Abortion and the law

Friday, June 15, 2018

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Dear Editor,

In this national, in fact global, conversation and debate over abortion, I am writing this piece for those especially who, like me, have been conflicted on what position to take. We are very sympathetic with the woman pregnant with an embryo or foetus that for good reason she is unwilling to bring to full term. But we are also worried by the pro-lifer claim that abortion ends the life of an entity with a human soul. My intention, then, is to probe the soul notion, hopeful the effort will not along the way lose too many, much less their agreement with its outcome.

It is generally held that humans are composites of body and soul, matter and spirit. According to many church people and others, this soul is infused by the Creator into a just-conceived embryo, making it and the later developed foetus a fully formed human being. This is why, in this view, removing an embryo or foetus from a womb and thus ending its life is murder.

Along with many others I have another understanding of the origin of the human spirit, which I identify in this context with the soul. It may shed light on the objective legitimacy of abortion. This issue is distinct from the question of who ultimately decides whether to have an abortion. For most people, as a recent local survey shows that decision is for the pregnant woman to take, not the State. However, she and the father, their families, legislators and society also want to know that the decision is morally right and defensible. That is the issue here.

Like any other embryo, the human embryo represents potential for development of a specific sentient being. The embryo is inscribed with the potential for the development of both the material and the spiritual dimensions of a human being. The potential of a properly sited and nourished human embryo is gradually actualised, the two dimensions infused with and infusing each other, each unfolding in step with the level or capability of the other.

The human embryo reached this level of development through the evolutionary process. This is accepted today by most people, but not by some fundamentalists. To make intervention by God necessary for every human procreative action runs completely contrary to the creative and evolutionary process. Even if evolution is not accepted, what is lacking in the ovum, semen and their juncture, all created by God in the Church's own belief, that necessitates a new and distinct divine act?

Language about the spirit of the human embryo is hard to find. But certainly that spirit is not an inert substance, liquid or box injected into an embryo or foetus. It is a remarkable 'novel dimension' of life emergent from and along with the amazing complex of brain; nervous system; limbs; heart; lungs; liver; ability to hear, see, taste that is the human reality when brought to a basic stage of completion by the time of birth. It is a complex found at that level in no other sentient being. It develops with their development, takes the shape of them, 'expresses' them on a higher level that surpasses their purely material input. The human spirit is certainly not some complete entity infused 'from outside' from day one.

The spirit of a foetus, of a new-born infant, is not at the stage or level of the spirit of that same individual as a youth, adult, middle-aged or old man or woman. Maturity or a stage of it refers to the whole person, but especially to the achievement of spirit in the person's development. The spirit of a person, particularly in special or extraordinary circumstances, can be very striking.

If one considers the travails of growing up, the search at every age for self-identity, the struggles for self-control, often under poor parenting, one recognises that full integration of the given spirit-body structure, the achievement of integrity, is the task of a lifetime. Ideally as the body decays and begins its descent to the grave, conversely the spirit has grown ever more as spirit, prepared for the next life that believers expect, for Christians with (at some 'moment') a 'new' body.

Naturally, we are cautious about terminating the life of a being on its way to full humanness. And the closer this on-its-way-being gets to that goal, the more we have to respect it. Terminating its existence at an early stage cannot rightly, however, be described as murder with the full human spirit of a newborn, adolescent or adult. This is especially so if it is done for a serious reason such as threat to the mother's own life, or pregnancy because of rape, incest, or failed contraceptive and financial inability to offer due care of the future child. Although not as a regular method for birth control, abortion can be entirely justified. It would be a rational and virtuous act, not a crime. This should be embodied in law.

Horace Levy


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