Thursday, October 8, 2009

Being or Nothingness?

Below: Martin Buber, theologian

Paul Keane
December, 1976

Religion 29a
Religious Ethics and Modern Moral Issues
Professor Gene Outka
Yale University

 NOTE: Since this paper was written in 1976 there have been the advent of AIDS and HIV; of in-vitro fertilization and other human fertility procedures; of multiple birth control pills including the morning after pill; the mapping of the genetic code ; yet disturbingly, the central ethical dilemma of this paper remains in 2009 :
How does a culture endure the guilt incurred by acquiescing in millions of acts it does not know are NOT homicide, for want of a culturally agreed upon definition of when human life begins.?


Speaking at a colloquium on the Judaism of Martin Buber held at Yale Divinity School in October, 1976, Rabbi Eugene Borowitz suggested that in our age "perhaps it is the theologian's task to show us how to live with partially adequate systems." That may be all well and good for a theologian, but as a seminarian, I still betray the impatience of my youthfulness, an impatience which yearns to make partially adequate systems more fully adequate.

This paper therefore will deal with the troubling aspects (for a democracy) of establishing a national policy on abortion without a consensus-definition of "the beginning of human life." It will suggest that the cultural apotheosis of coitus, not the absence of foolproof contraceptives, is the source of unwanted pregnancies; and it will offer a formula of massive social-tinkering as an alternative to the moral dilemma of sanctioning an act which we do not know is NOT homcide.

It will not, as Borowitz's Choosing a Sex Ethic does, exclude neurotic and immature persons from its scope.

This paper presupposes an acquaintance with the readings for Religion 29a (Religious Ethics and Modern Moral Issues), and will not indulge in excruciating explanatory details or elaborate footnotes.


For me, Paul Ramsey's euthanasia argument regarding a person's unique process of dying, if inverted, becomes a satisfactory way of dismissing abortion advocates. Thus,the very respect (as Christians) that should prevent us from
"wrestling with the Almighty, with no holds barred, for the [wanted or unwanted] dying man" 1
should also prevent us from wrestling with the Almighty, with no holds barred, for the [unwanted] generating man.

To suggest that a man's unique process of coming to death (degeneration) is any more sacred than his unique process of coming to life (generation) is illogical.

If you accept the tabula rasa theory of human existence, the act of sacralizing the process of degeneration but not the process of generation, places value in the consciousness' history-of-sensations (the "marks" on the tabula rasa) not in the process itself. It is Hitler's BEING or Charles Manson's BEING that is sacred to religious thinkers, not their "personality".



Thus a religious thinker sacralizes not merely consiousness and the personality but the miracle of creation itself: coming-to-Being / Being / coming to non-Being.

In the case of a threat to the pregnant woman's physical health, the rule of double effect comes into play. The physician's intention must be to interrupt the process of generation, not to terminate it. If that surgical interruption results in the inability of the woman to resume sponsorship of the generative process, that problem must emerge as a by-product of the surgery, not as its intent.

For those who would claim the right of abortion for reasons of emotional health, I would cite Dr. James H. Ford's admonition in "Mass-Produced, Assembly-Line Abortion":
"Child-bearing is a basic biologic and psychological function of a woman: and . . .if this function is interfered with too much, the climax of the emotional repercussions is often not reached until the menopause, when she realizes that she can no longer reproduce her own kind." 2

Thus, there is no way of assessing whether avoidance of immediate emotional stress is more urgent than avoidance of the emotional backlash which may be felt at the menopause. This relates to Mr. Outka's concern regarding the malleability of the human personality. Qualitatively therefore it falls outside the sacred tripartite process (of Being) I argue takes precedence over all others.

Of course, acceptance of this inverted-Ramsean argument presupposes a belief in Ramsey's Almighty. This, admittedly, may not be a belief cherished by a majority of Americans. Since we live in a democracy, perhaps norms other than religious ought to be the central focus of our discussion here.

In a democracy, the constituents hold --- or try to hold --- their government accountable to their collective morality. The tedious, expensive and agonizingly slow Watergate investigation is an instructive recent lesson in that process. Yet it is not a national consensus in the form of a referendum or piece of legislation which has made it the law of our land that no state can deny an abortion to a woman who demands it. It is rather a Supreme Court ruling (Roe v. Wade, Texas, 1973) which has overridden state laws outlawing abortion, and it has done so primarily as a matter of upholding a woman's right to privacy. The only way, provided by our Constitution, for the voting population to pass judgment on this ruling by the Supreme Court is through the interminable procedure of amending the Constitution. Such a procedure could conceivably take twenty years.
Let us extrapolate from the recent abortion statistics. statistics which might be accumulating during that twenty years.

A Zero Population Growth pamphlet projects the following 1974 statistics from the data collected in 1973. During 1974, 900,000 abortions will have been performed in the U.S. or 210 abortions per 1000 live births. The average age of women involved (1973) is 22.7 years. Of these 72% are unmarried, 68% white, 26% black, 6% other. First tri-mester abortions account for 89% of the total; second tri-mester 9%; third tri-mester 2%.
Z.P.G.'s "The Right to Choose: Facts on Abortion" goes on to assert
"Since contraceptive education and services are not available to all American women, and since we have not yet developed a contraceptive which is safe, convenient, inexpensive and 100% effective, a significant portion of pregnancies each year are unintended and unwanted."
[ Note: In 2012, over 54 million legal abortions have taken place since 1973 and Roe v. Wade.]

Failure in Sex Education

I agree that a failure in education is responsible for these annual unwanted pregnancies, but that education is not contraceptive education: It is sex education.

Specifically, we have failed to sanction and celebrate non-coital forms of sexual gratification, while almost irrationally assigning to coitus, status as the ultimate sexual act. For some reason, a residual Victorianism still pervades our culture's attitudes toward non-coital sex.

Coitus, it is popularly believed, is "natural" since it is the only method [1976] by which the species can fulfill the Divine command to propagate itself. All other sexual acts (both heterosexual and homosexual) are therefore tainted, in the popular imagination as "unnatural".

Despite the Playboy Philosophy's admittedly sexist, mercantile attack on residual Victorianism, my experience and the impressions I have gathered (unscientifically) from hundreds of "raps" with young persons around the country, suggest that Victorianism is still very much a reality in young people's attitudes towards sex: There may be more sexual gymnastics going on in beds (and campers) of young people across the country than occurred in previous generations, but those gymnastics occur with self-consciousness and with a quality of prurience and adolescent rebellion (non-coital sex is "naughty"), not as joyful, shared pleasure.

In other words, non-coital sex among the young ( and recall that 22.7 was the average age of women seeking abortions in 1973) is something risque done for fun, not something done to please one's self and one's partner. It is even done begrudgingly by others as a kind of insurance policy against what Borowitz calls sexual frustrations, "the pervading curse of our civilization." 4 There is also the belief that it is unfair, since one partner does more work and receives less pleasure in most non-coital sexual acts.

If non-coital sex carries this cultural baggage with it, coital sex jets along baggage-free.
In fact, the word "sex" in popular usage is short for "sexual intercourse," an odd situation in which the specific subsumes the generic.

In our society-at-large coitus is in effect the sine qua non of sexual experiences. A person is seen as having a "sex life" and apparently this "life" is somehow separate from or different than his[/her] actual existence. (This dis-integration of life into "sex life," "business life," "private life," etc. is prophetically embodied in the fractured faces in Picasso's paintings.) It is most frequently talked about in quantitative terms: Number of organsms during a given time span; attainment of simultaneous orgasm, etc.
In other words, the product, not the process, has become the focus for Americans; mercantilism has invaded even the privacy of the bedroom in the culture which reads its pulse in terms of the gross national product (rapidly becoming the national gross product). Thus, you are not fully a person in our culture unless 1) You have a sex life; and 2) You continually evaluate its performance.

Depending on your own need to give that performance meaning, that evaluation can be in terms of A) The religious duty of Barth; B) The sacramental romanticism of Lillar ; C) The cathartic, compensatory escapism of Borowitz 5; or D) Some other personal value.


This perception of sex as status is a relatively new but burgeoning phenomenon in our culture, recently [1976] satirized in the movie Shampoo. Previously, kissing, petting and "making out" were the objects of status trips. Combined with the enormous pressure our culture places on its members to "achieve," it is a perception which can cripple its most vulnerable members: the young.
Borowitz prefers to exclude neurotics and immature persons from discussion because "their acts do not stem from a real choice" 6 I contend that the pressures and traditions laid on immature and neurotic persons in our society almost compel them to engage in reckless, casual coitus; and, those pressures make it very difficult indeed for even mature and normal-neurotic people not to do so also.

Thus the "choice" Borowitz speaks of is the luxury of an enlightened few in our highly status-oriented society. And I contend it is the status-seeking masses, not the enlightened few, who produce the demand for 900,000 abortions each year.

To return to the matter of democracy and abortion: since there isn't a consensus-definition of "the beginning of human life" how do we know that what we have sanctioned is NOT the annual extermination of 900,000 lives?
The Genetic, Developmental and Social Consequences arguments regarding abortion advanced in Callahan make it clear that we simply do not know when human life begins. The moral question which troubles me is: How would we, a democracy whose remorse has made the words "Hiroshima" and "Viet Nam" tantamount to cultural taboos, recover twenty years ( and 20 million abortions) hence, if medical science produced headlines like these: "Scientists Crack DNA Code, Proving Human Life Begins at Conception" or "Duke University Psychic Researchers Prove Human Souls Incarnate at the Moment of Conception"?
Stranger things have happened in the last twenty years: Men HAVE walked on the moon.

Thus, while we wait ten or twenty years for the machinery of politics to crank out an Amendment to the Constitution on the abortion issue, millions of abortions will occur, acts which we do not know for sure are NOT homicides. The potential for cultural guilt and sin which such a situation portends ought to be unacceptable to a religious thinker living in a democracy. [Note: 33 years have elapsed at this transcription, 2009]

Why can't a more adequate social system be devised to avoid such moral problems?

Allow me to beg a few other questions before addressing this one. Since 72% of the abortions granted in 1973 were performed on unmarried women, it is not illogical to suppose that those women engaged in coitus outside of wedlock. Now, why would persons engage in coitus outside of wedlock? After all, there are several very satisfying and exciting sexual alternatives to coitus which do not run the risk of resulting in the generating of human life.

The Apotheosis of Coitus

I have heard the argument that coitus is the only sexual act that allows total merging of the partners, i.e. coitus provides maximum contact of erogenous zones (ventral to ventral--missionary ---position) while simultaneously allowing maximum psychological contact, since in no other sexual position can both partners look into each other's eyes at the moment of orgasm.

Apart from the fact that this sounds like an epicurean shibboleth for a club of sexual connoisseurs, it has very little to do with why most people actually engage in sexual activity MOST of the time: for fun; for cathartic escapism; and, for relaxation within a context of sharing.
Since non-coital sex acts offer the same possibilities, why don't people substitute them for coitus, thereby eliminating the risk of incurring unwanted pregnancy?
At the risk of being repetitive, the answer is simple: Non-coital sex is perceived as "unnatural" and can't be flaunted in the status-trips of social conversation the way coital sex can. It doesn't make good shop or locker-room talk, nor can it be giddily or obliquely alluded to in cocktail party chat without some element of embarrassment. Coitus, however, is a different story.
How then is a religious thinker living in a democracy obligated to react to the legal sanctioning of millions of acts which could be homicides, but are not known to be for want of a consensus definition of "the beginning of human life?"

With outrage.

There is a qualitative difference between asking a nation's citizens to accept without referendum or legislative procedure the shuttling of Black students to white schools and asking it to accept the termination of 900,000 pregancies each year.
Either the abortion issue should be put to an annual national referendum (with a week of national TV and radio debates on the issue) until the definition of "the beginning of human life" is found, or a social system should be devised to remove the problem.

Borowitz' insightful assertion regarding sexual intercourse is pertinent to the construction of such a social system: "Sexual intercourse is an act capable of producing human life. This fact sets it apart and endows it with a significance possessed by no other human act" 7
Indeed that fact does set it apart, and society ought to do just the same thing: Set it apart.
Surely a society which has been so successful in relegating homosexuality to taboo status could consciously attempt to set the act of coitus "apart" by:

Making taboo the act of coitus without mutual intent to produce another life.

Approving, sanctioning and celebrating all pleasure-producing non-coital sexual acts.

[Note: It is interesting that society actually tried to promote II of this proposal in response to the advent of AIDS in 1982+. Self-sex as the only truly 'safe-sex' became a de facto reality. However as late as 1994, the U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders was fired by President Clinton the week after her candor at the U.N. World AIDS Day Conference: The first question that happened to be asked of Joycelyn Elders at this United Nations World AIDS Day Conference: "...if masturbation might be taught as a way to prevent AIDS?" Joycelyn Elders replied: "masturbation is something that is a part of human sexuality, and is a part of something that perhaps should be taught."
You're history, Joycelyn! ]

For those who violate this taboo (I, above) and demonstrate that violation by requesting an abortion, society must act with outrage:

How dare you put us in the position of having to commit an act which we do not know is NOT homicide?
That outrage should manifest itself in enforceable sanctions. For the first offender the following options should be offered:

A. Bring the pregnancy to term and give the child up for adoption.

B. Grant the abortion but require the appliocant to sign a statement acknowledging that the granting of a second abortion will occasion the penalty of mandatory sterilization. (Of both parents if genetic verification of fatherhood can be scientifically determined.)

This is not a Swiftian modest proposal. I genuinely believe that institution of such procedures would drastically reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies over a ten-year period. Much of the moral wasteland of our post-Roe v.Wade national abortion policy would be injected into the social matrix. As we all know from Marshall McLuhan, America today has the technology to put a transistor radio in the hands of every citizen in our society. In the face of that fact it is a sham to claim that lack of education contributes to the large number of unwanted pregnancies each year.

Residual Victorianism

It is residual Victorianism, alive and thriving in our society , which keeps us from disseminating information openly (e.g. through radio debates , etc.) about the pleasures and dangers of sexual acts.

Instead we pass on from generation to generation the torch of customs and rituals evolved in Biblical times to keep tribal populations large in number and healthy in physical body. (Rigid, lifelong monogamy had the triple virtue in a pre-medical age of tending to produce babies while discouraging incest and the spread of social disease[except for Solomon who had 800 wives and 300 concubines].)

Medical technology and overpopulation have made such customs (rigid lifelong monogamy) and taboos (homosexuality) obsolete.
Lest Ramsey's Almighty also become obsolete, perhaps theologians ought to advocate massive social tinkering to make partially adequate systems more fully adequate.
Of course the trouble is that social tinkering at a governmental level is perceived by some as unethical since it constrains freedom and invades privacy. (Intimations of 1984)

It is argues that the bumbling dialectical process of "the open marketplace of ideas" is always preferable to mind molding. Perhaps it would be preferable, if the scales weren't so heavily tipped in favor of those forces which have money and power in our secular society.

It is those forces which choreograph the status trips we as citizens take in our attempt to find ourselves.

Capitulation by the religious community to these powerful forces keeps us from resolving the secular thesis into a synthesis.

The silent religious antithesis is badly needed to proceed with the dialectic, a dialectic which might enable us to learn "how to live with" this "partially adequate" system or even make it a more fully adequate one.

In its absence we sit, paralyzed, in the wasteland of ethical stalemate.



1 Ramsey, Paul. The Patient as Person, p.131

2 Ford, James H. "Mass produced, Assembly-Line Abortion, (California Medicine: The Western Journal of Medicine 117/5, November, 1972), p. 83

3"The Right to Choose: Facts on Abortion. (Zero Population Growth, 1973), p.2

4 Borowitz, Eugene. Choosing A Sex Ethic: A Jewish Inquiry, p.14

5 Ibid., p. 5

6/7 Ibid., pp. 8-9