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When There Is Theological Debate, Err on the Side of Death?

This weekend The New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof dedicated his weekend column to praising a “Christian abortion provider,” Dr. Willie Parker. While that’s unremarkable (Parker may be the cultural Left’s favorite Christian this side of Barack Obama), a portion of his piece stopped me in my tracks. Kristof writes:

[L]et’s remember that conservative Christianity’s ferocious opposition to abortion is relatively new in historical terms.

The Bible does not explicitly discuss abortion, and there’s no evidence that Christians traditionally believed that life begins at conception. St. Thomas Aquinas, the father of much of Catholic theology, believed that abortion was murder only after God imbued fetuses with a soul, at 40 days or more after conception.

Relatively new? Here’s one of the earliest statements of Christian law composed “no later than 100 B.C.” – the Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles:

You shall not kill. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not corrupt boys. You shall not fornicate. You shall not steal. You shall not make magic. You shall not practice medicine (pharmakeia). You shall not slay the child by abortions (phthora). You shall not kill what is generated. You shall not desire your neighbor’s wife.

In the words of John T. Noonan Jr, “In this list of related sins, one sentence expressly prohibited abortifacients. The commands on either side of this sentence dealt with other aspects of the same sin, as the commandments on sexual sins complemented each other. Abortion was ranked as a principal sin included with those sins expressly named by the Ten Commandments.” The Didache is hardly an aberration. Instead, it reflects broad Christian consensus.

That’s first-generation Christianity, and lest anyone think that the Protestant branches of the faith went wobbly, here’s John Calvin, one of the founding fathers of my own Reformed faith:

[T]he unborn, though enclosed in the womb of his mother, is already a human being, and it is an almost monstrous crime to rob it of life which it has not yet begun to enjoy. If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man’s house is his most secure place of refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy the unborn in the womb before it has come to light.

So, no, Christianity’s “ferocious opposition to abortion” is not “new.” Yes, there have been historical debates over the practice — and debates continue today — but here is a fundamental fact of theological life: The more a church defends abortion, the less likely it is to be theologically orthodox. Embrace of abortion rights is typically part and parcel of a theological drift that rejects much of the rest of the faith. Just ask the Presbyterian Church (USA). Just ask the United Churches of Christ. In fact, many of the pro-abortion denominations are no longer recognizably Christian in any historic, theological sense.

Kristof ends his column with this statement: “Dr. Parker reminds us that abortion is complicated. And that is why, in my view, we need choice.” Yet the biology is settled science – an unborn child is a unique human being with its own, unique DNA. Thus, the “complicated” question is a matter of philosophy and theology. How much is that life worth? Some argue that in the face of disagreement and debate, we should err on the side of death (often through dismemberment.) But that’s barbaric, a line of reasoning we’d find revolting in virtually any other context. The fact that even people of good will (like Kristof) find it compelling is depressing indeed.

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