Dignity and choice

March 6, 2012
Le bon Samaritain, by Aimé Morot.

I've picked up Nicholas Wolterstorff's new book, Justice in Love, and am reading it slowly, trying to savor each paragraph as he discusses the relationship—which sometime feels like a conflict—between justice and love.

Wolterstorff comments on and critiques Anders Nygren's classic Agape and Eros and Reinhold Niebuhr's An Interpre­tation of Christian Ethics, with its notion that Jesus' ethic is an "impossible possibility." According to Wolterstorff, the basic Christian ethical concept is that individuals have a right to justice because they are loved by God. He builds his case for a new "care-agapism" in which justice and love, instead of being in conflict, are in harmony with each other and part of one ethical/moral position.

Wolterstorff points to Jesus' parable of the Good Samari­tan, and the striking moral mandate that appears in all three synoptic Gospels: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." That, Jesus said, is the heart of the Torah. "That sums it up," says Wolterstorff.

But how do we move from the core ethical mandate to the excruciatingly complex issues we face in the modern world? How do we proceed from love for God and neighbor to the questions of accessibility to birth control and whether to terminate a pregnancy, to name two matters that are currently before us?

Wolterstorff furthers the discussion by citing Lenn E. Goodman's book Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself: "The love that the Torah commands means accepting the sanctity of each person's capacity to choose and to cherish."

That's really the issue in these two difficult questions, isn't it? Goodman elaborates: "Persons must be treated as persons. Love thy neighbor makes explicit the obligation that the life of another person sets before us: the measure of as thyself spotlights the existential equality of persons—lest we lose sight of the precious dignity of the other."

As the public conversation about contraceptives and abortion continues, someone, it seems to me, ought to be speaking to "the precious dignity of the other" and "the sanctity of each person's capacity to choose."

The basic principle of American life, Nicholas Kristof observed recently, is respect for religious beliefs and "accommodating them where we can." "We should make a good-faith effort to avoid offending Catholic bishops," says Kristof. "But . . . there are other interests at stake. If we have to choose between bishops' sensibilities and women's health, our national priority must be the female half of the population."

There is no absolute biblical mandate on these issues. Those who claim there is are wrong. The one absolute is the mandate to love God and neighbor. It seems to me that that mandate includes both respecting the sanctity of the neighbor and affirming the neighbor's "capacity to choose."


Concern for the other and choosing our spots...

Pastor Buchanan makes the important point that Christians should be advocates for 'the other'. This response is to raise a complementary issue: In which contexts? And I will use the same example: current debate over payment of contraception and 'morning after' pills. 

I understand that generic contraceptive tablets can be purchased for just over $100 per year. The abortive drugs that are under dispute are available for free or at nominal cost from Planned Parenthood, or can be purchased for around $40. For these costs I wonder whether we should think of this as a problem of 'access'. An illustration: I am fortunate to be in good health and use very little of the health care system in part because I exercise regularly. But to do so I spend more on running shoes than these costs related to birth control. I cannot imagine asking for insurance coverage for my shoes; it sounds ridiculous. However, since I run for my health, what is the moral distinction between access to shoes and birth control?

There are real access issues in our health care system; e.g., diabetes drugs, pre-natal care. Very few people would argue that these should not be available, only with the mechanism for providing them. And these should be our focus, morally and politically.

In all this is a lesson for government, as it is for almost all enterprises: Pick spots that matter and concentrate attention. Why design an all-encompassing system in which these sorts of issues, i.e., conflict between group and individual rights, become inevitable? How wise is it to raise such important issues in the context of a relatively minor matter? Part of the challenge of civil discourse, it seems to me, is to focus on that which is important and avoid challenging others with that which is not.


Letter from Paul O. Bischoff


John Buchanan’s use of the phrase “capacity to choose” (“Dignity and choice,” March 21) derives from a false premise--that God is conflicted between justice and love. 

His reference to “terminating a pregnancy” spiritualizes the reality of murder. Do inconvenient pregnancies just mystically happen to choiceless women? Only a woman’s second choice, to rid her body of such inconvenience, is what the author ad­dresses. The “sanctity of each person’s capacity to choose” apparently applies only to pregnant women, not to their babies, according to Buchanan. 

Does the life in a woman’s body possess the same right of “sanctity to choose”? The “precious dignity of the other” is not of­fered to the living fetus in her womb.

Buchanan’s entire argument worships at the altar of spiritualized political correctness devoid of the theological sanctity of life and replaced by sanctity of choice. Is not his embrace of a “capacity to choose” at least as absolute as “those who claim an absolute biblical mandate on these issues”?

Paul O. Bischoff

Wheaton, Ill.


Letter from David Brockhoff

What about the dignity of the unborn baby? Does this child not count since he or she has diminished capacity to choose? Actually, the unborn seem to choose life by design; it is the supposed “dignified and sanctified” who may terminate that life for matters ranging from saving the life of a mother to using abortion as another form of birth control.  

David Brockhoff 

Spring Hill, Fla. 

Dignity of the Unborn

Simply put, to give absolute dignity to the unborn is a religious choice, not something that can litterally be found mandated in scripture. To force your religious choice onto the rest of society through the power of the state is not an act of faith, but the desperate attempt to order the world to suit yourself.