Abortion, Wittgenstein, and the Web of Human Relationships

Sometime ago I had the realization that I was going to have to contend with Wittgenstein for my dissertation. This was good and bad. Good because he’s such a powerful figure in philosophy and I really ought to know something about him. Bad because he’s really hard to understand–at least for me.

One way to come at his basic idea, I think, is that meaning is not isolated from context, particularity the context of human relationships. It’s impossible to understand what any word means apart from how the word is used in langauge, and language is impossible apart from communicating with other people. Whereas some philosophers thought we would understand the the rational by disengaging and thinking (Descartes’ famous statement, “I think, therefore I am.”), Wittgenstein would argue that we understand the world by engaging with others. This, I believe, is both helpful and unhelpful for Christian theology. But I won’t go into that here.

Instead I want to look at an interesting take on the pro-life argument that I read in a book, Theology after Wittgenstein, by Fergus Kerr.

The case against abortion is usually tied to the personhood of the unborn baby. Because the unborn are people made in the image of God, it is wrong to take their life. Genesis 9 makes that clear. So far so good. The problem, Kerr explains, is that we grant personhood based the the development person. At so many weeks the unborn child is developed to such and such a stage. The child has his own heart, eyes, lungs etc. We’ve all seen the charts and pictures. We ought not to take the life of the child because of the child’s relitive independence. This also comes across in our use of the term sanctity of life. It basically  means life is special, so back off–don’t touch it. It’s is own person, and you have no right to interfere.

Don’t missunderstand, none of this is wrong per se. But, if we’re not careful, the argument could actually be reinforcing a value that was key to starting the whole aportion thing in the first palce: the value of indepencence. Independence is woven so deeply into the american clutre. It was, after all, the Declearation of Independence that got the nation going in the first place. But the stress on indepence is what got the abortion movement going in the first place: I want to do what I want with my body, and I don’t want the constratins of a faimly. It may come down to the child’s indepencnece vs. the parent’s independence.

A more biblical approach might be to see human life in the context in which God created it. How does human life fit in the totality of God’s plan.

If we look at the beginning of life from this perspective, we’ll  also stress the unborn child’s radical dependence. His heart may start beating at 22 days, but it would stop immediagely if he were disconnected from his mother. The child needs the mother at every point. Instead of stressing that life is sacred so back off. We should say life is sacred, so be involved. Do your part of the relatiosnhip. Take care of who you are suppose to take care of. I think this is deeply biblical.

We can apply this to ourselves. We, also, exist in web of human relationships. There are people on whom we depend: parents, friends, employs, teachers. There are people who depend on us: spouses, children, employees, students. We ought not to see ourselves as autonomous individuals, but how we relate to others, and chiefly, how we relate to God.


About mike

As a result of God's sovereign grace, Mike is--first and foremost--a Christian. He is the husband of a beautiful wife, father of five wonderful kids, and pastor of Greenbelt Baptist Church, in Maryland.
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