Saturday, April 20, 2013

Humans, Persons, and the Context for Infanticide and Abortion

"Of course, sin ordinarily tries to bag a good of some kind: people want power or pleasure or wealth or self-esteem or happiness. Their sin consists in seeking these things in hurtful ways or excessively or preeminently or even exclusively. But as human life degenerates, as people explore deeper and deeper recesses of evil, they begin to seek pleasure not in such created goods as sex or material plenty or the exercise of dominion. They seek it instead in the very dynamics of sin.... They take satisfaction from showing who is boss, from showing that no one else will legislate for them. Or they take the vandal's pleasure in the destruction of beauty and wholeness. This contrariety, as opposed to blank carelessness, is the first ingredient of sin done 'for the hell of it.'

"People who joy in evil show that some wire has gotten crossed in them; their moral polarity has switched. Such corruption climaxes, as the Roman historian Livy says in a famous statement, in the transforming of human love from a benevolent disposition to a fatal attraction. Livy is describing the debauchery of the last century of the Roman republic, but he might just as well have been describing the hunger that makers of slasher films are trying to feed. What Livy describes is the inevitable destination of uninterrupted human evil. 'Of late years,' he says, 'wealth has made us greedy, and self indulgence has brought us, through every form of sensual excess, to be, if I may so put it, in love with death.'" ~ Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Not the Way It's Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (pp. 50-1)

When my son was born, I must admit, I was not prepared for how much I would love him. I have never been a person who was fascinated by children or even had much of an interest in them. I did not hold babies, dote over them, or volunteer for the church nursery (okay, I worked it once but it was under duress). Do not get me wrong, I thought children were great, just from a distance. I actually felt guilty while Erika was pregnant because I was not as excited as I thought I should have been. Again, do not get me wrong, I was happy to know my first child was coming, but I was not nearly as excited as most other people I knew. I kept telling myself it would all change when he is born and others told me that too. And, while I knew that was true, I was still unprepared for how much I would love him and the power that love would have over me. Now, even when I go a few hours without seeing Gabriel, I want to be with him, to see his beaming smile, and to give him a hug (to all my family and friends, yes, I said it, a hug).

I say all that to attempt to demonstrate why I do not want to write this blog post right now. I do not want to think about Kermit Gosnell. I do not want to think about the atrocities he performed. I did not want to think about the atrocities performed in abortion clinics all over the world in the name of "women's rights" or "family planning" or "women's health." I have avoided writing about the Gosnell case because it hurts too much to think about someone killing my son right after he was born. Thinking about it makes my chest physically hurt, and I cannot help but think about it whenever I hear about this murderous rampage. I think about babies born, crying and terrified of this new, cold world, and then I think about someone taking that helpless human and killing them. I think about babies who need immediate care, just like my son needed immediate care when he was born, and their cries bringing instruments of death instead of nurturing love. I think, "What if that were my son?" and "How can someone be so cold and cruel to helpless, needy babies?" It hurts, and I have avoided writing about it because I want to avoid thinking about it. It is easier to avoid thinking about it. However, if I stick my head in the sand, then I am no better than the cowards in the majority of mainstream media who have avoided reporting this story. Fortunately, social media (one of its few redeeming uses) has spread this case across the Internet, even though many media outlets have been avoiding it like the plague (here, here, and here are few who have the courage to report it).

In my unwilling but persistent thoughts about this case, I have often come back to the question of why or how someone can think aborting a child or murdering the newly-born child can be acceptable. Murder is always atrocious but when it is a helpless child that needs the world to nurture it (not kill it), that question becomes even more acute. What would cause someone to take a crying, helpless baby and severe its spinal cord? What would cause someone not to feel remorse when they hear a baby's cries immediately stop and their body go limp because of an action they took? What would cause them to do it over and over again? As Plantinga says in the above quote, when unchecked, the corruption of sin eventually leads to pleasure sought in the very dynamics of sin. It led to the Roman citizens to become "in love with death," and one could say the exact same thing about America. Sure, we do not have gladiator battles anymore, but we have legalized abortion, sanctioned the death of over 40 million babies, and continue to defend it under the guise of "women's health" or "family planning." But, why is America in love with death? Why would Gosnell casually murder babies "precipitated" (i.e. born) in his office? What is the cause? I have not been able to come up with an answer. And, Plantinga is helpful here too:
Inquiring into the causes of sin takes us back, again and again, to the intractable human will and to the heart's desire that stiffens the will against all competing considerations. Like a neurotic and therapeutically shelf-worn little god, the human heart keeps ending discussions by insisting that it wants what it wants.

The trouble is that this is only a re-description of human sin, not an explanation of it--let alone a defense of it. Our core problem, says St. Augustine, is that the human heart, ignoring God, turns in on itself, tries to lift itself, wants to please itself, and ends up debasing itself... the person who curves in on himself, who wants God's gifts with God, who wants to satisfy the desires of a divided heart, ends up sagging and contracting into a little wad....

Moreover, even when we have sorted and classified the motives of a sin, we still haven't fully explained it. Why not? The reason is that to identify a motive is to discern only what pushes a person in the direction of some act, not why he actually commits it. We still do not know why a person succumbs to the motive. After all, lots of people feel motivated to steal others people's possessions but manage to avoid giving in to these motives.... The fact is that we know more contexts than motives of human evil, and we know more motives than causes, we almost never know all three... Only God knows the percentages in these matters. Only God knows the human heart. (pp. 62-3)
Only God knows the deep, dark recesses of Gosnell and other abortionists' hearts. We can identify motives and contexts in which these people might make their decisions, but why they choose to act when others do not is a mystery. Even Paul admits this, calling it the "mystery of lawlessness." (And, if I am honest, I have to admit that it is only by God's grace that I have not moved in the same direction as Gosnell or any of the others. God knew my deep, dark sin--indeed, He still knows it--and replaced the stone I mistakenly called a heart with the true thing. One thing I need to remember in my rage is that Gosnell is not beyond the power of the gospel. If God could move my heart, He can move his.)

Even though an actual cause may beyond my ability to assess, I think I can give the context, or at least part of the context, in which these decisions take place. In short, it is the philosophical move away from inherent value in humans (i.e. because we are made in the image of God) to functionalism. Functionalism is the idea that rights come from a set of criteria that a human (or something else like dolphins) has to meet in order to be considered a person. The argument proceeds like so: First, the assertion is made that persons (not humans) deserve rights. Second, a distinction is drawn between "humans" and "persons" based on a set of criteria (e.g. rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness), which is, of course, debatable and largely determined by the opinions of a few. Finally, if the human (or something else) meets the set of criteria, then they are said to be a person and deserve rights. If they do not, then they have no rights (or at least no rights equal to the rights of persons). This distinction between "human" and "person" based on a set of criteria gives us the context for abortion. One can (and indeed our culture has) narrow the criteria for personhood to exclude the unborn. When something is a "fetus" and not a "baby" (which suggests personhood), then the rights of the person (the mother) trump the rights of the non-person (the baby) and it becomes okay to "terminate" the pregnancy. As Mary Elizabeth Williams (about whom I have written in the past) has argued, "...a fetus can be a human life without having the same rights as the woman in whose body it resides. She's the boss. Her life and what is right for her circumstances and her health should automatically trump the rights of the non-autonomous entity inside of her. Always." (Emphasis added) She calls the unborn baby a "human life" but did you catch the adjective at the end (I hope so; I italicized it)? The "non-autonomous entity" does not have the same rights as the mother. Why? Because of the distinction drawn by functionalism. Being human is not enough.

Unfortunately, functionalism does not stop at the general abortions pro-life advocates are used to protesting. This road leads right to Gosnell and beyond. Peter Singer (professor of bioethics at Princeton!) has argued that newborns lack the essential characteristics of personhood and, therefore, "killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person." Singer is not the only one. A few Australian ethicists have argued for "after-birth abortions" on the basis of functionalism and newborns lacking personhood. This, of course, is the logical extension of pre-birth abortions because there is no moral or personal distinction between the unborn child and the newly-born child. Moving down the birth canal does not change the personhood of the baby. (Of course, this logical extension should lead our culture to realize killing the unborn is wrong, but we are a culture "in love with death.") According to functionalism, babies still lack the criteria necessary for personhood. They are, at best, "potential persons."

If you make a distinction between "person" and "human" and then set up a (arbitrary) set of criteria to qualify as a person, then you end up with Gosnell, Singer, and others like them. And, do not make the mistake of thinking these ideas are simply in the "high academic" circles. Planned Parenthood has argued that the fate a baby born in a botched abortion (i.e. breathing, crying, and fighting for life just like the ones Gosnell murdered) should be determined by the mother and physician. "Personhood" is a linguistic sleight-of-hand used to exclude some humans from the protected class, and it does not stop with infants. When a list of criteria has to be met and that criteria is determined by society, then anyone is in danger (especially the inconvenient, like the mentally handicap and degenerating elderly). This move has been done in the past and has been used to defend genocide, slavery, sex-trafficking, and all other sorts of human atrocities. The Nazis had a word for it: Untermensch, "sub-human." And, it leads cultures into downward spirals, like Plantinga describes above, which eventually end with a people who are "in love with death." Only a philosophical and presuppositional commitment to the inherent rights of a human because they are made in the image of God will place us in a context where abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia are unacceptable. Oh sure, we could make abortion illegal, but no progress will be made in relieving the demand for abortions until culture starts seeing humans as made in the image of God and inherently deserving of "unalienable rights" which have been "endowed by their Creator."

Now, about now you might be thinking, "What exactly does it mean for a human to be 'made in the image of God?'" That is a good question and it is one that I will address next week, for this post is already too long.

By His Grace,

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