What stands out for me about the assignment is that I didn’t want to do it. Back then, in 1976, I knew what I thought: abortion was a “right” - why was I being made to tread that rutted track just to come up with the same old arguments?
My Ethics professor tut-tutted my disinclination, reminding me that we don’t really know what we know until we can cogently defend our arguments. Thus, my assignment was to explore what to me was the non-issue of abortion.
That paper took months. It was back in the days before computers so I laboriously typed it out and kept a copy. Where it vanished in the several moves between then and now I have no idea. But I do remember being surprised by my conclusion, which I came to so reluctantly. Like Luther, I was stuck: in order to be true to my own ethical standards, I had to take a position that didn’t fit with my self-image as a feminist.
Then today, I read Jonah Goldberg’s essay on the issue. He brought it all back, as fresh as the day I put the final period to my conclusions:
In death-penalty cases, “reasonable doubt” goes to the accused because unless we’re certain, we must not risk an innocent’s life. This logic goes out the window when it comes to abortion, unless you are 100-percent sure that babies only become human beings after the umbilical cord is cut. I don’t see how you can be that sure, which is why I’m pro-life - not because I’m certain, but because I’m not. [emphasis mine - D ]
As I remember, I spelled it out in my thesis on these grounds: since we have no idea when human life becomes actually “human” we would do better to err on the side of caution. Once all those millions of fetuses - if they are actually human beings - are gone; there is no bringing them back to life. And the harm done by our casual disposal of what turned out to be human life after all, accrues not to them but to us, those who are privileged and burdened with the responsibility of choice.
Now that’s an easy philosophical conclusion for Jonah Goldberg and me. We’re not in the position of having to decide…or least I’m not anymore, though maybe he’s got some family planning crossroads he’s yet to come to. The most I’ll have to deal with are grandchildren born inconveniently or out-of-wedlock. So all I can do is offer support and sympathy when a teenage granddaughter, frightened out of her wits, gives birth to a child with congenital anomalies - without ever telling anyone she was pregnant. Yes, it’s true: if you’re somewhat zaftig, you can hide a pregnancy when it ends two months prematurely.
Mr. Goldberg is wrestling with his own questions as the presidential race heats up on the Republican side. On the Democrats’ side, it’s a settled issue - or, as they like to say about controversial moral arguments, “consensus has been reached. End of conversation.” But for Republicans, who speak in various voices on this issue of abortion, women’s rights, and what we owe the unborn, there is no consensus across the spectrum of the right. That is not to say that that Left doesn’t paint us in one fundamental grey color, bound and determined to strip women of their freedom. For them, we have no nuance; we speak with the voice of repression, driving women to unwilling servitude as mothers.
But it’s not that simple. Goldberg says:
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As for souls, I believe we have them, but I don’t know how they work. Indeed, ensoulment - the process by which God puts a soul in our bodies - is a controversial topic among religious scholars, people who know a lot more about such things than I do. And I’m not sure any of them are right anyway.
If “life” simply means that fetuses are something more than inanimate objects, I’m with you. But that hardly seals the deal for me on the issue of abortion. After all, the world is filled with organisms that do not deserve any special consideration, let alone a claim on a human being’s life or liberty.
In short, while I have great sympathy for “culture of life” arguments, if you tallied most of the above views on abortion, they’d appear to add up to my being pro-choice. And yet, when I get right down to it, I’m not. Why?
All those years ago, struggling through my thesis on abortion I came to this same place, and I arrived there most reluctantly. I began my paper definitely, blithely pro-abortion. No problem. Too many unwanted children in the world, too many women forced to raise kids who had no business being parents to begin with. And children conceived by rape? No way. Besides, children were expensive and time-consuming for those who could afford neither the money or the time.
Yet as I wrestled philosophically with the ethics of abortion, it was as though a kaleidoscope turned, and I saw something different than when I’d started.
I began to see that women had bought the male principle that babies are a burden. They don’t belong in the workplace, and they certainly don’t belong in the boardroom where all those important decisions are made. I asked myself who had made these places so sacrosanct? Why couldn’t children play in the corner, or cry during a meeting, or make the workplace a messier, less efficient place? Who made Efficiency into God, and why had they done so?
Work clothes on the fast track are not designed for burping babies. There goes drool down that hundred dollar tie. Again, I ask why this should be the case? Why are children and babies segregated from the rest of humanity? Why is there not room made for them where we spend most of the day?
Women have tricked themselves into attempting to become more like men. More efficient, more “rational” (whatever that is - one of my most sadistic, irrational bosses was a man), more attuned to the bottom line. When we talk about the difficulties of pregnancy and early motherhood we are really discussing a society that does not make room for the next generation until that cohort is grown up - and the growing up is to be done offstage, away from the busy, oh-so-important movers and shakers.
It is our culture which drives abortion. If a woman had the opportunity to really choose freely - if her pregnancy did not impact her work life so drastically - then there’d be fewer abortions because there would be less painful financial sacrifice and emotional isolation to face.
If we truly celebrated life, then we would encourage women who did not feel able to parent to allow those who wanted to do so to take their children to raise in their stead. It would not be shameful, it would be celebratory.
For these reasons - looking at our preformed attitudes about the bothersome brats that children can be and the needs women have to participate in the world - we have encouraged women to abort so they can compete on a level playing field. We have told ourselves that fetal tissue is nothing more than that, and expelling it is a simple matter that has nothing to do with the culture at large. It’s just a private decision between the woman and her aborter.
We may be several generations from discovering the harm we have done ourselves by swallowing this line. By then, of course, we won’t be able to bring back the children, nor can we make up for the loss we have caused ourselves individually and as a society. When moral decisions dwell in a cloud of unknowing and they cannot be undone, then it is best for us as moral, reasoning beings, to err on the side of caution.
At the very least we could admit that our culture pushes women to abort inconveniences. We do not support them financially, emotionally, or socially when they are pregnant. We do not give the deserved preference for close maternal care that each new being deserves. We refuse to see the web of relationships involved in each decision: the two parents, the extended family, the community at large. No, we just pretend it’s a “private” decision to be made by one person and gotten past as quickly as possible.
In the name of success and position and convenience, we impoverish ourselves. Every time a woman reluctantly decides to abort because she can’t afford a child, because she knows she cannot raise it by herself, because…because so few people are for her and her child, we know that women still live by men’s rules, no matter how “free” they think Roe vs. Wade has made them.
Women have been sold a bill of goods. In order to “make it” they have to become some twisted form of man…men don’t ever have to have babies, so why should we? It’s not fair. And more and more often, when they do provide the necessary sperm, they don’t provide much else. Nor does our culture in general penalize them much for their moral turpitude.
Meanwhile, in Russia, they are sunk in desperation as the birth rate plummets. They are devising crude methods to make women willing to bear children. The latest are sex camps for young people. As though that will give the country the morally robust future it needs to survive. These “camps” are simply the other side of the coin of abortion as a convenience.
Welcome to a world free of ethical reasoning.