More than three decades after the legalization of abortion, the story line has barely changed. Granted, technology, especially the increasing sophistication of ultrasound, is altering the debate. But if some disinterested screenwriter right now were to turn the script into a movie, what would it most closely resemble? I’d put my money on Inherit the Wind, the 1960 film about the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, in which a public school teacher was accused, and later found guilty, of teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution. In that two-dimensional movie, as in the abortion debate today, a religious right is pitted against an intellectual left.
Playing the role of Evangelical statesman William Jennings Bryan would be many pro-lifers. Both believe that the matter at hand can be discussed only in religious or theological terms. Playing the role of the rationalist lawyer Clarence Darrow would be the majority justices on the U.S. Supreme Court. Both contend that any controversial view embraced by most of the world’s major religions is therefore religious in nature. As the court wrote in its 1992 ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the anti-abortion view “is based on such reverence for the wonder of creation that any pregnancy ought to be welcomed and carried to term.” And playing the role of the skeptic H. L. Mencken would be the American media. They frequently characterize pro-lifers as “zealots” or, as in the January 17, 2002, case of Washington Post staff writer Rick Weiss, who wrote about opponents of all forms of human cloning, the Taliban.
So this is where the abortion debate stands. In a couple decades, however, technology is likely to transform it. And when it does, a future screenwriter will need to add another figure to the plot. My candidate for the role would be the pro-life English writer George Orwell (1903-1950). To be sure, Orwell is an unorthodox pick. He is best known as a prescient critic of Communism, as in Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1949), and imperialism, as in Burmese Days (1934) and the essay “Shooting an Elephant” (1936). He was also a Socialist, as he made clear in The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia (1937). And yet Orwell consistently opposed abortion, abhorring the argument that it ought to be a private decision. As he wrote in the 1944 essay “The English People,” “In England of the last thirty years, it has seemed all too natural… that abortion, theoretically illegal, should be looked on as a mere peccadillo.”
But Orwell’s unorthodox pro-life stance is precisely why he’s the perfect choice. It undermines two of the main arguments against abortion foes. For one, Orwell showed that legal abortion could be opposed in exclusively moral and rational terms. His argument is also important in terms of identity: He proved that pro-lifers need not be personally religious. Except for a brief period in the early 1930s when he did attend church regularly, Orwell himself was agnostic. But this did nothing to change the substance of his argument.
Yet here again most of our intelligentsia say the exact opposite. To them, even if a person voices a moral and rational pro-life argument, he or she must be personally religious. As journalist Cynthia Gorney, author of Articles of Faith: A Frontline History of the Abortion Wars, said in a 1998 interview with Christianity Today, describing the early leaders of the anti-abortion movement: “Everything they knew in the world they knew as Catholics. They knew geometry as Catholics. They knew American history as Catholics. They knew catechism as Catholics.”
Orwell’s opposition to abortion therefore may seem surprising. It shouldn’t be. It simply belongs to an alternative pro-life tradition — one based on democratic and humanitarian principles. This fact highlights not only the populist nature of his philosophy and the pro-life position, but also the meritocratic elitism of our pro-choice journalists, judges, and intellectuals.
Inventing George Orwell
The claim that pro-lifers are personally religious was always weak; after all, plenty of non-religious people oppose the death penalty and war. In Orwell’s case, the most that can be said of him is that he felt comfortable within the Christian tradition. He was married and buried according to the rites of the Church of England and had his adopted son, Richard, baptized. But this is not the same as saying he was a true believer. Throughout his career he criticized the Christian belief in the soul’s immortality. What’s more, A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935), the one religious novel he wrote, is about the loss of Christian faith; the heroine, Dorothy Hare, realizes at novel’s end that “faith and no faith are very much the same provided that one is doing what is customary, useful, and acceptable.” So the story of how he became pro-life doesn’t fit into the usual categories of personal identity: religion, gender, race, and so on.
Rather it hinges on out-of-favor sociological concepts: social class and occupation. Orwell was like no one so much as some of the characters in Faulkner’s Flags in the Dust (1929) — a member of a displaced, slightly corrupt elite looking for a place in the modern world — except that unlike them, he found it in the bourgeois and blue-collar traditions of early 20th-century England.
Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair on June 25, 1903, in Motihari, Bengal. His family was Anglo-Indian, and they belonged to a genteel tradition that has no direct equivalent in modern America. Most of our families are bourgeois: The father and/or mother work for the private sector and orient their non-working hours around family life. But whereas our class system is based on money and education, Edwardian England was still mostly based on family lineage, land, and social status. In this system, the gentility was part of the elite. They served as a kind of warrior and priestly class. The father served the Church of England or the Empire and held family life secondary. Mr. Blair, Eric’s father, was typical in this regard. He worked for the Indian government’s opium department and barely saw Eric until he was eight years old.
Eric’s early life appears to have been representative of this elite tradition. He learned how to shoot a rifle in childhood, attended “public” (i.e., private) boarding school starting at age eight, and joined the Indian Imperial Police in Burma at 19. Indeed, throughout his life, Blair retained a bit of the English gentility’s moral code. He was physically courageous (in World War I, a higher percentage of upper-class men died than did those from the lower classes); he fought as a soldier in Spain. And he was public spirited, as his writing career testifies.
Later, Blair largely broke with his elite heritage, and part of the reason was social. As the empire began to fade, the gentility fell into decline. Blair memorably captured his social change in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937): “I never open one of Kipling’s books or go into one of the huge dull shops which were once the favorite haunt of the upper-middle class, without thinking, ‘Change and decay in all around I see.'”
The other reason Blair largely broke with his genteel tradition was moral. During his five years as a policeman in Burma, he witnessed firsthand and was horrified by the Empire’s systematic racism and oppression. “Shooting an Elephant” is all about how the rule of empire forces people into cruelty. Similarly, his novel Burmese Days (1934) depicts the racism, snobbery, and stupidity of the Anglo-Indian class. His five-year tour of duty up, he returned home in 1927 deeply repentant. “I was conscious of an immense weight of guilt that I had got to expiate,” he wrote in Wigan Pier. “I felt that I had got to escape not merely from imperialism but from every form of man’s dominion over man.”
For atonement Blair lived off and on for the next four years among the homeless and poor of Paris and London. His first book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), recounts the indignity and privation of such a life, although it does so with humor. Just before the book’s publication, Blair adopted a pseudonym: George Orwell. The name change symbolized his new identity, but for several years, from about 1928 to 1936, it wasn’t clear what that identity was.
Initially, he despised the values of the middle classes or bourgeoisie — the shopkeepers, merchants, and professionals whose rise to power is chronicled in the novels of Charles Dickens. Even though they were leveling the playing field in British society, these developments appeared to him to open the floodgates to money and greed. He could not have put this change in values more forcefully than he did in the prologue to Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936): The word “love” in St. Paul’s famous 1 Corinthians 13 passage is replaced with the word “money” — “Money suffereth long, and is kind; money envieth not; money vaunteth not itself…”
By contrast, Orwell admired much of working-class life, especially its fraternity and grittiness. In Down and Out, A Clergyman’s Daughter, and Wigan Pier, the genteel character comes into contact with the working class and embraces parts of its proletarian tradition. But he also recognized that he didn’t fully belong to it either. He spoke with an upper-class accent and had the manners and habits of a gentleman, as he recounted in the great second half of Wigan Pier.
Orwell liked the independence of the bohemian tradition. Indeed, for most of his career he was a freelance writer for small, low-paying Socialist publications. But he also recognized its emotional and physical poverty. In the early 1930s he lived at home and held a string of odd jobs as a teacher and private tutor. Finally, in March 1935, he met his future wife, Eileen O’Shaugnessy, a graduate student in psychology at University College London, and by June 1936 they were married. Orwell’s identity was finally beginning to take shape with this first acceptance of bourgeois life.
Embracing Middle-Class Values
What does this shift in value systems have to do with Orwell’s pro-life views? In embracing the stability of middle-class married life, Orwell was also accepting middle-class values — duty, prudence, honesty. While it didn’t mean embracing religion, Orwell felt more respect for and connection with his bourgeois peers than his genteel past. His 1936 novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying was a sign of that relationship: “Keep the Red Flag Flying” was the traditional slogan of the British Labour Party. By substituting the word “red” with aspidistra, a green-leafed plant that survives in harsh climates, he was praising hardiness and thrift, two qualities of the proletarian and bourgeois traditions. It would be in this novel of bourgeois values that Orwell would lay out his humanistic case against abortion.
Gordon Comstock, the 29-year-old protagonist in Aspidistra, is much like Orwell himself at the time. Gordon comes from a shabby genteel family struggling in a money-dominated society and chooses a bohemian lifestyle early on. Chucking his well-paying advertising job, he tries to become a poet, supporting himself as a bookshop assistant. But Gordon has little success. After selling one poem to a magazine, he squanders his money through drinking and debauchery. And three-quarters through the novel, Gordon faces a much bigger problem: His girlfriend, Rosemary, announces unexpectedly that she’s pregnant with their child. Both are confused. “He did not think of the baby as a living creature,” a horrified Gordon reacts. “[I]t was a disaster, pure and simple.”
The same dilemma has confronted other characters in literature before, but what distinguishes Gordon’s decision is not simply that he chooses life — it’s the way he does it. After the shock of Rosemary’s pregnancy wears off, Gordon consults science and reason to make sense of the situation — but never religion. Once he recognizes the unborn child’s humanity, he consciously identifies with working-class values.
Gordon calls Rosemary to tell her to keep the baby, and she’s elated. He promises to get his old job back as an ad writer and marry her — the bohemian is finally settling down. On the way home, he comes upon a neighborhood populated by small clerks, commercial travelers, and shop assistants. Looking around, he muses, “The lower-middle-class people in there, behind their lace curtains, with their children and their scraps of furniture and their aspidistras — they lived by the money code, sure enough, and yet they contrived to keep their decency…. They had their standards, their inviolable points of honour. They ‘kept themselves respectable’ — kept the aspidistra flying.”
Gordon sheds his artistic values; he throws down the drain a major poem he’d been working on, symbolic of his change. Earlier, Gordon had commented that, in contrast, shabby genteel families did not value the bearing and raising of children. Reflecting on his own shabby genteel relatives, none of whom had children, he concludes, “It was noticeable even then that they had lost all impulse to reproduce themselves…. They were one of those depressing families, so common among the middle-middle classes, in which nothing ever happens.” We know that Gordon has embraced the working class by the last sentence of the book: “Well, once again things were happening in the Comstock family.”
But Orwell didn’t just consider these values to be relative. They were absolutely, universally good. As Orwell biographers Peter Stansky and William Abrahams have suggested, Aspidistra is an affirmation of life over the modern age’s death wish. Indeed, unique among Orwell’s nine novels, the protagonist in Aspidistra overcomes large social forces and achieves happiness and self-knowledge as a result. Contrast this outcome with those in Burmese Days, A Clergyman’s Daughter, Coming Up for Air, Animal Farm, and 1984. In those novels the chief characters either are spiritually crushed, resigned, or wind up dead, beaten down by the bleakness of modernity.
The ‘Poor Ugly Thing’
The myth that the pro-life position is rooted merely in religious and theological views was blasted by Orwell. In Aspidistra, Gordon opposes abortion out of a commitment to reason and moral conscience alone.
After Rosemary announces the news of her unplanned pregnancy and says she’s considering an abortion, Gordon is “disgust[ed]” by the thought of such an action. His response is instinctual; he’s “going with his gut.” Despite the easy allure of such an approach, it’s a shaky way of making a decision. People’s instincts vary, and often our knowledge is faulty or partial; no one recommends going with your gut in choosing a car or stocks. Yet these are the very reasons that many people, including intellectuals, favor abortion rights. In Christopher Hitchens’s mostly absurd 1995 book The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, he justified support for legal abortion during the first trimester this way: “[I]f a fertilized egg is fully human, then all terminations of pregnancy at any stage and for any reason are to be regarded as murder. This offends against the natural or instinctive feeling in favor of the pregnant women and the occupant of her womb, because it blurs the distinction between an embryonic group of cells and a human with a central nervous system.” (Indeed, in his later book, Why Orwell Matters, Hitchens attributes Orwell’s pro-life stance to his “reliance on the instinctual.” Talk about projecting your values.)
By contrast, Gordon isn’t satisfied with his gut. Besieged by questions about pregnancy, he seeks a surer foundation for his decision. He walks to the nearest public library and finds a book on human embryology, where he sees pictures of a six-week- and a nine-week-old fetus. In other words, he is using the scientific method. He is obtaining verifiable results by reasoning logically from observed facts. Looking at the pictures prompts these thoughts:
His baby had seemed real to him from the moment when Rosemary spoke of abortion.… But here was the actual process taking place. Here was the poor ugly thing, no bigger than a gooseberry, that he had created by his heedless act. Its future — its continued existence perhaps — depended on him. Besides, it was a bit of himself — it was himself. Dare one dodge such a responsibility as that?
It’s important to note what Gordon does not do here. He doesn’t see a priest or consult the Bible, as most of our intelligentsia would assume. Nor does he talk to his parents or neighbors, relying on their authority. Instead the basis of his decision is empirical and scientific. That Orwell would look to science and reason isn’t surprising. One can safely say that throughout his career he practiced the scientific method, drawing logical conclusions from facts observed in everyday life. As he wrote in the October 26, 1945, essay “What Is Science,” “Clearly, scientific education ought to mean the implanting of a rational, skeptical, experimental habit of mind. It ought to mean acquiring a method — a method that can be used on any problem that one meets — and not simply piling up a lot of facts.”
But science is no value in and of itself; it’s a tool we use to make decisions. As the above passage indicates, Gordon’s scientific understanding leads to a change in his moral values. He is moved by pity; he contrasts “the poor ugly thing” with his “heedless act.” He is moved by a sense of duty; the “continued existence” of the embryo “depend[s]” on his decision not to abort. And he is moved by his realization of the embryo’s essential humanity: “[I]t was himself.”
Appeals to pity, duty, and humanity — these are not exclusive to right-wing Christian theology. They are essential ingredients in the human conscience. All of us have one. It’s when we numb or lop off our conscience that deciding to abort becomes much easier.
The Revolt of the Meritocrats
Of course, Orwell isn’t the only intellectual who’s been simultaneously pro-life and non-religious. So have, as I understand them, Nat Hentoff and Ken Kesey — not to mention the Hippocratic Oath in medicine or the United Nations’s 1948 Charter on Human Rights. Although the list is short, it does represent a particular tradition within the pro-life cause, and one that most of our intelligentsia invariably ignores.
Indeed, it’s useful to turn the tables on our pro-choice journalists, judges, and intellectuals and look at their identities. What are the common threads among people like Louis Menand, the majority justices on the Supreme Court, Cynthia Gorney, and John Irving? They’re part of the mandarin or meritocratic elite. They went to Ivy League schools and became symbolic analysts. Their virtue is their belief in opportunity and diversity. But their weakness is their general lack of a sense of duty, moral conscience, and, oddly enough, scientific reasoning.
They assume that neither Orwell nor pro-lifers are being scientific or rational. In fact, these meritocrats are themselves relying on instinct. They put little stock in moral conscience, and their own is decidedly wobbly. By contrast, adherence to strict principles is central to religious believers and to Orwell, once called by the novelist V. S. Pritchett “the wintry conscience of a generation.”
This is not to say that the pro-choice cause is elitist; most women who have the 1.3 million abortions in this country every year come from the ranks of the poor and working class. But its theoretical foundation is certainly not populist. It’s not based on reason, moral conscience, or the very values of the class it claims to represent.
Instead, the pro-choice worldview is a kind of secular elitism. Its basis is what Orwell, in a 1944 essay on the artist Salvador Dali, called “the benefit of clergy,” where the elites exempt themselves from moral laws that bind “ordinary” people. This is exactly right: How else to characterize the position articulated by former New York Governor Mario Cuomo: “I’m personally opposed to abortion but don’t want to impose my views on others”?
Orwell had no use for such relativism and equivocation. The truth of the matter was obvious to him, easily grasped by anyone who chose to look at the situation with a clear eye and a scientific mind. As he explained in “Benefit of Clergy,” “One can see how false this view is if it extends to ordinary crime…. No one would say that a pregnant woman ought to be able to commit murder, nor would anyone make such a claim for the artist, however gifted.”
If only the pro-abortion elites, so busy with dismissing the pro-life cause for being irrational, could see the truth as clearly as Orwell.
This article originally appeared in the February 2004 issue of Crisis Magazine.