In Dostoevsky’s epic novel, The Brothers Karamazov, brothers Ivan and Alyosha engage in a deep discussion about God – his existence and his goodness. Expressing frustration at his brother’s rejection of faith, Aloysha declares that if there is no God, “everything is permitted.” The truth of this observation may be seen in the ongoing debate over abortion and the seeming inability for the pro-choice side’s greatest minds to come up with a winsome argument in defense of unborn human life. So long as human society continues its trend of rejecting belief in the divine and relying upon the self as the sole source of moral authority and conscience, there is little chance of popular opinion shifting decisively away from an embrace of legalized abortion.
It’s been over 40 years since the Supreme Court ruled that a woman’s right to privacy includes the right to electively terminate the life of her unborn child. In that relatively short span of time, abortion has evolved from a highly controversial social taboo to a celebrated pillar of the progressive feminist agenda. Despite its current status as a sacrosanct symbol of female liberation, however, the debate over the morality of abortion rages on. Pro-life advocates approach the issue from multiple angles, in an attempt to find that one compelling argument that will convince the public of abortion’s indisputable moral horror.
One popular and rather obvious objection to abortion is that terminating the life of an unborn child is a violation of his or her First Amendment right to life. To deny this, one must get into the muddy question of when life truly begins and when a person acquires those natural rights articulated in our Declaration of Independence. The easy out, of course, is to claim that such matters are above one’s pay grade, as our President did, and go along supporting abortion under the nebulous aegis of a woman’s right to “make her own health care decisions.”
On a slightly more esoteric level, there is a natural law argument to be made against abortion that can be traced back to philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas. This line of reasoning suggests that human beings by nature possess the inclination to preserve their own lives and to “nurture and make provision for their offspring;” and that to go against these inclinations and innate human duties is to act against nature. For Aquinas, a law is only just if it accords with right reason, and right reason is synonymous with divine reason. The laws woven into the very fabric of nature, then, are a reflection of its divine creator, and to violate these laws means to reject reason altogether and ultimately to reject God.
While those of a philosophical or theological bent might find this argument compelling, fascinating to debate and discuss over a few bottles of wine, most average people’s eyes will begin to glaze over almost immediately, either because they are incapable of conversing in this way or because they simply have no interest in speculating about God’s divine reason and its implications on their personal choices. In other words, it’s not an argument likely to gain popular traction and thus its efficacy at eradicating abortion from the cultural milieu is unlikely.
Recently, an attempt has been made to dissect the inevitable ethical quandary created by health care practitioners who attempt to simultaneously embrace a woman’s right to abortion while advocating proper prenatal maternal responsibilities in cases of wanted pregnancies. Writing for the Witherspoon Institute’s “Public Discourse,” physician Christopher Spewlock reviews various positions taken by the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) regarding unborn children and the “moral obligation to the fetus.” Spewlock observes that “the ethics committee of the [ACOG] has, for several years, been trying to maintain two competing principles: first, that doctors and mothers have a moral obligation to promote the well-being of the fetus; and second, that doctors, regardless of what they claim their conscience dictates, are obliged to perform or refer for abortions if doing so promotes the mother’s ‘conception of well-being.'”
The logical dissonance here is clear. How can a doctor view it as a professional moral obligation to counsel a pregnant woman to avoid risky behaviors, to take her vitamins and obtain proper prenatal care, while at the same time viewing it as a professional moral obligation to terminate the life of her unborn child at any time and for any reason? In what universe does this make sense? Apparently one in which the ultimate deciding factor in whether or not an unborn child’s life has value is determined solely by the mother’s “conception of well being.” But Spewlock pushes back on this. A fetus is either a person or it’s not. The ACOG is trying to have it both ways and in so doing undermines its integrity as a legitimate ethical authority:
“What is the nature of this moral obligation to promote the well-being of the fetus? Why do the physician and the pregnant woman have this obligation? Most people will agree that there exists an obligation to promote the well-being of other persons, but this cannot be what the ethics committee means, given that the committee clearly does not believe the fetus to be a person.
Further, if there is such an ethical obligation, would it not make elective abortion unethical? If the obstetrician has a ‘beneficence-based obligation’ to promote the well-being of the fetus, why does this obligation never enter the moral equation in the committee’s examination of physicians’ refusals to, among other things, terminate the life of the fetus?
If the moral obligation to promote the well-being of the fetus derives from the fact that the fetus is a person, then why does the committee believe that the killing of fetal persons is licit? If the fetus is not a person, then why is there an obligation to promote its well-being? This supposed obligation makes the committee’s acceptance of abortion problematic, and makes the committee’s ethics incoherent.”
To the pro-life mind, such incoherency, even at the highest levels of intellectual and professional society, is a real life example of Alyosha’s fears realized. “If God is dead, everything is permissible.”
Of course, this is not to say that “godless” people are incapable of acting morally. History is scattered with horrifying evidence that plenty of people who claim faith in God are capable of monstrous acts of cruelty and injustice. However, the salient point here is that the ongoing attempts to demonstrate the injustice of abortion are ineffective because abortion is not something that is justified in rational terms. It is sustained entirely through irrational, subjective assertions based on nothing more than the supposed sovereignty of the individual and her right of self-determination. It’s legitimacy emerges from the shadowy and amorphous “emanations and penumbras” of personal privacy so famously articulated by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas in Griswold v. Connecticut.
When a woman finds herself with an unwanted pregnancy, whether through her own irresponsible behavior or due to an act of violence like rape or incest, she understandably feels fear and panic and an overwhelming certainty that “this can’t be happening, I can’t do this, this will ruin everything.” There is an immediate desire to take action to make the problem go away, and abortion is the most expedient way to achieve this goal. In the face of this primal response, reason-based arguments against abortion hold little sway. The only thing capable of countering such a potent desire is an equally potent conviction about the value of human life and the meaning of human existence.
Without God, everything is permissible. Man is the author of his own destiny and the captain of his soul. Moral authority is located within the self, and might makes right. These are fierce human convictions and we live in an age that glorifies these convictions at every turn. The only thing capable of shattering these delusions is the recognition of our contingency, that we are not sovereign and we are not the measure of all things. In fact, not only are we not the measure, but we fall radically short of the mark. We are broken and fallen and sinful and in need of redemption. The crippling humility that flows from this recognition is a source of great strength because it contextualizes our earthly struggles and tragedies in a way that makes them sufferable. “For God so loved the world . . . ” In the face of this undeserved, all-encompassing love, what is man to do? When confronted with evil and fear, how are we to respond? These are the issues at the heart of the infamous dialog between brothers Ivan and Alyosha in Dostoevsky’s masterpiece. Ivan is incapable of loving or serving or even believing in a God that permits innocents to suffer. Aloysha sees that a world without God is ultimately a world without love and thus a world with no hope of redemption.
In a 2007 piece for First Things, entitled “Ivan Karamazov’s Mistake,” professor Ralph C. Wood deconstructs the basis of Ivan Karamozov’s godlessness:
“Ivan deliberately denies the teaching of Father Zosima, the head of an Orthodox monastery who also stands at the religious center of the novel. Father Zosima insists that love cannot be selective, that it must be at once universal and concrete, that we must not love those who are conveniently remote so much as those who are inconveniently near. Already, it is evident, the philosophical and the religious arguments are linked. Ivan not only thinks but also lives in autonomous and anti-communal terms. It is precisely the neighbor whom we cannot love, he insists. The neighbor’s objective and objectionable otherness – his bad breath, his foolish face, his ill manners – threaten Ivan’s sovereign selfhood. Of such a neighbor, Ivan complains like an early Jean-Paul Sartre that ‘he is another and not me.’ Despite his eager embrace of the world, therefore, Ivan wants to remain a solitary and transcendent judge over it, a godlike withholder no less than a gracious giver of praise. Others must satisfy his own criteria before he will embrace them. And because God does not satisfy the requirements of Ivan’s logic, he will not believe in God.”
The visceral response to an unwanted pregnancy brings Ivan’s worldview to life. It is easy to espouse abstract humanistic values, much harder to actually live by them when the person making claims upon your beneficence happens to reside within your body. But this is precisely what God’s love, manifest through Christ’s passion, demands of us. More from Professor Wood:
“To possess true freedom and personhood through love is, in Dostoevsky’s view, to suffer rightly. It is to accept responsibility, not only for one’s own sin, but also for the sins of others. All theodicies fail if they do not recognize that only the embrace of innocent suffering can answer the infliction of innocent suffering.”
How do we respond to evil in this world? How do we respond when placed in a situation of seemingly unendurable stress and fear? We respond with love. Ultimately, I believe, it is only this conviction deeply felt that has the power to overcome the potent and seductive power of the individual human will, of the little voice that says “just get an abortion and it will all go away,” and the culture that affirms it. It all comes back to human consciousness of the fall. This, I believe, is the pro-life movement’s last and best hope.