Argumentative Essay against Abortion
During the course of Western history, Judeo-Christian culture has been a significant source of limits on individual freedom. One Christian tradition has viewed nature as “God’s rules” and has therefore tended to oppose human tampering with natural processes. From this tradition has emerged the idea of the sacredness of human life, a belief which has affected modern attitudes toward the abortion issue. Some Catholic leaders have placed the protest against abortion within a larger ideological framework of the need to preserve all human life (Cleghorn p.129-142). From this perspective, the rejection of abortion accompanies the condemnation of nuclear warfare and capita punishment, along with efforts to eliminate such deadly problems as poverty and malnutrition. All such issues form a “seamless garment,” the purpose of which is to preserve human life. Conceivably, the nobility of this cause has led some people, and especially Catholics, to refuse any withdrawal from the line of conception as the beginning of human life. However, research suggests that the “seamless garment” argument might apply only to a small, perhaps elite, segment of Canadians (Jelen p.118-125).
Another Christian tradition relevant to abortion emphasizes the sinfulness of human nature, views desires for physical pleasures or comforts as corrupting, and emphasizes the need to control the human’s baser nature. This puritanical perspective finds expression in a commitment to various traditional moral rules. Thus, research has consistently found that opponents of legalized abortion hold traditional ideological views about gender and family such as the belief that woman’s place is in the home (Luker p.160); a condemnation of sex education in the public schools (Schwartz p.10-12); and an opposition to various forms of sexual freedom, divorce, and pornography (Neitz p.270). Such attitudes have been collectively identified as “social traditionalism”. The head of the Pro Life Action has said, “There’s more to life than the viscera twitch, and I think using sex purely for pleasure is sort of animalistic” (quoted in Ridgeway p.29). Thus, a second ideological basis for opposition to legalized abortion is a commitment to social traditionalism.
Another secular, ideological basis for limiting arguments based on individualism is political conservatism. Prominent conservatives tend to distrust human nature and spontaneity (e.g, Kirkpatrick p.81-94). “Historically, conservatives have been distrustful of man’s basic nature and have emphasized the need for restraining institutions” (Lenski p.221). Not surprisingly, a positive relationship has been found between political conservatism and social traditionalism. Also, an antiabortion stand has generally been associated with politically conservative people and groups.
In sum, the acceptance of legalized abortion among people is a consequence of individualism which finds expression in libertarian and feminist ideologies. On the other hand, opposition to legalized abortion finds its ideological justification in the religious tradition, specifically in natural law or puritanical doctrines. This paper provides arguments against abortion.
For years, two arguments about religious liberty have formed a significant part of the abortion debate. The first–that public policy should not be based upon narrowly-construed sectarian perspectives–reflects the concern that First Amendment protections be safeguarded by policymakers. The second–that no group should seek to impose its own moral/theological beliefs upon others who hold differing beliefs regarded as equally personal and sacred–requests that religious communities and/or leaders be faithful to the social contract of tolerance.
The wisdom of this approach seems increasingly evident as the heat the abortion debate generates has intensified over the past three decades. The deep investment in the issue by various faith communities has led to acrimonious and divisive rhetoric and heavy-handed actions that threaten the cohesion of the social fabric, especially the civility that is necessary to maintain tolerance among and for all religious groups in a free and open society.
The aim of this essay is not to deal with abortion as a moral problem, but to explore the meaning(s) of religious liberty.
Defining the Religious Issue
Locating or defining the religious nature of the abortion debate is of central importance. Those who campaign to ban abortion contend that no religious issue is involved because it is simply the killing of innocent human life, something both believers and atheists can agree to oppose. Abortion is merely a legal issue to be settled by the politics of majority rule (Horan et al. p. 34)
Since the Supreme Court has not dealt with abortion in terms of the Free Exercise/No Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment, some have concluded that there are no such issues involved. Roe v. Wade evaded the question, even while recognizing the philosophical/ religious conundrum in the notion of fetal personhood. Justice John Paul Stevens raised the establishment issue in Webster, and both he and Justice Harry A. Blackmun alluded to religious liberty concerns in Casey. Up to this point, however, decisions guaranteeing a right to an abortion have relied upon the “fight to privacy” and “personal liberties” assured under the Fourteenth Amendment. Even so, First Amendment concerns have considerable importance and thus clarification of these issues with regard to the abortion debate is needed.
It has been established that there are certain matters which do not constitute violations of the First Amendment. First, religious leaders may address issues of moral import in the public arena. Freedom for religion means that religious people have every fight to engage in the democratic process of shaping public opinion and policy.
Second, a simple coincidence between religious doctrine and certain laws or regulations does not necessarily violate the First Amendment. The charge that a sectarian doctrine lies behind public policy restricting access to abortion (Swomley p. 16-17) fails to prove entanglement or favoritism amounting to religious establishment.
Even so, I believe both establishment and free exercise issues are at stake in the abortion debate. These may be seen in efforts to establish protections for the pregnant woman, the attempt to attribute personhood to gestating life, the constraints imposed upon women seeking abortions, and the latitude permitted religious groups who seek legislative power through political processes. Of special concern are those proposals regarding fetal personhood that rest on abstract metaphysical opinion, and the actions of various religious groups whose determination to shape policy results in actions which infringe upon the religious liberties of others.
The issue for public policy, of course, is a definition of personhood that is appropriate in and for a pluralistic society. To be sure, any legal definition might resemble a religious opinion; the question is whether the definition is reasonable, and whether it enhances or restricts protected personal liberties. The first principle of religious liberty is that laws will not be based upon abstract metaphysical speculation, but will be fashioned through democratic processes in which every perspective is subject to critical analysis. Any proposal must be open either to revision or rejection.
Part of the genius of Roe v. Wade (now affirmed by Casey) was putting forward the standard of viability: that stage of development at which the fetus has sufficient neurological and physiological maturation to survive outside the womb. Prior to that, the fetus simply is not sufficiently developed to speak meaningfully of it as an independent being deserving and requiring the full protection of the law, i.e. a person. The notion of viability correlates biological maturation with personal identity in a way that can be recognized and accepted by reasonable people. It violates no group’s religious teachings or any premise of logic to provide protections for a viable fetus. The same can hardly be said for those efforts to establish moral and legal parity between a zygote (fertilized ovum) and a woman, which create substantive First Amendment issues.
The first is the claim to special knowledge. The proposal to ban abortion legally is based on a claim that a pre-embryo is a person, whether other people believe it or not. No matter what ordinary logic might indicate, the (philosophical) opinion of the theologian is really the truth. Those who disagree are misguided, uninformed, or willfully ignorant.
A second feature of this approach is the contention that such moral premises are not sectarian or religious in nature. The Catholic dogma which holds that abortion is the taking of innocent human life is regarded as a principle of natural law. (Harrison p. 112-121) Natural law is a construct employed by theologians which attempts to bridge the worlds of religion and reason, or of revelation and nature. It has roots in Greek philosophy but was wedded to Christian moral thought most systematically in the works of Thomas Aquinas. Basic to his approach was the notion that the laws of God permeate nature and may be discerned by human reason. No special disclosure by God is necessary since all people are endowed by reason, he argued. The divine logos permeates all of creation and provides a link between the Divine and human mind; the very structures of nature are available universally and embody the absolute moral law of God. It is thus held to be true for all people. Since it is available to and by reason, which all people have, and since it permeates nature, which everyone might observe, every person, whether believer or unbeliever, is obligated to obey the moral law.
Since neither nature nor reason is the special monopoly of the religious, secularists or atheists are also capable of discerning the divine mandate–it requires no special revelation. The only advantage of the church is that it is devoted to the God of the universe and has the special calling and divine appointment to carry God’s authority to teach the truth by which all people are to live. The moral rule can thus claim both religious and non-religious meanings and attempt to win the allegiance of both believers and nonbelievers. Such an argument allows the contention to be made that efforts to prohibit or severely limit abortion are not being made on the basis of religious or sectarian dogma and thus pose no First Amendment problems. The natural law construct makes that contention possible, but it is hardly persuasive.
The final step is from morality to law. When the truth of God is made obvious, the laws of the state should conform to it. Thus, the strict moral rule against abortion articulated by clergy should be implemented by civil law. The relation between the moral and the civil law is one that underscores the “duty of the public authority to insure that the civil law is regulated according to the fundamental norms of the moral law in matters concerning human rights, human life and the institution of the family.” (Ratzinger p. 12)
What seems obvious and convincing to the natural law theorist, however, often appears unconvincing if not ludicrous to the critic. To claim a monopoly on truth on both secular and religious ground is self-serving in the extreme. It fits well in the scheme of the sectarian claim to be the final arbiter of all truth and the embodiment of divine revelation, that is, to claim an absolute grounding for conclusions supposedly based on human reason. The ultimate outcome of that line of thought was found in “The Syllabus of Errors” (Pope Pius IX p. 41) which claimed, among other things, that error has no rights. The Inquisition itself had been conducted on the fervent belief that the church was doing heretics a favor by saving them from the damnation to which their false beliefs would most certainly lead.
The absolutist attitude against abortion claimed by evangelicals of the new right makes similar arguments but appeals to the authority of Scripture instead of natural law theory. The fact that scholars equally committed to biblical authority do not agree with fundamentalist or evangelical interpretations does not deter them from the claim that the Bible teaches that zygotes are persons and that abortion is murder. They also claim a type of “special knowledge” though its roots are ostensibly in revelation, not reason. Their intolerance toward people with different opinions reflects assumptions about the special nature of their calling and the particularly offensive nature of elective abortion.
The fact that Inquisitions and heresy hunts are now more subtle than those of the pre-Reformation era often conceals the fact that the same structure of thought and authority is still at work. When religious authorities make absolute pronouncements as if they were patently true and obviously obligatory for all people whether acknowledged as a faith commitment or not, an authoritarian claim is laid bare that is inimical to democratic processes and undermines respect for differing religious beliefs. The clear message is that those who disagree are to be corrected or coerced to conform, since their opinions have no right to moral standing and thus are not to be respected in the court of conscience or, finally, even by civil law.
The appeal to privileged knowledge that is available only to those within a special circle but is somehow mandatory for everyone is especially problematic. The assertions of religious authorities must finally be submitted to the critical scrutiny of common sense and reason in a secular or pluralist society. (Wenz p.112) Whether or not a zygote is a person is a question for reflective analysis by jurists, theologians, philosophers, sociologists, embryologists, (Gardner p. 453-56) and a host of other people–most all of whom are interested in good public policy, solid morals, and family values.
It can be concluded that abortion should not be legalized as religion does not permit its practice.
Cleghorn, J. Stephen. Research note on Cardinal Bernard in’s ‘seamless garment’. Review of Religious Research, 1986 28(2t:129-142.
Gardner, Charles A. “Is an Embryo a Person?” in Abortion, Medicine and the Law, 4th ed., eds. J.D. Butler and D.F. Walbert (New York: Facts on File, 1992), 453-56.
Harrison, Beverly W. Our Right to Choose (Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1983).
Horan, et al, eds., Abortion and the Constitution: Reversing Roe v. Wade Through the Courts (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University, 1987), xiv.
Jelen, Ted. Religious belief and attitude constraint. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1990, 29(1):118-125.
Kirkpatrick, Jeane J. Dictatorships and double standards. New York Simon and Schuster. 1982.
Lenski, Gerhard. Conservatives and radicals. In Contemporary Sociological Theory, edited by Fred E. Katz. 1971. 220-222.
Luker, Kristin. Abortion and the politics of motherhood Berkeley University of California. 1984.
Neitz, Mary Jo. Family, state, and God: Ideologies of the right-to-life movement. Sociological Analysis1981, 42(3):265-276.
Pope Pius IX, “Syllabus of Errors,” 1864.
Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal. Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation: Replies to Certain Questions of the Day. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Rome: The Vatican, 1988), Pt. III.
Ridgeway, James.The profile juggernaught. The Village Voice, 16 July1986, pp. 28-29.
Schwartz, Amy E. Bitter Pill. The New Republic, 18 February 1986, pp. 10-12.
Swomley, John.”Supreme Court’s Abortion Decision Parallels Roman Catholic Bishop’s Position,” The Churchman’s Human Quest (September-October, 1989): 16-17.
Wenz, Peter S. Abortion Rights as Religious Freedom (Philadelphia, Pa.: Temple University Press, 1992), 112.