The Briefing

The Briefing

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Tags: Audio

Transcript

It's Wednesday, June 23rd, 2021.

I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part

Do Human Beings Have An Unlimited Right of Autonomy? Millions of Americans Seem to Think So and the Consequences of This Claim Are Deadly

Human dignity and human autonomy, frontline issues and America's cultural conversation, both of them urgently so, and both of them just have tremendous importance as we think, according to a biblical worldview. First of all, human dignity. Ruth Marcus, longtime liberal columnist for The Washington Post, has written an amazingly candid article that was published in that very newspaper, The Washington Post. The headline is this, "Leaving abortion to the states makes them agents of oppression."

Now, what's behind this? Well, it was the announcement by the United States Supreme Court that it is going to take on appeal an abortion case from the state of Mississippi. And just about everyone recognizes, it could well be a game changer. It will, one way or the other, likely determine the course of the high court’s rulings on abortion for decades to come. At stake is Roe V. Wade, the infamous 1973 decision, legalizing abortion-on-demand across the United States.

Even as there have been cases in the past that have presented opportunities for the court to reverse Wade, there's been no opportunity like what is presented to the court in this case from Mississippi. The court is going to hear the oral arguments later this year. It is expected to hand down its ruling in the case about a year from now in June of 2022. Now, everyone on both sides of this issue... and yes, we're talking about two sides of a definitive issue in the United States. You're looking at a huge, nearly infinite chasm between Americans who see the unborn life as being basically of no moral importance at all, and those who see it as of immense importance, deserving protection by the United States constitution.

It comes down to whether or not you see the unborn child as a person. It comes down to whether or not you believe we have an absolute right to bodily autonomy. Well, we'll be looking at that issue in greater depth. Let's just look at the argument being made by Ruth Marcus. The amazing thing about it is that she basically acknowledges that no one looking at the constitution straightforwardly in terms of its words and sentences and paragraphs, we believe that there is anything in it, like a constitutional guarantee of abortion.

Now make no mistake. Ruth Marcus believes that there is a constitutional right for a woman to have an abortion, but not because she believes it's on the authority of the Constitution, but because she believes it's on the authority of the court. But let's look at her argument. She begins, "Writing about the future of abortion rights inevitably entails discussing precedent and the importance of sticking with it. That's the easy part," she says. "The harder questions are these, does the Constitution protect our right to abortion? Or is abortion a matter of public policy best left in the hands of individual states?"

She continues. "Conservatives find the question about whether the Constitution protects abortion rights laughable." Of course it doesn't, they say. Justice Clarence Thomas put it bluntly in a descent last year. She writes when the court narrowly struck down a Louisiana abortion law. Justice Thomas said, "The idea that the framers of the 14th Amendment understood the due process cause to protect our right to abortion is farcical. It would no doubt shock the public at that time to learn that one of the new constitutional amendments contained hidden within the interstices of the text as a right to abortion. The fact," said justice Thomas, "that it took this court over a century to find that right albeit proves that it was more than hidden. It simply was not, and is not there."

Now, in that statement, justice Clarence Thomas is emphatically right. Obviously right. There is no reference to abortion whatsoever in the constitution. No sane or honest person would say that the framers of the constitution or the 14th Amendment and the next century for that matter had abortion even in their imaginations as the constitution was adopted and as it was amended. But Ruth Marcus goes on to say, "I couldn't disagree with this more. But," she says, "it is not by any means a crazy point of view. If you believe that the constitution should be strictly construed based solely upon the language of the text, the history leading up to it, and the understanding of the framers, abortion is a constitutional no-brainer." She says, "It's not up to judges to say, and the court had no business constitutionalizing the issue in Roe V. Wade."

Here's what she deserves honesty for. She has accurately presented the pro-life argument. But then she disagrees with it saying, "Still that cramped vision of the judicial role isn't the only way of interpreting the intentionally capacious phrases of the constitution." She goes on to say, "As justice Felix Frankfurter, a noted advocate of judicial restraint, explained to 1949, the framers understood when to be specific and when to be vague." Making her point, she writes, "No one reads the constitution and concludes this document obviously protects a woman's right to choose. Yet," she says, "the court has long interpreted the due process clause to protect substantive rights, not just mandate procedural fairness."

Fascinating statement. One of the most important intellectually honest statements made, I think, in the mainstream media a long time. You just don't hear this kind of candor very often. That sentence, "No one reads the constitution and concludes this document obviously protects a woman's right to choose." That's the kind of bracing candor that is usually hidden rather than revealed.

But nonetheless, she doesn't think that that damages her argument all that much because her argument is not about the rule of the constitution, but the rule of law as is made visible by the rule of judges. In this case, judges have found what's not in the constitutional text and that is what she calls substantive rights. Rights that aren't there, but nonetheless, a right to privacy as was recognized by the court, she says, and Griswold versus Connecticut in 1965. And yes, Roe V. Wade in 1973. She says, "That's the role of the court to continue the constitutional logic where the constitution itself does not go."

But then she goes on to say something else. And this is where the issue of human autonomy comes so much into the foreground. She writes, "The right to abortion flows logically, if not ineluctably, from this understanding that women have the right to control their own bodies. If the choice about whether to beget or bear a child is not up to the woman, could the government compel women to abort fetuses with genetic deformities? Could parents force their minor daughters to terminate pregnancies? The big issue there is the use of the word autonomy. Ruth Marcus says, "There is a basis for the claim that there must be an ought to be a constitutional right for a woman to obtain an abortion." And that is rooted in the argument that the woman possesses autonomy of her own body. That is that kind of right to control her own body, as Ruth Marcus states it here, "Autonomy is her claim."

And she simply assumes that autonomy is such an obvious fact that we should readjust our understanding of the constitution so to accommodate this idea of autonomy. That's going to be the major theme of our consideration today. The big question, do human beings have such autonomy? What in the world does it mean that there are so many claims that women, or for that matter, men, or for that matter, the human beings previously known as men and women actually have this unlimited right of autonomy. That's the big issue of our consideration.

You'll note the point that Ruth Marcus grounds her argument in that claim of autonomy. She says, "It should be patently obvious," I'm paraphrasing her here, "that a woman has the right to control her own body." Who is the fetus? The fetus is just a part of the woman's own body that she can decide to do with as she wishes. There is no autonomy of the fetus, but there is, she argues, an autonomy that is possessed by the woman.

Where does that idea come from? Well, in some sense, there is a foundation for understanding some kind of human autonomy just by observing human beings. We observe ourselves to be responsible. When you see a child disobey, you call the child on it. You are saying that that child possesses moral responsibility. Furthermore, as human beings, we continually make choices. Even if it's in an ice cream restaurant. And we say, I want that flavor rather than another. That is, in some sense, an autonomous choice. We're making it unless someone says you have to have chocolate, then you can have any of the flavors you want. That's an exercise of autonomy.

But where does that idea come from? Autonomy is a term that you might imagine comes from the Greek. Auto and nomos. Nomos means law, auto means self. What does autonomy mean? It means a law to oneself. Now, even that has very limited application in an ice cream shop, because after all, you might want to flavor the ice cream shop has not prepared and does not offer. In that case, you may claim human autonomy, but you cannot make the ice cream shop instantly produce chocolate chip blackberry ice cream, not if they didn't make it. You can claim all the autonomy you want, but you cannot force your will upon the ice cream shop. The reality is that our choices are constrained by a limited set of options. Even when we declare ourselves to be autonomous as when we're ordering ice cream. But when you go to any deeper level, autonomy begins to fall apart. We are not laws unto ourselves. Just try making that argument to the deputy sheriff who pulls you over for a speeding offense. Autonomy doesn't work in that context. It wouldn't work in the court. It doesn't work in the classroom. Autonomy doesn't work in many spheres of life.

There is some kind of claim of autonomy when we say, "You don't have the right to" say, "imprison me without cause. You don't have the right to take a physical action against me." There is a sense of autonomy, but it is extremely limited. The modern age has exploded the claim of autonomy. A part of the modern age is a claim of virtually sovereign self-government. We are laws into ourselves. This kind of expressive individualism is one of the viruses that has so transformed modern society.

The fact is that even when it comes to the issue of unborn human life, the issue of abortion, you have many people in the United States, by the millions, who really do believe that the woman is simply an autonomous agent and it should be entirely up to her what happens. Going back to Ruth Marcus's argument, she puts it straight forwardly, "The right to abortion flows logically from this understanding that women have the right to control their own bodies."

Well, does the woman have the right to control her own body? Well, to some extent. To some extent, yes. She can decide if she wants to have this surgical procedure or another. If it's all about her body, she can decide if she wants to put her body in this house or in another house that she might choose. She can choose all kinds of things in the exercise of her autonomy. But the important thing to recognize is that it is not only the biblical worldview that puts rather severe boundaries around human autonomy, every society does as well.

Every society adopts all saying, you are not really a sovereign individual. You have to operate within these consensually adopted laws. You can't drive at the speed you say, you can't decide to defy the criminal law and you may claim personal autonomy, but that will not get you very far in court. Where it does get you very far is in the court of public opinion, because Americans love to be told that we are actually autonomous. We like to be told that we can basically define ourselves. We can make ourselves real. We can transform ourselves. And of course we live in a consumer society that continually says, "Whatever you say you are, we will offer a product for you."

Before leaving Ruth Marcus and this issue, she says that we are now past the point of compromise or accommodation on the abortion issue in this country. "There is simply no give on the side of those who believe that life begins at conception and that abortion therefore is tantamount to murder." She says, "If there were a moment before Roe that the country could have come together state-by-state to hash out reasonable abortion restrictions, it is long past. The issue is too divisive, the anti-abortion forces too activated, to settle for half measures if total victory is achievable." What does she see as total victory, absolute abortion on demand as you now see in a state like New York up until the moment of birth with no restrictions whatsoever.

She says, "The time of compromise is over." She says, "We are now looking at two absolutest arguments." And I will have to agree with her on that. Either the fetus is a human being or it is not. One other point in the Ruth Marcus article, she ends by saying, "The decision whether to terminate a pregnancy shouldn't be a matter for majority rule. This is the most intimate of personal choices, leaving abortion regulation entirely up to the states." That means a reversal of Roe. "Wouldn't make them laboratories of democracy. It would empower them to be agents of oppression."

In other words, we believe in majority rule until we don't like how the majority rules.

Part

The Radical Claim of Autonomy Threatens Human Dignity at the Beginning and End of Life and Confuses Human Gender and Sexuality at Every Point in Between

But the big issue here is this claim of autonomy of human self-rule. This idea that we can define ourselves. More about that when we turn to an article that appeared perhaps coincidentally one day before the Ruth Marcus article. This was at CNN. The headline, in America, is bodily autonomy a human right?. The author of this article is Alexis Drutchas, MD, an attending physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. She is also a Public Voices fellow of the OpEd Project. And this was an opinion piece that ran at CNN.

When she asked the question, "In America, is bodily autonomy a human right?" She intends to argue that it is, that we have a human right to be autonomous. Rarely do you see this kind of argument, again, made so straightforwardly, but she does. She writes this, "When it comes to American law and politics, transgender health, abortion access and aid in dying option for patients with terminal illnesses may seem like separate issues. But as a board certified physician in both family medicine and palliative care, I see the same fundamental question of human rights underpinning each one. Do adults with capacity hold the ultimate authority over their own bodies and the medical decisions for their minor children or don't they?"

Well, when you hear that, you would say, well, there must be some kind of autonomy here for adults with capacity, that means with moral responsibility, to make decisions concerning their own bodies. They can do so when it comes to the question of whether or not to have a tattoo. They can do so when it comes to whether or not to have a tonsillectomy. But notice here that she is extending this logic to the issue of abortion, to the issue of transgender health, and to the issue of euthanasia and physician assisted suicide.

In all of these cases, what ties them together? This claim of autonomy. I will decide what to do with the unborn life inside of me. I will decide what to do in terms of my own gender identity. I will decide what to do when it comes to how to end my own life on my own terms. And I will demand this as a part of the human right to autonomy. But she goes on to write, "Today, the notion that patients have the right to make decisions about their own care is a central tenet of the medical profession."

She cites the 1979 document known as the principles of biomedical ethics. She says that this document "enshrined patient autonomy as a guiding principle of contemporary medicine." Where's she going with this? Well, she's going towards the argument that government should have no right to restrict abortion. That's a woman's autonomy at stake. She says the government should have no right to restrict the transgender ideology and the application of that ideology, say, to what is now called, as we discussed on The Briefing yesterday, "gender-confirming surgery."

She says the government should have no role in it. Or for that matter, who should play on which team, boys or girls, men's or women's. That should be beyond the government's control or regulation because of human autonomy. She says human autonomy should be extended to the elimination of any policies or laws that prevent euthanasia or physician assisted suicide. Because again, we are autonomous creatures. We obviously, according to her argument, have the right to decide whether or not an unborn child will be born. We have the right to decide when and how we will die.

She says, "When it comes to certain decisions about bodily freedoms, like aid and dying, transgender health and reproductive rights, some politicians seem to think they need to protect people from their own choices. Even though these are no more or less consequential than many other autonomous decisions."

Wait just a minute. Wait just a minute. I just want to call halt here for a moment and say that's absolute nonsense. She says that those decisions related to transgender health, aid and dying and reproductive rights are, "No more or less consequential than many other autonomous decisions." That's patently ridiculous. Deciding about matters of life and death and whether or not one is going to claim to be a man or a woman, a male or a female with requisite surgery, if necessary, those are not matters akin to any other human decisions. Period.

And of course on the pro-abortion front, she is glad to cite Paxton Smith. You may remember her. She got a lot of publicity a matter of weeks ago when she crossed the nation screen as the high school valedictorian in Texas who broke the rules, and in her valedictory speech and her high school graduation defended abortion rights and abortion itself in unvarnished terms.

She said, "I hope you can feel how gut wrenching it is, how dehumanizing it is to have the autonomy over your own body taken from you." She's been drinking the Kool-Aid entirely on this. The idea that autonomy is the great right, the great good, the great reality, everything else has to been to autonomy. Well, who would stand over against this claim of autonomy? Who would dare to say that human beings are entirely autonomous?

Well, you might guess, it's someone who believes that we are not autonomous. We are not sovereign, but God is. Here's the way the doctor puts it, "The continued promotion of paternalistic ideologies can frequently be traced back to religious fundamentalism." Religious fundamentalism. What does that mean in this context? Anyone who believes the actual truth of the religion, in this case, Christianity. It's not just religious fundamentalism. She's talking about Christian fundamentalism in the main.

And by using the word fundamentalism, she means to dismiss the argument, but this is just classical orthodox Christianity. Any kind of biblical Christianity insists upon the fact that if human beings are autonomous in any sense, it is an extremely narrow sense. The sovereignty of God is absolutely incompatible with these ridiculous claims of human autonomy. By the way, reality is also absolute war with these ridiculous claims of human autonomy. More on that in just a moment.

This doctor goes so far in her celebration of unbounded human autonomy, as to say the human beings even have an ethical right to make medical decisions, which may cause them harm, because after all, they are themselves, they have the autonomy, they alone can exercise. The rest of society just has to deal with it. Before we're leaving her argument we just need to note that she actually does tie the three issues together, abortion and euthanasia assisted suicide and the transgender issue. She ties them all together because yes, she has honestly understood that it is the radical claim of human autonomy that undergirds them all. All the moral claims in this case are grounded in this autonomy claim.

Part

The Olympics No Longer Knows the Difference Between Male and Female: A Reminder That Ontology Always Trumps Autonomy

But the big issue here is this claim of autonomy of human self-rule. This idea that we can define ourselves. More about that when we turn to an article that appeared perhaps coincidentally one day before the Ruth Marcus article. This was at CNN. The headline, in America, is bodily autonomy a human right?. The author of this article is Alexis Drutchas, MD, an attending physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. She is also a Public Voices fellow of the OpEd Project. And this was an opinion piece that ran at CNN.

When she asked the question, "In America, is bodily autonomy a human right?" She intends to argue that it is, that we have a human right to be autonomous. Rarely do you see this kind of argument, again, made so straightforwardly, but she does. She writes this, "When it comes to American law and politics, transgender health, abortion access and aid in dying option for patients with terminal illnesses may seem like separate issues. But as a board certified physician in both family medicine and palliative care, I see the same fundamental question of human rights underpinning each one. Do adults with capacity hold the ultimate authority over their own bodies and the medical decisions for their minor children or don't they?"

Well, when you hear that, you would say, well, there must be some kind of autonomy here for adults with capacity, that means with moral responsibility, to make decisions concerning their own bodies. They can do so when it comes to the question of whether or not to have a tattoo. They can do so when it comes to whether or not to have a tonsillectomy. But notice here that she is extending this logic to the issue of abortion, to the issue of transgender health, and to the issue of euthanasia and physician assisted suicide.

In all of these cases, what ties them together? This claim of autonomy. I will decide what to do with the unborn life inside of me. I will decide what to do in terms of my own gender identity. I will decide what to do when it comes to how to end my own life on my own terms. And I will demand this as a part of the human right to autonomy. But she goes on to write, "Today, the notion that patients have the right to make decisions about their own care is a central tenet of the medical profession."

She cites the 1979 document known as the principles of biomedical ethics. She says that this document "enshrined patient autonomy as a guiding principle of contemporary medicine." Where's she going with this? Well, she's going towards the argument that government should have no right to restrict abortion. That's a woman's autonomy at stake. She says the government should have no right to restrict the transgender ideology and the application of that ideology, say, to what is now called, as we discussed on The Briefing yesterday, "gender-confirming surgery."

She says the government should have no role in it. Or for that matter, who should play on which team, boys or girls, men's or women's. That should be beyond the government's control or regulation because of human autonomy. She says human autonomy should be extended to the elimination of any policies or laws that prevent euthanasia or physician assisted suicide. Because again, we are autonomous creatures. We obviously, according to her argument, have the right to decide whether or not an unborn child will be born. We have the right to decide when and how we will die.

She says, "When it comes to certain decisions about bodily freedoms, like aid and dying, transgender health and reproductive rights, some politicians seem to think they need to protect people from their own choices. Even though these are no more or less consequential than many other autonomous decisions."

Wait just a minute. Wait just a minute. I just want to call halt here for a moment and say that's absolute nonsense. She says that those decisions related to transgender health, aid and dying and reproductive rights are, "No more or less consequential than many other autonomous decisions." That's patently ridiculous. Deciding about matters of life and death and whether or not one is going to claim to be a man or a woman, a male or a female with requisite surgery, if necessary, those are not matters akin to any other human decisions. Period.

And of course on the pro-abortion front, she is glad to cite Paxton Smith. You may remember her. She got a lot of publicity a matter of weeks ago when she crossed the nation screen as the high school valedictorian in Texas who broke the rules, and in her valedictory speech and her high school graduation defended abortion rights and abortion itself in unvarnished terms.

She said, "I hope you can feel how gut wrenching it is, how dehumanizing it is to have the autonomy over your own body taken from you." She's been drinking the Kool-Aid entirely on this. The idea that autonomy is the great right, the great good, the great reality, everything else has to been to autonomy. Well, who would stand over against this claim of autonomy? Who would dare to say that human beings are entirely autonomous?

Well, you might guess, it's someone who believes that we are not autonomous. We are not sovereign, but God is. Here's the way the doctor puts it, "The continued promotion of paternalistic ideologies can frequently be traced back to religious fundamentalism." Religious fundamentalism. What does that mean in this context? Anyone who believes the actual truth of the religion, in this case, Christianity. It's not just religious fundamentalism. She's talking about Christian fundamentalism in the main.

And by using the word fundamentalism, she means to dismiss the argument, but this is just classical orthodox Christianity. Any kind of biblical Christianity insists upon the fact that if human beings are autonomous in any sense, it is an extremely narrow sense. The sovereignty of God is absolutely incompatible with these ridiculous claims of human autonomy. By the way, reality is also absolute war with these ridiculous claims of human autonomy. More on that in just a moment.

This doctor goes so far in her celebration of unbounded human autonomy, as to say the human beings even have an ethical right to make medical decisions, which may cause them harm, because after all, they are themselves, they have the autonomy, they alone can exercise. The rest of society just has to deal with it. Before we're leaving her argument we just need to note that she actually does tie the three issues together, abortion and euthanasia assisted suicide and the transgender issue. She ties them all together because yes, she has honestly understood that it is the radical claim of human autonomy that undergirds them all. All the moral claims in this case are grounded in this autonomy claim.

 

 

 

 

 

But now we have to turn to a third issue very much in today's headlines. It points to the same issue. In this case, the headline is coming from Wellington, New Zealand, where Reuters tells us, "Weightlifter Laurel Hubbard will become the first transgender athlete to compete at the Olympics after being selected by New Zealand for the women's event at the Tokyo Games, a decision set to reignite a debate over inclusion and fairness in sport."

Reuters then goes on to tell us, "Hubbard will compete in the super heavy weight 87 kilogram category. Her selection made possible by an update to qualifying requirements in May." We're also told that the 40 three-year-old will become the oldest weightlifter at the games and that this individual had competed in men's weightlifting competitions before transitioning in 2013.

Now this is not going over tremendously well everywhere. Where it's not going over well is among actual female weightlifters. The claim is being made and you expect it to be made even as it flies in the face of today's political correctness and ideological orthodoxy, the claim is being made that it is simply unfair for a biological male, even one that is undergone years of hormone therapy to compete against biological females at the highest echelons of Olympic sport.

The claim is, there are still advantages that come from having gone through male puberty in body size and mass and skeletal development. The hormones do not reverse that entire process. There is still an advantage, and thus it is unfair. But you'll notice that the Olympics has surrendered to the transgender ideology. And let me tell you what that means. It means for one thing, that the Olympics no longer knows the difference between male and female. When you look at the distinction between men's and women's events at the Olympics, nowadays, every one of those events must come with an asterisk.

But then again, the transgender ideologues are convinced that the same must be true of your local middle school. But how does all of this tie together? It is because the transgender ideology is based upon the extension of this argument of personal autonomy. I not only have the right to control my body as the argument, I have the right to compel you to accept whatever I claim is my gender identity.

I also make the claim that if my gender identity doesn't meet what society now just refers to as biological sex, then the society is going to pay for what is now ideologically called gender confirmation surgery in order to make me more like what I claim I am, even though the chromosomal structure can't change, even though the reproductive function won't follow. Yes, personal autonomy here meets its limits.

What am I talking about? I'm saying that as I often point out on The Briefing ontology trumps autonomy. What does that mean? Ontology means reality. It's another Greek compound. Ontology means being, it means the knowledge of being. And you know what? Being says, X, X, and X, Y don't change. Being says, you may claim that you can change your driver's license, that you can change your gender, that you can change how society is supposed to refer to you. You can use an endless array of personal pronouns, but X, X, and X, Y don't change.

What I'm saying is that reality means there are very severe limitations upon our autonomy. We can claim to be this or that, but it will not make us this or that. And society, in previous epics throughout all of human history, has existed, at least in part, to be responsible to say, at least, for citizens to say to one another, we are not unbounded in our autonomy. The same logic is extended to abortion. The same logic is extended to euthanasia and physician assisted suicide. The idea is that I am an autonomous self. The rest of the world must simply deal with it.

Again, that doesn't work in the home. That doesn't work in the courtroom. That doesn't work as you understand that the most basic issue of human existence is the fact that we came into existence. And guess how much any one of us had to do with that? Nothing. To put the matter even more bluntly, the Bible does not begin with, "In the beginning, you." It begins rather, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth."

Everything's going to follow in someone's worldview. Between the worldview that starts out, "In the beginning, me," and the worldview that begins, "In the beginning, God." That may be the most clarifying distinction human beings can ever hear. But here's something else for us to consider. Even if we get that issue wrong, it doesn't make it real. The universe doesn't work according to the principle, "In the beginning, you" or "me" or "any one of us." The universe only works, the universe only exists, the universe is only explicable, the universe only has meaning if instead, "In the beginning is God."

But it's not just in the beginning. It's in the beginning, in the middle and in the end. And that's the end of The Briefing for today.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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