By now, if you’re paying attention to election politics nationally, you know that Richard Mourdock, the Indiana state treasurer and the Republican candidate for the state’s open Senate seat, made some interesting remarks during a debate with his opponent. Referring to his absolutist position against abortion, even in instances in which the pregnancy was the result of rape, he said:
“I’ve struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God,” Mr. Mourdock said. “And even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”
Those two sentences caused a bit of a firestorm, resulting in a statement of clarification from Mourdock:
“God creates life, and that was my point. God does not want rape, and by no means was I suggesting that he does. Rape is a horrible thing, and for anyone to twist my words otherwise is absurd and sick.”
Feel better now? You probably shouldn’t–but likely not for the reasons you think.
I believe Mr. Mourdock when he says that rape is horrible and he hadn’t intended to suggest otherwise. I also believe him when he says that he’s pretty sure God doesn’t want rape either. But in reading and re-reading Mourdock’s different statements, his phrasing–perhaps less deliberate in his debate remarks, and surely more careful in his subsequent clarification–raises a different question about who is responsible for a rape, and for everything else that happens in the world.
If Mr. Mourdock believes, as he says, that God “intended” a pregnancy to happen after a rape, then surely this does also mean that God’s will is an active and omnipresent force, reigning over everything: from the decisions of the rapist, to the decisions of the rape victim, to the decisions of all the voters who might (or might not) elect him to the Senate, to every decision he has made or will make going forward. Including his remarks about rape, God, and pregnancy. In other words, if one espouses a view of God’s role in the world that is fundamental, how can one possibly draw lines to say this is where God is influential, focused, attentive … and this is where God is not? How would any of us know? For Mourdock himself: if wins his race, he will almost surely thank God. But will he also accept defeat as God’s will?
The only real alternative to this fundamentalist point of view is to ascribe certain actions and occurrences to a nearly as powerful but much more malign force, i.e., Satan. There is a long history of that, but it is also not without its problems: if Satan is responsible for the horrible actions of the rapist, how do we know that Satan is not also responsible for the pregnancy that might result from the rape? How can Mr. Mourdock be so sure that God didn’t intend for the rape to happen, but did intend for the pregnancy to happen?
Of course, hearing statements to the effect of “Life begins at conception” always makes me think: duh.
From a hardcore scientific perspective–let’s put God out of this equation for now–it seems quite likely that this is true: life begins at conception. The fertilization of an egg and the creation of a new being, one with a different (but related) genetic composition from its host, all sounds like “life.” Is it a life capable of an independent existence untethered from its host (also known as Mom)? In the case of humans not for many, many weeks. Is it a life about which anyone can say anything beyond the host’s individual hopes, expectations, anxieties, or devastations? No. Capable of independent thought? Not yet. (Is it a life according to Judaism? No.)
But this doesn’t mean that it isn’t a life, in a scientific way.
Nor does this mean that there aren’t priorities greater than this unborn, unsustainable life.
The abortion arguments remind me of the ways in which Democrats and Republicans, the devoutly religious and the devoutly atheistic, “liberals” and “conservatives,” can talk past each other without ever really getting it. I know very few people who support abortion rights who also believe that abortion itself is a good thing in and of itself. Yet too often people who are “pro-choice” are therefore accused of being “anti-life.”
This misunderstands the arguments in favor of legal abortion, which not only weigh the life of the mother over the unborn “life” that cannot exist without that mother, but also recognizes that illegal abortions have always occurred and are much more dangerous for everyone involved. Instead of fixating on making abortion illegal, those opposed might instead work harder to prevent unwanted pregnancies from happening in the first place. (And I don’t mean by teaching abstinence.)
At the same time, in the zeal to protect abortion rights, the question of “life” often gets less consideration than it might. Perhaps if those who are “pro-choice” acknowledged more readily the scientific possibilities for defining life–rationally, through empiricism and not theism, much the same way one believes in the truth of Darwin’s theory of the evolution of humans–they would find themselves with more respect, maybe even cooperation, from those who oppose abortion out of theological motives. People would continue to disagree, but might do so from a better perspective, one infused with respect rather than hatred.
And ultimately, we might be able to avoid having arguments that place men like Todd Akin or Richard Mourdock in the position of making statements that are offensive, even downright stupid, out of a desire to express their holiness while they sit in judgment of others.