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What, Exactly, Is 'Sacred' in a Life?

Abortion: Pro-choice liberals are starting to use religious terminology, raising the needfor a common vocabulary.

August 18, 1996|JOHN E. SEERY | John E. Seery is the author of "Political Theory for Mortals" (Cornell Press) and teaches politics at Pomona College

Republicans avoided a convention floor fight over abortion by writing into their platform a compromising legerdemain: They agreed that party members could still claim the right to choose while American women in general should be constitutionally deprived of that right.

The shotgun marriage of opposing philosophies won't last.

A more serious attempt at reconciliation has been quietly underway among some pro-choice liberals to recast the terms of the abortion debate in a way that might strike unexpected common ground with pro-life opponents. In particular, liberals are starting to speak about abortion in spiritual terms. Feminist author Naomi Wolf, for instance, recently broke with some pro-choice ranks by arguing that "the death of the fetus is a real death." Helen Alvare, representing the Catholic Bishops Conference, responded approvingly: "There's no common ground. But Naomi Wolf allows a conversation to begin."

Wolf has caught the attention of the religious right by insisting that the choice to abort the fetus is not a choice between a woman and her doctor but "between a woman and God." The choice, she adds, isn't simply personal; it is a profoundly moral issue about "life and death, right and wrong."

Liberal legal theorist Ronald Dworkin committed a similar apostasy in writing recently that abortion should not be viewed primarily as a matter of legal entitlements and privacy rights, but rather belongs to the dominion of what counts as "sacred" in life. Dworkin doesn't condemn all abortion in light of life's sanctity, but he thinks that legal language is inadequate to address the deeper issues involved.

Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel also cites the abortion debate as an example of liberal reluctance to discuss public matters in "substantive" ways. Liberals often attempt to steer the debate away from the moral-religious dimensions of abortion, he says. But focusing on the "procedural" issue of decision-making will not capture the hearts and minds of Americans generally, and it certainly will not engage those who believe that abortion is murder. We must confront the life-or-death nature of the matter, Sandel says. Murder is murder, and a society cannot allow even the most thoughtfully agonizing women to choose murder.

While pro-choice liberals are conceding some ground to their pro-life opponents, the religious right might like to participate in the debate on a similar plane. In particular, members of this group should offer better explanations of their religious convictions with respect to abortion. If deeply held religious concepts ought to influence our public discourse on this matter, then certain questions need secular scrutiny:

* What exactly is meant by the "sanctity of life?" I presume that one who opposes all abortion on the ground that all life is sacred means that we ought to extend an unconditional and universal respect for every human life. Yet most pro-life Christians, as far as I know, are not military pacifists. If exceptions can be made on the just grounds of national defense, why can't exceptions be made for individual security interests and self-defense? (Pacifists have long pointed out that war, even so-called just war, kills fetuses.)

* What is the theological status of the fetus' soul? Dante Alighieri had to create a special place in his nether world for the innocent unborn because Scripture provides no reliable guide on this issue. Couldn't one argue that abortion hastens and virtually guarantees the fetus' blissful reunion with its divine creator? The Bible enjoins against killing, but what biblical decree states that fetuses are necessarily better off born into mortal existence and, in Christian teaching, into the state of original sin? (Job curses the night he was conceived and the day he was born.) Couldn't a woman find some mitigating solace in the theological speculation that no eternal damage will be inflicted upon the soul of her aborted fetus?

* Does the religious right have a monopoly on the theology of otherworldly reward and retribution? Some express the wish to spare murdering women eternal punishment. Couldn't one devoutly believe that a merciful God might forgive certain women faced with horrible earthly decisions? Why does the religious right speak only for a severe God who refuses to discriminate between abortion and infanticide? Surely heavenly justice isn't entirely blind to such distinctions.

These questions are not inappropriate and they deserve public debate if one believes that religion should indeed play a significant role in the political life of a democratic nation.

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