The View from Here: A Thin Red Line
by Alva B. Weir, III, MD, and David B. Biebel, DMin
Today's Christian Doctor - Fall 2003
It is an autumn day, not long before winter, still bright with sun, and warm enough to walk the path in sweaters with a smile. Angelique watches a leaf in color float gently from above to brush against her baby’s face. Nestled in his mother’s arms, wrapped against the
breeze, the six-month-old awakens and smiles.
As Angelique steps onto the wider road, Jolene, her friend for years, steps down from her porch, also with a baby in her arms. Jolene waves and calls out, “May I walk with you?”
“Of course,” Angelique replies, “I’d love to have you with me.”
“Have you made up your mind?” Jolene asks.
“Yes,” Angelique replies. “There’s no way I can raise this child and care for the others. John’s job pays too little, and I’m working my feet off for school and sports and lessons so Mary and Edward can keep up. It’s not fair to bring another little one into a world where we can’t really help him succeed.”
“I understand. It’s the same for us,” sighs Jolene. “But, it is a shame. They have such lovely faces, almost ….” Her voice trails off as she looks again at her son.
Angelique thinks, glancing briefly at her child. Even with your funny eyes that will never see the world as others see it, you’re still angelic…maybe more so.
Stillness reigns as the mothers progress down the road, until Angelique breaks the silence once again. “My mother never got to walk this road,” she says. “Back then, women had to choose without ever having seen their infants. But how could that be ‘choice,’ if they were choosing for or against something they’d never seen? That wasn’t really fair. Choice is not real choice unless you see the possibility before your eyes and test it for awhile, don’t you think? At least now it’s more reasonable—you decide after they’re born. It much fairer to all concerned.”
“I’m with you,” says Jolene. “Surely there is little difference in an infant three months before it breathes and three months after it breathes, except for the air in its lungs and the trouble or joy it brings its mother. I can’t believe it took a generation to understand
Angelique speaks then almost to herself, “Well, we’ve had six months, long enough to make a rational choice.”
Angelique’s eyes drift to those of her son and she catches a sparkle of recognition and joy. She looks away. She and her husband have agreed—it wouldn’t be fair to the child; it wouldn’t be fair to their other children or to society even; and, he’s not a normal baby after all. She thinks of her own mother, who raised three children without a father around, fighting for every penny, wearing herself out for Angelique’s education—a hard life. She thinks of her younger brother, who has finally made it after moving in and out of trouble for so many years. If only Momma had made the choice to not let him be, all of us might have been spared so much grief, she thinks.
The two young women step from the forest road onto a bridge across a deep green flowing stream. Two older ladies, volunteers who understand the right and necessary rule of choice, are there to help, concerned for those who come to choose. As Angelique and Jolene step upon the bridge, before them lies a thin red line. This line, once crossed, will make the choice permanent.
Both mothers stop before the line, the older women smiling gently on the other side, by law not allowed to encourage those who come in any way.
“Are you ready?” asks Jolene.
“I’ll be right behind you,” says Angelique.
Jolene crosses the line. Standing at the rail that overlooks the stream, she wraps the baby snug against the cold below. “I’m sorry, little one,” she says. “But I choose to let you go.”
Her baby falls as if in slow motion toward the creek below. The only sound, a coo of baby wonder, is silenced by a splash, as the little bundle plunges through the surface of the stream.
Angelique watches, one foot over the line. Then, as she shifts her weight to take the other step, her baby’s hand touches her cheek and all is changed. For Angelique, the child has made the choice.
As her friend escapes the bridge, Jolene moves to offer words of comfort; for she thinks she sees a good friend’s pain.
“It’s okay for you to keep your baby, Angelique; just as it was right for me to let mine go,” she says. “What matters is that we exercised our right to choose.”
Angelique replies, with sadness in her smile, “I know,” she says, “but it would have been nice to see them play together—like us, when we were young.”
The Continuum of “Choice”
Throughout human history, people in various cultures have practiced infanticide for many reasons, including poverty, gender, illegitimacy and population control. The methods have included exposure, burial alive, head trauma, strangulation and drowning. In the Graeco-Roman era, exposure was commonly practiced as the mode of choice for killing female children.
By the second and early third century A.D. the Christian Church began to raise its voice in opposition to this practice. Church leaders including Justin Martyr (114-166 A.D.) and Clement of Alexandria (150-211 A.D.) strongly condemned infanticide.
Judeo-Christian opposition to infanticide is founded on the doctrine that every human bears the image of God, the Creator (Genesis 1:26); and that He alone holds the keys of life and death. In about 320 A.D., the Christian Emperor Constantine enacted two laws aimed at ending the practice.
Nearly three centuries later, Mohammed’s reforms included a prohibition of infanticide. Mohammed asked how a father would account to God for such an action “when the female child that has been buried alive shall be asked for what crime she was put to death.” Islamic teaching is consistent with Judeo-Christian efforts to prohibit infanticide.
In spite of this ethic, even in “Christianized” societies this scourge has been difficult to hold back. For example, in the 1800s, infanticide was so rampant in England that the practice was debated in the press, both popular and medical. An editorial in Lancet proclaimed, “to the shame of civilization it must be avowed that not a State has yet advanced to the degree of progress under which child-murder may be said to be a very uncommon crime.”1
Infanticide continued to be quite common worldwide until the advent of surgical abortion. When an unintended pregnancy occurred prior to this, reluctant parents had to wait until the child was born to dispose of him or her. Abortion changed this by preventing the unwanted child’s birth, lessening the perceived need for infanticide. As a result, we are still killing babies; we’re just killing them younger.
Many in our culture seem to feel a great comfort in using the birth canal as the dividing line between moral and immoral killing. That comfort may not last for long. The story of Jolene and Angelique may not be as unlikely in the future as we might wish—and assuming that such atrocity will not come near our tent may well hasten its coming. Peter Singer (Princeton University) wrote in Practical Ethics:
“I have argued that the life of the fetus is of no greater value than the life of a nonhuman animal at a similar level of rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, capacity to feel, etc., and that since no fetus is a person no fetus has the same claim to life as a person. Now it must be admitted that these arguments apply to the newborn baby as much as to the fetus. Aweek-old baby is not a rational and self-conscious being, and there are many nonhuman animals whose rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, capacity to feel, and so on, exceed that of a human baby a week, a month, or even a year old. If the fetus does not have the same claim to life as a person, it appears that the newborn baby does not either, and the life of a newborn baby is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee….
“If defective newborn infants were not regarded as having a right to life until, say, a week or a month after birth it would allow us to choose on the basis of far greater knowledge of the infant’s condition than is possible before birth…. Killing a defective infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often it is not wrong at all.”2
Singer’s logic only extends our presently accepted abortion ethic. Killing a newborn child (“defective” or otherwise) is no less rational than killing an unborn child (“defective” or otherwise), and killing an unborn child is no less life-ending than killing a newborn child.
The children we face across the breakfast table were no less our children when they rested in their mother’s wombs. Before they took their first breath these unborn children had the same potential for love and joy and tears that we see in them at two or ten or twenty years of age. They carried the same genes from their moms and dads and the same image of God. We may read Singer’s words and cry, “No! That is too much!” when in truth, it’s just the same.
This ethic of killing is nothing new. It is almost as old as time, riding into human choice on the serpent’s oily lie, questioning God’s truthfulness: “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Not long after Eve chose to believe this lie, humans began to kill each other, and eventually their offspring, for reasons also cloaked in lies.
Today, we sons and daughters of Eve have perfected this art—both the killing and the lying. The rhetoric may sound sophisticated and refined, dressed up in words like “choice,” or “necessity” or “freedom.” Yet the naked truth remains that killing a child is killing a child.
A second truth follows: Throughout history, people of faith have been the primary force restraining humanity’s insane drive to cross that thin red line. Killing our children at any age is wrong.
The question is: Can the Church stand together in these days and protect our children from a society where little ones are sacrificed to lessen the hardships of adults?
How many more infants, when asked why their lives were terminated, will have to say: “I don’t know. I thought they were my parents!”
1. From the Web site: http://www.infanticide.org/history.htm.
2. Peter Singer. Practical Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1979): 122-123, 136-7, 138.