Stanley Hauerwas on Abortion

I found a speech from Stanley Hauerwas on ethics and abortion. In there, he describes the linguistic issues that Christians have made in their argument within it. As a pacifist, Hauerwas has dedicated his life to the preservation of life and what it would look like for Christians to be the type of people who can receive the gift of God from life. Here is a segment from it.

From the Pro-Life Side: When Life Begins:

Against the background of the church as family, you can see that the Christian language of abortion challenges the modern tendency to isolate moral dilemmas into discrete units of behavior. If that tendency is followed, you get the questions, What is really wrong with abortion?,” and “Isn’t abortion a separate problem that can be settled on its own grounds? And then you get the termination-of-pregnancy language that wants to see abortion as solely a medical problem. At the same time, you get abortion framed in a legalistic way.

When many people start talking about abortion, what is the first thing they talk about? When life begins. And why do they get into the question of when life begins? Because they think that the abortion issue is determined primarily by the claims that life is sacred and that life is never to be taken. They assume that these claims let you know how it is that you ought to think about abortion.

Well, I want to know where Christians get the notion that life is sacred. That notion seems to have no reference at all to God. Any good secularist can think life is sacred. Of course what the secularist means by the word sacred is interesting, but the idea that Christians are about the maintenance of some principle separate from our understanding of God is just crazy. As a matter of fact, Christians do not believe that life is sacred. I often remind my right-to-life friends that Christians took their children with them to martyrdom rather than have them raised pagan. Christians believe there is much worth dying for. We do not believe that human life is an absolute good in and of itself. Of course our desire to protect human life is part of our seeing each human being as God’s creature. But that does not mean that we believe that life is an overriding good.

To say that life is an overriding good is to underwrite the modern sentimentality that there is absolutely nothing in this world worth dying for. Christians know that Christianity is simply extended training in dying early. That is what we have always been about. Listen to the Gospel! I know that today we use the church primarily as a means of safety, but life in the church actually involves extended training in learning to die early.

When you frame the abortion issue in sacredness-of-life language, you get into intractable debates about when life begins. Notice that is an issue for legalists. By that I mean the fundamental question becomes, How do you avoid doing the wrong thing?

In contrast, the Christian approach is not one of deciding when has life begun, but hoping that it has. We hope that human life has begun! We are not the kind of people that ask, Does human life start at the blastocyst stage, or at implantation? Instead, we are the kind of people that hope life has started, because we are ready to believe the at this new life will enrich our community. We believe this not because we have sentimental views about children. Honestly, I cannot imagine anything worse than people saying that they have children because their hope for the future is in their children. You would never have children if you had them for that reason. We are able to have children because our hope is in God, who makes it possible to do the absurd thing of having children. In a world of such terrible injustice, in a world of such terrible misery, in a world that may well be about the killing of our children, having children is an extraordinary act of faith and hope. But as Christians we can have a hope in God that urges us to welcome children. When that happens, it is an extraordinary testimony of faith.
From the Pro-Choice Side: When Personhood Begins

On the pro-choice side you also get the abortion issue framed in a context that is outside of a communitarian structure. On the pro-choice side you get the question about when the fetus becomes a “person,” because only persons supposedly have citizenship rights. That is the issue of Roe vs. Wade.

It is odd for Christians to take this approach since we believe that we are first of all citizens of a far different kingdom than something called the United States of America. If we end up identifying persons with the ability to reason–which, I think, finally renders all of our lives deeply problematic–then we cannot tell why it is that we ought to care for the profoundly retarded. One of the most chilling aspects of the current abortion debate in the wider society is the general acceptance, even among anti-abortion people, of the legitimacy of aborting severely defective children. Where do people get that idea? Where do people get the idea that severely defective children are somehow less than God’s creation? People get that idea by privileging rationality. We privilege our ability to reason. I find that unbelievable.

We must remember that as Christians we do not believe in the inherent sacredness of life or in personhood. Instead we believe that there is much worth dying for. Christians do not believe that life is a right or that we have inherent dignity. Instead we believe that life is the gift of a gracious God. That is our primary Christian language regarding abortion: life is the gift of a gracious God. As part of the giftedness of life, we believe that we ought to live in a profound awe of the other’s existence, knowing in the other we find God. So abortion is a description maintained by Christians to remind us of the kind of community we must be to sustain the practice of hospitality to life. That is related to everything else that we do and believe.

(This is a small portion of a talk on abortion. You can read the manuscript, in its full context here. Whether we agree with Hauerwas or not, (and there are many who don’t) he is a renown voice within Christian ethics and one that we have to wrestle with. He is one of the brilliant Christian thinkers of our time)


One thought on “Stanley Hauerwas on Abortion

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