From an email that Jeff has sent to a number of his old students and friends. Since boarding for my flight home has just been announced (I write from Sea-Tac airport), I post without comment, leaving that to Jonah, Ramesh, John O’Sullivan, and–oh, just everybody. (The “Fr. Murray” to whom Jeff refers is, like me, a friend of Jeff’s who studied under him at Dartmouth. In an email yesterday, Fr. Murray criticized Jeff’s article in the Wall Street Journal, making many of the points that Jonah, Ramesh, and others made here in this happy Corner.)
My brief discussion of abortion in the edited “Wall Street Journal” version of the final chapter of my recent book was a political, repeat political, analysis. The “polis” here is the very large one, the United States.
When I stress “political” analysis, I mean of course what is and not what some people wish might be.
Here we should ask why there existed no large demand for abortion in 1900, indeed not in 1950. Something major must have intervened between then and now.
There intervened the changing situation of women, first slowly and then more rapidly. Women’s suffrage in 1912 was advocated by only one of the three political parties in contention, Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive (“Bull Moose”) party. In 1920, women received the vote.
A number of social realities drove the changing situation of women. Anyone can name many of these, since they changed much else as well.
There is the familiar fact of the movement from farm and farmhouse, to the city, and with it labor intensive farm production — offspring useful as workers — to office and factory. Today only about 3 percent of the population lives on farms. Family accommodations are very different in the city than in the more spacious farm house. Offspring are no longer needed for labor intensive farm work. Medical advances reduced infant and child mortality. Fewer children perpetuated the family, a widespread goal.
Women joined the workforce in large numbers during World War II.
The cumulative result of all these has been the “women’s revolution,” which Diana Trilling correctly said has been the only successful revolution during the Twentieth Century. National Socialism failed, so did Communism.
The result of the women’s revolution has been a social reality utterly changed from what it was in 1950, let alone 1900.
Women are all through the colleges and universities, appearing earlier as students, then as faculty, now numerous faculty. Dartmouth did not become co-educational until the 1970s, and now is about 50 percent women.Women now are in occupations of all kinds, medicine, law, executives, CEO’s the military, even astronauts. We have assimilated the women’s revolution, take these results for granted. But they are spectacularly different from what prevailed fifty years ago.
That is the social actuality. In thinking about that, Edmund Burke provides a model of the thinking process. He is the origin not only of conservative thought, but of all realistic thought about society. In his “Reflections on the Revolution in France” (1790) he attacked abstract political theory in the form of the Rights of Man, seeing this as one cause of the French Revolution. Against that he put an analysis of actual English society, seeing that actuality possesses a complexity beyond the reach of such theory (we would say “ideology”). Such theory, such ideology, abbreviiates and de-rails thought. Burke refused to re-rail thought.
In 1791, he analyzed further. In effect he turned the social structure of the “Reflections” into the social process of “Thoughts on French Affairs.”
He recognized now that the complex forces bringing about the French Revolution had accumulated to the point, had acquired such irresistible power, that the ancien regime was doomed. In a passage Matthew Arnold celebrated as one of the great moments of intellect (“The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” 1865) Burke wrote:
“If a great change is to be made in human affairs, the minds of men will be fitted to it; the general opinions and feelings will draw that way . . . and then they who persist in opposing this mighty current in human affairs, will appear rather to resist the decrees of Providence itself, than the designs of men. They will not be resolute and firm, but perverse and obstinate.”
That this was a painful admission by Burke is shown by what immediately preceded it: “I have done with this subject [the French Revolution], I believe forever. It has given me many anxious moments these past two years.”
The philosophes of the Rights of Man had not caused the Revolution. Nothing abstract could have brought about such an upheaval. The accumulating social forces has brought it about. It should be added that Burke achieved the realization contrary to his own preferences. Only a year before, in the “Reflections,” he had eloquently mourned the march of the Paris mob on Versailles, the humiliation of the Queen, the fact that at Versailles “chivalry” had not leaped to her defense. He proclaimed: “The glory of Europe is gone forever.” Now Burke, against his deepest preferences, recognized the inevitable. That is why Arnold celebrated this as a great moment in the history of thought, a triumph of fact and analysis.
In the successful women’s revolution we now stand at such a moment as Burke did in 1791. Women in the educational process, pursuing careers that may take years of preparation and also are later very demanding of their time, are going to demand — in fact are demanding — control of their reproductive capability.
For a free people, such as ours, who make the laws under the Constitution through their representatives write the laws, it follows that as a derivative of the women’s revolution the demand by women for control of their reproductive capability will be reflected in the laws.
No one is “for” abortion; nor do women seek it to “make them happy,” as Father Murray avers. To use that phrase is to trivialize the woman’s decision.
That phrase stands at a distance, in fact a galactic distance, from the actuality of her decision. It is clearly intended to make discussion useless. And discussion is the basis of American government, from the main cabin of the Mayflower and the Compact, to the new England town meeting, and to the Congress of the United States. I do sympathize in a way with Father Murray’s preference for no discussion.
The actuality in elective abortion is that the woman is not willing to derail her life because of an unwanted pregnancy, a life she had worked for many years to shape, perhaps studied and worked. That now is an actuality different from the situation of most women fifty years ago. The women’s revolution has happened. And in the “town meeting” the women’s voice, and that of those who understand what the women’s revolution means, will be heard and heeded.
Father Murray uses the term “unborn child,” apparently meaning anything back to the first fertilized cell. But the woman knows what a “child” is and what it is not. Killing a child can be penalized as murder. Even when abortion was illegal it was never penalized as murder under United States law. Such use of language as “unborn child” does not advance analysis. For analysis to get anywhere, there must be agreement on the meaning of the words being used.
Now, no woman is obliged to have an abortion if her convictions are opposed. The convictions of many women, no doubt a majority, are not opposed. There is the political problem for those who would outlaw abortion. And of course the women’s revolution has happened. We are living with its results. The year 1950 is not going to be restored, any more than the ancient regime was going to be restored after the Revolution. I didn’t think I needed to say that revolutions have consequences. As Burke said in effect, to resist the inevitable effects of revolution is to throw sand into a urricane.
The facts of the social reality have changed a great deal, and actual people make actual decisions within the actuality they inhabit. The taking of interest once was banned. So was cadaver dissection. And so forth . Who remembers what was in the Syllabus of Errors? Who cares? Historians.
We hear of a “right to life,” those three words taken from the Declaration, where they are accompanied by the other “unalienable” rights, to liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
But the Declaration was written in 1776, the Constitution in 1787, and ratified. All such “unalienable” rights are made effective only through the constitutional process, the deliberate sense of the people, based on their collective experience. Until such “rights” become law they are only theoretical rights. It will not do the condemned man on his way to the gallows much good to assert his “right to life.” And it will not do the conscript much good to demand his “right to liberty.” Until such rights are defined and become effective under law they remain a abstractions. Under the Constitution, such “unalienable” rights in fact become alienable, as men are hanged and conscripted. To assert such abstractions as if they existed apart from law is Jacobinical, exactly the kind of political abstractionism against which Burke protested so effectively.
How the abortion issue will play out, I do not of course know…. If, as is conceivable, Roe is overturned — I’m not sure this is really likely, given what seems to be majority opinion — the issue will revert to 1973 and devolve to the state legislatures. There may be a checkerboard of approaches legislated, many states simply legislating laws that amount to Roe.
According to polls, a majority at the present time does not favor the overturn of Roe.
In fact, 83 percent of elective abortions take place during the first trimester. After that, they diminish rapidly, as one would expect. Only a very small number takes place in the third trimester. The statistics are available from the CDC.
The idea that abortions, in a free society, are going to be banned during the first trimester, let alone at the first moment of conception, strikes me as, to put it mildly, extremely unlikely. One American, one vote, period. The Constitution is a majority rule document, though buffered against transitory majorities.
As I said at the beginning, I offered a political analysis, that is an analysis of what is, rather than some idea of what should be.
In my edited chapter published in The Wall Street Journal, I offered reasoned analysis, based on fact. The women’s revolution happened. It is not going to be repealed. Father Murray’s widely circulated missive — how widely circulated I wonder– changes nothing. As Lenin said, “Facts are stubborn.” Lenin there had a realistic moment, realism also known as conservatism.