Abortion debate polarized

If anything characterizes the current status of the abortion debate, it is the utter absence of good faith between sides. Each tries to demonize the other by reducing it to its own binary opposite. Many who describe themselves as “pro-choice” categorically refuse to use the term “pro-life,” and adopt either the subtly (but distinctly) different “anti-abortion,” or the absurd “anti-choice.” While pro-lifers thankfully do not often use the term “anti-life,” they choose instead “pro-abortion,” in spite of the factual inaccuracy of that term. Furthermore, many people hijack our present Pope’s highly nuanced critique of what he calls a “culture of death” (see his brilliant encyclical, Evangelium Vitae) to split all of humanity neatly into one group that favors life and another that somehow prefers death. In sum, each side sees itself as the set of righteous crusaders battling the “politics” (or even better – “religion”) of the enemy.

If we stopped demonizing each other, we would realize the obvious pretty quickly: most people aren’t devils; they’re just inconsistent. And thank God for that. At Williams we have tons of students dedicated to curbing AIDS, pursuing peace, advocating for the environment, exposing economic and social injustices, attacking world hunger, petitioning against the death penalty and creating a world that recognizes that the unborn cannot be disposed of for our convenience. Sure, it would be nice if everyone recognized these goals as mutually inclusive. But in this fallen world, that would be a luxury.

What is necessary, then, is a radical openness on both sides of the issue. Pro-lifers must realize that pro-choicers are honestly committed to human betterment. This is obvious at Williams: most of the leaders I know in our social service organizations (Lehman, SGAC, SSJ) support abortion rights. Pro-choicers critique with justice the structures that give women responsibilities without rights. When children are seen as the sole responsibility of one mother rather than an entire society, women become no more than “walking wombs.” Raising a child is a huge endeavor, and people must help to make motherhood feasible. Beyond this, much pro-choice rhetoric is tied to the liberation of women’s bodies from oppression. While I maintain that abortion itself is a violation of the body (of both the mother and the child), the legitimate concern that underlies it is to resist the treatment of women as objects rather than people. We must ensure that they are not refused the advantages that men are given. Furthermore, pro-choicers do seek to make the world at large aware of the difficulties that population expansion brings. While abortion does not solve but rather denies the problems that come with life (by denying the life), it is important that these considerations be brought to the table.

Those who are pro-choice must also open themselves up to critique. They must take seriously the pro-life contention that a fetus is a living person. Often they dismiss this notion out of hand, simply because it would abrogate “a woman’s right to choose.” This circular logic sidesteps serious thought. Perhaps pro-choicers simply cannot afford to consider the question of whether the fetus is in fact alive because it would threaten their whole position. Occasionally arguments are ventured, but I have not heard any I consider serious. Sometimes an agnostic line is taken: we do not know whether a fetus is living, so we cannot condemn abortion. In response to this I say simply that I have no sympathy for the “measure once, cut twice” school of ethics. Finally, it is posited that a fetus cannot be alive because it is dependent on its mother. If you buy this argument, you are committed to saying that only independent creatures must be respected.

I have a hard time believing that any of us are independent (who pays your $35,000 tuition bill?). As far as I can tell, to consider life as beginning at any stage besides conception is to make morality wholly arbitrary – birth is an important step in development, but it isn’t the only one. Of course, I know of no real reason for choosing morality, but most of us seem to take this route. And once we admit that life exists before birth, this must trump any respect for choice. After all, one may choose to do something wrong, but we do not treat this as a neutral choice.

So where does this leave us? Certainly moral self-righteousness, in both liberal and conservative forms, has no place. Rather, reflection on these issues opens us to life as a mystery. We realize that life is a thing before which we can only stand in awe. It is irreducibly given, and thus remains outside of all systems of exchange. No amount of technological or social progress should lead us to feel we have mastered it. Other lives, whether of men, women or babies must remain just that: other, and never collapsed into objects for our use. This is frightening to us who like to think of ourselves as occupying the center of the world. But it is only in letting go of our pride that we can glimpse with eschatological eyes the grandeur of what God has ready.