David P. Gushee is distinguished university professor of Christian ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University and author of The Sacredness of Human Life: Why an Ancient Biblical Vision Is Key to the World’s Future.
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We have been shouting about abortion in this country for over 40 years now, but it feels like it’s been a long time since we actually talked to each other about it. Our politicians do plenty of posturing and sound biting; our grassroots movements do plenty of marching and sign-waving — but we rarely have any kind of real conversation beyond that. And we never seem to say anything new.
Just because it seems so impossible, I want to try to say something new about abortion. I will have succeeded if you put your coffee down at some point thinking that you never really heard it put that way before.
The first new thing I will say is that though I am a Christian, I will make no explicit reference to my Christian faith in this article. Our culture’s pluralism has reached the point where explicitly Christian moral arguments made in public often do more harm than good. I will try abstinence.
Most of us would accept the claim that death is an enemy — perhaps the ultimate enemy — of human life. We do everything we can to delay and prevent death, as a visit to any hospital indicates. Human existence has always been dominated by the struggle for life amidst those forces hostile to it.
This shared effort to prevent death sits at the core of the social contract that binds us together, as John Locke understood. We band together in society and form governments to protect ourselves from forces and from people that would harm us. Governments have no greater responsibility than to create and enforce a structure of laws and defenses to protect our lives.
So protecting life is what governments do. It is also what any reasonably decent moral belief system does. Such moral paradigms encourage their adherents to live so that their actions advance human life and human well being, and forestall harm to others as well. This is most profoundly and demandingly stated in the human dignity and neighbor-love teachings of various religions and philosophies.
A properly holistic moral vision takes seriously all significant threats to human survival, human well being, and human flourishing. Such threats ought to matter to all of us. And there are an awful lot of these threats, for a variety of reasons, including the tragedy and selfishness we find inherent to the human condition.
Many thoughtful Americans seek to address threats to human survival, well-being, and flourishing in areas that concern them. Personally, I have been drawn into the movements to resist such threats as torture, war, and environmental degradation.
I have also, however, resisted abortion. That may seem unexpected, because the foregoing list of issues sounds “liberal,” whereas abortion sounds “conservative.” But this labeling is an accident of history. It has little to do with the intrinsic nature of the issues involved; e.g., “conserving” a vulnerable environment could equally well be seen as a conservative cause. Our political labels are often nonsensical.
It may help to remember that even in the US political setting there have been “liberals” who have resisted abortion. Jesse Jackson once opposed abortion, as did Al Gore, as does Nat Hentoff of the Village Voice. As good “liberals” they opposed abortion because they saw it as the victimization of the vulnerable.
They understood (then) that routine cultural resort to abortion is just somehow wrong.
And in the forty years since Roe v. Wade, resort to abortion has indeed become all too routine. Each year in the United States, approximately 1.2 million abortions are performed, currently amounting to just over one out of every five pregnancies. Neither our political nor our moral philosophies can find anything to celebrate in this.
Read part two of David P. Gushee’s article.
Click to read David Gushee’s EerdWord post “After Newtown: Protecting the Sacredness of Human Life” or to order The Sacredness of Human Life.
An earlier version of this article was published January 16, 2012 at ABPnews.com.