Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Is an abortion debate possible?

Abortion is one of the issues that I have generally avoided blogging about. The reason for this is, as the Opinionated Vicar, David Keen, puts it, that “the heat/light generation ratio is so dire”. The extreme bigotry of both “sides” in the abortion “debate” make it almost impossible to discuss.

And so a hat-tip to the same Opinionated Vicar for pointing me to Mehdi Hasan: Being Pro-Life Doesn’t Make Me Any Less Of A Lefty

What I would like is for my fellow lefties and liberals to try to understand and respect the views of those of us who are pro-life, rather than demonise us as right-wing reactionaries or medieval misogynists.

One of the biggest problems with the abortion debate is that it’s asymmetric: the two sides are talking at cross-purposes. The pro-lifers speak about the right to life of the unborn baby; the pro-choicers speak about a woman’s right to choose. The moral arguments, as the Scottish philosopher Alasdair Macintyre has said, are “incommensurable”.

Another problem is that the debate forces people to choose sides: right against left, religious against secular. Some of us, however, refuse to be sliced and diced in such a simplistic and divisive manner. I consider abortion to be wrong because of, not in spite of, my progressive principles. That I am pro-life does not make me any less of a lefty.

And that made me recall how gobsmacked I was when I first saw pro-abortion views described as “liberal”. That was back in 1966, when I had recently arrived in Britain as a card-carrying Liberal, having just escaped being banned by the South African government by the skin of my teeth (I have a copy of the banning order was signed, but not delivered, because I had skipped the country and sought asylum in the UK). Back then terms like “pro-life” and “pro-choice” had not been invented, or if they had, I had never heard of them. My first reaction, at the age of 24, on hearing a pro-abortion policy being described as “liberal”, was as follows (from my diary from 4th February 1966; I had been in the UK for about 2 weeks had was staying with an Anglican priest, Canon Eric James, near Herne Hill in south London):

I woke up relatively early, and while eating breakfast discussed with Eric an article in yesterday’s “Sun” on the subject of abortion. The thing that struck me was that they spoke of the “liberal and enlightened practice of legal abortion” and “a human approach unaffected by moral attitudes” which sounded completely nonsensical.

As they put it the whole thing sounded to me like fascist piggery based fundamentally on the idea that if the existence of another person causes me inconvenience or discomfort then I am morally justified in trying to get rid of the other person. And here the fact that many of the people involved (in abortion) were married women who already had children would seem to indicate a certain amount of selfishness. And once having established the practice that it is all right to get rid of inconvenient individuals in some circumctances, then the way is open for doing it on others. If unwanted babies are to be disposed of in this manner, then why not euthanasia, which could rid society of the mental defective and the physically deformed, and possibly the old people who can no longer look after themselves and so become a burden on society.

The practice might be extended to social misfits as well — those who, while having no obvious physical or mental defects, nevertheless fail to adjust themselves to society. Political deviates would be the next on the list. Why, we’ll be back to the good old days when Jews were liquidated in the gas chambers.

Of course the good doctor in Aberdeen might say that in a liberal and enlightened country things couldn’t escalate like that — but do we live in a liberal and enlightened society? And of
course a humane approach must not be affected by moral attitudes.

How lovely for Mr Vorster, I am sure. We can embark at once on a humane and enlightened programme for all Bantu women who become pregnant. Humane, because most of them have starving children already, and another mouth to feed when there is not enough food as it is could cause them worry, and damage their mental and physical health and well-being. And the world will have cause to be grateful, because we are solving the problem of overpopulation by a liberal and enlightend practice of genocide. The foregoing, of
course, is an extensive exaggeration of what the article actually said. But such escalation would really be perilously easy. Perhaps there is something in human rights after all; if it were enshrined in law — the illiberal, unenlightened and inhumane idea that every human being from the moment of conception, had “an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.

Some time later it occurred to me that they might be using “liberal” in the sense of “permissive”. Liberalising the abortion laws would make it easier for people to have abortions, just as liberalising the gun laws might make it easier for people to own and carry guns. So one might advocate “liberal” abortion laws or “liberal” gun laws, but advocating or opposing such laws might not be a reliable indication of whether or not one was liberal.

After that, however, the “debate” hotted up, and the heat/light generation ratio got worse. There was so much bigotry on both sides that it became almost impossible to discuss it. Here’s one example of “pro-choice” bigotry A General Query | Clarissa’s Blog

Dear woman-hating anti-choicers, please go away to those badly written websites with horrible spelling and ridiculously stupid arguments where creatures of your ilk graze, OK? This is a blog for people who have a fully developed adult brain. You are not going to like it here anyways.

Strangely enough, I haven’t taken the advice to go away, and actually do quite like it there, because not all the posts are as bad as that one.

And then from the other side of the argument, there is this, equally bigoted: EXPOSING LIBERALS: Libs claim Abortion isn’t Murder | Rise Up America Party

Liberals are on a never ending futile mission to justify the senseless slaughter of innocent children. They claim that Abortion just kills a clump of cells, not an actual human life. Yet pictures like these tell a very different. Liberals want to rationalize what can and will not ever be rationalized: that killing babies is not Murder.

Liberals: Responsible for the biggest holocaust of our modern times since Roe Vs Wade.

So having learnt from opposite extremes on the spectrum that I am a woman-hater who lacks an adult brain and that I am responsible for the biggest holocaust of modern times, what can I say?

As Mehdi Hasan put it in the piece quoted above, the two sides were simply talking past each other. ‘The pro-lifers speak about the right to life of the unborn baby; the pro-choicers speak about a woman’s right to choose. The moral arguments, as the Scottish philosopher Alasdair Macintyre has said, are “incommensurable”.’

They are not talking about apples and oranges, which at least are both edible fruit; they are talking about chalk and cheese.

As the sociologists Peter and Brigitte Berger put it:

The issue of abortion has galvanized more passion, on both sides, than any other issue in the area under consideration here. This should not be surprising, in view of what is at stake here. For the one side, what is at stake is the fundamental right of a woman to have control over her own body and her own life. On the other side, what is at stake is the very purpose of society in protecting the life of even its weakest member. Clearly, there is an enormous cognitive gulf between the two sides, in terms of the understanding of the nature of the human person: Is the fetus a person, yes or no?

This is a cognitive issue, logically prior to any discussion of norms, for the norms of each side, one may assume, would be readily acceptable to the other side, provided the cognitive issue were resolved: The most ardent pro-abortionist does not recommend infanticide in the exercise of a woman’s right to control her own life, which presupposes that an infant has a different status from a fetus; and the most fervent anti-abortionists do not dispute a woman’s rights over her own body, but what they do dispute is that a fetus is simply part of a woman’s body.

The language used in this debate over abortion has systematically obfuscated this fundamental cognitive divide. This is already apparent in the appellations used by each side to describe its own position: “Pro-choice” versus “pro-life.” Pro-abortionists demand a woman’s right to choose for herself – which only begs the question as to whether, in the case of an abortion, she is choosing only for herself and not also for another human being. Anti-abortionists claim to be defending human life – which presupposes agreement as to when the life of a human individual begins. Both appellations, of course, have powerful emotional connotations. “Choice” is one of the key concepts of modernity, as we have argued elsewhere. Being modern entails a vast expansion in choices and thus in the control of human beings over their own lives. Conversely, to be “anti-choice” suggests a deeply reactionary and obscurantist attitude – a suggestion used to the hilt in pro-abortion propaganda. And “life,” after all, is one of the most potent words in the language. One can hardly say anything worse of political antagonists than that they are “anti-life.” As part of the language battle in this area, it is noteworthy how carefully words are chosen by each side. Pro-abortionists will always use language that avoids suggesting a human status for the fetus; anti-abortionists will regularly say “child” instead of “fetus.” Anti-abortionists, by the logic of their own position, must, then, speak of “murder” to refer to abortion and, in view of the number of abortions now taking place in the United States (more than one million annually), of “genocide.” Little room for compromise would seem possible under these circumstances, and the debates over other family issues seem mild by comparison.

Unlike Mehdi Hasan, I don’t see the question as divorced from religion. Back in 1966, when I wrote the piece quoted above, I was anti-abortion for precisely the same reason I was anti-apartheid. And the argument of the pro-abortion lobby about a women having the right to control her own body sounded very similar to the apartheid-government’s stock response to any criticism of its policies from abroad, “We will not tolerate any outside interference in our domestic affairs.”

I was a Liberal, and joined the Liberal Party because I was a Christian. And the Liberal Party, it seemed to me, advocated political policies that were most in accord with Christian anthropology. That is not to say that the Liberal Party was a Christian party. Many of its members were Christian, but many were Hindus, Jews, Muslims, atheists or agnostics. They might have had a variety of reasons for supporting such policies at the mundane level, and it was at that level that we agreed.

On the question of taking the life of another Orthodox Christianity seems to approach the matter differently from Western Christianity, or from Western secular humanism. In Western thought there seems to be a strand of legalism — the notion that there can be a “just” war, or “justifiable” homicide. In Orthodoxy killing someone, whether in battle or by abortion, is always a sin that needs to be confessed. One cannot say, “I am a soldier obeying lawful orders, and therefore killing the enemy is not a sin, and is therefore justified.” And the same with abortion. Whether it is legally permitted or not, abortion is a sin and to be confessed. But the Church does not exist to punish sinners, but it is rather a hospital in which they can be healed. There is thus a distinction between what is “right” and what is “moral”. It coincides roughly with the distinction between “law” and “gospel”.
As a Liberal, I support the concept of human rights because if applied properly, it can help to mitigate the effects of human unlovingness and human sinfulness. Laws cannot force people to love one another, but they can mitigate the effects of human hatred. Justice is good, but Christians are called to go beyond justice to love. At its best, justice is congealed love.

This difference, between rights and morality, between the legal rights of a citizen and the calling of a Christian, has been well expressed here Second Terrace: Fire in the Theater: Rights and Christians:

An American citizen has many rights. A Christian has none — all he has are invitations to virtue, and the promise of beatitude.

An American has a right to bear arms. A Christian may make such a claim, but not as a Christian. I’m sure that a Christian can go hunting and can even keep something for the defense of his home (although that possibility is even less supported for a priest). But I am even surer that a Christian — as a Christian — cannot ever demand the right to possess and traffic in assault munitions.

An American has a right to terminate a fetus. A Christian does not.

An American has a right to engage in sexual activity outside the contours of a sacramentalized union of a man and woman. A Christian does not. He or she, whether we like it or not, is asked to surrender not only homosexual activity, but also heterosexual activity that is before or outside of traditional marriage. He is requested to devote himself to not only physical chastity, but also to the “chastity of the imagination” — a concept, I’m sure, is not the most popular of positions.

An American has the right to accumulate wealth, and to deny comfort to his neighbor and pollute the environment in the process of doing so. A Christian does not. Wealth is given to Christians, as St. Paul and the Prophets and the Fathers make painfully clear, solely for the sake of “kenotic” giving away. It was only the Reformation that made the idea of “wealth-protection” a Christian possibility.

And the rest of that post is worth reading too.

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One thought on “Is an abortion debate possible?

  1. Pingback: Whose lives matter? | Khanya

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