In my last post, I suggested a host of problems with pursuing legislation on ‘gestational limits’. They ranged from the principled objection that it would co-operate in an evil act to the pragmatic objection that it would be a pyrrhic victory that would probably save very few, and would likely neuter the pro-life stance ever after.
I will address the last point in the next post.
The foundation for the position I expressed in LifeSiteNews was that as Creator God alone can and does determine what life is. No individual or group, church or state, had the authority to usurp the divine prerogative, and all attempts to do so were sinful. The law that had been put in place in 1969, overturning a ban on abortion and making a panel of doctors the adjudicators of life and death, was a symptom of the problem, and its fruits were immediately apparent. It resulted in an extraordinary increase in the number of abortions, which sharpened still further when the Supreme Court struck down all protection for the unborn in 1988.
Since then, it has become an issue of a “woman’s right to choose” rather than the doctors’. The Supreme Court requested that Parliament act to address the post-1988 state of lawlessness, but the problem is the same: elected officials cannot fix the fundamental problem of usurping the divine prerogative by setting an arbitrary limit. Parliament is not sovereign; it is accountable to God. (Rom. 13:1-7)
Divergent principles within the pro-life camp
Still, I recognise that there are those in the pro-life camp who have argued that saving a life could not possibly violate a principle, and that even if gestational legislation on abortion did little, it would be better than saving none. This is at root a utilitarian argument which operates on the principle that every life, considered in isolation, is intrinsically valuable. Since every life is intrinsically valuable, efforts should be made to enact legislation, however limited – here in the form of gestational limits – in order to maximise the good. The strongest version of it I have read is here:
The first point to recognise is that this is a different principle than saying that God ordains and rules over every person irrespective of age, and that the abortion of an innocent is an intrinsic evil. The article itself does add complexity to the discussion by making what on one level is an extremely helpful distinction rooted in the threefold office of Christ, the munus triplex, as prophet, priest and king. 1
But the distinction of offices also adds confusion. The crux of the debate is really rooted in two things:
1) The new claim of the intrinsic good of every life.
2) The consequent utilitarian calculus of a new principle, which leads to theological and logical contradictions.
As someone from the Reformed camp, I recognize the three-fold distinction and find it valid and helpful, but is it the grounds for fundamental contradictions? Can Christ be divided against himself? Can Christ’s prophetic role be separated from his kingly role so as to be at odds with it? Can truth and action be at odds? And can every life actually be intrinsically valuable if life as a whole is not? 2
It is the kingship of Christ and the authority of his law which is at issue, and the change in principle is identified by the characterization of Christ`s lordship as a matter of politics. We live in a democracy in a pluralistic society. Nonetheless, Christ, risen and ascended, rules as king now, and he does not delegate it to the church to allow for diplomatic negotiations that accommodate moral relativism. If the church had thought otherwise in the first centuries, there would have been no martyrs. But their witness is unmistakable: the earliest Christians pronounced Kyrios Christos, Jesus is Lord.
Gestational limits and legal positivism
Finally, the approach to the law and our understanding of what the law entails is also at stake.
It seems to me that those who would promote gestational limits on abortion assume the validity of a species of legal positivism. Legal positivism certainly grows as a school of thinking throughout 20th century jurisprudence, an age marked first by anti-Christian public ‘neutrality’, and in the past few decades, a growth in an anti-Christian public embrace of a species of paganism, much like that of ancient Rome. Many have grown up to think no other view of the law is even possible, though the history of Western jurisprudence speaks much to the contrary. 3
But inherent in this view is the belief that ‘law’ is essentially a matter of social convention, and that there is no necessary connection between law and morality. In that event, a crime merely becomes a transgression of the governing party’s policy. This is at the heart of totalitarianism, a rejection of Christ’s Lordship, and a denial of God’s moral ordering of the world. Even if it is a provisional stance, it already co-opts a view of the law as the world’s standards rather than God’s. This seems to me untenable to the Christian.
For Christians to oppose gestational legislation and uphold God’s standards as the only acceptable or workable standards for Canada is not to deny the State any role in Canada. Not that long ago, God’s standards were Canada’s. Christians have been happy for the State to acknowledge God’s rule in these areas in law (this is what has happened throughout the course of Western history); indeed, we think it right that it does so, and we are not alone in that. Even recent non-Christian commentators such as the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas4 and Italian atheist statesman Marcello Pera5 have argued that a Christian foundation is essential to all human rights.
But that does not mean that the State can determine them according to its own varying judgment. That belief, a core assumption of legal positivism, is at the root of the problem, and Christians cannot bring about a true pro-life stance by adopting the same tactics and arguments, as if we were merely engaging in a form of power politics.
We are in the world, but we must not be of it.
1. Christ’s three ‘offices’ are also distinct aspects of the church’s ministry in relation to the issue of abortion. Christians are not just involved in awareness campaigns against the evil of abortion (prophet), or in politics (king), leaving pregnant women in difficult situations to fend for themselves. They are involved in pregnancy care centres (priest).
2. Furthermore, if the new claim of the intrinsic value of every life is true, the ethical consequences are also significant. To name a few obvious ones, unwittingly taking a life in self-defence or in the situation of a just war against an enemy combatant would become intrinsically evil. Scripture does not support such a position.
3. Harold Berman’s magisterial two-volume work on Law and Revolution, subtitled The Formation of the Legal Tradition and The Impact of the Protestant Reformations on the Western Legal Tradition (Harvard University Press, 1983, 2006) and Jonathan Burnside’s recent God, Justice and Society: Aspects of the Law and Legality of the Bible (Oxford University Press, 2011), both strongly argue against the development of legal positivism and the consequent departure from Biblical law as the societal standard of the West.
4. “Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern chatter.” (Jürgen Habermas, Time of Transitions, Polity Press, 2006, pp. 150-151, translation of an interview from 1999)
5. Marcello Pera, Why we should call ourselves Christians: The Religious Roots of Free Societies, Encounter Books, 2008.