Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Questions too rarely asked

Mike the Mad Biologist asks Why Does the South Dakota Legislature Hate Jews?:
Regarding abortion, there is no debate in Jewish law whatsoever on one point: if carrying a pregnancy to term would harm the physical welfare–not the life, the welfare–of the mother, or her ability to bear future children, the fetus is termed a "pursuer" (rodef). In other words, if a pregnancy were carried to term and would cause long-term damage to the woman, the fetus is the moral equivalent of a criminal chasing after her with the intent to do harm. It is not a blessed little 'snowflake.' Under these circumstances, the moral option is to terminate the pregnancy.

Regarding the title of this post, I'm not backing away from it. The state of South Dakota has made a decision that makes living a Jewish life incompatible with following the law of the land. So much for the vaunted 'Judeo-Christian' tradition that conservatives keep blathering about. It's clear that the 'Judeo' part was nothing more than a fig leaf to mask the 'religious' right's bigotry–although how this wasn't obvious from the get-go escapes me. For any conservative Christians reading this, you are not the 'oppressed', you are the oppressors.
The way not to be oppressors is not to force your personal religious views on other people. If you don't like abortions, don't have them. Or don't have sex. Or use a condom.

I'll take a brief detour before returning to abortion. I have nothing against missionaries. They are good people who go to parts of the world that need help and they roll up their sleeves. And that should be enough. There isn't any need to preach while they do that, or to build a medical clinic and then refuse to allow doctors there to perform abortions, or dispense birth control. Nor should the schools they build be obliged to teach religion. Their hard work should be enough to sway people. Beyond the people who convert outright, they soften the ground for a more tolerant relationship between religions.

At rereason, there was a fascinating tour of the ethics of abortion from a Christian perspective. If you're wondering why I'd be pimping that, go read them. It started with a look at something Senator Brownback said. Then Mike took on the notion of an immortal soul in Christian theology, concluding:
Of course, each modern writer claims to know the one correct, unique truth. They also assert that disagreement with their views is sin and will lead to the death of the soul or its roasting in the fires of hell.

Now, I'm no expert. I don't speak Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic. I figure most people are more like me than the experts who staked out their positions and earn their living from it. I figure most people want to be reasonable and reach sensible conclusions that are helpful, not dogmatic. The point of the foregoing exercise is to say expert opinion is well and truly divided on the nature of the soul as written about in the Bible. In such a case, it seems unwise to legislate or engage in hostilities based on any particular version of the truth.
You see, a Christian basis for being pro-choice. How refreshing.

Then he argued that, even if we assume that the soul exists and gets incorporated into the zygote at the moment of fertilization, It's still not Murder. It's barely coherent to talk about a fetus having a soul, and logic dictates that our understanding of a soul has to be modified as we apply it to infants. His comments there also bear on the discussion going on about the relationship between skepticism and religion, a subtheme of the PZ Myers response to my Sunday sermon that RSR picked up and ran with. Rereason advocates skepticism within the religious context:

In the face of our overwhelming ignorance, it seems unwise to declare ourselves in sole possession of the truth and to try to force others to bow to our arrogance. …

What's wanted is a little healthy skepticism and a little critical thinking. What's needed is a careful reading of the Bible, a reading of what it actually says as opposed to what we need it to say to support our theories. God gave us brains. Let's use them.
Note that this is skepticism within the religious tradition. Those values aren't orthogonal.

In Every Person is a Sacred Child of God; More or Less, With Exceptions, he takes on the different ways we value lives, placing a fetus' life at a high priority, while ignoring other lives:

The lives of a few hundred drug dealers in the inner city do not outweigh the value of our "right" to sell and profit from handgun ownership. Ooops, maybe that's a little unfair. Let's say, rather, the value of these lives is less than the investment it would take to stop the killings. To be fully fair, the cost of that investment would mean some actual sacrifice for the middle and upper classes. It would take integration of neighborhoods, opportunities for poor people, changes in gun laws, better policing, better education, etc, etc.
The last post is Human Value Sans Theology:

If we base our choices on well established facts rather than theological dogmas, we will have great difficulty deciding exactly when an abortion is or is not permissible. We cannot define human life with precision without reliance on dogma. But we still must make the attempt, no matter how messy the result. The easy way out is to reach for whatever brand of dogma feels most comfortable, and to stop thinking or worrying about it. Far more difficult is the attempt to reason and think through the questions.

To forbid late term abortions, when the fetus surely can experience pain, seems like the appropriate course when we consider the facts. Likewise, to allow early abortions, when the fetus cannot properly be said to experience anything, also seems reasonable. But somewhere in between these two points is where we will want to draw the line.

To determine where, the most sensible course would be to make a case-by-case adjudication. The only person in possession of all the facts in a particular case would be the pregnant woman.
That first paragraph perfectly expresses the problem in abortion. Too many people choose the moment of conception as the beginning of life not because it necessarily makes any coherent sense, but because it eliminates the grey area. It's comfortable. Drawing the limits to human life, a state worthy of special protections, is not something science can do. We make our decisions about it not on the basis of some measurement, but based on values.

Heck, even feeling pain needn't be dispositive. Lots of things feel pain, but we still don't feel bad about killing them. Cows are life, but not human life. Could someone argue that a fetus passes through some period of time when it is alive but not deserving of the full status of "human life"? Sure.

Why did I spend so long posting other people's material? Three reasons.

First, I like the writing at rereason, and I want more people to read what gets said there.

Second, to show that Mike the Mad Biologist is only half right in saying that "the 'Judeo' part [of 'Judeo-Christian] was nothing more than a fig leaf." The other half is that the 'Christian' part is only a fig leaf. Christians can and do justify a pro-choice position from theological principles. The anti-abortion movement is offensive because it seeks to impose its religious values on other people, not because of its religious values.

Third, to remind people that being religious is not the same as being a gullible dupe, sucked in by fairy tales. In the discussion at Pharyngula about my Sunday Sermon, the amount of bile commenters were tossing at religion-at-large was disturbing.

Like every high school student ought to, I went through a Communist phase. I was all set for the worker's uprising, I was riled up about the mean of production, and I was sure religion was the opiate of the masses. I grew out of that.

I do wish workers would stand up for themselves, and I've found that unions and political action in a capitalist system can prevent the abuse of the means of production that undeniably took place in the 19th century. I think that religion can be an opiate, but can also lead people on deep and useful searching. Like science, religion is a tool, and can be used well or used badly. I'd rather criticize bad uses of religion than religion at large.

And the fight to impose a bizarre reading of the Bible on the entire population (or at least the female half of it) is a worthy battle. As with the fight for good science education, there are religious people, atheists, agnostics and what I'll call "don't care"ists all on the same side, fighting against the imposition of a particular religious perspective on the entire population. The enemy isn't religion, it's the imposition of religion.

Enjoy your Fat Tuesday.

Mardi Gras In New Orleans” by Professor Longhair from the album Rum and Coke (1971, 4:51).