Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Ivory Cubicle | Sophocles, Abortion and Human Dignity

Well, it's time for the 40th Anniversary of Roe vs. Wade and the internet is lit up with controversy. The Center for Reproductive Rights got together and filmed an extremely creepy video, which promptly set off an uproar in the Christian blogging community (including a smackdown by World Magazine editor Marvin Olasky, aptly titled “The creepiest video ever?”). Facebook memes are proliferating, some of them charming, some of them crass, and everyone, at least in the DC area, seems to be gearing up for tomorrow's March for Life.

Being more of a theoretical sort, however, my eyes were drawn to an article by Salon magazine entitled “So what if abortion ends life?” with an equally nauseating subtitle: “I believe that life starts at conception. And it's never stopped me from being pro-choice.” The gist? Not all lives are equal, there is no such thing as intrinsic human dignity, and the sovereignty of the mother over her own body gives her the right to decide exactly what is or is not allowed inside it.

This new style of argumentation is starting to change the way in which the abortion debate has been conducted for the past several generations. In the face of such unprecedented arguments as this, I think it’s important that pro-lifers return to the most essential, basic tenets of human dignity which is, after all, why we believe what we believe.

Personhood, or Imago Dei?

The standard pro-life argument has generally taken the following form.

1).    All persons are beings which possess a natural right to life.
2).    All human embryos are persons.
3).    Therefore, all human embryos are beings which possess a natural right to life.

And consequently, since the embryo has a right to life, it should be protected.

The tricky part is that in order to get to the conclusion, we have to defend premises 1 and 2. The second premise has been constantly under attack, both from the scientific and philosophical academy (with some Australian ethicists, who are still a little bit bitter about being Australian, going so far as to argue that after-birth abortion is legitimate because personhood does not begin until significantly after birth). The first argument has historically been relatively untouched by pro-abortion advocates, but, as demonstrated by the Salon article, it's recently come under more and more criticism.

In the words of Russell Kirk, “I lack time to cry 'O tempora! O mores!' adequately,” and must instead resort to quoting poets. In this case, I think Sophocles' masterpiece Antigone is instructive (if you haven't read it, you should go read it right now, but I'll still summarize).

After the death of the brothers Polyneices and Eteocles during a civil war in Thebes, the new king, Creon, decrees that the body of Polyneices shall not be buried, but will instead be left to the dogs in dishonor. Polyneices' sister Antigone, in defiance of the king's decree, buries the body with honor, incurring the wrath of the king. The play unfolds from here, and I won't spoil the plot, but it does end by emphasizing Creon's grave sin in failing to honor the body of the dead.

This belief in honoring the body of the dead isn't just an ancient Greek superstition. Even today, we possess an entrenched notion that the human form, even when lifeless, ought to be respected. We recoil in horror when we hear of our own troops urinating on the bodies of enemy corpses.

Why is this? It's not because we believe that the corpse still houses a person. Naturalists and Christians agree on that. No, rather it is because we possess an innate sensibility that this is the material form which once contained the mystery, wonder and beauty of a human being, it is something that has been fearfully and wonderfully made, it is imago dei.

Rewind a bit. Do we realize that when we approach the human embryo, the question of whether not it contains certain elements of personhood, whether autonomy, identity, consciousness, or whatever else, completely misses the point? The point is that the unborn child contains within its entire genetic structure the potential for a thriving, fulfilled human existence. Encapsulated in those tiny cells are the infinite mystery, wonder, beauty and potentiality of a human being. We don't protect it simply because it's a person. We protect it because it is something that has been fearfully and wonderfully made – because it is imago dei.

Posted by Nick Barden
Picture: Antigone in front of the dead Polynices by Nikiforos Lytras, 1865.


  1. That was extremely excellent. You captured the essence of pro-life's truth in a brief blog post. Your response was elegant and accurate.

    I really enjoyed it.

  2. *nods* "Person therefore right to life" is a secular-proof argument. The real point is that God created these people and they bear His image and are therefore infinitely valuable. If we miss that, we lose.