Vulnerability and persistence

Vulnerability and persistence

The origin of the word “”shibboleth” is from the Hebrew meaning the part of the plant containing grain, like the ear of corn.  In a Bible story the Gileadites used the word to identify the Ephraimites, who couldn’t manage the “sh” sound.  Midwesterners today detect us New Englanders by our inability to get our “r”s in the right place, sometimes substituting “h”s, making it difficult to discuss parking the car or wearing shorts without inviting ridicule.  Or upon hearing “irregardless”, we identify those who paid insufficient attention to Miss Flynn in eighth grade grammar classes.

We tag whole groups of people (and situate ourselves in fixed categories) by our choices of words. If a new acquaintance frequents the phrases “global warming” and “we need carbon credit swaps,” we intuit a quick picture and change the subject.  No rational discussion about the record setting ice depth in Antarctica will follow. A polar divide separates us.  If one person in temporary grouping at a party starts in on “gun control” and “banning automatic weapons,” while another stakes out “Second Amendment rights,” it may be time to refresh our glass at the bar. When a condescending scientism true believer comes down on some dinner companions as blind Creationist fools if they question in any way unfettered Darwinism or simply ask ‘how did all this come about ex nihilo with no First Cause?,’ the conversation is not going to get enlightening or productive anytime soon.

“Science must not impose any philosophy, any more than the telephone must tell us what to say.”  G.K. Chesterton

Nowhere is the conservative/progressive divide less amenable to be bridged than between the semantics of “reproductive rights” or “death with dignity” and “the right to life of human persons from conception to natural death.”  Last week four old friends gathered for lunch; we had worked together for over twenty years in what for me was now five companies ago.  If the volatile housing market and the credit crisis of the early nineties had not intervened, I would be more than content to be working side by side with all of them still.  Two are running companies in my industry, and the third (and proximate cause of the gathering) is retired and recently recovered from a serious illness.  While enjoying a post lunch coffee, the conversation turned (as it occasionally had in the past) to this unbridgeable pro-abortion rights – prolife gap.  Yet with intelligent companions of good will, a civil, yet spirited conversation ensued among men who really like and respect each other.

Since this is my blog (let them make their own), please bear with the debate from my side of the chasm.  I espoused only secular and scientific argument.  If sacred scripture was allowed in and accepted at face value, there is no debate; those documents are clear and consistent in this regard.  Rather than get sidetracked into Christian apologetics, although ultimately they are more ultimate, we stuck to common, mostly agreed upon ground.

We agreed that at conception this new entity contained within herself all the genetic information necessary to distinguish her from all other human beings, a unique creature, human in nature, who was differentiated from all others and needed only time, nutrition and oxygen to mature.  This is merely science, and no biologist, geneticist or embryologist could disagree.

Then we diverged.

Is one reasonable measuring rod of the humaneness and moral character of a culture its ability to protect the vulnerable, the innocent who cannot protect themselves?  And if so, how are we doing, when we kill over a million of them a year just in our country?  Is that a metric that speaks well of us?  Can we do any better than that?

What about the humanity and rights of the woman, and her ability to choose whether she will bear a child?  I respond that I resent the pro-choice label bestowed only to those who favor abortion.  I am very pro-choice myself, however our choices are narrowed once an innocent and helpless third party is subject to those choices, and the tiny one has no choice.  I think the choice for the mother comes much earlier.  Leaving rape aside as a miniscule percentage of causes of abortion, even the case for saving the lives of women from back alley, illicit abortions pre Roe v. Wade, is weak.  Due to their much higher frequency more women die each year from legal abortion complications than ever died of illegal ones.

Well of course it’s killing, says my most honest friend, but they are not citizens, and therefore not entitled to the protections of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The woman is a citizen and therefore has more rights. Then why have attorneys been appointed by the court to protect the inheritance rights of fetuses, if they are not to enjoy at least some of the rights of other citizens?

“The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion..”  “The Principles of Psychology,” William James, 1890

Clearly the only pertinent and insistent question is this: is the pre born child (or fetus, so we don’t write the conclusion into the premise), a human being? What is the unborn? The answer to this leads inexorably to the immorality or morality of killing it.  What then are those distinguishing characteristics which differentiate the fetus from the citizen, the fully functioning human person with the attendant dignity and worth of a human person, which must be protected by a moral society?  Can we agree on four?[i]

  1. Size. Does Vince Wilfort or Lebron James have more rights and deserve more protection than an adolescent or a 4’11” woman? Or an adolescent more consideration for their lives than an infant?
  2. Level of Development. Does an educated professional have more rights and deserve more protection than an elementary school student or a potty training toddler? Would the torture and murder of a two year old be tolerated by a humane society? If not, why is a less developed pre born fair game?
  3. Environment. (in the womb or out of it). Is the astronaut or submariner, who requires for their every moment the constant protection of a temporarily borrowed and necessary environment outside of themselves, a lower form of human, subject to the choice of her superior whether she lives or dies?
  4. Dependency. Is the person who requires weekly dialysis or the person who requires a respirator or the person under anesthesia and on a heart lung machine during surgery less human than the doctors and nurses providing the care?

The answers to these questions establish the nature and humanity of the unborn.  And the one question that transcends all others in this discussion remains:  What is the unborn?  How we answer that defines our humanity and the humanity of our culture.

The fourth friend, an educated, thoughtful man I have known for over forty years finally joined the conversation.  I was not sure of his position during the debate, but at the end, he answered all the questions, it seems to me.  “I can’t say with certainty when human life begins.  Given the stakes, doesn’t that make it all the more urgent, that we err on the side of caution?”   Just so, my friend, just so.

 “I will give thanks to You for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.. You formed my inward parts. You wove me in my mother’s womb” Psalm 139”

“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.  Before you were born, I set you apart.”  Jeremiah 1:5


[i] Thanks to Scott Klusendorf and his excellent pamphlet on this topic, which I whole heartedly recommend,  “Pro-Life 101” Stand to Reason Press, 2002


Filed under Background Perspective, Culture views

6 responses to “Shibboleths

  1. Rita

    Beautiful post my love and I must say that, although I’ve been around tons of pro-life people in my years in the movement, I am struck with the simplicity of your friends admonition to ‘err on the side of caution’. What a lovely, intelligent man.


  2. Mike Amaral

    1) Boston accents (or New England accents) regarding ‘R’s: its from England. pay attention to the “r’s” in this video from Boston, England, ca. 1943. Our local language, believe it or not, is actually based on an English accent…as it “was in the beginning”. 🙂

    2) “pro-choice” has replaced “murder” in your lexicon, but it murder is still too much for folks to bear…..”pro-choice” really has snuggly fit into “conservative” vocabulary in replace of the word “abortion”. So, Charlie Baker, the new Republican Governor of Massachusetts really supports “abortion”.

    3) Protecting the innocent is obvious…but your comment ” Is one reasonable measuring rod of the humaneness and moral character of a culture its ability to protect the vulnerable, the innocent who cannot protect themselves? And if so, how are we doing, when we kill over a million of them a year just in our country? Is that a metric that speaks well of us? Can we do any better than that?” is powerful, but you avoid really the basis of your (our) faith: To forgive. And that is, it is easy to advocate for the innocent of the world. How about the guilty? Our Christian upbringing tells us: Thou Shalt Not Kill. Where is the outrage about the death penalty? I hear so much about our “culture of death” in regards to the pro-life issue, but not much noise at all about forgiving those who have trespassed against us. What I’m getting at (possibly in a very clumsy way) is that we must take that whole mantle given us in all seriousness. The death penalty in the USA is really an overt statement about our feelings about forgiveness and right-to-life-ness. Other countries have abolished it (I don’t really know the reasons) but, for example, Russia has banned the death penalty. Do Russians take “Thou Shalt Not Kill” more seriously than we do? (I know….the issue about Ukraine..oh well).

    I guess I’m trying to say “Is one reasonable measuring rod of the humaneness and moral character of a culture its ability to protect even those pronounced guilty of a crime? That they may live their lives out naturally, of course in confinement? “I’m talking about an affluent culture that can afford it (like ours).

    Don’t expect a to-and-fro here….I don’t have the energy for it.

    In closing: If an ISIS terrorist comes running towards me with a bolo knife, and I’m holding a machine gun, I’m going to shoot him. But if I’m a soldier in charge of ISIS prisoners (or Gitmo prisoners) how should I treat them?

    Recently I was reading the Globe coverage of the Tsarnaev trial going on, and they were talking about picking jurors. The Globe had an on line “quiz” for readers…”Can you serve on the Tsarnaev Jury?”. One of the first questions was: “Do you believe in the death penalty?”. Because the death penalty is legal here, it is going to be considered in this case. I had to answer “NO”. I was disqualified….and I was disappointed.



    • I also favor abolishing the death penalty and do not want the state killing even the guilty in vengeance on my behalf. Most especially because the state makes mistakes. And with time all persons can seek redemption. We have no conflict here, Mike.

      There may be extreme and rare circumstances where some justification can be found for it. eg: No other means are possible in times of chaos to protect the innocent public from a crazed murderer. However, we have plenty of prisons, and as you pointed out, the money to keep us safe, so I can see no instance in our country in which the state undertakes capital punishment justly.

      That being said, there is a moral difference between killing a guilty adult and killing an innocent and helpless preborn baby, which is always intrinsically evil.

      Neither do I condemn anyone (except perhaps the profiteers like Planned Parenthood, which kills hundreds of thousands a year). The mothers who have made these life changing and awful (in the sense of the awe of choosing to act with godlike power) decisions must be loved. Forgiveness, compassion for their situation and love.

      Great contribution to the discussion. Thanks for taking the time.


    • Rita

      Yes Mike…many or most pro-lifers do not agree with capital punishment for all the reasons Jack mentioned. I think the reason we don’t hear about it as much as one hears about the horrors of abortion is the simple fact that there are so many more millions of abortions. Certainly, a pre-born baby by at least 22 weeks feels excruciating pain when it is dismembered in the womb and has it’s skull crushed. We do thousands of them a day… If one considers the ripple effect of sin, what will happen to us? What are the consequences of our actions? How are we different than ISIL? We murder the innocent with a smiley face to protect the ‘rights’ of women who BTW are much bigger and stronger than the baby she carries. Does ‘might make right’? It’s a tragedy, but don’t talk about it too much. I’ve had people try to run me off the road because I have a bumper sticker that says, We Vote Pro-life. As they fly by my car I always get the finger. So much for free speech in America. But I agree Mike, capital punishment is not the answer to crime. It never has been and this is human life we are destroying. The only time it would be admissible is if we no longer could contain them in jail and peoples lives were in danger. After all, the government’s main job is to protect it’s people, unless they are too small, weak and speechless to try and stop them.


      • Anthony Vinson


        It is disheartening to hear that you’ve been the victim of angry drivers who object to your messages. Frankly that’s one of the reasons I refuse to display bumper stickers or signage of any sort. Years ago, on a whim, I purchased a small plastic “Darwin Fish” plaque. Rather than a dorsal fin the fish had a small bubble like one might find atop the flying saucer from a 1950s sci-fi movie, and inside the body of the fish was scripted the word ALIEN. I thought it was funny; iconoclastic, sure, but no more than a silly joke. At least one person did not see the humor. I returned to my truck one afternoon to find the plaque had been pried off and a rather large X scratched in its place.

        Back in my caving days a friend (deeply religious) purchased and displayed a bumper sticker reading Jesus Caves with similar results. The sticker was forcefully removed, taking away bits of paint. Interestingly, as also seems to be the case in the incidents you describe, the damage was done anonymously. Free speech indeed.

        Isn’t it a shame that we cannot teach our fellow human beings to respect differing opinions, and the importance of civil discourse and dialogue? That the right to speak freely comes at a price? That ideas are not to be feared, but critically examined before passing judgment?

        Fight the good fight for your beliefs in any reasonable, legal way, but I’d reconsider the signage…



  3. Anthony Vinson

    Well written and intelligently articulated as always. From previous exchanges you know that we view this issue through different lenses. Still though, I always enjoy hearing and trying to understand all sides.

    Approaching the topic philosophically it seems to me that either life is sacrosanct, or it is not. Either all lives matter, or they do not. In a world where both church and state routinely justify the taking of innocent lives, either through action or inaction, how can individuals be reasonably expected to act differently? Human nature is what it is; we are at the mercy of our evolutionary heritage and many of our thoughts and actions lie beyond our ability to control. We are social animals and act in accordance to societies norms. Or not. (Those who do not are generally dealt with in ways up to and including death.) Since society – secular and non – both condones and encourages the taking of lives, it firmly delivers the message that some lives do not matter. Or that the deaths of some are required to achieve an end. Or beginning. Soldiers off to war? Collateral damage? AIDS babies as a result of religious objection to contraception? If those are justified, then where are the parameters?

    We were recently witness to rallies and marches conducted beneath the banner Black Lives Matter. Well, of course they do, but the sentiment didn’t set well with me since it should have read All Lives Matter. Until we as a species are able to not only understand, but conduct ourselves as if that were true, is there any hope of affecting the question of which do. Or don’t? I think not. Of course that doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t try.

    Not seeking debate or detailed discussion here, just asking what I feel are relevant questions. Keep writing, and I’ll keep reading. Even, and especially, when I do not agree either in part or whole.



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