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Questions on Abortion: A Dinner Invitation to Nicholas Kristof

The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof addresses the debate over abortion from an external point of view, for he has not attempted to understand or imagine the pro-life position from the standpoint of someone who holds that view. If he’d like to try seeing it from within, Mr. Kristof is most welcome to join us for dinner and conversation at the Witherspoon Institute.

I remain stubbornly committed to print newspapers, and I want my children to know the delight of the familial broadsheet: stealing sections from each other, waiting impatiently for a sibling to finish an article, reading the best bits of a book review aloud to the table, and so on. We subscribe to the Wall Street Journal, despite the fact that we’re not in business or finance and so skip quite a bit of content, find the “Mansion” section and Magazine off-putting with their garishly conspicuous consumerism, and simply cannot understand why the Journal doesn’t devote a single page to box scores. At least to baseball.

Given our interests, we should subscribe to the Times, but we don’t. It’s mainly because of the opinion pieces. Jason Riley is just more thoughtful than Frank Bruni, Walter Russell Mead has more to say than does Gail Collins, and I already know what David Brooks thinks while Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. surprises me. On the whole, the Times opinion writers are slightly predictable and a little boring; I fear the President has turned several into caricatures of themselves.

Moreover, the Journal tackles religion with a steadier hand than does the Times. Bill McGurn is always worth reading, and the “Houses of Worship” section provides a steady flow of quality commentary across denominations and religions. The Times does have Ross Douthat, who is serious on religion, but too many Times columnists appear to ignore their prima facie burden to understand what they’re opining on when they discuss religion.

Nicholas Kristof may be another exception. By all appearances he seems a decent, intelligent man who is attempting to be fair-minded and inquisitive. In a recent essay on abortion, “Er, Can I Ask a Few Questions About Abortion?”, he honestly admits his pro-choice commitment and wishes to “simply pose questions in hopes of sparking a dialogue.” That’s fair, broad-minded, and reveals a genuine openness to understanding.

 

However, when he entreats his evangelical and Catholic readers to recognize that abortion as a litmus test for voting is “anomalous, both religiously and historically,” he, like too many of his colleagues, fails to understand his interlocutors as they would understand themselves, nor does he give any indication of trying to accomplish this, and so his questions fall flat. He won’t get the kind of serious responses he wishes, let alone “add to the ferment,” because he’s not speaking to us so much as to his imagined version of us.

For example, Kristof asks why “so many see fervent opposition to any abortion as a religious dictate when the Bible never directly discusses abortion. Jesus talks a great deal about the helping the poor, . . . but he never evinced an interest in the unborn.” Well, of course there are all sorts of things Jesus didn’t discuss, but does he really imagine that the 2,000-year-old Catholic tradition of Christianity hasn’t engaged in some reflection about what an even older “religious dictate”—namely, “Thou Shalt Not Kill”—might mean, and whom it was attempting to protect? Does he assume we proof text each and every one of our beliefs? As the U.S. Catholic Bishops remind us, the early Christians “sharply distinguished themselves from the surrounding pagan cultures by rejecting abortion and infanticide.” Early Christian documents, such as the Didache, and early Church Fathers, among them Athenagoras, Tertullian, Augustine, Aquinas, multiple Councils, and the Bishops and Popes all taught that “all human life must be protected and favored from the beginning,” and did so in explicit contradiction to the assumptions of the Greco-Roman world.

Our moral beliefs are not thoughtless restatements of parts of Bible verses, nor do most reflective Christians believe that if the Bible is silent on a topic we’re frozen into silence or unintelligibility. What sort of paralytic literalism does Kristof imagine we’re beholden to?

It’s true that various historical laws allowed abortion up to, in his words, “the point of quickening,” and that Exodus 21:22 is ambiguous on the status of fetal life, but that hardly exhausts the Church’s teaching. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith acknowledges that in the early Church and throughout the medieval period there were “various opinions” on when the unborn child received “the infusion of the spiritual soul,” and if the spiritual soul was not present “a distinction was made in the evaluation of the sin and the gravity of penal sanctions.” But that distinction was never used to legitimize abortion. On the contrary, “it was never denied at that time that procured abortion, even during the first days, was objectively grave fault,” a condemnation that was “unanimous.” That is, even when the science of embryology was unknown and some (incorrectly) thought the unborn child was not yet infused with a spiritual soul—even, in some ways, not like those humans possessing such a soul—even then abortion was disallowed.

It’s odd that when the Church says “trust science” and affirms contemporary embryology, Kristof veers off to another conversation. He grants that “abortion opponents counter that what changed was science,” and thus that the command not to kill applies to the zygote, “and not solely for religious reasons.” Yes, that’s correct. The Church acknowledges that embryology—science—knows quite well that the zygote is a genetically unique and biologically self-directing individual human being. This is not a claim of faith or mysticism, and it’s reasonable to wonder if this human being—for human it is—should not be killed. Obviously, many think it is morally licit to kill these human beings, but it’s science and not faith that recognizes the zygote as a human zygote. But Kristof immediately changes the subject, claiming that science also knows that many zygotes never implant, and that “we don’t mourn those zygotes or establish national commissions to improve zygote survival.”

 

How is this responsive? The pro-life claim is that it is wrong to intentionally and knowingly kill the unborn human. The fact that many unborn humans do not come to term does not answer the wrongness of intentionally ending that human life. Kristof offers a red herring here. Further, the emotional responses that people may or may not have to the failure of a zygote to implant are quite distinct from the question of whether it is morally licit to intentionally end a pregnancy. (Although, let’s be honest, many people do mourn, and there are groups concerned about embryonic-destructive research and frozen or discarded embryos.) The point remains: Kristof addresses the debate from an external point of view, for he has not attempted to understand or imagine the pro-life position from the standpoint of someone who holds that view.

This is evident, again, in his brusque dismissal of the Exodus 21:22 verse. Of course, the pro-life position is not dependent on literalistic proof-texting of the Bible—try to see it as we see it, not as you imagine we see it. But more, in explaining this text, which states that accidentally causing a miscarriage is not a capital offense but requires only a fine, Kristof concludes that the Bible “treats a fetal life as less than a human life,” and reports that Amy-Jill Levine considers the original Hebrew to be very ambiguous. Now, I have no complaint that Kristof consulted Professor Levine, an accomplished scholar of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt, but she describes herself as “quite unorthodox” and is not, I take it, adamantly pro-life. My point is not that Kristof shouldn’t have consulted this very capable professor, but that, again, he doesn’t attempt to grapple with the text and its reception from within the traditions he is questioning. Could he not have called Al Mohler, Tim Keller, or Cardinal Dolan? Again, I’m not suggesting they would be more qualified than Prof. Levine on the Hebrew, but it would be an attempt to understand us. Kristof has done that before, interviewing Keller and Philip Yancey about the Virgin Birth; why not ask Rev. Mohler about Exodus?

Kristof is especially wooden when it comes to “the tangled cases,” such as when a pregnant mother’s life is in danger. He recounts the story of Senator Gary Peters, “the first sitting senator to share his story of an abortion.” In the 1980s, his then wife was pregnant but “her amniotic sac broke,” no spontaneous miscarriage occurred, and she required “an emergency abortion that saved” her uterus “and possibly her life.” Kristof uses this story to chastise “young evangelicals and Catholics” for lacking nuance into the difficulties of life and failing to see abortion through the “prism” of complexity.

Here again Kristof presents religious pro-lifers as not having considered the hard cases, but Christians and others have a long tradition distinguishing between intended and unintended abortion, and have considered the treatment of uterine cancer when pregnant, of ectopic pregnancy, craniotomy, and more. The so-called principle of double effect, where foreknown consequences are not intended—such as when the death of the child is foreknown but not chosen when treating uterine cancer—has been extensively discussed by thinkers as sophisticated as Elizabeth Anscombe, Germain Grisez, John Finnis, and Philippa Foot, among many others. And while the reasoning is admittedly dense, it’s nonetheless well-known. Arguably, no one has thought more or written more about “the tangled cases” than religious pro-lifers, as Kristof could have easily discovered. And not to put too fine a point on it, several of my young children can explain it reasonably well. If they can, the Dominicans at the Thomistic Institute could help Kristof understand.

 

The pro-life position certainly can be, perhaps even has been, manipulated by cynical political operators looking for votes, and certainly some pro-lifers, as with any group, can be unnuanced, but the arguments themselves are positioned within a developed tradition of moral reasoning. It’s completely fair for Kristof to ask questions of that tradition, to challenge, and to spark a dialogue, but if he genuinely wishes to pose hard questions in a good-faith effort to prompt dialogue, as I take it he does, he should try to understand us from an internal point of view. In his seminal The Concept of Law, H. L. A. Hart distinguishes the internal and external point of views with respect to law. Observing a law (or a moral tradition, perhaps) from the outside is quite different from experiencing the obligation of law (or moral conclusion) from within. From the external point of view, it’s not experienced as law, as binding, as it is for those within.

Try seeing it from within, Mr. Kristof, and you’d realize your questions are not responsive to our concerns.

So, to Mr. Kristof, please accept a friendly, genuine, and open invitation to dinner at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton. Assuming your good will, and hoping you’d assume ours, I’d be happy to open some good wine, share a meal, and introduce you to the winsome undergraduates who run Princeton Pro-Life, to Andrew Walker, a contributing editor of this journal and professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and to some smart Dominican priests—you’ll like them all. You can ask any questions you’d like. We won’t be offended or shirk from answering, but you should try to hear us in our own words—we have thought about these things and we’re happy to dialogue.

It’s an open invitation; we’d love to meet you. And, I promise, if you come, I’ll subscribe to the Times, even if it’s just for the baseball scores.

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