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Civilization: Religion and reproduction

By LOU MARANO   |   Sept. 17, 2003 at 4:22 PM
WASHINGTON, Sept. 17 (UPI) -- The most fascinating aspect of a new PBS documentary on religion and reproduction is that the traditionalists embrace science in defining human life and the progressives repudiate it.

"In a Just World: Contraception & World Religion" debuted last week and is airing in many markets over the next year. The one-hour program is produced by the Duncan Group of Milwaukee in association with WTTW-TV in Chicago. Funding comes from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation of Los Altos, Ca.

Packard seems to be one of those huge foundations that, like Ford, uses money bequeathed by conservative entrepreneurs to fund left-liberal causes. David Packard (1912-1996), co-founder of the Hewlett-Packard Co., was known as "the father of Silicon Valley." He served as Deputy Secretary of Defense in the Nixon administration and as adviser to Presidents Reagan and G.H.W. Bush. The foundation is HP's largest shareholder.

In 1998 Packard Foundation trustees adopted the goal of slowing the rate of growth of the world's population and expanding reproductive health options among the world's poor. Of course, the exercise of those options, especially abortion, has a moral dimension. And most of the world's people look to religion for moral authority.

According to Philanthropy Magazine (March/April 2002), the Packard Foundation states that it does not fund organizations that promote religion. "But it apparently makes an exception for left-leaning groups like Catholics for a Free Choice, the California Council of Churches, and the Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics," all of which received grants in 2001, the magazine said.

Director Chip Duncan wrote the voice-over narration for "In a Just World."

"Some people see religion as organic," the announcer says. "Beliefs and ethics can evolve and change as the world changes. Many others believe in fundamentals, core values that should guide followers regardless of cultural, scientific, and technical influences."

Although ostensibly evenhanded, the narration is stacked in favor of the "organic" approach.

Remember when free-thinking progressives looked to science and hidebound believers relied on doctrine the avant-garde dismissed as human invention? That was the Modern Age. In this postmodern era, when everything is relative and truth is "socially constructed," the pattern is reversed.

"Even if I weren't a Christian, I'd be pro-life," says Richard Land in the film. "I'd believe in the personhood of the fetus based purely on the science. ... The more we understand about ... fetal research, the more science is on our side." Land is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The filmmakers interviewed religious commentators in pairs, one representing the "organic" and the other the traditionalist strains of the world's major faiths. Land speaks for traditional Protestantism. The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor-in-chief of First Things, speaks for orthodox Roman Catholicism.

The beginning of human life is not a moral or political question, Neuhaus said. "That's a scientific and medical question. And there's absolutely no dispute that at the point of fertilization, a human life has begun."

But Gloria Albrecht, a liberal Presbyterian minister, takes the opposite approach. Anyone who wants to pinpoint when life begins is on an unending continuum, she says. It's a moral and ethical choice. "Science doesn't answer those questions."

John M. Riddle, a professor at North Carolina State University, is an expert on the history of contraception and abortion in the West. "There is no instant that you can say the fetus is a fetus," he says. The inner mysteries of the womb are not discernable to medical science. "We shouldn't be making the question one of biology. We should be making the question one of theology, the one of reason, and that is ensoulment. ... Let's sweep away this nonsense of the 18th and 19th century, when we thought the scientists were telling us when a person became a person. Science does not tell us that."

Daniel Maguire is identified only as a professor of Moral Theology at Marquette University, a Jesuit school in Milwaukee, which would lead one to conclude that he represents a Roman Catholic point of view, however heterodox. This is disputed by a spokesman from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Maguire says: "The strongest tradition in all of Christianity is that the fetus does not have personal status." He added that for most of the history of the church, "there was the general feeling" that "you did not have a baby in there" until the mother could feel a quickening in her womb. In the case of a miscarriage, the fetus was not to be baptized, named, or get a Christian burial because it was not a human being, but rather human tissue. Maguire said St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.) believed that miscarried fetuses would not rise at the resurrection of the dead because they never became persons.

Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, disagreed strenuously with Maguire's characterizations.

"Maguire has his own ideology that biological membership in the human family doesn't matter," he told United Press International. "What you need is something more -- some honorific mental and physical abilities that make you a worthwhile person. And then he wants to extend that back into Christian history, which is absolutely wrong."

Doerflinger said Maguire "is fiercely opposed to Catholic teaching on abortion" and has provided guidance for Catholics for a Free Choice, which -- Doerflinger said -- "is not a Catholic group at all but was founded by various secular foundations to try to embarrass and neutralize the Catholic Church's position on abortion." Maguire also is president of the aforementioned Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics, which has benefited from Packard Foundation largess.

Why, then, does he retain a position in moral theology at a Catholic university?

"This is the magic of something called tenure," Doerflinger replied. "There are disagreements in the church among theologians, but I don't know any liberal theologians who would consider Dan Maguire a guide to legitimate Catholic options on this subject."

Doerflinger told UPI that nothing in the Christian tradition dismisses the unborn child at any stage as "human tissue" and that Maguire gets Augustine all wrong.

"There were debates about at what stage abortion is to be seen as having the full gravity of a homicide. ... And the reason for some ambiguities was simply the lack of biological knowledge at the time. ... We discovered in the 19th century that a new being arises from the meeting of sperm and egg. And when genetics came into play, we realized that the program of the new individual begins at conception.

"Through the early years of Christian history, the biology was fuzzy but the theology was very clear -- respect life at every stage. Now we have the opposite problem. The biology is clear. Take up any embryology textbook, and it will tell you a new human being begins at conception. And Dan Maguire wants to make the theology fuzzy.

Reached by phone in Milwaukee, Maguire said: "Both biology and theology stand against the ultra-conservative position espoused by Doerflinger. ... What biology shows is that you could not speak of a person. You notice he never uses the word person. He uses 'human' and 'being' -- ambiguous terms. Biology shows that not until the sixth or seventh month of pregnancy do you have the cerebrum and the synapses making sensation possible.

"Therefore, the ancient church fathers, who did not have up-to-date biology, ingeniously anticipated modern science. They understood there is a gradual movement toward the point where the human tissue reaches personal status. ... The main shapers of Roman Catholic tradition do not hold that the early fetus has personal status."

Astonishing images released in the past week captured by new high-tech ultrasound scanners show fetuses apparently smiling and crying in the womb.

Doerflinger said that although Augustine wasn't sure what to think about the early unborn child, he always knew that abortion was horribly wrong and said it many times.

"Because he didn't know much biology, Augustine was unsure about the status of the earliest stages of the human fetus," Doerflinger told UPI. "But then he would say, 'How can we deny that in the resurrection of the dead God will make up any deficiencies and raise even those earliest unborn children to eternal life?'"

Maguire responded that Augustine and everyone else depended greatly on the Greeks and therefore bought into a process of gradualism.

Maguire said that the catechism of the Council of Trent (1545-1563)taught that if Jesus was fully constituted at conception, then that was a miracle, because that was not the natural way.

Two-thirds of fertilized eggs are aborted spontaneously, Maguire said. "So if Mr. Doerflinger is right, then God is the supreme abortionist."

Doerflinger took issue with Maguire's assertion in the film that "patriarchal" religions have not been good to women in the context of reproduction.

"This is remarkable ignorance that he's showing in terms of what the original Christian position on abortion meant in the classical world," Doerflinger said. "In Greek or Roman times, the father -- the paterfamilias -- had the power of life and death over everyone else in the family. The people who were second-class were women and children, including unborn children. He (the father) decided on abortion; he decided on exposing children to infanticide.

"And when the church came along and said, 'No! Everyone is equal in the eyes of God,' this was simultaneously a blow in support of women and unborn children against domination and destruction by others. Feminism and the pro-life position went hand-in-hand."

Maguire wants to recast the struggle as that of a women against her unborn child, Doerflinger said.

"He's loading it with expressions of unborn children when the precise issue is when you can consider an embryo or fetus to have arrived at baby status," Maguire responded. "I agree with the tradition that it doesn't arrive until later. Science has now pinpointed it to six or seven months."

By all means watch "In a Just World" when it is broadcast in your area. But be aware of the axes that it grinds.

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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