The Lincolnian View of Abortion – Part 1

Once upon a time, I did an ethics paper on “The Lincolnian View of Abortion.” I took all of the Lincoln-Douglas, and simply substituted the word “abortion” for the word “slavery.” With minimal editing, the Lincoln-Douglas debates could be a debate on abortion today. Here’s the third in a series of conversations I’m having with another Family Physician about the issue of abortion.

About the issue of abortion, my friend wrote:

Essentially, defining the start of life is a religious belief, and Christians can have very different opinions.  As there are a wide variety of beliefs on the subject, beliefs with equally strong (or weak) Biblical and scientific bases, it is wrong for one Christian group to forcefully impose its beliefs on others.

Indeed, it’s easier and more comfortable to settle into absolutes. But that doesn’t make the absolutes correct for the beginning of life any more than they are correct for the end of life.

So a man like Obama can, in good conscience and good faith, allow for legalized abortion, even if he personally believes that they are wrong.  He understands that life is a slippery slope, and that neither he nor anyone else is in a position to judge those whose beliefs are different from his.  None of us have a monopoly on understanding the greater Truth, and to claim absolute knowledge of God and God’s will is to reduce God to something smaller than the human mind.

From a practical point of view, abortions will always take place. If illegal, women will still have abortions, and always have.  Archaeologists find evidence of abortifacients in ancient civilizations, and they are ubiquitous across civilizations.

What is needed instead – and this is Obama’s stance – is to “remove the occasion” for abortion:  to prevent unplanned and unwanted pregnancies.

If I take my friend’s words, with minor editing (indicated in parenthesis), then I find he can support “slavery” with the same logic with which he supports “abortion.”

Essentially, (the rightness or wrongness of slavery) is a religious belief, and Christians can have very different opinions.  As there are a wide variety of beliefs on the subject, beliefs with equally strong (or weak) Biblical and scientific bases, it is wrong for one Christian group to forcefully impose its beliefs on others.

Indeed, it’s easier and more comfortable to settle into absolutes. But that doesn’t make the absolutes correct for (opposing slavery) any more than they are correct for the end of life.

So a man like (the President) can, in good conscience and good faith, allow for legalized (slavery), even if he personally believes that they are wrong. He understands that life is a slippery slope, and that neither he nor anyone else is in a position to judge those whose beliefs (about slavery) are different from his.

None of us have a monopoly on understanding the greater Truth, and to claim absolute knowledge of God and God’s will is to reduce God to something smaller than the human mind.

From a practical point of view, (slavery) will always take place. If illegal, (people will still find ways to have slaves), and always have. Archaeologists find evidence of (slavery) in ancient civilizations, and (slavery is) ubiquitous across civilizations.

I am not arguing that legalizing (slavery won’t) increase the number (of slaves), only that illegalizing (slavery) will not prevent (slavery) from occurring. What is needed instead – and this is (the President’s) stance – is to “remove the occasion” for (slavery).

The bottom line for the support of slavery was that the slave was not a person – and, therefore, did not have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

In my way of thinking, this is the root argument against abortion. If the unborn child, from conception forward, is a person (and I believe he or she is), the we have no right to end his or her life. And, if we do, in virtually every case, it’s murder.

You can read a deeply moving article, On Abortion: A Lincolnian Position. It’s by George McKenna and was published in the Atlantic Magazine in September 1995.

McKenna writes:

In this debate I have made my own position clear. It is a pro-life position (though it may not please all pro-lifers), and its model is Lincoln’s position on slavery from 1854 until well into the Civil War: tolerate, restrict, discourage. Like Lincoln’s, its touchstone is the common good of the nation, not the sovereign self. Like Lincoln’s position, it accepts the legality but not the moral legitimacy of the institution that it seeks to contain. It invites argument and negotiation; it is a gambit, not a gauntlet.

He writes this, under the heading, “A Lincolnian Position on Abortion:”

I suggested that we can find in Lincoln’s anti-slavery rhetoric a coherent position that could serve as a model for pro-life politicians today. How would this rhetoric sound? Perhaps the best way to answer this is to provide a sample of what might be said by a politician devoted to a cause but no less devoted to building broad support for it. With the reader’s indulgence, then, I will play that politician, making the following campaign statement:

According to the Supreme Court, the right to choose abortion is legally protected.

That does not change the fact that abortion is morally wrong. It violates the very first of the inalienable rights guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence—the right to life.

Even many who would protect and extend the right to choose abortion admit that abortion is wrong, and that killing 1.5 million unborn children a year is, in the understated words of one, `a bad thing.’ Yet, illogically, they denounce all attempts to restrain it or even to speak out against it.

In this campaign I will speak out against it. I will say what is in all our hearts: that abortion is an evil that needs to be restricted and discouraged.

If elected, I will not try to abolish an institution that the Supreme Court has ruled to be constitutionally protected, but I will do everything in my power to arrest its further spread and place it where the public can rest in the belief that it is becoming increasingly rare.

I take very seriously the imperative, often expressed by abortion supporters, that abortion should be rare. Therefore, if I am elected, I will seek to end all public subsidies for abortion, for abortion advocacy, and for experiments on aborted children.

I will support all reasonable abortion restrictions that pass muster with the Supreme Court, and I will encourage those who provide alternatives to abortion.

Above all, I mean to treat it as a wrong. I will use the forum provided by my office to speak out against abortion and related practices, such as euthanasia, that violate or undermine the most fundamental of the rights enshrined in this nation’s founding charter.

The position on abortion I have sketched—permit, restrict, discourage—is unequivocally pro-life even as it is effectively pro-choice.

It does not say “I am personally opposed to abortion”; it says abortion is evil.

Yet in its own way it is pro-choice.

First, it does not demand an immediate end to abortion. To extend Lincoln’s oncological trope: it concludes that all those who oppose abortion can do right now is to contain the cancer, keep it from metastasizing. It thus acknowledges the present legal status of “choice” even as it urges Americans to choose life.

Second, by supporting the quest for alternatives to abortion, it widens the range of choices available to women in crisis pregnancies. Studies of women who have had abortions show that many did not really make an informed “choice” but were confused and ill-informed at the time, and regretful later. If even some of those reports are true, they make a case for re-examining the range of choices actually available to women.

Brilliant.

Here are some other of my blogs on this issue:

  1. The word “abortion” is NOT in the Bible. So, how can you be against it?
  2. Since an unborn child cannot live independent of its mother, is it life?
  3. Study: Abortion Has More Negative Parenting Impact Than Other Pregnancy Loss

4 thoughts on “The Lincolnian View of Abortion – Part 1

  1. Dr. Walt Post author

    Here’s a response to my comments above by the doctor who is quoted:

    This really isn’t a good comparison. Either slaves were people, or they weren’t – a dilemma our founding fathers couldn’t agree on.

    They came up with the 3/5 compromise, because everyone knew they were people, but slave owners wouldn’t admit that slave ownership was immoral.

    (By the way, you know as well as I do that you can make a pretty good Biblical case for slavery.)

    The issue of abortion isn’t whether a fetus is a person – it’s when the products of conception become a sentient being. It’s a very different question.

    We don’t think of a slave becoming a person at some age, and I can’t think of any time that slaves were considered to change in their status of humanness by getting older.

    This is not true for the fetus: while you may think of the fetus as a person from conception, a large portion of the world does not, considering life to begin at some later time in pregnancy.

    The traditional theology of Islam, for example, teaches that the soul enters the fetus at four month’s gestation.

    You can insert “slavery” into my previous text. You could also insert “eating animals”, making a Lincolnian argument for vegetarianism. After all, the Buddhists teach that all animals are sentient beings like us. (Incidentally, I’m a vegetarian.) The fact that you can draw an analogy between slavery and abortion does not make it a valid analogy.

    So we come back to the original issue, and again, Christians have only their individual beliefs, their individual encounters with the Divine, to guide their consciences on this question.

    A Physician from Viroqua, WI

  2. Dr. Walt Post author

    Indeed, David . . . you’ve touched on what I believe to be the core issue when it comes to all ethical issues surrounding the unborn child . . . whether that child is a person or not.

    And, I think slavery and abortion is a magnificient comparison. You say, “Either slaves were people, or they weren’t.” I say, “Either the unborn child is a person, or he or she is not.”

    I think it was Ronald Reagan who said, “”Abraham Lincoln recognized that we could not survive as a free land when some men could decide that others were not fit to be free and should therefore be slaves. Likewise, we cannot survive as a free nation when some men decide that others are not fit to live and should be abandoned to abortion or infanticide.”

    And, for me, the ethically safest position is that the unborn human being is both a person and a sentient being from conception.

    Drawing the line after that point, whether conception, third trimester, birth, or three years of age, become pretty darn gray . . . and, as I’ve discussed in previous posts, arguments in defense of each of these gray lines can (and, I believe will) invariably be used in the aged, they young, and eventually all (at least those without power).

    As you’ve said, many, perhaps most, on this list will have a variety of positions on this topic. But, to me, tie goes to life.

    Hope others will comment.

    Dr. Walt

  3. Dr. Walt Post author

    David responded to the above in a personal email:

    Walt, you wrote, “And, I (Walt) think slavery and abortion is a magnificient comparison. You (David) say, ‘Either slaves were people, or they weren’t.’ I (Walt) say, ‘Either the unborn child is a person, or he or she is not.'”

    The difference is, perhaps the traditional Muslim teaching is right, and a fetus becomes a person at the start of the second trimester. Or perhaps the midaeval Catholic view was right, that the fetus becomes a person at the time of quickening (the tradition of “delayed ensoulment”).

    But once born, a slave is the same human being. He has already become that human being.

    You would likely not extend all rights to a person who is already dead. But you extend them to a person who is not yet a person, if one of the other scenarios that you call “pretty darn grey” is true.

    You claim to side with life, and so do I – but we may define the start of life differently.

    Well, why not just play it safe?

    Why not assume life begins at conception, so that we don’t take any chances?

    That’s a great position for us to take with other people’s lives. And if the life of the mother will be ruined by the pregnancy? Then it does matter whether ending the pregnancy is removing inanimate tissue, or killing a sentient being.

    If it is the latter, then I agree that ending the pregnancy is generally morally repugnant.

    If it is the former, you can do great damage by imposing your definition of life on others.

    Which of us is qualified to be the judge of something that cannot be defined by science, or by any consensus on either religious or ethical grounds?

    I hear people making arguments against abortion in that they themselves were unintended pregnancies. Well, I wouldn’t be here if my parents had practiced a more aggressive form of birth control, even if that were abstinence.

    There are a number of children who are not in this world because my daughters did not become sexually active at menarche (to the best of my knowledge). Who are we to prevent those potential lives from coming into this world, those lives that will never be?

    Walt, like it or not, we live on a slippery slope.

    There is no moral superiority to those who claim one point or another as the start of life. It comes back to the fact that we cannot define the start of life by any means other than by our beliefs. And none of us has the right to impose our religion on others – I think you will agree with that. They tried that during the Spanish Inquisition, and it didn’t work very well. As the saying goes, “If I wanted to live in a theocracy, I’d move to Iran.”

    So, is it possible for you to respect another’s faith when it goes against some of your deepest beliefs?

    This is a difficult discussion, because to have it honestly, I have to really listen to those with whom I disagree, to confront my own biases, and to check my facts. I really appreciate the fact that we can have it.

    Respectfully, Dave

  4. Dr. Walt Post author

    Dave,

    You say, “Why not assume life begins at conception, so that we don’t take any chances? That’s a great position for us to take with other people’s lives. And if the life of the mother will be ruined by the pregnancy?”

    I’d ask, “Whose life is more ruined? The pregnant mother’s? Or, the unborn child’s? In the latter case, the ‘ruining’ is death. An unexpected pregnancy is, well, unexpected . . . perhaps, unwanted . . . but not a death sentence. But, does a ‘ruined’ life morally trump taking another’s life?”

    You ask, “Which of us is qualified to be the judge of something that cannot be defined by science, or by any consensus on either religious or ethical grounds?”

    I guess I’d disagree with these contentions.

    David, it is defined by science. It being the definition of the beginning of human life as occuring at conception.

    David, it is defined by consensus. It being the issue of unlimited abortion. Recent poles show that a majority of Americans across the political spectrum do not support an unlimited abortion license.

    And, we’ve already discussed the fact of being sentient (or larger, or dependent, or more developed, etc.) doesn’t (and, shouldn’t) define personhood.

    And, if we were talking about your life as an unborn child, would you want someone to have the right to end you life because your existence would be inconvenient to them? If that someone was not 100% sure you were not human, shouldn’t the benefit of doubt go to your life?

    Remember, the slavery issue was, at its roots, a debate of whether the slave was a person or not. Many (perhaps most) who argued for slavery, argued the slave (in general, and the African slave, in particular, or even, just the black African) was not a person.

    Don’t forget, that Darwin argued that certain races were not equal in development or potential. (The full title of his book was “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.”)

    I see these same arguments being used today in the abortion issue.

    And, lastly, is the mother’s life really “ruined,” or just inconvenienced?

    Two points to dispel the myth of a “ruined life.”

    One, I sit on the Board of Directors of a wonderful Crisis Pregnancy Center – Life Network in Colorado Springs. We work with hundreds of women with unwanted or unexpected or inconvenient pregnancies each year.

    With supportive counseling and significant other support (financial, educational, etc.) many will choose to keep and raise their initially unwanted child. A surprising percent of the time the father will become involved.

    Many others choose to give their baby up for adoption, and bring the gift of life to the long list of couples we have that want a child — irrespective of that child’s race or physical attributes.

    There are thousands of centers like ours across the U.S. doing this every day.

    Secondly, I once went to an event in which 23 college and high school students and their mothers (virtually all single moms) talked about the issue of unexpected or unwanted pregnancies.

    In each case, the young adult child declared his or her eternal gratitude that his or her mom chose for him or her the gift of life.

    Each of the young adults admitted how difficult the decision had been for their mom. Each admitted how sorely tempted their mom had been to abort them. Each testified that there had been incredible pressure on their moms to abort.

    But, each was thankful their mom had not aborted them.

    And, each young adult was the child of a rape.

    Ah, we will likely never agree about this terribly important issue. But, I’ve appreciated our disagreeing agreeably.

    And, for me, I’ll follow the ancient wisdom that says, “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live . . .”

    WIth that, I’ll sign off of this discussion. I do hope others will offer their wisdom to the disucssion — and with as much respect and calmness as have you, my friend.

    Respectfully,

    Walt

Comments are closed.