Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

Senators Sarbanes and Snowe Betray the Moral Heritage of the Orthodox Christian Faith

Rev. Johannes L. Jacobse

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Recently the United States Senate voted to ban partial birth abortions. Senators Paul Sarbanes (D-MD.) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) voted against the ban. President Bush promised to sign the legislation (former President Clinton twice vetoed the measure) that would end this gruesome practice.

A vote against a ban is a vote for infanticide. Consider what the procedure entails.

During a partial birth abortion, a near term baby is delivered feet first until every part of the body except the head is exposed. With the head remaining in the birth canal, the doctor inserts a pair of scissors into the soft tissue at the base of the skull and carves out a small hole. A suction tube is inserted into the hole and the brains of the child are sucked out. The dead child is then pulled completely out of the mother.

The procedure constitutes a grave offense against the sacredness of life. There is no medical reason to kill a child that would emerge alive from the womb just a minute or two later. Senators Sarbanes and Snowe disagree—enough at least to allow this barbaric practice to continue.

These Greek Orthodox Senators, like their liberal Roman Catholic counterparts, defend their position by drawing a line between private morality and public policy. They believe that moral precepts drawn from Christianity should not shape their views on public policy.

Such a privatization of faith, writes Princeton scholar Robert P. George, "would have puzzled—even shocked—men such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt." If Lincoln privatized religious faith, he would not have freed the slaves. If Martin Luther King dis the same, blacks would still sit at separate lunch counters.

George writes that the privatizing of religious faith entered American political thinking during the Nixon-Kennedy campaign in 1960. Protestants were fearful that a Kennedy victory would mean that the Pope would have undue influence in American policy (the Pope had no such interest). Kennedy, seeking to quell Protestant fears, assured voters that his Catholic faith would have no bearing on his public decisions. Roman Catholic bishops, not wanting to spoil a possible Kennedy victory, remained silent. Kennedy won and the doctrine took hold. It has guided liberal legislators ever since.

It is true that the Church should not run the State, just as the State should not run the Church. Both must respect the legitimate authority of the other. However, there is a world of difference between recognizing these two arenas of authority and divorcing morality from public policy.

The support of partial birth abortion clarifies George's point. The defense of the procedure arises from the muddled reasoning that began with Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that nullified all state regulation of abortion. The Court ruled that abortion was legal because the unborn child is not "viable"—a term they defined as being able to live outside the womb independent of any aid.

"Viability" is a seriously flawed concept but it shaped abortion politics for the next three decades. No person is able to live outside of his natural environment. To require the unborn child to survive outside of the womb is no different than requiring an astronaut to survive in space without a space suit, or a diver to survive underwater without air.

Further, viability does not exist on the biological continuum. Premature babies that would have died a mere decade or so ago are kept alive today as medical technology moves the line of survivability ever closer to the time of conception. The justices erroneously concluded that viability was a fixed point on that continuum—a criticism Justice O'Conner made years later.

Viability removes the legal standing of the unborn. From there it's a short jump to argue that the unborn are not human beings all—hence the assertion that the unborn child is only "potential human life."

Viability rationalizes partial birth abortions in the same way. A child that is not fully delivered before its brains are extracted remains in the abortion rather than infanticide category so killing it remains legal. Further, categorizing the procedure as an abortion maintains the fiction that a child is not killed—at least in the mind of supporters.

Defenders of abortion realize that any restriction of the procedure will shift moral awareness against them. If it is wrong to kill a partially born infant, then why should it be right to kill an infant one minute before its birth? How about two minutes? How about five? What biologists knew all along is reaffirmed: human life develops along a continuum that starts at conception.

A shift in moral awareness would also require leaders like Senators Sarbanes and Snowe to reevaluate their uncritical support of abortion rights—something they clearly refuse to do.

By privatizing religious faith, Senators Sarbanes and Snowe assume a posture of moral neutrality but in fact betray the moral teachings of the Orthodox faith. They substitute a moral vision that informs and justifies a culture of death and become the advocates for it.

Copyright 2003 Johannes L. Jacobse. Rev. Jacobse is a priest in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Published in the "Hellenic Voice," November, 2003.

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