Remember to remember is a recurrent divine command. God wants us to remember the past in order to celebrate the good and learn to avoid evil. Equally recurrently, the children of Israel forgot to remember and the consequences were usually severe, including exile and slavery. Even with the Israelites serving as a warning, we have also forgotten to remember our history and we have been enslaved at home and in our minds! Who would have thought that pastors could be fined for quoting Scripture and that university students would be so biblically illiterate as to be unaware of who Cain was and what he did? But this is where we are in today’s culture. The modern demonic process is more subtle; we are being enslaved by a ruling elite who have no respect for their own history, as illustrated by Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton’s rant against religious objections to special rights for homosexuals. We are appalled by such cultural insensitivity, but we remain unable to respond effectively because the “enemy” has an outpost in our heads. To give two examples, we routinely put individual choice above community responsibility, physical facts above moral ones. The mantra of choice ought to have rung warning bells if we had remembered what happened to Israel when everyone did what was right in their own eyes. When CMDA asked me to write this essay, I received three articles on abortion law written 40 years ago by three scholars who had influenced my intellectual development: Professor Duncan Vere of the London Hospital Medical School in the United Kingdon, Carl Henry who was the driving force behind Christianity Today in its early years and Paul Ramsey from Princeton who was the doyen of Protestant thinkers on ethics. I am deeply in debt to all three, but especially to Paul Ramsey.
In all three papers, the shear gruesome horror of abortion is not a major feature; instead, they are coolly rational in their recognition and discussion of the huge implications of the legalization of abortion. Paul Ramsey was pessimistic about any real recovery. Old moral certainties were washed away in the 1960s and 1970s on a tide of ill-defined individual rights and an acceptance of values language with its incoherent subtext of moral relativism. Moral certitudes were considered nonsense during the heyday of logical positivism and those who did not go along were viewed as naïve or even bigoted. The intellectual elite enjoyed their libertine world, especially in its sexual expression which, thanks to “the pill,” no longer entailed the risk of children. The proponents of moral uncertainty seemed blind to their own certainty which they set out to impose on the rest of us. The good news is that after 50 years of unopposed triumph, moral relativism is in retreat. (Read Why Believe by John Cottingham for more information.)
The link between the pill and abortion was not understood except by Pope Paul VI1 who said that the problem with an effective contraceptive was that it would do three things: first, it would lead to a contraceptive mentality; secondly, it would lead to a general lowering of morality; and thirdly, it would lead to increased disrespect for women. Inevitably, he was ridiculed for obscurantism, male chauvinism, etc., but who can deny today that he was right and the progressive elite was wrong? So blind are our intellectual elite to their own errors that they march against violence on women without any sense of irony let alone guilt. The Roe v. Wade decision underlined the pope’s point. American women, said the court, have become used to an effective contraceptive but no contraceptive is always effective so there must be a backup. There is no need to labor the point that many abortions are second and third abortions and that abortion has gone from very rare to millions per year since the 1960s. None of these scholars expected the rampant increase of abortions, but it was early in the sexual revolution and they thought old moral norms would survive.
Post-World War II moral relativism is the swamp out of which it was inevitable that abortion rights would emerge. If everyone’s views of good and evil are equally valid, then who has the right to tell me I can’t do what I want as long as no one else is immediately injured? Sadly, most of the students I meet who come from good Bible-believing homes are utterly unable to begin demonstrating what is wrong with this concept. All three writers tacitly, rather than definitively, acknowledge the problem. Professor Vere, being a physician, sees the problem most practically as he struggles with the clash between public or institutional secular utilitarian ethics and traditional Christian ethics. He comforts himself by saying that the abortion law should rarely be needed! Nevertheless, he is worried by what he terms “the scant regard” for conscience rights in the new abortion legislation. Within a few short years, administrative directives regarding hiring effectively removed all senior pro-life Christian influences from obstetrics and gynecology in the U.K. Some softening of this barrier is just now beginning to emerge. President Obama intended to go down this path with his Freedom of Choice Act which providentially has been effectively rebuffed by the Catholic bishops, but as in the U.K., lower level administrative directives are having the same effect. Julie Cantor’s infamous editorial in the New England Journal is another example of pro-choice hubris. Her solution is that those who are opposed to abortion ought not to go into OB/Gyn. So only those who see nothing wrong with killing babies are appropriate. Maybe it would be easier if abortion were made a separate entity and those doing abortions could be separated from those caring for babies and their mothers. William Butler Yeats was prescient when he wrote; “The best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity.”2
In his article from 1971, Carl Henry writes about the logical progression from abortion on demand in the first trimester to infanticide and geriatricide. He implicitly picks up what has become a commonplace pro-choice argument. The problem is that everyone knows that it is wrong to do gratuitous harm to an innocent person, but that is exactly what abortion is! The solution has been to separate a human being, genetically described and beginning at fertilization, from a human person who is functionally described most commonly as someone who is capable of relationship. The problem of guilt over abortion is assuaged but it has logical progression entailed; it allows not only abortion but logically also infanticide (cf the Groningen Protocol) and geriatricide for the demented. I am waiting for this argument to be used to defend the murder of a drunken abusive husband!
Paul Ramsey makes the most cogent case for the imminent threat to rights of conscience. In his 1974 article, he prophesied correctly thus; “In short, professional judgment or conscience contrary to abortion will be squeezed out. The medical and nursing profession will be reshaped to conformity.”
Ramsey was doubtful that individual conscience rights would survive the institutional ethos it opposed. His fears have been justified. None of these writers make the helpful distinction between conscience as moral thought and conscience as moral feeling. Our moral feelings are unreliable, but when we sit down and think problems through, the results are usually solid. Professor J. Budziszewski has discussed this point very effectively in his book, What We Can’t Not Know. This book is a “must read” for serious Christian physicians and anyone who wants to make the church more effective in the public square.
The history of the havoc wrought by abortion since these papers were written is well known, but we still need to mull over what we do. Ramsey is, in my mind, right when he questions the capacity of a minority opinion to survive in an antagonistic environment. It is for this reason that we need to adopt the Catholic position known as subsidiarity. We are now in a situation where the bureaucracy is firmly secular without any admission that secularism is a belief system. Its ethics are not compatible with orthodox Christian ethics. They are purely utilitarian and rationalist in the post enlightenment sense. Traditional ethics are treated as solely personal positions without standing in the public square. As Christians, we have not been teaching our own history properly for a long while and hence we don’t ask the right questions. Here are some of the key questions: Is transcendence necessary for moral activity? If someone has no fear of judgment after death, does that rationally make him more or less trustworthy? Is medicine primarily a technical profession or a moral one? Patients do not have to take your advice; thus, your duty is to help them to do what they ought to do. Ought is a moral act, not a scientific word. Do you wish to be cared for by a physician with or without moral integrity? Everyone answers “yes” to this question, but we differ on what moral integrity actually is. As a matter of justice and democracy, do we not then need institutions that represent the dominant ethical positions of the population? Does it not also follow that funding must be distributed to all institutions in proportion to their population distributions? This is the essence of subsidiarity, finding the level of organization where ethical coherence is possible. This would dramatically reduce the power of central government and allow the different systems to compete as they did in the time of Hippocrates.
For further reading:
– Why Believe by John Cottingham (Continuum Press, 2009)
– What We Can’t Not Know by J. Budziszewski (Ignatius Press, 2011)
– The Hand of God by Bernard Nathanson (Regnery, 1996)
1 Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, 1968.
2 “The Second Coming.” William Butler Yeats, 1919.