Through an unusual series of circumstances, I have become a friend of Rob Schenck, about whom you can learn more in the op-ed from the New York Times linked here. Unbeknownst to each other, we worked on these two brief essays simultaneously. His is better, but mine is mine. I include the link for the sake of hope; two people beginning from widely divergent points can find common ground on one of the more intractable issues of our time.
In the difficult discussions surrounding women’s reproductive health, many of the factions are talking past each other because of their adherents understand the essential word in the debate differently. That word is “life.”
It is fair to say that when the Declaration of Independence noted life as an inalienable right, the authors and endorsers were speaking in general terms, not considering the way the term would have been applied in these debates. The same is almost certainly true of terms like “men,” and in the Constitution, “militia,” “arms,” “cruel and unusual,” and the presumed worth of “twenty dollars.” It has been the function of legislatures and courts to address the evolution of these terms as well as their applications in law and society.
The word “life” is so general that it requires nuance and modifiers. At the very least, it must be modified by the word “human.” Our debates about the sanctity or quality of life in gestation do not revolve around the pervasive presence of living things in our world, nor did the founders consider life inalienable to any but “men” (that is, human beings in our now-authoritative understanding). Some people insist that human life be considered only in a scientific sense, others in a religious sense, and still others in some hybrid of the two.
Religiously, human life is defined by inherited or interpreted faith traditions. Some of them identify a moment in development – as early as coitus and as late as labor – as the marker of human life. For some faith traditions, ensoulment (the presumed moment that a soul enters a living entity) marks that moment. If the presence of a soul creates a religious obligation, then the physical development of the life is superseded by that requirement. Of course, there is already an established and ensouled human life in any pregnancy: the mother. Different faith traditions prioritize the obligations to each of these human lives in distinct ways.
Scientifically, gestational life may be said to fit into three different categories, not easily delineated. The first, associated with the earliest period after fertilization, is called embryogenesis. Technically, it is life; the rapid division, replication and differentiation of cells in this stage unquestionably meets the definition of life that could be applied in human or non-human circumstances. The second category, when embryo becomes fetus, involves sentience, and it becomes more definitive as the life becomes more able to respond to sense impressions. It is important to note that “thinking” is not a part of this sentience, and likely not consciousness either. Rather, stimuli of various kinds are able to provoke a discernible reaction as the brain and nervous system develop. Lastly, there is the category of viability. At this point, life that has been entirely dependent on the mother has developed a capacity to sustain itself out of the womb. Here, too, viability does not guarantee consciousness, that is, awareness of self that is distinct from the surrounding world.
I note two important truths at this point. First, medical science has blurred the distinctions among these categories even as it has defined them, including extending backward into gestation the viability of life. The second truth, which must not be overlooked, is that the mother is herself a viable human life.
If you have read this far, you have chosen your set of definitions. But I suspect that choice was made before you began to read. The purpose of my hubris is to urge upon those who have entered into these debates an effort to understand the various terms of engagement as held by those in disagreement.
Those who insist on prohibiting or severely limiting abortion have, at best, a superficial understanding of the scientific arguments and values regarding agency held by others who want to protect access to abortion services. By starting with the presumption of God’s will expressed through fertilization, they retrofit certain scientific truths (e.g., the DNA in the zygote contains all of the information necessary for the fully-formed human being) and insist that, therefore, there is no difference between abortion and murder. They also conflate the human potential for agency and consciousness that is far from realized until well after birth to speak “on behalf” of the unborn – as if a microphone or sensor that could record inside the womb would enable us to hear a plaintive plea for life.
Those who insist that the decision to abort is as it ought to be, that is, entirely in the realm of the mother, informed by the best medical (and perhaps spiritual) advice she can find have a similarly superficial understanding of the faith values that inform their opponents. Extending the rhetoric of those who oppose abortion on the grounds of sanctity of life, they create straw men about social dilemmas that also demand such a philosophy of life: alleviation of poverty, warfare, gun violence, domestic abuse, sexual assault, affordable health care and capital punishment, among others. Ignoring the truth that one person’s hypocrisy is another’s paradox, they demand a consistency from their opponents that, even if it were attainable, would not persuade those who support legal and available abortion to change their position.
And, of course, both sides are persuaded of the power of anecdote. The stories fall into two categories: “My mother was going to abort me and deprive my loved ones and me” and “My life would have been compromised by an unwanted birth.” For the record, both stories ought to provoke sympathy and support for the tellers. Neither story is proof of a position on the value of life.
So long as the two sides of this debate insist on defining the conversation in their own terms, it will be perpetual and unresolved. And so long as each side defines for the other what its understanding is, the clear lack of respect will frustrate any real conversation and drive the debate about necessary legislation – whatever that may be – into ever more distant and irreconcilable positions.
So here is the truth: abortions will continue to occur, whether they are legal and safe or not. People inalterably opposed to abortion will find their absolutism challenged when faced with an unwanted or dangerous pregnancy themselves or in someone they love, and people who insist on accessible abortion on demand will find themselves facing unanticipated questions of the heart when they face an unwanted pregnancy themselves or in someone they love.
Therefore, I urge everyone to take some time to listen to an opponent on this subject and engage in serious and respectful discussion to understand motivations and consequences. Please do so without appointing yourself the defender of the pregnant mother or of the life within her. The result will not be a self-evident conclusion, but it will inspire compassion and understanding as we navigate this painful topic.
I am astonished at the certainty with which accusations of anti-Jewishness are leveled.
We have been blessed with a wealth of public figures who identify or are identified as Jews. They are celebrities, sports figures, journalists, business magnates, philanthropists and, notably, politicians. Some of them proudly and openly identify as Jews. Some of them barely acknowledge their Jewishness. And yet, whenever there is public criticism of something one of them has done, voices in the Jewish community report it breathlessly as yet another example of anti-Jewishness.
(I am trying to avoid the use of anti-semitism in this discussion. Anti-semitism is a particularly invidious form of hatred that should be repulsed wherever it is encountered. It is generalized and without honest justification. It is not situational, but an almost religious belief in the inherent corrupt nature of all things Jewish.)
I am willing to acknowledge publicly that some Jews do objectionable things. When that happens, it is reasonable to expect that people of conscience will do what they do when they encounter objectionable things: they will object.
Of course, there are two caveats to acknowledge. The first is that “objectionable” can be in the eye of the beholder. Jews (objectionable and otherwise) are not strangers to that concept. Some of us object to what others of us eat, or do on Saturday, or support politically. There really is no independent standard of objection to which we can appeal. Even in discussing the State of Israel, one person’s treason is another’s patriotism.
What is true for Jews is true for non-Jews as well. When an extremely wealthy Jew contributes large amounts of money to a partisan cause, that donor is a hero to those who agree and a villain to those who do not. If John Republican and Mary Democrat are asked if they admire a person of any background who contributes to the campaign against their favorite candidate, each will give the same answer, and it may not be very polite. That’s the price of free speech, but it has little or nothing to do with identity of the donor.
The second is that while we never can know what is in a person’s heart, it says more about the critic than the speaker when motive is imputed without evidence. It may very well be correct that a person who is disparaging only of Jews is anti-Jewish (or even anti-semitic), but it is far from necessarily true that a person who criticizes one Jew, or even many Jews among others, has a thing about the People of the Book.
Is there some kind of litmus test we can apply to a comment or a series of comments? Probably not. But I tend to think that when a broadside against a Jewish philanthropist is accompanied by a derogatory caricature, that’s an indication. When the speaker refers to a Jew or a group of Jews with some analog to the word “typical,” the prima facie evidence is pretty solid. The closer a speaker comes to that line that separates generalized hatred from individual exasperation, the more justified an accusation of anti-Jewish sentiment may be.
On the other hand, my fellow Jews and I would do well to reflect on the uncomfortable fact that not everyone is as fluent in anti-Jewishness as we believe they are.
I recall a conversation many years ago in which a brother clergy shared with me his embarrassment that a public character recently brought to shame was a member of his Protestant denomination. I replied that I knew how he felt and mentioned the name of another such character whose name was as Jewish as “Aaron Goldstein” (though it was not Aaron Goldstein). My friend replied, “Aaron Goldstein is Jewish?”
As I have noted before, it is hard to find a derogatory image that has not been linked by anti-semites to Jews. We have been associated with various animals, noxious hygienic habits, perverted sexual appetites, insatiable greed, criminal inclinations and, let’s not forget, an appetite for murdering innocent children of other faiths. I left out some of the more polite negative characteristics, like clannishness and pushiness and, well, all of them.
A person who finds aggressiveness objectionable may very well call the generic human being who cuts in line at the supermarket “pushy.” On what basis – other than presumption – is that person anti-Jewish if the offending behavior is committed by a Jew?
The answer is: none. And I will go further by suggesting that even if it turns out that the speaker is anti-Jewish, presuming it on the basis of our own inclinations to stereotypes of non-Jews is just as prejudiced.
In my opinion, the rush to judgment about statements to which we impute anti-Jewishness devalues the legitimate accusations of that offense and even of anti-semitism. And it belies a perspective on the world which, if directed at us, would be cause for genuine umbrage. Without denying the persistence of anti-semitism in the world, to consider anti-Jewish as not situational, rather an almost religious belief in the inherent corrupt nature of the non-Jews we encounter is a particularly invidious form of hatred that should be repulsed wherever it is encountered.