Tuesday, February 21, 2012

What Does It Mean to Be “Pro-Life?”

Our current age of sound bytes, blogs, and slogans can easily distract us from thinking broadly, deeply, and biblically about complex cultural issues.  The combination of small bits, fast transmission, and high volume of information can discourage careful reasoning and the public discourse necessary to define, analyze, and resolve social, political, and ethical issues.

A case in point is the recent exchange between some pro-life leaders and the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN) over what pro-life leaders see as a misuse of the term “pro-life.”   The latest objection came in response to the testimony by Rev. Mitch Hescox, President of the EEN, at a congressional hearing of the Energy & Commerce Committee when he stated:

Biblically, being ‘pro-life’ is far more than being ‘anti-abortion.’ Jesus said that he came to bring life and life in abundance (John 10:10). We believe that includes spreading the gospel, standing up against abortion, reaching the lost, helping the least of these, and being good stewards of God’s creation. In essence, to be ‘pro-life’ is to be ‘pro-whole gospel.’[i]
Rev. Hescox’s testimony was invited to inform the Energy & Commerce Committee as they discuss new emission standards for coal and oil-fired power plants that release mercury and affect fresh water sources.  The proposed “Utility Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MACT)” rule would address allowable levels of the toxic metal in the environment.  The Center for Disease Control estimates that at the time of birth, approximately 1 in 6 children in the United States carry threatening levels of mercury.

Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill) spoke on behalf of pro-lifers who object to the more comprehensive definition of “pro-life” expressed above by Rev. Hescox.  According to Shimkus,

Truly pro-life issues are issues of life and death” and “we in the pro-life community take great offense when an evangelical movement tries to usurp the meaning of ‘pro-life.’[ii]
Two notions of what it means to be "pro-life"
So, who is right?  Are members of the environmental movement unfairly usurping the anti-abortion/pro-life movement by expanding the meaning to the term “pro-life?”  Or, is there merit in rallying around a more comprehensive perspective of the sanctity of human life; one that calls for Christian stewardship of all of life, human and non-human?

Lest I contradict my earlier caution against finding quick answers for complex issues with a few sound bytes and blogs, I must acknowledge that this blog posting cannot be the final word.  Instead, I hope to lay out some considerations that will stimulate readers toward further reading, reasoning, and response.

First, I have an admission to make.  In 2000, during the close presidential race between Al Gore and George W. Bush, I attempted to expand Bush’s concept of “compassionate conservatism” to include what I called compassionate conservationism.  The main point of my essay published in Christianity Today was as follows:

Moral conservatives are successfully articulating a biblical worldview regarding sexual abstinence before marriage, sanctity of life, and the importance of moral teaching in our schools. Consistent with this, they must also articulate the case for a compassionate conservationism, an environmental ethic rooted in a biblical worldview. Such an ethic would redefine “environmentalists” as those who are concerned about the environment of all of life. [iii]  
My intent, both then and now, was not to gloss over the serious moral failure of our culture that allows the innocent lives of babies to be snuffed out by abortion.  I would oppose any individual or group that seeks to gloss over or otherwise diminish the moral tragedy of abortion by diverting attention from it to environmental issues such as climate change, habitat destruction, toxic pollution, or environmental and social justice.

I do not believe Rev. Hescox or the EEN is seeking to unjustly usurp the “pro-life” movement or diminish the grave importance of respecting the sanctity of human life.  Rather, I believe they are seeking to challenge us to view it more broadly and biblically.  Before drawing your own conclusions, let’s consider what legitimate objections there are against an effort to reconcile the two major notions of what it means to be “pro-life.”  Allow me to briefly list and comment on three possible objections.

First, is the argument of “confused terminology” articulated by Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council when he stated,

The term pro-life originated historically in the struggle to end abortion on demand and continued to be used overwhelmingly in that sense.  To ignore that is at best sloppy communication and at worst intentional deception.[iv]
If we are concerned that the sanctity of human life cause might be jeopardized if terminology is confused, perhaps it will be necessary to abandon the more politically correct term “pro-life” in favor of the term “anti-abortion” or “anti-death.”  Clarification of terms is fundamental to discourse on any issue and should not be cause for division, at least among those who strive for the same goals.
Let’s call the second objection the argument of “confused theology.” Hescox and the EEN make a strong case for extension of the sanctity of life ethic to include “all of life” when Hescox stated last December:

We’re called as Christians to defend the sacredness of life.  As a pro-life community we have a biblical responsibility to protect the unborn and infants from pollutants that will prevent them from reaching their full potential.  There is no known safe levels of mercury which cause neurological damage to the unborn.  Jesus tells us to do nothing that would hinder our children. Mercury poisoning from their mothers eating contaminated fish threaten our children from such an abundant life.”[v]
On the other hand, I am sympathetic with the concern articulated by Rep. Shimkus and others who object to the notion that abortion should be added to a long list of environmental concerns that only indirectly affect human life.  After all, the abortionist’s tools directly kill an unborn baby; whereas, it is proposed that coal-fired power plants that release mercury can only indirectly affect the health of an unborn child when the child’s mother ingests mercury-contaminated fish.

So, the question becomes, are we ethically responsible to do all that is reasonably possible to protect the life of the unborn from both direct and indirect threats?  In this context, a command from the Torah may be instructive:

"If men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she gives birth prematurely, yet there is no injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman's husband may demand of him, and he shall pay as the judges decide. But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise..... Exodus 21:22-25 (NASB)
Many would interpret this passage as affirming the personhood and value of the unborn child[vi]   If this is true, and we agree that is was not the intent of the scuffling men to harm the woman let alone her unborn child, then this Scripture seems to affirm our accountability for indirect effects upon the unborn.

Returning to the concern about mercury poisoning, the science of ecology is providing a clearer understanding of indirect effects of this heavy metal which can move with food, nutrients, and toxic chemicals within the so-called food web of life.  Although few of us would directly ingest toxic mercury, or commit the act of poisoning his or her neighbor, the actions of anyone responsible for releasing mercury into water and poisoning fish or other creatures which are then eaten by his or her neighbor would seem to be in violation of the command to “love thy neighbor as thyself” if it is clear that harm or death resulted indirectly from the action.
Note also that the ecological food web that pictures the links between polluted water, fish, and mankind makes it harder for us to ignore our intimate linkage and responsibility to nonhuman creatures.  The Judeo-Christian theology that affirms humankind as the uniquely created image bearers of God does not give us grounds to treat other parts of God’s creation with disdain or as simply a backdrop in the human drama.  Instead, we are responsible to use our platform as image bearers to represent the benevolent rule and character of God to His creation (Genesis 1: 26-28; 2:15). Therefore, poisoning of stream water by mercury from power plant emissions that indirectly and unintentionally harms both fish and my neighbor who ingests the fish is a violation of two major biblical commands -- biblical dominion and stewardship over God’s creatures whom He created for His glory (Revelation 4:11); and, violation of the command to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 2:39).

A third objection to a more comprehensive pro-life stand may be called the argument of “murky or confused science.”  The argument of the EEN that mercury poisoning, like abortion, “threatens and impedes life” must be substantiated by good scientific data.  In addition to Rev. Hescox’s testimony before the Energy & Commerce Committee on behalf of EEN, the committee heard testimony from Julie Goodman, a toxicologist (Ph.D. Johns Hopkins University) who stated that, although implementation of MACT standards for mercury is projected to “reduce the disease burden in America to such an extent that it will translate to tens of billions of dollars saved, …the largest benefits from [MACT] are derived not from reducing mercury, but from reducing fine particulate matter (PM2.5).”[vii]  Goodman then added:

Despite the vast array of peer-reviewed scientific literature on the topic, EPA based its calculations on only two PM2.5 epidemiology studies that reported statistical associations between PM2.5 reductions and health benefits and assumed a causal relationship.
I am aware of no rebuttal to this scientifically documented testimony which cautions against adopting an environmental policy based on an apparently biased selection of scientific reports, which furthermore, suggest benefits not from mercury reduction but from reduction in particulate matter.  It is still possible that additional scientific data may provide justification for lowering mercury emissions.  Although our technology allows us to detect minute levels of toxic chemicals, there is also need to identify what the threshold levels for toxicity in the blood are and whether or not these are being exceeded under current standards.

In conclusion, the arguments from “terminology” and “theology” do not provide strong reasons to oppose the EEN’s call to extend the pro-life boundary to include “… anything that threatens and impedes life, especially impacts on the unborn and young children.…”[viii] However, the argument from “science” suggests that the jury still needs further data and time to decide whether there is indeed a legitimate threat to life under current standards.  Meanwhile, I believe that Christians who are committed to the sanctity of human life should agree to respectful discourse with others who seek to raise awareness of our ethical responsibility toward the health and well being of both humans and the non-human creation which provides the context of human life and welfare.  

[i]  Evangelical Environmental Network:  http://creationcare.org/view.php?id=513
[ii] Institute on Religion and Democracy,  http://www.theird.org/page.aspx?pid=2291
[iii] Silvius, J. E.  2001. Conservation: Protecting Bald Eagles and Babies.
[iv] Tony Perkins as quoted in WORLD,  February 25, 2012
[vi] Koukl, Greg.  “What Exodus 21:22 Says about Abortion."   Solid Ground , Jan./Feb., 2010
[vii] Goodman, Julie L.  1012.  EPA's Assessment of Health Benefits Associated with PM2.5 Reductions for the Final Mercury and Air Toxics Standards.  See http://junksciencecom.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/hhrg-112-if03-wstate-jgoodman-20120208.pdf
[viii]  Mitch Hescox as quoted in WORLD,  February 25, 2012