From America, Victor Lee Austin sees the issue of abortion beyond politics
In the half-century since the U.S. Supreme Court thought it settled the abortion issue, the issue has not gone away. A few months hence the Court will rule on the constitutionality of a state law that would forbid abortion after fifteen weeks. It is impossible to imagine any ruling on this case that will not generate intense political controversy.
Abortion is heated politically because it is also a matter of social morality and personal experience. Everyone knows someone who has faced an abortion decision, often someone close, even one’s own self. One never knows, when speaking to new acquaintances, what their views on abortion are, but one can be certain that they will register deeply in their identity.
If Christians can speak about abortion with both truth and love, the social benefits would extend far.
It can help to begin by bracketing the legal questions, and consider abortion instead in terms of theology and ecclesiology. One could ponder, for instance, how the availability of abortion changes the dynamics of relationships. When abortion is an accepted option it creates an additional degree of isolation for a pregnant woman. True, she is enabled by the availability of abortion to take control of her life in this way. At the same time, what ‘her life’ is has been narrowed in an individualistic direction. One need only consider a man who says, ‘If you choose to keep it, it’s your choice—not mine’. He could not say that, in that way, if abortion were not an option.
Churches should think differently about individuals and choices. For we know something that many have forgotten: that communities create individuals. We see this in baptism. The community comes together and, out of the font, a new individual emerges. The community is prior, yet the individual who emerges is indeed an individual and no mere cog in a machine.
Real communities are places where people care for one another and do not leave people isolated in their choices.
Christians have opposed abortion, one way or another, for most of the time there have been Christians. The discomfort with ending the life of an unborn person goes deep. It is present in the stories of the Visitation and the Annunciation. When Mary visits Elizabeth, both are pregnant, and Elizabeth interprets John’s movement within her as his greeting his Lord. Thus the picture is not only of two women meeting, but of two unborn children.
And earlier, when the angel comes to Mary, she consents at that moment to the conception of Jesus within her. The church remembers this event on 25th March, some have argued (including Thomas Talley, late professor of liturgics at New York’s General Theological Seminary), because there was a tradition that Jesus died on 25th March, and that, for great people, the day of their death was remembered as also the day they entered the world. Importantly for Christian imagination, Jesus did not enter the world at his birth but at his conception.
Yet it is pressing the matter too far to say the Scripture tells us when we have a human being. To answer that, theology turns to science (as it turns to science for knowledge about the age of the universe, and indeed for knowledge about all matters in which science has competency). In our time, scientists have uncovered the awesomely intricate organizational process that the zygote initiates within seconds of its formation. The zygote is a new being. Neither in matter nor in behavior is it an egg, and to call it a ‘fertilized egg’ is misleading. Because this is a recent advance in our knowledge, our common mental images have not yet caught up. It seems incredible to us to try to picture our youngest fellow humans as being single-celled. Nonetheless, it seems they are.
But science knows nothing of ‘persons’. The inviolability, the dignity of a human being, that which we refer to when we say ‘person’: this is revealed in Scripture and particularly in Jesus himself, the complete human being who suffers no diminishment from sin. Theology, which knows that whenever we have a human being we have a person, arrives at the conclusion that the unborn human being is a human person.
The matter of ‘person’ is far beyond this simple essay, but it is instructive to realize we have the term only because of theological reflections on the Trinity. A person is not a human being who has certain properties. (Nor is the Son God because he has certain properties.) Rather, we speak of persons to point to our distinctive way of relating one to another. We are in communities of dignified individuals. We are most ourselves when we care for each other. This dignity with its concomitant care does not depend on the qualities or worth of any individual.
To bracket out the political ‘abortion wars’ is not mere prudence. It is to focus ourselves on our actual neighbors. I long for a church which welcomes unborn life along with other marginalized persons, which shows respect all around. Without shrill condemnation of those who have had or have encouraged abortion, we may clearly affirm that every human being is a person, and pray to discern our own failures to care, and then let the Spirit help us to do our part in bringing about a community of such care, a more fully realized church.
The Revd Canon Victor Lee Austin is Theologian-in-residence of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas and wrote a previous version of this article for The Living Church. A renowned theological scholar and formerly at St Thomas’s Fifth Avenue in New York City, Fr Austin has written several critically-acclaimed books.