Is God the Supreme Abortionist?

This November 4 signaled the rejection of a faith-based White House. We can hope this will mean the return to, as one Bush underling sneeringly put it, reality-based policies. Faith is one of those overused and under-clarified catchwords today. I used to distinguish between its meaning when we had faith in our banker (until he/she fingered the till) and faith in our god (whatever he decreed or did). That first kind of faith was fallible and could be destroyed, whereas religious faith persisted without, even despite, doubt.

Modern sciences continually show us more and more of reality. In area after area we are learning that what we might wish to be true, or what we have been taught to be true, is indeed not the case. Darwin reminded us that the peaceable animal kingdom of Quaker artist Edward Hicks was really a place of predators and victims. And the simple idea of fixity of species died as the nineteenth century came to realize the real meanings of fossils. Think of the persistence of that biblical phrase, “gentle as doves,” which lasted until the last century when Konrad Lorenz finally looked more closely at these ferocious birds.

Just as our earth is no longer viewed as the center of the universe, we humans should no longer see ourselves at the finale of some benign cosmic plan. We, too, must struggle and adapt and transform environments in order simply to survive.

A major controversy in contemporary culture is the question of when human life begins. Religions have given different answers and the consequences that have followed have been very divisive. Does life begin at conception, or at implantation, or at quickening, or at birth, or…? Family planning and contraceptives have further complicated these controversies. Is pregnancy the normal/natural purpose/result of our sexuality—or is it an outcome that can be either intended or accidental (and thus probably undesired)?

We know now that perhaps 30 percent of fertilized human eggs spontaneously cease development and are thus aborted in the early stages of pregnancy—often undetected. A considerable number of embryos miscarry during later stages of pregnancy. If we use the phrasing of the country’s founders—Nature and Nature’s God—what do we make of this reality? Should we view Nature or God as the supreme abortionist? A friend of mine who is a churchgoing fertility specialist speaks of such events as “accidents” but the theological and philosophical implications are enormous. A current metaphor is that not every acorn can or does or should become an oak tree.

Reality-based thinking cannot, of course, stop at simply physiological considerations. Sociologically we know that human fertility rates get reduced as people move from agriculture to industry, from country to city. Educating women also has a tremendous impact, as does lowering infant mortality. Moving from folk religions to liberalized religions or even to no religion also affects fertility.

As we help US culture emerge from its anti-scientific faith moment, we need to stress a rational morality. One in which the playing fields become more level. One in which children are intended—by persons who are prepared to assume parenthood roles emotionally, intellectually, and economically. To bring an unintended zygote into embryohood and birth sets the stage for childhood deprivation, a form of child abuse. A moral society will help young persons learn to avoid this. Premature parenthood entails tremendous costs—to mother and father as well as the child.

tappx001@umn.edu'

Robert B. Tapp is Professor Emeritus of Humanities, Religious Studies, and South Asian Studies at the University of Minnesota and Dean & Faculty Chair Emeritus at The Humanist Institute, New York City.