In a Just World

photo of Dr. Daniel Maguire

Subject: Dr. Daniel Maguire Interviewer: Chip Duncan
Transcripts: Shaun Mader/ Cheryl McShane

The segments included in this interview* were recorded during May 2001, as part of In a Just World a documentary on world religions, family planning, contraception, and abortion.. The documentary is a co-production of The Duncan Entertainment Group with WTTW-Chicago. Daniel Maguire is Professor of Ethics in the Theology Department of Marquette University, Milwaukee.

(* This transcript has been edited due to length.)

Speaking in general terms or specifically about the Bible, how do you interpret its perspectives on family planning, contraception, and abortion?
The Bible is interesting because it is extremely moral-centric. It had a conviction right from the beginning that the God concept that was appearing here was very tied to morality. Some ancient religions, the Gods were somewhat indifferent and, in fact, the stories about them indicated that they were rather grossly immoral and their ethos was terribly bad. But in the religion of Judaism, which grew into Christianity and then also sprouted into Islam, there was a strong sense of morality as being the sacrament of encounter with God and so it was only moral people that that could be holy and related to this God. So, being so preoccupied with ethics and touching on just about everything, it's a stunning thing the entire Bible, the Jews and the Christians, the whole Bible, never touches the question of abortion in our terms, even though there is evidence that this was going on. Silence is sometimes very eloquent. The only reference is in the book of Exodus where the talk about the story of two men were fighting and the pregnant wife of one intervened and got hurt and miscarried and that's very revealing. The law at the time would have said if a person died here, a full-fledged human being, then you invoke a life for a life, and capital punishment would be in order. But they didn't. They merely imposed monetary penalties. So the one text that scripture, genuine scripture scholars would say does relate to it, relates to it in a way that indicates that the Hebrews did not think of the fetus as having full personal status. And the New Testament, again was a strong moral movement and you could strain the New Testament from beginning to end and you don't find anything that addresses our particular topic. But that is typical with religions. Religions are never giving you all the answer.

What do you feel is the general Christian idea regarding that point that determines when a fetus becomes a person? How does your view differ from that?
Christianity, like all religions, was born into a context. It was not born into India. It was not born into China, It was born into the Grecco-Roman world and it didn't arrive with a fully developed ethics regarding anything. It had strong notions of justice that it got from Judaism and a number of notions of compassion and so forth were there and peace as the ideal of humankind. But it didn't have a worked out system of ethics with regards to sexuality or reproduction. So what they did was absorb from the surrounding culture. What did the surrounding culture think? And on one specific issue for example, when does a fetus become a person, have full personal status, they found the Greeks had done a bit of thinking about this and they simply bought it. And the first thing they bought was what's called "delayed ensoulment." They had seen abortions, they had seen miscarriages, and their conclusion was that whatever was that just aborted there, it was not "people." It was not "folks" like you and me. And so they thought well what is really there in the early stage is kind of a vegetative growth and then as it develops a bit it's probably it's kind of an animal level and then at a certain point, those who had a God concept said after three of four months, when it's sufficiently formed, then God could breath in his soul. And this was the idea that took hold in Christianity, and so for most of its history, they held that the fetus did not hold personal status. If it miscarried, it should not be baptized, it did not get a name, and it did not get a Christian burial until it was a certain point in development, until basically that it looked like a human being. And even historically, the question was raised about Jesus who was considered to be God. When did Jesus become person in the pregnancy process? And they said it was immediate, immediate with conception he was fully person, but they said, "this is a miracle. It is not the normal way" And so the strongest tradition in all of Christianity is that the fetus does not have personal status. You could argue "is this human tissue?" "Yes. This is human tissue, but it does not achieve what we mean by a person until later on in the pregnancy, "was the Christian view. Christianity didn't buy the extreme idea which is heard today, that the fertilized egg, itself, almost microscopic in size, has full human personal status, that it is already a citizen, for example, of whatever country it is born in. That extreme position was an interpretation, but it's an interpretation that was not a part of the tradition.

So where does the Catholic Church's position fit into this?
The history of the Catholic attitude toward the fetus and its status is very illuminating. Through most of our history we presumed there was no personal status for at least three or four months. That was just taken for granted. Thomas Aquinas, was considered the prime teacher of all Catholic Christianity, he held the view that in the beginning you don't have the fetus- whatever it is, a life, human potential, it's on a trajectory to personhood. It is not a person yet and can't be baptized and won't arise again if it is aborted or miscarried. So that particular viewpoint is there. Now it changed. When did it change? Well it changed largely in the nineteenth century. And no one is entirely sure how this happened. Rather than what they called delayed ensoulment, so the soul comes later, immediate ensoulment--Right at the moment of conception. And there was a movement then to start considering conception as the big moment. But this, of course, is idiosyncratic- whatever the fertilized egg is, it is not folks like you and me. It is not citizen status. It is the beginning of human life, on a trajectory toward personhood but nowhere near there.

How would you describe the Pro-Life, Pro-Choice debate?
Whenever a lot of heat comes into a moral discussion in a society, the first major sin, is "simplism" and by simplism, I mean oversimplification of the issue. And it quickly descends to the level of slogans. In the United States, for example, the debate is pretty much divided between the terms pro-life and pro-choice. Scholars from other parts of the world like China looked at us and chided us and said "what a strange people you are." Since every one is pro-life and everyone is pro-choice, what a strange way to categorize such a complicated debate. So what has to be recognized is that you must move beyond the slogans and you must look for common ground with your fellow citizens. Like you could agree, all of us could agree, it would be nice if there were fewer abortions. We could all agree on that. Let's go with that. Let's do everything we can to make that the case, that there are fewer abortions. But let us also respect the mature adult decisions of a person that decides an abortion is the best that they can do. Now life, life is good. It's the precondition of all goods. But the life that is good is also marked by tragedy and there are circumstances where the best that life offers is the ending of a particular life and in this case, a particular fetal life. So there could be many circumstances- economic reasons, health reasons and so on where this is the best that life offers. And so what religions have to learn as they mature, and what all human being have to learn as they mature, is that absolute rules go so far until they get surprised by life. There are people in parts of Latin America, where they put off baptism, which is normally done very soon after birth. But they've developed a new use of baptism. And sometimes they don't baptize until age four or five because they baptize when they think this child will live. And baptism, for them becomes a celebration of the possibility of life of this child. That's a terrible situation. Now for us to come in from North America with our wealth and say, "Oh, you must stop that." Or for Catholic hierarchy in those countries, in Latin America to say "you must not abort. That's a terrible sin," and so on. This is hurling around cruel simplicities in a world that is marked with complex tragedy.

The abortion debate is a religious debate but it is also political. What is your perspective on the political aspects of the abortion debate?
When political leaders decide to leap into this subject by banning abortion, you could see) why they might, they could start by saying, "well after all we have to favor life and that's taking away life so we'll come out with a law in a country like the United States or other countries in Western Europe and the law will ban all abortions. What they have done in those cases it's not a neutral position; it's not even a conservative position. What they do when they ban abortions is they leap into an ongoing debate among religious peoples. And religious peoples are split on this. I'm not saying all religious peoples are pro-choice, clearly a number of them are not in all the religions on the abortion question. But there are others, who for equally valid grounds, feel that the abortion decision can be justified and women are justified in making it. For a government to leap into that situation where the debate is still ongoing and sincere well grounded people hold both sides of the debate, and take sides with one of them is an intrusion into the religious rights of all the others and it's putting government where it should not be. You would think that in the United States of America with it's alleged separation of church and state there would be a great reluctance to leap into the middle of this religious moral debate and declare one side the victors with all the protections of American law. That is the ultimate violation of the separation of church and state and it's an intrusion into the human and religious rights of decent good people from all the world religions.

From your point of view, how should we be guided?
Every religion has a system of authority in it of some sort. Any religion got started because some people had a lot of good ideas and then a social movement formed around them. One of the simplest forms of religion is where certain people, called clergy, usually today, take over as a parental figure and they do all the interpreting. This is common in many religions, even in ones where- well it obvious in Roman Catholicism where you have a pope and hierarchy. But even in religions where you don't have a pope like in Islam, very often certain figures get this high clerical, I'd call it, kind of Papal status and their thoughts on the subject become definitive. And I think that immature people are very inclined early on in our lives to total dependence on authority and total obedience is what keeps us alive. That's why you're alive is because your parents didn't give you discretion to run and play in traffic. So we've benefited from total obedience to authority. But as you grow, total obedience to authority becomes absurd. It simply becomes a rejection of your own conscience and your own personhood. So the growth that must occur in all religions is the maturation of conscience. Just like it's hard for a parent to let go, and to let your children do the things they decide to do, it's very hard for a religions to let go. And so they are many times trying to control you even in your most intimate, personal decisions about whether you will become pregnant or not. There's an effort to control you, because they're operating on that primitive paradigm of religion as the authoritarian parent rather than religion as the educator leading you into the promise land of personal maturity.