On Human Dignity and the Sanctity of Life: Part 1

Well readers, I am a woman of my word, and given that the Fall semester of seminary school officially starts this week, and the abortion debate will probably dominate the news cycle until midterms, it is almost time that I share the research paper I wrote last semester on the biblical perspective on human dignity. As I mentioned, I earned an 84%, not the greatest grade but in retrospect I realize it was a fair grade as I got too emotionally invested in the paper and thus it was too narrowly focused on the sanctity of life when the concept of human dignity also involves a more broadly defined inclusion of groups both society and the church tend to marginalize such as the aged, or people who choose to remain single. I also share this paper with the caveat that because of its narrow focus, abortion as it relates to genetic screening for disabilities like Down Syndrome, my true views on the broader abortion debate are not as black-and-white as portrayed in this paper. Hence, the reason this post is in two parts. Since my paper is over 3,000 words, I am giving it a post of its own tomorrow. But before sharing my paper, I wanted to clarify my views on this issue because although I believe there is compelling biblical evidence that God regards the unborn as fully human, the extreme degree to which many fundamentalists have weaponized Scripture related to this subject, sadly but understandably explains why so few people in my generation, and the younger generations want to associate with Christianity, and I want to make sure readers understand that these are not my views. Furthermore, since Scripture does not explicitly address abortion, it is important that theologians approach this subject with humility.

Abortion is a very sensitive and complicated subject, so much so that when I was a junior in high school and a Social Studies class required us to research an issue and present our views on the issue, the teacher said abortion was the only topic that was off limits. (I chose the topic of capital punishment, an issue that I feared the teacher wouldn’t accept because it also has to do with sanctity of life. But he allowed it because it wasn’t abortion). So it is with a little trepidation that I am devoting a blog to this issue. (My paper will also address physician-assisted suicide.) But in these times, bravery–which I define as doing your best to speak truth and stand up for what is right regardless of political or social consequences–is becoming ever more essential, so I am going to be brave.

When I was a senior in high school, I heard some of my peers from an advanced literature class talking about The Handmaid’s Tale. Out of curiosity, I downloaded it from Bookshare, but at the time didn’t get very far because the plot moves very slowly and I just couldn’t stay engaged with it. But then a few years later, around the time Donald Trump was elected and society at-large was raving about it, I decided I ought to give it another try, and this time I could hardly put it down. I finished it shortly before the first season of the TV show was released on Hulu, and I engaged in much lively conversation with other female coworkers at the Social Security disability law firm where I worked at the time about how scary the show was when you considered that real life seemed to be getting perilously close to resembling Gilead. Around that time, Mom found a YouTube video–unfortunately I could not find it again–in which Laura Ingraham was asked by the host of the Fox show immediately following her whether she would consider running for President, and she responded that she would, accept for the fact that she believes women shouldn’t work outside the home! Of course, the hypocrisy of this statement was glaring, given that she hosted a TV show and made millions of dollars, making her a real life Serena Joy! What is even more astounding is that in an articlethe author, Margaret Atwood wrote for The Atlantic, she said she stopped writing the book several times, thinking that the plot was too far-fetched!

I do stand by my belief that the genetic testing industry should be regarded with a healthy degree of wariness because as my paper will explain, if society comes to accept abortion of embryos likely to be born with disabilities (high-tech eugenics) the implications would ultimately be devastating for everyone. But my paper overlooked three important truths. First, the presence of a genetic abnormality is not the reason behind most abortions. Second, people in privileged positions–men who will never experience pregnancy firsthand, as well as women whose wealth/whiteness insolates them–really have no business weighing in on all of the scenarios which for them are merely hypothetical. While I am qualified to advocate for children with disabilities, in retrospect, I realize I am not really even qualified to judge mothers who choose to abort a child likely to be born with a disability because I am in a position of privilege as a white woman born into a comfortably middle-class family who has never gone a day without excellent health insurance, and attended an affluent school district that was able and willing to provide all of the support I needed. One subject that was briefly discussed in the Shake the Dust interview with Dr. Amy Kennywhich I mentioned in a previous post, is the idea that mothers who choose to abort babies with genetic abnormalities are not necessarily cold-hearted proponents for eugenics. Systemic racism, generations of poverty and constant cuts or threats of cuts to welfare programs trigger the legitimate fear for expecting mothers from less privileged backgrounds that they will not be able to properly provide for a child with disabilities. Ideally, we should prioritize robust legislation that rectifies our history of systemic racism and strengthens social safety nets, which would assuage the fears of these mothers, but in the meantime, no one has the right to judge them for choosing abortion. But most importantly, all of the hypothetical scenarios bandied about by politicians are what my paralegal textbooks would call red herrings, rabbit trails the opposing party coaxes you down to distract you from the real issue at play. In The Color of Compromise which I read last semester, the primary focus is racism, but Jemar Tisby also briefly discusses the history of the abortion debate because it is actually relevant to systemic racism. When Roe v. Wade was ruled in 1973, Christians’ views on abortion were mixed, and the Southern Baptist convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States even passed a resolution stating that legislation should allow for abortion in cases of rape, incest, severe fetal deformity, and the physical, mental and emotional health of the mother. But when Christian fundamentalists were unsuccessful in their efforts to resist racial integration of schools, they needed a new issue to coalesce a voter base around to maintain their power and influence. The issue they ultimately decided to focus on was abortion. And while the pro-choice platform of Democrats seems kinder on the surface, the truth is that both sides now use the abortion issue to raise money and gain power and influence. Personally, I wish culture influencers would do more to promote responsible behavior BY BOTH PARTIES in a consenting relationship to avoid unwanted pregnancies rather than getting an abortion after the fact. At the same time, earthly governments have no business legislating morality.

I look forward to the day when the whole world lives under a righteous, Christian government, but given our fallen state, we cannot and should not establish such a government by our own power. In 18th century America, many feared that government disestablishment from religion would mean the end of religion and moral disaster. While I don’t have official statistics on how many Americans became religious nones immediately following disestablishment, there were no doubt some people who chose this path. There were definitely Deists, influenced by enlightenment philosophy such as Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason who respected Jesus’s teaching related to morality, but rejected the supernatural. But overall after disestablishment, Christianity actually flourished like never before as people could chose the denomination that most spoke to their hearts, and attending church was a choice. (All mainstream Christian denominations basically agree on essential doctrine. Their differences lie in how to interpret ordinances (for example, Infant baptism or believer baptism?) and worship style. The more I reflect on the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the extreme state laws this decision triggered, I cannot help but wonder if these laws are the modern manifestation of a desire of some to return to the status quo for most of our overall bleak human history when people in positions of power usurped God, denying the masses the chance to exercise the free will God intended. Under this system, a king could boast that his territory had been “Christianized” but no one’s heart was really in it. This is suggested in the introduction to a primary source from 17th-century Europe which I read for my Church History course, which cited regulations prohibitting walking around or gosiping during prayers, and one distinguished theologian was praised at his funeral for never having slept during church! Thomas Jefferson had many flaws–most notably his hypocrisy in championing freedom while owning slaves–but we should all be grateful for his wisdom in pointing out that “if an all-wise and all-powerful God chose not to coerce the bodies or minds of men and women” what gives us “fallible, uninspired men” the right to do so (Schmidt and Gaustad, Religious History of America Chapter 6)?

When fundamentalists of any religion seek to implement a theocratic government, the fact that all earthly governments are under the influence of Satan means that any righteous intentions that may have existed to begin with always and inevitably give way to hypocrisy, and a complete misrepresentation of the true tenets of the faith, as addiction to power takes precedence over genuine faith. Margaret Atwood illustrates these shortcomings of theocracy brilliantly in The Handmaid’s Tale, as well as its sequel, The Testaments. In The Handmaid’s Tale, June becomes aware of the hypocrisy of Gilead when after being forced to adhere to strict 17th-century purity standards, the commander Fred Waterford takes her to a former hotel converted into an underground brothel to satisfy the needs of high-status commanders and officers. In The Testaments, Aunt Vidala, the religion teacher at the “school” for girls in Gilead takes the story of the Levite and his concubine from Judges 19 and 20 completely out of context. But there are plenty of real-life examples, both historic and current, of hypocrisy and the cherry-picking of Scripture, from the conduct of Jerry Falwell Jr., to white pastors in 19th-century America who took Scripture out of context to justify chattel slavery. The abortion issue is just another example of hypocrisy, given that the same politicians who are vehemently pro-life as it relates to abortion resist any efforts to control who has access to guns, or strengthen social safety nets to protect children after they are born. It also bothers me that pro-life dialog around this topic seems to put all of the blame and shame of an unintended pregnancy on the shoulders of women when as far as I am aware, the virgin Mary is the only woman in human history who became pregnant without the involvement of a man.

Because of my medical history, I most likely will never be pregnant, which occasionally gives me twinges of sadness because I would love the opportunity to raise a child from infancy someday. So I must admit I could kind of empathize when I heard that some protestors stand outside abortion clinics with signs that say, “I will adopt your baby.” But I am now beginning to understand why women seeking abortions find such signs offensive. As my paper will explain, the Bible never explicitly addresses abortion, but there is compelling evidence to suggest that God cherishes the unborn, and that they may possess souls long before birth. But there is also much more direct evidence in Scripture that God values women as more than mere incubators. Carrying an unwanted pregnancy can be traumatic, even dangerous, especially for women of color, and the motives of people like me are actually quite selfish given that there are already thousands of older children, even teenagers in the foster care system who need loving forever homes.

All this is to say that as I have learned more about the abortion issue since the overturn of Roe v. Wade, my views on abortion have become more nuanced since I wrote my paper. Politicians whose Christianity and pro-life position is genuine would support positive legislation that indirectly encourages women to choose life, such as legislation that strengthens social safety nets and garantees universal access to health care, while having the humility to recognize that as politicians, they are not experts in all of the difficult real-world situations that lead to abortion, and therefore should not enact rigid laws banning it. Since science and medicine are aspects of God’s general revelation to all of humanity, doctors should have no fear providing medical care that technically involves abortion, and legislators should trust women and their doctors to privately decide what is in the best interest of all parties on a case-by-case basis rather than setting arbitrary limits on when abortion is permissible.

I am pro-life, and I believe that from the moment of conception, embryos should be respected as far more sacred than just a clump of cells. But I also believe that sincere Christianity should define pro-life in far broader terms than the abortion issue. Furthermore, Christians also need to have the humility to recognize that as compelling as passages like Luke 1:41 (when John the Baptist leaped in Elizabeth’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice) are for us in-house, theologians disagree on how literally to interpret this, and other passages related to the unborn. So we must accept that this idea that life begins at conception is not a universal view imparted through general revelation on the consciences of all humanity, but a perspective gleaned from God’s special revelation in Scripture. As Christians, we can and should share the gospel on an individual level by praying to the Holy Spirit for guidance in gently, lovingly encouraging friends, family, coworkers who may reach out to us to choose life. Yet there is no ambiguity as to how to interpret verses where Jesus calls us to have compassion for the poor, the refugee seeking asylum, women, and these values have also been imparted on the conscience of the vast majority of humanity, as evidenced by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was drafted by people from diverse nationalities and religious backgrounds, and was passed in 1948 by the United Nations in response to the atrocities of World War II and the Holocaust. Legislation should focus on these universal human rights, many of which the United States has room for improvement in recognizing. But we should leave the judgment of women who seek abortion to God. Jesus, who was all-powerful and without sin, never coerced people to adhere to his teachings, but drew people to him through love, mercy, compassion. If the Christian faith and pro-life views of politicians and pro-life lobbyists were sincere, they would do the same.

Published by Allison Nastoff

As I write this in 2020, I am 30 years old. I am blind, and Gilbert was my first guide dog. He passed away on December 2, 2020, but I decided to keep the title for my blog as a tribute to him because he will always hold a special place in my heart. In 2012, I earned a Bachelor of Science in Communication with a journalism emphasis, and went back to school for a Paralegal certificate in 2014. I worked for five years at a Social Security disability firm. When the pandemic hit, I did some reflecting and decided to resign from this job and take seminary courses. My dream is a career as a teacher or writer where I can be a blessing to others.

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