From the Publisher: Those Mothers on the Mall

The abortion debate has come to turn on the supposed opposition between those who see abortion as a deed that should be legally prohibited and those who present themselves, not as in favor of the contradictory but rather in favor of the right to choose whether or not to have an abortion. That is, one side maintains that A should not be a legally permissible act. The other side portrays itself as wanting the choice between A and not-A left to the pregnant woman. The substantive position, A, is thus opposed by the disjunction A or not-A. The latter is called the Pro-Choice position.

Quite apart from the fact that the proponents of choice have decided views on how the choice should go, they have an undeniable rhetorical advantage. In general, confronted with “You may not do A” and “You may do or not do A,” most of us will take the latter. We would choose to choose. That is the strength of the pro-abortionist position.

The force of the appeal depends, of course, on remaining at a high level of generality. To choose choice is itself a second-level choice that depends upon first order choices. To do or not do A will be morally equivalent depending upon what A stands for. If the proposed action is morally indifferent, picking up a stick, say, it would be odd to hear that it is prohibited. If the proposed action is picking your neighbor’s pocket, few would consider its legal prohibition to be a questionable diminution of choice. Since it is impossible to convince people that abortion is like picking up sticks rather than picking pockets, it is important for abortionists to keep the rhetoric general. Sooner or later, the abortionist has to confront questions about the act she thinks should be legally permitted. When she does, the so-called pro-choice position loses its charm.

But to remain for the moment on an abstract level, if the pro-choice position were construed as one between legally permitting abortion and legally prohibiting it, it is doubtful that rallies in favor of the choice would be held in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The choice to prohibit abortion is not one of the disjuncts envisaged by the pro-abortion position. That is why the pro-choice position excludes the choice favored by the pro-life side.

One is tempted to call this the liberal ploy. It is the means whereby many religious orders were undermined. Bewildered superiors, confronted by dissidents who wanted to reject the magisterium or the clear charism of the order, were persuaded to decide by not deciding: let the two sides co-exist. That is, between orthodoxy and non-orthodoxy, let individuals decide. But this effectively is a decision against one of the original sides; the supposed either/or excludes the view that a given house or order should be orthodox. Under the illusion of favoring no one, a choice was made in favor of one substantive position. One cannot by choosing choice put off taking sides.

And so the discussion must return to the object of first-level choice, abortion. Anyone who listened to a fair sampling of speeches given to the recent NOW rally will know how morally and logically impoverished is the pro-abortion side. Talk of choice and freedom was drowned out by talk of power. It was clear that most of the speakers could not care less about any moral appraisal of aborting a child. Rather it was a question of power. They rally to abortion as to a deed they will do because they can and want to do it. That is its warrant. They want power over themselves, over the life of their child, and above all the power to ignore and avoid any discussions of what it is they do. Anyone who talked of picking pockets this way would be recognized as a public menace. They are ideologues and fanatics. But this is quite consistent with their championing an abstract disjunctive freedom.

Even the most libertarian view of society would restrict one’s freedom to choose, and the primary instance of an impermissible use of freedom is causing harm or injury to others. There is no pro-choice position on homicide. It is because what is chosen in abortion is undeniably the extermination of a human life that not even the most abandoned libertarian can (logically) be pro-choice.

Choosing to have an abortion is undeniably a choice: the problem is that it is a bad one. To paraphrase Wallace Stevens, “If choice were all then every trembling hand could make us squeak, like dolls, the wished-for words.” To remark of something chosen that one chose it does not distinguish it from an infinity of possible alternatives. Choice is a necessary but not sufficient condition of good human action.

The abortion question is not whether the unborn child is a person, but whether the mother is. A human person is not an isolated center of power, a pure will, an abstract freedom threatened by others. There are no “unencumbered selves,” in Michael Sandel’s contrast, only “situated selves.” Kierkegaard once said that the reason we have forgotten what it is to be a Christian is that we have forgotten what it is to be a man. The pro-abortionist has to forget that she is herself a human person, situated, part of a community, part of a species in which she plays an essential and sacred role. To watch a Molly Yard trying to rip herself from the womb of the race was to be reminded of Lady Macbeth. “I have given suck, and know/ How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:/ I would, while it was smiling in my face,/ Have plucked my nipple from its boneless gums,/ And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you Have done to this.” But I suppose Molly would regard Lady Macbeth as a heroine, the manipulated victim of Shakespeare’s male logic.

It has long been apparent that seeing the evil of abortion, on the one hand, or imagining that it is simply a matter of the expectant mother’s choice, on the other, are not options within the same view of human beings and marriage and family and society. The political success of the pro-abortionists would be impossible without the ascendancy of what has been called the procedural republic. The genius of the American experiment, we are increasingly told, lies in its refusal to opt for any substantive view of the good. Rather we are provided with formal devices for adjudicating conflicting substantive views. The great menace, on this assumption, is for someone to suggest that substantive views of the good are part of the scheme. This is said to be the imposition of my moral views on you.

Yet we regularly incorporate substantive views into the legal system—murder and theft and cigarette smoking and emitting noxious gases. This is done, not because we have betrayed the spirit of the nation’s founders, but because a purely procedural republic is logically impossible.

One does indeed wish to legislate morality, not because it is one’s own, but because it is true. There are loads of things in anyone’s morality that do not have the necessary status for being enshrined in civil law, but killing the innocent is not one of them.

The present imperative is to return the abortion debate to its subject, abortion. The choice is not choice but choosing to abort and, more widely, choosing a society where such choices are permissible. George Will may see this as just another political choice, but then he’s been giving voluntarism a bad name for some months now. And, as the bishops almost said, in their laudable reminder of the horror of abortion, Catholic politicians who walk a yard with Molly should be on the last mile of their political careers, if their co-religionists have anything to say about it.

  • 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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