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.
There are many religious people in the pro-life camp, but it is not a religious question. It is a question about the legal status of an entity that is under any biological interpretation a 1) distinct, 2) living, 3) human 4) organism at the early stages of development. Consider those four characteristics in order: There is no scientific dispute about whether an embryo is genetically distinct from the body in which it resides, about whether the tissue in question is living or not living, about whether the tissue in question is human or non-human, or whether it is an organism as opposed to a part of another organism, like an appendix or a fingernail.
The pro-abortion response to this reality is to retreat into mysticism, in this case the mysterious condition of “personhood.” The irony of this is that the self-professedly secularist pro-abortion movement places itself in roughly the same position as that of the medieval Christians who argued about such metaphysical questions as “ensoulment.” If we use the biological standard, the embryo is exactly what pro-lifers say it is: a distinct human organism at the early stages of development. If we instead decide to pursue the mystical standard of “personhood,” we may as well be debating about angels dancing on the head of a pin.
The main biological question at issue is the question of “viability.” But viability is a standard in motion, thanks in no small part to the fact that in every aspect of medical practice save abortion we prefer scientific standards to mystical ones. And the viability standard is in the end an intellectual dodge as well: You will never discover if an organism is viable by setting out intentionally to kill it.
There is a great deal of vacuity in the debate. The usual pro-abortion platitudes are so far from being intellectually respectable that they are answered only out of a sense of duty, not because they deserve to be answered. “I’m personally against abortion, but . . . ” would rightly be laughed out of existence if it were “I’m personally against murder/slavery/robbery, but . . . ” Which is to say, it is a statement that is defensible only if one assumes beforehand that abortion is not a species of homicide. Similar examples of begging the question include “It’s the woman’s body,” etc. We simply must answer the question — which is a biological question, not a mystical one — of how many bodies there are in question. I count at least two in the case of abortion. “People will still have abortions, only they’ll be dangerous.” People will still commit homicides, and crime would be less dangerous if we disarmed the police and forbade victims to defend themselves. The statement, like the others, makes sense only if we ignore the salient facts of the case.
Even less intellectually respectable is the reliable feminist insistence that the desire to abolish abortion stems from an obsessive male desire to control women’s bodies out of undue respect for potential opportunities of reproduction. That would be a sensible argument if, for example, pro-lifers were working to forbid women to have tubal ligations. There are pro-lifers who also are opposed to such practices, and that critique, though perhaps not entirely accurate, could fairly be applied to them to the extent that they seek to use the law to impose the ethics of Humanae Vitae. But the fact that a person who makes Argument X also makes independent Argument Y is not evidence against X. Nor does the fact that a person is a member of one sex or the other, has this life experience or that, give special status to his or her argument. We have to answer X on its own merits.
There are competing values in the abortion debate, of course, and competing interpretations of the emotional and political contexts of the act, but at the core of the debate is not a question of opinion but a question of fact: What resides in the womb of a pregnant woman?
None of the other questions can be intelligently answered until that question is answered, and that question cannot be answered if we keep averting our eyes or hiding in the shadows of mysticism. And the very difficult questions attached to the debate — issues such as rape, incest, medical complications, and poverty — cannot be addressed until we have answered the fundamental question. A pro-life legal regime that makes exceptions for rape and incest surely would be preferable to the current open-ended abortion license, but it would be based on a contradiction. In fact, that position, popular though it is, invites the very critique that feminists would like to make. If we are going to protect unborn human lives, then we are going to protect them regardless of the circumstances of their conception. An ethic that makes exceptions because we find no culpability in the mother is uncomfortably close to the feminist caricature of pregnancy being used to punish women for their sexuality. If we have a human life at issue, then we do not permit it to be put to death for the crimes of others. We cannot ignore the ghastliness of a woman’s having to carry to term a child conceived in such conditions, but we cannot in good faith put that unborn child to death — not if we believe that an unborn child is what it is.
The Texas senate last week took a tiny step in the direction of civilization by voting to ban abortions after 20 weeks of gestation and imposing other restrictions. That vote did not take effect, because the actions of a mob disrupted the business of the legislature, and the vote was not recorded until after midnight, when the legislative session had expired. That was less of a loss for the pro-life cause than you might expect: The restrictions will no doubt be passed in a coming special session of the legislature, and they will no doubt be tied up in legal challenges for years or more. The delay, while unwelcome, is probably going to be trivial in real-world terms.
It would of course be better if Texas needed no such law. A law professor at Cornell points out that the United States has no specific law against cannibalism, and one has seldom been needed: We pass laws against things only when they are no longer unthinkable. What we do says a great deal about us, but what we are willing to do says more. It will take a more civilized people to render abortion unthinkable.
Encountering the architectural monuments and administrative sophistication of the Incans and Aztecs, the Europeans were confounded that such marvels could be done by cultures practicing human sacrifice. Huitzilopochtli may have faded away, but career, vanity, and sexual convenience are very much with us, and they, too, are jealous gods, who apparently insist on being served in the same way. The metaphysical explanations may be radically different, but the physical facts of the cases are not entirely dissimilar. If our descendents one day wonder that savages such as ourselves flew to the moon, it will speak well of them, even as they wonder that such brilliant engineers had so impoverished a conception of what it means to be human.