Philosophy and the politics of abortion
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  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.