Galatians 5:13-15; 22-23: “You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love. All the Law has been fulfilled in a single statement: love your neighbor as yourself. But if you bite and devour each other, be careful that you don’t get eaten up by each other! I say be guided by the spirit and you won’t carry out your selfish desires. … The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this.” (Common English Bible)
I had an entirely different reflection prepared for this week’s lectionary readings, but our nation’s Supreme Court decisions have stirred up enmity among us, not just within our nation, but within our families and our faith communities. None of this week’s lessons directly addresses Roe v. Wade. But at least one of them addresses what St. Paul considers to be the core of Christian morality: “All the Law has been fulfilled in a single statement: love your neighbor as yourself.”
It’s one of my favorite passages, but of course it doesn’t settle the questions that divide us this week.
When does an organism of the human species (to use strictly biological terms) become “your neighbor,” that is, when does it become a person with rights (to use moral/religious/spiritual terms)? Different faith traditions and different philosophical traditions, and even different scientists, have always given different answers.
Biology, by itself, cannot answer the question. “Person“ and “rights“ are not biological terms. They are, again, terms that different groups define by drawing upon different religious and philosophical traditions.
To speak from my own religious tradition, the biblical writers themselves seem to imply vastly different viewpoints on the status of the unborn (Jeremiah 1:4-5, Psalm 139:13-16, Exodus 21:22-25, Numbers 5:27, Ecclesiastes 11:5), so it’s really dishonest to say that the Bible clearly says anything in particular about it. Later Christian writers also disagreed, drawing on various philosophical speculations about when the soul enters the body. Most of the biblical writers, mind you, would not have known what to make of that question, tending to see the soul and the body as inseparable.
So there is simply no uncontroversial way to answer this question: when does an organism of the human species become our neighbor, a person with rights? When people answer the question emphatically, they are making a leap of faith or of speculation, one that many of good will and sound mind will not share. And when a government answers the question definitively, it is in effect establishing a religion. This I have to oppose.
My own Episcopal Church started out enjoying the privileges of being an established religion, but we have come to see the wisdom of disestablishment. That is why we have opposed governmental interference in a woman’s agonized choosing of whether or not to continue a problematic pregnancy. That would be the establishment of a religious doctrine, or at least an undemonstrable philosophical hunch.
And our Church also recognizes room for disagreement within our own faith community over the question of when an organism becomes our neighbor. Some of our resolutions have admonished people not to choose abortion “as a matter of convenience,” but I’ve never met anybody considering the option who wasn’t agonizing over the decision. It’s never simply a matter of convenience.
For these reasons, along with my conviction that women should have the first and last word on this subject, I cannot remain neutral about the Supreme Court’s decision. I must oppose it. This is how I must try to live out St. Paul’s central moral principle: love your neighbor as yourself.
Then the issue becomes, while I cannot remain neutral, I cannot ignore Paul’s further admonition about mutual enmity: “if you bite and devour each other, be careful that you don’t get eaten up by each other!” I cannot allow myself to stop listening to other points of view, even while I cannot help standing where I do stand. Many of us on the so-called pro-choice side do recognize and appreciate a deep reverence for the development of human life at every stage. In fact I would encourage a deep reverence for the development of any living being. And I certainly appreciate those who are consistently pro-life to the point of opposing capital punishment, war, harming animals, while calling our society to assure the well-being of children and their parents throughout their lives, not just in pregnancy. (But alas, their numbers seem far too few.)
It does seem that we cannot love our neighbors without having to disagree with many of them, often emphatically. But at least we can refuse to be satisfied with that condition.
I can’t wrap all this up in a tidy conclusion. I’ll end by saying that I pray for all those who are in turmoil after the Supreme Court’s decision. Let me know how I can help. I pray also for those, like me, who worry that further rights might be taken away from us. And I ask your prayers, even if you must disagree with me.