Thursday, September 4, 2008

Thoughts on abortion, inspired by Ms. Palin

I didn't mean to imply, in my last post, that I'm in any way pro-choice, or even giving up on the pro-life cause. I certainly believe that we need to provide a constant witness about abortion, and keep alive the idea that it is a moral wrong, and a grave one. In time, hopefully, we can build up enough of a majority in favor of overturning the current legal regime. Russia under Putin began to roll back their abortion licence, other states have too. The experience of ancient Rome is informative; truly there's nothing new under the sun.

In light of that, I'm going to start by throwing out there some pro-life arguments. Actually, that's a misnomer. There are plenty of actual arguments in favor of the pro-life cause, some of which don't require a Christian framework, but many of them depend on premises (such as the distinction between essence and accidents, or the teleological argument about 'Final Ends' of human life, or the sacrality of nature) which many pro-choice liberals no doubt do not share. I will acknowledge that while abortion is a grave wrong, the exact reason why it's a grave wrong has historically been a subtle one, and not readily apparent to most people. That is why most ancient cultures- with the notable exception of the Jews and the Zoroastrians, and those who grew out of them like the Christians and Muslims- did not feel that abortion was a form of homicide. Many people today don't think so either, and that is why abortion- since it so often lacks the element of malice- is better classified as a type of manslaughter rather than murder.

Instead I'll try and use the via negativa. This is what convinced me, after all. Before I came to believe in the Platonic doctrine of essences, or even to accept the divinity of Christ, I was having serious doubts about the morality of abortion. Not because I (yet) could provide positive grounds for believing that life and personhood began at implantation, which I now believe. Rather because I perceived that the doctrine that abortion was the woman's choice and fully morally licit, had led society into a number of blind alleys that I thought were both logically paradoxical and morally indefensible. The reduction to absurdity is a powerful tool in mathematics, and sometimes we can understand why a wrong idea is wrong by following it to its logical conclusion.

Consider what I perceived as the logical consequences of legal abortion-on-demand, in the United States and Western Europe of the turn of the millenium.
- It was fully legal to remove an infant from its mother's womb a day before birth, and subject it to a gruesome death, yet if the mother gave birth naturally to her infant and then killed it, this suddenly became a horrible crime.
- A mother was committing no indictable crime if she chose to use tobacco, cocaine, alcohol, and other harmful drugs while pregnant, and subject her baby to a lifetime of physical and mental handicaps.
- Over 90% of babies with Down's syndrome were denied the opportunity ever to be born. I have a good friend whose sister has Down's, and it's no accident that they are opposed to abortion.
- The birth rate in much of Western and Eastern Europe, and in the east coast of the United States, particularly among the better educated social groups, was well below replacement level. In Germany, the birth rate is only about 1.3; each woman typically only has one child and many have none. I'm all for a stable or slowly declining human population, but there is something deeply sad and troubling about a society in which so many families are childless by choice.
-Patriarchal families in India and China choose- on a grand and terrible scale- to practice selective abortion of female children, and the gender ballance has tipped to a disturbing extreme. Pro-choice feminists, to their credit, typically can sense this is terribly wrong; but they can't explain why it's wrong, or propose what could be done about it, without betraying their own faith that abortion must remain legal, ever and always.
- We are already hearing talk about abortion being used as a means of genetically shaping the population: eugenics, in a word. Today's cheerfully ghoulish intellectuals are busy explaining why there is fundamentally nothing wrong with eugenics. After all, we can have an abortion for whatever reason we want, right? If you can have one because you'd prefer not to jeopardize your promotion to partner of the firm, then why not have one because you'd prefer a baby with blue eyes?
- Abortion, far from being a 'hard case' or something rarely practiced, has become the norm in some subcultures, so much so that when a teenager in an liberal, middle- or upper-middle class suburb chooses to resign herself to bearing a child, we treat this as something abnormal or unhealthy. Three quarters of all pregnancies in New York City end in an abortion. While of course those young girls in Gloucester earlier this year made some poor choices, their choice to bear and raise their children instead of getting rid of them, was a great one. I pray that Providence is with them, for the good wishes of the chattering classes in our media certainly weren't.
-So much of the moral drama and tragedy of life in the age before Roe v. Wade is not only gone, but almost incomprehensible to today's young people. We can listen to 'Love Child', that masterpiece by Diana Ross, but how much can we really relate to it? Character, and love, are born out of suffering and tragedy, and a world without suffering and bitter, painful trade-offs would also be a world without virtue. Hidden somewhere in the dark netherworld of falsehoods spun by a thinker like Judith Jarvis Thompson is the hoarse and ancient whisper that we can have a world without suffering, a world without pain, a world without tragedy and a world without sacrifice: a world, in other words, without the Cross.
- Unmarried pregnancy is higher than it ever has been in the USA, reaching 70% among African Americans. At the same time, romantic relationships break up with shocking speed and fragility, whether they be marriages or simple college relationships. Just look at our divorce rate. This isn't surprising. In a world before abortion, a young man and woman looked for certain traits in a partner, among them the ability to be a good father or mother. This was because most long-term relationships did eventually result in children, and you had best be prepared for that. Birth control was widely available, by the 1960s and 1970s, and thank God for that. But no birth control is foolproof, and it was always open to God to bestow a child on a couple if He chose, whether or not they used birth control. And couples prepared for that eventuality, and asked themselves at some subconscious level, 'Is this person the type who I could raise a child with'? Now women no longer have to ask that question and men no longer have to answer it, and in that changed bargain both parties have lost something of themselves. Men can now have an easy out from a pregnancy, they can say that it's her responsibility, since she could have had an abortion if she chose. And many men have taken that easy out, leaving a chain of broken hearts and ruined lives in their wake.
- So many of us are so deeply troubled by the way modern Western society has raped and deformed the natural world. We are troubled by how we have interrupted natural cycles, deformed natural ecosystems, simplified natural communities, halted natural processes. Yet we think nothing, when it comes to ourselves and our own societies, of halting childbirth, such a basic natural process and one frought with spiritual meaning.

I could go on, but you get the picture. None of these things, in and of themselves, is dispositive. None of them touches the heart of the issue, whether the fetus is a human person and how we define a human person. That's the key issue, of course, but it's a difficult issue, and one that it's difficult to be persuaded on, one way or the other. I offer these as little points to start a discussion, and to hopefully get some pro-choice people to wonder, and to ruminate. It's a decent principle to live by, that if you don't know whether a principle is right or wrong, follow it to its logical conclusion. If it leads you into scary places, into logical error or moral unhealthiness, then the principle might well be wrong. For any of you who may read this post and thoroughly disagree with me, I welcome that. I might be wrong, though I don't believe I am. I do welcome comments, and I hope that in time I will have gotten someone to start asking themselves some searching questions.

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