Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Abortion and the Duty to Legistlate Some Morality

In addition to this blog, I also blog once in awhile from our denominational magazine, The Church Herald. Being a part of a mainline church, I often disagree with other pastors in my denomination. Last week one of the issues up for debate on the blog was whether the government should legislate moraliy. The gist of the debate was whether we are being consistent if we want the government to intervene in some areas but not in others. The three examples mentioned were abortion, gay marriage, and economic redistribution. How can Christians be in favor of legislating morality on some of these issues but not all?

The question is complicated because there is no "consistent" position. Everyone, except anarchists, wants the government to legislate some morality, and everyone, except full blown recontructionists, want the government to stay out of some issues. For example I want the government to prohibit stealing but I don't want the government to prohibit the worship of Shiva, even though I think both are grave sins.

But what about abortion (leaving aside the other two examples for this post)? Is it enough that no one is forced to have an abortion ("Don't like abortion? Don't have one.")? Is abortion a personal issue that involves freedom over one's body? Do the difficult emotional, financial, and pyschological situations that pregnant women sometimes find themselves in necessiate that abortion be at least an option, though not an ideal one?

These are common questions but not really germane to the issue. The question is not whether a woman has a right to choose what do with her body or whether a woman might suffer greatly if she brings the child to term. The question is whether "the unborn entity, from the moment of conception, is a full-fledged member of the human community", to quote Francis Beckwith. If the fetus is a human person, then abortion is prima facie morally wrong, and a moral wrong that ought to prohibited by the state. If the fetus is not a member of the human community, then we can debate whether the mother can terminate the pregnancy or not. But this would be to conclude that the unborn child is nothing much more than a mass of flaking skin cells. We don't talk about a man's right to choose to shoot his wife, or the right of a parent to suffocate her 4 year old, or the right of a 55 year old to push his aging mother in front of a car. These are not rights because in each case an innocent human person is being killed. If the fetus is a human person, then how can abortion be a right?

Despite the rhetoric, abortion is not just one issue among many. It is different. No one has come out in favor of hurting the poor. No one runs for office on a plank of trashing the environment. No one advocates the killing of innocent Iraqis. You may think that the policies you oppose are tantamount to these things. You may even think the politicians you oppose secretly want these things. But no one is arguing for them. The debate, at least ostensibly, is about which policies best help the poor, or best preserve peace, or best care for creation.

Abortion is different. Here we have some people saying "unborn life should be protected." Others are saying "the fetus does not need to be protected." The debate is about ends, not means. The abortion argument is not about how to best helpo the child, but whether they child deserves to be helped at all. The plain fact is millions of Americans argue for the right to terminate the unborn. Perhaps they think the fetus is not a human person. Perhaps they think small persons does not have a right to live. Perhaps they haven't thought through the issue very carefully.

I know there are Christians who support the right to abortion, but, honestly, I cannot see how. Besides the familiar and important verses about being knit together and even regenerated in the womb, just think about real life experience. My wife and I had our 20 week ultrasound last week for our fourth child. We had an earlier ultrasound around 12 weeks because we feared a miscarriage. At both ultrasounds, and every other one we've had with our other three children, we've seen a little child rolling around, kicking its legs, moving its head, bending its arms. We've seen the baby's spine, 10 fingers and 10 toes, and a little heart racing. If my wife went into preterm labor right now (heaven forbid), our doctors and hospital would do everything to save the life of our child. And if the child died (heaven forbid), the nurses and doctors and staff would mourn with us, and no one would think such a loss to be a small grief.

And yet, many Americans, and not a few professing Christians, would think nothing of ending this child's life on their own. And still others would think it a travesty not to have the "right" to do so. Almost every state has fetal homicide laws for the prosecution of those who harm a child in the womb. And yet, every state allows for abortion in all three trimesters for any reason. It is a sad and terrible kind of blindness that sees no contradiction in praying for safe pregnancies while still defending the right to kill the child of that pregnancy.

Either the unborn child is a human person or not. And if the fetus is a human person, then it is has a right to live whether we want it to or not. Which brings me to the main point: the government has no greater responsibility than protecting the lives of those who do not deserve to die. So when it comes to defending the unborn, I say legislate away and give the very least of these a chance to drink their first cup of cold water.


Aaron said...
This post has been removed by the author.
Jon and Bethany said...

Good post! How do you decide what morality the government should/shouldn't legislate?

Roger_TQ said...

Good points. A government that doesn't protect innocent life is failing in its most important duty.

Kevin DeYoung said...

Jon and Bethany,

That's a big question. I'm sure I don't know the whole answer; maybe no one does. But one of the key considerations is to look at the difference between negative and positive rights. A negative right is something that people should not take away from me. A positive right is something I deserve to have. In general, I think the responsibility of government is to see that negative rights are not infringed on. So, we have the right not to be killed unlawfully, not to be stolen from, not to be defrauded. The government should protect these rights. In the U.S. context, the government should try to ensure that each person has the freedom to pursue life, liberty, and happiness, in so far as that pursuit does not infringe upon another or harm the common good.

Clear as mud, eh?

chrisdat said...

I think we decide where the government MUST get involved is when the issue is part of the "moral" law that God has given to all people for all times. Both do not kill (Gen. 9, I believe) and marriage (the garden) are creation mandates. They are moral laws given by God for all people for all time, even the pagan nations.

The rainbow after the flood is God's sign that He was making a covenant promise to never flood the earth and destroy all men in judgment. This covenant was made to all men (pagans, Jews, Gentiles). The sign being a rainbow and not a blood covenant (e.g. Abrahamic or New Covenant).

Likewise, God's moral law mandated in creation is for all people. Break God's moral law, and their is judgment, even if you are not God's people.

Economic redistribution is not part of God's moral law (creation or Decalogue). Loving our neighbor as ourselves - is our guide in how we view this. Now that is another question - but one we decide in Christian community, not mandated by the government.

My 2 cents:) - Sorry for the length. Great post, caused me to do some thinking.

James said...

chrisdat, we would need a massive (think enough to induce a frenzy of post-millenialism) revival before the government could legislate having the one true Triune God as our only God, worshiping only according to His direction, neither bearing nor speaking His name emptily, delighting alone in worship and mercy on resurrection and re-creation day... and especially not coveting. All people everywhere are bound to all of these.

And one could make a very strong argument that willing economic distribution is in fact part of the moral law. Almsgiving and generosity are pretty much assumed of the righteous.

And this "loving your neighbor" thing that you mentioned is actually a sum of the moral law. Perhaps you meant loving our brothers as Christ has loved us... but that's not just some amount of economic redistribution; that would be joyful economic self-sacrifice.

Sometimes, our easy categories just don't work so well.

d said...


Great post as usual. It grates on my chalk board when I hear the statement "we shouldn't legislate morality". I mean, good grief, show me a law that isn't morally based. It can't be done. What people mean when they say such things is "well, not your morality but mine should be legislated". What better law should Christians seek to legislate than God's Law?

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