Sanctity, Life, and Ambiguity: Moral Decisions About Abortion

(CNS)

In the rhetoric surrounding abortion, one of the most commonly heard phrases is, “The sanctity of life”. But it is used so frequently that we may ask how meaningful it is, and what it contributes to debates about abortion?

When I was teaching high school religion to juniors last year we covered a unit on morality. As part of this unit students analyzed a moral issue. Many chose abortion.

Students viewed a short video on the development of a fetus, after which I asked each student to write down when s/he thought life began. Answers varied widely. Some thought it happened when the fetus started to move, others at conception, when brain activity began, or when the heart begins to beat. What amazed me is that their views on whether or not abortion was permissible at any point during fetal development often did not align with their views on when life begins that they later expressed in their papers.

I think unpacking the term “sanctity” is helpful for understanding the opinions of my students which seemed inconsistent. The word “sanctity” has different senses. Literally it means “holy”. But what does it mean that something is holy or that life is holy?

Perhaps the easiest way to get at the heart of this is to pay attention to the characteristics associated with places commonly considered holy: churches, synagogues, mosques, and shrines. These places are holy because the presence of something beyond us is “contained” there. There is a certain ambiguity to this holiness because we simply cannot fully grasp it. These holy places are delicate and vulnerable. They often contain fragile works of art, delicate furnishings, or intricate design work. Though easily fracturable, they have great power to move us internally. The whole aura of these places evokes a presence that can give us a sense of wonder and awe. Some think this mysterious presence is brought about by the extensive human history and tradition out of which these places arose. Others would agree but also add that it is the presence of the divine.

But this experience of holiness is not exclusive to people who identify as “religious”. Many people who are not religiously-affiliated experience a mysterious sense of wonder and awe in the presence of religious sites. Also, these characteristics can be evoked by non-religious phenomena.  

For example, I previously taught at a middle school where I became friends with a student with severe disabilities. We’ll call him Sam. Sam was 12 years old and could not walk or speak. He also had difficulty controlling his arms and legs. They would often flail when he was responding to someone as they spoke to him. His smile was frequent, but twitchy.

For years specialists had been trying to determine his cognitive ability without success; he had no way of clearly communicating what he understood. Tests were often based upon “yes” or “no” questions which he could answer by hitting a large button when he flailed his arm. But because of his difficulty with motor control, it was not always clear whether he was intentionally hitting the button. Still, many people spoke to and looked at him with wonder. What are you thinking, Sam? What is it that you wish to express?

Behind his seemingly incommunicable facade of expressions there was a glimpse of his thoughts and feelings. Sam manifested a different version of the same holiness that can be experienced in holy places. For those who interacted with him there was something beyond what we could understand, that we all tried to grasp. It was not simply his elusive cognitive ability, but the person that he is which escaped us as we attempted to better know and understand him. The mystery that he manifested was delicate in nature, and you could not approach who he really was unless you carefully attended to him. Yet he invited you to remain with him through his warm smile. In a palpable sense he exuded an aura of goodness.

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From these experiences of the characteristics of “holy” places and of those connected to the “holiness” of Sam, what can we say about “sanctity”?  In both, there is a mystery of something beyond comprehension which evokes wonder and even awe. There is an ambiguity with regard to how to approach this holiness precisely because of the mystery that is present. It is delicate, in that it must be treated with care, yet it has the power to have a great impact upon us. And in this experience there is a sense of great goodness. We may ask: “How should I approach this ambiguous mystery?”

With this vision of “sanctity” understood as holiness, we can relate it to my students who gave their opinions on the morality of abortion. I saw that the students largely made judgments based on the characteristics of what I have described above as experiences of holiness or “sanctity” (I will use these words interchangeably).

The students who associated the fetus with the characteristics of “sanctity” used strong language to denounce abortion. This does not mean that they were certain of when the fetus actually becomes human. In fact, many of these students said in class that they thought that life begins after conception. But when they later wrote their papers, their arguments morphed to assume that the fetus was human without providing any reason for this change. They were driven more by a conviction that the fetus contained the characteristics of the holy, even if there was ambiguity about when it was actually human.

While recognizing the reality of challenging pregnancies, they perceived abortion as encroaching on the mystery of the fetus developing in the womb,. These students conveyed a sense of wonder in the fetus and a strong conviction not to interfere with it. They also emphasized the delicacy of the fetus that held mystery within it, much like the delicacy of a holy place. Far more similar is the delicacy of Sam who needed to be carefully attended to in order to perceive the mystery within him. The students affirmed the delicacy of this developing life and coupled this affirmation with strong language that it should be protected. They perceived that this life was very good even if they could not put their finger on exactly when it was human.

The students who did not associate the fetus with the characteristics of “sanctity”, did associate some of these characteristics with persons who face challenging pregnancies. They recognized the vulnerability of a woman who is pregnant and unsupported by others or, in other cases, the delicacy of a family who is already dealing with financial hardship. They saw that these are serious risks to persons’ ability to flourish and used strong language in support of abortion.

Their arguments in favor of abortion were multiple but stemmed from the ambiguity of when the fetus becomes human. They (like the pro-life/anti-abortion students) also changed their position from saying the fetus is human at some point during development to assuming that it was not human at any point during development. They also did not give any reason for this change. In both groups of students, whether or not they connected the characteristics of holiness/sanctity to the fetus was more important than their intellectual determination of when human life begins in deciding on the morality of abortion.

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The place of decision about the morality of abortion springs forth from the ambiguity of the fetus in the womb. The exact point at which the fetus becomes human, though informed by scientific information, remains ambiguous using scientific analysis alone. There is a striking parallel here with the presence of the holy. The holy is also encountered in ambiguity: a sacred shrine with a quiet flame flickering in the night, a child with a disability who is unable to speak, but whose smile and silent gaze warms you. We might say that opinions about abortion are decided in response to the following question: When we encounter life in a state of ambiguity, do we find the presence of holiness there?

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