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]
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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