verdict on that, including why this capricious meddlesome god would be considered a good thing.

At this level, of course, the theology become utterly incoherent, and Lindsay calls it correctly: “…Christian opposition to embryonic stem cell research and early-stage abortions is unwarranted. This opposition is based on religions metaphysics, not science.” (p. 236)

The high rate of spontaneous abortions—unless they really are God’s fault—should drive Christians to desperate action. Lindsay shows that the theology is phony:

“Imagine that there was a virus with a fatality rate of over 50 percent that began sweeping the world. Wouldn’t we put aside all other concerns to focus on this dread epidemic? No resource, financial or otherwise, would be spared in trying to end the plague.

“But, if you accept the Catholic Church’s position, then we are experiencing such a catastrophic event. I just noted that between two-thirds and four-fifths of all embryos ‘die’ before coming to term. Why aren’t we spending billions of dollars to find a cure for this problem? The obvious answer is that despite all the dogma drumbeat from the Catholic Church and other Christian organizations that human personhood begins at conception, and that abortion, even in very early stages, is equivalent to murder, we don’t really perceive zygotes, embryos, and early-stage fetuses as human persons.

“The inconsistency between the claimed status of these entities and how much weight is actually given to their supposed interests is stark.” (pp. 239-240)

Our attention should be riveted to the suffering that will follow in the wake of the daily population increase. Please reread Ingram’s paragraph above about the ‘inevitable outcomes of overpopulation.’ It’s a terrifying list of consequences that should terrify those who advocate the sanctity of life. The theologically driven worry about the loss of zygotes, embryos, and early-stage fetuses is inappropriate and entirely misplaced.

Lindsay concludes his essay with this observation: “…when religious doctrine intrudes on common sense moral reasoning, moral reasoning becomes confused and veers off course…human life is too valuable to be left in the hands of the theologians.” (p. 241)

Three other items to note:

• Lindsay mentions that the scope of his essay was limited: “…among other things we would need to address a woman’s reproductive rights and how they relate to the rights, if any, of the embryo and fetus.” (p. 236) Indeed we must, because misogyny—to be sure, denied and downplayed—plays a major role in religious opposition to contraception and abortion.

Earlier this year John Loftus posted resources on the abortion issue on the Debunking Christianity Blog, and his commentary on Lindsay’s essay:

Why Georgia’s Abortion Bill Must Be Opposed, Everything You Need to Know, Part 1

Why Georgia’s Abortion Bill Must Be Opposed, Everything You Need to Know, Part 2

Lindsay’s essay, by the way, includes a substantial section on the impact of sanctity-of-life thinking when people face unbearable suffering at the end of life. What about Physician Assisted Suicide [PAD], for example? There are those who argue that only God can take a life—it’s his decision alone; that’s what they mean by sanctity of life. “It wasn’t my time,” we hear people say, meaning that God—and God alone—sets ‘the time.’ This claim plunges theology into absurdity. God decides when and how each one of us dies? Including the 100,000 babies and infants crushed and drowned in the 2004 tsunami? We are not impressed by God’s management skills.

Lindsay shows how end-of-life decisions can me made carefully, cautiously, and humanely. And again, it’s best to leave God out of the equation:

“For the terminally then, we should recognize an exception to the general rule that bringing about someone’s death is morally impermissible. To insist otherwise based on the sanctity-of-life principle elevates dogma over reason and compassion, and converts morality from a set of practices that serve human interests into a set of absolute rules that one must blindly follow regardless of the consequences. Those who resist legalization of PAD based on the sanctity-of-life principle are making the terminally ill suffer for the sake of a platitude.” (p. 235)

“So where do you get your morals if you don’t believe in God?” This question comes from those who have no clue that secular ethicists have been writing about morality for centuries. Our commitment to kindness and compassion enable us to figure out solutions to tough life-and-death issues without resorting to ‘sanctity-of-life.’ Just leave God out of it; he slept through the 2004 tsunami. He doesn’t deserve to be included.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was reissued last year by Tellectual Press with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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