Writing at Mother Jones, Kevin Drum poses a great question. Actually, he has a couple of questions:
Do anti-abortion activists really think abortion is murder? Or is their opposition merely an expression of their broad discomfort with modern sexual and gender mores?
I appreciate Drum’s forthrightness. A lot of liberals wonder why pro-lifers rally and lobby and stand in the rain outside abortion clinics: can it really be that they care about babies? No, pro-lifers probably do these things because they have old-fashioned views about sex. They know that abortion has enabled modern women to lead a “sexually liberated” lifestyle. And they want to stop it because they do, in fact, want to see wayward women “punished with a baby.”
It’s rare for someone to pose the question as directly as Drum has. But I know he’s not alone in thinking this way. I see the contempt with which liberals accuse conservatives of caring about children “only before they’re born.” Obviously that smear reflects other policy disagreements as well, but it still speaks to a real skepticism about the authenticity of conservative concern for unborn life.
Okay, then. Are you ready for this, Mother Jones readers? I’m going to answer the question.
Yes. Pro-lifers really believe that abortion is murder, i.e., the unjust killing of an innocent human being.
Why would liberals doubt this? I’ll just cut to the chase and admit right now: I think it’s partly just bad faith. It can’t feel good to be the guy in favor of killing (at parental convenience) something that really does look quite a lot like, you know, a human baby. Instead of facing up to the real implications of something so icky, better to deflect by accusing the other guy of nefarious motives.
I don’t think that’s the whole story, however. There actually are some non-ridiculous reasons to question the depth and reasonableness of pro-lifers’ commitment to the unborn. It’s worth taking the time to address these, for the edification of Drum and anyone else who thinks parents should be free to end the lives of their unborn daughters and sons.
Conservatives and Their Sexual Hang-ups
This much Drum has right: conservatives have issues with our sexually libertine culture. Abortion isn’t the only problem with it, just the worst one. The killing of hundreds of thousands of babies annually is a pretty massive “con” to sexual liberation. That’s hard to top (so to speak).
But there are plenty of other problems too. I could just rattle off a list: divorce, single motherhood, spreading HIV, pornography addiction, falling marriage rates, falling birth rates, campus “rape cultures,” teenaged girls who kill themselves after a porn star debut that they thought they could handle. Or, I could refer you here and here for more thoughtful reflections on how much we harm our young people by pretending sex never does. But the bottom line is that people nowadays are having a really hard time putting their love lives in order and, yes, our sexually libertine culture deserves some blame.
So I suppose it’s possible that some people’s pro-life convictions are rooted, primarily, in that general sense of alarm about “modern sexual and gender mores.” Here’s a question, though: how many other entry points are there for talking about the evils of sexual libertinism? A million? Drum’s theory might make sense if the pro-life movement were some radical fringe. If the March for Life were a piddling little event that someone threw together a year ago, or if #prolifeacrossamerica were another flash-in-the-pan hashtag campaign, then sure, it might be fair to reflect on whether people were really serious.
It’s not like that. Pro-life activism has constituted one of the most important political and moral movements of our time. It has left its stamp on our politics quite literally over decades. It draws thousands together in peaceful rallies every year, all across the country. Nearly a fifth of Americans say they are unwilling to vote for a candidate who is not pro-life. And it has affected the moral development of our young people. As a professor of moral philosophy, I’ve heard scores of students explain to me how pro-life activism was their main entry point into thinking seriously about moral responsibility, personhood, and what a human life is worth. This is a big deal, Kevin Drum.
You can’t sustain a movement on that scale without a serious moral foundation. Paranoia about sex isn’t enough. After all this time, conservatives deserve to be taken seriously when they say they care about life.
Attitudes Towards the Unborn
Do pro-lifers really practice what they preach, though? If committed pro-lifers are holding themselves to double standards in their daily lives, that’s fair grounds for questioning their seriousness. Some people are simply incredulous that anyone could really view embryos as full-fledged human beings. They think they can identify inadvertent “tells,” revealing that even staunch opponents of legal abortion don’t really live the principles they claim to embrace.
Drum focuses on public attitudes towards politicians who admit to having (or encouraging) abortions. Do we treat them like murderers? If a politician like Rep. Scott DesJarlais admitted to sanctioning the murder of two of his already-born children, is doesn’t seem likely he could recover from that. Would he not be a public pariah? He probably would. Then again, considering the star-studded careers of moral exemplars like Ted Kennedy, you can never be too sure.
Perhaps we should just stay away from the messy subject of political morality. A better way to isolate the concern is by considering our response to miscarriage.
Early miscarriages are, sadly, a fairly common occurrence. Living in an age of accurate, over-the-counter pregnancy tests, we’re more aware of this than ever, and anecdotally, it seems to me that a majority of my Catholic mom friends have at one time or another experienced a miscarriage. Now, obviously, miscarriages are not intended, and there’s rarely much we can do to prevent them. In the great majority of cases, a miscarriage is no one’s fault. The sad reality is that embryonic life is fragile, and pregnancies can be unviable for a whole variety of reasons. So it would clearly be cruel and brutally unfair to call a pro-life woman a hypocrite simply for losing a pregnancy.
But how do we deal with miscarriage? Certainly it can cause real grief, and unsurprisingly, it is usually the mother who suffers most intensely. Still, in the interests of fairness, we should face up to the uncomfortable pro-choicer’s question: Do we respond to miscarriage in the same way that we would respond to the death of an already-born child? Do we hold funerals for these children, or dedicate park benches in their memory? Is miscarriage, even for mothers, a trauma comparable to, say, the death of a toddler?
I think the answer to all of these questions is “no.” We do mourn miscarried babies, and many Catholic churches hold annual prayer services or erect memorials for those souls. (I am told that some Protestants also make efforts along these lines.) That is fitting, and often a comfort to parents coping with a lost pregnancy. But I do not think it would be particularly fitting to hold a public funeral for an eight-week-old embryo, and I have very occasionally been pained to hear someone claim insight into the experience of a grieving parent (of an older child) on the basis of an early miscarriage. This doesn’t seem right. Both experiences are painful, but on a different scale.
In admitting this, am I revealing my own hypocrisy in claiming to be pro-life? After all, if the eight-week-old embryo is just as precious as the eight-year-old child, shouldn’t we should treat them the same? We should have similar feelings about their untimely deaths, and observe similar formalities. So how can we justify the differential, except by agreeing that one is more precious than another?
Love Requires Acquaintance
By way of answering the above question, I would advise you to pull up a browser window, and open your favorite news site. Scan over the headlines, and I can almost guarantee you’ll find some that involve people dying. How does that make you feel? A little sad, perhaps. Or maybe it doesn’t stir up any emotions at all. Almost certainly, you’re not weeping into your keyboard.
What are you, some kind of monster? You don’t think those people’s lives matter as much as yours? Somebody loved them, and you’re impatiently wondering when the coffee maker is going to ding. But that doesn’t make you a monster. Somebody loved those people, but it wasn’t you. You didn’t even know them. People die all the time, often under terrible circumstances, and it would just be morbid to whip yourself into an emotional state for every single tragic death.
Real grief is more than an intellectual recognition that a bad thing has happened. It is an appropriate and natural response to the loss of someone we personally love. Love is born of real acquaintance with a person’s true character. It enables us to glimpse the core of what makes a person unique and precious. When he dies, we feel grief, because something wonderful and irreplaceable is gone from our lives.
The deaths of strangers may occasion pity, empathy, or occasionally real emotional distress. But we don’t grieve the loss of other people’s loved ones as we would our own. That’s because we haven’t had the opportunity to glimpse their unique character. Without having known or loved them, we literally don’t know what we’re missing once they’re gone.
Miscarriage is likely to produce complicated feelings for parents, because it involves the loss of a person intimately connected to them, whom they nevertheless did not personally know. It’s natural to feel sadness over the loss of a child, even if it is, in effect, a child you never met. But it would be unnatural to feel the same kind of grief we would feel over the loss of an already-born person, whom we have loved in a more personal way.
This also explains why we don’t normally hold funerals for embryos. Funerals bring a community together to commemorate the passing of one of their members. The unborn had yet to be integrated into a human community, so a public memorial would seem unnatural.
None of this, however, tells us anything about the metaphysical or moral status of the unborn child as such. For circumstantial and developmental reasons, no one has yet had the opportunity to know the unique personality of the 8-week-old embryo. Should we just go ahead and assume that he doesn’t have one? Or might that be rather a callous way of molding our metaphysics to match our personal preferences?
Character and personal identity are mysterious things, of course. It’s difficult to say where they begin. Any parent will tell you, however, that children do seem to be born with unique personalities. They differ wildly from one another, in ways that do not seem explicable through environment alone. Is it really so strange, then, to suppose that that unique character is somehow present from conception? That abortion feels less awful to us than the murder of the already-born only because the victims are smaller and more hidden?
The Least of These
Clearly, you don’t have to be religious to be pro-life. But the Bible does have an interesting passage that might help explain why pro-lifers are so passionate about saving these tiny, silent human beings.
Jesus is telling stories, and this one involves Judgment Day. He separates his “sheep” (the good people) from his “goats” (the bad people). Understandably, people want to know how they ended up in their respective categories, so he explains: the sheep are the people who took the trouble to help when he was hungry, naked, or sick. The goats saw those needs, and did nothing.
Everyone is confused. They don’t remember seeing Jesus in their earthly lives, needy or otherwise. So he explains: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these my brothers, you did for me.”
Who are “the least” in our world today? One can put forward many candidates: fatherless children, the elderly, the infirm. Of course we should help all of these people if we can. But it’s hard to be “less” than a child so young he is unable even to cry. The unborn have no ability to plead their own case. No leverage with which to protect themselves. If their natural parents should choose to kill them, they have no recourse, and nowhere to run.
So the pro-life movement seeks to befriend these friendless people. Whether or not one takes the Bible to be the Word of God, I think all pro-lifers are moved by this insight: that we have the responsibility to protect those who are most singularly incapable of protecting themselves. That’s why we go on marching, year after year and decade after decade. That’s why we chisel away at the network of laws designed to protect adult lifestyles at the expense of innocent lives. That’s why young people today are more pro-life than their parents were 20 years ago.
Is the pro-life movement swimming against the tide of sexually-liberated modernity? Of course. But we’re not doing it just to be contrary. Would you, Kevin Drum, feel “broad discomfort with modern sexual and gender mores” that often motivate people to murder their own children?
Just a little food for thought.