Monday, November 25, 2013

Problems with an Early Definition of Life



     In an earlier post, I wrote that I favor an early legal definition of life and explained how I logically arrived at that position.  I did not say that I would define life as beginning at conception because, to me, the issue is not entirely clear.  While I believe in an early definition of life, doing so causes problems.  If we hold this position, then we must wrestle with the challenges that it creates.  I don’t have all the answers, and so this blog is not about answers, but questions. 

    Miscarriage – If we define life as early as possible, how will we deal with miscarriages?  On the surface this is easy.  Miscarriages are, obviously, tragic and sad, but also a natural process.  Life doesn’t always work out the way we want it to, accidents happen, and all that.  But realistically, when women know that they are pregnant, the “normal” rate of miscarriage is 10-20 percent. Testing has shown that the actual figure, if we include miscarriages that happen before the mother is aware of the pregnancy, is probably a little more than 30 percent.   If life begins at fertilization, or even at implantation in the uterus, then how do we legally define miscarriage?  Is it an accident or a tragic natural process? Or was the mother, somehow at fault?  If life has already begun, must we worry about who, if anyone, is “at fault” for the miscarriage, and is that person therefore guilty of murder?  Our initial reaction is to dismiss the possibility, but given the legal lunacy that happens every day, it is not difficult to imagine that charges could be brought against parents who drank, or smoked, or failed to obtain good prenatal care. 

    If we accept a definition of life that begins at fertilization, this becomes the issue of miscarriage is even more complex.  If a single fertilized cell is a human being, then we must acknowledge that we have no idea how many human beings pass out of the body without ever implanting in the uterus.  The numbers are certainly huge.  And so, how are we to understand God?  Can a good God doom hundreds of millions of children to death, by natural causes, without ever even having the slimmest chance and developing beyond a handful of cells?

    Birth Control – If we accept that a fertilized egg is a human being, then most methods of birth control become a real problem.  To its credit, the view of the Catholic Church is consistent in this regard.  If life begins at fertilization, then any chemical or mechanical method of birth control (pills, injections, IUD’s, etc.) that inhibits the ability of the egg to implant in the uterus and therefore pass out of the body, is, by definition, murder and must be prohibited.  Likewise, any method of birth control that causes an egg, which has already implanted in the uterus to be expelled, is also murder.  How would we even keep track?

    Assault – If a pregnant woman is assaulted, perhaps in the first trimester, and later miscarries, is that murder?  If the “normal” rate of miscarriage is 20 percent (or higher), how could blame be assigned?  Is the assailant at fault, or was it a naturally occurring miscarriage?

    Birth defects – If testing in the first weeks of pregnancy (or even later) indicate that the fetus/baby has genetic defects that are inconsistent with survival, let alone leading a normal life, what options are there?  If we decide that the fetus is entitled to all the rights of a human being, then must the mother be compelled to carry the baby to term?  If this pregnancy ends in miscarriage, how will we decide if it is due to the genetic defect or somehow the fault of the mother?

    Rape/Incest – The same problem arises in cases of rape and incest.  If any and all fertilized and/or implanted embryos are legally defined as human beings and granted rights, then on what basis can we allow an abortion?  Would we require every pregnant victim of rape or incest to carry the child to term?  How do we choose between the life of the child and the mental health of the mother?  What would be the physical and emotional cost to those women?  Are we willing, as a society, to bear that cost?


    While the logic of an early definition of life seems inescapable, I recognize that making such a legal definition would create difficult moral problems.  Certainly, I do not have all the answers but I have to ask the questions because anyone who argues for an early definition of life must be prepared to wrestle with the consequences of doing so.

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Earlier posts in this series:

Abortion: Pro-Life/Pro-Choice Both Right? 
 

Monday, November 18, 2013

A Great Cloud of Witnesses



What does it mean to be surrounded by a “cloud” of witnesses? 

    Not long ago I was preaching on Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees in regard to the existence of life after death.  In Luke 20:27-38, Jesus reminds them that Moses called God, “the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”  Jesus implies that it would be foolish to say such a thing in the present tense if they were not, presently, alive.  Jesus said, “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”

The Apostle Paul described life as a sporting event in which we are called to give our best, saying,
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us…” (Hebrews 12:1)

    Paul expands on the idea of resurrection and the afterlife to remind the church that those who are alive in the next world are watching those of us who remain in this one.  Paul specifically refers to the prophets, saints, and martyrs but it isn’t difficult to imagine that this also includes all of those who have always loved us and cared for us, but who no longer remain among the living of this world.  I know that my grandmother prayed for me nearly every single day of her life and I have no reason to imagine that she has stopped doing so today.

Let me share a mental picture that I have found meaningful.  Have you ever held a newborn baby, yours, or your grandchild, niece or nephew for the very first time?  Do you remember how that made you feel?  It is a magnificent feeling.   Hold on to that feeling.  Now, imagine the moment when you first arrive in the next world, right after you have “crossed over” and passed through Saint Peter’s pearly gates, right after you’ve met Jesus face to face, or however you might image your arrival.  Now, you see, standing before you, a group of people.  Some you know, but many you do not.  In the front are your parents, lost children, and dear friends, but there are many more, perhaps hundreds, even thousands of faces that you do not know.  As you embrace your family and your friends, your father, or perhaps your grandfather, takes you by the hand and says, “There is someone here, that I have wanted you to meet for a very long time.” And he turns to a an unfamiliar face and says, “This is my father" or "This is my grandfather.”  And then, for hours on end, they in turn introduce you to their fathers, and their wives, and their children, all of whom have known you since you were born, and have been watching you grow, and have been praying for you that Jesus would watch over you and guard your steps. 

    And the feeling that you have is the feeling of holding that newborn child in your arms, multiplied by ten thousand, or more.

    Every moment of your life that you were in trouble, every moment when you faced difficult choices, every moment when you needed prayer, all of these hundreds and thousands of friends and family who love you, were watching and praying for you.

   Think of this, when we walk outside in a heavy fog, that moment when the clouds lay upon the surface of the earth, we are not near the cloud, or next to the cloud, we are completely engulfed and surrounded by the cloud.

    This is the picture that Paul draws for us.  With every choice that we make, with every success or failure, with every crisis or ordinary day, we can imagine that this cloud of people who love us, family and friends, surround us, watch over us, and pray for us.

    Because our God is the god of the living and not the dead, we are constantly watched over by those who love us, care for us, and who are, even now, praying for us.  Paul says that because we are surrounded by this “great cloud of witnesses” we should cast aside everything that is holding us back and have the confidence to forge ahead into the unknown toward whatever God has placed in our path.  

May we all have the courage to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us…”

Monday, November 4, 2013

Why I Would Argue for the Earliest Definition of Life




    In my last two blogs, “Abortion: Pro-Life/Pro-Choice Both Right?” and “Abortion: Why Both Sides Will Lose in the Supreme Court (Again)” I explained why the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision was not a clear win for either pro-choice or for pro-life supporters and why I thought that both sides would once again be disappointed if a modern Supreme Court consented to review the case. 

    But while my reading of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, modern medicine, and our current political climate lead me to believe that a review of Roe would not be substantially different than it was in 1973, I do think that there are compelling reasons that argue for a dramatic change.  Instead of beginning with biblical, theological or doctrinal reasons (which I obviously have), let’s begin with reason and logic. 

    As I have explained, Roe v. Wade was a decision that attempted to find a balance between two rights guaranteed by the Constitution, a right to privacy on the part of the mother, and a right to life on the part of the infant.  In my reading of the court’s ruling, it seems that there was never a question that both rights existed and the both deserved to be protected.  The question was, if two rights are in conflict, which has a superior claim and when (or if) does that superiority change?  I have a right to privacy in my own home, but if I were to commit criminal acts, particularly those that harmed other human beings, my right to privacy is superseded by the other person’s right to life and liberty.  This delineation is well accepted as both moral and legal.  This same question, when brought into the realm of abortion, becomes a question of a) is a pre-born infant a human being, and if yes, b) when does it become one?  The Supreme Court answers to these questions in 1973 were a) yes, and b) at the earliest point at which the infant is viable (with medical intervention).

    In 1973 the womb was something of a “black box.”  We knew that an infant developed in the mother’s womb and developed from a fertilized egg, we had all sorts of microscope slides and fetuses in jars that had been aborted at various stages of development.  What we didn’t have were the spectacular images that we have today.  Today expectant parents can sit in the office of their OB/GYN and see live 3D images of their child.  They can see that preborn infant scratch its nose, cough, sneeze, and suck its thumb.  So real are these images, that 78% of women who were considering abortion changed their minds after they had seen them.

    I’m not saying we were ignorant in 1973 and we are now “enlightened,” but what we know and what we have learned, seem to make it much harder to draw a line in the sand and say that “this” is a person with Constitutional rights, and a moment earlier “that” was not a person.  Does an infant become a person because it’s larger than it was yesterday?  If so, do tall people have more rights than short people, or do adults have a stronger right to life than children?  Does it suddenly become a person because it is no longer in the womb?  The human rights of any other “person” do not change based on location.  A person in Detroit, Michigan has no more or less rights than a person in rural China.  Location cannot, logically, convey basic human rights or take them away.  Is a preborn infant not a person because it is dependent upon its mother?  If so, then do adults on life support surrender their right to life?  We are all, in one way or another, dependent upon others for our lives.  Simply because an infant needs its mother cannot imply that it somehow has fewer rights than an infant only days or weeks older.  At other times in history, groups of people were declared a separate “class” of human being so that their rights could be denied, Jews, Gypsies, Blacks, and others.  Can we, in good conscience, declare a group of human beings, with measurable human DNA, to be a separate “class” of humans that are not entitled to human rights? 

    Biblically speaking, we know that God loves all of his children equally.  All human beings are of sacred worth.  The redemption of every person on earth was purchased by Jesus Christ at the cost of his own life.  We cannot gamble that God cares more about an infant more today, simply because yesterday it was in the womb and today it is not, or because today it is one day older than yesterday.

    I have heard various arguments from the position that Old Testament references did not consider an infant to be a “person” under the law until after it was born.  While this is arguable on a number of points, it assumes that people who lived four thousand years ago could have known any differently.  Asking this question would seem to place an unfair moral burden on ancient cultures.  How would any culture with little understanding of fetal development, no ability to detect a fetal heartbeat, no ultrasound, and no modern medical understanding of neural development have fairly ruled that a preborn infant is equal to one who independently draws breath?  Their decision on personhood was, much as it was in 1973, based upon viability.

    Please understand that I value my privacy as much or more than anyone, but regardless of my feelings or personal opinion, privacy has always taken a backseat to more important rights, and the right to life is among these.   Legally, I understand that declaring an infant to be a person too early can create other difficulties, such as the potential for criminal investigations against women who have miscarriages and certainly I understand those who struggle with knowing at what point an infant ought to be considered to be a person, especially in the earliest stages of development.    For me, however, I have few such doubts.  I believe that morals, logic and scripture declare in chorus that an infant is a person, and if an infant is a person at any point, it must be one from the very beginning.

To me, these arguments seem reasonable and logically sound.  If you can find error in the logic, I am interested in hearing your viewpoint.

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Friday, November 1, 2013

Abortion: Why Both Sides Will Lose in the Supreme Court (Again)


    As I stated in my last blog (Abortion: Pro-Life/Pro-ChoiceBoth Right?), many people on both sides of the abortion debate would like to see the Supreme Court revisit their 1973 Roe v. Wade decision which legalized abortion in many states.  Some hope that the court would ban abortions altogether and others hope that the court would clarify and broaden Roe v. Wade so that all abortion is legalized.  At the same time, others would prefer that this not happen because, as is often the case, once the court opens the case for arguments, anything can happen.  Based on what I have read, I think that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  I think that if the Supreme Court is ever willing to reconsider Roe v. Wade, both sides will be unhappy with the outcome.

Why?  

     In the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, the court affirmed that a woman had a constitutionally protected right to privacy until the second or third trimester[i].  The court later abandoned the trimester “framework” but affirmed that a woman had a right to abortion until the infant was viable.  Wikipedia says that “The Roe decision defined "viable" as being "potentially able to live outside the mother's womb, albeit with artificial aid", adding that viability "is usually placed at about seven months (28 weeks) but may occur earlier, even at 24 weeks."[ii]

    For the court, the argument was never whether or not a woman had a right to abortion, but about how to discern when one right can be superior to another when two constitutionally protected rights, life and privacy, are in conflict.  For the court, there was never really a question of whether or not there was a right to life or a right to privacy.  The question was how to choose which holds a superior claim and when.  For the court in 1973, viability was the measure that worked.  When the baby was developed enough that it could survive, even with “artificial aid,” then the right to life held the superior claim.

    Neither “side” could declare a clear victory in 1973.  Abortions could be performed but could still be restricted and regulated by the states after the point of viability.  If the court were to reconsider Roe, I suspect that both sides would again be unsatisfied with the results.  Here’s why I think so: Science.

    In 1973 the court chose to use viability, even with artificial aid, as the point at which an infant secured a right to life, but the tools available to the courts, and to medical science, were limited.  It wasn’t until 1975 that ultrasound technology began to be introduced to obstetrics.  At that point, two years after Roe, a fetal heartbeat could be detected and ultrasound could show the skull and a general body shape.  Today, the available technology is dramatically different.  Now, ultrasound technology can provide three dimensional images of the fetus and parents can go home from the doctor’s office with “photographs” of their baby months before birth and long before “viability.”  While the 1973 court looked to viability as a means to determine when life began, medical science is now pushing against that boundary.  While infants in 1973 were considered viable at 28 weeks and possibly to 24 weeks, infants today routinely survive at 25 weeks and as early as 22 weeks.  While there were limited options in determining the beginning of life in 1973, today’s technology can detect a fetal heartbeat at 22 days gestation, brainwaves at six weeks and a fully functioning nervous system at 20 weeks (and some argue for an even earlier date).

    Based only on the court’s 1973 ruling, the present capabilities of medical science, and the current political winds, I think that it is very likely that a rehearing of Roe v. Wade would uphold a right to privacy (and thus a right to choose an abortion) but would also uphold more restrictive definitions of what constitutes life, when life begins, and the point at which an infant secures a right to life. 

Once again, both sides would win…
…and lose…
…and neither side would be happy with the outcome.




Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Abortion: Pro-Life/Pro-Choice Both Right?



    For years I have watched as two sides of the abortion debate have battled one another in the courts and in the arena of public opinion.  In exchanges between the two, you would often think that they have no respect for one another, or at least that each thinks the other disrespects their position.  When one looks further however, both “sides” are not that far apart.  Each one simply places more weight upon one value, life or choice, than the other.  If you ask the supporters of each movement, I have no doubt that a great many pro-life supporters believe strongly in freedom of choice.  Likewise, many pro-choice supporters believe in a person’s “right-to-life.”  What is in question has never really been whether persons should have a right to choose or whether they have a right to life, but instead the argument has always been about the definition of a “person.”  

    If you asked a room-full of pro-choice folk if it was acceptable to murder kindergarten aged children, I doubt very much that you would find a single person in agreement.  Similarly, if you asked a group of pro-life folks if it would be acceptable for the police to forcibly give all women over 15 years old monthly pregnancy tests, there would be a similar lack of support.  The question isn’t whether or not people have a right to privacy, or a right to choose, or a right to life.  We all do, and few, if anyone, would argue that we do not.  The root of our argument is in “who” has those rights.  Does a fetus, an unborn child, have the same rights as its mother and if so, when does it have them?  When does an infant become a person?   And this is where the problem gets complicated.  The problem, when framed this way, is far more complicated, and this is exactly why Roe-v.-Wade ended up before the Supreme Court.

    As I considered this, I wanted to understand more about what the Supreme Court thought and what they decided in Roe v. Wade.  Without wanting to read through the entirety of their decision I instead found a case summary on lawnix.com, a site designed for use by law students and attorneys.  I learned that three of the main questions considered by the court in Roe-v.-Wade were these: 1) Do abortion laws that outlaw all abortions, except those required on medical advice to save the life of the mother, violate the Constitution of the United States? 2) Does the Constitution protect a person’s right to privacy, and does that right include the right to an abortion? 3) Are there conditions under which states can pass laws that prohibit abortion?  (Specifically, you can find the lawnix summary of Roe-v.-Wade here.)

    What the Supreme Court decided was not that the pro-choice position was right and that the pro-life position was wrong, but that both groups were right… and wrong.  The Supreme Court decided that an unborn child, at some point can, legally, be decided to be a person and from that point forward can be protected under the law.  Prior to that point however, when it seemed unclear as to whether or not a fetus could be defined as “alive,” then the mother’s right to privacy would be the supreme and deciding factor.  In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court said that a woman clearly has a Constitutional right to privacy, but also said that there is a point at which the infant’s right to life becomes the stronger right and supersedes the right of privacy. 

    In other words, the Supreme Court decided that both sides were right.

    Presently,  people from both “sides” would like to see the Supreme Court review their decision on Roe v. Wade but many others hope they do not.  Based on my reading of the original decision, I think that if this ever happens, once again both sides will lose.  But you will have to read my next blog to find out why.



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