Next Segment on Abortion (Stanley Hauerwas)

by

Calling a Spade

We must remember that the first question is not, “Is abortion right or wrong?,” or, “Is this abortion right or wrong?” Rather, the first question is,”Why do Christians call abortion abortion?” And with the first question goes a second, “Why do Christians think that abortion is a morally problematic term?” To call abortion by that name is already a moral achievement. The reason why people are Pro-choice” rather than Pro-abortion” is that nobody really wants to be pro-abortion. The use of choice rather than abortion is an attempt at a linguistic transformation that tries to avoid the reality of abortion, because most people do not want to use that description. So, instead of abortion, another term is used, something like termination of pregnancy. Now, the church can live more easily in a world with “terminated pregnancies,” because in that world the church no longer claims power, even linguistic power, over that medically described part of life; instead, doctors do.

One of the interesting cultural currents that is involved is the medicalization of abortion. It is one of the ways that the medical profession is continuing to secure power against the church. Ordained ministers can sense this when they are in hospital situations. In a hospital today, the minister feels less power than the doctor, right? My way of explaining this is that when someone goes to seminary today, he can say, “I’m not into Christology this year. I’m just into relating. After all, relating is what the ministry is really about, isn’t it? Ministry is about helping people relate to one another, isn’t it? So I want to take some more Clinical Pastoral Education courses.” And the seminary says, “Go ahead and do it. Right, get your head straight, and so on.” A kid can go to medical school and say, “I’m not into anatomy this year. I’m into relating. So I’d like to take a few more courses in psychology, because I need to know how to relate to people better.” The medical school then says, “Who in the hell do you think you are, kid? We’re not interested in your interests. You’re going to take anatomy. If you don’t like it, that’s tough.”

Now what that shows you is that people believe incompetent physicians can hurt them. Therefore, people expect medical schools to hold their students responsible for the kind of training that’s necessary to be competent physicians. On the other hand, few people believe an incompetent minister can damage their salvation. This helps you see that what people want today is not salvation, but health. And that helps you see why the medical profession has, as a matter of fact, so much power over the church and her ministry. The medical establishment is the counter-salvation-promising group in our society today.

So, when you innocently say “termination of pregnancy,” while it sounds like a neutral term, you are placing your thinking under the sway of the medical profession. In contrast to the medical profession, Christians maintain that the description “abortion” is more accurate and determinative than the description “termination of pregnancy.” That is a most morally serious matter.

You must remember that, morally speaking, the first issue is never what we are to do, but what we should see. Here is the way it works: you can only act in the world that you can see, and you must be taught to see by learning to say. Again, you can only act in the world that you can see, and you must be taught to see by learning to say. Therefore, using the language of abortion is one way of training ourselves as Christians to see and to practice its opposite–hospitality, and particularly hospitality to children and the vulnerable. Therefore, abortion is a word that reminds us of how Christians are to speak about, to envision, and to live life–and that is to be a baptizing people which is ready to welcome new life into our communities.

In that sense “Abortion” is as much a moral description as “suicide.” Exactly why does a community maintain a description like “suicide”? Because it reminds the community of its practice of enhancing life, even under duress. The language of suicide also works as a way to remind you that even when you are in pain, even when you are sick, you have an obligation to remain with the people of God, vulnerable and yet present.

When we joined The United Methodist Church, we promised to uphold it with “our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service.” We often think that “our presence” is the easy one. In fact, it is the hardest one. I can illustrate this by speaking about the church I belonged to in South Bend, Indiana. It was a small group of people that originally was an E.U.B. (or Evangelical United Brethren) congregation. Every Sunday we had Eucharist, prayers from the congregation, and a noon meal for the neighborhood. When the usual congregation would pray, we would pray for the hungry in Ethiopia and for an end to the war in the Near East, and so on. Well, this bag lady started coming to church and she would pray things like, “Lord, I have a cold, and I would really like you to cure it.” Or, I’ve just had a horrible week and I’m depressed. Lord, would you please raise my spirits You never hear prayers like that in most of our churches. Why? Because the last thing that Christians want to do is show one another that they are vulnerable. People go to church because they are strong. They want to reinforce the presumption that they are strong.

One of the crucial issues here is how we learn to be a people dependent on one another. We must learn to confess that, as a hospitable people, we need one another because we are dependent on one another. The last thing that the church wants is a bunch of autonomous, free individuals. We want people who know how to express authentic need, because that creates community.

So, the language of abortion is a reminder about the kind of community that we need to be. Abortion language reminds the church to be ready to receive new life as church.

The Church as True Family

We, as church, are ready to be challenged by the other. This has to do with the fact that in the church, every adult, whether single or married, is called to be parent. All Christian adults have a parental responsibility because of baptism. Biology does not make parents in the church. Baptism does. Baptism makes all adult Christians parents and gives them the obligation to help introduce these children to the Gospel. Listen to the baptismal vows; in them the whole church promises to be parent. In this regard the church reinvents the family.

The assumption here is that the first enemy of the family is the church. When I taught a marriage course at Notre Dame, I used to read to my students a letter. It went something like this, “Our son had done well. He had gone to good schools, had gone through the military, had gotten out, had looked like he had a very promising career ahead. Unfortunately, he has joined some eastern religious sect. Now he does not want to have anything to do with us because we are people of ‘the world.’ He is never going to marry because now his true family is this funny group of people he associates with. We are heartsick. We don’t know what to do about this.” Then I would ask the class, “Who wrote this letter?” And the students would say, improbably some family whose kid became a Moonie or a Hare Krishna.” In fact, this is the letter of a fourth century Roman senatorial family about their son’s conversion to Christianity.

From the beginning we Christians have made singleness as valid a way of life as marriage. This is how. What it means to be the church is to be a group of people called out of the world, and back into the world, to embody the hope of the Kingdom of God. Children are not necessary for the growth of the Kingdom, because the church can call the stranger into her midst. That makes both singleness and marriage possible vocations. If everybody has to marry, then marriage is a terrible burden. But the church does not believe that everybody has to marry. Even so, those who do not marry are also parents within the church, because the church is now the true family. The church is a family into which children are brought and received. It is only within that context that it makes sense for the church to say, “We are always ready to receive children. We are always ready to receive children.” The people of God know no enemy when it comes to children.

[Note: There are two previous sections that have been posted already. There are probably about two more to go after this one. IOW, this is not a stand-alone argument, as you could probably tell w/o my having said so.]

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12 Responses to “Next Segment on Abortion (Stanley Hauerwas)”

  1. Sandi Says:

    Al, I am completely lost at this point. What is this man trying to say about abortion? Can you give me the Cliffs notes version?

  2. Al Sturgeon Says:

    You, too?

    He’s way too complex for me, but I’ll try my best so far (and maybe others could try to summarize, too):

    #1: He began by saying that Christians need to find their conceptual center for abortion in the teachings of Jesus, not in either American law or even American society’s ways of discussing the topic.

    #2: He brings up “rights” in particular, which in America involves a right to privacy and your own body, which for Christians aren’t part of the game. He claims this is not a legal debate for a Christian. A person’s body is seen as private property in America, but not for a Christian – so how can a Christian choose sides on something she/he doesn’t believe?

    #3: In addition to the “rights” idea that makes Christian positioning on the issue problematic, he adds the problem of the medicalization of America. He offers that, for Christians, this is not a medical debate either. This is a moral debate instead of a scientific one.

    #4: For Christians, I believe Hauerwas is offering that the true issue in abortion is whether or not we will actually care for children, the weak, and the vulnerable. Period. As “church,” we have no real dog in the fight when it comes to the legal issues (should it be, or shouldn’t it be) or medical issues (medical ethics). Instead, we are prepared to care for the vulnerable, whomever they are, and however they come.

    He isn’t done with his commentary yet, but best I can gather, this is where it stands at this point.

    Everyone please correct me. I suspect I am wrong.

  3. Sandi Says:

    You are definitely in a better position to interpret him than I am, and your synopsis sounds plausible to me.

    I agree that we in America have taken the concept of privatization too far at the expense of the common good. But I’m confused whether he is saying merely that the church is not concerned with the right to privacy (like, for example, evolution is not concerned with religion, meaning that’s not its realm of expertise and thus it takes no position on the subject (or at least that’s what many biologists would assert)) or that within the church people do not or should not have a basic expectation of privacy and bodily integrity. Could you clarify?

    I found the medical thing to be strange. I think that most people do not view abortion as a medical issue, those who say they do are being disingenuous, and in my experience you hardly ever hear the word “termination” in reference to abortion outside of a medical setting. Even pro-choicers use the word. They don’t dwell on it or use it more than other words, because like he said, no one is pro-abortion, but they do use it.

    Which is similar to other “necessary evil” issues such as war and capital punishment. No one wants to be known as pro-war as a general matter, because it is acknowledged that war entails some destruction of human life. But people argue vociferously for it in certain circumstances, notwithstanding that it destroys life. Similarly, most people are not pro-capital punishment for the sake of it, or for every crime. It is considered desirable or permissible only within a defined set of circumstances. And I think with respect to both issues there is a near-universal agreement that it would be better if war and capital punishment did not happen at all.

    So I guess I understand his caretaking point, but the way he says it sends up red flags to me that say “paternalism.” Of course the fact that I’m not a church member may be affecting my perception too, as well as the fact that I’m a lawyer so going completely outside the law about anything is well nigh impossible.

    Getting back to the medical issue (sorry to ramble), I found problematic his likening of studying theology and medicine, and the notion that a mandatory curriculum in the latter but not the former implies power or hierarchy. (Although doctors should take more courses on how to relate to people, but that’s a whole separate post). Anytime you go down a “the church has lost power to other societal institutions” road, I get more alarm bells that say “theocracy,” or at least that the church wants to exercise coercive power over people. Am I reading him incorrectly on that?

  4. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Sandi: …I’m confused whether he is saying merely that the church is not concerned with the right to privacy or that within the church people do not or should not have a basic expectation of privacy and bodily integrity. Could you clarify?

    Al: I don’t know, but could it be both? I’d think the former is true, and the latter seems true as well. I think he could possibly be claiming both. Any other help out there? Juvenal?

    Sandi: Getting back to the medical issue, I found problematic his likening of studying theology and medicine, and the notion that a mandatory curriculum in the latter but not the former implies power or hierarchy. Anytime you go down a “the church has lost power to other societal institutions” road, I get more alarm bells that say “theocracy,” or at least that the church wants to exercise coercive power over people. Am I reading him incorrectly on that?

    Al: I think you might be a little. I think he’s simply saying that in American Christianity adherents have come to trust more in doctors for personal salvation than those who teach Jesus. Not “lost power” so much, but that people who claim to trust Jesus with everything are looking in funny places for salvation. The medical curriculum is demanding because people depend on physicians, but religious training is more flexible because people don’t really depend on pastors for anything really important. Irrelevance again.

    These are my thoughts…

  5. Sandi Says:

    Well, here’s a more direct question: what do you personally find compelling about what Hauerwas is saying? I feel like there’s a back story I’m not hearing.

    I started to continue a thought from my last comment, but then decided it was more appropriate as a post. Just what we need, right? 🙂

  6. Al Sturgeon Says:

    I don’t know that there’s a good back story.

    But I think what I find compelling so far is a new way to approach the issue. Good or bad, I’m interested in thinking in new ways because I’ve never really liked any of the old ways.

    I’ve never been convinced by pro-choice arguments. I’m generally turned off by the people arguing hard on the side of pro-life. I’m appalled that Christians vote on a single issue – abortion – and then allow there to be children in government-agency control that they are unwilling to adopt. Something just smells rotten. I’m particularly appalled that Christians are comfortable with a position like that of the president where abortion is considered murder unless there was rape or incest involved, then murder would be okay in their twisted logic. I have been told at times that abortion should be a medical decision. I’ve been told a lot of things, but nothing seems to be convincing.

    So no big story here. I just read this lengthy article (in fact, speech), and it came at the issue so differently than I was accustomed that I thought it would be interesting to discuss it with all of you (given discussions in the past, varying experiences, and really neat, bright people who are my friends).

  7. Mystique Free Says:

    “Well, this bag lady started coming to church and she would pray things like, “Lord, I have a cold, and I would really like you to cure it.” Or, I’ve just had a horrible week and I’m depressed. Lord, would you please raise my spirits You never hear prayers like that in most of our churches.”

    My experience is unique, but it differs from what he describes here. In the churches I went to growing up, people freely stood up in church and asked god to help them deal with difficult coworkers, headaches, sadness, temptation, sinners in the family, etc. I’m sure that my family is still requesting prayer for their “backslidden” daughter. Since I haven’t participated in these churches as an adult, my perspective is a bit flat – but I’m not sure it’s a vulnerability issue. Or maybe it is and I just didn’t realize it as a kid – it just seemed to be what people did.

  8. Sandi Says:

    Al, my next post will be about (at least in part) just the issue you mention — exceptions for rape and incest, and exceptions in general. My understanding is that a large number of people who support limitations on abortion are in favor of these exceptions and that it’s an outlying group that is opposed under all circumstances. But I don’t know current numbers on this.

    When the impasse is such a strong one, it’s no wonder you would want to look at the issue from a new perspective. I think a lot of people on both sides make arguments not because they believe them, but in a quest to appeal to others. I have always believed that moral suasion has to be honest if it’s going to stick.

    An example: If people argued against slavery by saying that maintaining an agrarian economy was not in the South’s best interest, that would be totally evading the importance of slavery as a moral issue and instead appealing to economic self-interest. Thus, one wouldn’t be surprised to find that if you corrected the economic problem, people who had initially supported abolition for that reason would go right back to slavery or its equivalent because they never saw what was wrong with it to begin with.

    The same type of thing happened with the switch to “pro-choice” rhetoric — the ideas were initially appealing, but they didn’t address people’s moral discomfort with abortion. A successful argument for allowing abortion would take account of what it is, what it does, and why people have reservations about it.

    I’m sorry I keep hijacking this post — I have a really dry research assignment and I’m procrastinating. 🙂

  9. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Hey Mystique: Good point. Lots of different flavors of churches. My experience has been that our “personal” prayer requests have been contained primarily to sick co-workers and family members. Rarely anything intimate, unless of course it was on the front page that our backslidden daughter had done some backsliding. Then we’d cry embarrassed tears and pray for you. But if at all possible, my church experiences have been more along the lines of “don’t ask, don’t tell” when it comes to personal matters.

    And Sandi, hijack away! I surely don’t know what I’m doing, so I just appreciate the attention.
    🙂

  10. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Any other help out there? Juvenal?

    Not really. I haven’t had time to read the latest installment. I will say, however, that your understanding of his argument in this particular case is consistent with my understanding of his general approach.

  11. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Okay, I’ve read this installment now. By and large, I have to say it doesn’t do anything for me. It doesn’t seem insightful, or even sound. For instance, I think he’s all wet on his argument about the medical community’s power over the clerical (or church) community, and I don’t find his point about “abortion” vs. “termination” even mildly persuasive. The meaning of the terms just isn’t that different. “Terminated pregnancy” and “aborted pregnancy” just don’t conjure different images or feelings in my mind or conscience; and neither one of them even remotely functions to remind me of hospitality. (Nor do I find “suicide” a particularly morality-laden term. It strikes me as no more or less clinical than “termination.”)

    I might, in a purely academic sense, agree with his point about church as family, but I think it is hardly the right message for the times. The very last thing most churches need is more family talk or family thinking, or to have the notions of church and family even more fused.

    Sorry, Al. Just callin’ it like I see it. Maybe he does better in the next installment.

    I do agree with this:

    People go to church because they are strong. They want to reinforce the presumption that they are strong. . . We want people who know how to express authentic need, because that creates community.

  12. Al Sturgeon Says:

    No need to apologize to me! Keep calling ’em like you see ’em.

    I thought about omitting this particular segment because it didn’t do much for me either, but I was afraid that there was something more than I read there that would end up having been important to the overall speech, so I just posted it, too. I’m glad both you and Sandi found it weird, too. Makes me feel a bit better about my ability to read.

    I think the next segment is more interesting. Whether its a good argument or not remains to be seen. I’ll publish it Sunday.

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