Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
June 3rd, 2015 by Joel Watts

No, a Methodist minister did not justify abortion with the claim of original sin

English: Marie of the Incarnation (1566-1618)

English: Marie of the Incarnation (1566-1618) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The ultimate source of all truth on the internet, LifeNews, has been linked to and shared without fact checking a link to a post that misuses (lies?) about John Swomley‘s defense of abortion. Then you have plenty of other people who aren’t fact checking.

The essay can be found in  Compulsory Pregnancy: the War against American Women (Amherst, New York: Humanist Press, 1999) and online, here. The article was first published in 1997. Please read that before you read my commentary.

The blogger and then LifeNews posted this quote:

The first claim is that society should protect innocent human life that is unable to protect itself. The term “innocent,” originally used by various popes, refers to fetal life which has committed no sin. Yet the Roman Catholic Church has proclaimed only one person, Mary, the Mother of Jesus, as having an immaculate conception and hence free from original sin. In any event, public policy cannot be founded on theological claims to innocence.

There is another meaning of “innocence” which comes from two Latin words, in (not) and nocere (to harm), and therefore means “not harmful or dangerous.” However, it is precisely the fact that some pregnant women (and their physicians) view the fetus as harmful or threatening to their health or welfare and hence leads them to consider abortion.

One has to first look at context. Roman Catholics, long before American Protestants did (remember, at one time, even Southern Baptists supported pro-choice initiatives), opposed abortion. Swomley, writing as an ethicist and within the position of the United Methodist Church, was rebutting not merely the post-Roe v. Wade fallout, the Clinton area, but so too the Roman Catholic positions.

As I see it, Swomley is writing against Rome with a heavy hand. But, I will try to not let that shade my understanding of him.

This is the full quote:

Public policy in the United States is and should be guided by scientific considerations rather than theological claims that are inconsistent with medical research. The Constitution of the United States is a secular document which gives no authority to government to legislate theological assertions or to prefer the theological doctrines of one or several religious groups over others. A large number of religious groups in the United States do not accept a “moment of conception” theology or view a fetus as a person or human being.

Public policy must defend the rights of existing living persons as over against religiously based claims made on behalf of fetal life. There are generally three claims made for fetal life other than the claim of human being or personhood, which has been discussed above. The first claim is that society should protect innocent human life that is unable to protect itself. The term “innocent,” originally used by various popes, refers to fetal life which has committed no sin. Yet the Roman Catholic Church has proclaimed only one person, Mary, the Mother of Jesus, as having an “immaculate” conception and hence free from original sin. In any event, public policy cannot be founded on theological claims to innocence.

There is another meaning of “innocence” which comes from two Latin words, in (not) and nocere (to harm), and therefore means “not harmful or dangerous.” However, it is precisely the fact that some pregnant women (and their physicians) view the fetus as harmful or threatening to their health or welfare and hence leads them to consider abortion.

A second claim made on behalf of fetal life is that there is a right to life that takes precedence over the life or health or welfare of the pregnant woman. In discussing this claim we must distinguish between a virtue, that is, doing something that may be considered desirable, and a right. If I am walking along the bank of a river or lake and someone who cannot swim falls or jumps in, we could argue that I ought also to jump in, to rescue the drowning person, even if my own life is at stake. But the person who jumps or falls in cannot claim that I must jump in because he/she has a right to life. The mere fact that I ought to rescue another does not give that person a right against me.

His argument here, is not that abortion is meritorious or allowable on the doctrine of original sin, only that the 1.) theology is not an evidence in determining science or political realities and 2.) the Roman Catholic position can leave some room in arguing against their stated position. So, Swomley first says theology is not to be the determining factor in settling matters and then proceeds to tell you why — because theology is rarely cut and dry.

Note, he is specifically speaking in this claim about the Roman Catholic definition of abortion, which he repeats as: “It is therefore appropriate to accept the official Roman Catholic church definition that any intentional termination of a pregnancy after the moment of conception is an abortion.”

He then attempts to refute that claim from Scripture. I say attempt, because that is for you to decide.

He goes to cite another religious group:

Members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) have a long tradition and witness in opposition to killing of human beings, whether in war or capital punishment or personal violence. On the basis of this tradition, some Friends believe that abortion is always wrong.

Friends also have a tradition of respect for the individual and a belief that all persons should be free to follow their own consciences and the leading of the Spirit. On this basis, some Friends believe that the problem of whether or not to have an abortion, at least in the early months of pregnancy, is one primarily of the pregnant woman herself, and that it is an unwarranted denial of her moral freedom to forbid her to do so.

We do not advocate abortion. We recognize there are those who regard abortion as immoral while others do not. Since these disagreements exist in the country in general as well as within the Society Of Friends, neither view should be imposed by law upon those who hold the other.

Recognizing that differences among Friends exist, nevertheless we find general unity in opposing the effort . . . to say that abortion shall be illegal.

I note his language of “we.” Perhaps he joined, in some way, the Society of Friends.

There are several other statements that should be pointed out:

  • The “rightness” or “wrongness” of abortion as the solution of a problem pregnancy is not the critical issue here. The issue is the larger ethical one: can any one of us stand in the role of judge for the personal decisions of others? What robes shall we wear? Greater than the debatable immorality of terminating an undesired pregnancy is the immorality of refusing a woman access to medical help when she has determined that she needs it.”
  • One answer is that the rights of living persons take precedence over any rights of potential persons, just as immediate or present needs take precedence over probable future or potential needs. This question can also be stated as: What right does anyone have to impose mandatory pregnancy on a woman? The ethical question is not whether abortion can be justified, but whether we focus on an embryo or fetus as the object of value or whether we focus on the woman who as a free moral agent must have freedom of choice.
  • Finally, public policy must conform to constitutional guarantees of separation of church and state. Theological definitions of “human being” and “personhood” or religious rules about sex, the status of women, or reproduction ought not to be written into law unless scientifically validated and required for the health or safety of the state or its citizens.

HIs goal, it seems, is simply to say that one theological group cannot govern the others. This is fair, I think. Further, he is careful in his allowance for abortion. There are very specific issues at play here. Finally, he seems to be okay with outlawing abortion, if it was scientifically grounded. I do think that is a problem, investing too much into science, but I think he is something of a libertarian here.

Let’s not deceive ourselves and others. Our cause cannot stand that. If we are going to attack Swomley on his arguments, let us make sure we get his arguments right.

And in regards to this “pro-life is idolatry” quotes, read his essay. 

Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Comments

4 Responses to “No, a Methodist minister did not justify abortion with the claim of original sin”
  1. I think you left a “Not” out of your title.

  2. Given that this essay was published in 1997, why is it “news” TODAY?

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