Rhetorical Hit, Theological Miss
A couple months ago, Mary Elizabeth Williams posted a column at Salon.com entitled, “So What If Abortion Ends Life?” The vitriolic nature of the piece prevails from the title to the final phrase, designed to enflame the most seasoned of post-Roe veterans on both sides of the debate. Her flippant handling of what’s often considered a sacred issue does its job. The article was low on fact and high on accusation, but it is still able to accomplish its goal of engendering strife and perhaps, even a little bit of nausea. However, as acerbic as the article is, Ms. Williams makes two salient points. The first is about the use of language in public debate and the second about the arbitrary philosophical distinction in the “life-begins-somewhere-other-than-conception” camp.
Her immediate use of the phrase “diabolically clever” is diabolically clever, because it automatically brings to mind thoughts of a red-clad, pitchfork-wielding imp, mostly drawn from religious allusions. Comparing the religious-right with the devil will certainly get folks stirred up in a hurry. Then they’re not seeing straight when she gets to her arguments later. But her use of rhetoric is not as prominent as her analysis of how rhetoric is used. Her opening paragraph begins,
Of all the diabolically clever moves the anti-choice lobby has ever pulled, surely one of the greatest has been its consistent co-opting of the word ‘life’. Life! Who wants to argue with that? Who wants to be on the side of…not-life?
Then with all the hubris she can muster, she boasts, “that throughout my own pregnancies, I never wavered for a moment in the belief that I was carrying a human life inside of me. I believe that’s what a fetus is: a human life. And that doesn’t make me one iota less solidly pro-choice.” Throughout the article she elaborates on this theme that any line drawn between conception and the exiting of the birth canal as the point when life begins is an arbitrary one, and she’s right. “That distinction may apply neatly legally, but philosophically, surely we can do better,” she says.
In the second paragraph she uses both sides of her mouth to explain to the reader that on the one hand, the “pro-life” movement has the rhetorically superior word when compared to the “pro-choice” movement. We get to vie for “life” while they’re stuck with just a measly little “choice”. On the other hand, she informs us that in the last decade there has been a 10% increase in favor of letting “Roe v. Wade” stand. So much for our superior rhetoric. Anyway, she’s glad that Planned Parenthood is “reframing the vernacular–moving away from the easy and easily divisive words ‘life’ and ‘choice.’” Now they’re saying astutely original things like, “Abortion is a deeply personal and often complex decision for a woman to make. You can’t make that decision for someone else. Nobody knows a woman’s specific situation—we’re not in her shoes.” Ms. Williams is glad that “semantic power” is being taken from those “who would try to control it.” She and Planned Parenthood wistfully believe that millions of Americans will really like the new, progressive “pro-decision” movement over the old, musty “pro-choice” movement, and they’re probably right. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least.
When Ms. Williams finally makes it to her central argument, she states the simple fact that the pro-life movement was warned about decades ago. She states, “here’s the complicated reality in which we live: all life is not equal.” She points out that there are instances when human beings make the decision to kill other human beings. She mentions foreign wars, capital punishment, and removal of life support from hospital patients as examples of humans taking the lives of other humans with impunity. She reasons from these examples that life on the outside of the womb is not sacred, so why must the life inside the womb be sacred? And while vehemently disagreeing with her conclusions, we would do well to stop and ask ourselves the same question. How does the pro-life movement justify garnering as many folks as they can for the “Sanctity of Life Sunday” Parade on one day and then fight for capital punishment and handgun rights the next. Are we now the ones speaking with forked tongue?
The notion that “all life is sacred” is a strong sentiment that can go a long way rhetorically with someone who bears that same sentiment, but if our stance against abortion is based on nothing more than feelings, then we have nothing with which to combat the ideology of someone who may have stronger feelings for the plight of the mother with the unwanted pregnancy than for her unborn child. How are we to move beyond being simply “pro-life”, a stance which is open to Ms. Williams attacks, to being biblically “pro-life”, a position which will enable us to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm (Eph. 6:13)?
(The pro-life movement) proclaims the sanctity of human life in the most general, unqualified terms, such as the refrain from the Republican platform: ‘The unborn child has a fundamental right to life, which cannot be infringed.’
But the real issue is the sanctity of God’s law and the resultant dignity of human life. Because of how He created us, we do have a permanent dignity. This dignity is grossly insulted with abortionists’ weapons, but it cannot be removed. The suction tool does not exist which can remove the image of God.
But still, while having great dignity, human life is not sacred. When we speak as though it is, we leave the distinct impression that the foundation of our humanity is the source of our law, and thus the source of our protest. This is how much of our pro-life involvement has become humanistic instead of biblical. Human life has become a god instead of a gift, an idol instead of a valuable creature.
Such pro-life absolutism would force us to charge God with ‘anti-life’ crimes for His destruction of the children of His enemies. As any Bible reader knows, He gave repeated commands to Israel’s armies to utterly destroy various rebellious enemies (Josh. 6:21; 7:25; 8:26; Dt. 20:16). Sometimes God wanted His enemies to perish. Their lives were not sacred. God’s law alone has this sanctity, and because He is holy, He visited the dignity of punishment upon rebellious creatures.
I understand that “pro-life” and “pro-choice” are words that carry far more than meaning than what appears on the surface, but we would do well to judge ourselves and see if we actually love and therefore proclaim the law of God, or if we’re stuck in some “sanctity of life” sentimentalism. If we appear inconsistent to Mary Elizabeth Williams, it may be because we are.
On a final note, we would also do well to review what God’s law-word says about abortion, for He is not silent. In Exodus 21:22-25, we hear,
When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
In his Institutes of Biblical Law, Volume I, Rousas John Rushdoony elaborates on this passage,
The importance of Exodus 21:22-25 becomes all the more clear as we realize that this is case law, i.e., that it sets forth by a minimal case certain larger implications. Let us examine some of the implications of this passage: First, very obviously, the text cites, not a case of deliberate abortion, but a case of accidental abortion. If the penalty for even an accidental case is so severe, it is obvious that a deliberately induced abortion is very strongly forbidden. It is not necessary to ban deliberate abortion, since it is already eliminated by this law. Second, the penalty for even an accidental abortion is death. If a man who, in the course of a fight, unintentionally bumps a pregnant woman and causes her to abort, must suffer the death penalty, how much more so any person who intentionally induces an abortion? Third, even if no injury results to either the mother or fetus, the man in the case is liable to a fine and, in fact, must be fined. Clearly, the law strongly protects the pregnant woman and her fetus, so that every pregnant mother has a strong hedge of law around her. Fourth, since even a mother bird with eggs or young is covered by law (Deut. 22:6-7), clearly any tampering with the fact of birth is a serious matter: to destroy life is forbidden except where required or permitted by God’s law.
So at the end of the day, we do not contradict ourselves if we hold that in order for the taking of human life to be warranted, it must be based on God’s word. Ms. Williams starts with herself and ends with herself, so she’s left making the whole thing up as she goes along. “We kill people in Iraq. We kill people in Afghanistan. We kill criminals. We kill sick people. Why not kill unborn babies too.” Without a biblical foundation for the taking of human life, the “pro-life” movement has nothing more to say than, “look how little his feet are at 12 weeks.” However, that doesn’t cut it in a culture that would love nothing more than to rip those little feet from his little legs and use them for research in a lab.
Although a “professing-Catholic”, Mary Elizabeth Williams revels in her stand against God. Exemplifying her rebellion, she rejoices in how she would execute her next child in utero. Quite to the contrary, God has provided for her child’s protection in His law. As Ms. Williams describes her hatred of God’s law with an air of braggadocio, we would do well to stop and examine ourselves. Are we becoming more consistent in our application of God’s law-word to every facet of life under the sun? Are we, as Christians, becoming less ashamed of implementing all that He has to say about our lives here, or are we happy with one parade a year to celebrate the unbiblical notion that all life is sacred?
Marc is a husband, father, teacher, and land surveyor in middle Tennessee. He has been blessed beyond belief by the God of heaven and earth.