A few weeks ago, Cynthia Gorney wrote in the New York Times Sunday Magazine about Sarah Palin and abortion. Even though Gov. Palin is for now out of the national political scene, abortion is not. Gorney credits Palin with being consistent, at least, in her passionate belief that abortion, under virtually any circumstances, is a sin. She regrets that the GOP has not really let Palin engage in the abortion conversation, though—probably because John McCain and most other Americans don’t agree with Palin.
Mary E. Hunt predicted in these pages that presidential voting among American Catholics, might not be solely about the candidates’ views on abortion, for a change. Indeed, most voted for Obama, who disagrees with the Church on both abortion and same-sex marriage.
The amount of screaming and yelling, even killing (ironically), around the abortion issue driven by religion and politics is disturbing. Hunt writes about clergy who dared to encourage thinking beyond that promoted by the Church who were given the choice of retraction or dismissal from their orders.
Science also has lent insight (and contributed its share of screaming and yelling) to the abortion issue. Could science and religion actually think about abortion synergistically rather than antagonistically? An unusual idea, but let’s think about it.
As an example, let’s take one of the central questions at the heart of things: “When does life begin?” At fertilization? At birth? At first heartbeat? To make our path easier, let’s say, “Life begins at fertilization.” Hold on! Bear with me.
Let’s also agree for the moment that the charge often thrown rather vehemently at scientists is that all their talk of ‘fetuses’ and ‘evolution’ is dehumanizing. Of course; that’s what science does attempt to do—however poorly—to disconnect ‘the human’ and any bias from experimentation. This approach has value, but it is limited, especially absent the balancing thoughts and interpretations of religion and the religious.
The dehumanizing language of science, the protest continues, profoundly distracts us from what abortion really is: murder. Murder is killing, and this is wrong. Clearly, killing is wrong, but…
Is killing always morally wrong? And to what degree? Societies from before the Bible, throughout the Bible, and ever since have developed mechanisms to wrestle with such complexities and put such situations on trial. The legal courts and other mechanisms examine the question of killing based on the evidence. By definition, this is a very scientific approach in itself. But how scientific it is depends on what counts as evidence and how it’s interpreted.
Whether the Bible outlaws abortion is open to diverse interpretations, and it’s not my area of expertise, but I can talk about the scientific evidence.
Let’s look at evolution, the fundamental underlying principal of biology. For starters, we have clearly evolved—whether or not by God’s hand we can argue about—to be able to cognitively wrestle with complicated issues like abortion. Evolution has given us this valuable, complex, nuanced ability. (Surely, if God did drive the process and gave us such ability, God wants us to wrestle with issues like abortion and put them in the broader context of society and evidence, perhaps in consultation with Him, but wrestle nonetheless.) We have culturally and biologically evolved to develop and struggle with the concepts of personal responsibility and obligation, of the mother’s rights and the child’s.
More tangibly, we have evolved complex ‘evaluations’ of the fertilized egg at every stage: at the moment of, during, and after fertilization. And biological processes have evolved to spontaneously abort most of the severely affected developing humans. By some estimations, half of all fertilized human eggs are eventually spontaneously aborted.
But spontaneous abortions happen ‘naturally’, one might respond, and who are we to ‘play God’ and decide about non-natural abortions?
As brutal as it may sound, abortion is a technology that acts directly on the life of a human, and humans have been ‘playing God’, developing and using technology to start, end, and prolong life for as long as we’ve had the capability.
Every day patients, their families, and their physicians make decisions that affect whether someone lives or dies. The ‘plug is pulled’ (or not) on newborns, the elderly, accident victims (often, as with abortion, without the awareness of the patient and with much of their potential life yet unlived). Drugs or other therapies are applied or not: chemotherapy is initiated or discontinued, many more in vitro fertilized eggs are placed in a mother than will mature, in hopes that at least one will grow to term. Thousands of fertilized eggs from in vitro fertilization and other techniques are never even ‘used’ at all.
Abortion itself has been practiced throughout all of recorded history. While evolution—the cold, hard scientific concept—says “have as many offspring as you can”, it also, in some cases driven by the environment, selects against having too many offspring. On the other hand, human, emotional, lived experience and evidence might say to a woman in prehistoric or modern times for many different reasons, “I cannot support this child; I cannot even support myself; there is no way this child will live”.
We are constantly playing God, all of us—presidential candidate or not—but, ideally, in a balanced way that employs the minds we have evolved to weigh the evidence and consequences, to balance the scientific and the human—the double helix of science and religion.