Given my recent preoccupation with "life" issues generally and with the pro-life / pro-choice debate generally, I thought it might be advisable to reprint this column from several years ago for the sake of the statistics it contains about the incidence of spontaneous abortions / miscarriages worldwide, and the theological implications of these numbers. Debates about abortion tend to get lost in the intricacies of theologies and ideologies at the expense of appeal to actual hard data. My intent in reprinting this "Skeptic's Collection" column is not to ridicule pro-life people or their religious convictions. Rather, my intent is simply to make possible an appeal to empirical evidence vis a vis various theological reflections on abortion. Facts matter.
Back in February of 2014, I published a “Skeptic’s Collection” column in which I cited biblical texts in both Testaments calling into serious question whether the Judaeo-Christian God may be fairly characterized as pro-life. As you will see if you follow the above URL, that column was Part 1 of what I originally envisioned as a two-part series. But for reasons I can no longer remember, I never wrote and published Part 2. Until now. Part 2 approaches the subject of the pro-life credentials of God from a somewhat different perspective: comparing the texts allegedly asserting God’s pro-life stance, not with other biblical texts as in Part 1, but with actual, empirical data, worldwide, on infant mortality. My purpose, now as in 2014, is not to ridicule Christianity or Christians. Though I am pro-choice myself, and though I approach the subject of abortion from an explicitly secular, constitutional, “rights-centric” perspective, I believe that a quite respectable case can be made for a pro-life ethic. But I question the tendency among religiously motivated pro-life people to “cherry pick” by concentrating too exclusively on biblical texts without running those texts up against the “phenomenal” world outside the Bible and checking whether the two – world and text – are mutually consistent. In the following, I argue that they are not. Consequently, while a case can be made for a pro-life ethic, that case cannot be founded on the theology of the Bible. In fact, the God of the Bible is anything but pro-life, not because one’s textual exegesis is wrong, but because the texts do not jibe with the empirical "facts on the ground”. Conclusion: a religiously grounded anti-abortion ideology is a dead letter.
It is worth noting that it is possible to build an argument for a pro-life ethic on a purely secular, non-religious (not to say anti-religious) basis. But since I am discussing theology, I will deal only with religiously grounded pro-life arguments, specifically Christian arguments, since that is the religious tradition with which I am most familiar. At least within the Christian pro-life community, one of the most salient “canonical” texts justifying such a pro-life stance is Psalm 139. I will not reprise Psalm 139 here, beyond calling attention to the sweeping claims made in that text for God’s excruciatingly detailed and utterly comprehensive custodianship of the developing fetus. I would theorize in passing that the language of Psalm 139, even in English translation, is so overwhelmingly majestic that the sheer cadence of the language can tend to anaesthetize one’s critical faculty: when one is contemplating the overwhelming sovereignty of God’s love (Hebrew: hesed, “covenant-love”) for the developing fetus in the mother’s womb, it can seem in bad taste, arguably sacrilegious, to bandy about statistics – rather like debating whether this specific blob of green paint should go here rather than there in Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. It just seems exasperatingly beside the point. Again, my purpose is not to ridicule Christianity or Christians, but, with all due respect, such “caviling” is precisely what is called for. It is anything but beside the point.
To see why, consider … The percentage of pregnancies ending in miscarriage / spontaneous abortion – for the purposes of this column, I consider the two synonymous – varies widely, depending on how one defines “miscarriage” and “spontaneous abortion”. (“Spontaneous” in the sense that the pregnancy terminates with no human intervention.) Also, as even a hour or two or cursory research will show, the incidence of such terminations of pregnancy varies widely from country to country: as one might expect, the rate is significantly higher in “Third World” countries, relative to their “First World” counterparts. But, in order to bias my conclusions toward the optimistic, I am going to assume that spontaneous-abortion statistics for the latter are typical worldwide. So in the interest of maintaining an “optimistic” bias, I will adopt the 15%-to-20% number for the miscarriage / spontaneous-abortion incidence for pregnancies worldwide. (Again, the actual number would probably go up significantly if actual miscarriage statistics for the developing world were factored in.) In fact, I will “low-ball” even that number and peg the worldwide incidence of miscarried / spontaneously aborted pregnancies at 15%: the low end of that range.
Now, the Guttmacher Institute estimates that in 2012 – the latest year for which I could find statistics – there were 213 million pregnancies worldwide. If, by hypothesis, we estimate that 15% of these pregnancies terminate prematurely by miscarriage / spontaneous abortion, this means that, of the 213 million pregnancies in 2012, in round-as-possible numbers, about 32 million pregnancies miscarried / spontaneously aborted in 2012. (Not to belabor the point, but this 32-million number is almost certainly significantly on the low side.) This means that, in 2012, about 2.6 million pregnancies miscarried worldwide per month. For a 4-week month, this translates to 666,000 pregnancies (again, worldwide) per week. So every day, worldwide, 95,000 pregnancies spontaneously aborted. That is 4,000 pregnancies per hour, 66 pregnancies per minute, almost exactly 1 miscarried pregnancy per second … again, worldwide, and under what are almost certainly unrealistically optimistic assumptions. (Of course, I am also assuming, no less unrealistically, that these pregnancies all miscarry in the same calendar year in which they were conceived. Timing makes a difference, and if pregnancies conceived in 2012 miscarry in 2013, the foregoing numbers for 2012 would decrease accordingly. But I would expect that this would be more than offset by factoring in the actual incidence of miscarriages in the “Third World”.) The bottom line: even under the most optimistic assumption that the 15-percent miscarriage rate holds worldwide, one fetus is spontaneously aborted every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year.
Of course, one can argue that it is fallacious – to say nothing of bad hermeneutics – to take Psalm 139 and like texts at face value and literally. Even from a purely secular standpoint, I concur. It does as much interpretive violence to the text of Psalm 139 (and others) to see it as a treatise on reproductive biology as it does to the text of MacBeth to believe Shakespeare is instructing us in factual Scottish history. The important point, this response would argue, is that God is intimately involved in the conception, gestation, and birth of each human being, not that God “jimmies” the odd chromosome here, “tweaks” the odd gene there, and patches up the odd faulty nucleotide over yonder, least of all that God fine-tunes the laws of chemistry and genetics in pursuit of some ideal of genetic perfection, like the people led by Khan (Ricardo Montalban) in the old Star Trek episode. But this begs a disarmingly simple question: Why Not? That is, given all the "omnis," why does God not intervene? According to orthodox – lower-case “o” – Christian theology, God is possessed of all the “omnis”: omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, omnibenevolence. So when we run the theology of Psalm 139 up against the foregoing statistics, even as rough and approximate (though remember: most likely artificially optimistic) as the latter are, we discover that we are confronted by a kind of molecular-genetic version of the Problem of Evil.
As the stinging little doggerel in Archibald MacLeish’s play JB says “If God is God, He is not good; / If God is good, He is not God. / Take the even, take the odd”. Both alternatives – the “even” and the “odd” -- have consequences that are about equally distasteful to people who seek to found a principled pro-life stance on the theology of the Bible. “If God is God, He is not good”, because, though possessed of all the requisite “omnis,” God nevertheless allows fetuses – i.e., children – to die, and to die in utero, in numbers too hideous to long contemplate. Such a God is ex facie non-pro-life. “If God is good, He is not God” because, while God’s intentions may be pro-life, we are now confronted with the biblical texts I cited in Part 1 back in 2014. Even if we interpret those texts, as I do, as theological parables and not as “straight” history, we have to consider the possibility that (a) the God as conceived in those texts is not “good” in any humanly significant sense, unless we are willing to consider xenophobia and genocide as in some sense good, or (b) God is indeed “good” notwithstanding, but lacks the power (the “omni”) to instantiate in the real world God’s reverence and hesed for life in the womb. In case (b), if you are pro-life, you are on your own. God’s bioethics vis a vis abortion is, at best, a kind of coda to purely human reflection on rights and ethics regarding abortion and life issues generally, i.e., God is a “bit player”. What makes the game worth it is, as MacLeish’s poem concludes, “the little green leaves in the wood, and the wind on the water”.
My counsel, which I fully and respectfully realize not everyone can in good conscience follow, is to (1) cut the Gordian knot by (2) refusing to get lost in one’s underwear by trying to square the circle of the abortion issue, and life issues generally, by recourse to religious doctrine – all the more so because considerations of constitutionality end up “filtering out” such considerations, anyway, as matters of public policy, which the “establishment” clause of the First Amendment mandates to be religion neutral. Maybe if the dominant religious idiom of the Nation were something other than theocentric monotheism, if that idiom were, say, Buddhist or Taoist, the Gordian knot would not be so entangling. But that is not reality.
A good start would be to renounce "cherry picking". Facts count. So does intellectual integrity. The dialogue on such a fraught issue as abortion is not aided by ignoring the implications of either.
James R. Cowles
Cherry picking ... Flickr ... Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic
Lucifer ... Gustave Dore ... Public domain
Stick figures ... Pixabay ... Public domain
Newborn baby ... Pixabay ... Public domain