A Heartbeat in Georgia

I don’t like Brian Kemp. I didn’t vote for him in Georgia’s recent gubernatorial election; I supported Stacey Abrams, his Democratic opponent. I don’t know if Kemp is a racist, but I am certain that he won the election because racism is still alive and well in Georgia. He is enabled by and reflects the worst of the Republican Party, which these days seems to be all that is left of the Republican Party. His electoral victory was a victory for bigotry. It is people like him that have played a large role in causing me not only to leave the Republican Party but to move ever further left politically over the last several years.

The election of Donald Trump to the presidency was the moment that I stopped calling myself a “conservative.” I had always had my doubts, as anyone should, but my political leanings for more than a decade were solidly to the right. I identified for most of that time with the basic principles of conservatism outlined by Russell Kirk. In fact, I still agree with most of them. Perhaps I am simply temperamentally conservative. Nonetheless, the election of a dotardly womanizing vulgarian to the presidency by people who claimed to be the party of family values was too much hypocrisy for me to handle. I stopped calling myself a conservative, and I have drifted further left on just about every issue since then. Medicare for all? Yes. Gun control? Now. Immigration? The more the merrier. I even joined the Democratic Socialists of America on Labor Day last year. I have the card to prove it.

But to every rule there must be an exception. And, for me, that exception is abortion. While I have moved left—often even further left than the mainstream of the Democratic Party—on nearly every issue, I have simultaneously moved further and further right on the issue of abortion.

For that reason, I find myself out of sync today with those that I usually find myself in total agreement with. Today, Governor Kemp signed into law a bill that bans most abortions after the fetus develops a detectable heartbeat, which occurs at about six weeks of pregnancy. This law will, in effect, ban abortion in the state of Georgia. While most (about 91.1%, according to the CDC) of abortions occur at or before 13 weeks of pregnancy, most of those occur after six weeks simply because most women do not realize they are pregnant until about six weeks, and often a bit after.

Friends that I typically find myself in alignment with politically have been loudly rejecting this new law as I have been observing their posts on Facebook and Twitter. To some extent, I sympathize; I will admit that I find such a law disingenuous at best when it originates among the members of the same party that gleefully attempts to take away access to affordable healthcare from those in need and that lines its pockets with NRA money while voting against common sense gun laws with popular support. There’s no doubt about it; most of these people care more about their own money and power—or at least the money and power of the super-wealthy who provide their money and power—than “family values” and “unborn children.”

But Kemp was right to sign this bill today. And the Republican members of the Georgia legislature were right to vote for it. And the Democrats are wrong here.

This is the issue that I simply can’t go left on. To me, the math seems too simple; to put it in the form of a syllogism:

  1. Human beings possess innate dignity, which includes the right to life.
  2. A zygote, an embryo, and a fetus are all human beings.
  3. Therefore, zygotes, embryos, and fetuses possess innate dignity, including the right to life.

When those who favor legalized abortion argue against the premises of this syllogism, it is the minor premise that is most often attacked. One of my friends, for example, exclaimed today on Facebook that “a clump of cells” now has more rights than an LGBTQ person in Georgia. While I agree that Georgia—and the United States as a whole—needs to do a great deal more to protect LGBTQ people, the assertion that a zygote or embryo is merely “a clump of cells” belies the fact that every human being at every age is merely a clump of cells. The zygote, the embryo, the fetus, and the eighty-year-old man are all clumps of cells at various stages of development. More importantly, each possesses every biological indicator of humanity; each is, according to any scientific definition, an individual and unique member of the human species.

The real problem, however, is with the major premise: each human being possesses innate dignity. If we have talked politics, religion, or philosophy with anybody, we have all had the frustrating experience of talking to someone who doesn’t share the same basic axioms as ourselves. When you find someone whose basic outlook differs substantially from your own, the result often feels like you’re trying to play Poker with someone who is playing Spades. When we each have a different set of rules, no one wins and yet both parties go away believing they have won. Perhaps the only thing more frustrating than debating someone with radically different axioms is debating someone with identical axioms who has reached a radically different conclusion based on those shared premises.

This seems to be the case with abortion, and this is why I believe abortion is one issue upon which there will be permanent disagreement that positions roughly half of the population on each side of the issue. Both sides work from the same major premise: that human life possesses innate dignity. From that point, however, they reach radically different conclusions due to divergent emphases. Whereas the pro-life person concentrates on the fetus, the pro-choice person focuses on the woman; and, so it seems, never the twain shall meet once that point of departure is reached.

What makes this divergence even more unbridgeable is that the major premise is not a fact. It is, at least, not a fact in the way that “the sky is blue” or “humans are multicellular organisms” are facts. It is an assertion about human nature that has no direct, objectively provable point of reference in the world of mere facts. It is a moral commitment, a strongly held belief that describes much more about how a person feels about her fellow human beings than it does about those human beings in and of themselves.

As a result, the movement from major premise to minor premise becomes doubtful for those on the pro-choice side of the issue. The woman is a fact; she is in front of you, an obviously living human being. The fetus and especially the zygote and the embryo, however, are hidden; they are small and hidden in the darkness of the womb and in the earliest stages look nothing like what we think of when we think of a human being. This doesn’t make them any less human according to a biological definition of the term, of course, but it does create a shadowy area where perhaps the major premise no longer applies. Yes, human beings possess innate dignity, but is this tiny thing—this “clump of cells”—human? Maybe or maybe not, but the contrast between the humanity and dignity of this “clump of cells” and the two-legged, breathing woman it is inside of is a strong one.

So, what is the solution? Where is the bridge? Where is the argument that is finally a nail in the coffin to the abortion debate? I don’t know; in fact, I don’t think there is one. When I look at my syllogism above, it all seems so obvious to me. When one of my pro-choice friends looks at it, they will undoubtedly nod in agreement with the major premise and look for any hole to poke in the minor premise so as to avoid the conclusion. They will posit instead:

  1. All human beings possess innate dignity.
  2. Dignity entails choice concerning one’s body.
  3. Therefore, a woman has the right to choose what is done with her body.

And the logic here seems to me—given that I share the major premise—just as airtight. Instead, I start looking for holes to poke in the minor premise, but just like my imagined pro-choice interlocutor, I can’t find them, so I have to try to make them. And making holes here puts me on shaky ground ethically and scientifically, just as it did my pro-choice interlocutor. If there is a solution, it must be a solution that extends beyond the debate over abortion itself.

Imagine if there was a political party in the United States that both affirmed the right of zygote, an embryo, or a fetus to life and affirmed the right of a pregnant woman and mother to free medical care for herself and her child, to paid maternity and paternity leave, to never having to choose between college and parenthood. Imagine if no woman ever had to make a decision between terminating her pregnancy and pursuing a future for herself. Imagine a political party that was really pro-life all the way from conception to natural death. Imagine that.

Is this a solution? I don’t know, but it seems so to me. The lower abortion rates in countries that provide better access to healthcare, college, and parental leave would seem to indicate that it’s at least a good start. It both protects the lives of the unborn and removes the reasons that women who have had abortions most commonly cite for their decisions. Would it work? It’s worth a try. What’s the worst that could happen if the next time Republicans pass a law like this they tack on a bit of access to healthcare, childcare, and leave time? Maybe they’ll accidentally make this country a better place.

 

 

Personhood in Hebrew and Jewish Thought and Practice (Personhood, Part III)

The conception of personhood which developed in the thought of the Ancient Near East and early became a cornerstone of Jewish anthropology stood in stark contrast with these Greco-Roman understandings. Ancient Near Eastern thought had included a concern for social justice as a central feature from a very early date, as is evidenced by, for instance, texts like the Code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian law code dating to about 1772 BC. In the thought of the Hebrews, this concern for social justice became a near obsession and formed the basis of nearly all of their law. The first book of the Hebrew Bible, Genesis, declares in its first chapter (verse 27) that “God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him.”8 This idea, generally referred to under its Latin name as Imago Dei, permeated Jewish thought and practice concerning relationships between people. Every person was considered a bearer of the Imago Dei and, as such, entitled to dignity and respect, regardless of social or economic status, age, or gender. As scholar Thomas Cahill has succinctly stated, the “bias toward the underdog” throughout biblical law “is unique not only in ancient law but in the whole history of law.”9

In direct contradiction to Aristotle’s belief that foreigners should be subdued and ruled by his own nation, the biblical injunction regarding treatment of foreigners orders that “you shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him,” adding a justification from the Israelites’ own history and an appeal to empathy: “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”10 In the following chapter of Exodus, the Hebrews are ordered to leave their fields uncultivated every seventh year so “that the poor of your people may eat” from what is left in it.11 The Book of Exodus also presents a view of slavery that is nearly opposite that of the Greco-Roman world. The text explicitly denies a master the right to kill his servant, commanding “if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished.”12 The text even goes as far as ordering that a slave who loses his or her eye or tooth because of violence by his or her master must be freed.13 The phrase “male or female” in verses like these is also indicative of the treatment of women in the legal code outlined in the Bible. The law, including both the privileges it confers and the responsibilities it demands, is made to apply equally to men and women, as in the verses cited concerning slavery. Certain special privileges are even afforded to women in order to prevent their oppression or marginalization in Israelite society; for instance, it is ordered that if a man takes a woman’s virginity outside of marriage, a state which thereby rendered her almost entirely unmarriageable in the Ancient Near East, he must take her as his wife and support her for the rest of his life.14 In addition, the Jews regarded infanticide as abhorrent. The Torah offers unequivocal condemnation of infanticide, referring to it as an “abomination,” and, again in contrast to Greco-Roman thought which commended the practice and even explicitly ordered it in certain instances, demands that it should never be performed. Although the Torah is ambiguous on its treatment of abortion and may even endorse it at several points,15 by the first century AD Jews generally understood the condemnations of infanticide in their law as encompassing abortion as well; the prolific first century Jewish author and historian Josephus, for instance, reports as the common Jewish belief and practice that “the law, moreover, enjoins us to bring up all our offspring, and forbids women to cause abortion of what is begotten, or to destroy it afterward; and if any woman appears to have so done, she will be a murderer of her child, by destroying a living creature, and diminishing humankind.”16 These Jewish tendencies toward a broad view of personhood and a consuming desire for social justice were part of the legacy of biblical thought inherited by early Christians. Especially significant is the early Christian development of the idea of Imago Dei, a concept which, in spite of its centrality in Jewish thought, had remained largely underdeveloped. It was in early Christianity, and in a synthesis of Hellenic and Hebrew thought, that followers of the biblical tradition would most fully explore what the Imago Dei consisted of and what were the implications of that idea.

Notes


8 Genesis 1:27 (New King James Version).

9 Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (New York: Anchor Books, 1999), 152.

10 Exodus 22:21 (NKJV).

11 Exodus 23:11 (NKJV).

12 Exodus 21:20 (NKJV).

13 Exodus 21:26-7 (NKJV).

14 Deuteronomy 22:28-9 (NKJV).

15 Prescriptions of capital punishment for adulterous wives in such verses as Deuteronomy 22:22-4, for instance, seem to have been intended to be carried out immediately upon discovery of the act with no delay to observe for signs of pregnancy to prevent the loss of the life of a fetus the woman may be carrying. In fact, these laws seem to have been formulated specifically for the purpose of preventing illegitimate heirs who might usurp the property of the woman’s husband. Numbers 5:11-31 even seems to prescribe some kind of abortion ritual for unfaithful wives in which the woman drinks “bitter water that brings a curse” (verse 19, NKJV) which “makes [her] thigh rot and [her] belly swell” (verse 21, NKJV) if she is indeed unfaithful. Significantly, this ritual is presented as a punishment for adulterous wives, not something to be desired, and, following this apparent abortion, “the woman will become a curse among her people” (verse 27), indicating an overwhelmingly negative attitude to abortion. Verses such as Exodus 21:22-25, which commands the execution of a man who causes a woman to miscarry through violence against her, seem, on the other hand, to assign the fetus a moral value equal to that of other human beings. Although the Hebrew Bible is ambiguous on this point, the logical development of its thought is captured by its actual subsequent development: a condemnation of abortion.

16 Flavius Josephus, Against Apion, par. 25 in William Whiston, tr., The Works of Josephus (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1987).