It is frequently pointed out to me (by non-spiritual types) that civilization needs to evolve and that religion -- with its unalterable principles and absolutist moral stance -- is gumming up the works. There tends to be an assumption that society, like the evolutionary process itself, is constantly getting better. The people who fancy themselves as stewards of this process self-identify as "progressives."
Though there is no shortage of chilling philosophical conclusions when nature and society are compared, one has to wonder if the evidence for humanity's progression is anything more than a mixed bag, and at worst, actually more regressive than anything else.
The ever optimistic Hegel was of the opinion that, "The history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom." He wrote these words in German approximately one century before his nation gleefully vivisected freedom across all of Europe. They did this, of course, in the name of "progress," which, as is well known, was in part inspired by the writings of Charles Darwin. When the natural world is your guide, then it is only logical, only natural, that those who are less fit should be allowed to move on -- and if a little nudge in that direction is needed, then so be it. More recently, some evolutionary thinkers, chaffed by the dissonance of some of the more uncomfortable Darwinian conclusions, have expended considerable energy contorting the theory to explain that those good and fuzzy values that we all know and love were part of the evolutionary plan all along. In their thinking, being nice confers an even greater evolutionary advantage than simply decimating the competition and making off with their resources (as Darwin originally suggested).
These ideas are, of course, much older than Hegel or Darwin. An intellect no less formidable than Aristotle was perfectly comfortable with holding the position that "There must be a law that no imperfect or maimed child shall be brought up. And to avoid an excess in population, some children must be exposed. For a limit must be fixed to the population of the state" (Politics VII.16). In as much as we have supposedly progressed, we mostly consider the idea of leaving the family's newborn on the trash heap to later be hauled out with the remainders of lunch, to be fairly abhorrent. Unfortunately, in absence of those irritating absolutist principles, bad ideas, like bathroom mold, have an insidious tendency to reemerge.
It was for that reason that I found the headline of an article from the Telegraph dated March 2 to be so jarring. It was entitled "Killing babies no different from abortion, experts say." Ah, you see, they are experts -- medical ethicists associated with Oxford University, no less -- so there's really no reason to get too worked up about it. As they correctly point out, the only real difference between a late-term fetus and a newborn child is its location! If we permit the "termination" in one locale then what exactly would be the problem to do it slightly later in another? Isn't this precisely the slippery slope that those crazy and dogmatic pro-lifers have warned about for so long? Once we set foot on that road, with nothing more than our Hegelian confidence in society as our road map, it is hard to know where it will end -- though in this case it would appear that we've actually been walking in a big circle the whole time, right back to Aristotle's "exposure" suggestion. No, we're not there yet, but the fact that "ethicists" could make these assertions with straight faces should send a cold shudder down every thinking person's back.
Aristotle was a genius, but he was immoral. In some sense he can't be blamed: He did his best with what he had. In fact, Jewish tradition has a degree of respect for him. In Maimonides' case, it's something more akin to a reverence -- he got so close! But there was a major difference between Aristotle's way of thinking and that of the founder of the monotheistic tradition. Abraham, also working in a vacuum, concluded that human life was intrinsically precious -- that there is infinite value in every soul and so to frivolously dispose of them in the name of population control, gender preference, convenience or women's rights is immoral.
In truth, the Jewish perspective on this matter is somewhat more nuanced than some other, more vocal religious systems out there. We hold that abortion is permitted when there is a significant physical or psychological danger to the mother. At that point, the fetus is classified as a "pursuer" -- one who is actively threatening another's life. For that reason, we would not favor the de-legalization of abortion. In these rare cases, abortion becomes the moral course of action. But to take another's life because it simply cramps your style, knowing that there is a line around the block of young couples who are aching to adopt, is a dubious matter indeed, and once we've sanctioned it, it's just a hop, skip and a jump away from the little Oxford Mengeles and their "ethics."
The abortion question is unique in its ability to generate two utterly disparate conceptions of the same act. Is it a procedure, similar to having a bunion removed, as one side would have it? Or is it the wholesale megadeath of the other? The question neatly exposes the need for guiding principles. If they are of the absolutist (Divine) variety then the answers are generally clear. If societally constructed, then the opinions of those doctors at Oxford are a simple matter of preference -- no better or worse than any other -- but ones that can create a world that permits virtually anything, including baby-killing.