Liberals believe individuals have a right to abortion and euthanasia, while conservatives believe the state has a right to execute prisoners and wage war. It seems everyone agrees in killing, we just differ over who and how.
In a previous attempt to consider the tricky question of abortion, I tried to strike a balance between the two key camps on this issue, and suggested that since we all agree that we want to minimise the number of abortions, this should be our focus rather than attempting to outlaw abortion (which will in no way prevent abortions, but merely make them more horrific). However, there is another tack that might prove fruitful: to step back from viewing abortion in isolation, and widen our view to consider the ending of human life collectively from the perspective of relative ethics i.e. from the acceptance of difference in moral beliefs.
The centre of my case here is the claim that if one believes in a right to suicide, abortion is generally unproblematic, and that conversely opponents of abortion are also in the main against suicide. Certainly one can see that if ending one's own life is acceptable in all cases, then abortion no longer presents a moral barrier – suicide would end the life of the mother and the foetus. Under an ethical system that permitted this, abortion could be the ethical choice: if it is despair over the pregnancy which motivates the mother to kill herself, terminating just the foetus will seem like a morally acceptable outcome.
Because the majority of abortion opponents are operating within some form of Christian ethics, the converse usually holds – both suicide and abortion are abominated, because human life is afforded a sacrosanct status. However, for some reason the majority of conservative Christians in the United States do not extend this status to the condemned. Liberals object to the death penalty not because they are against killing (they generally support at least two forms of killing – abortion and euthanasia) but because of the number of innocents that are executed by the state. But conservative Christians are more likely to view justice as ratified by God (and thus not prone to the human error that in fact riddles every legal system). That the majority of those executed are both poor and black also somehow makes it of lesser import to many on the political right – even though it is nearly impossible to imagine Jesus condoning execution. In fact, this is the entire thrust of the Gospel of John, chapter 8, where Jesus says “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”.
However, in the context of both abortion and euthanasia, the position dictated by conventional Christian morality is consistent, and furthermore I would contend it is a valuable counterweight to the liberal stances on these issues, which are just as prone to inflexible moralising as their opponents. While it is not hard for most people to accept the position of the women's rights movement that access to abortion is essential to the dignity of women, nor the position of the right to die movement that access to euthanasia is essential to the dignity of humanity (after all, we allow a terminal animal to die humanely) these ethical conclusions need to be understood from a wider perspective, and balanced against a reckless disregard for life.
By defending abortion in all cases, the “pro-choice” camp risks claiming that termination of a foetus is trivial – something that denies the distressing nature of this procedure, and which is understandably upsetting to their opponents who possess an idealised image of children born solely in wedlock. There is nothing wrong with this ideal of marriage – except when it is effectively enforced on others without their consent. Christians in this regard should bear in mind that pre-marital sex is not a new phenomena, and was always already happening. As the philosopher Charles Taylor has noted, prior to the industrial revolution villagers tolerated (while still castigating) the young generations sexual exploits since knowing that a coupling could produce children was important at that time, as infant mortality was incredibly high and a barren marriage was a considerable blow to the community. The change in infant mortality rates can be seen as a justification for contraception in this regard – and Christians who oppose contraception because it “encourages pre-marital sex” are perhaps kidding themselves as to the potency of sexual desire.
In a similar vein, Christian opponents to euthanasia raise quite practical concerns as to the slippery slope implied. When the Swiss assisted suicide group Dignitas were helping the terminally ill to die, many people were in full support of what they are doing. But a fifth of those assisted in ending their life at Dignitas have no terminal condition, and this has raised wider concerns about their activities. A key anti-euthanasia argument worth considering is the idea that the financial pressure of caring for the elderly will encourage families to psychologically pressure their older relatives to die rather than becoming a burden. But at the same time, it must be acknowledged that euthanasia is already widely practised in hospitals the world over under the auspices of “pain management”, and pretending that we are not already assisting people to die is tantamount to denial.
In all of these cases of abortion and suicide the fact of the matter is that we have always already possessed the means to terminate a pregnancy (herbs were regularly used to induce abortions in ancient Egypt, Rome, Greece and China) or end one's own life (of which the possible methods are innumerable). This knowledge is neither new, nor repressible. Trying to manipulate the law to create a blanket prohibition of abortion or suicide denies the right of the individual to determine their own ethics – a freedom which no Christian can deny without going against the God-given free will which is axiomatic to almost all modern theologies. Even if the law rendered these acts illegal, they would still happen, and they would be far more undignified and horrific than if they were permitted.
Legal need not mean encouraged. Christians who wish to act as a moral counterweight against abortion and suicide must be willing to do more than campaign for laws which do nothing but brush these problems under the carpet. In the case of abortion, they must be prepared to help fund and support adoption and charitable child support – if involuntary parenthood or adoption are the desired outcomes, the supporters of these actions must be prepared to both financially and practically assist in the necessary arrangements. They will find little opposition to this course of action. In the case of euthanasia and suicide, they must be equally willing to lend support to those they wish to persuade against ending their lives. Jesus' “eleventh commandment” – that we love one another – is not met by substituting lawmaking for the duty of care.
And for the non-Christians who in stubborn opposition to their most draconian moral opponents become as blinkered and partisan as those they despise, a similar caution must be extended: one cannot claim the moral high ground by ignoring the situations of the real people caught up in these crises of life and instead focussing solely upon the battle for the law. If we are ever to move beyond the cultural impasses of abortion and suicide, it may take a willingness to abandon our faith in absolutes ratified by law, and instead to respond hospitably to the needs of those others – whether at the end of their life, a troubled midpoint, or at the mere possibility of beginning – who need our openness to a compassionate understanding of the complexity of their individual circumstances far more than they need our angry dogma.
The opening image is Where I End by vhm-alex, which I found on a desktop wallpaper site. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended, and I will take the image down if asked.