Thursday, October 8, 2020
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Thursday, October 8, 2020. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
What Do Americans Really Think about Abortion? Really Important Insights on How Americans Think About Life
What do Americans really think about abortion? Now, as you ask that question, it could mean two different things. It could be asking about a composite of the United States, "What's the landscape?" And for that, you might turn to sociologist or pollsters or survey takers, research. You might also be asking what do individual Americans think about abortion? And that's going to require personal conversation. But as I think about that question, an article recently appeared in The Wall Street Journal. The headline was, "What Americans Really Think About Abortion." The article's by Tricia C. Bruce, and she is a sociologist herself at the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. She's the author of the new report, which is entitled, "How Americans Understand Abortion." Now, I actually have that entire report before me--it's voluminous; it's pretty significant--as well as having The Wall Street Journal article.
But here's the issue when you're talking about what Americans really think about abortion, it turns out that Americans are all over the place. One of the points that Professor Bruce makes is that when you have a simple division between pro-life and pro-choice or pro-life and pro-abortion, or those who are pro-abortion and anti-abortion, well, it turns out that many Americans are not exactly in either position. Now that's a fact that the pro-life movement has understood for some time. This is one of the challenges of affirming the sanctity of human life and trying to come up with a strategy to protect unborn human life. The fact is that many Americans aren't all that thoughtful, to be honest. They don't think about the realities of life and death. They don't think about how to define human life. They don't want to have to deal with hard questions, such as when does human life begin.
So, both in The Wall Street Journal article and in the major study published by the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame, the reality is that it demonstrates there is a huge mix of where Americans stand. And you can imagine it. Just go up to the average person, maybe in your neighborhood, or furthermore, someone in your community, someone just you sit next to on a plane and ask a question, what do you think about abortion? Well, you're not likely to get an immediate I'm absolutely pro-abortion or an immediate I'm absolutely pro-life answer. Now, if you're consistently pro-life, you'll believe that answer ought to come quickly, but we understand that there's a lot of confusion out there. One of our major responsibilities is to address that confusion and bring clarity to this question.
But looking at the summary published in The Wall Street Journal, Bruce tells us, "Americans' attitudes on abortion have remained relatively steady for decades or so the polls say." She goes on to say, "Roughly half of Americans identify as pro-choice, half as pro-life, roughly half see abortion is morally acceptable, half see abortion is morally wrong. Most believe that abortion should be legal in some or all cases or framed another way, most support some kind of legal restrictions on abortion." Now, let's just stop there. That's a very significant lead paragraph, and one of the things that tells us is that abortion is still a very live issue for Americans. What makes that unusual? Well, it's been live for a very long time.
Furthermore, when you go back to when the debate over abortion leapt into the entire nation's screen in 1973 with the Supreme Courts taking up the issue and mandating abortion in all 50 states in the Roe v. Wade decision, well, at that point, the Supreme Court believed that it was settling the issue. But of course, it didn't settle the issue, it profoundly unsettled the issue because one of the things that happened as a result of the Roe v. Wade decision is that many came to the conclusion that abortion is the killing of an unborn human life. They didn't have to think about it until the issue was put front and center on the nation's conscience by the Supreme Court in that infamous decision.
What makes this particular study from the center at the University of Notre Dame unique is that it goes into a lot of depth in the nuance. But I'm not going to go there so much today. I'm going to look at the major worldview divide that is actually revealed in this research. It appears in that Wall Street Journal article, it's a lot more clear in the details in the entire public study. It comes down to this. When you're looking at asking about the question of abortion, why do people respond differently? Why do you have roughly half of Americans who are pro-life and roughly half of Americans who are pro-abortion or pro-choice, as they may try to call themselves? How does that come to be? Well, it's because there has to be something behind that position. There has to be some worldview principle. There has to be some moral assumption or intuition that's behind that. You don't just have a position on abortion. It has to come from somewhere. And we as thinking Christians understand that. And it has to come from some assumption or conviction or principle that's prior to the question of abortion.
And here's where we need to understand something that is revealed and it's a blockbuster in this report. Those who support the dignity and sanctity of human life and oppose abortion tend, and you'll think about this, it's not a coincidence, tend to think that the unborn human life is indeed a human life. They go back to the origin question. They go back to the status of the life inside the womb. Now, think about it. That makes perfect sense. If you do go to the status of that life in the womb and you do admit that it is a human being worthy of the protection of life, then you can't be pro-abortion. But on the other hand, what would be the fundamental worldview assumption of those who are supportive of abortion, or at least a large percentage of those who are supportive of abortion rights and more liberal abortion laws, what's behind that?
Well, we have tracked the fact that one of the major assumptions behind that is the newly radical idea of personal autonomy that leapt into the American scene and into the American mind during especially the 1960s and the 1970s. The idea that no one gets to define me, I get to define myself, no one gets to tell me what the good life is, I will tell them what the good life is. No one gets to tell me how to live. And when it comes to abortion, the argument was society doesn't have the right to tell me I have to have this baby, and society doesn't even have the right to tell me what is the moral status of this baby in the womb.
But at this point, I want to turn away from the summary in The Wall Street Journal. I want to go directly to the text of the report. What does it tell us? We've been speaking about the oppositional edge, that is the opposition to abortion, it comes down overwhelmingly to moral opposition. Well, that's important to know. That means it's a moral concern that leads most pro-lifers to be pro-life, a moral objection to abortion. But then it comes down to the argument, the central moral argument, that, that is due to the fact that life begins at conception. The text reads this way, "Unsurprisingly, an explanation commonly offered for moral opposition to abortion is that life begins at conception and that abortion ends that life." The report goes on, "This rationale stems from the view that those not yet born should be protected by the same rights as those who are born. This explanation predicts the highest level of moral resolve among interviewees with the least room for exemptions." Bingo. Exactly right.
Once you confront the fact that the inhabitant of the womb is indeed a human being, then you have to protect the right to life of that human being. You have to protect the wellbeing of that human being, and you can't justify the destruction of that human being. But you can flip that and say that if you lack that conviction, if you resist confronting that question, then you're likely to be either more permissive or actually pro-abortion when it comes to the question. But then we ask the question, then what would be the major moral impulse behind that pro-abortion, or as they might want to call themselves, pro-choice position? It's increasingly clear, by the way, that the pro-choice language is being dropped for outright support and honesty of abortion, but what would be the moral impulse? As I said, personal autonomy appear to be absolutely key. But in this new study, we have the revelation that something else is actually also involved, and this is very good for us to know.
When this report refers to the permissive edge, that's as contrasted to the oppositional edge when it comes to abortion, what would be the moral impulse? Well, it turns out that a lot of it has to do with a vision of the good life. Yes. It comes down putting it the center of the question, not the moral status of the life within the womb, not the moral question as to whether or not this is a baby or a human being, a human person, but rather escaping that question altogether and redefining the question as to an assumption about the good life. And notice, that's a double question, a good life for the mother and a good life for the unborn baby, if the baby were to be born. Now this is absolutely crucial. I think it turns out that this report helps us to understand a great deal about what's going on on the issue of abortion in the country right now.
Many people around us are actually more permissive on abortion because they think the central question is what kind of life would this baby have? What kind of life will them mother have if she has this baby? Reading from the report, we are told that one set of explanations "focuses not on life inherently, but rather on the anticipation of a good life or not for the child who would be born. A moral allowance, we are told for abortion stems from fears that a child will be unwanted or unloved, will suffer in foster care, will be unable to live independently, and more, and this would include anticipated so-called birth defects, that's the language in the report.
But it's not just about the anticipated good life or lack of a good life for the baby, it is also because these people prioritize a good life for the pregnant woman, "Others explain that they are not morally opposed to abortion because they support the desire of the pregnant woman to pursue a good life for herself." Now this by no means tells us that personal autonomy is not a major issue in the pro-abortion or more permissive side, but it is very important we recognize that this research is underlining something else that is at work here and is a vision of the good life.
Givenness and the Good Life: What Does the Christian Worldview Say about Who We Are and How We Came to Be?
Now, this is very, very interesting. Think about it. The Christian worldview has a vision of the good life, a vision of human flourishing, but I need to go behind this report to say that there are some major differences between the Christian understanding of the good life and this other understanding of the good life. And by the way, I'm going to say that this other understanding of the good life is an autonomous understanding. It's a merely humanistic understanding.
Now, what will be the difference? Well, when it comes to the Christian understanding of the good life, it is in the context of givenness. Now what does givenness mean? It's a very important theological category. It means that in the creator's providence and plan, much of life is given to us. It is a given. It is not something that we determine. Now, just think about this. When did you determine to be born? To whom did you decide to be born? Oh, wait a minute. You didn't. And to what circumstances? At what time? In what context? Well, you didn't make many of those choices. Your spot in history? Your timeline in humanity? It has nothing to do with your choice. There's no human agency that is involved there at all. Personal autonomy matters not when it comes to the circumstances of our conception and our birth. But when you're looking at the issue of the secular ideal of the good life, much of that givenness becomes merely arbitrary. It's as if there is no theological meaning to this at all.
You can't have a secular worldview if there is theological meaning, which is to say that when we think about the vision of the good life in the Christian life, it really is a good life. It includes many of the things that secular people would include in the good life. It would include purpose and meaning in life. It would include the experience of love and respect and acceptance and community. It would include many of the good things that God has given us, from food to other bodily experiences. It would include the experiences that both Christians and non-Christians would say would be a part of the good life. But here's where the worldviews diverge. The Christian worldview begins with this givenness as a part of God's plan for our life, and a rejection of that givenness as a rejection of God's plan for our life. And the modern quest for personal autonomy that is behind this vision of the good life says that I ought to be able to determine what I'm going to accept in my life and not. And evidently, that would include a baby.
But it's not just about the mother deciding I get to decide who I will and will not have in my life or in my womb, it is also, this report makes clear, a decision made by so many people about what they believe would be the good life or the lack of a good life for the unborn baby. But here's where history reminds us and the Christian worldview emphatically underlines, it is extremely difficult, if not irrational, for us to believe we know how we could predict whether or not this child will have a good life or not by our own definition of even what we think a good life is or is not. And one of the things we have learned is that many of those babies born into what might be described as the circumstances most distant from the good life actually go on to live a good life. There's something else. And that is who gets to determine whether this child, as a living person, would define their life as good or not. There's an enormous assumption of responsibility here. There's enormous assumption of autonomy.
So it turns out this issue of the vision of the good life, both for the mother and for the unborn child, it turns out there really is tied to the autonomy issue after all. If we as human beings have the autonomous right to define the good life and to set the terms whereby we will or will not accept the good life, well, then a whole lot of choices are invoked that human beings aren't supposed to have, the question of abortion, for one. But notice, and this is crucial and it's not in this report at all, but you're thinking about this already, if it's true at the beginning of life, it's true at the end of life where people say the givenness of my death is something I won't accept. I'm going to demand euthanasia or physician assisted suicide. Givenness, I will overcome, because givenness is merely arbitrary. We as Christians understand there is givenness, but it's not arbitrary. There's a sovereign creator God who's exercising his providence in the world. Thus, it isn't arbitrary.
But it's not only the beginning of life and at the end of life, it is also at other junctures of life, including basic questions such as am I male or am I female? Well, that's another issue. Throughout all of human history, basically, and certainly in the Christian worldview, it has been asserted and affirmed that our gender, to use the modern term, which means our biological sex, is a given.
So here's another insight, when you're thinking about the big divide, the big controversy over the revolution and morality, and for that matter, understanding of reality that comes with the T in LGBTQ, the transgender revolution, just think about the fact that once again, we're back to this, what is the vision of the good life? Who gets to decide it? Are the givens in my life something I am willing to accept or am I going to resist and deny the givens?
Now, here's something that explains at least the ideology, the transgender movement in a new way, and it's prompted by this report, not on the transgender issue, but on abortion. It comes back to that givenness. Do you accept or do you not accept that, that givenness is the gift of the creator. Now if you do, then you understand, well, the fact that I was made a boy or I was made a girl is a part of God's cosmic plan from eternity for me. That's who I am, because I don't get to say who I am, the creator says who I am. On the other hand, if you see that givenness as entirely arbitrary, then you'll say no one has the right to tell me that I'm a boy or a girl, and that includes the doctor who, in the delivery room, declared one or the other. I will determine whether I am a male or a female, that givenness is something I'm going to overcome.
This is really important for Christians, especially as we think about the challenge of defending human life, the dignity and sanctity of human life at every stage, at every age, under every condition, because the conversation about abortion is never merely about abortion. It's about everything else. Most importantly, it's about whether or not persons will honestly confront the question of the moral status, the biological status of the inhabitant of the womb. If they do accept the importance of that question, then it's going to be very hard to be permissive when it comes to abortion. But if they don't, well, why wouldn't you be permissive on abortion if the inhabitant of the womb has no moral significance whatsoever?
When it comes to the issue of the definition of the good life, here's another warning for Christians. We dare not borrow and depend upon the secular understanding of the good life, or we do so at our own theological peril. We put our faithfulness to Christ at peril. Many Christians fail to think about the givenness of life and understand that it's a part of God's plan for us. Now, there are things that happen to us that we can respond to. If we get an infection, we can take an antibiotic, that doesn't violate God's will, but when it comes to God's declaration of who we are and the conditions into which we are born, well, at that point, we don't have any right to resist.
Every Human Life Is Sacred and Honored, No Matter How It Came to Be
But then this takes us to another issue very much in the headlines, and this has to do with the confirmation hearings upcoming for Judge Amy Coney Barrett, President Trump's nominee to the Supreme Court, and this has to do with the issue of IVF or in vitro fertilization, and a statement that was made by democratic United States Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois in which she said that because Judge Barrett, as a professor at the University of Notre Dame, had signed a pro-life ad that states that life has dignity and sanctity from the moment of conception until natural death, she is therefore opposed to IVF reproductive technologies and therefore, she is opposed to Tammy Duckworth's own two daughters, believing that they shouldn't even exist. That's the language used by Senator Duckworth.
Now, let's just think about this for a moment. Clearly, it is political theater, but it turns out there's a lot behind this. For example, in the article by Jacey Fortin in The New York Times, we read, "In her letter," that's to legislators, other senators, "Ms. Duckworth wrote that, 'St. Joseph County, Right to Life,'" that's the organization that placed the ad, signed by the Barrett's, "'is an organization whose views are considered radical, even within the larger anti-choice movement,'" note the choice of language, "'in part due to its stated belief that a critical step of the in vitro fertilization process that gave me my children is equivalent to manslaughter.'"
Now, wait just a minute. What in the world is that about? What is the step in the in vitro fertilization process that anyone could claim will be tantamount to manslaughter? Well, Senator Duckworth isn't really very clear about that.
Let's be clear about it. In vitro fertilization actually isn't these days in vitro, that means in glass, that is the so-called test tube baby with which this technology began. And it is, of course, fairly new in the human scale, but it's been around now for more than a generation. And in vitro fertilization still refers to the process whereby fertilization takes place outside of the woman's body and you have fertilized embryos that are then placed within her and carried to gestation, except not all of them are. Here's the crucial issue. When it comes to Christians thinking about in vitro fertilization, the biggest issue is not the in vitro part, the fact that the fertilization takes place outside the woman's body. I wrote an academic work on this years ago in which I say that is an issue, but it's not the main issue. The main issue comes down to what do you do with all those embryos? Because we do believe that life begins at fertilization. The sanctity of life begins at fertilization.
And so when you have these human embryos, well, the answer is you must transfer them all to the womb because if you do destroy those embryos, you are destroying human embryos. Period. So in order to understand what Senator Duckworth was saying here, she's saying that at a critical step of the in vitro fertilization process that gave her her children there is what some pro-lifer she describes as radical, even in the larger anti-choice movement, say is equivalent to manslaughter. Well, just think about it. When you have a human embryo, you have a human life. It has to be treated with dignity.
Now, the atrocity in all of that is that there are now millions of human embryos in laboratories around the United States and beyond that either have been destroyed or will be destroyed, but the picture is actually even worse than that. Because when you have Senator Duckworth talking about a critical step of the in vitro fertilization process, it is likely she's not talking about the destruction of non-transferred embryos. It is almost certain that she's talking about what's called selective reduction.
What does that mean? It means the fact that medical authorities transfer more embryos into the mother than they will allow to develop to full gestation, which is to say it is the implantation of multiple embryos and the eventual abortion of some of them in order that others may develop more healthfully.
So let me push this forward. Does this mean that Christians should oppose in vitro fertilization reproductive technologies? Well, I have to say at the very least, Christians must be concerned about them, but that doesn't mean that they are always illegitimate because if all of the embryos are indeed transferred and if they are allowed to progress towards gestation, if we allow nature to take its course within the woman in that gestational period, there is no intentional destruction of human life. And indeed, another issue of the Christian worldview is when we are dealing with human life, once that life exists, we do not interrogate the means by which that life came to be. What am I saying? When we look at a human life at any stage of development, that includes an embryo or a child or an adult, we are looking at a human life that we celebrate simply because God has said let there be life.
The moral circumstances, the context in which that life came to be, are no longer the issue, which is to say if you have a child, say, born outside of marriage, the act of sex outside of marriage was sin, but the child himself or herself is certainly not sin. That comes back to the givenness, right? The child had no part in the sin. The child is simply a life that has come to be. And once that life exists, Christians not only protect it, we are called to celebrate that life.
So when it comes to Senator Duckworth's daughters, we have concerns about the technology. Yes, we have particular concerns to the point of outright heartbreak when it comes to what she refers to as the destruction of some of those embryos in her womb. But when it comes to the two daughters that she has brought to the Senate, well, they are to be celebrated. They are to be affirmed. They are to be loved. The givenness of their lives reminds us, as we come back to where we began, that it is God's purpose that they should be celebrated and protected.
So as many of these issues are now coming to the public mind and very much a part of the controversy with the hearings for Judge Barrett coming up, remember, there's a lot more to these stories than the secular mind will understand. And it's good for us to go back and ask, what's really behind this? The givenness of life, the danger of defining the good life in our own terms and our understanding that the givenness of life means that we celebrate all life, but that doesn't mean that we support all means of bringing life into existence. And it reminds us of our responsibility to ask not only what people think about an important issue, but why they think what they think.
Tomorrow, we're going to talk about the vice-presidential debate on Wednesday night. We're keeping that until we can give it a bit more attention. We look forward to that conversation tomorrow. In the meantime, thanks for listening to The Briefing.
I want to remind you that tomorrow at 3:30 PM Eastern daylight time, we're going to have a special preview conference for Boyce College. If you're a Christian young person and you're looking for the best program in Christian worldview education for college, if you're a parent or another one who loves a young person, in that situation, I want to invite you to be a part, tell others about it. There's still time to register at boycecollege.com/preview. I'm going to participate in a special Ask Anything event just with participants in that conference tomorrow. We schedule it so that students can participate in it after school. Our intention is to reach as many people as possible and just tell you about the programs of Boyce College. I believe in them. I believe in them enthusiastically. I look forward to talking with you about them. Again, boycecollege.com/preview, tomorrow, 3:30 PM Eastern Daylight Time.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.