There are many who understand the movement against abortion as part of a broader nonviolence movement, and that has some merit. It has substantive merit in that answering the fundamental question about abortion must to some extent inform our views about other kinds of killing. And it certainly has rhetorical value: In a meme culture, it is good to be on the same side of an issue as Mohandas Gandhi and Susan B. Anthony.
The question of violence is of course the fundamental question of politics. Politics is organized violence, the purpose of which is, in theory, to protect us from violence organized by others. The functions that most of us across the Anglo-American political spectrum regard as inherently governmental — police and military actions — are the ones most closely associated with open violence. The most solemn actions a government can take — sending a convict to death, sending a soldier to war — are violent. Many religious conservatives, particularly Catholic ones, have come around to what some call a “consistently pro-life ethic,” which makes itself most strongly felt on the question of capital punishment, less strongly on the question of war. The question of capital punishment probably is easier: There is no mercy in sparing those who do not deserve punishment, but in sparing those who do. On the other hand, there is no geopolitical version of life without parole in a maximum-security facility — “containment” has always been more of an aspiration than a fact — and, to sustain the metaphor, the nation threatening its neighbors is more like a criminal on the loose than one behind bars.
I myself am increasingly sympathetic to that consistently pro-life ethic, although every time I think I’m ready to sign off on being categorically opposed to capital punishment, somebody comes along presenting an excellent case for making an exception. I am willing to consider that the defect is in me rather than in the case against capital punishment. In that sense, I find myself in a familiar position: I’ve spent a fair amount of time with the Gandhi literature, and I still cannot read his arguments about the Holocaust without wincing. I understand his view, and I think a conventional Christian might find that view very familiar. But there remains, I think, a key distinction between being willing to make a martyr of one’s self and standing by while others are martyred. I am in awe of Jesus’s actions at Gethsemane, but I’m still with Peter, inclined to cut off an ear or two. The honorific by which Gandhi was known, “mahatma,” means “great soul,” and it is not so different from the English word “saint.” Something to aspire to, though we may decide to keep our options open in case we find our atmas are less than maha. That blade didn’t just magically show up in Peter’s hand.
That is all worth considering, but the question of abortion does not require us to solve every question related to violence. It asks us to make a decision about a very particular kind of violence, a specific, well-defined act of violence: The intentional putting to death of unborn human beings in the womb — or at least mostly in the womb — is a reality for which we must account. Abortion should present at least as much a challenge for the Left as it does for the Right. If you are constructing an ethic based in some part on human solidarity, you must answer the question about whether we have seen that solidarity violently breached more than 1 billion times in the past 30 years in the name of your ethic. The socialist and the libertarian alike must ask whether their model of human solidarity applies to all of us or only to some of us. The history of ideologies that exclude some from the human family is not a happy one.