* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Abortion, Spirituality, and Why Debating the Right to Life Will Always End in Stalemate

Earlier this week marked the anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade decision that sparked a national debate about abortion that has now raged for decades.  On the one hand, there is almost no point in discussing abortion in an abstract sense, as people on both sides of the issue have firmly-rooted opinions based on mostly emotional arguments.  What actual data there is on the subject has been interpreted to suit the stance of whomever is quoting the statistics, so it's even hard to have a conversation about abortion from a strictly scientific standpoint.  Emotions drive people, and that drive is especially intense on such a loaded topic.  Still, if one is to consider spiritual matters, it seems that the whole right-to-life debate must be addressed at some point.  It will certainly be a hot topic in this year's election, and it is obviously at the forefront of many people's minds this week.

Abortion gets labeled in different ways, depending on who's doing the labeling.  It may be about a woman's right to choose, or about life beginning at conception, or about the murder of American citizens, or about legislating morality, or any number of other angles.  First and foremost, I want to be clear on my personal opinion, as a male without any children or any plans to procreate.  I believe in personal freedom.  I believe in second chances.  I believe that people know themselves, often better than they realize, and that most individuals have the ability to be personally responsible for their actions.  I am in favor of legalized abortion, and I'll go more into detail about where that intersects with my view of spirituality in a moment.

First, I want to address the religious perspective that has claimed the label of being "pro-life."  It is certainly a compelling and impassioned stance which claims to be based on biblical principles.  A strictly biblical view of the god of the Israelites won't lead to a modern-day anti-abortion activist's beliefs, though.  The Ten Commandments do instruct people not to kill, although there are some caveats made for accidentally beating a slave to death.  The true meaning, though, is clear as one continues through the Old Testament.  The actual commandment is closer to "Don't kill a fellow Israelite who is adhering to the cultural mores."

People were put to death by the Israelites all over the place, and not just soldiers on the field of battle.  If one accepts the Good Book as legitimate history, the Jews conquered cities and slaughtered all of the women and children.  More than once.  And not just because some general was bloodthirsty.  They slaughtered innocent people because God told them to.  Because they weren't Israelites.  Israelite operatives were even sneaky sometimes about killing the enemies of their people, using a weapon held in the left hand, or driving a tent stake through someone's temple while they were sleeping.  Sanctioned, cold-blooded murder.  How can one argue that this deity actually has respect for human life?

One can't even say that the life of an Israelite is sacred.  Despite what may have appeared in the Ten Commandment, even Israelites were subjected to the death penalty for almost anything deemed immoral by the authorities of the day.  Of course, this was considered to be ordered by God as well.  At the word of a couple of witnesses, an Israelite could be executed for worshiping a foreign god, bad-mouthing a judge, marrying someone who isn't an Israelite, committing adultery (just the women, though), homosexuality, prostitution, and a host of other things.  Granted, we still consider the death penalty to be appropriate for certain crimes, and there may be other crimes for which we'd like to see a person killed.  The point is, the god of the Israelites, as depicted in the Bible, was more concerned about preserving a culture of purity than he was about the value of human life.

In the New Testament, there is much less of this sort of sanctioned killing.  For one reason, the Jewish people were under Roman rule at the time, so their system of crime and punishment was subjugated to Roman law.  And they certainly weren't going to war with anyone.  Still, God manages to kill off a few people who disobey him.  One couple is struck dead for lying about selling property and trying to keep some of the proceeds from the early church.  This is a capital offense.  It's still hard to see the value for human life in things like that.  On the bright side, by the end of the New Testament, it's clear that the early church was committed to the idea that all people are of equal value.

There are other reasons for a person to argue against abortion, however.  Some may say that they are concerned for the psychological well-being of the mothers-to-be, but that could be addressed without making abortion illegal.  Instead, a great deal of money and rhetoric goes into convincing people that abortion is morally wrong.  Is the motivation really about the sanctity of human life?  Do the people who argue against abortion also argue against the death penalty?  Or do they also contribute money towards AIDS research?  Or even cancer research?  Do these proponents of life also protest wars in which innocent people are killed?  Or do they accept collateral damage when they consider it a "just" war?  The credibility of some of the loudest advocates for the "right to life" may be sullied if their complete philosophies about human life were scrutinized.

And what would happen if the nation's population were to suddenly swell with unwanted children?  What is the end result the opponents of abortion foresee?  While there have been studies that link the legalization of abortion with a decrease in crime rate, we cannot ultimately predict what the life of an unborn person would be like any more than we can predict with any certainty what the life of a stillborn infant would hold.  Even with abortion legal, the number of child abuse cases in this country is staggering.  If women who choose to give birth cannot even ensure a safe and loving environment for their children, what can we expect of women who do not actually want the children they are forced to carry to term?

The bottom line is that we cannot know.  We do not know how those women would behave as mothers, and we do not know how their children would turn out.  We do not know whether disinterested fathers would take responsibility.  We cannot know the actual impact on schools, the job market, the society.  Any claim would be speculation, and it seems dubious to force people to decide whether women should be allowed a choice regarding abortions based on speculation.  In fact, if someone claims to know the future, that Old Testament God would tell us to put them to death for being a witch.

President Obama once said that if one of his daughters made a mistake, he wouldn't want them punished with a child.  That statement has been bandied about by some people, the interpretation being that children are a punishment.  It's easy to twist words around.  The point is that if a girl gets pregnant and is forced to have the child, that child becomes like a punishment.  A child can disrupt the entire course of someone's life.  It can mean a change in what a person is able to earn, and it can mean a change in what a person is able to contribute to the world.  Ideally, a child is pretty high on the priority list for a mother.  Other things have to take a back seat.  While it has been said that no one is ever really ready for children, there are many people who look upon their children as a blessing.  Some people still see their children as a burden, but a burden they are willing to bear.  If someone is looking at having a child as a punishment, what kind of parent will that person be?  Again, some speculation would be involved in answering that question, but I'm grateful my mother didn't think of me as a punishment.  

As I have stated many times, each person holds within them a deep sense of truth, beauty, and creativity.  Each person can look within themselves and find the divine.  If we value human life, we must acknowledge a respect for those people already living.  We must trust at a certain level that people are capable and valuable.  Otherwise, why would we care about life or abortion or any related topic?  Until our society is through applauding violence against people of different religions, condoning the deaths of people who disagree with our international policies, and arguing about whether people of different lifestyle choices deserve equal treatment, the claim that any group is opposed to abortion out of respect for human life is going to seem a bit suspect.  Let's first eradicate child abuse—domestic violence of all kinds for that matter.  Let's make sure the children who come into this world will have the possibility of meaningful employment.  Let's do everything in our power to bequeath a world worth living in to those who come after us.  Until then, whether or not a woman chooses to bear a child or have an abortion seems rather insignificant. 

Plus, I've noticed that women are still having children.  Many of them love their children more than anything in the world.  That hasn't changed just because abortion became legal.  I believe that people know themselves, often better than they realize.  So I believe that women have the ability to know whether they truly want to have a child.  I believe that is it possible to live in a world in which people are trusted with the decisions of their own lives.  If people are to be given an opportunity to be personally responsible for their actions, they must be free to act in accordance with their own conscience.  No politician or preacher or law can change the truth inside of a person.  Whether a woman chooses to have children, or chooses to have an abortion, or chooses to never be in a circumstance that would necessitate such a decision, there are consequences and rewards.  If we are truly concerned about the value of human life, perhaps there is a way for us to be present with the women around us, with love for them as human beings and respect their decisions. 

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