NECAC Debate: Harvard Medical School: “Abortion: What is the Physician’s Responsibility? February 13, 1986

John C. Rankin

In a prior post (click here), I give some delightful dynamics of a debate at Harvard Medical School in 1986. New England Christian Action Council (NECAC) board president, Andrew A. White, M.D., and I, had public conversation with a medical doctor and a Unitarian minister. There were some 80 medical students in attendance.

As I review my files of the NECAC from 1983-1991, I have come across my notes from the evening.

The medical doctor supporting legalized abortion was Dr. Marian C. Craighill. She spoke of being “pro-choice” and not “pro-abortion,” and within her own “faith tradition” she said “God is pro-choice.” However, she did not give any biblical basis for this view. A lead question she posed was: “Who will control the procreation process — men or women?” Thus setting up a conflict over a definition of power. For her, the “life of the woman is central,”  those of us who are pro-life argue that the “egg is superior,” the crime of wife-beating and rape needs address, and a woman is free “with her own body” to do as she pleases. Dr. Craighill also spoke of life in the womb as “potential life,” that woman should always seek to nurture, but the choice remains her own up to 24 weeks of pregnancy (my notes to not mention her position on the unborn past 24 weeks). Dr. Craighill also said she would not “impose her morality” on others, that there are no absolutes in the medical world, and that the “quality of life” is most important. In my notes, I wrote down, “sentimental morality.”

In my comments in response, I raised the theological question of creation, sin and redemption as definitive in defining a biblical pro-life ethic, a concern for “slippery slope” arguments that dehumanize, the deeper reality of the male chauvinistic realities that equal the true anti-woman posture, the non-scientific definition of “potential life,” and if it is is only “potential life,” that means it is also “potential non-life,” or potentially something else, and if so, how so? I said that the Bible does define when biological life begins, and noted the unintended consequences of an argument based on control of our own bodies in various other circumstances — not to mention the fact the the unborn child is not a part of the woman’s body, but rather, he or she is is a whole and separate body dependent on the mother’s womb and body. I also asked her, “Were you one a one-celled zygote” in your mother’s womb, in linking origin and destiny in a continuum of reality that cannot be arbitrarily dissected.

The Unitarian minister was the Rev. Elizabeth (Betty) Ellis-Hagler, and I do not have notes on her presentation, other than my comments in the post linked above. I also do not have notes for Dr. Andy White’s presentation. The notes for my presentation equal the following:

  1. Liberal arts inquiry.
  2. Definitions of conception & abortion.
  3. Question = Not when human life begins, but rather what value we place on human life in the womb.
  4. Thus, a religious issue: Quote (California Medicine article, Andy); quote H. Tristram Engelhardt; quote Torcaso (1961 [U.S. Supreme Court]); Seeger (1965).
  5. Christian definition of [creation], sin & redemption. In the face of hard cases …
  6. Christian ethics of conduct in the face of a pluralistic social order.
  7. Prof. Arthur J. Dyck [my adviser at Harvard, chairman of the ethics departments in three of the graduate schools, and co-editor of a large academic textbook on medical ethics]: Everybody does ethics; a) physician as servant, member of larger society. Must work with other disciplines; b) physician as healer, not breaker; Hippocratic Oath; c) practical counseling approaches w/patients’ ethics involved.

And in my conclusion: The God hypothesis: epistemological question of theology as the queen of the sciences.