Man's Right to Life, Self-Sacrifice, and the Image of God
As co-founder and past president of the first statewide right to life organization in Kansas I was invited some time ago to defend the right to life position on abortion before a college medical ethics class. The textbook used in the class was Ethical Issues in Modern Medicine. It is an anthology of essays dealing with abortion, euthanasia, medical experimentation, genetic engineering and counseling, and related issues. It is reasonably well balanced in presenting varying and on occasion diametrically conflicting views. It is addressed to both undergraduate and graduate students and well worth reading by anyone exercising citizenship in the kingdom of Christ and in secular society.
The above general recommendation of the book does not mean that I necessarily wholeheartedly endorse its pro-life or perhaps better "traditional ethics" selections. This is true also about its anti-abortion article by John T. Noonan, Jr., professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley, and a pioneer catholic national level spokesman for the right to life of pre-born children. Here are my reservations with regard to his article.
Its title, "An Almost Absolute Value in History," contains an element of uncertainty ill becoming statements made in the name of Christianity. Strictly speaking, an "almost" absolute value is not an absolute value. If it is not an absolute value, it is a value relative to something else. In Noonan's title "history" is that something else.
Now relating any value to history cannot but reduce its validity, let alone its absoluteness. To say a practice is morally valid because it has been used over long periods of history or time is a non sequitur Slavery was with us until a little over a century ago. Is it established as morally valid by the preceding six thousand years of recorded history? Put "compulsory childbearing" instead of "slavery" and you have the modern women's liberation position on abortion. To be absolute, a moral value must originate before, above and beyond time.
This presents no problem to the Biblical creation position because we see moral values originating in the Person of the Transcendent, Supernatural God of the Bible. Since we also see man originating through His creation in His own image and likeness as recorded in Genesis 1, moral values are part of man's makeup in God's image.
Now since man received life by God's creation, his right to that life is a moral value, absolute because God-given, and forfeitable only under God's terms set forth in God's self-revelatory Word, the Bible. All man's offspring is included as having this right. At their creation God blessed man, both male and female, charging them to be fruitful and multiply and to have dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:26-30). Believers in Biblical creation must never stop short of articulating Biblical Creation ex nihilo and of man created in God's image and likeness as the foundation of man's absolute right to life. For any starting point other than Biblical creation ex nihilo is of necessity located in time/history, and hence of necessity not absolute but merely relative. You might say that ultimately one iS either a historical relativist or a Biblical creation absolutist with regard to right to life or any other moral value.
I honor Professor Noonan as a hero and defender of the Christian faith whose dedicated efforts may well have saved the lives of countless pre-born members of mankind and "held the fort" for us who come after him. Yet I believe that he may unnecessarily have granted supposedly "common ground" to unbelievers and defenders of abortion in two places in his article.
Let us consider his thumbnail sketch of what he calls "the Christian position" which
took the world's view on ensoulment as that view changed from Aristotle to Zacchia... the theological notion of ensoulment could easily be translated into humanistic language by substituting "human" for "rational soul"; the problem of knowing when a man is a man is common to theology and humanism.2
First, while the problem of knowing when a man is a man mayor may not be common to theology and humanism, the answer is not, as we shall see below when discussing the human genetic code, as supposedly determining humanity Second, the very wording of the problem is ambiguous. It is only in a sense not directly related to the right to life in the here and now that Biblical Christianity might speak of "a man not being a man" namely, of fallen man not restored in Christ as the Man Who alone is truly Man, the Norm for Man, Normal Man (hence His name, "the Son of Man"), Compared to Whom none of us are truly human. There are hidden pitfalls in being "yoked together" in any way, even in the definition of a problem, with those who reject Biblical Christianity or any part thereof. Even asserting the existence of ostensibly harmless and "reasonable" common ground will ultimately commit US to costly concessions. If, as Noonan tells us, the "Christian position" took the world's view on "ensoulment" (Or on anything whatever), then it accepted a gift as lethal as did the Trojans when accepting the Trojan horse, with a like result occupation by the infiltrating enemy detachment. One might also question whether a position incorporating non-Christian elements qualifies as "Christian."
Let us also briefly consider Noonan's answer to the problem of knowing when a man is a man. I totally agree with him that "the criterion for humanity (is) simple and all-embracing: if you are conceived by human parents, you are human."3 I agree because the Biblical Creation record establishes mankind as one organism or chain of begetting/conceiving/conceived members or links uniting all generations from the one original, literal first man and wife, Adam and Eve ("the Mother of all living" Genesis 3: 20) down to ourselves. This is explicit also in all Scriptures describing future generations as "in" their ancestors. For instance, "in Adam all die" (I Corinthians 15:22). Levi is spoken of as rendering tribute to Melchizedek when in the loins of Abraham Hebrews 7:9, 10). Neither the handicapped nor the "feeble" are excluded. They actually are spoken of as "more necessary" to the whole body or organism, and are God's deliberate handiwork even as the "normal" or the strong (Exodus 4.11; I Corinthians 12:22-26).
Observe what may happen when Noonan as he thinks strengthens his argument by adding that human life begins at conception "as the decisive moment of humanization (because) at conception the new being receives the genetic code (and) a being with a human genetic code is a man."4 True, Noonan's concern is here with establishing precisely when human life begins. But introduction of this biological specification allows proponents of abortion to argue that beings with faulty genetic codes are not or not "fully" human. It might then be morally permissible, they reason, to abort such beings especially where prenatal testing (amniocentesis) can establish the presence of genetic faults. Argumentation from "less than full humanhood" also underlies much of the defense of withholding life support from or actively terminating the lives of those deemed "not fully human." Mere Biblical creation of man by God in His own image and likeness is a stronger argument standing alone. It is the sole reason given for God's requiring at the hand of every man's brother the blood of man innocently murdered (Genesis 9:5-6). Having based the defense of man's right to life upon man's creation in God's image, we need not redundantly add references to man's genetic code or other merely biological data which are at most only part of that image.
However, Noonan ends his article with an argument of such supreme merit that the foregoing inadequacies are of relative unimportance in comparison. His final appeal in the defense of the right to life is to the injunction of Scripture to love your neighbor as yourself.
For Christians the commandment to love had received a special imprint in that the exemplar proposed of love was the love of the Lord for his disciples. In the light given by this example, self-sacrifice carried to the point of death seemed in the extreme situations not without meaning. In the less extreme cases, preference for one's own interests to the life of another seemed to express cruelty or selfishness irreconcilable with the demands of love.5
Now this appeal to Christlike love and self-sacrifice is an exhortation to be like God Himself in character. Christ tells us that He did nothing but what he saw the Father do, the Father and He being one (John 5:19,30; 8:38; 8:28-29; 10:30). Hence Christ's love and self-sacrifice is also something the Father does. The God Who sacrificed His only begotten Son at Calvary for God-rejecting man's redemption also sustains all men by making His sunshine and His rain fall upon the just and the unjust, loving His enemies and doing good to them that hate Him (Matthew 5:43-45). In fact, without this His sustenance they would die. They need Him as He is in His self-sacrifice and mercy. When Christ tells us that we are to be perfect just like this God His Father is perfect so we may be His children (Matthew 5:45,48), He reiterates, does He not, God's original creative fiat for man, namely, to be the creature made in His own image and likeness, which thus includes man's self-sacrifice and mercy needed by each man's neighbor.
What is demanded of us is not so much to weigh individual obligations and situations as to be radically and totally transformed into the likeness of God to receive God's own nature in saying yes to God's creative fiat (to which Adam, and we in Adam, said No). Haggling over just how much of God's likeness we must manifest, or attempting to define just where our "duties" to God and neighbor might end and our "gifts" over and above duty begin, can only mean that we have not yet understood the issue. Not merely this or that part of us but all of us, the whole of our selves singlemindedly, unreservedly and unconditionally is to be freely surrendered to our Creator in exchange for His own perfect self through Christ in us (John 15:1-5; Colossians 1:2?, 3:10). The measure of God's own unreserved commitment is Calvary. Hence some such act as God's at Calvary must be the measure of our own unreserved commitment to Him, or rather, our whole lives must be lived in the spirit of Calvary. Now in Concrete experience this spirit is shown in deeds of love of our neighbor as ourselves. For our neighbor, i.e. the human being next to us at each moment, is like ourselves the bearer of the image of God, or in the stead of God to us. This is why Christ could say that whatever we do to the least of His brethren, we do to Him (Matthew 25:40). Note that this holds whether our neighbor reciprocates or not; the appeal is to us ourselves to "do unto" others.
Let us now consider what living in the spirit of Calvary might mean in medical ethics. I think we vvould agree that Noonan speaks from within that spirit when he tells us that preference for one's own interests to the life of another seems to express selfishness irreconcilable with the demands of love. With regard to abortion, the human being begotten of a man's seed and growing in a woman 5 womb is flesh of their flesh and unquestionably the closest neighbor they can have, the most immediate link or co-member in the chain or organism of mankind. I can see no way in which deliberately taking the life of one's pre-born offspring can be reconciled with the spirit of Calvary, i.e. Godlike love. This holds with special force in the case of "defective" offspring, truly "the least of Christ's brethren" (Matthew 25:40). It is also relevant here (and regarding contraception) that doubtless motherhood most clearly demands and expresses Godlike love and self-sacrifice the spirit of Calvary in women. This is why, I believe, Scripture tells us that women "shall be sav'ed in childbearing, if they Continue in faith and charity and holiness" (I Timothy 2:15).
The argument against abortion from the moral appeal to exercise Godlike love is so forceful that the need to defend against it is felt keenly by most supporters of abortion and of "new" medical ethics in general. Counterattacks range from outright rejection of this appeal as obsolete6 in the spirit of historical relativism tothe aforementioned haggling over lust where our moral duties to our neighbor end. In what may be the most offbeat defense of abortion ever7, Professor Judith Jarvis Thomson discusses at some length the difference between "the Good Samaritan and what we might call the Minimally Decent Samaritan~ "8 She even quotes verbatim the entire story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35). Then her haggling begins:
After telling the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus said, "Go and do thou likewise." Perhaps he meant that we are morally required to act as the Good Samaritan did. Perhaps he was urging people to do more than is morally required of them. At all events it is not morally required to anyone that he give long stretches of his life to sustaining the life of a person who has no special right to demand it.9
Thomson then points out that "no one in any country in the world is legally required to do anywhere near as much as this for anyone else... In no state in this country is any man compelled by law to be even a Minimally Decent Samaritan."'0 But women, she argues, "are compelled by law to be not merely Minimally Decent Samaritans, but Good Samaritans to unborn persons inside them." "She remarks that those opposing legalized abortio~ "had better start working for the adoption of Good Samaritan laws generally, or earn the charge that they are acting in bad faith."12
Since Thomson has maintained all along that "we are not morally required to be Good Samaritans or anyway Very Good Sarnaritans to one another",13 she does not pursue this challenge, preferring so to speak to let sleeping Good Samaritan laws lie. But haggling over Christ's words "Go and do thou likewise", being out of the question for us, how would we respond?
There are several mutually complementaryanswers. One of them is that it is the duty of Bible-believing Christians as citizens to work for the widest possible agreement between God's moral law and the laws of the society in which we live. It is a witness to our sloth that today's battle over legalized abortion comes after comparatively little resistance on our part to legalized fornication, adultery and divorce.
Next, in the matter of carrying a pre-born child to term no action such as that of a Good Samaritan is involved, but simply to let prenatal development take its course. The child conceived and carried in one's own body is not comparable to a needy stranger encountered at the side of the road; and, not to do anything about the stranger exposes him to possible death, but not to do anything about the preborn baby in the womb is to insure his or her probable life and birth. Prohibition of abortion is comparable to prohibition of deliberately killing a stranger found helpless by the roadside. Such a law is not, I think we all know, a "minimally decent Samaritan law" except in jest.
I will now present what I believe is the deepest answer to what the foregoing discussion has shown to be the gap between God's moral law as the expression of His character, and man's laws whose purpose is to regulate man-made society. This answer is ably introduced by Hans Jonas in an article on medical experimentation with human subjects from which the following excerpt is taken:
Society . . . cannot "afford" a single miscarriage of justice, a single Inequity in the dispensation of its laws, the violation of the rights of even the tiniest minority, because these undermine the moral basis on which society's existence rests. Nor can it, for a similar reason, afford the absence or atrophy in its midst of compassion and of the effort to alleviate suffering . . . society cannot afford the absence among its members of virtue with its readiness for sacrifice beyond diefined duty. Sinceitspresence... is a matter of grace and not of decree, we h'ave the paradox that society depends for its existence on intangibles of nothing less than a religious order, for which it can hope, but which it cannot enforce... We must, in other words, distinguish between moral obligation and the much larger sphere of moral value.. .The ethical dimension far exceeds that of the moral law and reaches into the sublime solitude of dedication and ultimate commitment, away from all reckoning and rule in short, into the sphere of the holy. From there alone can the offer of self-sacrifice genuinely spring, and this its source must be honored religiously.14
It is precisely "the sublime solitude of dedication and ultimate commitment, away from all reckoning and rule "which marks renewal in Christ. To give an example, once you are dedicated and ultimately committed to love your child, laws against abortion, infanticide or child abuse are superfluous as far as you are concerned. They are by far the lesser and your love by far the greater. These two relate to each other as do biological specifications to God's image and likeness in man: the former are comprehended in the latter, yet not in a lawless manner allowing randomness or license. He whose being is renewed in Christ and hence filled with the spirit of Calvary will be more zealous not to grieve the heart of God or neighbor even in the slightest than he who, like priest and Lev~e in the Good Samaritan story, as yet only keeps the letter of the law.
Lastly, Christ's words "Go and do thou likewise" are said to me for my own obedience first of all, rather than for my attempting to enforce someone else's obedience, I must pull the beam Out of my own eye before trying to pull splinters from someone else's. It is fallen man's first thought to minimize his own sin by pointing to the sins of others as though they excused him (cf. Genesis 3:12-131.1 believe the right to life movement would be acting in bad faith indeed if it did not comprise as it does extensive efforts to assist mothers in problem pregnancy Situations, to facilitate adoptions, or to promote the establishment of terminal care facilities (hospices). I further believe that God has given us the poor and the needy strangers by the roadside so He might transform us from priests and Levites (always our first stance as fallen men and women) into Good Samaritans restored in God-and Christlikeness. Hence also the "feeble" (the pre-born, handicapped, senile, comatose, etc.) are mere necessary to us all: our response to them the least "useful" among us the least able to "repay" is the ultimate measure of grace or Christlikeness enabling our society to exist and survive.
1 Robert Hunt and John Arras, editors, Ethical Issues in Modern Medicine. Palo Alto, CA: Mayfield Publishing Co., 1977, xi, 524 pp., index.
2 Ibid, p.132.
3 Ibid, p.133.
4 Ibid, p.137.
5 Ibid, p.138-139.
6 cf. editorial "A New Medical Ethic?" in California Medicine, official journal of the California Medical Association, September 1 970 issue.
7 Judith Jarvis Thomson, "A Defense of Abortion" in Hunt and Arras, op. cit., pp. 140-158, Professor Thomson compares childbearing to being kidnapped and then forced to lend the use of one's kidneys to an ailing violinist for nine months
8 Ibid, p.153.
10 Ibid, p.154.
12 Ibid. p.155.
14 Hans Jonas, "Philosophical Reflections on Experimenting with Humans" in Hunt and Arras, Op. cit. p.328, 332:333.