Reframing the Abortion Question
I recently had the privilege of reviewing B&H Academic's Taking Christian Moral Thought Seriously. It might surprise some to know that I don't have my position on ethics entirely lined up (you can read my review of IVP's Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethics: An Introduction to Theories of Right and Wrong). I've spent time in well defined camps and felt at odds with things here or there. One of the major reasons I feel this way is because I'm still in the process of nailing down certain philosophical positions (in particular the effects and presumptions of individualism) that I see the Scriptures addressing at best loosely.
In light of this confession, I need to pour some more glory and recognition on the amazing article "Reframing the Abortion Question" written by James Noland. Coming near the conclusion of Taking Christian Moral Thought Seriously it brought a stirring of many thoughts concerning incorrect assumption about individualism. I do not want to dig too deep here for fear that you won't buy the book. Let me simply state, Noland's essays are worth the price of the book in my opinion (for those local readers you should borrow it from my library). Both discussion assumptions stemming from the Enlightenment that have gone unquestioned for too long. To peak your interest, let me walk through a portion of what I found wonderful about Noland's second essay.
The crucial point in Noland's essay on abortion comes down to discussions of personhood. This has occurred in modern discussion in order to acquire "rights" for babies. The modern debate over abortion has more or less revolved around this subject (at least in the social/viral forms) and led to some oversimplifications. One outcome of this thinking is that Christians have sought to define personhood at conception. This is believed to ensure rights and protect life. Without forgetting that abortion is an awful sin, Noland argues the discussion and fight over rights is a particularly western issue and rather abstracted from Christianity,
It is not incidental but profoundly significant that in all of his moral teachings Jesus never talks about rights. Thinking of morality in terms of rights follows from the mistaken belief that at base persons are individuals, that they belong to themselves, and that any and all obligations or ends they may have or pursue only obtain when chosen by these self determining agents. This understanding of personhood leads to talk of rights only because such agents will inevitably choose ends that conflict with ends chosen by others and there must be some way for each individual to navigate around the others and resolve disputes when they arise. (122)
Noland's suggestion is that this exalts individualism to an unhealthy extreme. A person is truly a person in their relationships and not just in themselves. When we focus on individuals it becomes possible to speak of the person baby vs the person mother. This pits "rights" of one individual against the other individual. But this fundamentally undermines that these two people, both baby and mother, and their relationship to each other are fundamental to their personhood,
When we assume that personhood is a property or set of properties an isolated individual can be identified as either having or not having, we necessarily then also assume any relations this individual has to anyone or anything are nonessential properties. That is, we necessarily assume that these relations could be changed without changing the essential identity of the person. (118-119)
Noland goes on to describe how teleology is absent from this understanding of personhood and why this lack of telos ultimately explains why non-Christians are unmoved by arguments from Psalm 139 and Jeremiah 1. Because I want to preserve the content of the essay, I'll have to stop short of how Noland details we think about personhood. However, I will state briefly that Noland's perspective provides fascinating benefits for discussions on adoption and infant baptism. For those seeking a thought provoking read that goes counter the current arguments I highly recommend Taking Christian Moral Thought Seriously.