A medical education is not a philosophical education. That is the lasting impression left by Christian abortion doctor Willie Parker’s new memoir, Life's Work: A Moral Argument for Choice. Like earlier books in this genre, Parker’s does an excellent job of explaining to the world how such doctors think, providing a glimpse into what happens inside the clinics, and painting a picture of how the words and actions of the protestors outside the clinic are perceived. What such books do not provide, however, is a contribution to the philosophical literature on the topic of abortion, because the authors do not pay any attention to that literature.
It is not simply that the authors avoid reading and commenting on the pro-life literature because it might unsettle their worldview; they don’t draw on the pro-choice works either. Parker does not refer to the arguments provided by Judith Jarvis Thomson’s famous article or by books on abortion by David Boonin, Kristin Luker, Ronald Dworkin, Michael Tooley, Peter Singer, Celeste Condit, Eileen McDonagh, et al. One does not find any discussion of the deep questions of moral and legal philosophy that are raised by Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Even further outside the author’s ken are the work of John Rawls and his critics, or the relevance to the abortion debate of authors such as René Girard, John Locke, and Thomas Aquinas.
This book seeks to make a religious argument as well as a secular one, but in that realm also there is no serious attention to the theological literature on abortion, either pro-choice or pro-life. The result is an embarrassingly superficial, sophomoric treatment that is filled with little more than predictable clichés.
It is part autobiography and part apologia for the pro-choice cause. The author describes his upbringing in a poor African-American family, his success in education, leading to medical school, and his comfortable life as an ob-gyn working in Hawaii. He then describes how he made a turn toward becoming an abortionist and decided to move back to the deep South in which he had been raised. The more argumentative aspect of the book relates how he believes that he and other pro-choice advocates speak the truth, while the “antis” speak “falsehoods.” He contrasts his own “ethical abortion care” with that of the bad apples, such as Kermit Gosnell, and explains how he relates with his clients and tries to discern whether they are being pressured by others to have an abortion. It is, overall, a very readable and smooth-flowing book, though painfully weak in its arguments.
Trading in Clichés
Parker trots out all of the familiar pro-choice phrases and arguments. He speaks of “fetal tissue” and the “products of conception,” and he argues that “the anti-choicers are violent fanatics” who are “analogous to the defenders of slavery,” that “women’s rights are under attack,” and that “the ‘pro-life’ position is nothing but men wanting to control women’s bodies.”
There is nothing new in the book, despite New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s fascination with it. It is simply a compilation of predictable phrases, preaching to the pro-choice choir. Consider the following passage: “With phrases like ‘pro-life’ and ‘culture of life,’ the antis seized the moral high ground nearly forty years ago, and they retain it to this day, because abortion rights activists, the people who have been fighting for the rights of women, have never mounted a significant religious or moral counterargument.”
Although Parker clearly thinks that his book contains such a significant religious and moral argument, he simply has not done the reading necessary to craft such an argument. He uses the language of “rights,” for example, without showing the slightest awareness of the philosophical debates regarding rights language that are occurring now and have been carried on from the late middle ages forward.
Parker says at one point that in his evolution from a fundamentalist youth to the liberal Christian that he is now, he began to lose his “notion of moral absolutes and think more in terms of shades of gray.” Yet it is precisely “shades of gray” that the book lacks. There is no discussion, for example, of the sort of issues raised by Naomi Wolf’s famously ambivalent defense of the pro-choice stance in her essay “Our Bodies, Our Souls,” or Dr. Lisa Harris’s probing observation and question: “In general feminism is a peaceful movement. It does not condone violent problem-solving, and opposes war and capital punishment. But abortion is a version of violence. What are we to do with that contradiction?”
In Parker’s world, abortion is never a violent act, even when he is referring to the “disarticulation” (by which he means dismemberment) of the inhabitant of the womb. He also refuses to take into consideration why Dr. Bernard Nathanson, Abby Johnson, Norma McCorvey (“Jane Roe”), and so many others have converted from pro-choice to pro-life. There is no response to the writings of pro-life feminists, who have argued forcefully that abortion on demand is a very masculine response to the challenges of life.
Christianity and Science
“As a Christian and as a scientist,” Parker says, “I can authoritatively attest that life does not begin at conception.” Peter Singer, the notorious advocate not just of abortion, but also of infanticide, would here observe that Parker is conflating the word “life” with the word “person.” Of course, Singer would say, the life of a human being begins at conception, but personhood is distinct from a human being’s life.
Parker never clearly states when personhood begins, but he insinuates that it commences during the vague period of pregnancy when viability outside the womb becomes plausible. He never displays any awareness of the very careful (secular) arguments that pro-life philosophers have made regarding the self-development of each unique human being in the womb, as a being of a rational nature who only requires time and protection to develop to be able to exercise his or her root capacities. He also shows no awareness of the idea that “science” has no competence in defining key philosophical concepts such as “person,” “rights,” “justice,” “truth,” and so forth. His assertion that he can “authoritatively” pronounce on the topic of personhood as a “scientist” is amateurish and confused, on various levels.
One of his repeated arguments throughout the book is that the pro-life position is nothing but an example of “patriarchy,” a desire “to protect men’s exclusive rights of fetal ownership.” In truth, it’s the opposite. It is the pro-choice position that is rooted in a (non-scientific) belief in fetal ownership. By contrast, the pro-life position holds that it is wrong for human beings to believe that they have absolute ownership of other human beings, which entails the power to kill them.
Abortion and Natural Law
Though he does not realize it, Parker’s statement that he would refuse to perform abortions for sex or race selection is a sign pointing (however obscurely) to the natural law. He says at various points in the book that he is a great admirer of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He even mentions reading the Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
Parker apparently does not realize that the heart of the letter’s argument is the concept that positive law needs to be judged by the standard of natural law, as articulated by thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas. The first principle of natural law is to do good and not to do evil. The commandment “Thou shalt not kill” directly flows from this principle. In our era, however, the realist epistemology and moral philosophy of natural law has been rejected in favor of a nominalism that says that if a woman is pregnant and she wants to be pregnant, then there is a person inside her, but if she does not want to be pregnant, then there is not a person. “Personhood” is a product of subjective willing. That is the core of the pro-choice worldview, and it is a complete repudiation of natural law. No matter how hard Parker tries to align himself with Martin Luther King Jr., one simply cannot have it both ways.
Though it hardly seems possible, the “theology” in the last chapter is even worse than the “philosophy” in the earlier chapters. Parker makes positive comments about Quakerism, without considering how the violence of abortion might conflict with the nonviolence of George Fox. He quotes Thomas Merton with approval, as saying that “God is that which is wholly Other” without reflecting on how the pro-choice theology makes God wholly inner. Whatever a woman chooses with regard to abortion is “sacred.” In Parker’s words, “The part of you that’s like God is the part that makes a choice. That says, I choose to. Or, I choose not to. That’s what’s sacred. That’s the part of you that’s like God to me.” It is as if Parker had read Servais Pinckaers’s book The Sources of Christian Ethics and decided to take his stand with nominalism’s freedom of indifference while rejecting Aquinas’s freedom for excellence. But of course, I’m sure that he has not read it.
Ignorance, Arrogance, and Violence
In sum, the pro-choice worldview is fully on display in this book, with all of its ignorance, arrogance, and violence. Parker displays his ignorance of the literature of the abortion debate and the very real philosophical questions at play within it. He showcases his arrogance by asserting scientistic “knowledge” about reality, combined with an assumption of god-like power over other human beings. And, of course, there is the brute violence of the act of abortion, which either “pureés” the inhabitant of the womb (Dr. Poppema’s term), or dismembers and crushes the skull of a younger version of you or me.
The strategy of the pro-choice worldview, seen in the broadest possible historical lens, is leading from behind. “Women have always sought to end pregnancies,” we are told, and our moral imperative is to assist them to do that as “safely” as possible. What the pro-choice worldview fails to take into account is that human beings are morally fractured creatures who resort to violence against helpless victims as a means of managing the psychological difficulties of life.
Real moral leadership in history always takes the side of the victims, the scapegoats, the weakest members of the human race, not the side of those who would kill them. Such real leadership would fit H. Richard Niebuhr’s idea of “Christ transforming culture,” as opposed to Dr. Parker’s “Christ of culture.” Martin Luther King, Jr., by the way, had read Niebuhr.
Charles K. Bellinger is an associate professor of Theology and Ethics at the Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University. He is the author of Jesus v. Abortion: They Know Not What They Do.