Abortion, argues Andrew Sullivan in his book The Conservative Soul, has been made the pre-eminent political issue not by rational citizens, but by fundamentalist Christians. Their position, he claims, flies in the face of reason, and seeks to undermine the principles of freedom upon which our society has been based. While conservatives maintain freedom of choice for the individual, the fundamentalist demands social adherence to a strict set of rules, which go above and beyond human judgement. And the abortion argument — that all people should have to ascribe to a zero-tolerance policy — is an affront to choice and part of a larger theoconservative project of restructuralization.
And yet, of all the issues Sullivan could have chosen to attack, the abortion issue is probably the least plausible. Others which he focuses on are much more feasible. Taste in music? A choice of individuals. Religious beliefs? A choice of individuals. Homosexuality? Also arguably a choice of individuals, although the “choice” argument is as often used against them as for them. But the one issue he seems most intent on confronting is the only one where a black and white overruling of individual choice seems to be logical. And in the same line of thinking, it is actually reasonable for abortion to be made into the most important issue in an election, as some Republicans have attempted to make it over the last decade.
Take Chris Selley’s position in a recent blog post at Macleans.ca:
I’ve long argued (not here, but elsewhere) that despite legitimate concerns over how Canada’s legal vacuum on abortion came about, ours is the single most logically coherent way for any nation to allow its citizens freedom of choice. A fetus is a fetus, and subject to the choices of its host, until it’s entirely outside the mother, at which point it’s a human being. The other pro-choice frameworks out there in the world aren’t without virtue, but they suffer from arbitrariness. In Sweden, for example, restrictions kick in at the 12th week, well before any definition of fetal viability. Why 12? Ten’s an even nicer round number, surely. And in systems that bestow protection on fetuses at or around the point of viability, such as in the UK, the arbitrariness is revealed whenever gaggles of politicians, very few of whom are OB/GYNs, start campaigning to lower it.
Canada doesn’t mess around with any of that. And as Cynthia Gorney pointed out in a brilliant piece in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, neither does Sarah Palin. Her views, says Gorney, represent “abortion opposition at its most coherent.”
If a fetus is genuinely a child from the instant of conception, then the law can’t permit killing it for any reason except the extraordinary circumstance of an emergency to save a woman’s life (and in some right-to-life circles there’s argument about that, too, or whether equal measures should be taken to save woman and unborn alike).
Selley misses the ball in a few ways. But his overall point is sound. If a position on abortion depends on the humanity of a fetus, it is logically a black and white issue. There is no grey if the core reasoning depends on a yes or no conclusion. For this reason, Sullivan and other realists like him are missing the mark when they say that yes, there is a logical middle ground that the extremes should be ascribing to.
However, the debate is clearly not quite as black and white as this. There are many factors which contribute to one’s thoughts on abortion. And I’d like to consider these, and through this dialogue justify what I think to be the right position on abortion. Consider it a response to my father’s post a couple days ago if you like, or a response to some of the comments on my own post slightly earlier. It’s an ongoing discussion, and I don’t hope to sway many people, but what I really aim for is to justify the theoconservative position on abortion, and hopefully show that we “fundamentalists” can think, too.
1. The Motivation:
I think the first and foremost distinction between hard-line Christians and other groups rests in the motivation for even considering the abortion debate. From a secular perspective, the goal of any discussion is generally either to enhance an individual’s life (often your own), or to achieve social justice. And these motives make sense, if the physical world is primary and the spiritual world is either nonexistent or secondary. It is this first strain of motivation which leads to arguments like the “safe, legal, and rare” one which is often put forth by pragmatists such as Clinton, Sullivan, Obama, and my father. The argument that follows is that if one is aiming to attain some sort of ideal society, or allow individuals the proper capacity for self-governance, then abortion is necessary, but not always ideal. By making abortion accessible and secure, but reducing social causes, one can hope to eliminate that outlying demand for abortion and allow only those who really need it to access it.
When it boils down to this, it is reasonable to get away from the pro-life/pro-choice dichotomy. Clearly taking extremes is generally a social bane, rather than a social boon. Taking a purely pro-life stance leads to women and children starving or imprisoned, while taking a purely pro-choice stance leads to rampant carelessness and a sense that children are a burden rather than a blessing, as well as potentially leading to infanticide and other undesirables. This is where Chris Selley misses out. He assumes that Bush and his ilk are genuinely basing their arguments on a religious conviction, or that restricted-choice defenders are basing their arguments entirely on free will. Rather, the motivation from these middle-ground perspectives is generally some equilibrium between social values and individual choice, which would hopefully lead to an ideal society.
A religious perspective, though, fits into Selley’s argument perfectly. From a right-wing Christian stance, the goal of everything is to glorify God. Whether this is reasonable or not is another debate, and though I defend it, I’m not going to get into it here. The point is, if one seeks to glorify God in every choice, whether individual, societal, or global, then suddenly the issue of defining humanity becomes huge. The concept of the Sanctity of Human Life is pivotal to fundamentalist doctrine, an rightfully so, since human beings are the clearest and most powerful focus through which others understand God. If a fetus is, indeed, human, then killing it is a violation of God’s image, and one of the most destructive acts imaginable. Because the motivation is completely different, the root question changes from “what benefits society?” to “what demonstrates God’s glory?”, and inevitably you end up with a black and white conclusion.
2. The Implications:
Since the answer is black and white when motivated by the spiritual, rather than the physical, the answer is going to result in a black and white conclusion. If the question that is necessary to understand the debate is whether a fetus is human or not, the answer automatically determines the required action. If a fetus is not human, then Selley is right: Canada’s position is the most logical. Since a human becomes human upon birth, then any moment prior to that birth becomes a reasonable time to end the fetus’ existence. On the other hand, if a fetus really is human, then it is never logical to terminate it by our own will. Does a rape change the fetus’ status as human or inhuman? Does the ability to support the child in the future change whether that life is genuine or not? Of course not! If one is motivated by social good, then it makes sense to leave room for individual discretion. But in the case that the determining factor is whether the fetus is human or not, there can be no middle ground. Society should either embrace abortion in any form, or reject it outright. It is not something to be left up to individual choice, because murder is murder, and not defensible regardless of whether you feel murder is right or wrong.
3. The Actions:
Assuming the pro-life position that fetuses are human, there is only one logical course of action: Eliminate abortion, above all else. Yes, reducing abortion would save lives. But if human life is to be protected, it is unreasonable to accept any level of defilement. Albert Mohler describes the fundamentalist position well:
But I just cannot get past one crucial, irreducible, and central issue — the moral status of those unborn lives. They are not mine to negotiate. If abortion were a matter of concern for anything less than this, I would gladly negotiate. But abortion is a matter of life and death, and how can we negotiate with death? What moral sense does it make to settle for death as “safe, legal, and rare?” How safe? How rare?
Our considerations of these questions will reveal what we really think of those millions of unborn lives. Do we consider the battle for their lives permanently lost?
Those fighting for the abolition of slavery pressed on against obstacles and set backs worse than these because, after all, these were human lives they were defending. What if they had listened to those who, after Dred Scott and the Missouri Compromise, said that the battle was “permanently” lost? What if they had been intimidated by critics accusing them of “single-issue” voting?
Single-issue voting makes sense if the problem is one of mass murder. Even if only one abortion takes place per year, that life is still valuable from a theological position! The goal has to be the elimination of murder, not the reduction of it.
However, where I disagree with Mohler and his ilk is in their purely law-based stance. The Republican position demands that a law be passed to end abortion. However, the overturning of Roe vs. Wade would not end abortion, unless another atrocity were to take place. Arguably, nation-wide capital punishment to those who have an abortion would stand a chance of ending abortion. But at what cost? Does getting an abortion nullify the value of a woman’s life, particularly if she felt forced to be in that situation to begin with?
No, lawmaking isn’t sufficient, unless one wants to be inconsistent regarding the sanctity of life.took Because that’s the other side of the coin that many theoconservatives ignore. The women, too, need protection, and that means in health, wealth, and emotional wellbeing. If a woman can’t remain physically able, cannot support herself and the child, or feels completely stranded emotionally, then pro-life supporters aren’t doing enough in the battle to protect God’s image.
It simply comes down to effectiveness, too. Lawmaking is often the least effective tool of the state. And fighting through the slew of opposition in a purely legal forum is often more difficult than it’s worth. The example of slavery that Mohler uses is a great example. William Wilberforce and his English contemporaries won the legal battle against slavery not by passing a law plain and simple, but by putting forth another law which would inevitably damage the slave trade, but subtly. The blunt, tactless position of Republicans is the least effective way to go, and someone with the creativity of Wilberforce would surely bring in a different tactic to eliminate abortion.
So, in my mind, the pragmatic position is this. The first step is to make abortion safe, legal, and rare. Confronting social problems and stigmas will help to attain this. But to end there would be tragic. Instead, the long-term goal has to be to advance beyond safe, legal, and rare, and make it completely unnecessary and undesirable. It is the only logical course of action, if you really believe that all human are equally valuable.
And therein lies my defense (and slight rebuttal) of the fundamentalist perspective on abortion.