Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Why can't we talk about this?

I'm feeling a certain amount of peer pressure here to ramp up the politicalness of the blog, so here goes. I have heard rumors that Christians are not necessarily far right delusional puritans, that there are actually liberal Christians out there who believe that life on earth evolved over billions of years, aren't waiting for the rapture, marry gay people and think that the question of when human life begins is essentially imponderable and support women's right to control their own bodies and reproduction.

Okay, folks, if you're out there, how about sticking your heads out of the foxhole long enough for us to hear a peep out of you? If there's dialogue or debate within Christendom, we sure aren't hearing it. Where are your radio and TV shows, your books, your press conferences, your candidate forums? Why is there only one definition of Christian belief known to political discourse?

Let me get specific here. Warren asked, "When does life begin?" McCain said, "At the moment of conception," and got applause. Obama said it was above his pay grade, and left it at that. But nobody, as far as I can tell, no politician, no commentator, no pastor, no theologian, ever publicly debates this issue. I'm not asking Barack Obama to do it, but here's what I would have said.

In the first place, why do you think that it's somehow a Christian belief that "human life begins at the moment of conception?" You certainly don't get that from Christ -- there is not one word about abortion anywhere in the Bible, New Testament or Old, no definition of human life, and no reference to the sanctity of fetuses or even, for that matter, the sanctity of human life in any form. God commands the Hebrews, at multiple times and in multiple books of the Old Testament, to kill people under various circumstances, including innocent people who happen to be in their way.

Christians didn't start to argue that abortion was even sinful, let alone tantamount to murder, until the late 19th Century. So how did they make this discovery? Do you believe that it suddenly occurred to God that he'd forgotten to mention it while he happened to be incarnated almost two millennia earlier, so he quickly provided the Pope and some Evangelical preachers with a new revelation? Or, if it's merely a conclusion you come to based on your overall understanding of ethics, then why aren't other people free to come to different conclusions?

Now let's consider the consequences if you really mean what you say, that a zygote, a single cell, is the moral equivalent of a breathing, feeling, suckling and squealing human child. In the first place, Almight God is by far, by many orders of magnitude, the most prolific abortionist, and therefore murderer, who has ever existed or ever could exist. Approximately 2/3 of all zygotes never become babies, not because the mother has an abortion, but because they fail to implant in the womb in the first place or are miscarried shortly thereafter; in most of these cases, the woman never even knew that conception had occurred. (Whether or not she was even "pregnant" is a semantic quibble.)

Now, you can decide that God is off the hook for this, that God cannot be held morally responsible for the depredations of nature, and of course you have to believe this or God is a murderer thanks to pestilence, famine, hurricane and earthquake. But then you also have to conclude that humans are as morally responsible for trying to stop it as they are for saving their neighbors from every other form of disaster, which is to say that this is by far, by orders of magnitude, the most profound public health problem that we confront, in terms of total deaths and Quality Adjusted Life Years Lost. Therefore, NIH should redirect all of its resources away from cancer and heart disease and HIV and everything else it's studying and launch a massive project to solve the holocaust of non-implantation of the blastocyst. If you believe that human life begins at conception, and you don't believe that, you are a hypocrite and you don't really care about saving babies after all.

How about a common sense answer to the question of what constitutes human life, which is that it's not the possession of two sets of human chromosomes, rather it's human consciousness? We aren't sure when that first appears but it cannot be until the development of the cerebral cortex fairly late in pregnancy. If human self awareness is also essential to our humanity, that does not appear until some time in infancy. We acquire our moral status as humans gradually, not in a mystical instant but through a process that continues to unfold throughout our lives. While I agree with Barack Obama that defining when human life begins is above my pay grade, it surely does not pertain to a microscopic ball of cells or even a two inch embryo.

I'm going to give Pastor Warren, at least, some credit. Unlike most of his allies among the "Christian" leadership, he at least purports to care about the millions of born, living, breathing, feeling children who suffer and die around the world every year. But is he really serious about this "life begins at conception" nonsense? Of course not. It isn't about human life, it's about sex. It's about the repression of sexuality and the oppression of women. "Life" has nothing to do with it.

Now why can't somebody with a public platform stand up and say that? There isn't any debate about it, we're just supposed to say, well, people have different beliefs. But in fact, one set of beliefs makes sense, and the other makes no sense at all. Let's have this out, and let's have some Christians who aren't too cowardly to stand up and say so.

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