In Necessity and Sorrow, by Magda Denes, Abortion and the Sanctity of Human Life: A Philosophic View, by Baruch Brody, and The Right to Live; The Right to Die, by C. Everett Koop
March 18, 1977
The libertarian abortion climate in the United States continues to produce howls of outrage on one hand and cheers of support on the other. Each side in the debate keeps publishing books to clarify its position, encourage its allies, and nullify its opposition. The problem with these efforts is that the two sides tend either to talk only to the already convinced or to talk to each other on different wavelengths. For instance, one side will be talking biology (genetic makeup settled at conception) while the other side is talking linguistics (personhood vs. human being); or one side will claim revealed knowledge (Bible) while the other side is claiming reason (situationalism); or one side will be claiming historic tradition (opposition to abortion by the Church) while the other is claiming the contemporary relevance of religion (pluralism in our society). Seldom does one side read the work of the other.
The first two books will probably be distributed mainly among pro-abortion secular readers, and their messages may be found surprising. The third book is clearly evangelical and will probably surprise no one of that persuasion.
Magda Denes is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst in her late thirties and the mother of two sons. She underwent an abortion, and out of this experience she decided to do a study of “what lies behind the abortion myth.” So she returned to the New York City abortion hospital in 1973 and began interviewing patients, parents, staff, nurses, and physicians. These interviews form the substance of her book.
Denes is openly pro-abortion, avidly so. In fact, she keeps assuring her readers of this since she knows what her book does to the abortion act. She describes in vivid detail the abortion procedure and what the abortion room looks like after a day’s work (“a death factory”). In fact, pro-abortionists will question the real intent of her work because of the blood and gore and callousness that she describes in the hospital. One will certainly be repulsed, if not educated, by her account of what goes on during and after an abortion.
Denes calls for more honesty and forthrightness on the part of pro-abortionists. For instance, she calls the argument that abortion is a backup for failed contraception pure “propaganda.” Later she writes, “To say that the lives of those living are of larger import than the lives of those to come is the hubris of degeneration.” In a letter to Commentary (December, 1976) she writes, “I do think abortion is murder — of a very special and necessary sort. What else would one call the deliberate stilling of a life? And no physician involved with the procedure ever kids himself about that.”
Denes describes herself as someone who is very pro-abortion but with a “bad secular conscience,” whatever that means. The aim of her book is to search for some answers to the question of why to be human is to bring on the paradox of abortion, which is, she assures us, “necessary” and yet “sorrowful.” Once again we see that without the lodestar of Scripture to guide the way, the pilgrim will end up lost. That’s the real “sorrow” of this book.
Baruch Brody’s book is also written with the general reading public in mind. It will probably find its way into the hands of those who are likely to be pro-abortion. And yet Brody, who chairs the philosophy department at Rice, is against abortion. In fact, MIT Press, in anticipation of readers’ reactions, felt an explanation of objectivity was in order.
Brody gives us perhaps the cleanest philosophical argument against abortion yet to appear. Reflecting a philosophical kinship with Daniel Callahan (of the Hastings Center), Brody approaches the subject by setting forth certain seemingly logical principles and then exposing them to rigorous analysis. The pro-abortion principles are invalidated one by one as Brody moves through his argument.
While I agree with much of what Brody says, I do not agree with his starting point: “I cannot imagine a moral argument that is not ultimately founded in intuition. Whatever we do, we act with what we have, and there is no way of getting beyond it.” It’s a shame he does not understand Deuteronomy 29:29.
His small book is divided into three parts. In Part I he argues that since “the fetus becomes a human being at some point before birth,” abortion is murder and ought to be prohibited by law. In Part 11 he tries to prove his Part I assumption that the fetus becomes a human being at some point before birth. He concludes that when the “fetus” has a “functioning brain” (six to twelve weeks, a la Callahan) it becomes a human being. He uses the example of brain-death to argue for his brain-life position.
Part III is a catchall in which he succinctly analyses the Supreme Court decision of 1973 and covers societal responsibilities in the abortion situation. In this section he brings some clarity to the debate by arguing that if abortion is homicide, then there is a real question whether society has any obligation to the pregnant woman who refrains from having an abortion. He writes, “Refraining from committing murder is . . . not such a heroic act. It is a requirement of morality that we all fulfill and we have no claim against society merely because we are in need owing to our having fulfilled this requirement.” In short, refusing to have an abortion is no more laudatory than refusing to shoot your neighbor—it’s just part of being a moral citizen.
The evangelical book among the three is C. Everett Koop’s, which treats both abortion and euthanasia. His treatment of “the right to die” is the most accessible evangelical opinion on the subject at the present time.
Koop is chief of pediatric surgery at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia. He is clearly writing to evangelical laypersons who are already convinced of his views or at least are likely converts. The book is neither medically detailed nor exegetically illuminating. He writes simply as a Bible-believing surgeon who is committed to saving the lives, biologically and socially, of as many infants as he can.
He notes the schizophrenic mentality of our American society in which we will go to great lengths to preserve and protect the lives of some people while callously killing others. (A recent NBC television special, “Violence in America,” made the same point while at the same time illustrating the mentality by not so much as mentioning the violence done to the unborn.)
Koop’s little book will convince very few pro-abortion people, and it will not advance the frontier of evangelical bioethics. But it is a valuable primer for those in the evangelical community who want to find out about the state of abortion in this country and to prepare for the upcoming debates over euthanasia. In the abortion section he covers such areas as “Origin of the Sanctity of Life.” “Development Before Birth,” “Techniques of Abortion,” “Abortion Is Not a Roman Catholic Issue” (Koop is a Presbyterian elder), and “Natural Consequences” of the Supreme Court’s decision.
The Right to Live; The Right to Die may be the best buy for the average evangelical who wants to take the first dip into medical ethics.