"Carelessly Labeled"

A woman named Monica Bauer -- Master of Divinity, playwright, ordained as a minister in the United Church of Christ -- wants to accuse the entire Right to Life movement of being accomplices in murder. Exactly whose murder isn't clear, since no one belonging to Planned Parenthood's organization was hurt in the recent incident in Colorado, but let's leave that pesky factual question. I just want to get after the basic assertion.
[T]he religious extremist is most likely a right-wing Christian. And the shooter had help. He had help from an entire movement that has carelessly labeled abortion as "murder" and "baby-killing." Killing abortion providers flows logically from the moment you call abortion "murder" and this labeling has to stop. Now.

Am I a Christian? You bet. Have I read the Bible? Many times, and carefully. Graduated from Yale Divinity School with a Masters in Divinity. Ordained in the ministry in 1982, in the United Church of Christ. Still an active member of the church. Jesus never said a word about abortion, and the only way anti-choice activists twist the Bible to their side is to take a few lines from a Psalm or a few words about "spilling seed" out of context. There are entire books debunking the pro-life movement as resting on shaky theological grounds, so I won't waste time recapping all the arguments here.
There are actually a few more pesky factual matters here -- for example, there's no evidence in any of the recent interviews conducted with family and neighbors to indicate that this guy was a "religious extremist," or even "religious," let alone "right wing" or even a Christian. But we'll leave all that too.

Jesus never said anything about abortion. However, the objection to abortion does not stand on any obscure theology or any strange passages about 'spilling seed.' It's about the killing of a human being.

The appellation "baby-killing" is not some sort of weird locution: it involves killing a human being at a stage of development that, were the child wanted by his or her mother, we would have no problem identifying as a baby. We would say, and do say, "When is the baby due?" or "Have you decided what to name the baby?" It's only when mother has decided to kill her baby that we are told that we can only describe it using clinical language designed to mask the humanity of the creature being killed.

You may object to murder, since murder is defined in different ways by different people. The law doesn't consider this murder as murder is defined by the law -- a rather circular argument made worse given that the law often did treat it as a kind of murder until the Supreme Court overturned the laws of all fifty states. So we might well say that it is not murder in the technical sense of the word given to us on stone tablets from that famous bench in Washington, D.C.

Still, a commonplace definition of the word murder as it might be used by any ordinary person is this: "the intentional killing of an innocent human being." Let's run through the steps.

1) Is it intentional? Yes.

2) Is it a killing? Yes.

3) Is it a living being? Obviously it is, or it couldn't be killed.

4) Is the being to be killed innocent in the usual sense of the word "innocent"? Yes.

5) Is it human? It either is or it isn't. If it isn't, what kind of being would you say it was?

A more extended argument on that last point: to be a thing of a certain kind is to be structured in a certain way. A table is a thing that is structured in such a way as to be capable of holding objects off the floor. Artifacts like tables are structured by makers, who put them into a given order for a given purpose. Living things are different: they structure themselves out of other things they find in the world. They are their own purpose.

Now a given living thing -- say a fox or a dog or a hawk -- is not the stuff of which it is made. All of us have had dogs, I presume, and all of those dogs have grown from puppies, taking on more and more stuff from the world and putting it into the order that is themselves. The physical parts of themselves -- proteins, water -- are all exchanged over the course of their lives, but we recognize that it is still our dog. It's the activity of the ordering principle that is the life of the dog, and it is the order that is the dog. As long as it continues, we say that our dog is alive. When our dog dies, the ordering stops: though it may look like our dog for a while, it is no longer actively being put in order as a living thing.

The living, growing being is ordering the world as it encounters it into itself. Of course it is a human being: it is putting the world into a human order. It will remain a human being as long as this continues, even if she should live to be a hundred and one.

That's what you are killing.

I am no absolutist on this point. I understand that there are cases when the life of the mother will be lost, when there is a sense in which the child is not "innocent" and the killing is therefore not murder -- indeed, it might almost be morally obligatory. But these are a tiny minority of cases, as any honest observer will confess.

The language being used to describe these acts is not careless. It is dangerous because it is accurate. It is the right way to describe what we are allowing to happen all across our nation, using ordinary language as we would ordinarily use it.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

I grew up UCC.

Their religion is liberalism. There is some overlap with Christianity.

They do not even rise to the level of being Social Justice Warriors - they are culture warriors. Notice that her credentialism is grounded in secular status, with no indication of any spiritual journey or even considerations. She doesn't make a positive case about life. She's just sure her opponents are wrong, and that's her argument.

I am moderately pro-life, in that I am not convinced that conception is the only line than can be drawn. But I draw a hard line at heartbeat and brainwave, about 5-6 weeks. And even then, prefer the line at conception. Also, I can see some arguments in the nature of trade-offs and lesser evils that could be made, though I don't accept them. This pastor doesn't make those arguments, she makes the "my opponents are evil" argument.

douglas said...

I think it's quite obvious Grim is correct, and has the better argument.

What interested me from what she wrote was this, because I've asked this question myself, and am not sure of the 'correct' answer:

"...an entire movement that has carelessly labeled abortion as "murder" and "baby-killing." Killing abortion providers flows logically from the moment you call abortion "murder"..."

So, does it, and if yes, what does that imply? One hesitates at the thought of that, and the concern of acting brashly...

Is it correct to say that she's right- or correct to say it may be so, but it's in the long term unproductive and could bring worse repercussions... or is that the cowards answer?

In my mind, it's a struggle.

Tom said...

Pro-choicers desperately want to believe that the entire pro-life argument is an irrational, arcane theological stance. That lets them believe that they live scientifically and rationally, and that their opponents are irrational, pre-modern people clinging to old superstitions. Debunking the alleged theological stance of the pro-lifers then becomes an effort to stamp out these old superstitions and enforce science, reason, and progress.

There are two problems with that position. First, the pro-choice argument isn't based on science, but rather philosophy. It's entirely an argument about morality. Second, the pro-life argument isn't really religious.

Yes, religious arguments can be made, but basically the pro-life argument rests on the scientific fact that at conception you have a new human organism and the common moral injunction against murder. That can be a religious injunction, but even most atheists believe murder is morally wrong, and we could just as well look to Locke's inherent rights to life, liberty, and property instead of the commandment to not murder for the morality of it. The name "Right to Life" is Lockean, after all, not Mosaic.

So, to really debunk the theological position of the pro-life movement, you would have to argue against the commandment "Thou shalt not kill."

Puncturing the "rational science vs. irrational religion" paradigm forces pro-choicers to deal with the real argument instead of straw men, or to run away from the discussion. Either way, it's a useful incision to make.

Edith Hook said...

As to the shooting in Colorado, it does appear that the two civilian victims were accompanying others to Planned Parenthood, at least per reports of statements made by their family members. I can't speak to their accuracy, because I too have seen and heard assertions that the victims were in the bank. For the militant pro-abortion people, this event was a dream come true.
That said, I am still going with the assumption that the shooter was too disorganized to have a coherent motive. As for his alleged statements to law enforcement, it is the job of interrogators to get suspects to make damning statements. It looks like it would be a cake walk to do so, with this guy. I have an addled dementia person in my family and I think I could easily get him to say the like, and I am just an ordinary untrained person. Think of the crazy witch hunts of the 80s over diddling children and the questions regarding the use of suggestion by "therapists".

Grim said...


If we can get clear on the fact that it is a killing of a human being, we can start a conversation about what punitive standards ought to apply to it. We would not be the first to decide that it's a kind of killing, even a kind of murder, that deserves less punishment than other kinds. There's a substantial history to this debate. We think of this as a contemporary question and a modern practice, but it isn't: though Jesus doesn't discuss abortion, Aristotle does, and the early Medieval church as well as the secular laws of Charlemagne had standards for it. Charlemagne appears to have done something that makes sense to me, which is to treat the provision of abortion as worse than the seeking of one: is probably reasonable to consider it worse to engage in it clinically and for profit (as the abortionist does) than in a mindset of fear (as, for example, a scared teenaged mother might). As I mentioned in the original post, it may be that there are some cases where it is not morally wrong, and may even in very rare cases be morally indicated (although the Church would disagree with me on that, I think).

At the moment, it's hard to say that anyone seeking an abortion deserves punishment, because the law as well as powerful forces in the culture teach that it's not wrong at all -- indeed, that it is to be celebrated as a kind of courageous and principled act. It is said to be entailed by a commitment to equality, for example.

What we need now is simply to clarify how implausible it is to suggest that this act is anything other than the intentional killing of an innocent human being. Once we can all get clear on that, we can reason together about what to do with those who engage in the practice.

Edith Hook said...

From the beginning of human history, hasn't life always been cheap? I suspect that neonaticide has been more common than not, through human history, except for a few brief golden ages of common decency. I'm just asking, since I am unschooled in this, but is it just the Abrahamic religions that proscribe these practices? I believe it was also prohibitted in ancient Egypt, at one point, though I don't know if it was for religious reasons. I have no interest in defending abortion or neonaticide, just pointing out that the revulsion towards them, is not universal. That said, I don't see how they can be compatible with a Christian world view, except for dire circumstances.

Grim said...

...it is the job of interrogators to get suspects to make damning statements. It looks like it would be a cake walk to do so, with this guy.

That seems like a good point.

...is it just the Abrahamic religions that proscribe these practices?

Well, Aristotle's opposition was not based on an Abrahamic religion, nor indeed on religion. Of course, he was only opposed to abortion once the capacity for sensation had been realized. Also, I don't think his opposition was the standard in ancient Greece.

Now, ancient Egypt is not one of my areas of concentration. I'll have to throw this one to Wikipedia.

Tom said...

I randomly came across Mark Shea's post on why pro-life people shouldn't shoot abortionists and thought some folks here would be interested.

douglas said...

Grim, it just seems sometimes as if reason has very little to do with any 'conversation' on abortion. Thanks Tom, that lays out our pretty well. It's not that I hadn't responded myself to that same end, it's that I just was uncertain of my premises, but I feel more comfortable with them now.