Bruegel’s Tower of Babel

Adapted from Tower of Babel, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Public Domain. source:, 12-16-12.

Genesis 1–11 presents a bleak picture of humanity. The rebellion in the garden and the pervasive wickedness precipitating Noah’s flood are the most famous stories, but Cain’s murder of Abel and the Tower of Babel are damning as well. The overall portrait is of a fallen race, in need of salvation.

I want to focus in on the Tower of Babel story, which I think has something important to say, in this case about our societal practice of abortion.

Challenging deeply-held values

First, consider two values that our society holds dear:

  1. Self-Determination: As Americans, we want to decide what to do with our own lives. In brief, we demand our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

  2. Never-Ending Progress: President Obama’s slogan “Yes We Can” reflects the basic idea here, but both of our political parties bow down at this same altar. Politicians get elected by promising that we’ll overcome every obstacle if we work together, and we demand that they deliver on the promise.

Now consider what Genesis 11:1-9 (NRSV) says about human achievement in the Tower of Babel story:

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words….Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

Our society loves the sentiment marked in bold: we prize the idea of putting our minds together to accomplish great things. God, however, states it as a problem, and he promptly puts a stop to this kind of human cooperation. The Tower of Babel story takes a line we put on our coffee mugs for motivation, and it draws the exact opposite moral from it than we draw.

A proposed solution to a perceived problem

Abortion is a widespread practice that humanity has devised in order to eliminate unwanted pregnancies. It’s intended as a solution to a problem, and the availability of safe (for the mother) abortions is an enormous technological achievement.

Why are pregnancies unwanted? There can be a million different reasons in this world, ranging from the threat of starvation, to avoiding having to raise a potentially disabled child, to preferring not to have another child, to wanting to avoid the scandal of an illicit pregnancy. I don’t have the expertise to address how often any given motive is in play, so I won’t get into that here.

Whatever the specific motives for individual abortions, pro-choice advocates often place heavy weight on the broad motive of preserving self-determination. As a new parent, I can attest that there is one thing that having a baby often hinders you from doing: whatever you want. A baby throws a wet blanket on self-determination, which is why abortion is such a compelling option for so many people.

Once birth control fails, there are really only two lines of defense against losing some of one’s self-determination. The first is giving the baby up for adoption, which most respectable people would be too ashamed to do. The other line of defense is abortion.

As a man, I have to admit that much more than half of the burden of having a new baby falls on my wife. This is of course why feminists are among the strongest advocates for access to legal abortion. And I don’t want to downplay the loss a woman can experience in having a child. (I think Christians should challenge how far self-determination should reach, but I’ll set that aside for now.) A mother cannot do everything she could do if she remained childless. Her life may change profoundly, and not always for the better.

When a good solution isn’t possible

This is where the second American value, the commitment to never-ending progress, comes into play. What happens when the only consistently reliable way to achieve self-determination for women is to practice abortion?

If our fundamental conviction is that progress must never stop, and that progress must include self-determination for women, we really have only one viable conclusion: that abortion must be okay. We may talk about it being “regrettable” or “a difficult choice,” but if it is the only thing that allows for women’s self-determination, then it must be, on the balance, an acceptable practice.

I admit I’m not doing justice to the range of pro-choice arguments. But we must not miss the weight of this reality: for many people in our society, the possibility that abortion is the destruction of a human life would undermine their entire view of how the world should work. It would force them to admit either that self-determination should not be such an absolute goal, or else that this particular line of human progress must screech to a halt. What chance does a tiny human life, hidden and secret in its mother’s womb, stand again such lofty ideals?

The cost of “Yes We Can”

In drawing from the Tower of Babel, I don’t want to blindly attack Progress. Many smart people have worked very hard to create infrastructure and technologies that make our lives immeasurably better.

But when Progress gets turned into a god, often someone is sacrificed on its altar. We can (in a sense) solve the problem of unwanted pregnancies, but only at the cost of 1.3 million lives a year in the USA––fetuses who would grow into people, provided their parents did not intentionally end their lives.

I once heard a commentator remark that the progressive movement in this country had always moved toward protecting civil rights of broader and broader groups until it came to the question of abortion––where it stopped. And maybe there’s a simple reason why: unwanted pregnancies are the place where we find out that our noble goals aren’t possible after all. We can’t give women self-determination and also protect the unborn. The march of real progress cannot continue: someone has to win, and someone has to lose.

The case for why unborn children must be protected is a question for a different post. But to honestly address the issue of abortion, first we have to admit to ourselves a fact that our culture often does not want to consider: that the only solution to a given problem might itself be deeply immoral. It is here that the story of the Tower of Babel must confront us: we have put our minds together to accomplish something, but the result of our “achievement” in this case is not to our glory, but to our shame.