"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Abortion, SCOTUS, And Why Morality Is Left Out Of The Debate

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and Katha Pollitt of The Nation have engaged in a debate about abortion. Douthat has taken moderate pro-life position and Pollitt a radical pro-choice one.  The topics considered – illegal abortion, poverty, contraception, poverty, the role of men, equality, personhood, and murder – are all political; that is, they focus on women’s rights, equal access, gender, social equality, and justice. Neither Douthat nor Pollitt raise what is perhaps the most important consideration of all – morality.

The Catholic Church has consistently condemned abortion, but the most telling criticism has been a moral one.  Pope Francis in his recent Encyclical focusing on environmental issues has said:

Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties? If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away.

Pope Francis


This statement reflects a philosophy remarkably similar to Hinduism.

Hinduism teaches that the five great elements (space, air, fire, water, and earth) that constitute the environment are all derived from prakriti, the primal energy. Each of these elements has its own life and form; together the elements are interconnected and interdependent. The Upanishads explains the interdependence of these elements in relation to Brahman, the supreme reality, from which they arise: “From Brahman arises space, from space arises air, from air arises fire, from fire arises water, and from water arises earth.” (Pankaj Jain, Patheos)

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All life is interrelated.  No one living thing is disassociated from any other:

The one who loves all intensely
begins perceiving in all living beings
a part of himself. He becomes a lover of all,
He flows with the stream of happiness,
and is enriched by each soul.
(Yajur Veda)

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Whether or not life begins at conception is an irrelevant question when considered within this moral, philosophical framework.  The uprooting of a seedling before it has become a plant, the destruction of larvae, pupae, and grubs before they have matured into butterflies, plants, or bees are all acts of killing. Hindus make no distinction between the development of life or life itself.  A potential life is as significant in the Hindu world order as a fully-formed one.

Western logic demands absolute metaphysical answers. If one is discussing biological life, it is important to describe what life is, when it begins, and when it ends.  Everything depends on the definition of life without which there can be no legal rights and protections, no law or justice, no civil rights.  It is not surprising, therefore, that Douthat and Pollitt have focused exclusively on the legal, social, and political issues related to abortion.

Hindu scholars and Western moral philosophers have less concern for these secular, procedural issues and more for universal principles. Theologians since Augustine have argued about the nature of morality and whether or not there is a universal, Platonic ideal; a God-given code of conduct; or simply a culturally and temporally relative concept of behavior.  Yet they all agree that a moral sense is a defining nature of human life.  A moral approach to life is the sine qua non of human responsibility.

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Within this context, it is not important to fix the moment of conception, track a fetus’ mental development to determine at what point mental synaptic activity produces consciousness, or to assess viability.  It is only important to accept that a fetus is a living, growing, emergent human being no different from a pupa, larva, or seedling; and that to destroy it is interrupting a life cycle which is universal.

Both Francis and Paul II and Hindu philosophers speak not only about the moral implications of preventing one life from emerging, but what that act means to all life. In other words, both religious traditions teach about the sanctity of life, and how the lack of respect for one life leads inevitably to an erosion of respect of all life.

Such moral principles are at the foundation of human society. If all life is not sacred, then exceptions can be made.  Justifiable homicide, socio-economic determinates of crime, historical imperatives, retribution, can all be used to excuse violence, assault, and murder.

Respect for life is equally at the heart of social justice.  The law has become a procedural tool for adjudicating disputes, but it is based on the “God-given rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.  Jefferson and his Founding Father colleagues designed the American political system to be a moral one, based on religious principles.  They would be surprised and sorely disappointed to see how legalistic and procedural society has become.

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Every time a life is demeaned – whether through abortion, violence, murder, or execution – the moral fabric of society becomes further unraveled.

A factor in moral decline is expediency. Women have abortions because it isn’t the right time to have a child; because career and profession are more important; because troubled relationships might come apart with a child.  Secular, practical, and temporal issues take precedence over procreation.  It is one thing to defer pregnancy; but another altogether to terminate it.

Recent popes have echoed the same sentiment.  John Paul II was perhaps the most unforgiving critic, stating in his Evangelum Vitae:

The encyclical states that today “in many people's consciences, the perception of its gravity has become progressively obscured”.This is manifested in the everyday way of thinking, in people’s habits and also in the state legislation itself. All this “is a telling sign of an extremely dangerous crisis of the moral sense, which is becoming more and more incapable of distinguishing between good and evil, even when the fundamental right to life is at stake”. This is a serious and really grave situation when “we need now more than ever to have the courage to look the truth in the eye and to call things by their proper name, without yielding to convenient compromises or to the temptation of self-deception....  (From Gaizler and Nyeky on Bioethics)

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‘Convenient compromises and self-deception’ characterize expedient decision-making concerning abortion.  Not only do women and men consider reproduction, procreation, and abortion within the same context as employment, finances, and sexual relationships thus making it easier to make decisions; they deceive themselves by thinking that procreation/abortion is indeed no different than career advancement.

Such expediency and self-deception inevitably lead to an erosion of all moral judgment. Once morality is characterized only as a variable in an equation, it loses its primacy and universality.

In other words if the decision to terminate a pregnancy is made on the grounds of expediency alone, it will have inescapable consequences for all decisions with a moral component.  It simply becomes easier and easier to ignore or dismiss moral responsibility.

For many years I worked in Third World programs designed to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS.  These efforts were largely based on the use of condoms, the reduction of serial partners, and on testing.  No messages about moral behavior were introduced because health professionals were concerned about disrespecting cultural norms. Morality, they said, is relative; and it would be wrong for American aid workers to impose their principles on Africans or Brazilians.  As a result all prevention campaigns were mechanistic and procedural.

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Yet all cultures would certainly agree that unprotected sex in a society with extremely high HIV rates was an immoral act.  Infecting someone with HIV was, before the introduction of anti-retrovirals, a death sentence.  It was tantamount to murder. Yet messages which would have raised this issue and suggested that unprotected sex was an immoral act were suppressed.

It was a classic case of self-deception and compromise trumping morality.  Respect for life was secondary to respect for supposed cultural integrity.  Public health workers ran away from facing facts.

Inner city communities faced with unprecedented violence refuse to acknowledge personal responsibility and moral failure, preferring to perpetuate a culture of entitlement, reparation, and excuse based on historical wrongs.  Life – and the moral principles which sustain it – have been relegated and marginalized.

Morality based on a respect for all life is elemental and unavoidable.  Abortion and murder in the inner-city are related; and Popes Francis and John Paul II have been right to stress the inter-relatedness of life-threatening actions.

It is significant to note how absent these issues have been from the debate on abortion in America.  Yet in some ways it is not surprising.  ‘Morality’ and ‘values’ have become politically-charged words.  The Left accuses the Right of using them to cover up for social backwardness, racism, and social inequality.  Conservatives blame liberals for the continuing erosion of religion, faith, and morality.

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Sooner rather than later both sides will realize that morality far from being divisive, is common ground.  Moral principles form the foundation for society; and they are indeed universal.  Whether inspired by the Bible or reflected in the texts of moral philosophers, they cannot be ignored.

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