The Last of Deuteronomy
You shall not act thus toward the Lord your God, for they perform for their gods every abhorrent act that the Lord detests; they even offer up their sons and daughters in fire to their gods. Deuteronomy 12:31
What is the thing that is so horrendous that you would never forgive yourself if you did it?
It happens that this column is being distributed just before Yom Kippur, the end of the annual six-week period during which Jews inventory their shortcomings and sins, repent of them, and seek forgiveness, both human and divine. For those who take this time period solemnly, the question is not academic.
Inherent in the need to repent is the inevitability of transgression. Inherent in the process of repentance is the authenticity of forgiveness. But is there something for which, no matter how deeply you feel and express regret and penitence, no reconciliation with yourself would be possible?
At least in the instance above, the crime beyond all crimes is child sacrifice – the decision to offer up sons and daughters in fire to false gods. The act itself is so profoundly repugnant to me that it pushes me beyond my general avoidance of anthropomorphism: I imagine God’s head shaking in disbelief. Even without cosmic condemnation, the inhumanity of allowing innocent life to be purposely taken is almost beyond belief.
How in the world could a parent convince himself or herself to allow, let alone participate in, such an act?
I have a friend who spent most of his adult life arguing vociferously that the act of terminating a pregnancy – abortion – is a crime of this magnitude. I understand that even putting those words into print will infuriate some of you as you read this, but I offer you the challenge to address the ferocity of your reaction before you reach a conclusion. There is a difference between a fetus and a child, but even someone like me who supports reproductive choice without hesitation must acknowledge that a fetus is alive, and that a decision to end a pregnancy is the decision to end a life.
My friend has reconsidered his unambivalent stance, and he regrets what he had condoned in service of that conviction. (Whether he receives your forgiveness or his own is not mine to determine.) Much of what has moved him from absolutism is the anguish he has heard from women who have made an agonizing decision to seek an abortion. It has helped to mitigate his uncompromising position because he listened to different perspectives.
Mostly, I think, we dismiss the advocacy of opponents to abortion because we believe (in my opinion) they take a simplistic stand that is without nuance. We hear them purport to speak for “the unborn” and we accuse them of caring more about creatures-in-formation who are without consciousness than their mothers-in-formation who struggle with the moral questions of carrying to term. We contrast their position – often by imposing our own suppositions – with their lack of equal advocacy on behalf of children living in poverty, children with physical or mental challenges, or children brought to the United States in search of a better life. And I must add that the tactics of some professional abortion opponents have placed the dignity and even lives of good and decent people as worthy of assassination.
But I contend that it is too convenient to paint opponents of abortion with the broad brush of hypocrisy. The exercise of listening to people who have internalized the sacred nature of nascent life is an important one. It demands considered reflection on the part of those who work, as I do, to make abortion safe and legal. The questions that are raised by those who object to abortion are as important to me as are the questions I seek to raise with them.
The first of those questions is whether our sons and daughters are being offered up to false gods. The advancements of science and its understanding of human life are not the same as the spiritual and moral questions with which we struggle. Just because we are able to act does not mean we should. If spiritual answers do not substitute for scientific knowledge, then certainly the opposite is also true.
And not far behind is how we support each other in our pain. Not a one of us has been commanded to make a sacrificial offering of a child, thank God. But innocent lives are lost to poverty, to neglect, to family separation. My heart breaks for them, especially when it seems I can do little or nothing to prevent it. I feel unforgiven for my impotence. Those whose perspective on the nature of life within the womb is different from mine feel that pain as well. It should not be dismissed.
It is nearly impossible to consider these matters without inflaming emotions. Everyone who does not have a story of heartbreak at least knows a story of heartbreak. Reflection is often cut short by both sides, each accusing the other of insensitivity or faithlessness.
We need compassion for each other. And for ourselves. And we need to listen.