By J. Nelson-Seawright
Certain segments of the population are imagined to believe something like the following: Abortion is to be understood solely as an issue of women's control over their own bodies. An embryo or a fetus is not alive and so deserves no consideration. Because abortion is really morally neutral, the government should not have any role in deciding who can have an abortion and under what circumstances. It seems to me that both the position in question, as well as the stereotypical "pro-life" position imagined in opposition, is superficial and unhelpful.
American political rhetoric has frequently defined abortion debates around the question of when a fetus becomes "alive," i.e., when it attains the status of a "human being." The quotes in the previous sentence highlight what I see as the central problem with this framing of the discussion. What does "alive" mean, and what does "human being" mean?
These definitions do not involve some kind of neutral scientific issue. Instead, choosing a definition implies, and perhaps presupposes, a moral stance regarding abortion and other such issues. To argue that abortion is wrong because it involves killing a living human being is to make an assertion that will really be persuasive primarily to those who already believe that abortion is wrong.
Similarly, claiming that abortion is okay because a fetus isn't alive and therefore cannot really be killed is a circular argument that essentially entails accepting a pro-choice worldview as the precondition for assent. When we find such logical cycles, we may feel confident that we are adrift on a sea of unmitigated ideology. I dislike such seas, much preferring the more circumscribed and mappable lakes of scriptural interpretation, theology, and ethics.
In fact, much exegetical effort from multiple political perspectives notwithstanding, our canonical texts say very little about whether a fetus is alive, a human being, and so forth. Such concepts are really a secular imposition; they are simply not the way our textual tradition approaches such concerns. Instead, they are a product of the sentimentalized and ideologized contemporary American debate on the theme.
However, the scriptures do speak to the question of abortion, resolving the ethical issues in a powerful way by an appeal to a fundamentally different set of values than those usually invoked in our tired cycles of debate. Consider what I find to be the best version of the most relevant tradition from the teachings of Jesus, in Mark 10:13-16 (as opposed to parallel, but probably edited and in some ways softened, accounts in Matthew 19:13-15 and Luke 18:15-17).
People were bringing little children to Jesus in order that he might touch them, and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
The literary and social context of this narrative is essential to the understanding of it that, in my view, resolves issues surrounding abortion. First, the literary context. Virtually the entire body of chapter 10 of Mark is a collection of narratives in which Jesus subverts social hierarchies and rejects established power structures.
In the first narrative segment of the chapter, verses 1-12, Jesus addresses divorce, rejecting the existing traditional patriarchal right of the husband to divorce his wife and expel her from the household. After the account of the children quoted above, we find the famous story in which Jesus tells the rich man to give all his possessions to the poor and join the itinerant ministry to earn salvation -- an account that aligns blessedness with poverty and social marginality rather than with wealth and privilege, a sure challenge to existing structures of power.
The last major relevant narrative in the chapter is the story of John and James asking to sit at Jesus' right and left hands in the coming glory. Note especially the saying with which Jesus closes the discussion:
You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many (Mark 10: 42-45).