Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Why Abortion Rights Matter

In encounters with the religious Left, whether in the form of Catholic Worker renegades or Sojourners-style Protestant Evangelicals, one often comes across the "Consistent Life Ethic"-- which, as the name implies, combines a "pro-life" stance on abortion and euthanasia with more traditionally leftist stances on the death penalty, foreign wars, poverty reduction, etc.  While this split may sound half-and-half, 50% liberal, 50% conservative, the suggestion is belied by the fact that few--if any-- of the folks espousing CLE would describe themselves as conservatives.  Besides, most of us on the less ambiguous left would favor the CLE approach a thousand times over to what might be described as the consistent death ethic of certain right-wing commentators.

I do not favor CLE, but it, and the pro-life movement in general, poses some profoundly unsettling questions for those who claim no inconsistency in supporting limited abortion rights alongside an end to the death penalty, a restrained foreign policy, and other leftist nostra.   Those who find abortion to be wholly morally unproblematic should read this poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, which was not written to my knowledge as a policy brief, still less a "conservative" policy brief.  Brooks was not grinding her axe on any ideological whetstone; she was writing at a time long before the life/choice divide became so blisteringly "hot-button."  It is just a poem to make you think about a complex and disturbing human reality.

If there is a noticeable dampening of the snark-o-meter in this post, it is because I don't think pro-life arguments deserve snarkiness.  They can't be consigned to the rubbish heap the way my usual beat of National Review nincompoops can be.  These arguments are challenging and deserve better than the typically dismissive references they get on the HuffPo or wherever else.  But right up front let me also note that the practice of taking both sides seriously does not mean I am "lukewarm" on this issue, as I hope will become clear.  Abortion arouses passionate feelings because it deserves them.  Placing myself somewhere in the middle doesn't mean I don't hold very strong opinions about the positions to either side of me.

Debates about abortion usually and tiresomely begin with an argument over whether "life begins at conception," whether the fetus has a soul, and so forth.  Such arguments-- as they are designed to do-- immediately dissolve into conflicts between incompatible a priori assumptions.  They are thus over before they have begun.  For those of us who are not prepared to believe in a concept of a soul (at least as something distinct from the brain and its organic consciousness), the proponents of the soul have nothing to convince us with.  Moreover, I would argue that their argument cannot even convince other religious people.  It only settles the matter for those who hold a dogmatically anthropocentric doctrine of the soul, since for other religious people (who hold that animals, plants, and microscopic organisms are something other than Cartesian automata devised by God to serve human needs), it remains open to question why a human embryo has a status distinct from that of an amoeba.  The level of consciousness of a zygote is presumably equivalent to that of a skin cell.  They are both alive, perhaps they both have "souls" according to some traditions.  Yet as Noam Chomsky once pointed out, no one in the pro-life movement takes the sacredness of life to imply that we should stop washing our hands for fear of massacring innocent epidermi.

It seems a more fruitful approach to regard the embryo and the infant as occupying the opposite ends of a spectrum.  No amount of pro-life vitriol will convince me that an embryo is basically the same thing as an infant.  No amount of blather from the opposite side, however, will convince me that a fetus six months into a pregnancy has nothing relevant in common with the baby it will soon become.  There is a moral continuum involved that does not lend itself to absolutes: if a fetus at six months has no moral value, then why should an infant?  Why a toddler or child?  Why should we?  If all life is sacred, at any stage, then why does our heart not bleed for the sperm that never fertilize eggs, for those helpless skin cells and bacteria and protozoa that we accidentally exterminate? I'm not trying to be flip.  I'm just pointing out that absolutism on this issue lends itself to parody.

Note the qualifying phrase "on this issue."  Because we all have our absolutes and we are all therefore absolutists, even if we abhor the word.  True, we prefer to think of our own absolutes as "fundamental values," "inalienable rights," etc. to which we pledge our allegiance "passionately."  Other peoples' absolutes, meanwhile, are "obsessions" and instances of "hysteria," expressed "shrilly."  The difference between these categories is not really, in spite of appearances, whether one is a set of absolutes and the other is not.

All of this is by way of saying that we can't reject the extreme pro-life or pro-choice position just because it is absolutist. The pro-lifer might well insist that she is an absolutist the way 19th-century abolitionists or the framers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were absolutists.  The pro-choicer might say precisely the same thing.  If they are wrong it is not because absolutism is wrong-- it is because their absolutism is wrong.

The reference to slavery and the UDHR has already led me to my next point: Do not be convinced by any attempt by pro-lifers to identify themselves as traditionalists, or by pro-choicers to deride them as reactionary.  In truth, both movements are characteristic products of modern liberal egalitarianism.  They could only have arisen in our great era of empathy and universalism, inaugurated by the Enlightenment and incubated in Romanticism.  It is exactly this heritage, in fact, that has made neo-racist conservatives like John Derbyshire, linked above, so uncomfortable with the appearance of the pro-life movement within the ranks of the right.

They are frere ennemis, the pro-life and pro-choice movements.  They have a deep-seated sibling rivalry.  Each sees itself as Harriet Tubman and its opponent as John C. Calhoun-- and the rest of us as lily-livered Northern Democrats circa 1855.  Both are following a pattern laid out by all social movements since the French Revolution, because both begin with what they see as a blatant moral inconsistency-- an elementary failure to abide by the categorical imperative.

In the case of the pro-life movement, the perceived inconsistency lies in a liberal ethic which holds life precious and the right to it inalienable, but draws the limits of personhood-- as if arbitrarily-- on this side of the womb.  In the case of the pro-choice movement, it lies in an attempt to coerce decisions about pregnancies which will always and necessarily place a much heavier burden on women than on men.

They are both right, is the thing.  But because they are both right, they are both wrong.  Each side is Harriet Tubman and John C. Calhoun-- and each side is neither-- because a total victory or total defeat for either would result in a grave and inhuman injustice.  This is what distinguishes this issue from earlier moral debates.  The clash of virtuous egalitarianisms is a recent phenomenon: it had no equivalent in the era of segregation or slavery, when one side at a time had no wish to portray itself as egalitarian in the slightest.

What are these grave and inhuman injustices at stake?  In the case of late-term abortions, the answer should be rather obvious.  Whether the fetus at a certain stage of the pregnancy is a "person" is not here the question that needs to be answered.   It is perfectly clear that there is some stage in the pregnancy at which the fetus is sufficiently developed to experience pain.  It is this capacity alone which is the central criterion of moral concern.  The fact that the fetus may develop into an adult human is irrelevant.  A sperm may develop likewise into an adult human, but it has no rights, because it cannot feel or sense.  A dead body is an adult human, but it does not possess the same set of rights we expect for ourselves.  It cannot be desecrated, but it may be interred in the ground or burned in a cremation oven, unlike living people.  This is so for the same reason as the sperm.  Meanwhile, a dog or chick or baby seal will never-- can never-- become or look anything like an adult human, but it, in contrast to the last two examples, possesses a moral right not be killed or tortured.  As Bentham said of the animals: "The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?" A zygote cannot suffer.  An infant can.  Somewhere between them is a line.  I lack the expertise to draw it, but it is clearly somewhere short of the moment of birth.

The claim that late-term abortions are inhuman is probably the more "intuitive" one-- especially to men, and to those of all genders who fancy themselves virtuous abstainers or "smart" sexual decision-makers. But the second inhumanity-- the inhumanity of compelling women against their wills to give birth and assume the responsibilities of motherhood-- is quite as grave.

Pro-lifers might retort that this is hyperbolic.  Every restriction of mobility and personal choice is not tantamount to despotism, after all.  Sometimes such restrictions are justified in order to protect the more fundamental rights of others-- such as the right to life.  What about the ancient Spartans, after all?  If someone had stopped Mr. and Mrs. Spartan-- those upstanding pillars of the local community-- from exposing their rejected offspring outdoors for the wild animals to prey on, would that person be guilty of hideously compromising the rights of the Spartan couple-- or would she be saving an innocent life from their malevolence?

Pro-lifers might also question the extent to which abortion rights have always been a necessary or logical plank of the feminist program.  Historically, sudden access to abortion-- especially in societies which already have a grave lack of gender parity-- can often empower men rather than women.  This happens because men--already in a dominant position in such societies-- are able to coerce more sexual favors from women, by direct or subtle pressure, when the threat of such sexual activity resulting in irreversible pregnancy is removed.  This appears to have been the case, for instance, in the early Soviet Union among male apparatchiks who spoke winkingly in party circles of the necessity of women's "sexual liberation."  Catharine MacKinnon once pointed out that it is well to doubt  the benevolent motives of, say, the Playboy Foundation in supporting abortion rights for this reason.

The historical arguments are somewhat plausible.  And it would obviously be the right thing to do to restrain the callous Spartan couple from killing their infant child-- even though doing so forces on them the responsibilities of parenthood.  It is true, in short-- and perfectly obvious-- that not all restrictions on choice are unjust.

But some restrictions are unjust, and two things should give us pause whenever we encounter them: 1) when such restrictions are so onerous as to impose life-altering penalties on those subject to them, and 2) when they do not distribute their burdens evenly and fairly, but rather impose much higher penalties on certain people.

Restrictions on abortions send up red flags on both counts.  The consequences to the mother of forcing her to bring an unwanted pregnancy to term constitute an irrevocable life-sentence.  This may sound like a very cold way of describing motherhood-- it is not meant to be.  The point is that we should be wary of imposing life-long consequences of any sort on the unwilling, even if we don't think they are negative consequences in themselves.  We can't chain someone to a treadmill because we think the exercise will do him good.  We can't enslave someone to a soup kitchen even though volunteering in such kitchens is surely the right thing to do.  We are talking about a basic human dignity that is realized in making one's own choices from moment to moment.

If abortion is outlawed, this life-sentence will always loom over women in a way that it just can't and won't loom equally over men.  Men will never face so inescapable a set of responsibilities and life-atering circumstances in relation to parenting as women.  Fatherhood can be a lot of work, but for some absent fathers it is no work at all.  The same cannot be said of motherhood.  An absolutist pro-life legal stance, which is what the pro-life movement and CLE, almost by definition, favor, would impose a simply intolerable burden on women and mothers that would not be shared by men.

The story does not end here.  I hope, once absolutism is ruled out, that there is room for intelligent and limited restrictions which would eliminate the inhumanity of late-term abortions.  So far, as I understand it, there have yet to be devised such restrictions which would provide sufficient protection for the health of the mother in late pregnancy.  Some pro-lifers think the so-called "health exception" is big enough to drive an ambulance through, but I can't imagine what they would propose as an alternative, unless they wish to see women left to die in childbirth for the sake of the fetuses in their wombs-- which I could only equate with sadism.

I hope that some middle ground may be found that is not just a compromise between rival barbarities.  But I am not especially hopeful.  I do not believe that the abortion debate will be finally "settled" for the history books to the advantage of one side or another.  There will be no facile moral victory.  As Gwendolyn Brooks puts it:
"Abortions will not let you forget."

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