As a liberal Protestant minister in the United Church of Christ, I’m weighing in a discussion that is internal to the evangelical world. As a gay person who has been on the left all ny adult life, I question whether my input would be welcomed in the world that John Piper and other pro lifers inhabit. But I also teach ethics at Montana State University Billings and a recent attack on Pro Life Christians for Biden from a former ethics professor caught my attention.
In my years as a seminary professor of ethics (Knox Theological Seminary, 2000–2008), I saw few things more sinister and devious than the seemingly innocuous statement, “a biblically shaped commitment to the sanctity of human life compels us to a consistent ethic of life that affirms the sanctity of human life from beginning to end.”
This use of the term “pro-life” runs directly contrary to standard dictionary definitions, all which define “pro-life” as opposition to abortion — not opposition to hunger, not opposition to poverty, not opposition to practices that lead to poor health — opposition to abortion.
There is a point here. To be pro choice in normal American political speak is to believe that abortion should be largely legal in most cases. To be pro life is to believe that abortion should largely be illegal in most cases.
The problem is with the term itself. The folks wanting to make abortion illegal did not go with the term “anti abortion”.
They went with the language of life in general. They borrowed heavily from the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion as the church couched its opposition to abortion to a broader claim about the “sanctity of life”, that the church wanted to create a “culture of life”. That is, the evangelical world’s opposition to abortion connected up to the Catholic Church’s opposition from the late 1970s onwards and so did their language.
And after all, anti abortion is a negative term. It’s hard to build a movement on a negative.
But a broader vision of life is a compelling narrative. And the right has seized it in its abortion politics. But if the left notices that the evangelical right has little interest in life when it comes to the death penalty, Covid, the lack of health care access, the issue of poverty, the environment and climate change, that is not the left changing the terms. It’s really reflecting on the Catholic language the anti abortion movement has used throughout its career.
Far worse, “Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden” demonstrates two serious failures in ethical thinking: the failure to distinguish between intentional and accidental harm
In abortion, every “successful” procedure intentionally kills a human being. Poverty, lack of health care, and smoking often lead to poor health and sometimes to death, but none of them involves someone intentionally killing another person, neither does climate change.
This is the distinction that the entire weight of the article rests. Aristotle addresses almost 2400 years ago in his ethics. Because while there may be a point of intentional harm and unintentional harm, direct and indirect harms, there are a lot of questions to raise about what constitutes unintentional and indirect harm.
Take Covid for example. The arrival of the virus in the US is certainly no one’s fault. And yet Trump is blamed, not for the advent of the virus but for his response. According to Columbia 130,000 to 210,000 deaths due to Covid were avoidable in the US. But the US government under Trump choose a different path.
- When the virus arrived no system of testing and contract tracing was set up. Fear of testing was based on Trump’s fear that his re-election chances would be affected if Covid was acknowledged as a serious concern.
- When the first surge of Covid hit, the federal government refused to aid states in procuring the personal protective equipment and medical supplies that could allow hospitals to care for those affected by the virus.
- States competed with each other instead of having any federal coordination, sometimes seeing their supplies stole by the feds., with extra concern not to help “blue states” as a bid to help Trump’s re-election.
- The ending of international cooperation in dealing with Covid and securing a vaccine. This includes pulling out of the WHO, stealing PPE supplies bound for other nations, threatening to lock out other countries from a vaccine.
- The push to reopen from lockdowns before any system of testing and contract tracing could be established.. Opening high risk areas like bars, restaurants, churches. The politicization of the lockdowns as a left vs right issue by the Trump administration.
- The politicization of masks, the most effective measure we have to prevent transmission of Covid. The politicization of social distancing, where the GOP and the religious right openly flaunt protective measures.
- The failure to provide economic support for states that had locked down, the failure to provide needed stimulus to hospitals, first responders, to an economy hit hard by Covid. It is impossible to stop activities that spread Covid without such relief.
- The sidelining of the Centers for Disease Control, state health departments whose message on Covid has been consistent. The search for wild cures with no scientific data backing them up, politicizing our public health officials.
There is more to be said about the Trump response but my guess is that this area would fall into indirect and accidental harm according to the evangelical author E. Calvin Beisner who I am responding to in this post. But is it?
Here’s what we know. Trump was made aware in January about the seriousness of Covid and he decided to do nothing about this, not even to alert the American people. Though the administration did alert top donors. So there was no lack of knowledge, a key condition of what makes a response unintentional.
This awareness was ongoing so much so that the Trump administration started to sideline the CDC and other public health officials because their cries of alarm did not fit the political goals of this administration.
If you act with knowledge in ways that harm people, you have moved from unintentional to intentional harm. If you claim ignorance, you would be mistaken. Every nation whether led by left or right governments, in the western world, largely followed science based solutions and came out better than the US. Every warning given to this administration was ignored. If you ignore information you don’t want to deal with, this does not reduce your culpability.
For Aristotle, you can be held account for actions, where you should have been in a position to know the harm you were causing, You cannot claim ignorance in this case. If you actively seek to avoid the information given to you, you are responsible nonetheless. If you lack any diligence to get the best information, you are also responsible.
Also it’s hard to imagine a more direct form of causation then government responses to a pandemic. Positive decisions are made which directly bear on the ability to reduce transmission and support our health care system. Consistently Trump’s decisions helped spread Covid and cripple any affective response to it.
But unless Trump directly gave an individual Covid, maybe it’s still indirect? Again the White House has been ravaged with Covid, his campaign stops produce the same result. Setting that side, if it has to be an individual to individual action, then nothing the government does, including on abortion, can be held to account.
After all Biden is not directing people to have abortions. He is not personally assisting in any abortions. It is women who have abortions, not the government. So how can Biden or Trump be held to account over the question of abortion? Presumably the author would say because Biden wants it to be largely legal. But that is indirect. As indirect as every other issue raised from Covid to lack of health care access to climate change and our policies responding to it.
Maybe Biden should know if abortion is legal there would be more abortions. Though it is important to note that under the Obama and Biden administration abortions declined so maybe not. But we do know mortality rates increase when folks do not have health insurance and yet this author does not fault Trump and the right from seeking to overturn the Affordable Care Act and the resulting Medicaid expansion which saves tens of thousands of lives every year.
The hard distinctions that this author’s essay raises do not hold for public policy that bear on the questions of life and death. Especially when so many of the areas are solved issues. That is, we know what works to address issues like reducing carbon, increasing health care coverage, limiting the spread of Covid. Our failure is not for lack of knowledge. It’s because our politics are broken. And the religious right is not incidental to why this is the case.
Addendum: I never dealt with the ethics of abortion in this piece. Only to note that a discussion about abortion that does not include women’s lives and health is itself morally bankrupt.
Dwight Welch is the campus minister at United Campus Ministry at Montana State University Billings