Individualism & Abortion
In the blessed downtime from work that I am receiving I have decided to review some things that I have previously read and written. One such book/essay is "Reframing the Abortion Question" by James Noland in B&H's Taking Christian Moral Thought Seriously. I have written on this particular essay in the past, but wished to return with some new eyes to the material.
One of the keep elements of Noland's essay is how the abortion question and debate has drifted from a truly Biblical framework to a worldly one. More specifically, Noland suggests that arguments of "personhood and rights" are more in line with modernist philosophies of individualism than Biblical understanding. Noland's essay seeks to provide a "stronger and more distinctly Christian foundation for the pro-life stance" by "reframing the terms of the debate" (111).
Noland starts by depicting "the received, worldly framework":
"The most common framework for thinking about the morality of abortion is that a conflict between two individuals... This conflict is often considered to be a matter of identifying the presence, and evaluating the relative strength, of the competing rights of the mother and fetus.
If the fetus is deemed a person, so the thinking goes, it must therefore have all the rights a person has, including the right to life. If the fetus is not deemed a person, then it should not qualify as a being with rights, or, at least not of being with rights equal to those of a person." (112-113)
This Noland argues is to drink deeply from the well of individualism. And while he deems these arguments "interesting and important," Noland suggests that this starting basis dislodges Scripture as authority for a scientific idealism of personhood. Noland argues that this framework forces us to think of personhood as "a property, or set of properties" which "can be recognized, in isolation" (116). This puts a tremendous burden to define the "essential features of personhood" that are universally accepted. Noland goes so far as to say that Scripture does not directly address "the question of how personhood is defined or at what stage of development personhood is obtained" (117). This leads Noland to evaluate a set of options for defining "personhood" which even if agreed upon lead to an additional issue—the non-existence of an adequate teleology within individualism:
"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 non-essential properties.
What this means is that, understanding oneself to be a person, one can determine those features essential to one's identity as a person without reference to anyone or anything else. The reason this is so important is that absent from this understanding of personhood is any notion of teleology; that is, on this view it is possible to have a complete understanding of personhood without having any understanding of what persons are for or what they are called to be." (118-119)
If personhood is defined apart from relations, then the purpose of a person is also capable of being defined apart from relations. In fact, almost be necessity it must. This Noland correctly points out is "contrary to the message of the Bible in general and the gospel in particular" (119). Noland concludes stating:
"Assuming this view assuming this view of persons as essentially individuals, as selves whose essences are completely prior to and independently of any relations with or dispositions toward anything outside ourselves, not only lessens the significance of the passages from Jeremiah and Psalms; it also leads us to misread, and therefore either to ignore or misinterpret, other Bible passages that are relevant to our thinking about abortion." (120-121)
One such passage occurs in Genesis 1 with the creation on mankind in imago Dei. Noland contends we would be in error to assume "the imago Dei is bearing a property, the possession of which marks us as persons" (121). Though some Christians have traditionally taken this approach, Noland suggests another approach that also has its threads in the Christian tradition:
"Because God is Trinity, three persons in one, each in perfect loving relationship with the others, part of what it must mean to be made in the image of God is to be necessarily relational beings. This is fundamental to the biblical view of personhood. Just as we cannot begin to understand Jesus as sun without thinking of God the father, so we cannot understand who we are without considering ourselves in relation to God and to each other.
Simiarly, when Jesus tells us that we are to understand other people as our brothers and sisters, it follows that we cannot understand who we are independently of our relationship to them. When Paul writes that each of us is a new creation in Christ, and a member of the body of Christ, he is telling us something about who we are called to be, not just we are called to do." (121-122)
Building off this, Noland points us that is is "profoundly significant that in all of His moral teachings Jesus never talks about rights" (122). To do so is to affirm "that at base persons are individuals...and that any and all obligations or ends they may have or pursue only obtain when chosen by these self-determining agents" (122). This is where the modern discussion on abortion has landed—a back and forth "talk of rights...some way for each individual to navigate around the others and resolve disputes" (122).
At this point in the essay, Noland has merely been critical of a framing of the abortion question in light of personhood and rights. Many of us will recognize this as the only framework we have ever known. But the questions and criticisms that Noland provides are valuable. When time permits, I will discuss the fully "Christian framework" that Noland provides in his essay.