Abortion & the Because of Christian Ethics

This post is about abortion and the “because” of Christian ethics.

But we will begin with what I call “The Sex Talk Contradiction.”

In Christian youth group, here was my sex education: “As a Christian you shouldn’t have sex before marriage.” Why not?  “Because it’s emotionally damaging, you could get an STD, and/or knock up some fellow teenager.”

And if you look closely you will see the “Because” of Christian ethics. The reasons for why I shouldn’t have sex has absolutely nothing to do with being a Christian. This my friends, is a logical fallacy we call “Non-Sequitur.” But it’s an effective fallacy and youth leaders are no fools. They know that reasons that are based solely on my faith are not going to be convincing but reasons that have very practical and emotional implications are. But they want to make it explicitly Christian as well, even if the most convincing reasons have nothing to do with Christianity. So I grew up saying that I wasn’t going to have sex because I was a Christian but really it was because I was terrified of being a 15 year old baby daddy.

Now that I have cut our teeth on a harmless example, let’s move this logic party into “issues that cause wailing and gnashing of teeth,” like abortion.

If I ask, “Why do you oppose abortion?” you might answer, “Because I believe God has uniquely created every human being and the Bible affirms that they are to be valued, even in the womb.”* So then I might say, “So, the reason you oppose abortion is because you are a Christian who reads the Bible in this way?” And you, feeling very proud that you get to stand up for your religious conviction will proclaim, “Yes! Absolutely.”

But when you say that, you must also be willing to say that unless you are a Christian who reads the Bible in my way, then your reason for being pro-life makes no sense. That is, you must allow people who are not Christians to say, “Yeah, well, I don’t believe in God, so that’s why I am pro-choice.”

If you come back and say, “Well, what about the emotional and psychological effects of abortion on the mother?”

Remember the “Sex Talk Contradiction”? You’ve just changed the foundation. The reason you just gave has nothing to do with your Christian reasons for being pro-life. So by changing the conversation from “because I am a Christian” to “because of the safety of the mother,” you must either commit a logical fallacy or you must admit that such a reason is not “because you are a Christian.”

What’s the point? The point is this: Christians can’t have their cake and eat it too. If you want to base your ethics on your religious conviction then you shouldn’t be surprised or morally self-righteous when people who do not share your religious conviction come to a different conclusion about ethical issues. Yes, it is “killing a human being to you,” but that’s because your religion informs what you mean by “human being.”

If you are pro-life because you are a Christian then you must give Christian reasons why you are pro-life. And you have to be willing to admit that people who are not Christians are simply not going to see it your way. And so, Christians are missing the point. If you want someone to come to your ethical conclusions, you do not start with ethical issues. You must first convince them to become Christians. Otherwise, your ethical conclusions make no sense.

And for goodness sake, both sides need to quit acting like people are either idiots or evil if they disagree with you about abortion. There probably are some idiots and some evil people on both sides (I would argue we are all idiots and all evil in our own way). But most people are not. They simply do not accept your assumptions about God, the world, and what it means to be human. So why would they come to the same conclusions?

As always, these are always thoughts-in-process. So this is a sincere invitation: what do you think?


*I recognize that this does not address the nuanced issue of being “personally” pro-life but “politically” pro-choice or even the possibility of Christians who affirm abortion. That would take too much boring philosophy-speak to wade through.

13 responses to “Abortion & the Because of Christian Ethics

  1. From what I am understanding of this I would have to disagree a bit. I have the understanding that it is okay to have a foundation in faith yet, I think it is also okay if we have other reasons why we believe in something being wrong. Part of it, I think has to do with this. I tell my kids something is wrong. They should listen and trust me. However, to grow into adults they need to understand the “why”. I think sometimes these “other” reasons are in trying to understand why. I do think “the emotional and psychological effects of abortion on the mother?” is directly related to the taking of a life. The guilt and pain that go with it. So therefore, I think it compliments the initial “faith” argument.

    • I agree that it’s okay to have “other reasons,” my point is just that you can’t say the reason you are against abortion is because you’re a Christian and then give non-Christian reasons to support your position. It feels like bad argumentation and a little disingenuous.

      And I agree that in the case of the “effects on the mother” our faith is still involved because of our ethic of care.

  2. I have typically taken a different approach to these issues. Our society is typically consequentialist in view of ethics. Although no one likes to admit it, American society is extremely in favor of Mill and his idea of letting people do what they want as long as they are not hurting people. As a mainstream Christian, which I am not, the view of almost all ethics is deontological.

    Entering into a debate as someone who treats ethics like it is a duty creates the mire of “how do you know” and “what is your authority”. It also brings tons of critiques about social pressure and cultural relativism. So we bridge the gap and meet them on their turf, which is typically a Christian thing to do. Especially if we believe the world is designed to reflect God’s morality, then it should not be a problem. You don’t have pre-marital sex because it is wrong, but we can tell our kids that it is an extremely powerful thing that can really mess us up or the people around us. They may find exceptions to the rule, but then teach your kids that they aren’t special (even if they are, as I am guessing Jared and Sarah’s chilren will be).

    Our ethics are therefore based on our Christianity, but we can meet people who don’t hold our views based on the consequences since we have faith that our morality was created in our interest. If they ask us why we care, it is because we are Christian. Why are we against abortion? Because innocent people needing to be protected is at the heart of our legal system, and until someone can find a non-arbitrary and consistent way to decide at which point in development an embryo should be considered a person then I want to make sure that we are protecting a certain group of people who cannot protect themselves.

    Being told our ethics aren’t allowed strictly because we are Christian is ad hominem circumstantial. Our love comes from our Christianity, but our ethics can come from reason.

    • I am definitely with you on the con/deon split. But I am a little confused by what you’re suggesting by saying we can “meet people who don’t hold our views based on the consequences since we have faith that our morality was created in our interest.” I think I like it but it’s a bit cryptic. Can you explain more?

      Also, you say “innocent people needing to be protected is at the heart of our legal system” but I think that’s exactly the point. It is, in my mind, only a religious conviction that allows us to define “person” in a way that applies to the unborn. Without such a belief, a more consistent ethic based on evolution would end up with something like Peter Singer has developed with his preference Utilitarianism.

      What do you think? I think Austin needs to jump into this conversation at some point. . .

      • 1. We argue that murder is wrong because we believe that it is morally wrong in the deon sense. By “we” i mean those Christians who are deons and believe murder i wrong. However, if someone said “I dont care about your christianity, so up yours”, I would say “ok, well a society in which people were allowed to kill each other for any other purpose than self defense would be a society in complete chaos”. I am comfortable arguing like that because I believe that God has created a world that reflects his moral law. I think arguing solely based on consequences is inadequate, but I am willing to do it for the sake of jumping into their framework instead of trying to force them into mine

        2. I disagree that religious conviction is the only way to define the unborn as a person. Our legal system defines a person as a member of our species, and unborn children are still members of our species. I do not agree that every stance of mainstream Christianity can be translated into a secular argument. If you had spoken of gay marriage, conservative politcs, creationism in school, or anything else I would have agreed that Christians really cant jump into the argument if they keep their “Christian” hats on. You just happened to pick the one example that I think one can be pro-life and be a moral anti-realist.

        I think it goes without saying that I use the term Christian extremely lightly, and in no way am implying that a Christian has to have any set of political beliefs resembling mine in order to be a Christian.

  3. I think you have a point, Jared. But I want say that there is a difference between expecting another to have a different set of ethics (which should lead to a more nuanced sense of expectation, which often do not) and expecting the other to follow your ethics because you believe that your ethics is a right one (which philosophically is very viable, but just becomes practically ugly). That is, I think this post has the undertone of postmodernism, it bypasses the deeper question of: Is there a right or wrong to the issue of abortion? If ethics, here, is one of many perspectives that could be right, then you are right. Christians should just stop arguing. But I want to say that deeper is unearthed the right and wrong of each ethic, and if one side does assume the other ethic is wrong, then isn’t it natural to expect them to abide by the ethic they think is exclusively correct?

    Of course, I think the problem with the abortion issue is demonization of the other side and generalizations of cases that should be looked at case-to-case, especially when one is discussing the right and wrong of each case. I don’t think there is an overarching rule. Life is rather messy. I think Christians often use ‘abortion-talk’ as a guard from actually entering into the messiness of each case. Another way we cheapen grace by arms-length ‘ethics’.

    Thanks for the post.

  4. I’m fairly confident that I’d be against fetecide even if I wasn’t a believer. Biology seems pretty clear that a fetus is as much a living human as an infant is. My primary objection to feticide is the same as my objection to infanticide.
    Having said that, it’s worth noting that the western concept of human rights is heavily indebted to the concept of imago dei, even if many who are against infanticide are not believers.

    • I agree, but I am not sure biology has any say in the matter. What Biology cannot answer is: why value the preferences of a being who is not self-aware or conscious of future or past over the preference of a being who is both self-aware and conscious of the future and the past?

      This is not a question of biology but about the assumptions we make with the evidence biology presents. The relevant question is not “Is a fetus a human being?” but “Why are human beings intrinsically valuable?” If you are asking the first question, you are already assuming a religious framework to answer the latter. Ethicist Peter Singer makes the point that privileging the human species over other species is equivalent to racism. As you say, the privileging of the human race is rooted in the imago dei. And many ethicists, including Singer, would argue that any non-religious person who privileges humans in their ethical theory is doing so inconsistently.

      What do you think? I could be missing something.

      • What Biology cannot answer is: why value the preferences of a being who is not self-aware or conscious of future or past over the preference of a being who is both self-aware and conscious of the future and the past?

        That’s true – the old Is/Ought problem that philosophical naturalist face in trying to get moral and ethical prescriptions from nature.
        But I think that most people in the west have already assumed the value of human beings, that human rights exist etc, even if they’ve abandoned the Christian worldview that these are indebted to. While I do think they are kind of moral “skyhooks” for many people, most non-believers would never-the-less find Singer’s ideas abhorent.

        I think that if a non-believer already holds that human beings are intrinsically valuable with inalienable rights, I don’t need to show that the Christian worldview accounts for this in a way that Atheism can’t. I can take that agreement as a starting point.

        The pro-abortion lobby has done a very good job at convincing people that a foetus is not a human being, but biology says that this is simply false – a foetus is a living human being, and if someone has already agreed that human beings have certain rights (like life) then it’s not a religious issue. Of course, for many, other issues will arise, like the goal-shifting of talking about “persons” rather than human beings, or for Singerites, utilitarian views, but for most people, that won’t come up.

  5. I have a question Jared, why do you separate the logical reasons away from being Christian? I personally hate it when someone simply does something “because they are Christian.” To me it shows a lack of critical thinking into scripture, I would like to believe that our God has a reason behind his guidance given to us in the good ole book. Abstinence is another great example. I would say “I choose abstinence because God has instructed me to do so, and I assume he has done so because: the divorce rate among abstinent couples hovers around 3% instead of 50-60%, physical relationships often lead to undesired pregnancies and std’s, and it stunts as well as distracts from the proper development of the emotional and spiritual relationship.”

    I was able to state that I perform”x” because I am a Christian and introduce the potential thought process that God may have had in mind when he gave it to us. I think it is actually very easyb to introduce logic, in some places, to the bible.

  6. Jared – I think you’ve created a bit of a false dilemma when you say suggest that we cannot change the foundation of an argument. You presuppose that an argument can have only a single foundation.

    I happen to think that killing your next door neighbor on a whim is wrong. I have lots of reasons for believing this, some of them based on christian ethics, and others based on ethics that most humanists would accept. There is nothing wrong with this, and neither is there anything wrong with legislating a ban on homicide. If I articulate any particular argument on the matter it does not mean that I’m either somehow compromising on my christian integrity, or that I’m trying to impose purely religious preferences on others. I also am under no obligation when speaking on a topic to give an exhaustive list of everything I believe about it, which means I can bring up additional arguments when they are useful and not start out with a 3 hour opening statement anytime I talk about something.

    I do agree that it is wrong to impose christian morality on others in the general case, but when I think about what it is that makes homicide wrong, I can’t see how I can really distinguish conceptually between an adult and a fetus. I see this as a human rights issue that is perfectly fair ground for political debate as a result.

    I do appreciate aspects of what you’re getting at, however, and that all too often our stated reasons for doing something aren’t always the ones that truly motivate us.

  7. I said that because I just think that a woman should have the right to control her body, even if she is still in her mother’s womb…..

    who agrees?????…..

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