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Sunday, April 10, 2005

When Bad Theology Threatens Life

Sometimes we are at our most hurtful when we are trying to be merciful. It is perhaps one of the fundamental problems with human nature that we judge the world by our own experience. We forget, in our hubris, that even the wisest among us is only of very limited intelligence. We think we are doing right, but we are not. We think we are being merciful, but we are increasing pain and suffering, not lessening it.
Here is the story of the Ali family (free registration required for the full story). I encourage you to read all of it and seriously consider what it means to your view of how we should, as a community, defend life. If you do not find at least one point to challenge you; then you are simply being willfully blind to the paradox the family had to face.
I started out reading with an enormous amount of empathy for both parents. I cannot imagine what it would be like to be in that situation. While I will not question if their decision was correct for them, I will question the religious teachings that framed it for them. I will question a theology that forces a woman to deny reality and for a man to face the very real possibility of losing a wife he loves for the sake of a baby that can never live more than a few minutes. I will question a theology that requires a woman to bring forth a life that is doomed to die in a horrible fashion.
Evangelical theology continues to teach that life begins at conception, and must be defended from the time the sperm cell unites with the egg. This demands that abortion is not an option under any circumstances. Susan Ali’s circumstances were extreme by any measure. Her theology forced her to believe that subjecting her child to a slow death of suffocation under the weight of its own lungs was the will of a loving and merciful God. Her theology forced her to deny the medical reality until it was too late to take action. Her theology forced her to stand against the one person that loves her more deeply than any other in the world – her own husband.
I do believe that life – and especially human life – is a miracle. That we can explain how it happens makes it no less miraculous to me. I do believe that a human fetus is worthy of greater consideration than, say, a cat fetus. However, I can’t really see how the life of the baby was ever a real consideration. The consideration seems to have begun and ended with the evangelical ideology of abortion.
To me, if the life of the child were considered, then it would have been much more merciful to have aborted it early. Even relatively late, when it was discovered that the baby’s lungs were so full of liquid that breathing would be impossible, I believe it would have been more merciful to administer anesthesia and perform a C-section that resulted in the death of the fetus. Killing the fetus in-utero would have been much more merciful and exposed the child much less pain than giving birth to it, then going through the same stages.
It also brings up a point of hypocrisy. The right-to-life theology insists that there is no difference between a fetus at three months prior to birth and one three seconds after birth. If we know that a child will die within five minutes of birth, how can that reasonably be called sin to allow that death to occur before the baby’s pain centers are fully formed? If it is all right to administer medication to prevent a fully formed baby, only minutes from the womb, from feeling pain as it dies; how can it be sinful to administer medication that will end the growing life before it experiences that horrible crushing weight of its own body?
A second point of hypocrisy is that the doctors were allowed to administer this child medication to make its passing painless, but Terri Schiavo was denied the same mercy. If we agree that it is merciful to administer medication to prevent even a brain injured person from feeling a limited amount of discernable pain, then why is it not merciful to grant everyone in that situation the exact same consideration?
The real problem with this idea of “life-begins-at-conception” is that it denies reality. It gave Susan Ali hope beyond anything grounded in reality that her baby would somehow be normal. It put Susan Ali’s life, her marriage, and her future at risk for the sake of a child that never had a scrap of a chance to survive. It taught that her choice was in no way different than someone who was merely inconvenienced by their pregnancy. It taught that mercy was condemning an infant to a painful death that was totally unnecessary.

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