Souls, Life, and Abortion

There is a wonderful articulation of a serious and balanced pro-life position in Jonah Goldberg’s most recent piece in the National Review Online, “Life Matters“. He says up front that there is much he does not know about the soul, its relationship to life, and what we mean by it in the case of a recently-fertilized egg. He also acknowledges that, if one is talking about consciousness, then life does not begin at conception. He thus has no passionate feelings about “Plan B” and other methods of terminating a pregnancy within a few hours or days of conception, but does feel strongly about other issues like partial-birth abortion.

I think there is on this topic, like so many others, room for an alliance in the middle between those who reject both extremes. There are many people who are pro-choice only in the sense that they object to abortion personally on religious grounds, but do not feel it is appropriate to legislate for others on the basis of those religious views. There are some who are pro-choice because, although they regard abortion as an evil, they also acknowledge that there may be instances in which it is the lesser of two or more evils. And there are those who are pro-life in the sense that they object strongly to procedures that would end the life of a healthy baby in the advanced stages of development because this is convenient, without having similarly strong opposition to ending a pregnancy in a period in which most pregnancies spontaneously cease anyway.

Anyone who has suffered a miscarriage even in early stages of pregnancy knows that there is a sense of loss. Very few who make arguments about life beginning at conception would be opposed to a D&C; being performed in the case of a molar pregnancy, in which clearly an egg has been fertilized, but no baby will every develop from it.

Perhaps the reason there is such passionate debate about this issue is our desire to bring clarity to a foggy domain. The problem, as Goldberg points out, is that it seems easy to give answers about a newly-fertilized ovum and a baby about to be born, but the development that takes place continuously in between makes it hard to figure out where to draw the line. But the result is that both sides may end up pushing the line so far one way or the other in a desire to counter the apparent unreasonableness of their opponents that more harm is done to the living – and by this I do not mean just the baby – than either side would approve of in another situation.

This is a tough issue, with a lot of uncertainty, but most people agree that there are distinctions to be made, even if they aren’t sure where to make them. Turning to the Bible for answers not only doesn’t resolve the issue (since it has little to say on the subject that is clear, apart from in Numbers 5:11-31, where abortion seems to be mandated) , it shouldn’t resolve the issue. We know far more about human development in the womb than any Biblical author could have.

The terrain is continuous. Many wish to stake out a position in the middle. If we are to do so, we must draw our own lines. How do we decide where to draw them?

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