Dr. Peter Bouteneff - Abortion
November 02, 2012 Length: 46:15Dr. Bouteneff is the speaker on “Sweeter Than Honey,” an Ancient Faith Radio podcast. He is an Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary. In this talk he presents two approaches to the problem of abortion in the Orthodox community and where the two sides can come together.
Let me begin by saying I’m very, very grateful to be present here, to be invited to speak with you. I’m grateful for the wisdom and insight that went into conceiving and organizing this institute. Inviting me as the keynote speaker may have been your only lapse in wisdom, but, seriously, I thank Carole and her whole staff and everyone who was involved in organizing this and in conceiving it. I think choosing this topic of “culture, morality, and spirituality” and assembling such a thoughtful and experienced group of persons is a wonderful, wonderful thing. And thank you all for being here.
The relationship between the Church and the world is a perennial subject for reflection, deliberation. Christ himself is in the world, yet not of the world. This double assertion is almost limitlessly profound, especially when we see it as addressed also to us, the Church. It means that the vocation of the Church is to be simultaneously prophetic to the world as a voice from outside its fallen character, but also deeply lodged in the world, knowing it and co-suffering with it in Christ.
But how exactly do we configure the in and the not of? How do we balance a solidarity with the world and a distance from it? What exactly does our Lord even mean by “the world,” this world that he at the same time loves and gives his life for and this world that he sees as “very good” and at the same time is fallen and to be renounced? These questions can seem abstract, but they become very real very quickly in every age at every place. Again, it’s good to see these very questions being discussed here in honest, searching, and in Church-grounded ways. May the Lord himself, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, continually bless these days of reflection, that they may be filled with his wisdom, his truth, his life, and his love.
Many of the questions we deal with here in this little community that we’ve formed for this weekend, within the larger community of the Church, are difficult and painful questions. They have to do with life, death, love, not to mention sex. All of these will arouse powerful feelings in us, and I think we have to make a conscious commitment to be charitable with each other as we hear one another out. So as we ask God’s blessing on our time together, let’s make a covenant to each other that we’ll try to hear each other out, that we’ll listen patiently, that we’ll presume good intentions and genuine faith on the part of whoever is speaking, whether from the podium or in the discussions and workshops. Shall we make such a covenant to each other?
I know I need it from you. I specifically ask that you’re charitable with me this evening, as my own remarks will focus on a topic of life issues, specifically on the topic of abortion, all topics that summon heated reactions. Part of what I want to do this evening is meant to encourage us by trying to shed fresh light on the issues so that we can see how much we actually agree on as Orthodox Christians.
In the case of abortion, I honestly don’t know of any Orthodox Christian who argues against the idea that abortion is the termination of a human life, that life begins in the womb, that life is sacred in and outside the womb, and is to be preserved. Would we not say that there is consensus on this absolutely vital fact? This stance that we hold in common distances us from much, though not all, of society outside the Church. We agree on this. Where we disagree, it seems to me, is partly how we talk about abortion, but more so in how that belief in the sanctity of life, both inside and outside the womb, should translate into our actions, specifically into our advocacy before the state and into legislation in contemporary American society.
A great number of Orthodox Christians argue strongly and publicly for the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and a great number of Orthodox Christians argue that abortion for the time being should remain legal for reasons I will go into. This is where the disagreement lies. It remains a substantial difference of vision, but it does not have to do with how we regard life in and out of the womb. It has everything to do with practical and pastoral implications. In other words, it is lodged precisely with how the Church is to relate to the world, and it reflects the tension surrounding on how to configure in the world and not of the world.
When we consider that there are at least a million abortions a year in the U.S., the view that abortion should be illegalized immediately—let’s call this the prohibition view—is easy to defend and doesn’t require a lot of explanation. Make it illegal now, and stem the enormous tide of tragic loss of life. The opinion that it should remain legal for now—let’s call this the conversion view—stems from the same motivation: stemming the tide of abortion. The difference is that in this view, legislation against abortion must be preceded by a greater conversion of the culture.
The argument here goes that the American people are simply not ready for the legislation against abortion, and that the Church’s prophetic task lies with the conversion of minds and hearts in such a way that the proper legislation against abortion will be the natural outcome. I will explore that disagreement further in order to illustrate the tension between in the world and not of the world, because I think that’s really at the heart of what we’re called to reflect on together at this institute.
But I raise it here also because I think that the abortion question within the Orthodox Church gets sometimes portrayed in a misleading way. The two sides of the issue have misrepresented each other, and at times possibly even themselves, causing an undue inner conflict. Those of the prohibition view, who seek the immediate repeal of Roe v. Wade, are not entirely honest sometimes when they exclusively associate their position with the title “pro-life.” The implicit and sometimes explicit result is that Orthodox holding the conversionist view are “anti-life” or at least or “pro-choice,” which is a term that connotes a heartless disregard for life in the womb. Likewise, it is too easy for people of the conversion view to pigeon-hole those who advocate the illegalization of abortion as heartless, unthinking, or self-righteous.
What about the language of culture wars? Surely it can sometimes be apt, in pointing to the existence of people who really don’t see a problem with the termination or the threatening of life in the womb, whether through abortion or reproductive or therapeutic technology. There is a war, as it were, between these and people like us who see life and human personhood as a genuine continuum from conception to resurrection.
But the culture war’s language is not properly applied to demonize people within the Church who believe differently from us, whoever they are. For example, there are those who [say], “How do you believe that there is a large and influential group in the Orthodox Church that does not believe life in the womb is sacred, that is soft on abortion, a cabal that is shaping Church policy and politics?” This is basically a conspiracy theory. Tempting, maybe; exciting, and false.
I think our job is to be careful and identify the actual points of disagreement among us in the Church, and then engage that disagreement thoughtfully and prayerfully, rather than point to ourselves as righteous heroes whose argument is self-evident, and to the others as depraved, as both sides are wont to do. This is so important, because we have to be in the business of fostering genuine communication and communion with one another, and also because we have a crucial responsibility before this society, however we configure in the world, not of the world dimensions of the Church’s vocation. Our voice will be stronger if it can be seen to come from a place of genuine reflection and common conviction in the sanctity of life.
Back to our two basic views. I’m calling the first view “prohibition,” because its chief priority lies with the prohibition of abortion, whether with or without certain exceptions. I’m calling the second view “conversion,” because it seeks to convert people to a place where abortion is virtually unthinkable. I’m aware there’s overlap here, because the prohibitionists seek conversion of the people, and the conversionists seek to prohibit and seek the end of abortion. The difference, again, lies with the means to the end.
Let’s look a little bit deeper into the positions of each, as I try to describe them dispassionately. Please bear with me.
Conversionists will argue from two basic points. First, it’s not proper for the Church to legislate its ethics in a universal fashion. Second, no law will truly be effective and right that does not emanate genuinely from the collective heart of the governed. No law will last, no law will endure, that does not emanate from the collective will of the governed.
Let’s focus first on the first point. The conversionists’ argument is taken from the gospel accounts of Jesus’ relationship to the state. Christ’s charge to “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” would seem to support what we have today as a sharp separation between Church and state. More generally speaking, Christ preached in different ways to his own disciples than he did to the outsiders. He is focused on the lost sheep of Israel, and on those who have ears to hear. He’s focused on the ones who ask him about his parables. If you recall the parable of the sower, it’s the disciples who come up to him and ask him, and it’s [they] who get the explanation, and the others, Christ says, [are] not worth talking to right now.
He did not seek to overthrow Roman rule. His rebuke of sin and his forgiveness of sin was never forced. It was furthermore geared not to governments but to particular persons, and he would always ask in his healing and forgiving ministry, “What do you want? Do you want to be made whole?” The logic would then go that the Church, even as it understands its beliefs and its morality as a universal truth, should not seek to universally legislate it. So that’s one argument of the conversionist.
Let’s pause for a moment and consider a few factors in Church-state relations. Because this tension that we’re exploring between the morality of the Church and that of the state, the tension pertains only to a few cases, because society generally does outlaw the things that the Church would outlaw, like murder and abuse and theft and other bad conduct. The big exceptions are—and it’s no coincidence that these are the big hot-button issues today—abortion and same-sex marriage. In those cases, the Church’s morality is at tension with very large swaths of society.
The question of marriage as it pertained to Church and state was addressed by C.S. Lewis in perhaps surprising ways, when he considered the question of divorce. Raising the question of whether Christians should embody their views on divorce and have them reflected into laws in Britain about divorce, he says—this is from Mere Christianity:
A great many people seem to think that if you’re Christian yourself, you should try to make divorce difficult for everyone. I do not think that. At least I know I should be very angry if the Mohammedans tried to prevent the rest of us from drinking wine. My own view is that the churches should recognize that the majority of the British people are not Christians and therefore cannot be expected to live Christian lives.
So he advocates separating Christian marriage from secular marriage with concomitant expectations for each. That very logic is carried over by some Christians who argue that, although the Church teaches clearly and consistently that marriage is between a man and a woman, we can’t expect the whole of society to abide by that teaching, and therefore should not expect the government to prohibit same-sex unions. I wonder if C.S. Lewis himself could have been pushed so far.
All I’m doing at the moment is trying to open up this logic a little bit that separates the morality from the Church, and, you could say with a certain brand of realism, admits that it would be impossible or unrealistic to impose that morality on the entirety of society through law. That’s the logic of it.
At any rate, the premise lies in the recognition of a sharp divide between the insider—in our case, the orthodox Christian, with a small /o/—and the rest of society, acknowledging that the Christianization of society cannot and should not happen by force, because if we were consistent, then we would push for the criminalization of adultery and any other sexual activity outside heterosexual monogamous marriage, as we teach in the Church. So that’s the first argument of the conversionist.
To this, the prohibitionist would respond with force that although Jesus did not seek to overthrow Roman rule or preach to it, he decried the scandalous hypocrisy of Jewish laws, including those that pertained to marriage. He taught a clear morality that overturned the prevailing laws and sensibilities of the temple. Furthermore, especially once the Church left the confines of the catacombs and became part of the wider society, including its government, it could frequently be seen to preach to the ruling authorities, calling out their hypocrisy on a range of issues.
Think of St. John Chrysostom’s preaching on the wealth and paganism of the authorities of his day. The Church can’t exist in a bubble, and it can’t subscribe to this facile dualism that separates the insiders from the outsiders so sharply. If the Church is the kingdom of God on earth, the Church’s responsibility is to cooperate in God’s work of inaugurating that kingdom universally. So that’s the response of the prohibitionist to the conversionist.
The second argument of the conversionist is that the primary function and logic of law is to express the common will of the people, not to steer it. That would entail that before the U.S. enjoys a vast majority of people who oppose abortion in their hearts, its criminalization is both inappropriate and doomed not to endure. The relationship between law and popular will is a matter of lively debate among judicial theorists and is never finally a matter of either/or. Does the law express the common will or does the law shape the common will? It’s more a question of the degree to which law arises from the people or is an instrument of shaping their inner will.
That being the case, the response from the prohibitionist will point to a potent example in American history: slavery and its abolition. Abolition was brought into law well before it could be called anything near popular consensus or expressive of a broadly common will. No, slavery was abolished, and over a painful period of time, slavery came to be seen as a wrong on a near-universal scale. And so should it be with the banning of abortion; the universal conversion will follow the legislation. That’s the response.
So the question is: now what? I’ve presented two views as fairly as I could at the moment. I’m sure to be leaving out some important nuances, but where does it leave us? For one, I hope to have shown that whatever side you find yourself on, it’s less easy to think of the other side as morally or spiritually or intellectually depraved. There’s a logic to both positions. And I hope to have shown that people on both sides agree on what is most important, namely, the sanctity of human life in and out of the womb. And I hope to have been of help by identifying the actual locus of disagreement, at least how I see it, because then that can be where we put our energy.
But there are other places we can go from here, and what I’d like to do for the rest of my talk this evening is to identify the areas that we can all work on, that we can all bear in mind, and all bring as a prophetic word to this society, regardless of our views on the separation of Church and state, regardless of our view on the nature and proper function of law. I have, I think, five, if I remember correctly, of these areas that we can work on together, or kind of take up together.
One: a consistent pro-life ethic. It’s become common to point out that if we are indeed pro-life, this orientation has to carry through all its implications. “From the womb to the tomb,” as it is sometimes said. Sometimes people try to pigeon-hole the pro-life position as referring exclusively to the unborn. An editorial from just the other day in the New York Times expressed frustration that the term “pro-life” too often applies to people for whom the sanctity of life begins at conception and ends at birth. There’s a sense that some of us in our good-willed intentions focus too much on life in the womb, and I think we’d all agree that pro-life issues have to extend with equal rigor to matters of poverty, education, healthcare, gun control, capital punishment, and care for the environment. All of these issues have controversy attached to them, and we may not all agree on how they are all configured, but we have to agree that they are all emphatically life-and-death issues.
The reason that abortion has been more in the spotlight in the life debates is that however one reasons the effects of poverty, education, healthcare, capital punishment, nobody disagrees that in these cases, you’re reasoning about human life, whereas, when it comes to abortion, there is a broad swath of people that is unwilling to call it human life, especially at its earliest stages of development. I’ll say more about them below, but for the present argument, we have to show why it is that pro-life advocacy usually and rightly begins with the fight for those in the womb.
But my point for this moment is that it shouldn’t end there. Our inner integrity is at stake, as well as our credibility before a society that is justly outraged that self-titled pro-life Christians don’t spend more time talking about the wider range of life issues. The Fathers certainly did, and we have to.
Second: I just mentioned poverty as a life issue, and that’s primarily because poor people die sooner than rich people. They die sooner than rich people, and that’s because of healthcare, education, environment, and a host of issues. More poor people than rich are in prisons. More poor people than rich are in the military. They die sooner. But another important statistic relative to us tonight is that more poor people have abortions by far than rich people. You could raise the question of cause and effect—why is it the case?—and the answer would, again, lie with education, healthcare, and a whole matrix of issues.
But it has been argued that the redressing of poverty is a vital part of the stemming of the tide of abortion, which is our common goal. The political right and the political left have differing views on how poverty is to be addressed, and it’s not mine to adjudicate between them in the present setting. The point is that we have to make the redressing of poverty a priority, both for its own sake and as a crucial part of our recognition of the sanctity of life in and outside of the womb.
Three: common legal efforts. I would argue that regardless of where you locate yourself, in the prohibition-conversion continuum, in other words, whether you think that people need to be steered away from abortion by the threat of jail or need to be converted to that position first, there are things that we all should fight for to give proof to our conviction of the sanctity of life in the womb. On the one hand, we see life in the womb as a perfect continuum from its earliest formation, after which point it must be preserved. On the other hand, a fight to end all late-term abortion is something that seems to me we can do in the interim, simply because it’s more broadly understandable, relatable to a larger group of people. Likewise, the battle against being forced to subsidize abortion is appropriate, whatever one’s view on prohibition or conversion. Likewise, we have to be fiercely vigilant and scientifically informed about all technologies that threaten unborn life, whether reproductive or curative, because conversion is about pastoral realities on the way to making abortion a thing of the past. It’s not about completely giving up our moral principles and ceding them to the state until some undetermined time in the future when everybody miraculously converts to it. Our position on the sanctity of life does need to be known.
My fourth and final point is: How do we make our case in common? And my fourth point has three sub-points. Once again, regardless of our stance on prohibition or conversion, we have the common task before us of making our priorities known and making them comprehensible. That’s going to involve sociology/psychology, theology, and a sense of pastoral considerations.
First what you might call broadly sociological considerations. I want to turn to something that I mentioned earlier, and that is how people are or are not able to wrap their minds around the idea of a fetus in the womb as a human person. For the moment, I am not talking about the legislation that would rule the fetus as a human being, subject to exactly the same rights as a born person, which has all variety of implications. What I am referring to is how people understand life in the womb: specific people, how they understand it, and what that means for their concept of abortion.
Some of us use the language of abortion as murder. How does that work and how does that not work? It works if we follow the following simple syllogism, equation: A. Life in the womb is sacred because it is human life. B. That means that the fetus or embryo in the womb is a human being, and C. Killing a human being is murder, ergo, abortion is murder. How does it not work? Well, I think we have to recognize that all of us, without exception, relate differently to that little beautiful creation at different moments of its development, and how we understand “human” has to do with that relationship.
The whole subject of this talk is, at points, painful and uncomfortable. Please forgive me if I enter now some even more difficult territory and painful territory in what I’m about to say. Some of us here have experienced miscarriages, and only you can know how devastating that is. It’s terribly difficult, and all the more difficult the later it happens in term, but what of the death of freshly fertilized egg? This is something that happens constantly without people’s even knowing it, through menstruation. We don’t mourn it to the same degree, nor could we; otherwise, we would burst, because it happens so much.
This psychology holds even more for secular society. Understanding life in the womb at these earliest stages as a human person is almost impossible for them, and therefore aborting it, while always difficult, both psychology and physically for any human being, tends to rest on a different emotional plane than it would for us, and I know there are exceptions: women who spend the rest of their lives mourning their aborted little fetus, and this I respect very, very greatly, but it’s not the rule. And the mourning of the fertilized egg lost through menstruation, the mourning of the miscarried embryo, the mourning of the late-term death, are all on a different scale emotionally, and still different from the mourning of the death of one who is actually born. We have to acknowledge this, and so simply calling abortion “murder,” even if it’s somehow technically accurate, helps no one, because it reaches no one except those of us who already see life as we do.
Turning to something a little bit more inspiring, some people actually get it. Often, they get it no thanks to those of us who are screaming at them. A very deeply inspiring report I read just three weeks ago on the e-magazine Slate.com. A scientist at Kyoto University, Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, was moved to develop a stem-cell technology that no longer required the sacrifice or emperilling of embryos. Why did he feel compelled to do so? And now I’m quoting the article:
He looked down the microscope at one of the human embryos stored at the clinic, and that glimpse changed his scientific career. He said, “When I saw the embryo, I suddenly realized there was such a small difference between it and my daughters. I thought, ‘We can’t keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way.’ ”
So he realized there’s virtually no difference between an embryo and a child. He got it—makes you want to jump up and down for joy—and it changed his life and his research.
And that leads me to the next way that we have to make our case together. Part of these psychological concerns have to be translated into theological considerations. Allow me to get a little bit theological now, a bit technical. When we think theologically in the Church, you will notice that we always define things according to what they are supposed to be. We define things according to God’s will for that thing, and therefore we define the Church, for example, as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, even though the Church that we encounter in the world is often fractured and often exhibits sinfulness. Even when we experience sin in the Church, we can’t define the Church in terms of sin and fracture, because that would be completely backwards. No, the Church to which we belong, in which we profess our faith, is and is becoming one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.
And guess what? It’s the same thing for human beings. What is a human person? By definition? Theologically? A human person is made in the image and likeness of God, a being who is fully free and freely and sinlessly chooses communion with God and with the other and with the world. That’s a human person, my friends. Communion entails a sense of relationship at the very deepest levels. What does this mean for you and me? Does that definition— Excuse me for a second. My computer is doing strange things. I just defined the human person right as… Yes, fully free, freely and sinlessly choosing communion with God and the world. Does this definition describe you? I wish that it described me. My point is that we are all human beings in potential. We are all on the way. We are all becoming human. This book title of Carol Rey’s, A Journey to Human Authenticity: we are all on that journey.
The next time someone says that an embryo is not human because it is not in a full, free, mutual relationship with other people, with the world, and with God, the first question you can ask is, “How do you know it isn’t?” And then you can ask, “Are you?” And then you can ask, “Are you fully human in relationship and relational and in communion when you’re asleep? What about people who are anti-social or autistic? Are they less than human? No.” The point is that we are all human beings in potential. We’re all human beings under development, from the womb to the tomb.
And that development is to be protected; it is to be nourished. Dr. Yamanaka got it. He saw that there’s no difference between potential and actual. It’s only a difference of time, and what’s time anyway? There’s no difference between what’s in the womb and what’s outside it; it’s all a continuum, and that’s the connection that we have to help people to make, in their minds, in their hearts, and, if it comes to it, in terms of theology. That’s what we have to do with people, wherever they happen to be on their journey, whether we are prohibitionists or conversionists.
And C: pastoral considerations. Whenever I hear the word “pastoral,” it means two things to me. One is cultivating an understanding of myself, and the other is cultivating an understanding of who it is that God has placed before me. The pastoral vocation is a reflective vocation and a listening vocation before it is a speaking one.
First on the reflective side: when it comes to reaching people on issues of life in the womb, the first thing I, Peter, might consider regarding myself is that I am not a woman. This places me at a very particular remove from anyone who has ever considered having an abortion, has undergone one, or anyone who has borne a child inside her own body. That fact should humble me somewhat. It doesn’t need to silence me entirely; I just need to be aware of it. And each of us, women and men, can take cognizance of what their relation is to this whole question.
Second, on the listening side: [whom] am I talking to? What are they ready to hear? To hear from me, now? What is the next step that this person can take to come closer to Christ? To come closer to understanding God and humanity? And what might I do to help them take that step? And if it happens that that person is in a stage of crisis, either before or after an abortion, what must I do to be Christ for her? To be the place of refuge, a place to turn as we work together on dealing with this tragedy?
One thing that this person probably doesn’t need is to be preached at. At some point, we’re going to want to get to that place where we realize together that life is sacred in the womb. She probably has a sense of that already, but with most people whom God may place before us, we probably aren’t going to get there with the language of murder. There are exceptions to every rule, I suppose, but I’m asking us to consider carefully and prayerfully who we are and who it is that we’re addressing in a particular setting.
Forgive me. What I’ve tried to this evening is try to shed a little light on an issue that is front and center in our lives and in our identity as Church. Began by focusing on what it is that we agree on, because that is of huge significance. We agree that the Church, which is the body of Christ and the ongoing life of the incarnation, is both in the world and not of the world. It is incarnate in living human beings, in history, in all the ambiguities of history. It is here and now. It is also sent into the fallen world as the voice of the Lord with the prophetic message, the healing message. How do we configure these: solidarity with the world, yet standing apart from it, as Church and as particular persons? And I’ve suggested that even as we all agree that sacred life begins in the womb.
We’re at odds with each other on how we should approach this legally, and sometimes even pastorally, and I’ve tried to clarify both sides of that argument. I then suggested a few things that we could all do with one voice, whichever our position on the immediate legal action that should be taken. One was to make our pro-life stance into something that’s consistent from the womb to the tomb. Another was to take special consideration of the socio-economic factors that effect the abortion numbers that all of us want to reduce to zero. And another was what we need to say to people to help them realize why life in the womb is life, and how we are all, from the womb onward, on our way to becoming human persons.
I would conclude with a very brief reflection that applies not only to our particular theme of this evening—abortion—but to all the themes under the umbrella of “culture, morality, and spirituality.” That’s a reflection on the prophetic voice, because a lot of what we’re talking about is how the Church is to exercise that voice and how you and I are to exercise the prophetic voice to the world.
When we do take upon ourselves, as Christians, the responsibility of the prophetic voice, let’s recall two things. One is that discerning the prophetic voice is a very serious matter, and that it’s possible to be in delusion, which is why the world knows many false prophets. Take care. As it says in 2 Peter, no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. But the other thing to remember, I think, is to discern the multiple dimensions of what the saints consider to be prophetic. One side of prophecy we know well. It is the rebuke of society or religious authority that has lost its bearings, that has forgotten God, that neglects the neighbor, and that mistreats the environment. But there is another, equally vital side, to prophecy, and in fact it’s the only characteristic of prophecy that is mentioned by St. Paul.
St. Paul says, right after his famous words in 1 Corinthians 13 about love—love that is patient and kind, love that is never arrogant and rude—he says, he who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding, encouragement, and consolation. He who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding, encouragement, and consolation. And so, brothers and sisters, in all of this, let’s deliberate with one another in prayer and love, and speak to the world with one truly prophetic voice. Thank you for your attention.
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