End Notes: Choice

One of the more (diabolically) inspired ploys of those who favor abortion is to describe their position, not as pro-abortion, but as pro-choice. In so doing, advocates of abortion present themselves as once removed from the abortion vs. non-abortion debate. What they are advocating, they claim, is a free choice between the two. Their opponents, the Catholic Church, for example, by condemning abortion are said to deprive others of the right to choose between either abortion or non-abortion.

You may suspect a fallacy here, of course, since those who oppose abortion are urging expectant mothers to make a choice which, since it may be for an abortion, amounts to saying that abortion may be a good choice. Sure, the response would be, but we are not denying that choosing to have the baby is also a good choice. The important thing is to choose, not what choice is made.

Well, there is no choice that is not a choice of something. In some Pickwickian way we may be said to choose to choose but this either turns into an Hegelian bad infinity or comes back to the primary sense of choice, which is choice of something And recommending an object of choice is what both sides in the dispute are doing. No one believes for a minute that the soi-disant pro-choicer is neutral on the matter of abortion. We have yet to see propaganda from that quarter celebrating the women who choose to have their babies.

What underlies the so-called pro-choice position is the quite modern denial that it is types of action which make our choices good or bad. To say that either abortion or life may be the object of the choice advocated is to say that there is no moral difference between the two. The only moral element in the situation is the free choosing itself.

The Supreme Court’s decision in the Casey case made quite explicit the philosophical position that underwrites abortion and so many other contemporary social ills. The human agent is seen as the supreme arbiter of what is and of what is not, and not just morally but, as we might say, metaphysically. Moral principles always presuppose background convictions as to what the world is and what human beings are, and speak of human choices and decisions in terms of this metaphysical backdrop. Nor is it the case that the opponents of abortion have such metaphysical baggage while defenders of abortion do not. The difference is between a defensible and a bogus metaphysics, the latter being succinctly expressed and embraced by the Casey decision. Let us call it nihilism.

A nihilist metaphysics has the sound of a contradiction in terms, and so it is, but that does not prevent people from embracing it. On the barren moonscape of this outlook, human beings are primarily individuals whose autonomy and freedom would be threatened if there were any considerations prior to choice which might govern whether a choice is good or bad. To choose is to choose the criteria of choice as well as the thing chosen; it is to choose one’s own nature as well, since a nature antecedent to choice would be a drag on freedom, suggesting that some things fulfill and others thwart our nature.

It is this notion of the autonomous individual that haunts our public discourse. The autonomous agent, by choosing one way or the other, makes abortion to be right or wrong. This impoverished conception of the human person is one our culture expects us to accept. It is an incoherent conception.

All we need do is ask ourselves what the reaction would be to the choice to kill abortionists to see that no one consistently accepts this view of choice. Pro-abortionists, and their government protectors, have made a federal case out of two isolated incidents of violent attacks on abortionists. Why? As Professor Robert George of Princeton University put it, turning the usual argument back on the foe, “I am personally opposed to killing abortionists, but, of course, I wouldn’t dream of imposing my views on others.”

The fact is that pro-abortionists find nothing inconsistent in seeking to impose on everyone their view that abortionists ought not to be killed. They are happy to have federal marshals impose this on everyone. And bless them for their inconsistency.

Hypocrisy remains the tribute that vice pays to virtue. Not even the Supreme Court can seriously believe — or at least consistently hold — that it is up to each of us to invent our conception of the world and of what is good and evil. To pretend to hold this empty view has proved to be a convenient weapon in the hands of pro-abortionists — until the shooting started.

Killing abortionists is wrong for the same reason killing unborn babies is wrong. Human life is sacred. Once we agree to proceed from that self-evident truth, public discourse may regain the civility that has been drained from it by those who have wanted to kill selectively and justify the act because killing is a choice. Of course it is. But there are good and bad choices and what distinguishes them is not a matter of choice.


  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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