The Tuesday

Politics & Policy

Reject Magical Thinking on Abortion

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Abortion Rights and Human Shields

To believe the story the abortion-rights advocates tell you, you have to believe in magic.

There’s no magic required on the pro-life side.

That’s the real source of our long disagreement.

In its most basic version, the pro-life position is easy to understand, requiring no special intellectual training, no religious commitment, no mysticism, and nothing you’d really even call a philosophy. What we believe is that you don’t kill children who haven’t been born for the same reason you don’t kill children who have been born. That’s it. There isn’t some magical event that happens at some point during the pregnancy that transforms the unborn child from a meaningless lump of cells to a meaningful lump of cells. Modern, literate people don’t need the medieval doctrines of “quickening” or “ensoulment” (or some half-assed, modern, secular repackaging of those ancient superstitions) to know that the unborn child is an unborn child — we have biology, genetics, and, for those who need to see with their own eyes, imaging technology for that. The human organism that you hold in your arms six months after birth is the same organism it was six months before birth. It isn’t a different organism — it is only a little older. It is true that the child six months after conception isn’t fully developed — and neither is a 19-year-old. We have a natural, predictable, reasonably well-understood process of individual development. There is no magic moment, no mystical transformation, and the people who tell you that there is are peddling superstition and pseudoscience.

But, of course, the one-armed paper-hangers must be heard from. (A one-armed paper hanger, if you don’t know, is someone who makes an argument that goes, basically: “I have a personal experience relating to x, so, therefore, my opinion about x is dispositive.” It is a dumb form of argument made by people who are themselves dumb or who believe that you are.) This week’s one-armed paper-hanger is Elizabeth Spiers, a Democratic hack (“digital strategist”) who argues in the New York Times that we should not consider adoption a viable (if you will) alternative to abortion because . . . well, because, damn it: “I Was Adopted. I Know the Trauma It Can Inflict,” reads the classic one-armed-paper-hanger headline. Of course, she doesn’t really know — she describes her own upbringing as “idyllic,” in “a home where I knew every day that I was loved” — but she has heard about the trauma, from her biological mother, among others. Spiers writes:

Both Maria and my mom, Alice, oppose abortion on religious grounds. My mom is white and Southern Baptist; Maria is Hispanic and Pentecostal. Both like to point to me to justify their beliefs, saying that had Maria gotten an abortion, I would not exist. It’s a familiar argument: The anti-abortion movement likes to invoke Nobel Prize winners who might never have materialized, or potential adoptees who might have cured cancer, if they hadn’t been aborted at eight weeks.

This is, of course, pure moral illiteracy, but Democratic hacks writing in the New York Times do not find themselves challenged very often or very energetically (when I wrote about abortion for the Washington Post, my editor was Ruth Marcus; that was fine, but the reverse situation is impossible to imagine at any major American newspaper), so they persist in their ignorance. So the Southern Baptist and the Pentecostal (what ethnicity has to do with it, Spiers never even tries to explain; she just assumes that the signifiers will push the right buttons) agree about abortion — what might we deduce from that? What might we deduce if we add in Catholics, a not-insignificant number of Jews, Muslims, millions of agnostics and atheists, etc.? The obvious takeaway, for anybody who is paying attention, is that opposition to abortion is not reliant upon some particular religious creed. As for those Nobel prize–winners and such — Spiers must understand, at some level, that pro-lifers do not actually endorse the abortion of mediocrities, either. Like most abortion-rights advocates, she is either unwilling or unable to engage with actual pro-life views.

There are millions of adopted Americans. I’m one of them, and we did not get together and elect Elizabeth Spiers to speak on our behalf. If we were looking for a representative, I am sure that we could do better. I am confident that we at least would not find somebody who would write:

The right likes to suggest that abortion is a traumatic experience for womena last resort, a painful memory. But adoption is often just as traumatic as the right thinks abortion is, if not more so, as a woman has to relinquish not a lump of cells but a fully formed baby she has lived with for nine months. . . . Some on the right believe that the trauma adoption inflicts is a consequence of irresponsibility. But unexpected pregnancy is not a de facto function of bad decision making. It can be a failure of contraception, the product of a rape, a mistaken belief that a woman is infertile. There is no justifiable reason to inflict harm on women and the babies they might produce in any of these situations, regardless of judgment.

This could be the textbook example of “begging the question.” Spiers writes as though there were only one set of interests to take into consideration, only one party who might suffer trauma. The contention of the pro-life side is that there are two. Spiers is free to disagree with that contention — she is free to believe that the moon is made of green cheese — but it is an act of intellectual dishonesty to pretend that this is not the very question under consideration. But once you admit what the argument actually is, this kind of arrogant, ignorant argument-by-assertion is very difficult to defend or to take seriously as an argument. But that is the point of the one-armed-paper-hanger mode of argument to begin with: It is a ploy that relies on the assertion of special standing, generally using personal trauma or suffering as a kind of rhetorical shield. You can usually play the question either way — “I lost both my legs in Afghanistan, and I think it is time to pull out” vs. “I lost both my legs in Afghanistan, and I think we should stay the course” — but partisan editors can always elevate the version they prefer and exclude the inconvenient one. Spiers writes that she resents “being used as a political football,” but that is exactly what she is doing — cynically, and, indeed, cruelly — with her biological mother: exploiting her suffering as a way of foreclosing real discussion of the issues at hand.

It is interesting that it never seems to occur to sophists such as Spiers that the suffering of women who relinquish their children for adoption is evidence for the pro-life position. Why do they suffer? Because they are not ignorant. Mothers understand motherhood. No one has to explain to these mothers (the “biological” is an unnecessary decoration) that they owe some moral obligation to their children. They know. Spiers calls this “biological brainwashing.” In fact, she uses the phrase twice in a brief column. (Never mind, for now, that there is no such thing as brainwashing, that this is another example of the metaphor displacing the thing it is meant to describe.) Brainwashing refers to persuasion and indoctrination, but there is nothing of the sort at work here. The connection mothers feel to their children isn’t an opinion that is imposed on them by some third party — that connection is a fact, part of the real world, not a subjective preference. As Spiers writes, some adoptions work out very well, and some work our badly. (In that, adoptive families are a lot like non-adoptive families.) But the act of adoption is never morally neutral, neither for the parents who are relinquishing their child nor for the adoptive parents. The reason this transaction is morally significant is that the child is morally significant per se. That significance is the significance attached to every human individual — it is not the mother’s gift to give or to withhold.

Pregnancy is, without question, traumatic for women who wish that they were not pregnant. But they are pregnant, and wishing it were not so does not change the facts of the case. Abortion does not existentially erase motherhood any more than infanticide does. The question of maternal responsibility or irresponsibility is not irrelevant, but it is secondary to the superseding interest of the child.

The three most important words in any real policy debate are: “Compared to what?” In this case, the point of comparison is the ultimate one: death. What we ask of women who become pregnant because of a rape or sexual abuse is horrifying. But sometimes we have to ask horrifying things of people who don’t deserve to be in the situation they are in: The young men who fought and died at Gettysburg and Normandy were not, for the most part, lifelong soldiers who had spent their boyhoods training for war and dreaming of it. The women who take a heroic attitude toward their undesired pregnancies in these situations deserve the deepest kind of admiration. But, in any case, we do not put children to death because their fathers were criminals.

Spiers’s argument is that we should permit putting children to death in order to spare their mothers from any moral or emotional discomfort associated with relinquishing those children for adoption. This is stupendously childish (if you will forgive the word) way of looking at the world. Killing people in order to prevent their suffering and to relieve ourselves of any lingering feeling of discomfort regarding our moral duty toward them puts human beings on the moral level of ailing pets. You could make precisely the same argument for euthanizing the poor or the disabled (as some share of abortion advocates have done since the beginning of the euthanasia movement), which is why the superstition of the “magic moment” is so rhetorically and politically important for the pro-abortion set.

Without the magic thinking, we would have to think about the thing straight on. Stripped of the superstition and the rhetorical human shields, Spiers’s argument is that we should allow children to be put to death because, if they are born and adopted, then their mothers will experience regret, whereas if they are exterminated, we can all pretend that nothing ever really happened. There is no abortion-rights regime without that kind of brutality.

Yesterday was December 6, the anniversary of the ratification of the 13th Amendment. The parallels between slavery and abortion have been explored (not always with great sensitivity) at length by other writers, but there is one aspect of the case against slavery that remains, to my mind, relevant. One of the arguments abolitionists made against slavery was that, irrespective of the interests of black slaves (about whom even many goodhearted 18th- and 19th-century reformers had primitive and backward views), slavery was bad for white people, that the social toleration of so great an evil led to decadence of other kinds by causing the moral muscles to atrophy. (For a certain kind of New England Puritan, slavery was causally linked to Southern vice, from sexual profligacy to drunkenness; the temperance crusaders were in many ways the spiritual heirs of the abolitionists.) There is something similar at work with abortion, I think. By this, I do not mean that abortion has reshaped our pattern of life (it’s the other way around, there: The American commitment to sexual license long predates Roe v. Wade) but that it has diminished our intellectual and moral capacity. We have had to twist ourselves around so grotesquely, to anesthetize ourselves so thoroughly, to spend so much time learning not to see what is in front of our eyes, that we are finding it difficult to untwist ourselves, to come awake, and to learn to see again. The Elizabeth Spiers essay is an example of what I am talking about. Programmatic barbarism is no less barbaric for being programmatic.

Words About Words

With the arrival of another new strain of COVID-19, we have reached the point where we can expect that, for the immediate future, many of our headlines will sound like the titles of Robert Ludlum novels: The Paris Option, The Cassandra Compact, The Icarus Agenda, The Omicron Variant, The Scarlatti Inheritance, The Matarese Circle.

Fits right in, doesn’t it?

I haven’t read The Paris Option, but, given a choice, the Paris option always sounds like a good one.

Rampant Prescriptivism

A reader draws my attention to the abuse of obviously. Obviously is one of those words that serves many purposes, though not always well: Sometimes it is empty filler deployed only to take up a little room to sustain the prosody of a sentence; sometimes it means the not obviously, as when introducing a qualifier that might not obviously have leapt to mind (“I have a meeting at 3 p.m., and, obviously, I’ll be there on time, traffic permitting”); sometimes it begs the question (“Obviously, they put their children first, and they are getting a divorce”); sometimes it means something like you should (“Obviously, you’ll want to save some of that windfall”); sometimes it means to be sure or of course (“We are offering you a contract; obviously, there are a few outstanding issues, and, obviously, you’ll want to have your lawyer review the details”); sometimes it means I expect (“Obviously, parking will be a nightmare”); etc.

And, every now and then, obviously means obviously: “He was obviously drunk.” “The president is obviously incompetent.” This adverb generally works best when it is used to modify a nearby adjective rather than standing at some awkward distance from a verb.

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com

Home and Away

If you missed my National Review column about Joe Biden’s weird Walter Mitty fantasy life, in which he goes on a cloak-and-dagger mission for the Israeli government as part of a war that happened while he was still in law school, you can read it in the New York Post, too. Ain’t no escape.

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In Closing

I should be extra productive this time of year, because wintry meditations are kind of my thing. But, truth be told, it is hard to work up a wintry meditation when you are living in Texas and December means 70 degrees and sunny. That’ll end up being the literary impact of climate change: fewer wintry meditations, and less wintry.

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