September 9, 2009

Torture, abortion, and partisan ethics

I believe that as followers of Jesus, Christians must hold to a consistent ethic of human life. Scripture teaches that all human beings have been created in God's image (Genesis 1:27) and therefore, every person, whether young or old, rich or poor, strong or weak, saint or sinner, bears the imprint of the Creator. Human rights and dignity, yours and mine, are ultimately derived from the One who loves us "with an everlasting love" (Jeremiah 31:3). Consequently, people are not cosmic accidents or disposable commodities to be bought and sold, used and discarded. If we indeed believe that life is immeasurably precious to the God who created it, we have a responsibility to be extremely careful in situations involving the choice to purposefully harm, wound or terminate another person's life.

Interestingly enough, the convoluted realm of American politics reveals a peculiar dynamic where opposing sides in the culture wars profoundly disagree on the question of which lives should be defended as sacred and which ones are more disposable. Conservatives are generally opposed to abortion, euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide and genetic engineering, but are more likely to support the use of preemptive military force, capital punishment and torture, including water-boarding (see diagram at right) and other "enhanced interrogation techniques." The liberal end of the spectrum often opposes capital punishment, war and torture, but is more likely to defend abortion, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide as matters of human rights. Is it just me or does anyone else find both sides to be inconsistent?

Two of the most contentions issues concerning the sanctity of human life in recent years have been abortion and torture. A Pew Research poll conducted earlier this year revealed that 62% of evangelical Protestants (my own faith tradition) believe "the use of torture against suspected terrorists to gain important information" is often or sometimes justified, whereas only 16% say it's never justified. It's especially disturbing that evangelicals are more likely to support torture than any other religious group in America including Catholics, mainline Protestants and those without any religious affiliation. The poll also found that those who attend religious services at least once a week are much more likely to support torture than those who seldom or never attend religious services. This is lamentable at best and shameful at worst.

When it comes to abortion, the statistics are flip-flopped. According to a separate Pew Research poll, evangelical Protestants remain the group most adamantly opposed to abortion, with well over 60% saying the procedure should be illegal in most or all cases. It's not difficult to find conservative religious organizations lobbying against abortion or liberal groups lobbying for the end of torture on religious grounds, but it's rare to find those who believe both practices are immoral. Opponents of abortion claim that it harms a sacred life and violates the dignity of another human being, a line of reasoning also used by those who oppose torture. Those who are "pro-life" seem the most likely to defend torture, but those against torture seem the most likely to defend abortion. How can this be?

The problem with our culture war categories of right vs. left is that everyone gets divided into two flawed packages of partisan platforms from which we assume the "other" side cannot possibly be correct about anything. We've confused Christian ethics with partisan ethics, deflecting every criticism along the lines of "Well, the other side clearly has it wrong on [fill in the blank: abortion/torture] so why should we listen to what they have to say about [torture/abortion]?" Have evangelicals considered the possibility that both torture and abortion are wrong on largely the same grounds, namely, the inherent dignity of human life created in God's image? Must we choose between the human rights of pre-born children and the sanctity of a prisoner's life? Aren't they both human? When the protection of a sacred human life conflicts with other important goals (national security or women's rights for example), do the ends justify the means?

Cue responses from conservatives defending torture and liberals defending abortion...


Ethan said...

Hi Dan,
Thanks for this post. One reason I've heard to support torture is that it has saved lives. So the logic goes that it's ok to torture a few humans in order to save many innocent human lives from death. I've even heard supporters use the example of atomic bomb on Japan: it killed many to save many more lives.

Would you say though that an important difference between torture and the use of the bomb is that refraining from using the bomb would more clearly have resulted in many deaths but that refraining from torture would not as clearly have resulted in many deaths? Or would you say that we shouldn't have even used the bomb on Japan because the "ends don't justify the means"?


The Common Loon said...

Thanks for stopping by Ethan.

In my view, World War II was a rare, if not the only, instance of a "just war" involving America in the last century. Dropping the 2 atomic bombs on Japanese civilians may have helped end the war sooner, but at that point, things would have been brutal and tragic either way. Just war vs. pacifism is more of an ethical grey area in my mind whereas the abuse of power at the expense of human rights and dignity is not.

Torture is different from combat because it involves prisoners, who are by definition in captivity. Since prisoners of war cannot defend themselves or fight back, they are left particularly vulnerable to the power and emotions of their captors. They must bear the traumatic effects of whatever is done to them, not unlike a pre-born child in the womb.

This is why international law contains numerous clear and unequivocal bans on torture as well as cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. I would put torture in the same category as rape, child abuse and human trafficking. It's never justified.