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Book Review: Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice by Willie Parker

February 16th, 2018 | 18 min read

By Brewer Eberly

By Brewer Eberly

Is there a topic at the intersection of Christianity and medicine today more fraught than abortion?

Opinions divide in the public square just as they do in the pew, at the bedside, and in the bedroom. Abortion remains a central political issue for the left regarding equality and a tip-of-the-spear talking point for the right regarding civic morality. Physicians hold differing convictions even while abortion is considered “not medically controversial” by the pop-elders of medical ethics and professionalism. Even Wendell Berry sees “no chance of public reconciliation” for the controversy.

Such gridlock is expected. Few hold a consistent ethic of life across physician-assisted suicide, the death penalty, and abortion. In bioethics, the classic arguments regarding the beginnings of human life, “sufficient human personhood,” “internal developmental directedness,” and pluripotency are anything but clear. Such vocabulary feels increasingly outdated in a medical Westworld of uterine transplants, gender reassignments, and biobags.

And yet the old dichotomies remain. If abortion truly entails the intentional killing of children, then abortion is a nightmare—state-sanctioned death that well surpasses the total human life lost in all wars combined. But if abortion does not entail such human killing (or better, if it does and yet remains morally and ethically permissible, as Judith Jarvis Thomson famously argued), then there are great injustices being done to women, privacy, reproductive rights, and patient autonomy (or so the arguments go).

And what of the Church? A stunning majority of patients who seek abortion claim a Christian affiliation, underscoring the cognitive dissonance with what exactly Christians think beyond “life begins at conception.” As the late Christian ethicist Allen Verhey wrote, “The advocates of abortion rights are unlikely to treat a miscarriage as the same sort of loss as an appendectomy, and those who would prohibit abortion are unlikely to check the menstrual flow each month to see if there has been a death in the family.”

Indeed, there are no Christian funerals for abortions or miscarriages. And yet, a cry is heard in Ramah—the pain of abortion (and miscarriage) is unique in both loss and loneliness, betraying the gravity of what happens when new life is intentionally removed (or unexpectedly lost) from the womb. Such grief is particularly confounding alongside those who celebrate or “shout” their abortions.

It is into this seemingly exhausted debate that Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice arrived last year from “Christian abortion provider” Dr. Willie Parker. Unsurprisingly, given the frequency of journalism bringing “Christian” and “abortion provider” into close proximity, Dr. Parker’s work has enjoyed much commentary (The New York Times, The New York Times MagazineRolling StoneTIME, Esquire, The AtlanticThe Huffington Post, The Daily Show).

While Parker explicitly notes that he is “not making a Christian argument,” the open declarations of his faith, along with the scattered indicatives “as a Christian…” within his book and interviews, make it difficult to defend his words as not at least implying a Christian argument (as in, “It’s hard for [protestors] to accept that I do abortions because I’m a Christian”).

In Parker’s defense, his book is a memoir, not a formal exploration of theological bioethics and abortion (interactions with ethicists who’ve done so, including Allen Verhey, Michael Gorman, Beverly Wildung Harrison, Daniel C. Maguire, James Burtchaell, Peter Kreeft, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Sidney Callahan, or Joseph Kotva, Jr., are conspicuously absent from the book). Even with a subtitle like “A Moral Argument for Choice,” Life’s Work functions as an argument from pathos and health policy, not moral philosophy or Christian ethics.

But given the authority held by physicians today (“the new priests,” as Karl Barth and Stanley Hauerwas would say), I fear many will look at Life’s Work as medical, moral, and Christian wisdom. For example, Christina Forrester, director of Christian Democrats of America, followed the April release of Life’s Work with an article boasting the apparent “truth about Christianity and abortion,” that “Traditionally the Church was ‘tolerant’ on abortion before the third trimester, from the time of the early church until the late 19th century.” This is precisely what has attracted early criticism from the conservative evangelical community. Russell Moore and Albert Mohler have already tried to correct a few of Parker’s clichés, such as, “The Bible does not contain the word ‘abortion’ anywhere in it.”

While Scripture does mention miscarriage (Exodus 21:22–25, Numbers 5:11–31, Hosea 9:14) and the mysteries of human formation in the womb (Jeremiah 1:5, Psalm 139, Ecclesiastes 11:5), it is true that it does not mention abortion explicitly. But as any first-year seminarian knows, Scripture doesn’t mention many things (hedge funds, carburetors, Netflix). Naturally, such silence tends to breed divergent, proof-texty interpretations that support whoever is doing the writing.

Even so, there are clues—a womb-life poetry. It may not be an ontological coincidence that “compassion” and “womb” share close spellings in Hebrew—rachum and rechem—as in, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?” (Isaiah 49:15). John the Baptist leaps in Elizabeth’s womb when he encounters the unborn Christ (Luke 1:41,44).

Likewise, the record of the church’s condemnation of abortion is not so easily dismissed. The Didache: The Instruction of the Twelve Apostles 2:2–3 reads, bluntly, “You shall not murder a child by abortion, or kill a newborn.” Clement of Alexandria in The Pedagogue 96 writes, “[those] who resort to some sort of deadly abortion drug slay not only the embryo but, along with it, all human love.” The Epistle of Barnabus 19:5 and 20:2 lament abortion as the destruction of small images of God.

And the list goes on: The Eastern Council of Ancrya in 314, the Western Synod of Elvira in 309, Athenagoras of Athens in A Plea Regarding Christians 35, Tertullian in Apologeticum 9 and De Anima 37–38:1, Hippolytus of Rome in Refutation of All Heresies 9:12:25, John Chrysostom in Homily 24 on Romans. The Apostolic Constitutions, The Apocalypse of Peter, Philo, Josephus, Ambrose, Jerome. John Calvin’s commentary on Exodus, Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Ethics, C. S. Lewis in his Collected Letters, Saint Teresa, John Paul II, etc. etc.

Critics respond with two points.

First, these statements could represent neither the Christian protection of the mother and her unborn, nor the Christian condemnation of abortion as the killing of particularly susceptible members of the human community, but rather protection of the paterfamilias, the man and his seed, and thus the condemnation of abortion as the destruction of a particularly male property.

Second, abortion may have been neither equivalent to homicide nor categorically impermissible for early Christians who followed Aristotelian thought regarding “delayed animation” or “ensoulment,” which questioned when the human soul entered the unborn. Presumably, before ensoulment at some point during the first trimester, abortion may have been acceptable.

But it doesn’t follow from the historical scars of patriarchy and paternalism that the act of abortion is thus morally neutral (let alone morally permissible). Early Christian prohibitions of abortion may well retain the stain of patriarchy while still rightly condemning the practice.

As for ensoulment, while it is true that the famous (Aquinas, Augustine) and the relatively unknown (Alphonsus Liguori) probably did not consider the non-animated, yet-to-be-ensouled embryo a full member of the human community, they still suggest that abortion is the morally bankrupt option among those available to the Christian. Indeed, Basil the Great of Caesarea in Letter 188:2 notes that such questions of whether or not the unborn is adequately “formed or unformed” are irrelevant to the call of Christians regarding abortion—namely to love the least of these and welcome new life into baptism and communion through radical hospitality, adoption, and community—to not kill.

But alas, under the advent of fake news, why would any of this be convincing? Chesterton’s dead democracy of the past is silenced under the arrogant oligarchy of the present. Parker dismisses the examples of The Didache and early Christian abortion prohibitions as cherry-picking that fail to reflect the present reality that women who need care aren’t receiving it.

The use of “need” here is important. Excluding the paradigm cases of pregnancy-causing-harm-to-mother (ectopic pregnancies, for example), the horrors of rape and incest, and the severe pressures of poverty, abortion is not a healthcare need from the standpoint of pathological healing. Elective terminations do not “heal” anything; rather they work against the very telos of the flourishing female reproductive system. Abortion is a strange healthcare practice for several reasons, not the least of which is its essentially paradoxical nature. Abortion’s “health” end is the same as those which medicine would typically categorize under the banner of unhealth. Infertility, miscarriage, and elective termination all bring about the same result: the absence of new life.

But the “Christian abortionist” vision isn’t interested in teleology, dusty Christian ethicists, unknown elders like Athenagoras, or moral philosophers complicating the social momentum of the new sexual revolution. Parker wants to know what you’re going to do right now about the woman in your congregation, courtroom, or clinic who wants (or “needs”) an abortion. In the spirit of Elizabeth Warren, it’s 2018. “Call a doctor,” not a historian or theologian. And if you do call a theologian, better call one with an updated theology.

Life’s Work offers an update in the last chapter, appropriately titled “A New Theology of Abortion.” Dr. Parker calls for “a fully humanistic…new understanding of God which would prompt, embrace, and support my professional choice,” including even “inspiration to see abortion as a part of God.”

Pascal was right, “God formed man in his image, and then man returned the favor.” That is, sadly, all that is happening here—a reimagining of God to embrace professional choices, rather than a reimagining of professional choices to embrace God.

The “new understanding of God” and “new theology of abortion” in Life’s Work aren’t new at all. They’re garden-variety Gnosticism and anthropomorphism repackaged within medico-social progressivism. Inevitably, Parker’s “fully humanistic” theology decays into the sort of bumper-sticker, anything-goes moral therapeutic deism familiar to postmodernity: “God is love, and God does not judge.” “The Christian thing to do is to help women in need, without judgment.”

Philosophically, this implies an Eleatic paradox: the decisions pregnant women make regarding the elective terminations of their unborn cannot be judged or morally appraised, while the status of their unborn apparently can.

And theologically, where has the Apostle’s Creed gone? “From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.” Christianity has always articulated a God who is love and judges. And if God isn’t love and justice, what was that whole incarnation-crucifixion-resurrection business about again?

While there may be a glimmer of Matthew 7 humility and John 8 faithfulness to Parker’s empathy (a sort of “You who are anti-abortion, cast the first stone”), it is a compassion that divorces itself from the testimony of Christian history and community on abortion. It is a pity holding heaven hostage as did the “death-of-God” theologians of the late nineteenth-century who argued that the most Christian thing one can do is to reject Christian orthodoxy and even Christ Himself in the name of some perceived social good. As Patricia Snow has recently written, “In an age of unbelief, we govern by a tenderness that, long since cut off from the person of Christ, ends in terror.” Parker’s use of the Good Samaritan parable from Luke 10 is the interpretive key for this tenderness turned terror.

Imagine a woman is left impregnated and abandoned on the dangerous road of life. She desires an abortion. A Catholic passes by on the right, re-reading Humanae Vitae. A Protestant passes by on the left, holding up an ultrasound image of a twelve-week embryo. A Greek Orthodox goes by another route. And a fourth, a Christian Abortionist with a new understanding of God, removes the woman’s unborn from her uterus. The Christian thing to do is to help women in need, without judgment, by creating opportunities for safe abortions—just like the Good Samaritan might do.

Here lies the good and the ugly of Life’s Work. Parker’s memoir offers sobering reflections on the shaming and shunning of women who’ve had abortions, violence toward abortion providers, and the complex circumstances behind women who seek abortions that should give Christians serious pause. These stories are important and should not be quieted. Likewise, Parker’s outrage against the Christian community’s distant, moralizing stance toward abortion should be listened to with care. When the church refuses to bring the young mother and child into their bosom, all while shouting “abortion is murder” from the cultural rooftops, it is no wonder Dr. Parker and others respond with confusion, rage, and a reframing of Christian ethics to include abortion. The Good Samaritan is reimagined as something ugly.

And yet, Christian communities may be more present and caring to mothers than critics would like to admit. Crisis Pregnancy Centers and the strength of the evangelical adoption movement suggest that Christians really do care about both women and children beyond a narrow application of “pro-life.” But like the old acts of mercy of visiting the prisoner or anointing the sick,  often unpracticed and outsourced, the church needs to recapture the courage, however awkward, of addressing abortion from the pulpit and reclaiming the act of inviting the mother and her unborn into the parish.

Indeed, that is the more scandalous and faithful interpretation of the Good Samaritan story for Christians and physicians alike—one that already enjoys exposition and is found in the practical reality of the parable. The Good Samaritan doesn’t pass by (let alone destroy), but welcomes in. When he encounters new life, he invites it home with oil and wine.

The title “Life’s Work” is wordplay—simultaneously encompassing Dr. Parker’s life and work, the lives of women, and a jab at the church’s “sanctity of life” talk. But all three meanings miss the brutal work of Samaritan love. The early church did not have protestors at the local trash heap to dissuade men and women from discarding their unwanted babies. Rather, they rescued the orphan and took in the poor. What a wild and beautiful practice it would be to see “pro-life” Christians showing up to abortion clinics not to protest, but to invite in.

It is in this spirit that the late ethicist Paul Ramsey offered a new meaning to “godparenting”—one that confronts our idols of comfort, retirement, and nuclear family life. When a young mother has a newborn or unborn that she cannot care for, the church might take in such new life, baptize the little one, and give the baby to an older couple in the church who has the faith and wisdom to raise the child in community. Indeed, the church might take the young mother in as well, adopting daughter and grandchild simultaneously.

Malcolm Muggeridge wrote,

It is, in point of fact, extremely improbable, under existing conditions, that Jesus would have been permitted to be born at all. Mary’s pregnancy, in poor circumstances, and with the father unknown, would have been an obvious case for an abortion; and her talk of having conceived as a result of the intervention of the Holy Ghost would have pointed to the need for psychiatric treatment, and made the case for terminating her pregnancy even stronger. Thus, our generation, needing a Savior more, perhaps, than any that has ever existed, would be too ‘humane’ to allow one to be born.

Here, only days after the end of Epiphany, I think of the messy hospitality extended to that young girl in a stable with an unplanned pregnancy. I think of love’s work leading to a blessed birth.

If Christians are prepared to welcome the least of these—both the unborn and women in need—into their homes and communities, perhaps then we can look between the Christian abortionists and Good Samaritans and ask, in the spirit of the King, “Which of these, do you think, was a neighbor to the mother and her unborn?”

John Brewer Eberly, Jr. is a fourth-year medical student at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine and a graduate of Duke Divinity School’s Theology, Medicine, & Culture Fellowship. He will be practicing obstetrics and gynecology. His interests include medical student formation, theological bioethics, and the philosophy of beauty. He lives in Columbia, SC with his wife, Dendy, and son, Jack.

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