Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Abortion and Violence: A Response to Richard Hays

Most Christians are at least uncomfortable with abortion. Nevertheless, many have difficulty finding a clear argument against abortion in the Bible. Such Christians are often hesitant to endorse political action against abortion and are ready to concede the legitimacy of abortion in many instances unrelated to the health of the mother.

Such an approach towards abortion is perhaps articulated most clearly by Richard Hays in the final chapter of his classic work, The Moral Vision of the New Testament. Hays, the dean of Duke Divinity School, is one of the world’s leading New Testament scholars, and his important contribution to this discussion cannot be ignored.

Hays is a devout Christian with conservative theological views, and he ultimately comes down against abortion. He states,
Wherever new life begins to develop in any pregnancy, the creative power of God is at work, and Jesus Christ, who was the original agent of creation, has already died for the redemption of the incipient life in utero….To terminate a pregnancy is not only to commit an act of violence but also to assume responsibility for destroying a work of God. 
Nevertheless, Hays argues the following three points:
1. The Bible is not clear on abortion; thus there is room for disagreement in the church.
2. Abortion is a justifiable option in the case of rape.
3. Christian efforts to outlaw abortion are misguided. 
In this post, I will offer a brief critique of Hays’ position. I want to emphasize, however, that I am focusing only on the few disagreements I have with Hays. The Moral Vision of the New Testament is an excellent book, and Hays demonstrates a great deal of courage in articulating a firm stance on a range of controversial ethical issues.

Before offering my critique, I believe it is important to first clarify what exactly we are talking about when we talk about abortion. Consider the following testimony from Dr. Antony Levatino:

(Note that the procedure Dr. Levatino describes is not rare. Based on the 2011 statistics provided by the Guttmacher Institute, an organization founded by Planned Parenthood, about 12,720 abortions at 21 weeks or later are performed every year in America.)

1) The Bible is not clear on abortion. 

In the final pages of his work, Hays makes the following statement:
The conclusions drawn in [this book] represent very different levels of conviction. My proposals on the question of abortion, which is not treated directly by the New Testament, should be read as suggestions that attempt to develop indirect implications of the New Testament narratives. On the other hand, I understand my proposals concerning the renunciation of violence to be integrally related to the center of the gospel story, and I would urge that this is the sort of issue over which Christians should lay down their lives; I would seek passionately to persuade those who think otherwise – the historic majority of Christians – that they are living as “enemies to the cross of Christ.” 
In order to understand the problem with this argument, consider the following two actions:
1) A father uses his fists to beat a stranger who is attacking his child.
2) A doctor uses forceps to remove the arms and legs of a 6-month-old fetus. 
Neither of these two scenarios are explicitly addressed in Scripture. Nevertheless, as a strict pacifist, Hays insists that the Scripture unequivocally prohibits the first action. How then can he claim that the Scripture is silent concerning the second action? Anyone who denies violence in breaking human bones, tearing human muscles, and crushing human skulls is simply wrong. Hays himself recognizes that abortion is “an act of violence.” Therefore, if the Bible vigorously prohibits violence, then the Bible vigorously prohibits abortion. Surely we are mistaken to condemn the father in the first scenario more severely than the doctor in the second scenario.

One should note here that while the Bible never explicitly prohibits violence against a fetus, the Bible also never explicitly prohibits violence against a newborn. If the Bible is silent concerning the procedure described by Dr. Levatino, then the Bible is also silent concerning the so-called “after-birth abortion” advocated by ethicists such as Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva. I seriously doubt Hays would be willing to concede that his views on infanticide are no more than "suggestions."

2) Abortion is a justifiable option in the case of rape.

In his chapter on violence, Hays gives an impassioned defense of pacifism. I came to the chapter affirming just war theory, but Hays’ uncompromising exegesis of Matthew 5:38-48 forced me to seriously reconsider my views. Hays insists that we must submit to the authority of Scripture, even if it conflicts with human reason. According to Hays, a disciple of Christ must never fight, even to save his or her own family.
We make this choice in the hope and anticipation that God’s love will finally prevail through the way of the cross, despite our inability to see how this is possible. That is the life of discipleship to which the New Testament repeatedly calls us. 
However, despite this compelling exhortation, Hays later concedes that “an act of violence” is permitted to terminate a pregnancy resulting from rape. Do not miss the irony here. Hays firmly believes that self-defense is never justified; a Christian should not fight back, even if she is being attacked. Therefore, Hays is apparently claiming that a woman is not permitted to use violence to escape the act of rape, but she is permitted to use violence to escape the subsequent pregnancy. Violence against the rapist is prohibited, but violence against the fetus is permitted. Again, such a view is surely mistaken.

3) Christian efforts to outlaw abortion are misguided. 

Hays believes that Christians should not attempt to outlaw abortion. He states,
We should recognize the futility of seeking to compel the state to enforce Christian teaching against abortion….The convictions that cause us to reject abortion within the church are intelligible only within the symbolic world of Scripture. 
However, Hays marched against the war in Vietnam and commends the activists involved in the civil rights movement. Therefore, his views on the relationship between faith and politics seem inconsistent. Surely the convictions which cause the church to reject dismemberment are just as intelligible as the convictions which cause the church to reject segregation.


In The Moral Vision of the New Testament, Hays suggests that Christian police officers are “living as 'enemies of the cross of Christ.'” He then claims, in reference to a Christian couple deciding whether or not to destroy a handicapped fetus, “The New Testament offers us no clear instruction.” Such statements are deeply inconsistent. If the New Testament prohibition of violence is as strong as Hays suggests, then the New Testament gives us exceedingly “clear instruction” concerning the procedure described by Dr. Levatino.


Dale Lempa said...

Well reasoned and persuasive post here, Murray. Have you emailed this to Hays himself? I would be interested to read his response.

Jonathan Beck said...

Both of the arguments operate with an understanding of where, exactly, life begins. I imagine Hays says the thigns he does because, at a certain point, he does not believe the fetus to be a human being. Under this definition, a father using his fists to beat a stranger trying to attack a wife would be different than a doctor pulling the arms and legs of a fetus (if he does, in fact, use the clarifier "6-month-old", that would be pushing it a bit).