We recently discussed how university presidents and deans have departed from long-standing tradition in remaining neutral on political and legal debates to maintain a welcoming and diverse environment for all faculty members and students. It is becoming more common (indeed expected) for presidents and deans to publicly endorse liberal ideological or legal positions. The latest example is Yale Divinity School (YDS) Dean Gregory Sterling, who issued a statement not only opposing the recent Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade but declaring there is no “biblical basis” for abortion bans.
Of all of the schools in a university, divinity schools are the most likely to have faculty and students who maintain pro-life viewpoints. One would think that a dean would be sensitive to that fact and seek to maintain a more neutral and ecumenical approach across different faiths and viewpoints.
Not Dean Sterling.
Sterling begins with the observation and question: “The decision culminates a decades-long effort by those who identify as pro-life. But is this decision pro-life or pro a particular ideology?”
He then categorically rejects the widespread view among pro-life advocates that abortion is a sin. While recognizing many in his community hold this view, he calls it “simplistic” and without “biblical basis”:
“The pro-life stance is often linked to Christianity and there are many people who are genuine in their faith who will support the Supreme Court’s decision, including members of the YDS community. It is, however, a more complex issue than some acknowledge. There is no biblical basis for the ban on abortion. The only text that deals directly with a fetus is Exodus 21:22–25, and it makes a distinction between the penalty levied on someone who causes a pregnant woman to miscarry versus an injury to the woman herself. The former results in a fine; the latter in the lex talionis (an eye for an eye etc.). In other words, it distinguishes between a fetus and a human being. Simplistic appeals to the biblical traditions are just that, simplistic. Christianity is supportive of human life, but we must work through our traditions with care. It is not at all clear that today’s decision reflects a text like Exodus 21:22–25.”
There could have been a myriad of ways to engage in this debate on the meaning of such passages. However, Sterling felt obligated to speak as the dean in declaring categorically that “There is no biblical basis for the ban on abortion.”
What is equally striking is that Sterling’s interpretation of Exodus 21:22-25 does not appear self-evident. That is not to say that he is wrong, but rather his categorical rejection as dean is questionable from both a decanal and divinity perspective.
Exodus 21:22 addresses the harming a pregnant woman:
“If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely, but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life.”
One can clearly read that language to see that, even in an accidental context, the killing of an unborn child was viewed as murder subject to the death penalty. If you cannot accidentally kill a life, even a fetal life, some believe that you certainly cannot do so intentionally.
Yet, one can argue that this passage deals with fatal accidents that injure a woman. It does not address a situation where the woman herself seeks the abortion.
Sterling also ignores other biblical passages that, while not referencing miscarriages directly, are commonly cited as authority for pro-life views. Indeed, the Catholic Church holds the opposing view. Other groups share in that biblical view, including the Southern Baptist Convention, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and the Assemblies of God.
Indeed, early Christian figures affirmed the view that abortion was a sin in their interpretation of this and other biblical passages. This was also evident in 1st and 2nd Century writings like the Didache (Teaching of the Twelve Apostles) and Letter of Barnabas. The latter states “Thou shalt not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shalt thou destroy it after it is born.” Influential writings by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas reinforced such views.
My interest is less the merits of the debate (which is a legitimate and important debate to have at divinity schools), but the role of a dean in declaring in his official capacity that one side is right or wrong. It is reminiscent of the recent inaccurate and strident position taken by the Hastings Law Dean on the Dobbs decision in his official capacity. As with a divinity school dean, a law dean should recognize that many of his alumni and students hold an opposing view. Even with the dwindling number of conservative or libertarian professors on our faculties, there should be some small modicum of recognition that other views are still present in the student body and society at large.
For religious people, let alone divinity scholars, there is a rising intolerance at universities. This includes a concern that religiosity itself is under attack as shown in the recent controversy over the selection of an atheist to serve as president of Harvard’s chaplains.
It is the obligation of deans like Sterling to maintain a diverse intellectual environment, including for pro-life scholars in a divinity school. This role is even more important given the growing orthodoxy at most schools where opposing views are actively silenced.
Even iconic liberals have been cancelled in seeking to express pro-life views. A good example of this intolerance was the treatment of my friend, the late and great Nat Hentoff. Considered the prototypical liberal intellectual, Nat also happened to be pro-life despite his atheist views. In a 1992 Washington Post column, Hentoff described how activists would prevent his even leading discussions of the issue.
Nat and I would often discuss what we saw as the rising intolerance on the left and the growth of an anti-free speech movement on our campuses. It has become worse than either of us imagined before his death.
There was a time when it would have been scandalous for a dean like Sterling to use his official position to make such a declaration. Today it is barely noted. Indeed, it is more likely to be cited as proof that pro-life arguments are not just legally but religiously invalid.
Once again, there were a host of ways that Sterling could have framed his message in a neutral and inclusive way. He could have also spoken expressly as an individual and not the Dean. That was clearly not his intention. He wanted to speak as Dean in opposition to the pro-life arguments after the Dobbs decision. He is certainly not alone in this departure from tradition, but it is particularly alarming to see from the head of a divinity school.