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The Answers that Atheists Hope No One Has? (Chapter Six)
Abortion is one of the most controversial topics and has sparked heated debate for a long time. There are extreme voices on both sides of the debate. From people who think that any abortion, even a medically necessary one, is wrong to those who think that they should have a right to an abortion even at the moment the fully formed nine month old infant is emerging from their body.
In his pursuit to tackle the toughest questions about Christianity that those who answered his survey could come up with Christian apologist Mark Mittelberg now must address abortion. Chapter Six of The Questions Christians Hope No One Will Ask (With Answers) tackles the issue of why abortion is such a big deal among Conservative Christians and Evangelicals as a whole. Mark is going to lay out his argument as to why Christians get so worked up about the reproductive rights of women.
This chapter is somewhat different from previous ones so I will save the links to previous installments until later on in the hub. My guess is this chapter will be focused more on me defending the right to choose as a necessary evil rather than talking about atheism or objections to Christianity and the Bible. Because of that my position as an atheist will factor in to this hub less so than my stance on abortion which is completely separate from my atheism.
As usual all excerpts used fall under Fair Use for critique and criticism and belong to Mark Mittelberg and Tyndale House Publishers.
Children Are Precious
Mark begins the chapter with an anecdote about a man who found a child abandoned in a cardboard box because he decided to approach the box rather than just driving past it or driving over it. He mentions this to illustrate the fact that if we proceed with caution and take things one step at a time we might save a life. In the case of his friend he saved a child's life. The life of children is precious to Christians and that is why so many stand against a woman's right to choose, because they believe the “child” has all the rights of a full blown adult human being.
Mark's own daughter was born premature, at twenty-eight weeks old, just six weeks older than the typical abortion cut-off.
Genocide of the Unborn
But I have to wonder where Mark's love of children ends. What if complications threatened his wife's life? What if, in some alternate reality, Mark's wife was endangered by the child within her and an abortion was the only thing that could save her life? Would she choose to die? Does Mark think that the law should overrule a woman's choice? Does he think the life of the fetus is paramount, above that of the well-being of the fully grown woman? I have to wonder.
Mark seems to believe that fetuses are 100% people because he goes on to compare abortion to both slavery and genocide. In fact Mark considers abortion to be the most insidious Holocaust of innocent lives ever perpetrated.
The State is Not God
As far as I can tell Mark offers no citation to this 1.3 million number but we'll take his word for it and assume that he is correct. What this means is that 1.3 million women choose voluntarily to get abortions, that's 1.3 million potential Americans. But we can consider the reasons why these women make the choice. Some are the victims of sexual crimes, date rape, violent sexual assault and the like.
Would Mark like to have rape victims legally coerced into carrying their rapist's child to term? Would he like arm guards in the hospital rooms of pregnant rape victims to make sure they don't try anything with the newborn? Something tells me Mark would object to such an intrusion by the government or perhaps that is just a hope I have that he has some sense.
Some women have just made a mistake, perhaps they slept with someone they didn't mean to sleep with or neglected to use protection in a moment of indiscretion. Perhaps do not feel ready to be a parent or simply cannot provide financially for a child. Perhaps they are mentally ill, distraught, depressed or otherwise unwilling or unable to care for and raise a new child.
Would Mark like to have these women arrested for making the choice to terminate a pregnancy? Some college student 40,000 dollars in debt who can't afford to have a child makes a mistake and becomes pregnant. Mark would have the STATE legally force her into carrying the pregnancy to term? He would lock her up or penalize her if she attempted to harm the fetus? He would force her to bring an unwanted child into the world?
I'm not sure he would. You see I understand the argument here, that the fetus is alive and what's more it's a human life that will become a full fledged human being eventually. I understand that harming it is not a GOOD thing. For most of us who support a woman's right to choose abortion is not a GOOD thing, but is instead a necessary evil that emerges from weighing the bodily autonomy of the woman against whatever rights we afford the fetus. The earlier in the pregnancy the less consideration there is for the fetus.
We also have to take into account the power that we want the State to have. Do we want the State, the government, to exercise legal authority to force a woman to birth a child?
Mark, however, sees abortion as just as gruesome and evil as anything Hitler ever did.
In most states across America there are limitations put on how late into the pregnancy a woman can abort the fetus. While more research needs to be done into the subject current research suggests that at around 22 weeks the fetus begins to be more aware and feel pain. It is at this 22 week mark that most states begin restricting abortion. Now some on the far Left argue that a woman should be able to have an abortion up to the moment of birth. Personally I think the limitations in place are reasonable because they are based on at what point the fetus can actually suffer pain.
But Mark believes that the fetus has human rights at conception, he puts forth a list of developments the fetus makes within the first four months of conception. At first I thought he was arguing that four months should be the point at which a fetus gains rights, but later on in the chapter he makes it clear that he believes in life at conception. Here, however, he simply explains to us some of how the fetus develops during those first four months and why all our “euphemistic” language can't make this utterly incomplete fetus unequal to an actual human person.
At What Point Should the Fetus Have Rights?
I have to disagree with what Mark says above. At four months old the fetus is not viable outside of the womb. Calling it a human being would be a use of euphemistic language as Mark accuses the other side of doing. Now I do think that there is still research to be done and debate to be had on at what point of pregnancy we should draw the line. As I said above current research suggests the fetus can feel pain at 22 weeks, or somewhere around the five month mark. I do not think that it is unreasonable to put restrictions on how late women can have abortions using fetal pain and suffering and potential viability as a guide. As I argued in the last chapter about suffering and morality I believe morals need to be constructed with respect to objective harm or benefit.
Mark, however, seems to think that a woman getting an abortion, however early, is tantamount to murder. He also seems to think millions of them aren't making an informed decision and are instead pressured in their emotionally vulnerable state to make a decision they will regret. Mark apparently does not credit most women with being able to make informed decisions about their own bodies and their own reproduction.
Is Abortion Murder?
So what does Mark have to say about women who are raped? Well he gives us a hypothetical. Mark asks us to imagine that someone has broken into your house and left a baby there without your consent. Mark insists that in that situation you are obligated to care for the child until you can pass off the child to the proper authorities and you most certainly not allowed to harm the child.
I can't help but feel that the analogy would work better if Mark had added that the break-in involved an assault. If Mark has said, 'someone broke into your house, beat you up, AND then left a child' it would be a better analogy but it still wouldn't track for abortion.
A fetus is not the same as a newborn or a toddler. Mark has even inadvertently admitted this by laying out the development cycle earlier in the chapter that ends at the four month mark. I'm fairly certain Mark's argument is that life begins at conception however the cycle he laid out clearly shows that there is a developmental process and that, at some point that we must decide, we go from a fetus to a viable human being that can live outside the Mother's body.
So in order for the analogy to really work we must ask, 'what if someone broke into your house and left a three week old fetus incubating in a test tube?' Earlier in the chapter Mark told us it is around this point, three weeks, that the heart begin beating. Is it MURDER to kill a three week old fetus? Mark certainly seems to think so!
I don't think a woman should be arrested if someone broke in and left an incubating fetus in a test tube in her house and I think there is even less reason to punish her if she was actually assaulted and left pregnant by a rapist.
Of course we can continue to debate and research at what point she should be restricted from terminating the baby in the test tube. But according to what is above Mark thinks she is a murderer no matter what.
What Does the Bible Say?
Because Mark is a Christian he believes that the Bible must have something to say about abortion but here's the problem Mark is going to run into – the Bible doesn't say anything about abortion. In fact what the Bible has to say about children in certain passages might actually be held up in support of abortion in some sense.
In order to establish what the Bible says about children, babies, and that sort of thing Mark employs several subheadings and delves into various passages.
In the Image of God?
Mark messes up big time in this section on being made in the image of God. He says that human beings are not made in the physical image of God, which doesn't make any sense because all images are by definition physical. Rather he argues we are made in the likeness of God by being able to think and reason morally (be morally aware). Of course God cannot be morally aware in the sense that we are since God's morals are absolute, they are not a matter of reason but are simply a matter of fact.
Also I can't imagine what this has to do with a fetus. A fetus has no sense of self-awareness or morality. Mark argues that a fetus is just as much made in the image of God as a woman who was brutally raped and assaulted and thus deserves equal protection. But again I have to wonder if Mark knows what he is asking for.
Earlier, when giving the example of the baby dropped off during a break-in, Mark skirted around the idea of forcing a woman to give birth. He still hasn't addressed whether he wants law enforcement to essentially be spying on pregnant women, peering over their shoulders as if pregnant women are criminals on probation, making sure they don't harm their precious rape baby.
In talking about the Ten Commandments here he definitely seems to think women who get abortions should be treated as murderers under the law.
This is a values issue once again. Mark thinks three week old fetuses are every bit as valuable as full grown women with hopes, dreams, self-awareness and the ability to suffer. Mark believes the rights of the fetus not to be harmed trump the woman's reproductive rights. I disagree completely.
God Knew Us From the Womb
Okay... but fetuses are not self-aware. Mark quotes from Psalm 139, a popular go-to Psalm for those who think the Bible forbids abortion. We just established in the section above that fetuses are not cognizant or self-aware, there is nothing for God to know about them in the womb. We also know how cell division works, we understand enough about biology to know that fetuses are not weaved by deities but are built by chemical processes set in motion by an egg being fertilized. Again we can grow human embryos in laboratories yet something tells me that these test tube babies are not “fearfully and wonderfully made” by the hands of God himself.
This is flowery poetic language and ancient superstition rolled into one. It sounds nice, being so special that God hand-crafted you himself, but there's no reason to believe it. Or I should say Mark has given us no good reasons to accept the Bible as his attempts in previous chapters fell short.
However the idea of being made by God brings up an interesting point, if God is omniscient and knows us from the womb and specially created each and every one of us why does he let women get raped and get pregnant as a result? Why do we hear horror stories of young girls abused by their own relatives who get pregnant? And why do people like Mark Mittelberg want to treat these young abuse victims as murderers for aborting a fetus created out of such evil treatment? Why didn't God make it so that a woman can't get pregnant via rape?
The only explanation for such a thing that Mark has given is the excuse that we "live in a fallen world". So God allows women to get raped and get pregnant because of 1) Free Will and 2) His anger as Adam and Eve having eaten a piece of fruit that one time.
Why does God not prevent these special beings he created from harm? After all Mark just got done telling us that if a baby is left in our house by someone who broke in we are responsible for keeping that child from harm until the authorities can take it off our hands. Yet here is God, our Father, making each of us special in his image, an omniscient and benevolent being with unlimited cosmic power... who then let's us come to harm and does nothing to protect us, care for us, or even prove for us that he exists.
If God will not fulfill his moral obligations of parenthood why should anyone?
The Bible Implicitly Condemns Abortion
Mark drops the ball spectacularly here and I'll explain why after you read this excerpt:
The Bible Explicitly Condones a Version of Abortion
This is the sort of thing that really makes you do a double take when you're someone who has read the Bible and studied it for a long time. The practice of destroying an unborn child was FOREIGN to the authors of the Bible and the people of that time period? We'll set aside for a moment numerous times in the Bible when God threatens whole cities and nations with the threat of having to devour their own children in acts of mass cannibalism. Instead I want to talk a little bit about Numbers 5 and the Ordeal of the Bitter Water.
In Numbers chapter five, right there in the Bible Mark Mitterlbeg claims to believe in, is a method for aborting a fetus who was conceived in adultery. The chapter outlines how a jealous husband afraid his wife has been with another man can bring her to the Priests and demand that the ordeal be performed. She drinks a concoction conjured up the Priests that is meant to tell whether she has cheated with her husband. Afterward if she indeed was with child, the product of an affair with another man, the potion she is given causes her to have a miscarriage.
Not only does this passage prove Mark's words to be completely wrong but it shows that in Hebrew society their own version of abortion was not based on a woman's bodily autonomy and was not done with medical precision. Instead the ordeal described in scripture is a superstitious ritual meant to determine if a woman had had an affair by making her drink a potion. Women who cheated on their husbands could be forced to miscarry because ancient Hebrew society was patriarchal and treated women poorly.
A child who is the product of such a sinful act is not valued. Mark doesn't even bring up this passage although I don't know why this is I prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt – perhaps it slipped his mind.
“‘The priest shall bring her and have her stand before the Lord. Then he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water. After the priest has had the woman stand before the Lord, he shall loosen her hair and place in her hands the reminder-offering, the grain offering for jealousy, while he himself holds the bitter water that brings a curse. Then the priest shall put the woman under oath and say to her, “If no other man has had sexual relations with you and you have not gone astray and become impure while married to your husband, may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you. But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and you have made yourself impure by having sexual relations with a man other than your husband”— here the priest is to put the woman under this curse—“may the Lord cause you to become a curse among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell. May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells or your womb miscarries.”
“‘Then the woman is to say, “Amen. So be it.”
“‘The priest is to write these curses on a scroll and then wash them off into the bitter water. He shall make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and this water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering will enter her. The priest is to take from her hands the grain offering for jealousy, wave it before the Lord and bring it to the altar. The priest is then to take a handful of the grain offering as a memorial offering and burn it on the altar; after that, he is to have the woman drink the water. If she has made herself impure and been unfaithful to her husband, this will be the result: When she is made to drink the water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering, it will enter her, her abdomen will swell and her womb will miscarry, and she will become a curse. If, however, the woman has not made herself impure, but is clean, she will be cleared of guilt and will be able to have children.
“‘This, then, is the law of jealousy when a woman goes astray and makes herself impure while married to her husband, or when feelings of jealousy come over a man because he suspects his wife. The priest is to have her stand before the Lord and is to apply this entire law to her. The husband will be innocent of any wrongdoing, but the woman will bear the consequences of her sin.’”
- Numbers 5:16-31 NIV
Jesus Wants Us To Care
In a bizarre turn Mark quotes us Matthew 25:42-46 which is Jesus speaking to the disciples about how judgment will work in the afterlife. It's a very famous passage where Jesus suggests that showing empathy and kindness to even the lowest in society is the same as showing empathy and kindness to Jesus himself.
But of course this cannot be applied to abortion very easily since fetuses don't need to be fed and clothed. Fetuses, apparently, need to be protected from their own Mothers. Other than through vocally speaking out about abortion Mark offers us no method through which Christians can actually defend fetuses. Again I have to wonder if Mark really feels comfortable using force of law to put a stop to abortion. Does he really want to treat women who decide to end the life of their unborn children as criminals?
It certainly seems that way from this passage
Bible Authors Believed Life Begins at Conception
And they also believed cutting the organs out of a bull and sprinkling blood around an altar would appease an angry jealous God who lived in the heavens above the firmament. In fact they believed, and Christians today believe, that the God who created the heavens and the Earth also gave these people instructions on how to build the altar on which they slaughtered, dismembered, and burned animals as a blood offering to get blessings and forgiveness. In other words there is a disturbing level of irrationality and superstition in the Bible which makes all the rest of it suspect.
Yes of course, life begins at conception, but the question remains as to when we grant the fetus any rights at all and consider it a fully fledged human being. Many would make the argument that once the fetus is viable outside of the Mother, or can feel pain, is the place where we should draw that line. Simply stating that the DNA combines at the moment of conception creating a “life” doesn't establish anything about whether it should be morally or legally acceptable to obtain an abortion.
The Bible authors also believed that God commanded them to kill various tribes of people, often slaughtering everyone, men, women and children – by direct command of God. Look at what happened to the Amalekites. God sent out the Israelites to slaughter every last one of them, even the animals, even the human children, even the pregnant women.
Surely even if the adults of this civilization were wicked it would be absurd to argue that the children, the unborn ones included, were also wicked. But then in the last chapter Mark said we live in a Fallen World, it was one of his Seven Points of Light, so perhaps everyone is tainted by Original Sin. Perhaps even the unborn aren't innocent.
From everything Mark has argued before though he sees children, especially babies and unborn fetuses, as being innocent and worthy of protection regardless of how wicked one or more of the parents are. So would Mark object to what God commands all the time in the Bible? If Mark believes a baby placed in a house by a burglar during a break-in must be protected and a fetus placed in a woman by a rapist must be protected than surely the children of the wicked Amalekites must be protected... right?
Unfortunately these issues are outside the scope of the question Mark is trying to answer.
Mark goes on to argue that abortion is the next Civil Rights frontier. He compares the dehumanization of African slaves and Native Americans, used to justify their enslavement or murder, to the denial that a fetus is a fully fledged human being. But of course a fetus is not a fully fledged human being as Mark himself has proven to us. It was Mark who outlined the first four months of conception earlier in the chapter telling us when the heart starts beating, when the fetus develops arm and leg buds, when the child begins to have the very beginnings of brain activity and so on.
Mark has demonstrated to us scientifically that there is a difference between an actual human being, an actual human baby, and a fetus. He has outlined for us in very basic terms the developmental milestones that help lead up to the fetus eventually becoming viable outside of the womb.
Of course Mark doesn't realize that he's done this, he thinks that by telling us the baby has a heartbeat at week three he is telling us it is fully human at week three. As if a beating heart is all it takes to be counted as a legal person with all the same rights as you or I. But a fetus has no self-awareness until much later into pregnancy and cannot even suffer until around the same time that it becomes potentially viable.
Comparing that to the actual suffering of Native Americans and African slaves is just insulting to them. But Mark doesn't care, he values the unborn as much as he values anyone else.
In the end it comes down to a difference of values. For certain Christians abortion is a line in the sand because of they believe the rights of the fetus to be safe from harm trump the rights of the woman to bodily autonomy. Personally I think abortion is the lesser of two evils. We should not have the State standing over the shoulder of women forcing them under threat of criminal prosecution to bring a pregnancy to term. Imagine a world where a woman might stand trial for a miscarriage accused of having induced that miscarriage herself to end the pregnancy.
For Mark the life of the fetus is of utmost importance despite the fact that it isn't even developed enough to be viable. That is where Mark and I differ. While I certainly believe that the unborn have value as potential human lives I do not see abortion as immoral until they have developed some semblance of self-awareness and the ability to suffer. Until that point I see the woman's right to bodily autonomy as necessarily trumping any rights we might attempt to grant the still developing fetus.
Mark paints abortion doctors as if they are the same as workers in Nazi death camps and paints women as scared vulnerable creatures without agency coerced into abortion. But can he imagine a world where the State might force a woman to give birth against her will? Though he never openly advocates for such a world it seems that he supports one.
It is open for debate at what point we should close the window during which a woman is free to choose and there is still research to be done on fetal development in regards to awareness and pain. But we should not, in my opinion, do as Mark says and treat a woman who aborts a fetus as a murderer. Abortion is an issue that deserves careful consideration on legal, moral and ethical grounds not this black and white good and evil bullshit.
In the end Mark has given us his explanation for why abortion is such a big deal for some Christians and while I disagree with his values and stance on this issue I feel like this chapter is the most satisfying answer he's actually given to an objection yet. Sure a lot of what he said about the Bible makes no sense and reads as if he's never even read the Bible all the way through - but he outlines the value judgment, the place in his reasoning where he differs from those who are pro-choice. It's all about the fact that he places the unborn, from the moment of conception, as equals to the rest of us.
Thank you for reading if you've made it through this installment and I hope you will join me next week as I look at Chapter Seven, which promises to be a fun one, as Mark takes on the issue of homosexuality.
Other Hubs in This Review Series
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