America's First Pro-Lifers
Several years ago, I gave a talk to new students at a Catholic school that turned out to be mildly scandalous. It wasn't intentional, I swear. The point I was making had to do with Biblical interpretation and Tradition.
"The Bible," I said, "is not a pro-life tract."
The college freshmen had probably seen some echo of Psalm 139, declaring King David, and by extension us, to be "fearfully and wonderfully made," I said.
Yet had they ever considered the bit a few chapters back in Psalm 137 which declared a blessing for those who seized Babylonian babies and dashed them "against the rock"?
Eyes bugged out of skulls at that one. I explained that the speaker in question was not God but an extremely bitter man, forcibly exiled to Babylon. The "blessing" would not have been understood as an ethical injunction, but rather an expression of extreme anguish. A lament.
Soon after, I kicked myself for what I didn't think to say. I ought to have further explained that Christianity developed a life ethic that cut sharply against the Roman world that has carried over to this day.
It wasn't uncommon for traditional Romans to dispose of unwanted babies by taking them outside and exposing them to the elements. It wasn't uncommon for Christians to collect those unwanted babies and raise them. Early Christians similarly abjured abortion and abortifacients that were common to their fellow citizens.
Christianity was non-conformist in other ways. Rome was built on slavery. The Roman church eventually abolished it and popes threatened princes with excommunication who unjustly held people in bondage.
Moreover, many of the assumptions are now buried deep. America's first pro-life activists -- pre-Roe v. Wade, when states actually had serious say in such things -- were primarily Catholic doctors and nurses.
They viewed abortion not as a religious issue but as a foundational issue of medical ethics. "First, do no harm," was a secular injunction that meshed perfectly with their religious Tradition. They didn't see how you could see it otherwise.
On the eve of the 41st anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the case that mandated abortion-on-demand in all 50 states, the New York Times ran a piece which surveyed the landscape. It looked at abortion as a purely political issue, and did not bother to take the religious pulse of Americans at all, complained Terry Mattingly on the press criticism website Get Religion.
I mean, sure, Mattingly admitted, "lots of people oppose abortion for different reasons." Religious pro-lifers would be joined at the annual March For Life by those carrying banners "for pro-life atheists and agnostics, as well as the Pro-Life Alliance for Gays and Lesbians ('Human Rights Start When Life Begins'). Marchers will show up from Feminists For Life, Democrats For Life, Libertarians For Life and a host of other groups from off the beaten journalistic path."
Yet he thought that the Gray Lady had done a serious disservice to readers by giving them the politically charged but faith free approach to the issue. He may have a point, but many of the marchers today will wish he hadn't.
Those who lack faith but oppose abortion believe life in the womb shares with all of us a common humanity and thus deserves the protection of law. They may have inherited that ethical imperative, at a great remove, from Judaism and Christianity. But that is something they understandably would rather not dwell on.