The Pros and Cons of Pro-Life by Jerry Salyer
There was never a time when I didn't think abortion should be illegal. Even back when I was an agnostic, lapsed-Baptist undergraduate, it always seemed evident to me that society cannot protect its members from murder unless it also has some line of demarcation between person and non-person. The most obvious place for such a line seems to be at conception, when the genetic hand gets shuffled and dealt and everything from sex and eye color to intellectual potential, temperament, and propensity for addiction all get established.
In other words, at conception the pattern for a distinct person has been laid down. Conception represents a qualitative change, while the organic development which follows looks mostly quantitative, a matter of degree rather than kind. Those familiar with Philip K. Dick's dark, scathingly hilarious short story “Pre-Persons,” will get my point, which is how very dangerous it is to move the line of personhood toward more arbitrary criteria. If humanity doesn't begin at the sharp line of conception, then when? The first kick? The first breath? The first word? The ability to get a passing score on a standardized test?
Since then I have come across much more powerful arguments against the practice. Mother Theresa expresses the natural law argument as eloquently as we could wish: “We must not be surprised when we hear of murders, of killings, of wars, of hatred. If a mother can kill her own child, what is left but for us to kill each other.” Whether she realized it or not, Mother Theresa's argument implicitly challenged the conventional understanding which would place equal and individual human rights at the center of the moral universe. Instead of basing our moral order upon atomized individuals and their rights, we should acknowledge that relationships are essential to our humanity, and not always subject to our individual wills. A mother's choice to kill her own child is as violent a severing of as foundational a relationship as one could imagine, and as such represents a transgression against the natural order next to which nuclear weapons seem almost clean and wholesome.
Now's where I have to strike what may be a discordant note. Whenever I am asked if I am “pro-life,” I never say “yes,” but instead reply in the form of a full sentence. “I think abortion should be illegal,” or words to that effect. For the term “pro-life” seems to me an equivocation, one which serves to conflate two related but different things. On the one hand, it could refer to the simple conviction that abortion should be greatly restricted if not banned entirely. People motivated by this conviction often pray outside abortion centers, offer counseling to troubled mothers, and strategically select politicians and legislation to support in the hope of seeing abortion at least curtailed. I am all for such people, and am the first to recognize the fact that they have succeeded in maintaining debate about the issue in a hostile public square – no mean feat, that, in a regime which has been so effective at squelching so many other politically-incorrect causes.
The problem is, though, that “pro-life” also refers to a distinct subculture which has grown up around the efforts to end abortion, and most of the people empowered to define this subculture have made a point of drawing the lines so as to exclude people like me. For my part, I am absolutely convinced that questioning liberal dogmas such as Equality and Human Rights is the only way to effect long-term, positive change on any scale; these leaders not only double-down on the enlightened notions that got us into this mess, but also do their very best to convince their unfortunate followers that such notions represent the only possible way of thinking about the abortion issue.
More concretely, I can't say how many times I have heard some bishop or diocesan official or other representative of the pro-life movement explain solemnly that being “truly pro-life” means you won't just be concerned about abortion. No, we also need to be committed to alleviating the plight of migrants, the homeless, Third World babies in need of adoption, those on death row, and for all I know the polar bears. My complaint is not that these causes are not worthwhile – I have nothing against polar bears – but that a host of quite debatable propositions winds up getting subtly slipped into the “pro-life” brand, much as fine print may be slipped in at the bottom of a contract. E.g., “the US border is policed too strictly,” “transracial families represent a spiritual step above conventional families,” “capital punishment is always wrong.” Should I openly challenge such notions, I am the bad guy for being “divisive,” as if insisting that additional litmus tests unrelated to abortion be added to determine who is or isn't genuinely “pro-life” is not itself divisive to begin with. Is the tent to be a big one, or isn't it?
In reality, fetus dismemberment is one thing, and the putative right of a migrant to improve his standard of living by moving into my neighborhood is quite another. Were there anything like open, truth-oriented discourse in Catholic circles, the border control advocate could turn the tables by arguing that promoting streamlined labor flows between countries – i.e., mass migration – actually strengthens the hand of abortion by depressing wages, fragmenting communities, and taking pressure off national leaders who might otherwise have to address declining native birth rates. Indeed, a case could also be made that were it not for immigration, the abortion side would in the long run be doomed by demographics – i.e., large Christian families. Such arguments will never be tolerated for so much as an instant by anyone above the rank of parish priest, however.
We can even set aside those clerics, Rod Dreher conservatives, and academic bigshots like Robert George, who all disavowed the Covington Catholic boys the moment the left said “boo,” and who appear to have learned precisely nothing from said fiasco. There is still much too much “defending human dignity” via robotic slogans, cheap sentimentality, and superficial marketing gimmicks, all within a conceptual framework established by liberals. If we convince our audience by degrading it, we have wrongly thought to accomplish good by doing evil.
Rarely if ever does pro-life rhetoric allude to Communism, even though said totalitarian system went whole hog for abortion and has far more in common with 21st Century America than, does, say, the Old South. Instead of reflecting upon the brutal Soviets' abortion policies, year after year propagandists for life invoke abolitionism, along with feminism and even the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, all in transparent attempts to be “relevant.”
In other words, they are trying to ingratiate themselves to the minorities, feminists, and yuppies who consistently vote for pro-abortion candidates, election after election after election. Meanwhile the working-class Southerners and Midwesterners who have repeatedly put pro-life politicians and judges into office are blatantly regarded as contemptible nonentities by Ben Shapiro and other such “family values” celebrity all-stars. Anybody who lectures me about solidarity here is wasting his time. Real solidarity goes both ways.