Of the several important things I learned in my senior philosophy course at LaGrange College, one dictum has particular relevance to the continuing controversy about abortion: The answers we receive are dependent upon the questions we ask. On the subject of legal abortion, most people—those who oppose and those who support—don’t seem to be addressing fundamental issues because the most productive questions are not ordinarily being asked; instead, the debate is frequently characterized by knee-jerk slogans that offer little prospect for resolution and reconciliation between supporters and opponents.
Non-religious persons can certainly oppose abortion on ethical grounds, although—in the United States—persons affiliated with Judeo-Christian faith communities seem to be the most vocal opponents of abortion. At one level, the controversy derives from the Biblical prohibition against murder. People who do not consider abortion equivalent to murder want to keep the freedom of choice granted to women through the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. Individuals believing abortion amounts to murder propose severe limits on freedom of choice and/or promote a reversal of Roe v. Wade. But, we can ask, why does the question of murder enter into the discussion?
Although not always recognized or explicitly stated, the theological concept of ensoulation lies at the foundation of the controversy over abortion as murder. Ensoulation refers to humans receiving a soul. Most Judeo-Christians have an instinctive reluctance to kill ensouled human beings. I have no idea when ensoulation occurs; however, I infer the process somehow comes with the human genetic material or DNA.
Potentiality Versus Actuality
A highly respected ministerial friend comforts parents who have lost unborn children with the idea that ensoulation takes place with the first breath. That is, babies that have never taken a breath do not have souls. In the same vein, I recently read an argument that ensoulation requires a viable human being. Accordingly, abortions taking place before twenty to twenty-four weeks of gestation do not kill human beings with souls, and the procedure is not tantamount to murder because such fetuses are not viable outside the uterus when aborted, absent heroic and often unsuccessful treatment.
Many complex questions could be asked about ensoulation in conjunction with abortion; however, most of them can be reduced to potentiality: Abortion equals murder because the procedure destroys a potential human being who somehow becomes ensouled at some point. Following this line of reasoning should cause us to ask a pragmatic question: How much concern should we truly have for potentiality rather than actuality?
Let us consider a two-part thought experiment that might, for some people, clarify the issue of potentiality and actuality: (a) Suppose a fire in a hospital threatens a nursery for newborns, with 30 babies resting securely in their cribs. We expect the hospital staff, emergency personnel, and other adults to make every heroic effort to save these alive and ensouled babies. Anything less than maximum effort, which might encompass risking or even sacrificing adult lives, would be denounced. (b) On the other hand, suppose a fire in a human fertility clinic threatens the destruction of 10,000 embryos kept frozen in a liquid nitrogen storage tank. Who seriously expects adult humans to risk their lives saving these only potentially viable, even if, ensouled embryos?
Clearly, if abortion of a potential human being constitutes murder, allowing the destruction of the 10,000 embryos also represents murder, an idea that negates our God-given logic. From the perspective of this thought experiment, we might argue that actuality—a viable fetus—trumps potentiality—a non-viable fetus. Such a conclusion raises the specter of prolonged discord over the definition of viability.
Some opponents of abortion would allow the procedure to be carried out in instances of rape or incest, despite viewing the fetus as an actual or potentially ensouled human being. The fetus bears no guilt for the parental sins of rape or incest; hence, why should the fertilized egg or the fetus resulting from these abominations be killed? Avid proponents of “abortion is murder” seldom discuss the devastating, sometimes lethal, consequences to the mother, her family and loved ones, and the child resulting from an unwanted pregnancy. Brushing off these legitimate societal and personal concerns with a simple declaration, “abortion is murder,” disregards the compassion of Christ for those who actually, not potentially, live among us. Yes, I admit the often profoundly negative emotional consequences of abortion on the mother.
The Litmus Test Question
Litmus paper allows a quick and unequivocal determination of the acidic or basic quality of a water solution. This chemical indicator turns from blue to red in acidic solutions and from red to blue in basic solutions. Acid and base values, which chemists term the pH, range from 0 to 14, from very acidic to very basic. Pure water has a neutral pH of 7. Litmus paper indicates over the pH range of 4.5 to 8.3 but does not give information about lower and higher values. That is, litmus paper indicates on which side of neutrality a solution rests without giving definitive information about the distance from the center or neutrality.
For many religious opponents of abortion, the litmus test question is, “Are you for or against abortion?” Posing the question in this manner represents an attempt to provide a simple answer like litmus paper—acidic or basic—without recognizing the complexities of the issues surrounding abortion. For instance, are there any circumstances under which opponents of abortion will accept the procedure?
I propose a more meaningful litmus test question that might allow us to reach a common ground, following the dictum I learned in my philosophy course: How should we welcome children into the Community of Believers and into this pluralistic American society?
A Real-Life Answer
The way two friends of mine reacted to the unwanted pregnancy of their 16-year old daughter provides an example of how my litmus test question was answered. After the parents recovered from the anger and shock over the pregnancy, they learned their daughter did not want to marry the baby’s father. The parents knew neither the daughter nor the boy were mature enough to marry. When I asked if an abortion was ever considered, the mother of the daughter answered, “Not at all. Abortion is a sin and I wanted a grandchild, although I’d preferred to have waited a few years.”
I next asked, “Did your daughter want an abortion?”
“We didn’t give her much choice. She may have thought she was old enough for sex, but that didn’t mean she could make a decision about the life and death of her unborn child. As a family, we decided to continue the pregnancy. My husband and I were primarily responsible for the care of our grandson until our daughter finished her education and got a job. We made sure our daughter realized that we didn’t approve of her out-of-wedlock sexual activities and that we weren’t happy about the situation. Even so, we made sure she understood we still loved her and would love the child.”
The family faced many difficulties, including problems with the school system and church. School administrators didn’t want the daughter to stay in class once it became obvious she was pregnant. The family lawyer overcame this resistance by threatening legal action. Many people in the family’s Roman Catholic church acted as if having the pregnant unwed daughter in the congregation was insulting to God. Some members of the church let the priest know that they objected to baptizing a bastard in the church. The priest met this idiocy head on: He baptized the baby on a very public occasion and preached that God did not consider any child illegitimate.
The experience of my friends illustrates another important point: If we pass laws prohibiting abortion or persuade women not to have abortions, we cannot abandon the mothers or their babies. We must provide for the mothers and babies, and for the fathers, if necessary. We must not “preach” at the unwed mothers that they should not have engaged in pre-marital sex. Such condemnation is counterproductive in the face of the pregnancies.
Yes, my friends are exceptional people. Even so, they illustrated how to welcome children into the Community of Believers and into our society.