Scientists assure us (though many among us disagree) that we’ve been on this earth in our “modern” physical form for more than 200,000 years. For most of that time, we’ve been working on self-improvement. From dwelling in caves, discovering fire, developing agriculture, and inventing the wheel, we’ve advanced to a point where we live luxuriously in fine towns and magnificent cities, transport ourselves to distant planets, and share in cyberspace every form of knowledge. We’ve named this kind of advancement “progress.”
Not content with merely guiding us to improve our physical world, our fertile minds spur us to continual progress in our interpersonal relationships. As we find better ways to coexist in kindness and harmony, we become more developed communities and nations. This kind of interpersonal development we call “civilization”—the practice of treating each other with civility. The pathway of the civilizing process has been anything but straight, but we haven’t ceased to pursue it.
What was involved in civilizing us? At first, against the many kinds of hurt that we can inflict on each other, humankind first developed taboos. Later, we enacted laws. Stealing, physically harming, and killing were behaviors that obviously ranked high on the “uncivilized” list. From the beginning, though, one form of killing was excepted from disapproval. It came to be called “human sacrifice.”
We made an exception of this custom in certain societies that perceived it as a means of ensuring communal well-being. For so long as we believed in multiple deities requiring tribute and appeasement, the idea of sacrificing innocent human lives persisted. After all, the gods should be well enough pleased with the offering of a fresh-faced child or a fair maiden that they’d grant abundant crops, avert the eruption of the local volcano, or permit victory in battle against a rival clan.
Abandonment of this dreadful superstition was gradual. In some parts of the world, human sacrifice ended during the late pre-Christian era. The cruel practice of infanticide in the ancient Roman empire ceased largely because of the influence of the growing Christian population. In a few more isolated locations, human sacrifice persisted until as late as the early 19th century. Finally, though, we became civilized enough to realize that deliberately ending an innocent human life wins for us nothing that is good and averts from us nothing that is bad. Our morals, our civility, and our thinking had all made progress.
If only we could have ended that last sentence by saying “…and we never looked back”! But we do look back—sometimes, unfortunately, to emulate what we’d do better to leave behind. Too many of us have so little appreciation for our civilization that we don’t even realize we’re comp licit in our own retardation, harking back to barbaric habits abandoned by our primitive ancestors many millennia ago. A perfect example of this kind of deliberate retardation is one of today’s most controversial issues: abortion. Here, many of us are quite content to adopt throwback attitudes. Innocent human life is back on the sacrificial altar, just as it was hundreds of thousands of years ago.
Even in ancient times, there were relatively advanced civilizations. We know their names, their beliefs, their thoughts, and their customs. Inspired, no doubt, by their celebrated philosophers, the ancient Greeks clearly recognized the value of unborn life, incorporating into the Hippocratic Oath a pledge never to interfere with a woman’s pregnancy. Instead of progressing from there, we now stride resolutely backwards by telling ourselves (or allowing others to tell us) that abortion—the deliberate killing of a child in the womb–must be performed to bring about any of the following results:
- Saving the child’s family from poverty.
- Preserving or restoring its mother’s health.
- Saving its mother from death.
- Averting the inconvenience to its parents of having to take care of it.
- Sparing it the suffering that might result from living with a disability or other defect.
- Granting its mother the right to “control her own body” by obliterating a helpless body that is not her own.
Innocent human life is back on the sacrificial altar, just as it was hundreds of thousands of years ago.
What’s more, nothing seems to deflect us from this flagrantly primitive thinking. We know, for example, that among the many reasons abortion is unnecessary as well as gravely wrong is that adoption is an option. There are many couples who are eager to adopt. We’ve probably all known at least one such pair personally. They pay large fees to adoption agencies, undertake expensive trips to faraway lands, place ads in publications or contact lawyers to obtain private adoptions. Within the limits of their capability, they spare no effort and no expense. Yet still, as we exercise our “freedom of choice” by choosing abortion, we persist in telling ourselves what amounts to this: we’d rather see a child murdered in utero than rescued and nurtured by loving adoptive parents. We’d rather pretend that it’s the killing of her child, not the ending of the pregnancy by delivery (with every effort made to save the child’s life) that saves a mother’s life—even though simple logic suffices to teach us otherwise.
If our current thinking about abortion represents progress, what would our world look like if we were to regress?
If acceptance of murdering the unborn represents civilization, what would it look like if we returned to our more primitive selves?
Most puzzling of all–why do we continue deceiving ourselves about these matters?
And most challenging of all: will you stand with genuine civilization or sink back into primitive ways?