Theology, Politics and Women’s Rights

Recent pronouncements by  so-called “pro-life” Republican politicians have raised troublesome questions about the very meaning of the term “pro-life”, not to mention the politician’s grasp of basic biology and the distincton between living cells and personhood, and the selective application of their professed love of American “freedom”.

Much has been made of Senator Mourdock’s statement expressing his conviction that even when life begins under the horrible circumstances of rape, it is God’s will at work. In fairness to Senator Mudouck, political commentators have pounced on the statement and twisted it in a variety of ways that dismiss the Senators claim of having wrestled with the subject before arriving at his conclusion. It is hard to tell whether the Senator is unable to articulate a valid theological position accurately, or is  just seriously misguided.

There is legitimate outrage against the religious right’s repeated mysosgynistic assertions concerning abortion, and rape, and the unavoidable impression that they are informed by mostly middle aged and older white male biases that are woefully chauvinistic, ignorant of basic biology and of the  physical, emotional, and economic realities of women’s health and reproductive rights.

But Senator Murdouck’s statement goes to a much deeper issue- one that has plagued leading theologians for centuries: What, precisely, is the nature of the role of the divine in human activity, and what is the place of human free will in the divine plan? Many devout people of different faiths ascribe to a belief that God is a sort of cosmic manipulator or puppeteer, mysteriously controlling all human choices and actions. This is what they construe the omnipresence of the Divine to mean. I believe this is fundamentally a cop-out, making God the scape-goat for human failures. Rape is human action that is a crime legally, and a sin, spiritually. It is a fundamental denial of and act of disrespect for the presence of the divine in every woman. The Christian right would do well to remember that Genesis insists that we are all created by God in the imago dei- God’s own image- male and female. Period.

To say that the Divine (by whatever name we call it) is present in all things, however, is quite different from implying that God is therefore the direct cause of all things. If that were so there would be no room or role for our alleged free-will- in fact that freedom would seem an illusion. Moreover, on the premise of divine omnipresence, the assertion of God’s presence in all life, and thereby the sanctity of life, must include the corrollary- that God must be equally present in all death- even that of  an aborted fetus. This is where the logic of the religious conservative view crumbles in the face of selectivity and emotional preference.

Most spiritual traditions see life as a continuum- whether posited as a present and after-life construct, or a recurring cycle of reincarnation (or as the Greeks called it, the transmigration of souls). But the elements of personhood in that continuum are not universally seen in the same way. In the West, the sanctity of life translates easily into the importance of the individual; whereas in Asian philosophies, all life is sacred, but the individual is of relatively less importance, as our very individuality is impermanent, in a state of constant flux and redefinition, until we experience oneness with its divine Source in final enlightenment. Hence our notions of personhood and its importance are culturally conditioned and inherently limited.

Until recently, both the Abrahamic and the Asian traditions made a distinction between the scientific/medical definition of life, and the spiritual defintion of personhood by agreeing that the soul was the animating force that made the fetus viable. The”quickening” of the fetus, as Christian tradition called, was deemed to take place not at the moment of conception, but closer to the time medical science deemed the fetus viable outside of the womb without extraordinary medical measure and life-support technologies. (Asians concurred with this. In India, the entrance of the soul into the womb is traditionally held to be sometime in the seventh month of pregnancy). The age of viability has, to be sure, gotten younger with the advances of medical technology, but no obgyn would claim a fertilized egg is viable outside the womb for more than a very brief period in controlled laboratory conditions! Prior to viability, it is clearly not yet a person in anything more than a potential sense.

It is both ironic and unfortunate that anti-abortion Christian traditionalists have, in the name of their own religiosity and the political righteousness they’d like to ascribe to it, abandoned a millennial belief in favor of a pseudoscientific assertion that because cellular life begins with conception, personhood must too. Senator Murdouck may be sincere in his fumbling attempts to express a position of faith, or he may have persuaded himself of the righteousness of that position due to social pressures or political expedience. However, the legal thinking ascribed to this position, and the political appropriation of it to force a particular social agenda that is dismissive of the needs of women and their right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, has nothing to do with medical facts or spiritual truths.