Unholy Dying, Part I: The Abortion Debate

This is the first part of a long essay on birth and death, which will conclude volume three of Properties of Blood.  It was first written perhaps 20 years ago and has not been revised for perhaps seven years.  In putting up either the whole or the most relevant extracts, I shall have the opportunity to revise and update the arguments.  Speaking of Properties of Blood, copies of the first volume, The Reign of Love, should be arriving at the magnificent headquarters of the Foundation in perhaps a week.

Birth, Copulation, and death                   

That's all the facts                    

When you come to brass tacks

 T.S. Eliot's three facts of natural life have always been circumscribed with such custom and ceremony as to become social and cultural facts.  Birth, copulation, and death may be virtually the same everywhere, when you come to brass tacks, but being born, getting married, and dying are experiences that vary from culture to culture and more resemble forms of art than facts of life.  There are some societies in which expectant fathers experience the pangs of birth and many more in which men regularly name their day of death. 

In the 20th century the most powerful and difficult transitions in human life have been turned into political war zones in which the different sides routinely invoke the power of government to establish and enforce their points of view.  Few debates have been so heated as those involving the decision to terminate life.  On the question of abortion, while both sides seem to speak the same language of individual rights, personal autonomy, and political responsibility, the terms are used in such diverse senses as to make translation from one dialect to another almost impossible.  "Right conflicts with right, and might with might." On both sides of the debate, there are continuums from moderate to radical, but it is still possible to sketch out general pro and anti abortion positions that represent something like the consensus of each side.  

     Those in favor of abortion usually speak of a woman's unrestricted life to control her own body.  Choice in this matter is, they argue, the fundamental point of women's rights.  No  matter when life may be said to "begin,"  prenatal life (up to the point of viability) is only potential, not actual, and it is wrong to compell an actual person to sacrifice herself for the sake of a potential human existence.  It is the quality, not the fact of life that counts, and the pro-abortion party wonders why anti-abortion groups care so little for what happens to children once they are born.  This argument often takes the form of a joke aimed at the right to life movement:  "Life begins at conception and ends at birth." 

Unwanted children, children born into the pathology of poverty will not grow up to be fully human beings, and their very existence takes resources away from children whose lives might be improved.  Adoption may be a remedy for some, but it is not a sufficient answer to the "quality of life" question, since it is impossible to know what sort of family a child will be adopted into.  Besides, abortion before "quickening" or ensoulment was generally licit in ancient and medieval Europe; in the United States it is only in the 19th century that abortion is made a criminal act.  But neither law nor tradition nor family bonds can legitimately restrain a woman in the exercise of her right to choose. 

     The pro-life position is similarly couched in the language of rights, not of women but of unborn children.  Life begins with conception, and all human creatures, once the fertilized egg starts dividing, have a moral right--which ought to be made a legal right--to be born and to be protected and cared for.  This was understood by virtually everyone until the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade, which reclassified unborn children as unworthy of protection.  Insensitivity to the fetus's right to life leads inevitably to a blunted moral sense that will withdraw protection from the deformed, the elderly, and other classes of human beings judged to be inferior. 

This is not the first time the Court has tyranically excluded a helpless minority from legal protection.  In the Dred Scott decision, Chief Justice Roger Taney declared negroes to be non-citizens, outside the purview of the Bill of Rights.  The right-to-life movement is, therefore, a civil rights crusade for minority rights and should emulate the actions of Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders who struggled to secure equality for blacks.  [The Dred Scott/Roe v. Wade comparison is ubiquitous among right-to-lifers, but for ain influential coherent statement, see Lehrman, NR 1986] A significant minority of pro-life activists do not shrink from the conclusion that civil disobedience is a right and proper tactic for their movement. 

     Neither position is logically consistent or historically accurate.  Abortion was not, in fact, universally treated as murder either in pagan antiquity or in Christendom.  Nor, on the other hand, were early abortions regarded as moral and licit.  In the first place, most theologians before recent times condemned all forms of contraception as attempts to frustrate the natural purpose of copulation.  Whether abortion constituted homicide or not was the subject of debate, but the practice was unequivocally condemned as immoral. 

     As for pagan antiquity, of course the ancients were generally tolerant of abortion; they tolerated infanticide in many forms.  Ancient physicians, however, did have their reservations, and the Hippocratic Oath contains language that seems to condemn the use of pessaries to induce abortion.  Some supporters of abortion have adopted the pagan view that one way or the other, seriously deformed or brain-damaged children ought not to be reared.  (Englehart).  Most shun this eminently logical conclusion and prefer to specify a date some time before birth as a point of no return beyond which a baby must be allowed to live.  Various criteria are put forward, e.g. the viability of the infant, its capacity for independent existence, etc., but none of them is really adequate.  Medical technology is every day pushing back the date of fetal viability, and quite apart from this technology, it is impossible to draw lines, clearly demarcating the various phases of human development.  

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

12 Responses

  1. Robert Reavis says:

    B.R. Myers wrote a pithy little piece a couple years back for American Conservative using a series of popular pros and cons about Oswald Spengler before the interminable qualifications such as “ he really was correct here”, “ but really wrong about all that ,…”, “ but one can certainly read with benefit the new reprint of his book on technics …., “ etc. etc.
    So if conservatives can use him to demonstrate all the knowledge they have accumulated ( vast, vast accumulations) I thought I would throw this particular Spengler quote in the mix too:

    “When the ordinary thought of a highly cultivated people begins to regard ‘having children’ as a question of pro’s and con’s, the great turning point has come.”

  2. Raymond Olson says:

    Robert–“highly cultivated” strikes me as a dodge. Who is Spengler talking about? What “great turning point” is he talking about? I admit never having read Spengler, but can my questions be answered, anyway?

    It might be germane to the discussion to know when so-called family planning became a public campaign. The late nineteenth century? The early twentieth? Who was it aimed at, and were they “highly cultivated”? At any rate, the rise of family planning seems to me a candidate for turning=point status.

  3. Michael Strenk says:

    Mr. Olson asks some very good questions. The “highly cultivated” tend very much to be concerned about the fertility of the other rather than of their own, which they generally take as a given, considering themselves to be superior in every way. They assume that they will always be able to manage society regardless of numbers because of their superior quality, but they are nervous about the rest being so bothersome and taking up so much in the way of room and resources, often deciding that it would be best to limit their numbers to levels necessary to maintain a decent servant class only. The movie “Idiocracy” appears to take Spengler’s statement and run with it without regard to the affects of the programs of the “highly cultivated” to pollute the food and medical systems on the fertility of the rest, which is profound.

    I have not read Spengler either.

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    The late Sam Francis was a great admirer of Spengler. I read some with some profit and pleasure, but the big-idea Germans have never been to my taste. Herder and Lessing taught me some things, and Goethe, even when I strongly disagree, is always a rich pleasure, but, then, Goethe was an observer before he was a speculator, and that makes a difference. As soon as our Summer School is over, I intend to spend some time on Rohde’s “Psyche”.

  5. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    PS I’ve never read the Vegan Myers. Have I missed something?

  6. Robert Reavis says:

    No Tom, I don’t think so. I know nothing about the man except the one article I read. I tend to agree with you about always engaging the Left on their ground. An old pro life advocate once told me he initially made that mistake back in the late 70s traveling around showing films, picketing abortion centers, suffering the slang sling of protests, but soon realized those actions tend to change a person and not necessarily for the best. Better to try and raise a family of your own and actually experience the joys and sorrows of life than trying to make fecund a very sterile cultural and political concept.
    I simply threw the Spengler quote out there as a footnote to St Paul’s admonition that not every subject under the sun is proper debating material for healthy souls or healthy cultures because a mind wide open to anything can grow as dark and violent as the mind closed to everything. Or put positively, there is more in seeking the good life than simply avoiding an evil one. Of course we live in a time when Milton’s famous line, “evil, be thou my good” is considered a real possibility and not a devilish temptation.

  7. Robert Reavis says:

    I am no expert on the use of “highly cultivated”in the attempts by Spengler or his British disciple, Arnold Toynbee, to find universal similarities in the birth, growth, rise and fall of civilizations. Your questions are good and “turning points”could be considered progress for some and decadence for others. When the death rate exceeds live birth rates for a prolonged period ? Famines, floods, war and pandemics? The agrarian class drops below a certain percentage of the urbanized population?
    I don’t know the answer. His use of the term highly cultivated might be a dodge or a sign of contempt for the cultivated class of his generation. If I were to ask myself what are the characteristics of our highly cultivated class today one could point to many : the absence of Latin and Greek, contempt for the past and ancestors, triumph of technology and ignorance, a tremendous hope in the future, the new and the passage of more time, sterility, political action, self loathing. … to name just a few.

  8. Dot says:

    In cases of abortion, what happens to the soul?

  9. Robert Reavis says:

    Which one?

  10. Dot says:

    I’m concerned about the soul of the aborted child. At what point when the sperm meets the ovum, when is the soul incorporated into the aborted fetus. I don’t think I’m wording this correctly. Aren’t we of soul and body?

  11. Dot says:

    I think the soul is important because it is what makes man uniquely human above the rest of mammals in the animal kingdom. In my opinion, to purposively abort a developing child is wrong. It doesn’t make any difference to me of when it is okay. That becomes justification of a wrong action.

  12. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    We are jumping the gun. The question of ensoulment will be taken up later. The word “soul” is quite slippery, and unless someone tells me what they mean by the word, I cannot make a useful response. Many, if not most, developed cultures have one or another concept of “the real me” that is distinct from my material being. Our tradition comes mostly from the Greeks, who used the word psyche, which means something like the force of life that is in breath. When you quit breathing, life is gone. The Platonists believed that this breath-soul survived death, and philosophers distinguished between a merely vegetative, an animal, and what you might call a spiritual or intellectual soul. (I’m being deliberately general). NT usage is ambiguous, especially translations–though Latin does have a suitable word, anima. Anima is also in origin a breath-soul, cognate with Greek anemos, wind, and related closely to Latin animus, mind or will. In the NT psyche/anima often seems to mean no more than life, while at other times it may have more Platonic connotations. In English, the translations seem to depend more on the translators’ beliefs than on a scrupulous reading of the texts. The immortality of the soul–whatever that means–does not appear to be taught by Jesus or his disciples, though it is certainly compatible with what they did teach. Going to funerals, one hears constantly about the immortality of the soul and the statement that the late Mr. X is now in heaven communing with his friends. Perhaps they are right, but it is not what is promised to us in Scripture. I should add that I don’t at all know what the words Heaven and Paradise mean. Are they synonyms or not? Are they places or conditions? I’ ve read a fair amount, but have concluded nothing. I accept as truth what the Church has taught, and until I am granted either deeper understanding or a revelation, I shall be content to accept authority.