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The Pathos and Promise of Christian Ethics: A Study of the Abortion Debate

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 September 2014

William Werpehowski*
Villanova University


The promise of Christian ethics is its contribution to the forging of covenants of mutual assistance among human creatures in the variety of human activities. Such covenants bear witness to the work of the covenanting God. The pathos of Christian ethics, however, concerns the difficulty of making the language and reality of covenant intelligible in a culture bound to an ideal of autonomy. Christian ethical reflection concerning abortion and the value of unborn human life must attend to both features if it is to remain fully concrete in its faithfulness.

Copyright © The College Theology Society 1985

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1 Harrison, Beverly Wildung, Our Right to Choose: Toward a New Ethic of Abortion (Boston: Beacon, 1983), p. 74.Google Scholar

2 Ramsey, Paul, Ethics at the Edges of Life: Medical and Legal Intersections (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), p. 46.Google Scholar

3 For a similar approach, to which I am indebted, see Hauerwas, Stanley, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Ethic (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), pp. 196229.Google Scholar

4 Häring, Bernard, Free and Faithful in Christ: Moral Theology for Clergy and Laity, 2: The Truth Will Set You Free (New York: Crossroad, 1979), p. 358.Google Scholar

5 Ramsey, Paul, “The Case of the Curious Exception” in Outka, Gene H. and Ramsey, Paul, eds., Norm and Context in Christian Ethics (New York: Scribner's, 1968), p. 123.Google Scholar

6 Gollwitzer, Helmut, An Introduction to Protestant Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1982), p. 99.Google Scholar

7 For a fuller treatment relevant to politics, see Werpehowski, William, “Political Liberalism and Christian Ethics: A Review Discussion,” The Thomist 48 (January 1984), 99107.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

8 This formulation regarding creation and covenant is developed by Barth, Karl in Church Dogmatics 3/1 (Edinburgh: Clark, 1958), pp. 228329.Google Scholar

9 Ramsey, , Ethics at the Edges of Life, pp. 156–60.Google Scholar

10 Childress, James F., Who Should Decide? Paternalism in Health Care (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp. 164–65Google Scholar, my emphasis.

11 Richards, David A. J., “Rights and Autonomy,” Ethics 92 (October 1981), 9.Google Scholar

12 Whitbeck, Caroline, “The Moral Implications of Regarding Women as People: New Perspectives on Pregnancy and Personhood” in Bondeson, William al., eds., Abortion and the Status of the Fetus (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1983), p. 249.Google Scholar

13 See the argument of MacIntyre, Alasdair in After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981).Google Scholar

14 Sandel, Michael J., Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 181.Google Scholar

15 Gilbert C. Meilaender, “Individuals in Community: An Augustinian Vision” (unpublished manuscript).

16 See, e.g., Engelhardt, H. Tristram Jr., , “Viability and the Use of the Fetus” in Bondeson, et al., pp. 184–91.Google Scholar

17 Green, Ronald M., “Toward a Copernican Revolution in our Thinking About Life's Beginning and Life's End,” Soundings 66 (Summer 1983), 152–73.Google Scholar

18 For a theological account of the strength, weakness, and promise of political liberalism, see Werpehowski, “Political Liberalism and Christian Ethics.”

19 Thomson, Judith Jarvis, “A Defense of Abortion,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 1 (1971), 4766;Google ScholarEnglish, Jane, “Abortion and the Concept of a Person” in Leiser, Burton M., ed., Values in Conflict: Life, Liberty, and the Rule of Law (New York: Macmillan, 1981), pp. 8391;Google ScholarSmith, Holly M., “Intercourse and Moral Responsibility for the Fetus” in Bondeson, et al., pp. 229–45.Google Scholar

20 Engelhardt, p. 185.

21 Tooley, Michael, “A Defense of Abortion and Infanticide” in Feinberg, Joel, ed., The Problem of Abortion (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1973), pp. 5191.Google ScholarTooley, defends his defense in Abortion and Infanticide (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984).Google Scholar

22 See Engelhardt, pp. 191-200.

23 But English contests this consequence, while arguing from extrinsic benefits. See her essay in Leiser, pp. 90-91.

24 Brody, Baruch offers this sort of argument in Abortion and the Sanctity of Human Life (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1975).Google Scholar

25 See, e.g., Feinberg, Joel, “Abortion” in Regan, Tom, ed., Matters of Life and Death (New York: Random House, 1980), pp. 183217.Google Scholar

26 Noonan, John T., “How to Argue About Abortion” in Sterba, James P., ed., Morality in Practice (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1984), pp. 134–35.Google Scholar

27 See Hauerwas, , A Community of Character, pp. 206–07.Google Scholar

28 My formulation acknowledges the persuasiveness of the proposal that the question of individuation may not be settled until the stage of blastocyst. This position is shared by Charles Curran, Richard McCormick, and Paul Ramsey, among others. For one extended discussion, see Ramsey, Paul, “Reference Points in Deciding About Abortion” in Noonan, John T., ed., The Morality of Abortion (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970), pp. 6469.Google Scholar Generally the stage of blastocyst is reached five to eight days after conception.

29 On the moral relevance of dependence, see the helpful essay by Cahill, Lisa Sowle, “Abortion and Argument by Analogy,” Horizons 9/2 (1982), 271–87.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

30 I suspect that Beverly Wildung Harrison's attempt to establish human individuation at a later date relies too heavily on an interest in drawing an analogy between the individuated unborn and the self-directed human agent. Consider the following text from Our Right to Choose, p. 214: “At the very least, we ought not to speak of the ‘existence’ of a human life in the process of gestation until the fetal organism approaches a degree of actual complexity that can sustain the human analogies we employ to characterize it. “Self-direction” and “agency” are high-level human functions that make no sense when imputed to a form that lacks a fully developed brain structure and functioning neurological system. And I, for one, doubt the wisdom of imputing human agency to fetal life at all, although this does not mean that the fetus is ‘merely’ a piece of tissue.” This approach is (1) question-begging, because it fails to question analogies of (autonomous?) agency at their root, and (2) misleading, in that it oddly interprets the unborn's dependence in early pregnancy as equivalent to a denial of the unborn's status as unique other, “agent” or not. For a useful corrective, see Ramsey's, approach to gestation in “Reference Points,” pp. 6671.Google Scholar There he stresses the unborn's singular contribution to his or her continued existence, while making good theological use of the idea of dependence. My approach would associate individuation less with the overcoming of dependence through agency and more with the differentiation of another within a relation of utter dependence. Such differentiation, for which the stage of conceptus or blastocyst is sufficient, may enable a response of care that is all the more unconditional for the fact that the unborn eludes our effort to ascribe to it idiosyncratic characteristics we would value it for possessing. These characteristics may well include the independence linked with the notion of agency.

31 Ramsey, Paul, “The Morality of Abortion” in Rachels, James, ed., Moral Problems (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), p. 12.Google Scholar Note that my argument in this subsection serves neither to supplement nor replace arguments for moral protection of the unborn on grounds of biological individuation simpliciter. My stress on covenant calls for an understanding of individuation determined by the character of a relationship which Christians have reason to commend, given their faith in the covenanting God. My aim might be better described as the effort to subsume such arguments within a framework from which their importance may be grasped.

32 Hauerwas, , A Community of Character, pp. 223–29.Google Scholar I am not sure that Hauerwas develops a view of “children” in this context that extends beyond an account of their symbolic significance for a community's historical existence. My arguments may be distinguished from his for doing just that explicitly, and for doing it in connection with a notion of creaturely covenant.

33 This use of covenant is proposed by Maguire, Marjorie Reiley in “Personhood, Covenant, and Abortion,” The Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics (1983), 117–45.Google Scholar

34 Smith, p. 232.

35 See Harrison, , Our Right to Choose, pp. 5790.Google Scholar

36 Gollwitzer, , An Introduction to Protestant Theology, pp. 170–71.Google Scholar See also May, William F., The Physician's Covenant (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), p. 108.Google Scholar

37 Hence we need to recognize the importance of the covenant between man and woman for the covenant between parent and child. For a traditional Roman Catholic approach to these issues, see May, William E., Sex Marriage, and Chastity (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1981).Google Scholar

38 But see Leifer, Myra, “Pregnancy” in Stimpson, Catharine R. and Person, Ethel Spector, eds., Woman: Sex and Sexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), pp. 212–23.Google Scholar

39 Whitbeck, Caroline, “The Maternal Instinct” in Treblicot, Joyce, ed., Mothering: Essays in Feminist Theory (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allanheld, 1983), pp. 185–92.Google Scholar

40 Ruddick, Sara, “Preservative Love and Military Destruction: Some Reflections on Mothering and Peace” in Treblicot, , p. 240.Google Scholar See also Ruddick's earlier essay, “Maternal Thinking,” ibid., pp. 213-30.

41 Ruddick, , “Preservative Love and Military Destruction,” pp. 237–39.Google Scholar

42 Rich, Adrienne, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (New York: Norton, 1976)Google Scholar, passim.

43 My suggestions presuppose that the critique of the institution of motherhood and the agenda it generates will support and not undermine recognition of the good of the relation between mother and unborn child. Critical distance must be maintained toward movements and strategies that overlook or disparage this good.

44 Harrison, , Our Right to Choose, pp. 32–56, 196201.Google Scholar

45 Whitbeck, pp. 251-53.

46 On the violent character of abortion see Rich, , Of Woman Born, pp. 267–74.Google Scholar

47 A rather unspecific discussion of “exceptions” from a feminist perspective may be found in Petchesky, Rosalind Pollack, “Reproductive Freedom: Beyond ‘A Woman's Right to Choose’” in Stimpson, and Person, , pp. 92116.Google Scholar Petchesky's study is still a stimulating and important contribution to the study of the morality of abortion.

48 Paul Ramsey, private correspondence, September 21, 1984.

49 Wiggins, David, “Deliberation and Practical Reason” in Raz, Joseph, ed., Practical Reasoning (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), pp. 146–47.Google Scholar

50 Here I have learned much from Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Letters and Papers from Prison (New York: Macmillan, 1972), pp. 294300.Google Scholar

51 I am grateful to Susan Cannon, George Hunsinger, Daniel Maguire, Marjorie Reiley Maguire, Anne McGuire, Gilbert Meilaender, Paul Ramsey, and Edmund N. Santurri for conversations pertinent to the content of this essay. I want also to thank Horizons' evaluators for their splendid assistance.

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