We await the Supreme Court likely undoing decades of jurisprudence on the topic of women’s reproductive rights and we simultaneously see new state-by-state battles over LGBTQ+ rights. It has become obvious to me that our culture’s long insistence on binary choices on morality issues does not help us navigate Mother Nature’s (and democracy’s) love of continuum and complexity.
Even among the strongest advocates for giving women control over their own reproductive health, there is often discomfort about “the line” of gestational development at which the justification for abortion goes beyond simple “choice.” At the same time, the radical new state laws that attempt to define the moment of sperm meeting egg as the hard and fast line at which a woman loses control of her own body are based on metaphysical fantasy and cultic religion more than science and pluralistic democracy. The times call for wise judges in a pluralistic state, but right now we have political hacks with sectarian religious motives.
Abortion and ethical nuance
It has been thirty years since I ventured way outside of my element to study ethics at a Jesuit university. Back in 2018, I wrote about a group of nuns I interacted with there who were in opposition, those three decades ago, with their own male leadership’s stance on abortion and birth control based on the reality that they were seeing “in the trenches.” These women often served in poor parishes in expanded roles due to a chronic shortage of priests. Women in the wealthier parishes around the archdiocese were obviously (but quietly) keeping their family sizes small through various methods disapproved by their church but were rarely challenged with anything more than token scolding from the pulpit.
Meanwhile, women in poor parishes, usually non-white, “bore the burdens” of the church’s teaching and condemnation for “sin,” both deprived of effective birth control and forced to bear children that they struggled to support, or were perhaps even conceived in rape or spousal abuse. Even if (or especially if) you are a nun sworn to chastity and obedience, your sisterhood with these parishioners could not be denied.
Ethical nuance is the idea that the really tough ethical choices are rarely “black and white.” Real life is messy, with countervailing pressures and lots of interacting continua in the natural order of things. Money, race, and class all have impact in ethical judgement in reality, and although “morality” has a different academic definition, in church circles it usually has something to do with sex.
In Christianity, sin is traditionally presented as a binary choice between “God’s way” and “Satan’s way,” but on the ground it quickly becomes more complicated, even in conservative circles. Catholic and Orthodox Christians differentiate between venial and mortal sin, which has (jokingly?) been described as a categorization for giving absolution to the priest’s common alcohol abuse.
Evangelical Christians take care of this dilemma by singing “Amazing grace…that saved a wretch like me.” If we are all “sinners in the hand of an angry God,” then I can plead for forgiveness for my sin while at the same time condemning yours without any sense of irony or hypocrisy. The Southern Baptist Convention recently released a report detailing widespread reports of sexual abuse by over 400 denominational clergy and staffers that had been swept under the rug for years. Someone needs to tell Florida Governor Ron DeSantis that church can be a much more dangerous place for a child to attend than a drag show.
Nature’s continuum of life
The “life begins at conception” viewpoint is an especially dangerous place to stand for a Supreme Court Justice who is supposed to uphold First Amendment Constitutional freedoms for an entire nation “conceived in liberty” (an interesting turn of phrase, that). Even many Catholics (including the Pope?), traditionally the strongest proponents of this theology, have come to realize that this simplistic axiom gets messy in real life. Hormonal birth control methods commonly practiced among non-poor Catholic women usually stop the body from ovulating. This act alone is traditionally seen by their priests as “sinful,” but these drugs can also prevent pregnancy by changing the lining of the uterus so that it is unlikely the fertilized (“conceived”) egg will be implanted, and it is naturally aborted.
If you are looking for longstanding theological consensus on opposition to abortion in conservative Protestant Christianity, you will not find it historically until abortion was seized on as a cultural “wedge issue” for the Reagan faction of the Republican party leading up to and following the Presidential election of 1980. Lenore Romney, the devout Latter-day Saint spouse of Michigan Governor George Romney, mother of Mitt and grandmother of RNC chair Ronna McDaniel, ran for Senate in Michigan in 1970 on a platform that supported both the nascent Equal Rights Amendment and emerging state laws supporting a woman’s right to reproductive choice ahead of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. That wing has been driven from the party.
Science makes the waters of reproduction even murkier. The process of fertilization of an ovum and subsequent development of a fetus is a mini-course in evolutionary biology (which, of course, many conservative Christians still reject). The first days of human development are largely unrecognizable from any vertebrate in the DNA-based Tree of Life such as a fish. Eventually we begin to look more mammalian in utero, but where is the point at which we become “human”? In nature there really isn’t one; it is a continuum.
The point of “personhood,” or what theologians call ensoulment, gets even messier. Many non-fundamentalist Christians commonly place this “human” line well past the date of conception. Muslims and Jews likewise differ among themselves in their own traditions where “the line” should be drawn. From a scientific perspective, and arguably from a legal perspective, the very concept of a soul that pre-dates conception and post-dates death cannot be a judicable concept at all. It is the very essence of religious dogma, with as many interpretations as there are faith traditions and splinter groups.
The messy political consensus
Indeed, we do not pass the “mirror test,” where we can recognize that the object in a mirror with a lipstick mark on the cheek is “me,” and try to touch the mark, until we are about 18 months of age. Obviously, even the most ardent advocates of women’s reproductive rights would put their the “Now a human!” line somewhere well short of that 18-month mark. The point is that “the line” is a very personal decision for which there is a spectrum of theological opinion, and more importantly in a Constitutional nation with First Amendment protections, a political spectrum. And a political, intentionally separate from religious, consensus. That consensus is far from the point of sperm-meets-egg.
Religions have long held binary views of morality in theory, but much less in practice. The big danger we face right now is when the courts in a pluralistic democracy impose a binary morality based on their own sectarian (even cultic) religious loyalties. If there is an “absolute wrong” here, this is where it lies.
- Iowa, abortion and ethical nuance
- William Barr and the binary God
- Ethics or morality – Is there a difference?
- Worth a read: Life’s Edge by Carl Zimmer
- Biden, the bishops, and a failure to communicate
- Remembering Lenore and George Romney
- Mind-body dualism and religion – the hard debate
For additional posts on theodicy, probability, volition and ethics, follow the Dice icon back or forward where it appears.