Saturday, October 23, 2004

Stassen and "A Call to Concern"

By way of review: Glen Harold Stassen, an ethics professor at Fuller, wrote an op-ed piece (Pro-Life? Look at the Fruits) arguing that abortions have risen under Bush’s presidency due to conservative economic policies.

The National Right to Life Committee wrote a critique (short version and a long version). One of their points was that despite Prof. Stassen’s insistence that he was consistently pro-life, he was, in fact, one of the original signatories of ‘A Call to Concern,’ a 1977 document that expressed support for the Roe v. Wade decision and affirmed that ‘abortion in some instances may be the most loving act possible.’ If his view has changed, or if he sees this original stance as somehow compatible with his current ‘consistent pro-life position,’ he does not say.” Prof. Stassen responded yesterday in this space. He wrote, in part, “I did not sign a statement in 1977 supporting Roe V Wade; along with very large numbers of Christian ethicists, I signed a statement supporting academic freedom for Christian ethicists and moral theologians who take varieties of positions on these issues, and who were under pressure in some schools. I do not appreciate the personal attack.” Ramesh Ponnuru at National Review’s The Corner said the question could be quickly resolved if anyone could post the 1977 statement.

I’ve just returned from the library, where I found a copy of the original statement. It was a paid advertisement printed in the journal Christianity and Crisis (Oct. 3, 1977), pp. 222-234. I have reprinted it in its entirety, though I have not reprinted all the signatories.

* * *

A Call to Concern

The increasing urgency of the issue of abortion rights requires us as teachers and writers of religious ethics to speak out.

Abortion is a serious and sometimes tragic procedure for dealing with fetal life. It raises important ethical issues and cannot be blandly legitimized by the mere whim of an individual. Nevertheless, it belongs in that large realm of often tragic actions where circumstances can render it a less destructive procedures than the rigid prolongation of pregnancy.

We support the Supreme Court decisions of 1973 which had the effect of removing abortion from the criminal law codes. The Court did not appeal to religion or ethics in arriving at its judgment, but we believe the decision to have been in accord with sound ethical judgment. Taking note of the fact that theologians, as well as other experts, disagree on the fundamental moral question of when life begins, the Court decided that the law ought not to compel the conscience of those who believe abortion to be in harmony with their moral convictions.

In the last four years, however, those decisions have been subjected to a relentless attack from those who take the absolutist position that it is always wrong to terminate a pregnancy at any time after the moment of conception. Those who take this absolutist position have not hesitated to equate abortion at any stage of pregnancy with murder of manslaughter. From such an extreme viewpoint, all legal means are considered justified if they limit abortions, no matter what the human consequences for poor women and others—as in the recent efforts to deny Medicaid funds and to prohibit use of public hospitals for abortion services.

We feel compelled to affirm to affirm an alternative position as a matter of conscience and professional responsibility.

1. The most compelling argument against the inflexibility of the absolutist position is its cost in human misery. The absolutist position does not concern itself about the quality of the entire life cycle, the health and well-being of the mother and family, the question of emotional and economic resources, the cases of extreme deformity. Its total preoccupation with the status of the unborn renders it blind to the well-being and freedom of choice of persons in community.

2. “Pro-life” must not be limited to concern for the unborn; it must also include a concern for the quality of life as a whole. The affirmation of life in Judeo-Christian ethics requires a commitment to make life healthy and whole from beginning to end. Considering the best medical advise, the best moral insight, and a concern for the total quality of the whole life cycle for the born and the unborn, we believe that abortion may in some instances be the most loving act possible.

3. We believe it is wrong to deny Medicaid assistance to poor women seeking abortions.
This denial makes it difficult for those who need it most to exercise a legal right, and it implies public censure of a form of medical service which in fact has the moral support of major religious groups.

4. We are saddened by the heavy institutional involvement of the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church in a campaign to enact religiously-based anti-abortion commitments into law, and we view this as a serious threat to religious liberty and freedom of conscience. We acknowledge the legal right of all individuals and groups, both religious and secular, to seek laws that reflect their religious and ethical beliefs. But the institutional mobilization of Roman Catholic dioceses, including massive financial contributions by those dioceses to the National Committee for a Human Life Amendment, is inappropriate on this issue. If successful, it would violate the deeply held religious convictions of individual members and official bodies of many other religious groups about when human personhood begins, the relative rights of a woman and a fetus, and responsible family life. This is particularly a problem when there is no clear majority opinion on these fundamental issues nor an adequate social base or consensus for legitimate and enforceable legislation.

5. We call upon the leaders of religious groups supporting abortion rights to speak out more clearly and publicly in response to the dangerously increasing influence of the absolutist position. There may be some ecumenical risks in such candor, but those risks have been assumed by those who have pressed the absolutist position on religious grounds. In the long run, the true test of ecumenical authenticity is the ability to sustain dialogue and friendship in spit of very sharp disagreements on matters of substance.

* * *

Ed. note: As readers can see, the statement does indeed support Roe v. Wade: “We support the Supreme Court decisions of 1973 which had the effect of removing abortion from the criminal law codes. . . . [W]e believe the decision to have been in accord with sound ethical judgment.” Of course, the statement says more than this, but certainly curious as to why Stassen would say “I did not sign a statement in 1977 supporting Roe V Wade” when he did in fact sign such a statement. Even more curious is why he would label that truth a “personal attack.”

I will refrain from offering a full-scale critique of this document. But do note a couple of things: (1) Note the manipulative terms used to frame the debate. Their opponents’ positions are “rigid,” “relentless,” “absolutist,” “extreme,” and “blind.” (2) Re-read their first numbered point. Their “most compelling argument” against the “absolutist position” is the “cost of human misery.” An unbelievable statement--which essentially means that the utility or happiness of human beings is a higher good than the protection of life for human beings.

Ramesh Ponnuru in today’s Corner reprints an email from Michael New, a political science professor at the University of Alabama.

"In the Corner I have noticed a lot of discussion about Dr. Stassen's article in Sojourners. As someone who has done some research on fluctuations in abortion rates, I might have some insights to offer. Overall, I think that Dr. Stassen's reasoning is very flawed for the following reasons.

1) Academic researchers who study abortion, almost never use data from state health departments the way Dr. Stassen does. Papers in academic journals always use data from either the Center for Disease Control (CDC) or the Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI). Both of these groups have collection mechanisms that are more consistent.

“2) Dr. Stassen does pose an interesting question when he asks why the abortion rate declined during the Clinton administration? The research I have done indicates that the decline has little to do with Clinton's policies. Instead, it has more to do with the sharp increase in pro-life legislation that was enacted at the state level during this time.

“In 1992, virtually no states were enforcing had informed-consent laws, by 2000 27 states had informed-consent laws in effect.

“In 1992, no states had banned or restricted partial-birth abortion, by 2000, 12 states had bans or restrictions in effect.

“In 1992 only 20 states were enforcing parental-involvement statutes, by 2000 32 states were enforcing these laws.

“My January study for the Heritage Foundation, which analyzes abortion data from every state from 1985 to 1999, provides solid statistical evidence that state legislation caused real declines in the abortion rate.

“3) Why was there this increase in pro-life legislation? There are two reasons and they both have to do with the election of pro-life candidates. The same candidates whom Dr. Stassen likely opposes.

“First, Republicans took control of both chambers of the state legislature in 11 additional states during the 1994 elections. In most cases, Republicans maintained control of these legislatures through end of the decade. This made it easier for pro-lifers in many states to enact protective legislation.

“Second, judicial appointees by Presidents Reagan and Bush gave state level pro-life legislation more protection. The Casey vs. Planned Parenthood decision was a disappointment to pro-lifers because the Supreme Court chose not to overturn Roe vs. Wade. However, by finding constitutional some of the policies in Pennsylvania's Abortion Control Act, the Supreme Court gave greater protection to state level pro-life legislation.

“Prior to Casey, the only laws that consistently survived judicial were parental involvement laws and Medicaid funding restrictions. After Casey, informed consent laws and many state partial birth abortion bans were upheld as well.”

Update: Ramesh responds to the above posting of "A Call to Concern":

"The most charitable view is that Stassen's memory has failed him: The document is an unequivocal statement of support for Roe and says zilch about academic freedom. If Stassen has changed his views since then, good for him. But he ought to correct the record."