Earlier in March the Tennessee Legislature took the first step toward officially amending the state constitution on the hot issue of abortion. Following South Dakota’s lead, the Senate approved Senate Joint Resolution 127 by a vote of 24-9. It calls for a 2010 referendum to amend the language of the state’s highest legal document.
Tennessee Republicans hope the initiative will lead to greater restrictions, or even an outright ban, on abortion, according to a March 10 article in The Tennessean.
The logic of the Christian right and the conservative Senate caucus, which in many instances serves as its political voice, goes something like this:
Human life, made in God’s image, begins at conception. Whether a zygote (a fertilized egg), an embryo (a fertilized egg up until the eighth week of development) or a fetus, any prenatal person has a “right to life.” Abortion—the willful destruction of prenatal life—is murder. The law cannot waiver on murder for fear of civil disorder, physical harm and moral chaos
South Dakota has thus declared—with Tennessee on the verge of following suit—that murder trumps privacy. This also makes sense, for many laws recognize that civil liberties can be limited when they imminently endanger human life.
That being said, however, many of the arguments behind the abortion laws popularizing our culture–and supported and funded by the Christian right–are red herrings.
Aside from the simple desire to protect life and fulfill the gospel demand to love neighbor as self, there is another strategy at work: the Christianization of the law.
While often overlooked, the fact is that American civil statutes that deal with unlawful killing are not necessarily biblically based. Killing in the Bible is wrong because it violates God’s covenant. In society it denies a person of “life, liberty and property.”
Further, the law’s definition of what constitutes a “life” also does not conform to Christian criteria, though many Christians assume otherwise.
Legally an individual is defined as one that possesses rights and corresponding duties. This understanding has evolved through codes and statutes stemming from Hammurabi to the Emperor Justinian to English common law.
“Human life” is ultimately legally protected because the law recognizes a natural right to live not handed down from a government or another individual. In the common law tradition, this understanding has remained sufficiently ambiguous to safeguard against imposition of any single definition of what kind of human life is worthy of protection.
American law has generally hesitated to restrict early stage abortions. This is out of the acknowledgment of this ambiguity and also in conjunction with the duty to protect both negative and positive rights of legal citizens. Roe v. Wade affirmed this tension, deciding under certain conditions that privacy can prevail over the “right to life.”
Refashioning the Kingdom of God into its own hands, however, the Christian right has deemed the law the only power capable of giving meaning to its theological convictions. In so doing it turned the law into something that the law traditionally left to other social and cultural institutions: the final word on what it means to be human.
The Christian right seems not to understand, however, that they are also forfeiting their own ability to speak meaningfully—with theological force—about the sanctity of life.
The state has shown time and time again that a natural, civil and social “right” to life can be forfeited in many circumstances. Innocents and non-combatants can be killed in war, as long as the cause or objective is “just.” Criminals can lose their right to life in a system of justice that practices capital punishment. Military law can sever this right from those who commit treason.
In the eyes of the state, the value of human life is never an absolute. Yet through these abortion laws, Christians are handing authority over their most vital witness–the sanctity of life–over to the state.
This is a most unfortunate consequence, for it surely cannot be long before the state will—for its own “just” reasons—find exceptions to the protection of prenatal life.
Exceptions like when the labor of women unburdened by children is needed for a war effort. Or perhaps when a virulent flu strain that attacks developing cells must be stopped. Or, when the cost of welfare births impedes the profits of the very companies that make the U.S. economy go.
American Christians are seemingly as confused as the church in Paul’s letter to the Romans, locating redemption in the “law.” Have we traded the eschatological conviction that prenatal life is sacred for a secure knowledge of sin given by “law.”
A fertilized egg has a claim to mercy, forgiveness, love and hospitality. It is sacred because it has a claim to Christ’s gift of reconciliation.
The church’s ability to hold the state accountable to God’s justice and to this understanding of life might very well be forfeited now. As a neighbor to my children born and unborn in the role of father, I hope that is not the case.
Andy Watts is an assistant professor of religion teaching ethics at Belmont University.
Andy Watts is professor of religion at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.