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Philosophy and the politics of abortion

21 February 2009

One of the things that concerns me is the propensity of some Christians to believe and act on urban legends and this came up in a discussion about eugenics in Fr Gregory Jensen’s blog Koinonia: Eugenics Are Now On the Table.

Fr Gregory referred to an article by Gary Graham, Flashpoint! A Woman’s Right To Choose, which I thought was quite a good article on the whole, but I queried one statement in it, quoted by Fr Gregory: “But anyone with a mind who’s been around for a while knows that ‘family planning’ is code for abortion.”

And no, I didn’t know that.

I worked for several years as an editor of academic texts, and as a result I’ve probably become over-pedantic about the use of language, and assuming that everyone knows these “codes”. And in much of the politicised rhetoric of anti-abortion crusaders these assumptions grow and grow.

It reminded me of something I had seen on other blogs, urging a campaign against FOCA, the “Freedom of Choice Act” in the USA, for which they said the Obama administration was responsible. The trouble was, however, that they were saying this before Barack Obama’s inauguration as US president, before there even was an Obama administration, and that kind of talk sets off my bullshit detectors.

We saw a lot of that kind of scare-mongering in South Africa before 1994 — right-wing Christians saying that Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu was planning to urge all black domestic servants to kill their white employers after the first democratic elections and the like. And there were the shrill denunciations of President Bush’s invasion of Iran, which never took place. These denunciation of things that have not yet happened, but which the denouncers are absolutely convinced will inevitably happen, have the unfortunate effect of making all supporters of a cause such as anti-abortion look like cranks and fanatics, if not raving loonies.

In other words, the “Freedom of Choice Act” was an urban legend. It never existed, and it has been exposed as an urban legend in this article.

Another participant in the discussion, Sr Macrina, referred to a different article, in The Tablet, and said that it

…presents a more nuanced but also (in my opinion) more frightening perspective, especially in the last paragraphs. It is the increasing difficulty of any serious public ethical discourse on such issues (and not only in the U.S.A.) that I find concerning. And I share Steve’s concerns that some Christian opposition to abortion actually contributes to this.

The last paragraphs in the article in The Tablet are worth quoting too:

Philosophy can never be dispensed. The role of race in society, like the role of stem-cell research, is a philosophic question first. Raising questions about the ethical conundrums posed by stem-cell research is an embrace of reason, not an assault upon it. Scientism cannot escape the human and humane questions posed by philosophy.

Nothing in Mr Obama’s educational or political background suggests he might be alert to the dangers posed by the new scientism. “We need to end the Bush administration’s war on science where ideology trumps scientific inquiry and politics replaces expert opinion,” Mr Obama’s campaign website states. Twenty-two of the 35 top-level appointments so far have gone to candidates with degrees from elite schools where the education is entirely secular and philosophically myopic: Harvard’s philosophy course offerings jump from Aristotle to Descartes, leaving out Augustine, Aquinas, Bonaventure, Bellarmine. I doubt that anyone in Mr Obama’s circle of advisers will raise Wieseltier’s point about charts and the necessity of philosophy. Maybe, to ensure a seat at the table, there needs to be some financial backing: Metaphysicians for Obama. How much will they raise?

While this may be more nuanced than the article in Time that I cited, I still find some things disturbingly unnuanced, and it too arouses the language pedant in me. For example, I think that they meant to say that “philosophy can never be disbensed with” — or did they really want us to have the picture of someone in a pharmacy dispensing philosophy along with pills and potions?

More seriously, though, while the article notes that not all stem-cell research is embryonic stem-cell research, it then omits that qualification for the rest of the article, and thus reinforces the impression that Christians are (or ought to be) opposed to all stem-cell research.

I’m also a bit unhappy, to say the least, about their misuse of “liberal”,  especially in the thoroughly disingenuous juxtaposition of liberalism and fascism in these two sentences

The liberal fascination with eugenics in the early decades of the twentieth century produced a bad chapter in the history of science, when mentally disabled individuals were sterilised against their will. Dr Josef Mengele’s experiments at Auschwitz were a bad chapter in the history of science, when ethics were thrown out the window so evil could come in through the door.

G.K. Chesterton, who was not only a liberal, but a Roman Catholic to boot, flourished in precisely that period, and was not known for his enthusiastic support of eugenics. But I’ve discussed the misuse of words like “liberal” elsewhere at Notes from underground: Weasel words: liberal (and gun control), so I’ll say no more about it here.

But I believe the philosophical issue goes beyond Aristotelian metaphysics, and is more similar to one raised in this blog post: Nouslife: Erosion of thought by the winds of culture.

Yes, I’m jumping all over the place here, from one blog post to another, and from one article to another. It’s just that all these things seem to converge on the same topic.

Nouslife refers to a couple of prominent neopagans who converted to atheism, because they could no longer accept the neopagan preference for gut intuition to reason, and magical sight to philosophy. and goes on to say that

he misses the ‘obvious’ point that his own schooling in certain perspectives in Western society probably informs his sense thet atheism is the natural non-religious ‘home’ point: that, in effect, he has merely recognised a long-standing conversion to that secular-humianist perspective. He talks of evidence as if it is unproblematic, like Dawkins. Time to brush off Kuhn and Popper,

And Nouslife goes on to refer to an article that takes the argument in The Tablet one stage further: Justin Holcomb : Knowledge Falsely So-called: The Theological Case Against Scientific Realism – Quodlibet Journal:

A theological response [1] to this challenge is two-fold. Considering the first response (part 1), it is important to note that those making the above claims, or claims similar to them, adopt a philosophy of science, commonly called ‘scientific realism,’ which ascribes to science the accurate portrayal of the natural world as it actually is. The work of Thomas Kuhn and the historical account of science show that science (‘scientific realism’) is unable to provide a true (or even approximately true) account of the natural world- for the simple reason that it is inherently impotent to do so. The second response (part 2) is the philosophical and biblical/theological claim that the Christian faith, as described in Scripture, provides the necessary preconditions for the intelligibility of the scientific enterprise. In other words, without the theological and philosophical views of the Bible, the scientific discipline is at best arbitrary and at worse undermined.

While I don’t think the political and economic dimensions of the abortion and eugenics issues should be overlooked (vested interests, such as those of the pharmaceutical industry, for example, should be taken into account), people will simply be talking past each other if they don’t come to grips with the philosophical question.

Christos Yannaras, in his book The freedom of morality, says

Man’s insistence on his individuality is an indication of
his failure to realize his personal distinctiveness and freedom, of his falling away from the fulness of existence which is the life of the Trinity, personal coinherence and communion in love. This falling away is sin, amartia, which means missing the mark as to existential truth and authenticity. The patristic tradition insists on this interpretation of sin as failure and ‘missing the mark,’ as the loss of that ‘end’ or aim which for human nature is its existential self-transcendence, taking it into the limitless realm of personal distinctiveness and freedom.

The core philosophical question is anthropological: “What is man?”

The Orthodox Christian view, expounded by Yannaras, is based on personal distinctiveness and freedom, and it is precisely these characteristics that are denied by “scientific realism” and the “scientism” that the article in The Tablet speaks of.

Some researchers in neuroscience, and debaters on the philosophy of mind and consciousness, believe that “there’s nobody home”, and that consciousness is a kind of illusion, though, as I have argued elsewhere (see Notes from underground: Consciousness of absurdity and the absurdity of consciousness, and Brains and belief) they are not always willing to face up to the implications of this belief.

The idea that “there’s nobody home” is also compatible with Buddhism, and may help to explain the growing attraction of Buddhism in the West. Buddhist and Christian anthropology diverge at precisely this point. Christianity is personal. We believe in a God in three persons, whose very being consists in personal distinctiveness and freedom, and and man is made in the image of God, as a person whom God can address as thou.

This is the basis for the Christian concern for the value of human life, and in this respect Christianity differs little from the African philosophy of ubuntu. To people with this view, the idea that one can throw away a person is quite horrifying.

It is also, I believe, the philosophical basis of political liberalism and the concept of human rights. These include the idea that a society has a duty to protect its weakest members from the depredations of the strong, and that includes protecting children (born or unborn) from abuse by their parents, workers from abuse by their employers, and citizens from abuse by their governments.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. slimjj permalink
    21 February 2009 2:09 pm

    Hi there. Pretty interesting post. It’s nice to find a nuanced view of religion out here.

    There is, I think, a tension between ‘science’, which is generally after generalisable knowledge and the ‘personal’. This is the basis for quite a bit of philosophical puzzlement. I doubt however that the many philosophical issues with scientific realism (as a philosophical position) can be used as a premise in a valid argument for the claim that the bible needs to be a base for science.

    I like your point about religion as the basis for political liberalism, though I’m not sure how true it is.

    I noted that one of the things you quoted claimed that Harvard’s philosophy syllabus was entirely secular, which is odd as it has a couple of course on Kant, a course on Spinoza, a course on early modern philosopy– only some of which could be called secular. As I’m sure you know god is an absolutely essential part of Descartes’ metaphysics.

    I wondered though, where you thought the roots of modern liberalism lie?

    Philosophically I would have thought that the two main sources would have been i) On Liberty by John Stuart Mill, and ii) Groundwork for the Foundations of Morals by Kant. Certainly people like Rawls can be seen as inheriting a basically Kantian position.

    Mill’s arguments are entirely secular and are supposed to be premised upon utilitarianism– his idea is that people are more likely to be happy if they’re left alone to figure out what it is that they want for themselves.

    Kant on the other hand, while religious, seems to argue from the possibility of morality to the existence of god, rather than the other way around. There is precious little reference to the bible in his work.

    Is your claim that the very notion of the individual that these two positions are based on has a biblical or religious source?

  2. 22 February 2009 7:00 am


    Thanks very much for your comments.

    I think one needs to distinguish between the historical roots of ideas, and one’s reasons for thinking they are good or bad.

    The piece I quoted that claimed that scientific thought had its basis in Christian thought was speaking historically. I’m not sure that i agree with everything the author said on that. But I wasn’t speaking historically of the roots of modern liberalism. , but rather on reasons for thinking that the ideas of political liberalism are good or bad.

    I quoted Yannaras who points out that Orthodox Christian anthropology rejects both individualism and collectivism, and regards both as inimical to personal distinctiveness and freedom.

    When I was a member of the Liberal Party of South Africa its members included Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Jews, and atheists and agnostics as well. They may have had different religious and philosophical starting points, but whatever their motivations, they wanted to see a democratic non-racial South Africa, and were willing to work together to achieve that goal.

    In my post I was saying why I, as an Orthodox Christian, believe that political liberalism is a good idea. And it is interesting that several Orthodox theologians have recently written about human rights, basing this on Orthodox anthropology.

    Not everyone approaches the idea of human rights from this point of view, of course, and may have different ideas about why certain rights of people should be protected by law. At times these may lead to disagreements about exactly what rights should be protected by law.

    In the case of Orthodox Christians, this springs from Orthodox anthropology and the understanding of personal distinctiveness and freedom. Now it is possible that some Buddhists, for example, may be in favour of human rights enshrined in law, but since they reject the concept of personal distinctiveness and have an entirely different notion of freedom, it is clear that the philosophical basis for supporting such a project would be different from that of Orthodox Christians.

  3. 23 February 2009 4:02 pm

    Yes, philosophy is a game that atheists would like to consider themselves the natural referees of. But they are players like us all.

  4. 26 February 2009 4:03 am

    That Time article on FOCA was a travesty of bad reporting. Check out this analysis from

    FOCA’s not an urban myth. It’s the legislation that candidate Obama promised to make his first act as president. Given his perfect rating from pro-abortion activists, there’s good reason to believe that he’d back it or measures along those lines.

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