THE BLOG

Pro-life Phoniness

12/06/2006 05:03 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If you're going to condemn abortion on the categorical grounds that all human life is sacred, even at embryonic stages, then you should have major problems not only with murder and terrorism but also with state-sanctioned capital punishment, torture, and war. Killing is killing. Thou shalt not kill. Period. No ifs, ands, or buts. Turn the other check if you don't like it.

I respect pro-lifers who are genuine pacifists, though I don't agree with their positions. But I recognize their integrity, a consistency both intellectual and spiritual. They adhere to a sense of the sacred that is unconditional (unconditional means unconditional). They don't start introducing qualifying distinctions between "innocent" lives supposedly deserving of blanket protection versus "guilty" lives supposedly deserving of premeditated, humanly inflicted death. They aren't, in other words, hypocrites.

Witness, on the other hand, Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kan.): Here's a presidential wannabee who is now running around the country touting his fierce opposition to abortion as his main claim to fame (open up those wallets, folks). Brownback gets a perfect 100 score on his anti-abortion voting record from the National Right to Life Committee and a perfect 0 score from NARAL Pro-Choice America. He contends that God guides his deep-seated opposition to abortion (as well as stem-cell research, gay marriage, and gun control): "We believe in a culture of life--that every human life is a beautiful, sacred, unique child of a loving God."

Yet Brownback has been a zealous advocate of Bush's out-of-control militarism, and he remains a strong supporter of the senseless killing that is going on in Iraq today. "War is hell," he explains. "Death is really ugly and it's difficult and it's hard. But everything comes with a price, and the freedom we have in this country has come at a very high price."

To Brownback, human lives can be calculated as an affordable "price" to pay in war efforts (whether preemptive or defensive wars), but somehow he rejects that kind of crass cost-benefit analysis when he waxes righteously about abolishing all avenues for abortion: "The value of a human life is truly priceless." Twisting logic further, he also thinks the two, abortion deaths versus wartime deaths, somehow admit of direct numerical comparison: "...the number of unborn American children killed in the past 31 years is much higher than the total number of Americans killed in the entire history of our nation's wars." (italics his)

What kind of weird, sicko mind asks us to make a one-to-one comparison between the number of dead fetuses versus the number of dead soldiers in our nation's history? What, exactly, is the point of that macabre comparison (especially if you think, as Brownback apparently does, that the dead soldiers didn't die in vain)?

I think the hidden answer is that the extremist Brownback is struggling to reconcile two irreconcilably extremist positions--that life is unconditionally sacred and yet the Bush-Iraqi killing fields supposedly deserve a divine dispensation--and his contortionist logic betrays itself.

Yes, I realize that some will rejoin that national self-defense is quite another matter from failing to bring a pregnancy to term. Yet Brownback has a history of disallowing abortion on a woman's self-defense grounds, when her own life is at stake. (Maybe he would allow for an exception if a pregnant woman wanted an abortion so that she could volunteer to fight in Iraq?)

Back in the early 1980s, as the Cold War was heating up, a gallows humor joke circulated to expose the fundamental hypocrisy of a war-mongering Religious Right: Don't the Reaganites realize that nuclear war would kill a whole lot of Russian fetuses?

Sarcasm aside, the clincher for me is what I see as a theological (rather than political) oversight in Brownback's overly self-assured way of thinking, his providential presumptuousness. Frankly, I doubt that Brownback has explored carefully the theological underpinnings of his across-the-board animus toward abortion. Has he asked himself, not just whether the fetus deserves legal protection as a right-bearing person but, rather, what are the spiritual consequences to the soul of an aborted fetus? Does destroying the fetus prematurely result in condemning an innocent soul (not just the souls of the perpetrators) to eternal punishment?

Christian theologians and activists should probably do some internal soul searching before passing harsh judgments (and legislation) on others because, as far as I can tell, the doctrinal question of the fetus's religious status is anything but settled. Dante Alighieri had to create a special place in his underworld for innocent unborns because Scripture provide no reliable guide on this issue. The Bible enjoins against killing, but no biblical decree that I can find states that fetuses are necessarily better off borne into mortal existence than not. Job, in fact, curses the night he was conceived and the day he was born. Catholic theologians, from Jerome to Augustine to Aquinas to the Council of Trent, more or less followed Aristotle's distinction between "unformed" and "formed" or "animated" fetuses to argue that ensoulment, and therewith, fully human life begins not at conception but at some later point in embryonic development. The current Church position (since 1869) does not teach that ensoulment begins at conception but, rather, that since we humans cannot be sure when a soul is infused, we should act as though it commences at conception lest we risk murder. In short, the Church's doctrinaire policies on abortion seem to grow out of profound theological ambiguities, reservations, and compromises--and those questions need to be explored, not preempted.

I would suggest that before Brownback presses further for his punitive anti-abortion legislative policies, he should work first to get his own religious house in order. That is to say, if he cares deeply about the fetus, he should attend first and foremost not to the fetus's legal status as a potential person but to the fetus's religious status as an abandoned soul. That so few of our churches provide memorial services for dead fetuses (and their survivors) is telling. Compare that spiritual callousness with the Buddhist practice of mizuko kuyo, those fairly common religious services in Japan to commemorate the souls of departed fetuses, complete with rituals, prayers, and burial practices.

Perhaps if we in the United States could start thinking about fetuses as souls we might stop using them as political pawns.